Layers of London

Honestly, we’re so lucky. Doing research now, with all the incredible collections at our disposal, and a huge range of digital tools, is both a whole lot easier and a whole lot faster than ever before. And it helps you imagine past worlds in different ways.

I’m finalising Vigil, the final book in The Firewatcher Chronicles at present, and one of its motifs is the many layers of history in London.

And look. Here’s a website called Layers of London, which helps us see through the centuries – perfect for schools and readers of the books (and me, of course).

It lays digital map over map, decade after decade or century, and adds local collection items. Take a look here: Layers of London.

And another very smart website traces all the major Blitz bomb sites in London. Handy (Although I have to admit I did make some of the bomb sites in Brimstone up – buildings that were destroyed in a raid were sometimes hit directly or sometimes destroyed by fires started by bombs landing elsewhere, so it’s  also a bit confusing trying to trace the history.)

Bombsight maps the official bomb site census for the Blitz months. Here’s the map for Christopher Larkham’s part of the world.

Fascinating stuff. Researchers (and readers of all ages) everywhere give thanks to inventive developers, libraries, museums, publishers and archives who create new ways for us to access and visualise information.

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.

Details, details

One of the hardest things to get right in historical fiction is the level of detail in your world-building. It’s true for most forms of writing – an abundance of detail can create immediacy, or a sense of accuracy, or make the world come alive for the reader. Or it can kill the book stone dead.

I’m always telling myself and my students to be more specific. And then I read a book or story that’s so full of specific detail in great slabs that I want to gouge my own eyes out with a teaspoon.

The other week I picked up a massive historical novel (set in Ireland) at the Little Library near the station, sat on the train and opened it randomly, said something like ‘Kill me now’ out loud, and dropped it off at the next Little Library ten minutes later.

No. No, no, no. We do love our research, but one of the biggest traps (we’ve all done it) is trying to include too many of our fascinating facts. Do not put everything in. Ever.  But that’s another story.

That said, I am spending much of my time at Falls Creek collecting details. I walk and I fossick around, and I take a million photos. Sometimes I am looking for a specific thing/place/artefact, and with others I’ll decide later whether or not it needs to appear on the page.

I have been a bit frantic for the past two days of this residency, and I think that’s partly because I didn’t know where in the Ovens Goldfields certain scenes in my bushranger stories would take place. I knew roughly. But I couldn’t place them. I couldn’t ground them. So yesterday, after a great deal of desk research, I took all my maps and re-visited Beechworth and Yackandandah, and decided on the very spot where my imaginary friends are now camping. So now I’m OK.

I have a few details I need to know (uncontaminated water supply, pasture for the horses?) . But they are the kind of detail nobody needs to know but me. They will probably never appear on the page. Or maybe – you never know – it will matter that the horses are hobbled well out of sight, or that the water is undrinkable. Dunno yet.

Here are just some of the little things I’ve been “collecting” – sometimes literally, sometimes on camera, sometimes just as a note. Sometimes I just wonder.

How did they build the early High Country huts?

Wire Fastening, Wallace Hut, Falls Creek

Fastening, Wallace Hut, Falls Creek

What’s it like to walk through clouds?

Snow gums, Falls Creek Village

Snow gums, Falls Creek Village

You know all that dirt they dug out and sluiced when looking for gold? What colour was it in each place? And where did it all go?

Tailings, Lake Sambell, Beechworth

Tailings, Lake Sambell, Beechworth

If I was living here with 3000 other people,  all engaged in digging up the river banks to look for gold, how would it feel? Can I see the mountains from down here, or just foothills?

Buckland River - diggings overgrown

Buckland River – diggings now overgrown

If I walk around the site of the Chinese camp, can I see any traces of the miners’ lives?

Fragments of Chinese crockery and (maybe) part of an old bucket.

Fragments of Chinese crockery and (maybe) part of an old bucket. Beechworth.

How secure, really, were those old timber slab police lock-ups?

Lock on the old lock-up, Bright

Old lock-up, Bright

What’s it like, crossing the High Plains when all the wildflowers are out? (And ooh, what’s all that purple stuff?)

Hovea montana, overlooking the Kiewa Valley

Hovea montana, from Falls Creek’s Aqueduct trail, looking back towards Ropers lookout.

Some details are essential to plot. Some help explain or develop character. Some details allow us to create atmosphere or ground the reader in a realist world. Some are embroidery.

It’s the balance between specificity and embellishment that’s the tricky part.

Lately I’ve been …

Researching

Things are getting serious. After years of researching the Blitz and the Great Fire of London, I have deadlines now for the three volumes of The Firewatcher Chronicles.

I was in Denmark and London over the last couple of weeks (initially for a conference), happily researching Vikings  and Anglo-Saxons (Book 2 in the trilogy) and then more Great Fire (Book 1) and Romans and Iceni (Book 3).

Anglo-Saxon helmet, Museum of London

After two weeks of sore feet, aching legs, bursting brain and wide eyes, I hope I now have filled enough knowledge gaps to keep the writing going.

