What I’m doing and how I’m doing it

I’m working on a book of stories about two female bushrangers, set in the time of the Gold Rush. The Adventures of the Bushranger Captain Lightning And That Other Girl are young adult short stories paying tribute to the nineteenth century traditions of the amateur detective serial. So the stories are historical fiction, and also crime/detective stories (at least, some are – others are pure adventures).

It’s been my great privilege to spend the last few weeks writing in Falls Creek, high in the mountains of Victoria, as part of the Artist in Residence program.

So here’s what I’ve been up to, and how I spend my days.

When I’m in an intense writing phase, I often let myself wake up slowly and lie there for a bit thinking about the work. Quite often, this leads to urgently jumping out of bed to scribble down new dialogue or some critical plot point.  Some writers and artists, I know, do that every morning. But I don’t get into that state when I’m at home, going to the office a few days a week, thinking about other things. Here, I have the luxury of day after day of thinking about nothing but the writing, and in those minutes between waking and sleeping can lie moments of creativity or clarity.

I walk most mornings. Some days, it’s just a relatively short walk on one of the hiking or mountain bike trails around the village. On other days I do a slightly longer hike – still not too long, as I don’t like to be away from my desk for hours. But maybe 4 to 6 kilometres, with camera and notepad, stopping all the time to take photos or scribble or both. There are amazing walks up here in the High Country, and they teach me a great deal – and help me create a sense of place in the stories.

View from Mt Cope

View from Mt Cope

On even the short morning walks, I let my mind wander over the story I’m writing. I take my notepad or my phone, and I often solve important issues with the story or just make a bit more progress if I let my writing brain float while I walk. Again, I stop and scribble before I forget.

Notes from a walk

I’m also doing research as I go, on the ground here, and at the desk. The stories are set in 1856-7, beginning on the Mount Alexander diggings and moving across Victoria to end up here, in the Ovens and Buckland valleys and in the mountains of north-east Victoria. So I’ve been visiting as many sites of the gold rush as I can, including remnant diggings, cemeteries, old cattle tracks, and the rivers that were once rich sources of gold.

Buckland River

Buckland River

I’ve been to wonderful local museums in Bright, Beechworth, Yackandandah and especially here in Falls Creek, where I was also invited to spend a few hours scribbling notes from some great local history books. I learn so much from all these small museums. Sometimes you just need to see an artefact – a revolver or a miner’s cradle or a saddle – to know how to use it in a story.

Gold pans

Gold pans – Bright Museum

The walks are also research. I’ve written scenes set on the trails and high plains,  imagining my characters seeing the snowgums and wildflowers, the high peaks in the distance and the patches of snow that I can see now. I went for a half-day horse ride in the Kiewa Valley, because it’s so long since I’ve ridden I needed to feel and hear it again, and that too gave me a much better sense of the distances my bushrangers could travel on horseback.

Horse with bridle

Because the stories are in serial form, each has its own plot or mystery, and they also have an overarching narrative.  That’s much more complicated than writing the one novel, even with sub-plots. There are key characters throughout, others who appear in a few stories but not all, and some who turn up only to be part of a particular mystery or adventure. Some of the events in the stories really happened, but most of it is fictional, so I have to track imagined characters, real people, and historical events. I use a very simple Excel spreadsheet for that – how old people are, when real things happened, what month we’re in, etc, for each story.  None of that is as hard to track as a biofictional work like Goddess, which had the mother of all spreadsheets, but I just like to see it at a glance.

Excel spreadsheet of timeline

The bushrangers and their families and friends are entirely fictional, but a few real people have cameos, like Lola Montez, Redmond Barry, Bogong Jack, and Robert O’Hara Burke. I have quick outlines of my main characters on sticky cards stuck up on the wall, in case I forget what colour someone’s hair is. These also help me think about the relationships between the characters in any given story. Staring at them just helps, I find. I don’t know how that works, but it does.

Character cards

Another thing that works for some mysterious reason, if I get stuck or confused, is taking my blue notepad and sitting in a different place, then making diagrams of plots points or people, or just scribbling random words. It’s different to my project notebook, which has actual dialogue, research notes, and plotting in it.

And it’s blue! That’s probably why it helps.

Blue notepaper with plot scribbles

As you know, if you’ve been through previous projects with me, I use maps a lot. Sometimes this is quite vague and simply helps me get my bearings in an ancient city. Here, it’s quite precise. I use old maps of the diggings, with site names long forgotten, and map after map of the High Country and valleys, to figure out exactly where and how my characters get from place to place.  Again, I have several stuck on the wall and I spend a lot of time poring over them, calculating how long a chase on horseback might take, which rivers need to be crossed, and which tracks existed at what point in history.

Maps of NE Victoria

I brought books on bushrangers and the Gold Rush with me, as well as several literary texts about either early colonial mystery stories or detective writing generally.  I  also brought an enormous compendium of Sherlock Holmes stories, so every meal-time I re-read one of them, to keep my mind fixed on the detecting process and the serial form.

And I write in Scrivener, software made especially for writers, which helps me keep track of characters and timing and sites – I set these fields up in the metadata section – and most satisfyingly, at least on good days, tells me how many words I’ve written that day and overall.

Scrivener editing screen

(Don’t read that. It’s still a very dodgy draft!)

