Learning to fly

About to start redrafting on 1917.

It’s partly about a young Australian lad who learns to be a pilot and flies on the Western Front during that terrible year in the First World War.

You might remember I spent a few weeks at Bundanon writing the first draft. Since then, I’ve edited that version, fixed up a few things here and there, and done another round of research on specific details.

But sometimes you need to let things sit for a while and marinate. Or fester. Or something.

Anyway, I’m ready to get back into it again.

 

Royal Flying Corps Aviator School

Royal Flying Corps Aviator School

Festival season

Melbourne Writers’ Festival is here again, with hundreds of amazing panels, workshops, talks and fun events.

I’m appearing as part of the fabulous schools program, talking with Jane Caro about re-imagining and writing history. It’s for school groups, so teachers and librarians, get those buses booked!

It’s on Thursday 27 August. Details here.

But honestly, if you’re in Melbourne, get along to something in the festival. I am certainly booked in to see Sarah Waters speak on 30 August.

Logo for MWF

There’s so much to choose from. Might see you there.

 

Coming up

I’m teaching a workshop at Writers Victoria in October, as part of the Writers on Wednesdays series.

It’s a Writers Toolkit workshop, perfect for people who want to learn some tips and tools to help research and write your masterpiece (or anything at all).

It’s on 21 October at 6pm. All details are here.

 

Misty mornings

It’s the last morning of my writing residency at Bundanon. I’m sitting with my coffee, looking down towards the billabong. Mist settles softly in the gully.

It’s a magic place, and it’s been a very productive time for me here.

I admit I was a bit frenzied, scribbling away for long hours. But it’s rare to get that opportunity – for me, anyway. I’m one of the many writers (the majority) who also have jobs and write in any cracks in time we can create.

I’ve written the first draft of 1917 – let’s call it draft zero, because it’s pretty ratty in places and needs many more drafts before it’s approaching readable. But it’s down on paper – well, in Scrivener – and out of my head and I know what happens to everyone in the end and now I can’t even look at it. I’ll print it out in a week or two, read it in full, and then start work on it again.

Then I did some work on a short story about a bushranger, for an anthology of adventure tales.  And at some point I sat on the river bank and wrote a little piece about fishing for another anthology.

Image of river

Shoalhaven River below Bundanon Homestead

Yesterday I even had a day off, checking out the Bundanon homestead with its miraculous collection of generations of Boyd family artworks, and then spent hours with dear friends and dogs at Culburra beach.

Image of homestead and trees

Bundanon Homestead – built 1866 and later home of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd

So next, it’s back to Canberra overnight, a few hours’ research at the National Library (and hopefully a glimpse of the Rothschild manuscript) and the long drive back to Melbourne and reality.

I’m sorry to leave, sorry to stop writing all day and night, sorry to have to wear clothes that aren’t topped by a dressing-gown, and most of all sorry to leave this place.

I’ll be back.

Image of trees and palms

Cedar walk, Bundanon

What I’m doing and how I’m doing it

Right now, I’m in the middle of a drafting blitz, on a residency at beautiful Bundanon.

Writing residencies like this are intense,  with long hours at the desk every day. But for someone like me, with jobs and other commitments, it’s rare to find time when I can just concentrate on one thing. All day, every day.

Except there are some distractions.

Image of paddock and kangaroos

The view from my desk at Bundanon

I’m working on the first draft of 1917, a novel for readers ten years and over, and part of the Australia’s Great War series for Scholastic. One comes out each year – Sophie Masson’s 1914 and Sally Murphy’s 1915 are out already and have had terrific reviews (no pressure). Each book in the series focuses on a different aspect of the First World War from a different point of view. 1914 sees the start of the war through the eyes of a young man who becomes a war correspondent, while in 1915 a teacher from Western Australia experiences Gallipoli.

