Busy bee

It’s spring here in Melbourne. Sunday. I ought to be gardening or, given that I’m a Melburnian, out to brunch, but instead I’m crazy busy.

All good though.

Yesterday I went to a briefing about the Dinosaur Dreaming project at Melbourne Museum. I’ve volunteered to go on a dig along the “Dinosaur coast” in February. Next weekend, they teach us to break rocks. You have to take your own chisel and magnifying lens thingummy. I can’t tell you how thrilling that is.

Then I spent the afternoon on a panel at the Professional Historians Association’s social media masterclass, full of excited historians embracing Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest and Periscope.

The ebook I co-edited earlier this year has just come out: academic papers from the fourth global Gender and Love conference in Oxford. It’s called Past and Present: Perspectives on gender and love. 

Earlier in the week I gave a paper to colleagues in my department at La Trobe University – my initial thoughts on something which just keeps getting bigger and more complex, about the idea of the “strong female character” in young adult fiction, where it comes from and what impact it has.  See? There’s another book project right there. As if I haven’t got enough to do. But it’s so fascinating. Early days. I don’t even really know what questions I’m investigating yet.

And I’m loving the idea that Goddess is now out in the US and Julie is becoming famous all over again, in places she couldn’t even imagine.

She deserves it.

I’ve had a few questions from readers coming through, so I’ve just published some FAQs about the book and Julie. If you think of any more, drop me a comment below.

Lately I’ve been…


I was in the UK for a couple of conferences in Oxford, and then headed north through the ancient Roman and Viking site of York, the pilgrimage destination of Durham (breathtakingly beautiful), Newcastle (more Romans – this time in museums), and finally out along Hadrian’s Wall.

Durham Cathedral

Cloister at Durham Cathedral

So in a couple of weeks, I went from discussing life writing and celebrity with historians and writers, and then gender and love with academics from many fields, to researching three writing projects at once. And I walked a long way.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, near the village of Once Brewed

I also flew a long way, which not only gives a busy person plenty of time to catch up on movies and TV shows I’ve missed (Poldark! Agents of SHIELD!), but also endless hours to read.

Sadly, what you read at 3am somewhere over Albania after being awake for twenty hours doesn’t tend to stick in the brain for long, so I stuck to re-reading favourites on my Kobo.

But here’s what I’ve been reading or rereading since:

  • The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins. Like taking a long walk with a thoughtful friend who points out details you’d otherwise miss.
  • The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters’ latest, and yet another novel perfectly evocative of time and place.
  • The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume, which I decided to re-read while I also delve into Lucy Sussex’s book about Hume and his book, Blockbuster.
  • Cloudwish by one of Australia’s finest writers of young adult fiction, Fiona Wood – yet another inspiring visit to her fictional contemporary world.

Now I’m onto Oxford, by one of my writing heroes, Jan Morris, which is just as wonderful as I expected, and keeps me laughing aloud at the antics of students and dons over hundreds of years and in delight at its perfect phrases and word choice.

Book cover of Oxford

Has she ever written a bad book? Or essay? Or travel story? I don’t think so. Every one is a treasure.


What have the Romans ever done for us?

Right now, I’m in the north of England and heading for Hadrian’s Wall.

I’ve always wanted to see it, and to walk its length. This time, I hope to walk along at least one stretch and look at some of the excavation sites. I’m researching Roman and Viking history here in the north for some future children’s books, and also writing about several key pilgrimage sites for Sublime.

So I’m making my way toward the Wall from Oxford . I stopped in York , one of the most important Roman cities, base for both  Septimus Severus and Caracalla – Constantine the Great was declared Emperor here in 306, a long way from Constantinople. York was founded by the famous Ninth Legion in AD 71 – readers of Rosemary Sutcliff will be pleased to hear that York  Cathedral houses a rusted Eagle of the Ninth.

Multangular tower

The Multangular tower – the western corner of the legionary fortress 200 AD

Today I’m in Durham, founded by the Normans and one of the great sacred sites of Britain. Pilgrims have come here for centuries to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert. I’ll do that tomorrow. But today I made my own pilgrimage, to the other end of the gob-smackingly beautiful Durham Cathedral, to the grave of the Venerable Bede, “Father of English History.”

I think he might have played a supernatural scribe trick on me, because I left my notebook in the quire stall after Evensong.

Medieval painting of Bede

Very funny, Bede.


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.