But, as you know, I enjoy the research and it keeps my mind firing and filled with new ideas, as well as those telling details that we need to make the fiction come alive.

The dreaded Tower

I also managed to sort out a few remaining practical details for Grace, my work on the meeting between Grace O’Malley and Elizabeth 1. I spent several days in the British Library, and an inspiring day in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, which holds suffragette Vida Goldstein’s papers – for one of my other projects, Sisterhood. So many projects! But  research time in places such as London is rare and precious, and we have to make the most of it.

Mind you, I seem to have visited London every year for the past few years, but I’d never been to Denmark before and I loved every moment. Viking ships, great museums and libraries, beautiful cities, gorgeous countryside. Which brings me to…

Conferencing

The international symposium on Gender and Love was held this year at the most astonishing place – Sandbjerg Gods, an eighteenth century manor house once owned by Karen Blixen’s sister, Ellen Dahl, and donated by her to Aarhus University.

Manor house

Manor House, Sandbjerg Gods

It’s a glorious spot, nestled between fjord (complete with porpoises) and lake. Not only did I get to spend a few days listening to brainy people talk about fascinating things, I was also asked to read from Goddess on the first night, after dinner, in a parlour where the Dinesen sisters once read and talked.

Then last week, back in Melbourne, we held our ReMaking the Past symposium, something I’ve been working on for ages with my lovely colleagues at La Trobe.

Honoured

Also last week, I heard that 1917: Australia’s Great War is shortlisted for the Asher Award, for a book with an anti-war theme, written by a woman. The award is in honour of Helen Asher, author of Tilly’s Fortunes . It’s such a thrill, and I’m in esteemed company on the shortlist.  My thanks to the judges and to the Australian Society of Authors – and of course to Scholastic for all its support.

Writing

I’ve spent some time polishing the manuscript for the first volume in The Firewatcher Chronicles, and sent it off to Scholastic, who are already thinking about cover designs. No rest for the wicked.

I’ve finished the first draft of Grace, but it needs a fair bit more work, so I reckon it will be done by the end of the year.

Finished a couple of short stories – one for an anthology of own voices Oz YA.

And next I’m onto more in my series of bushranging amateur detective outlaws. And the second volume of  Firewatcher Chronicles.

And honestly, an academic conference paper can take months, sometimes, and other times just a week or so. I wish I knew which was which, before I started – in fact, before I volunteer to do them in the first place!

Reading

I must admit, I’ve been reading mostly research-related books lately, either for conference papers and academic articles (everything from *snore* The Well of Loneliness and My Love Must Wait to Five Go Off to Camp), books for The Firewatcher Chronicles from endless volumes on Boudica to Vera Brittain’s memoir of the Blitz, England’s Hour, or background for other projects on bushrangers and suffragettes and pirates.

Fiction that I’ve enjoyed lately includes:

  • Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files series
  • Rachel Leary’s Bridget Crack
  • Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress
  • Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns
  • Sulari Gentill’s Give the Devil His Due
  • Meg and Tom Keneally’s The Soldier’s Curse.

But I picked up the first book in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles , just to find a scene to quote in a paper, and accidentally got sucked straight back in. I’d forgotten. Or rather, the first time I read them, I was so drawn in by characters, place and plot that re-reading them now is like a different experience altogether. Such beautiful writing. Now I can’t stop. But what a gorgeous problem to have.

So between all of that, and finally getting to write a Viking book (surely destiny!), I feel both extremely busy and very lucky.

Viking boat reconstructions

Boats at the Roskilde Viking Museum, Denmark

The good old Harry Tate

A few people have asked me about the aircraft Alex and Charlie fly in 1917.

Here’s an RE8, nick-named the Harry Tate after a music hall star. This one is a plane from 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps –  the real unit to which my fictional characters belong.

3 Squadron RE8 on the Western Front

3 Squadron RE8 on the Western Front

The RE stands for Reconnaissance Experimental, and this was the eighth model in the line. It was pretty revolutionary, as the first British two-seater aircraft with the observer (or gunner – in 1917 that’s Charlie) in the rear cockpit, with a clear view of the sky. The observer defended the plane while the pilot (Alex) in front flew, navigated, took the aerial photographs, and if necessary used the Vickers machine-gun. The Vickers was synchronised to avoid hitting the propeller blades. (That might sound obvious, but the technology didn’t exist at the start of the war.) The RE8 had a 150horsepower engine and a maximum speed of 102 miles per hour. It could stay in the air for over four hours  – significantly longer than many other planes of the time.

You might think that taking a few snapshots would be easy. Here’s the kind of camera they used.

Aerial camera operated by the pilot.

Aerial camera operated by the pilot.

And here’s what the trenches looked like from the air. (I’ll write more about that soon.)

Deep, well-dug German front line trenches and support system

Deep, well-dug German front line trenches and support system

Each squadron had a ground crew of skilled mechanics, armourers (like Len in 1917), riggers and other craftsmen to keep the planes flying. They worked around the clock under pretty harsh conditions – while the airfields were set back from the trenches, they were still shelled and bombed and freezing in winter.

