Coming up

I’m presenting some writing workshops for the good citizens of Moreland: one school holiday workshop for kids around years 5 to 6, and then another for teen writers and adults in the evening.

7 July, Coburg Library – more details here.

Locals, come along!

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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May 11, 2015 · 9:08 pm

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.

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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.

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On that whole ‘relatability’ thing

Painting - St Catherine reading

Somehow in recent years, the idea has taken hold that characters – especially protagonists – in novels have to be ‘relatable.’ I blame Stephanie Meyer. She created the character Bella in the Twilight trilogy as a blank canvas onto which her teenage readers could project themselves; an audience surrogate that appealed to an audience of around 120 million.

Thanks for that.
So an entire generation of young women, in particular, has grown up with the idea that girls in novels should be just like them, even when surrounded by brooding vampires.
Many of those readers go on to read books by authors who construct powerful or difficult or troubled or hilarious female characters, and come to realise that a blank canvas is pretty, well, blank. To be fair, some writers have also argued that Bella is actually a feminist role model:
Bella is more or less modelled on the traditional fairy tale hero [not heroine], as her eventual accession to a type of monarchy is characterized not by humiliation, but rather by her gaining qualities that enable selfgovernance.
–  Meghanne Flynn
But whether or not it’s reasonable to blame Twilight (and I was being just a little facetious), I still hear and see so many comments that this book is so relatable or that book is not, and therefore no good. I just can’t relate to anybody in it.
On the other hand, in historical fiction, you will hear and see lots of emphasis on ‘authenticity.’ This somewhat mystical quality transports the reader into an imagined past and provides them with an experience that’s just like being there. Or something.
If you think these two things are possible and desirable, there’s an obvious tension here. On one hand, an ‘authentic’ figure from the distant past is very unlikely to be someone to whom a modern reader will relate – unless of course the reader projects madly onto that character, in which case the veneer of authenticity is smashed.
But do not fear, gentle reader, because I’m here to help. Kind of.
Both ideas – especially when they are framed as rules – bring trouble and strife to the act of reading, and possibly writing.

Reading and relating

What, after all, is relatability? (Apart from not actually being a word.) Is it the idea that people in books will be just like you? How tedious. Who wants to read about themselves over and over?
Of course, sometimes we all want to escape into another world, another life, and it’s easier to do that in partnership with a companionable character – a brain transplant, if you like, that enables you to feel supported and comforted as you accompany your heroine or hero on her or his journey.
But that’s just one type of reading experience. There are many others, involving characters that bring us face-to-face with the unfamiliar, unfathomable, unpleasant, perhaps even the unbearable.
lolita book cover
And what about those amazing and memorable characters who are nothing like us, but who we end up adoring? Severus Snape. Albus Dumbledore. Indeed, if you think about it, the only truly relatable character in the Potterverse is Ron, the everyman. He’s in there to be the human foil of brilliant Hermione and powerful but angry Harry. Ron’s the guy who is nothing special but has his own strengths and many weaknesses, as do we all.
But it’s not the story of Ron, is it? Thank goodness. It’s the story of Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape. Pretty much.
In each of them, we can find something that we connect with, something human and warm (even in Snape) and flawed and meaningful. They’re also interesting and unknowable and complex, and we can’t be sure what any of those characters will do or say at any moment. They aren’t like us. They all (even Snape) contain elements of who we wish we were: wise or brave or brilliant or ethical or strong or pure or funny. They are braver or brainier or more powerful than we may ever be. Together, they people a world we want to inhabit – with them.
Hermione being brainy
That’s relating.
So relating to – connecting with – characters is a wonderful part of reading (and watching TV and movies), but they don’t have to be just like us. We all have our teenage favourites; someone who showed us who we might be. Mine was Jo March. Millions of people much younger than me got to grow up with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Josie Alibrandi, or the necromancer Clariel or Sib and Lou in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife or Hazel Grace (The Fault in Our Stars – although there are suggestions that besides Hazel, all John Green’s characters are so relatable they are much the same … as him.)
But that’s not the only possible reading experience, and if in a sense we read to understand the world and the people in it, we also read about things and people we can’t comprehend at first – about five year-old Jack and his Ma in Room or Maud Lilly in Fingersmith or the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety or Takeo the samurai or for that matter Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovary or Prince Andrei.