I try to write about 2000 words a day. I get a bit stressed if I don’t hit the target, but I’ve made lots of progress while I’m here and should hit 60,000 words in the next day or so (I haven’t written all of those up here – I arrived with two stories already done).  That’s more than I expected to get done.

I’m also editing as I go, at least for the first rough pass, because they’re stories rather than one long novel. They’ll get a lot more attention when they’re assembled as a complete first draft, and then I’ll start the full revision processes.

But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

In residence: Falls Creek

I’m delighted to be here at Falls Creek, a stunning spot in the Victorian High Country, for the next month, as an artist in residence.

Falls Creek is best known as an alpine resort – skiing in winter, hiking and mountain biking and fishing in ‘the green season’. It also has an arts and culture program, which includes offering artists the chance to stay here for a month and make art.

So here I am.

Lucky me.

I’ve been here for a few days already, walking each day and writing a lot. My project while I’m here is a series of short stories called (at the moment),  The Adventures of the Bushranger Captain Lightning And That Other Girl.

I wrote the first story, ‘Boots and the Bushranger’, as a one-off for Clandestine Press’s And Then … adventure anthology (Volume 2 is out any day now, so you’ll be able to read it). But the two main characters, Boots and Jessie, made me laugh so much that I wrote another one. And then I planned a whole series.

They are set in the 1850s Gold Rush, and begin in Castlemaine and end in the Ovens  and Buckland Valleys, just below the mountains here. Or maybe on the mountain. Or maybe in Melbourne. I don’t know yet.

They’re historical adventure/crime stories for young adults, planned in a series, in tribute to the heroines of early detective stories, like Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley – Sherlock Holmes’s lesser known peers.

So the last few days I’ve been plotting and mapping and scribbling and typing. And walking.

I like to walk in the mornings anyway, but it’s a hell of a lot more scenic here than pounding the suburban streets at home. And I don’t have to rush off anywhere, so I can walk for an hour  or longer if I want.

I’m not just walking, of course. I walk and think and plot.

And I look. At the ground, at the birds, at the trees and shrubs.  I breathe. It’s wildflower time here, and the air smells of honey.

View over Alpine National Park

Alpine National Park as far as the eye can see.

I look at the ancient folds of the land, and the old cattlemen’s huts and the distant valleys.

Cattlemen's hut

Wallace Hut – built 1889

I wonder about the people who came up here, summer after summer, for countless generations, to meet, hold ceremonies, and feast on the Bogong moths. What a journey it must have been. And the people who came after, with cattle and horses, and eventually cars and skis.

View of distant peaks

View from my lunch spot on the Wallace Heritage Trail

I listen. You can hear snow melt streams trickling all through the hillsides. And currawongs. And magpies. And wind through tussock grass.

Snow melt stream

The snow is still melting on the high peaks

It’s all research. I never know what will end up in the stories.

I breathe it in and write it out.

Cry me a river

It seems I’ve been making people cry.

Well, not so much me as my book.

And yes, that is the plan.

I’ve posted before about the decisions I made in writing 1917, especially about portraying violence and loss.

But while writing it, I was also thinking about the tears I shed over books when I was the same age as my readers – over Helen in Jane Eyre, over everyone in The Isle of the Blue Dolphin … and don’t get me started on Little Women.  I might be scarred for life about the sad demise of Beth March, but it’s the sort of scarring that is easier to bear in fiction than in real life. It’s loss that feels real, but isn’t.

When you write about the First World War, you can’t shy away from sorrow. The world was grieving – and I do mean the world, as there were civilian and military casualties from so many countries. By 1917, communities on the Home Front reeled from the news every day of more loss, more destruction. They mourned family members and friends, and in some cases entire villages or workplaces, especially after the slaughter of 1916 on the Somme.

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

And for those in the fighting, the terror and grief never ended. Shell-shock was finally beginning to be understood and treated, but the diaries, letters, poems and memoirs tell us that almost everyone was profoundly affected by the loss of friends, the constant bombardment, a sense of foreboding, and the physical effects of sleep deprivation, inadequate food and water, lice and rats, mud and snow, disease, living out in the elements every day and night – a nightmare that never seemed to end.

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

It’s war. I couldn’t write about it honestly, couldn’t do justice to the voices in those diaries, letters and memoirs, without trying to reflect that reality. Without breaking a few hearts.

I just remembered this old interview I did with Writers Victoria, published while I was researching 1917:

When was the last time you cried after reading a book? Which book and why did it make you cry?

I’ve been reading a few World War One diaries lately. They are all heart-breaking but sometimes they just stop. Yesterday I saw one in the State Library and got to an entry that reads, “I seem to have come through all right so far”. Then that’s it. There’s no more.

 

So it makes me cry too.

 

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

Where do you get your ideas?

People often ask writers where we get our ideas.

I suppose some people might know, but I don’t. As Emma Donoghue once said,  it’s like asking how you got a cold.

Sometimes, of course, I hear a story or a snippet from history that makes my arms go all goosepimply and I scribble it down or bookmark the page and stash it away for later.

But this morning, for example, I woke up with a sentence in my mind.

‘You can’t hide out forever.’

By the time I had showered and made the coffee, I had the first few moments of a new story in my head.