Mechanics from 3 Squadron AFC on the Western Front

Mechanics from 3 Squadron AFC on the Western Front

And of course, no plane was safe flying about over the Lines. Both sides had hunting packs of swift “scouts” or fighter planes, whose job it was to knock the other side’s aircraft out of the sky. Books written by pilots after the war (such as Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates or Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis) try to capture the madness that was the aerial dogfight.

A pilot, in the second between his own engagements, might see a Hun diving vertically, an SE5 on his tail, on the tail of the SE5 another Hun, and above him again another British scout. These four, plunging headlong at two hundred miles an hour, guns crackling, tracers streaming, suddenly break up. The lowest Hun plunges flaming to his death, if death has not taken him already. His victor seems to stagger, suddenly pulls out in a great leap, as a trout leaps at the end of a line, and then, turning over on his belly, swoops and spins in a dizzy falling spiral with the earth to end it. The third German zooms veering, and the last of that meteoric quartet follows bursting … But such a glimpse, last perhaps ten seconds, is broken by the sharp rattle of another attack.

– Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising ( Folio Society edition, London, 1998, p122)

dogfight

Casualty rates, in training and in combat, were high.

This is Lieutenant Leslie Sell, from Albert Park, Melbourne, beside an RE8. A 25 year old photographer prior to enlisting on 23 October 1916 as Private Sell,  but quickly became an Air Mechanic 2nd Class. He left  Melbourne with 4 Squadron on 17 January 1917 aboard RMS Omrah. After arriving in England, he undertook pilot training and on 20 December 1917 he was commissioned as a Flying Officer (Second Lieutenant). In early 1918 he joined 3 Squadron AFC in France.

Lt Sell was shot down on 25 March 1918 and died later that day of his wounds. He is buried in the Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery, France. (Source: ADF Gallery and Australian War Memorial)

Lt Leslie Snell. Killed March 1918.

Lt Leslie Sell. Killed March 1918.

 

 

Feature image: RE8 at Duxford Air Show, by John5199 (Creative Commons)

On the road

I’m writing this from Dublin, where I’ve been hunting around for traces of the medieval city and spent hours in the glorious reading room of the National Library.

Today I head west, to County Mayo, back on the trail of the Irish pirate queen, Granuaile – Grace O’Malley, for my current project: Grace, on her famous meeting with Elizabeth I.

But first, I have other work to do, reading the proof pages of my next book, 1917. It’s for young readers and it’ll be out in February.

Here’s a brief outline of the book. And just look at this dramatic cover!

Book cover 1917

Westward ho!

I’m heading off to the west of Ireland soon, for another round of research for Grace, my novel about the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille) and her meeting with Queen Elizabeth 1.

Woodcut of Grace and ELizabeth meeting

Two queens meet: Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793

It’ll be winter in Ireland then (the change of season is November 1 – early winter!) but that will be an adventure in itself. Grace ruled the waves around Clew Bay and the coast of County Mayo – now part of the wonderful Wild Atlantic Way. Last time I was there, it was uncharacteristically sunny and calm. I look forward to a little wildness.

Stay tuned for lots of photos of me standing damply beside castle walls.

Map of Mayo
And in other marvellous news, I’ve been awarded a Fellowship to spend some blissful writing time, working on Grace, at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, next year.

Feeling very grateful.

The ‘R’ word

She’s not the first to say it, but she says it well: an interesting take on romance fiction as a feminist genre, from Trisha Brown:

Romance is one of the most feminist sectors you can find in all of art and entertainment. That statement defies all of the stereotypes, but it’s true.

You can read the whole article here.

 

Lately I’ve been…

Walking. And thinking about walking. And reading about walking.

Writing about walking seems to be a major preoccupation nowadays, as it has been at different times in the past.  Interestingly, a lot of the current writing about walking is also about the literature of walking – the mapping of places and movement with words.

Of course, writing about walking is also writing about place and particularly landscape, and is a form of memoir, and so it is often about the intersections of self and landscape (or cityscape) and movement and memory.

I’ve been thinking about all this as part of my eternal Sublime project on travel, pilgrimage and place. But it’s all still very misty in my mind. You know that feeling when there are outlines just visible in the distance and you’re not quite sure how to draw them together? Just me?

Oh well.

Luckily, it also some of the best writing around at the moment.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, whose A Field Guide to Getting Lost is also brilliant. A blend of memoir, reflection, politics, literary studies and the history of walking for recreation and well-being – that is, walking by choice rather than as the only means of transport.

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.

– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

 

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – beautiful, lyrical and thoughtful writing on landscape, language and the paths we create.

The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins, which I bought one day walking around London and thinking about the English landscape in particular, and the culture of walking in the countryside. (After I’d just walked along Hadrian’s Wall.)

Right now, I’m reading Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden, which is about exploring the sacred nature of places, mostly on foot and through story.

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

– Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways

Mist over Lake Windermere: where the Wordsworths walked.

Mist over Lake Windermere: where the Wordsworths walked.  

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.