Feel so real

Which brings us to the question of ‘authenticity.’ There’s no such thing. (Of which more at a later date.) But the idea of authenticity and the idea of relatability in historical fiction really can’t co-exist.
If an author did manage to create a character that approached the world view, voice and life of, say, a fifteenth century princess, she would be so unlike any conception of princess a modern reader brings to the reading that there is no chance the princess would be understood, let alone relatable.
When we write historical fiction, and when we read it, we necessarily bring to the process all of our post-20th century knowledge, our modern vocabulary and syntax, our fundamentally different world view and manners and customs and philosophy and skills and reading history.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, or from the idea of an authentic experience.
It is what it is – just an element of the genre.
Apart from anything else, if we really captured the speech of Anne Boleyn or Richard III or an archer at Agincourt or a pirate of the Caribbean, readers wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying, let alone be able to relate to them.
Instead, we create, try as we might, characters in our own shape and shadow.

Writers are naughty like that

Writers of all genres create characters for all sorts of reasons, not only for readers to relate to. Sometimes, we create characters who lie, or are vain, or pompous, or stupid, or rotten, or weak, or tricksy, or criminal. We create unsympathetic characters or unreliable narrators on purpose. We create anti-heroes as well as heroes. They may not be relatable, but there will (almost always) be something undeniably human about them, so that their very unreliability or unappealing nature shines a light on what it means to be human. It’s not about relating – it’s about exploring.
Seeing the world through the eyes of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, or Dr March (rather than Jo) in Geraldine Brooks’ March is fascinating and compelling, but it’s not designed to make the reader feel all cozy. It can be a difficult process to put yourself in their shoes. But if you do, what do you see? You get an insight into the Tudor world – into Henry and Anne and Thomas More – unlike any you’ve ever seen. Or you feel the weakness of a character idealised as a hero by his family, and glimpse the random brutality of the American Civil War.
So what matters here is the author’s intent. If the author hasn’t tried to create a relatable character, then it’s just not relatable or I didn’t like the main character isn’t a meaningful response to the book in your hand. It doesn’t really engage with the text or the characters at all.
It says more about the reader than it says about the book.
The answer? Simply read more and read more widely – read all sorts of things, surprise yourself, and shift outside your expectation of what a protagonist can and should be.
It’s the expectation we bring to reading that matters.
Let’s be willing to be astonished.
More reading

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The history in historical fiction

I recently chaired a debate between historical novelists and historians at the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia‘What can historical novelists and historians learn from each other?

Our thoughtful and entertaining panellists were Jesse Blackadder, Gillian Polack, Rachel Le Rossignol, and Deborah Challinor.

It was great fun, but of course being in the chair meant I couldn’t answer any of my own questions.

But it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

So here begins a series of posts on thoughts about the intersections of history writing and historical fiction: arising in part from the conference debate, tracing the questions I posed (and also many that I didn’t get to ask), but also bubbling up from my own reading.  And some tips for writers of historical fiction on how to act on some of the issues raised.

Image of Balmain town hall

The HNSA conference in action: Balmain Town Hall. (Photo via HNSA facebook group)

So… this is where we began the other night:

Without history writing, without libraries and other collections, archaeologists, without the ancient recorders of events and daily life, what we novelists write would be fantasy. On the other hand, we know that fiction works as a gateway drug to history writing and research for both readers and writers. But how alike are these two forms – these two disciplines?

And what techniques, skills, tools and models might they share?

Of course the work of history is diverse, and practice and approaches change dramatically over time. But if historical imagination operates in both history writing and historical fiction, does it work differently – does it feel different to the writer as well as the reader? Does narration work differently? Does interpretation?

Does the history we present look different?

Those are some of the questions I’ll cover in the next few posts.