I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write it down immediately, it might be gone by lunch-time. If I have to rush off to my day job, go to meetings, return emails, and write things that are not anything to do with stories, then it vanishes.

So I sat over breakfast and typed it all out.

A few months ago, I was asked to write an adventure story for Clandestine Press’s new And Then anthology. So I wrote ‘Boots and the Bushranger’, a ripping yarn about two young women who become outlaws in the wild days of Victoria’s Gold Rush. (You can pre-order the anthology here, right now, for a limited time, and you probably should because it is going to be awesome.)

I fell a bit in love, I admit, with the two characters, with researching the world of the goldfields, and with a whole lot of other story ideas that emerged through the research. I’ve always loved that country around Castlemaine. And I’ve long wanted to try my hand at historical crime fiction.

Image of rocks on Mt Alexander

The spot where I imagined Boots and the Bushranger made their last stand.

So I developed a vague plan – let’s call it a fancy – to write more stories about them, more short crime stories like those of the late nineteenth century, many of which were about feisty and smart young women. Although the stories from that era we know now are more likely to be about a certain middle-aged, eccentric chap, at the time, Sherlock Holmes had fierce rivals such as Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley  (you can read an article I wrote about them and other plucky girls in the Australian Journal of Crime Fiction).

And I like the genre – the sketching of character, the continuing and rich world, the short episodic stories that each tell a tale but also build up our sense of character and place, the odd couple of detective and chronicler – but, being me, I want to subvert it.

So this morning, Boots and her bushranger popped back into my head, unannounced, because after all, you can’t hide out forever.
It might not go anywhere. It might not even end up in the story I eventually write.

But it’s a start.

1858 etching of gold mining

The Goldfields – Old Post Office Hill, 1858

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

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…

Re-reading childhood heroes

When I was little, we didn’t have many books. Not that we didn’t like them. We did. But we didn’t own many. We’d moved to a new suburb on the edge of town and for several years there wasn’t much there except houses and dirt roads and orchards and bush. Then when I was about seven, two amazing things happened: they connected us to the sewerage system (which made reading on the loo much more relaxing – no more worrying that the Pan Man was going arrive while you were sitting there), and, wonder of wonders, a new library was built.

And I discovered the magic shelf in Children’s Fiction: Authors by surname, S to Z.

It changed my life. And what I write now is directly related to what I read then. The books I found there (and on other shelves) were part of a golden age of historical fiction for children.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been consciously re-reading some of the books I remembered from that shelf (and a few others).  I re-read several of these in recent years as part of research into approaches to historical fiction. But over the last few weeks I have consciously tried to immerse myself in them, one after the other – a feast, or an experiment, or a binge. Or perhaps all of the above.

Here’s what I’ve re-read:

Rosemary Sutcliff

  • The Lantern Bearers (1959)
  • Knight’s Fee (1960)
  • Dawn Wind (1961)
  • Sword at Sunset  – sort of (1963)

Geoffrey Trease

  • Bows Against the Barons (1934)
  • The Barons’ Hostage (1952)
  • Cue For Treason (1940)
  • The White Nights of St Petersburg (1967)
  • Danger in the Wings (1997)

Henry Treece

  • Hounds of the King (1955)
  • The Children’s Crusade (1958)
  • Horned Helmet (1963)

Ronald Welch

  • Knight Crusader (1954)
  • Nicholas Carey (1963)
  • Tank Commander (1972).

And favourites from the A – H shelf:

Leon Garfield

  • Devil-in-the-Fog (1966)
  • Smith (1967)

I also re-read The Silver Sword (1956), by Ian Serraillier, which I loved as a kid and found disappointing as an adult reader and Lawrence Durrell’s White Eagles Over Serbia (1957). These technically aren’t historical fiction, as they were written about events in the lifetime of the author (post-World War 2 Europe), but I read them as such when I was young.

I was interested in exploring commonalities and differences in approaches, technique and content in historical fiction of the post-war (UK) golden age, and what and how we write now for middle years and young adults.

 

Cover - Bows Against the Barons

Different approaches

Many things have changed since these books were published, and even across the decades of these authors’ careers: writing styles, approaches to writing for different reading levels, politics and attitudes; and thanks to archaeology and archival research we know a great deal more about some of the historical periods in which they are set. When I first read these books, there wasn’t really anything we’d define as Young Adult – that generation of authors helped create YA and children’s fiction. We now have a greater technical understanding of how different age groups read, how literacy operates, and (hopefully) about cultural diversity and gender issues.

When these authors were at their peaks, they could assume a certain level of historical knowledge in their readers. A ten year-old might not know much about the Marcher Lords or Edward Longshanks, but they’d get the general gist and they’d certainly know about Roman, Saxon and Norman Britain, for example, or where Vikings came from.

Now, when I ask a class if they’ve ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte or Cleopatra I get blank stares. That makes me sad, although those students know a whole lot of other stuff that I don’t know.

And of course, these were all UK authors aiming primarily at a UK readership, but even we on the edge of Melbourne knew this general history. We didn’t learn much about the history of our own country, and especially not about its indigenous past, so some things have changed for the better.

The point is, I now can’t assume any consistent historical knowledge. It’s something I need to be aware of when I’m writing – I have to make sure to include as much political and historical, sometimes also religious or geographical, context as possible, all without seeming to do so.