I’m trying to do two things in writing about 1917, often called ‘the hardest year’:  canvass the issues on the Home Front, with the General Strike and the second conscription referendum; and try to convey the horror of the war in the air over the Western Front and Passchandaele … for ten year-olds.  Luckily I get to see how Sophie and Sally have already dealt with issues like death and grief as I come up against them in my book – and I like grappling with these ethical and tonal issues for that age group, as I had to do with the Swashbuckler series. It’s hard, but compelling, inquiry: does your hero/heroine actually kill anyone, and if so, what do they feel about it later? How much grief, how much shell-shock can and should you convey?  How do you support a young reader through it, and write about war without glorifying it and without preachifying?

I was talking about this the other evening with local legend Ralph, who works on bush regeneration here at Bundanon.  “How do you give them hope?” he asked. And that is, indeed, the question. (I’d written myself into a hopeless hole that day, and that was just what I needed to hear.) There are no right answers. I have to work my way to the words that are right for the characters and the real people who lived through it and the readers.

Anyway, this is what I do. I hit the desk by about 8am and I don’t leave it until I go to bed. I take breaks, of course (but probably not enough) and sometimes force myself outside for a walk. A fair bit of chocolate is consumed. It’s a privilege to be here and a luxury to have uninterrupted writing time, so I don’t want to waste a minute.

I just draft, trying not to edit as I go, to make the most of the momentum – this is just the first step in the process. Half of it might be crap, half of it may end up in the bin – that’s OK, we’ll sort that out later. On the way, I’m working out what happens and who feels what when and where everyone is on their path through the story.

Image of studio at Bundanon

Freedman studio at Bundanon

I have a huge studio here, so there’s a writing desk and a research desk, which makes life much easier. Maps of Flanders are spread out, with the airfields marked on them, so I can see where everyone was. I drove here, so I could bring stacks of books, as well as a couple of things to remind me of the people who were there.

Princess Mary Christmas tin, 1914

Princess Mary Christmas tin, issued to all Empire troops in 1914

I did all my general research before I got here, including visits to airfields and museums in England and Flanders last year, and came through Canberra to spend some time (not enough!) at the War Memorial. Now, I just have to look up certain things from time to time, and know where to find them. Usually, I spend the first hour or two of each day looking stuff up, or reading first-hand accounts of events or experiences, before I start writing.

I didn’t (stupidly) bring my books about the conscription debate – in which my great-grandmother was deeply involved – so I have to sketch those sections out and fill them in later. I do look things up in digitised newspapers via Trove from time to time, but don’t want to tarry too long – just need to write it down, get it out of the brain.

Image of desk with books and maps

On the wall are twelve bits of paper with scribbles on them, each one a timeline – the same months, but from different points of view: battles, squadron movements, new model plane releases, political events in Australia and Russia, major turning points in the war. Then timelines for the two main characters (brother and sister) and the people around them, lined up against the events or battles in which they take part. I scribble these as I go along. Usually, this would be in a spreadsheet, but there’s just so much white wall!

Part of the 1917 timeline

Part of the 1917 timeline

There’s also a hero’s journey map for each of them, which take shape as the writing progresses. One journey is into the quagmire of Flanders, one into the hope and excitement of the thriving women’s movement of the war years.

At least, that’s how it looks today.

image of kangaroo

In residence

I’m heading off to Bundanon this week for a two-week writing residency. Can’t wait. It’s the former home of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd on the Shoalhaven River, bequeathed to the nation and now held in trust, and sounds divine. Perhaps you’ve seen some of his paintings of the area, especially the river and the rock formations.

I’m honoured to have been selected. And thrilled to be getting some solid writing time at last.

Anyway, I’ll be driving up via a spot of research in Canberra at the War Memorial and National Library, then get stuck into drafting 1917, a historical novel for kids.

Expect photos of kangaroos.

Human stories

There’s been nary a day in the past decade that I haven’t had to set someone straight about the fact that I wrote my books for people, not women. My female colleagues report much of the same. We swap stories and shake our heads and laugh, but it isn’t funny. Because when an artist has to assert that her intended audience is all humans rather than those who happen to be of her particular gender or race, what she’s actually having to assert is the breadth and depth of her own humanity.

