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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.