 

Cover - Dawn Wind

Issues in common

Almost everyone who writes historical fiction grapples with the question of how much detail to include in the story. Everyone – even the masters – struggle at times with filling in political back story or placing the action in the context of historical events. It often feels heavy-handed, especially when there are a lot of names of historical figures and battles or events and they all happen off-stage.

Things that drive me mad, such as having to mark the passing of months or even years, are handled with aplomb by Sutcliff and Trease. They are just upfront about it – rumours swirl, messengers arrive, years or months pass. They are especially good at noting changes of seasons – easier when your setting is agricultural.

I often spend some time deciding how to treat violence and especially brutality for middle years readers. These writers, although often writing about war, skim over the details.

Perhaps that’s why many of the climax points seem underwritten or oddly paced – a battle, a confrontation, a fight is over so quickly that it can easily be missed or its importance go unrecognised. They need perhaps more of the thriller technique in these scenes – more menace, more visceral action, and perhaps more reflection.

There’s no coyness about bloodshed in the Treece Viking books, though – indeed, how could there be? You can’t write about Viking warriors without a whole lot of heads being whacked and swords red with blood. Why would you?

Of great interest to me, given my 1917 project, was Ronald Welch’s treatment of the horrors of war in Tank Commander. He certainly doesn’t shy away from depicting the horror of trench warfare, of death, of the fear and panic soldiers experienced when trapped in a trench with shells exploding all around. Welch served in WW2, as did Treece (Trease did too, but as an Army Education Officer – a perfect role for him), which perhaps helps him achieve a level of verisimilitude in his portrayal of men living with the trauma of constant battle. He even describes the execution of a young soldier for cowardice, and there’s no disguising the death and the bloodshed. The moral implications are barely explored – on one hand, the protagonist, John Carey, has sympathy for the young private when he sees him cowering and muttering in the trench – on the other, he doesn’t question the sentence or regret its aftermath, but that is probably a fairly accurate portrayal.

People die in these books – friends, kin, even major characters.There is grief and loneliness, just as experienced by so many young readers who lost family members in the war.

 

Cover - Tank commander

Openings

You can tell a lot from the first line of a book:

The moon drifted clear of a long bank of cloud, and the cool slippery light hung for a moment on the crest of the high ground… – Dawn Wind

I asked, weren’t we taking the pistol, or anyhow the long, murderous-looking pike …  – Cue for Treason

Though Methuen usually lived at his Club whenever he was in London it was seldom that he was seen in the bar or the gaunt smoking-rooms.  – White Eagles Over Serbia

Beorn was only a boy when his father jumped off Ness Rock into the sea and was swept away like a piece of black driftwood.  – Horned Helmet

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel…  – Smith

Sutcliff is always painterly, setting the scene as if a curtain is rising.

You’ll often hear the advice from Elmore Leonard: “Never start a book with the weather.” But we’re not all Elmore Leonards. The world needs Rosemary Sutcliffs as well.

Trease kicks off with a bang, then backtracks in the first few pages so you know where you are and whose story it is that you’ve been sucked into – cheekily in Danger in the Wings which begins:

In those first heart-stopping moments – he always remembered afterwards – the course of his whole life must have been decided. It was when he saw the ghost.

A few pages later, we’re relieved and possibly disappointed to learn that it’s the ghost in Hamlet and that the life-changing moment has to do with the theatre.

This is the technique I tend to use, especially for middle years. My young adult books veer a little more to the scene-setting opening. So far.

 

Cover - Horned Helmet

Themes

A common theme in many of these books, for obvious reasons, is destruction and upheaval. Sutcliff’s post-Roman Britain, the setting for many of her novels, is a metaphor for the ruin of Europe and the UK after WW2 and especially the bombing raids. Her Britons are trying to rebuild, or are holding back the tide of violent invasion or starving in the rubble.

An overall theme, as is often the case with historical fiction, is that of individuals caught up in the great events of their time. Many of these novels consciously engage with real historical figures, so that their fictional protagonists meet up with Elizabeth 1 or Vortigern or Edward Longshanks. In The White Nights of St Petersburg, young David is caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution. In The Lantern Bearers, Aquila is the last Roman soldier left in Britain. The several hostages in The Baron’s Hostage are kept prisoner by Simon de Montfort, while the boy Beorn goes a-Viking with Jarl Skallagrim in Horned Helmet.

They blend a real and imagined history, and focus on great events as experienced by ordinary (or at least not famous) people.

Garfield’s characters are entirely imagined, and they inhabit exotic landscapes familiar to any reader of Dickens or Stevenson – the gloomy underbelly of the city, the dark side of human nature.

So in these books, we can see at least two common approaches to historical fiction: portraying the past as a fascinating foreign country; or drawing parallels between the past and the now.

 

Cover - White eagles over Serbia

Structure and plot

These are mostly quests, and it’s noticeable how episodic the narrative is as we follow along the hero’s journey – more so, I think, than in recent novels. The structure is often a simple series of scenes that are not always narratively linked – or at least, they don’t build up across an arc. Early episodes don’t necessarily relate to later plot points or the inevitable climax. Sometimes earlier plotlines fizzle out. It’s as if adventure is enough. And it was, for the young me.