– Cheryl Strayed, on gender bias in fiction, in the New York Times.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.

– Ursula LeGuin

Write like a girl

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which historical fiction is gendered. I’ll need to write something longer on this but in the meantime, a few thoughts and questions:

  • We know that there are huge and apparently distinct markets for historical fiction aimed at men (eg military, nautical, crime) and women (eg … oh look, I could list the sub-genres, but it’s basically any novel with a woman in it).
  • But we also know from research about childhood reading that girls and young women read books marketed to boys, while boys tend not to read books marketed at girls and young women. (Yeah, I know, not all boys. But it’s a thing. There’s science. What we do about that and how we talk about it is a different topic.)
  • Assumptions about the historical fiction marketed to (and perhaps written for) women affects our reading. I am a woman who writes books with female protagonists. So, I am asked, where is the romance? * Readers enter a book with a gendered idea of what they will find there.
  • A book with a woman on the cover apparently can’t be literary fiction set in the past. It must be some other sub-genre that fits under the grouping of ‘women’s writing.’
  • This is also partly about attitudes to the genre. Historical fiction is a sprawling territory, from the formulaic to the experimental, with dozens of sub-genres and boundary-slipping soft edges. Lots of people see it as only one thing, which it hasn’t been for at least a hundred years.

Book cover of Regency Buck

I could bang on about gendered marketing and no doubt I will at some point, but what I wonder right now is: how much is marketing (including book design and packaging), how much is literary tradition or genre definition, and how much is imagined – and by whom? Writers, readers, publishers, PR and marketing people, reviewers?

What impact does all this have on the books we write and the way we read?

Do some authors write specifically for a gendered market – and succeed wildly? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is YES.) And what does that mean for expectations of the genre more broadly?

What does it say about the development and the future of the genre in all its forms?

I’ve said before that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction and now I’m becoming even more interested in subverting the genre and the expectations around it. Career-limiting move, I expect. But what fun.

Book cover of Hornblower

And now, for your reading pleasure, some thought-provoking insight and information from others.

Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel both attempts to address some of these issues, but then also includes chapters on books for women and books for men, and accepts the marketing definitions – so books for women are mostly romance, for example, (including Tudor books) without any consideration of historical crime or fantasy or fiction based on a proto-feminist protagonist outside the marriage plot. I find that troubling (a bit like his hilarious suggestion that The Resurrectionist is the first novel by an Australian to be concerned with histories other than our own). But he does write:

Historical novels by women and for women, then, whether romance or more literary, have often been dismissed by literary critics and marginalised by standard accounts, but there is a weight of argument that suggests this is an error: ‘historical fiction has been one of the major forms of women’s reading and writing in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Alison Light, 1989: 60) […] women writers have used the historical novel to express multiple, complex identities and used them as sites of possibility and potential.

In that influential article by Alison Light to which he refers, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up,’ she argues:

At best popular historical novels may have helped open up a space within which different groups of women have started to perceive how marginal their needs and concerns have usually been taken to be. They offer a number of new perspectives on the past, which sit less easily alongside text-book history.

And finally, Mary Tod’s annual historical fiction survey found the following (last year):

Within historical fiction, what type of story appeals to you?

Top three for men: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 74%; adventure 66%, stories with a military, naval angle 51%

Top three for women: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 71%; romance 44%; the life of a significant historical figure 40%. For women, two other reasons come close to the 40% figure suggesting that preferences are more varied.

Sources:

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, Milton Park, 2010, p 67.

Alison Light, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up’, Feminist Review, 1989, Vol.33 (1), p 57.

* Sometimes there is romance in my books, sometimes not. Sometimes there is love, rather than the lead-up to love (romance plot). Sometimes there is the opposite. Sometimes it may not be what you expect.

Coming up

Next week, I’m celebrating Library and Information Week by visiting Carnegie Library for a chat with the folks in the Reading Circle about historical fiction and Goddess.

Looking forward to it.

If you’re a local, do drop in – 13 May in the afternoon.

Details here.