A proposition

If history writing and historical fiction are about  “understanding what it means to be human” (Carl Degler, 1980), are they part of the same project? Practitioners of both forms seek out  stories from the past, engage with them creatively, sort and interrogate them, pull them into some kind of narrative shape and interpret them for readers.

That seems so obvious, but the ongoing conversation between historians and historical novelists has been rather testy at times.  There is misunderstanding on both sides (if indeed they are ‘sides’) about the commonalities, purposes and practice of both disciplines.

You will often see, for example, historians portrayed in fiction as rigid, data-obsessed researchers (the same might be said of many fictional portrayals of librarians – and academics). They are gatekeepers guarding facts, keeping novelists and readers in the dark about what really happened.

And yet writers of historical fiction depend on writers of history texts – creators of secondary sources – for the information they use to build their imagined worlds; worlds that are, according to Jerome de Groot, “manifestly false but historically detailed.”

What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear the air.

It ought to be clear to us all that the writing of history is a creative process, just like the writing of fiction. It has been since the days of Herodotus. Equally, we can all recognise the depth of research that goes into many works of fiction. So we have a great deal in common. But our approaches may be different – of which more in a later post.

There is, as Gillian Polack pointed out during the debate and in her own writing, an idea of history and historians based on nineteenth century concepts of not just the historian figure but also what the field of history is, does and means. The discipline – the work of interrogating and engaging with the meaning of history, even our understanding of what that word means – changed radically during the twentieth century, and continues to change. But many people haven’t noticed.

I agree with Gillian that historical novelists tend to see ‘history’ in its nineteenth century guise – that thing we all fell in love with in school or in early historical novels – and our responses to the corpus of history writing are seen through this lens. That means we also run the risk of seeing even primary sources and the research process itself from this limited viewpoint. Without an understanding of historiography, of approaches to the work of history, we run the risk of relying on outdated concepts and disproved theories.

Here’s a simple but striking example, discussed by Gillian in one of her articles: Historicising the Historical Novel: How Fiction Writers Talk About The Middle Ages. As a medievalist as well as a writer of fiction, she can see how many novelists view the Middle Ages through the lens of nineteenth century British and French medievalism – that gorgeous romanticised William Morris tapestry version that projected Victorian values onto a certain version of ‘the past’, and influenced many generations of historical novelists. It is, as Deborah Challinor memorably pointed out in the debate, the past without the pus – without a realistic view of life for real people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often sound off about the myth of authenticity: this idea that fiction can somehow capture the actual experience and voice of people in the past. It’s nonsense. Or rather, it’s not authenticity, but an expected form of the genre, perfected by Walter Scott and others.

What writers create and readers have come to expect is the medievalist view of the world (even of eras that are not medieval) – it has nothing to do with authenticity, and may indeed have little to do with actual history.

If that’s what you’re writing, all well and good. Recognise it for what it is – medievalist fiction. That’s a thing. But it doesn’t need to run the risk of being incorrect or based on out-of-date data.

What next?

So what can we learn and do?

Keep up to date with new thinking and writing about the theory of history. I find it fascinating: you might not.

At the very least, read current research about the era on which you write, explore new data and interpretations. (I’ll post later about research methods and historical thinking.)

Write with clear(er) eyes about our subjects. We can enrich our world-building and characterisation with recent findings, and our own work with primary sources will be enlivened and informed by the latest analysis by experts in the field – and in other fields. I follow archaeologists and anthropologists as well as historians, for example, and read updates and debates everywhere I can, from Twitter to  specialist history societies, from academic or professional journals (available free and online through your nearest state or national library) to popular media such as the BBC’s History magazine or Inside History.

History and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination – Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’,  History Australia, 6: 3, 2009.

Some reading suggestions

If you really want to get your teeth into some of these issues, try these:

Is History Fiction? Ann Curthoys and John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins, Routledge Classics, London, 2003 (first published 1991)

The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot, Routledge, London, 2009

The Fiction of Narrative (Essays), Hayden White, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010.

You might be able to access the journal Rethinking History through your library.

And here’s a list of Gillian Polack’s publications.

To be continued…

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