Perhaps this is conscious and related to theme, with the quest sometimes feeling aimless because the world is destroyed and there is no clear road ahead, or because the hero is a soldier living from battle to battle.

But not always. Cue for Treason is plotted like a mystery with a fair degree of foreshadowing, White Eagles Over Serbia is an action thriller, while Knight’s Fee is driven by character. Garfield writes tight, brilliantly plotted books with twists to make Dickens gasp. There are several strands – the overt plot, plus perhaps a romance, plus a character growing up or changing in some way.

In other cases, it seems that a series of exciting situations is enough. Or the progression of an historical event, such as The Children’s Crusade, is simply followed – with a bit of an escapade at the end to liven things up and get the children home in an ahistorical rescue.

 

Cover - Knight Crusader

World views

On re-reading, I was shocked at the racism and anti-Semitism in Knight Crusader and Nicholas Carey. Every “foreigner” and/or bad guy is “swarthy” (what an ugly word), every Italian and “Arab” untrustworthy, and everyone who is Jewish is avaricious. And probably swarthy as well. Needless to say, they all have minor roles. As a kid, I loved Welch’s series about the Carey/d’Aubigny (no relation to Julie) family, and my brother and I used to fight over who got to read them first. If I noticed this nasty tone, I’d forgotten. Probably I didn’t even notice it, sad to say.

Now, if you’re writing about a character who holds those views, as every Crusader did, you might need to write these attitudes into their world view. (In fact, one of the least convincing and historically inaccurate Crusader characters of recent years was Orlando Bloom’s Balian in Kingdom of Heaven, with his modern liberal – almost Orientalist – attitudes and lack of crusading zeal.) Many characters in all of these books voice their contemporary attitudes, especially about gender. Medieval parents disapprove of girls being uppity or wanting to avoid an arranged marriage. That’s as it should be if you’re reflecting the mores of the era.

But in Knight Crusader in particular these come through in the authorial voice. And don’t tell me that it’s because Welch was a man of his generation. You don’t read that kind of nonsense in Trease. Sometimes you come across ignorance about people with disabilities or indigenous people. But not outright nastiness. Mind you, I did also notice hints of homophobia in Sutcliff’s Knight’s Fee, in which the bad guy wears scent and has a high laugh.

 

Cover - Smith

Characters

It’s a long time since I’ve read a modern book for middle years or young adults with an adult protagonist, as there are in The Lantern Bearers and White Eagles Over Serbia. It’s much more common now to have the main character a little older than the anticipated readership. In fact, it’s de rigueur.

But it’s not always possible. If you’re writing about war, for example, as I’m doing at present, the protagonist has to be old enough to go to war. Not every book about WW1 can have a young lad running away and lying about his age to enlist.

What on earth makes us imagine that kids don’t want to read books about adults, nowadays? I imagine it’s due to the obsession with ‘relateable’ characters, on which I’ll post soon. But kids watch movies and TV shows about adults. They act as adult protagonists in games. Over about eight or nine years-old, I reckon young readers are perfectly willing to see the world through the eyes of someone older than them, so long as the rest of the narrative is of interest. If it’s a straight out adventure, why not? Plenty of kids are still reading The Lantern Bearers (more than 50 years after it won the Carnegie Medal in 1959).

Similarly, some of these books are written from the point of view of the protagonist as an adult looking back. They might end, as do Cue for Treason and The Baron’s Hostage, with the hero happily married to the heroine and perhaps writing down an account of their youthful adventures. You don’t see that often nowadays either. But it’s a bit like the epilogue to the Harry Potter books – it draws a boundary around the possible futures you might imagine for the characters. This is how it ends. Don’t bother trying to imagine anything else. Oddly unsatisfying, but perhaps that’s just me.

In The Children’s Crusade and The Silver Sword, in particular, the child characters behave in ways inconsistent with their supposed age. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to know how old people are meant to be, as if there is some kind of generic child behaviour and voice that is applied to everyone, whether they’re six or sixteen.

Most of the protagonists in these books are men or boys. These were authors writing in the tradition of the ripping yarn – of Biggles and Jack London – assuming that adventure tales or tales of war were for boys. Female characters, even in these books of Sutcliff’s, are sketched lightly. Even Regina in Dawn Wind – a haunting character – gets little chance to exercise much agency.

But not Trease. He was one of the first to consciously write pairs of protagonists – one male, one female, and relatively equal (although not quite). The books are often from the male point of view, in some cases there is a hint of romance between the two – or more than a hint – and the young woman’s behaviour may be proscribed by the values of the period, but she is right there in the adventure. These young women are brave, tough, outspoken and engaged in the action.

I did note that there are many characters, possibly too many for a young reader to keep track of, in some of these books, especially when most of them are so lightly sketched it’s impossible to tell them apart. Even some of the protagonists seem to have only one feature – courage, perhaps, or ambition or restlessness – and don’t gather more attributes over the course of the novel.

But then there’s Dog (Dawn Wind), for me, one of Sutcliff’s most memorable characters in spite of having no lines beyond the odd warning bark – so memorable in fact, that to this day I long for a wolfhound, and my great canine love, Lily, looked like a miniature version of Dog.

 

Cover - Lantern bearers

 

Language and voice

There’s such a range of writing in these books, from Sutcliff’s glorious landscape paintings to Durrell’s detailed miniatures. To our eyes, both of these authors may not seem to write for a young readership: the language and sentence structure are pitched at a high reading level, and the protagonists are often adults. They are prototype young adult books, in which the reader can get lost in both language and story, which assume an educated and willing reader – of any age – and defy the idea that writing for children should be any less complex than writing of literary for adults. (In fact, in some ways, it can be more complex.)

That said, it’s possible to overdose on Sutcliff’s prose, or perhaps it was easy for her to get carried away with both description and historical detail, and after one too many moons and hillsides and dawns and glens and heavy oak doors, even my eyes started to glaze over. As a result, I have failed, yet again, to finish The Sword at Sunset (which, although a sequel to Lantern Bearers, isn’t really a kids’ book).

As I’ve noted before, Geoffrey Trease was the early master of the transparent voice in historical fiction, trying to ensure that the historical didn’t overwhelm the fiction – designed so that younger readers barely notice the voice and get straight into the narrative. Danger in the Wings has a more casual 20th century teen tone than other books, and therefore has dated a little, but in general the technique stands the test of time (as it does in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, published the same year as Bows Against the Barons).

A curious thing about Danger in the Wings, though: its language seems to be pitched at quite a young age group, and yet prostitution and VD are hinted at and much of the book is concerned with romance. That’s unusual among these books.

Sutcliff tries to create, in voice and in description, an atmosphere to allow the reader to feel her setting. Her characters say,  “It is in my mind that…” or “Let you ride awhile”, but it’s not an intrusive ye olde worlde affectation. She was scathing about what she called “gadzookery” in historical fiction.

The language in the Welch and Treece books is more workmanlike, and its role is to drive the reader along on the adventure. Which it does. But it’s never going to win a prize for beauty.

Two things you’d never get away with now, and nor should you try: the grown-up gather-round-little-kiddies-and-I’ll-tell-you-an-uplifting-story narrative voice and didactic tone of The Silver Sword.

I suppose there are still hit-you-over-the-head moralising books about, but with so much choice, I don’t see why any young readers would bother. Once you get into the story, you don’t notice as much, but the beginning and the ending are more Edwardian in tone than post-war.

Another hero of mine is Leon Garfield, who renders dialogue of eighteenth century London equal to the best of Robert Louis Stevenson – perhaps sharper. We rarely now see the likes of this:

They came to Vine Street. Said Mister Mansfield: ‘If you’ve nought better to do, will you come in and take a bite of late supper with me, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Care to stay the night, Smith?’
‘Don’t mind if I do, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Any family, Smith?’
‘Sisters. Two of ’em.’
‘Likely to worry?’
‘Not much.’
‘Then it’s settled?’
‘Just as you say, Mister Mansfield.’
‘Anything else I can do for you, Smith?’
Smith sighed ruefully. The only thing he really wanted, Mr Mansfield was unable to provide.
‘No thank-you, Mister Mansfield. You done all you can.’

Glorious. Now, the Stephen Kings of this world would have us live without that “ruefully”. But you see here how a master can blend sparse and descriptive language without it feeling overwrought. Most publishers would ask an author to avoid trying to render colloquial speech or dialect on the page.

But again, how perfect, how Dickensian, is the “Sisters. Two of ’em.”?

The adverb liberation front

Once upon a time,  I blogged about George W. Bush. That shows you how long ago it was: he was President at the time.

One of the responses was from a charming right-wing fellow from the US, who no doubt spends his days trolling the web looking for just such a post and responding forcefully. But this chap had a good college education, so not only did he threaten me with an apocalypse and eternal flames, he also found an extract of my writing and rewrote it, removing all the adjectives and adverbs, and posted it as a comment to show the world what an incompetent fool I was.

He’d made the sing-song voice of a twelve year-old pirate narrator sound like Jake Barnes or Sam Spade, but he was only acting out, in troll form, the instructions of endless numbers of writing teachers and “coaches”, editors, authors, manuals and half a million writing advice (join today! first month free!) websites.

Eliminate all those mealy-mouthed adverbs, they say. Cross out adjectives and delete them from your dictionary.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

— Stephen King

Adverbs have an especially bad name because they are often used as qualifiers: possibly, probably, very, totally, utterly, mostly. We see them a lot in government or consultants’ reports where they work hard to undermine any firm verbs, adjectives and nouns: potentially viable. They are used as weasel words, but they are blameless. There’s nothing wrong with an adverb or two. A plague of adverbs is a different matter, but that’s true of any plague.

I’ve long had a theory that it’s all Hemingway’s fault – not his, exactly, because he knew better than anyone how to place every word so it counts – but the generations after him who wanted to be Hemingway. There’s a rule book of writing which endeavours to turn every work into Hemingway, or perhaps Elmore Leonard.

But here’s the thing: it’s just one set of rules, designed for a certain style, or a range of styles, of writing. It’s also a particularly twentieth-century US style. If you want to deliver punchy realism, then  descriptive words are used sparingly, as are all words.

Before there was Hemingway, there was Twain:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

— Mark Twain

Adjectives have a bad name in some quarters: perhaps a reaction to high Victorian prose and all those long descriptive passages people were forced to read in high school.  I’m sorry for your suffering, but take another look:

In an old house, dismal dark and dusty, which seemed to have withered, like himself, and to have grown yellow and shrivelled in hoarding him from the light of day, as he had, in hoarding his money, lived Arthur Grid. Meagre old chairs and tables, of spare and bony make, and hard and cold as misers’ hearts, were ranged in grim array against the gloomy walls; attenuated presses, grown lank and lantern—awed in guarding the treasures they inclosed, and tottering, as though from constant fear and dread of thieves, shrunk up in dark corners, whence they cast no shadows on the ground, and seemed to hide and cower from observation. A tall grim clock upon the stairs, with long lean hands and famished face, ticked in cautious whispers; and when it struck the time, in thin and piping sounds like an old man’s voice, it rattled, as if it were pinched with hunger.

— Charles Dickens, from Nicholas Nickelby

It may seem wordy compared to Leonard,  and plenty of people would scoff at the idea of Twain or Dickens using plain English and short sentences, but they did  in comparison to their contemporaries. Their descriptions include some of the most gorgeous writing you’ll ever read. Spare and bony chairs. Grim. You can see it, can’t you? Feel it?

Twain could wax as lyrical as the next author, but it depended entirely on the voice he created. Here’s Huck Finn:

 It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle.  We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.

Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights; not a house could you see.  The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up.

Twain or Hemingway would  ignore the didactic websites and coaches: they knew that their story, their own styles, and the voices of their characters were what mattered.  Some narrators describe things, some don’t. Some sketch an outline, some paint in oils, some wave neon lights around. Most writers use too many words or thoughtless construction when we’re drafting: editing is about taking out the gratuitous  adverbs or nouns or entire passages.

I won’t tell you how to write, but I will tell you to read. Read Hemingway (especially The Sun Always Rises) but read Emma Donoghue’s Room, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall too.  Not a wasted word in any of them, but very different styles, intent and voices. Read Twain and Dickens and Austen and Tolstoy.

There are many ways to tell a story. And some involve adverbs.

An Australian literary voice?

Attended a panel this morning at the always excellent Emerging Writers’ Festival on the idea of an Australian literary voice: “Does one exist? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative…?” Panellists were Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Stephanie Convery, Bruce Pascoe and Lily Yulanti Farid.

First, the panellists all argued that the idea of AN Australian voice is problematic, that the prevalent voices aren’t representative, and some questioned the very notion of a nationalist voice or the need for one.

The speakers were all great and came at the topic from different perspectives – no consensus as such, just lots of unpacking, because it’s all too much to fit into an hour’s discussion. I think it’s fair to say there’s pain around this issue, and Mohammed hinted that he gets a bit of grief for raising the issue in some forums – which I can well imagine.

I’ve been thinking about all that since, so here are a few thoughts and questions.

What we often think of as national literature is about place, right? Mohammed used the example of Irish literature: we know what that means,  we know more or less who it includes.

In a sense that’s true: I immediately pictured Irish literature and it looked a bit like an old postcard of Galway Bay.

But I bet that there are a whole lot of Irish writers who feel excluded from the idea of Irish literature.

Surely the same discussions go on in Ireland and England and France and a whole range of other countries too.  Don’t you reckon? Remember when the Zadie Smith or Monica Ali generation of young British writers exploded on to the scene? English literature was not just Dorset or the Lakes District any more –  or even Bloomsbury – it was also the East End and North London. Wow. Mind-blowing. But the post-war novelists got the same reaction.

So is ours a different thing because it’s much more exclusive? Could be. Or is there a fundamental question in there for us about the Australian sense of place and the way in which that comes through in the books we prize (not necessarily the books we write)?

This country most prizes – awards, discusses, reviews, quotes, studies, canonises – writing about the mythical place of the colonial or post-colonial bush. (Though it should also be said we don’t necessarily buy the most awarded books  in great numbers, if at all – but the books sold in the millions are often concerned with the colonial past or the bush too.)

That obsession won’t go away, I think, until there is a genuine and deep reconciliation with the truth of dispossession. We have a long way to go before that permeates enough to change the way non-Indigenous Australians see and mythologise and engage creatively with the land.

The people writing about place differently include Kim Scott, of whom Alison Ravenscroft wrote recently:

In his hands, even the country—the mountain itself—is differently shaped: it is a different thing. In That Deadman Dance we are told of the mountain that sheltered Wabalanginy: ‘like an insect among the fallen bodies of ancestors, he huddled in the eye sockets of a mountainous skull and became part of its vision, was one of its thoughts’ (52). Rocks are fallen ancestors, country is a body, to travel is to journey beside animated ancestors. Scott is not telling the same old story, populated with men and women who are remarkably recognisable to white readers as a version of ourselves, or familiar from our fantasies of our others. His writing calls his white readers to suspend our belief in our own knowledge of the smell, shape and sound of the world; he calls readers like myself into stories that are unbelievable (to me), impossible, implausible, even as they are ‘true story’ for his Indigenous protagonists. He invites us to bear the unbelievable, to stay with it until it morphs into another shape.

The good news is that sometimes when a beautifully written perspective like  That Deadman Dance or Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria comes along, it is embraced. That’s not true for all or even many writers – no matter how good their work – who are marginalised or excluded by that nationalist myth, or who simply chose to write about something completely different or in a completely different style.

The other most significant place is suburbia or the bourgeois world – that’s a subversion of the bush myth in one way, but it’s also traditional in our literature (Patrick White, for instance, or Christina Stead) and also in realist  writing generally.

Others have written and spoken about the issues involved with the supposed national identity and gender, especially lately. It appears that male writers focused on suburbia are in the Best in Show literary category, while women writers who focus on suburbia are doing Women’s Writing, and the writing  that is most often awarded is predominately written by straight white men about the outback. There are statistics, there are arguments, there’ll be a little bit of movement here and there. That sound you hear is heads banging against brick walls.

So there are simple answers to the questions raised for this morning’s panel. No, there is not AN Australian voice, it’s just that some voices are prized over others. Those that are most prized fit into a certain canon and that canon will have to change if only so we don’t get bored to death. The other voices (which is, let’s face it, just about everyone) are sometimes in danger of being drowned out, and we have to do a whole lot more to support them.

But I feel optimistic that there are enough people who want to hear them, and that when they do, they will realise how much more interesting and glorious a choir can be instead of that guy on the street corner singing Eagles covers.

Because when you think about it, Irish literature includes as diverse a range of writers as Childers, Stoker, Somerville & Martin, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw,  O’Casey, Beckett, Wilde, O’Brien, Heaney,  Enright, Binchy, Trevor, Banville and Tóibín. You don’t see all of them banging on about Galway Bay.

Writing together

I’m not much of an extrovert. Far from it. I’d happily stay home and never go anywhere, but that’s not how the world works. You adapt. Leave the house.  Talk to other people. Real people.

So it fascinates me how networked and interactive the writing community is, online and in real life, considering how many writers are introverts. There are those huge web communities where people pitch ideas, get draft feedback, agonise over rejections, beg agents for advice, just like the Writers’ Centres  and events we have in so many places now. There are courses and workshops and a whole lot of people (the extroverts, probably) creating careers out of connecting writers with one another and – of course – with publishers and agents. They scare me a little, but never mind.

The amazing thing to me is how communities develop organically, or when given a gentle boost. The Young Adult authors on Twitter, for example, many of whom have also met in real life at conferences or events, have proved with campaigns such as #YAsaves to be a force for goodness and niceness, able to be mobilised in minutes.

So this week and next I am in writing paradise: Varuna Writers’ House in Katoomba, in the gorgeous Blue Mountains in New South Wales. *

Image of liquidamber leaves

Dry stone wall under the liquidamber - Varuna

It’s autumn here, and some days it rains softly. There are five writers in the house, all working on different kinds of projects and at different stages of our careers. We each have a bedroom and a writing room, in a house filled with books and light. We wake up early most mornings. We may or may not see one another during the day. We slouch about, sit at our desks, proofread in the sunshine, go for walks, refuse to go for walks (in my case), browse the bookshelves, and write.

Mostly write. When we assembled on the first evening we all agreed there was some kind of magic going on. I’d written 5000 words that day – twice the usual rate. We start early (though it’s entirely up to the individual) and most of us are at our desks for 11 or 12 hours. But it’s not just that – somehow the mind becomes more focused, more productive. If there’s a writing zone, we are deep inside it. It’s quiet, respectful, peaceful, dedicated, and we are all conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being here – of being supported, as writers.

We help ourselves to the plentiful food supplies – in some cases every two hours – and then around 6pm we slowly assemble in front of the fire in the dining room, talk about our days, our work, the world and wait for the legendary Sheila to arrive and prepare a fabulous meal.  It’s a little writing community, of sorts: a temporary one, although I know plenty of people who’ve made lasting friendships here.

It’s quite different from my select and extremely rowdy writing circle back home. There are three of us. Most weeks we meet for lunch, for coffee and then go write. Together. We sit about with our laptops somewhere soundproof (for the safety of those around us) and we write in 25 minute sprints, and then for ten minutes we gossip, drink cups of tea, and laugh until we weep. Then another writing sprint. I haven’t been part of that kind of writing community for years, and it’s lovely. (Thank you, Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.) It developed naturally, in a way, but we are also all PhD students in a faculty of supportive people.

Online, I’m part of a community of writers and readers, many of whom I’ve never met. We share resources, articles, reading suggestions, outrage, shameless plugs, despair, jokes, favourite videos, support and encouragement. It’s called Twitter and it’s as much a part of my own professional development as – in fact more than, because it’s daily –  my membership of any professional organisations.

So you see – even an introvert gets out sometimes.

Image of Eleanor's studio, Varuna

Eleanor Dark's studio, Varuna

*Varuna was the home of author Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land)  and Dr Eric Dark, who served with the Medical Corps on the Somme and was awarded a Military Cross following Passchendaele. The MC citation, dated 15th August 1917, reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his bearers. He displayed great gallantry and disregard of danger in moving about in the open under the heaviest shell fire, collecting and evacuating the wounded. He worked continuously for thirty-six hours, by his energy and determination contributing largely to the rapid clearing of the battlefield.”

Their house must have been an oasis in their busy lives: both were at the forefront of contemporary politics; Eleanor was a feminist and social justice advocate, Eric a socialist and committed member of the Labour Left during those turbulent decades around the Second World War. Varuna was donated “to literature” by their son Mick and is now a year-round haven for writers of all persuasions. It has a range of fellowships and programs: I was lucky enough to be awarded a Retreat Fellowship.