The writing life: On retreat

Right now I’m in Canberra, writing my little fingers to the bone, on a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust retreat fellowship. More on that soon, although not much happens. I just sit in a room and write. There are crimson rosellas picking at the grass outside my window, and every so often a roo bounces past on its way somewhere very important.

Unlike some Australians, who get a bit snarky about it, I’ve always loved our national capital: the architecture, the lake, the national arts institutions, and the surrounding country.

It’s Ngunnawal/Ngunawal, Ngambri and Ngarigu country around here and I acknowledge and celebrate the traditional custodians of this place.

sunset over canberra

Lately I’ve been…

A bit frantic.

Remind me to never again move house on book deadline and just before teaching starts.

But that’s over now. I have settled into a new home, where I’ve made the strategic decision to place my desk under a window in the living room, instead of tucked away in a tiny room at the back of the house. After all, I spend more time at the desk than many other places, so I may as well be  right here, looking out on the garden.

Also, it’s close to the kitchen. (Though that may not be a good thing. Snacking control is not a strength.)

In the meantime, I’ve been:

Writing 

I’ve drafted (very roughly) Phoenix, the second book in the Firewatcher Chronicles. It needs lots more redrafting over the next couple of months, but it’s such fun. There are Vikings and Saxons and London Blitz bombs and archaeologists and all sorts of drama.

I’ve also been writing a number of book chapters and conference papers and essays, mostly for academic conferences and publishers. I’ll let you know when they come out.

Editing

Brimstone, book one of the Firewatcher Chronicles, is at the printers! It comes out on 1 September. And for mysterious production reasons, it was all go for a while there. I got notes back from the editor, found a few errors myself, sent it all back, and then the next week, miraculously, typeset pages appeared for a last proof-read. They don’t muck about, those fine folk at Scholastic.

And just look at the beautiful cover for it.

Brimstone front cover

I’m thrilled with the artwork by Sebastian Ciaffaglione, and the series logo by Chad Mitchell.  Can’t wait for you to get your hands on this book.

Also due out the very same day is a new YA anthology, Meet Me at the Intersection, edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina. It’s published by Fremantle Press – my story is called ‘Trouble’, and it’s set in Melbourne in the 1950s. I’m honoured to be part of this collection of #ownvoices stories and believe it will be a very important moment in young adult fiction in this country.

Book cover: Meet me at the Intersection

So that’s been in editing and proofreading mode too, over the last few weeks.

Next up, I’m redrafting Grace and my goldrush bushranger stories. I look forward to being in their company again.

I’ve booked myself a stint at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in June, to lock myself away and redraft as much as I can get through.

Podcasting

Over on my podcast, Unladylike, Adele and I were delighted to interview three crime queens, and to release my discussion on academic writing recorded last year in Denmark. New episodes are on the way in the next week or so.

Reading

I admit, my reading has been minimal over this busy time, but I’ve read and loved, among other things:

  • The Endsister by Penni Russon
  • White Night by Ellie Marney
  • The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson
  • On Coming Home by Paula Morris
  • Manda Scott’s Boudica series
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series
  • And Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s grand finale to the Illuminae series, Obsidio.

Right now I’m reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Dr Anita Heiss.

Research

Research for the Firewatcher Chronicles continues – Romans, Celts, Vikings, Saxons, Second World War – there are just so many areas to cover, and it’s all a little bit too fascinating.

I’m also deep into my Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria,  researching my great-grandmother and key figures in the Australian suffrage and peace movements of the early twentieth century.

I’ve realised that project, Sisterhood, is bigger and more complex than I imagined, so I expect to spend a lot more of my life on it in years to come. It will eventually be a kind of group memoir of an extraordinary generation of early feminists and pacifists, along with a memoir of my life in student and feminist politics in the 1980s. So it’s big and complicated and hard and all so interesting. To me, anyway.

Suffragette and anti-conscription campaigner Vida Goldstein (Photo: State Library of Victoria)

So you see, I have had one or two things on the go.

And one day soon, you’ll be able to read them. Funny, isn’t it? We lock ourselves away for months or years to write these things, and then burst out of solitude, blinking against the light, to release them into the world.

And then we vanish again.

Writers, huh?

 

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.

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.

Lately I’ve been…

Planning

I’ve kicked off a new writing project: Grace, a novel based on the intersecting lives of the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley and her nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I.

Portrait of Elizabeth 1

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

I’ll get stuck into the first draft next week, when I go to Varuna, The Writers’ House, for a blissful week of writing retreat.

Reading

Besides all the references of Irish and Elizabethan history texts I’ve been scouring, I’ve read:

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick’s memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her mother.

Sisters on the Somme, by Penny Starns, an account of the lives of nurses on the Western Front, because I still haven’t quite (if ever) finished researching and thinking about my work in eternal progress, War Songs.

Charlotte Wood’s brilliant The Natural Way of Things, which is winning all the literary prizes this year, and deserves them.

Lucy Treloar’s exquisite historical novel Salt Creek.

And of course Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Although I’m a bit stuck due to loathing of one of the male characters and it’s such as realistic portrait I just don’t want to go near him. Excruciating. But so clever.

For weeks I was so tired I could only re-read Harry Potter. But it’s winter here, and sometimes you just have to curl up with something familiar and entertaining.

Podcasting

One reason I’ve been so busy is that I’ve been working on a new podcast on women and writing, Unladylike. It’s a collaboration with Adele Walsh and has just launched at the weekend.

We plan and program, read, record, edit – and do all sorts of mysterious technical things we’ve had to learn on the way.

Huge fun, but also demanding. We have five episodes out now, and another on the way any day now. If you’re interested in writing and reading, check it out.

So now I’m off on a writing retreat, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Misty mornings

It’s the last morning of my writing residency at Bundanon. I’m sitting with my coffee, looking down towards the billabong. Mist settles softly in the gully.

It’s a magic place, and it’s been a very productive time for me here.

I admit I was a bit frenzied, scribbling away for long hours. But it’s rare to get that opportunity – for me, anyway. I’m one of the many writers (the majority) who also have jobs and write in any cracks in time we can create.

I’ve written the first draft of 1917 – let’s call it draft zero, because it’s pretty ratty in places and needs many more drafts before it’s approaching readable. But it’s down on paper – well, in Scrivener – and out of my head and I know what happens to everyone in the end and now I can’t even look at it. I’ll print it out in a week or two, read it in full, and then start work on it again.

Then I did some work on a short story about a bushranger, for an anthology of adventure tales.  And at some point I sat on the river bank and wrote a little piece about fishing for another anthology.

Image of river

Shoalhaven River below Bundanon Homestead

Yesterday I even had a day off, checking out the Bundanon homestead with its miraculous collection of generations of Boyd family artworks, and then spent hours with dear friends and dogs at Culburra beach.

Image of homestead and trees

Bundanon Homestead – built 1866 and later home of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd

So next, it’s back to Canberra overnight, a few hours’ research at the National Library (and hopefully a glimpse of the Rothschild manuscript) and the long drive back to Melbourne and reality.

I’m sorry to leave, sorry to stop writing all day and night, sorry to have to wear clothes that aren’t topped by a dressing-gown, and most of all sorry to leave this place.

I’ll be back.

Image of trees and palms

Cedar walk, Bundanon

What I’m doing and how I’m doing it

Right now, I’m in the middle of a drafting blitz, on a residency at beautiful Bundanon.

Writing residencies like this are intense,  with long hours at the desk every day. But for someone like me, with jobs and other commitments, it’s rare to find time when I can just concentrate on one thing. All day, every day.

Except there are some distractions.

Image of paddock and kangaroos

The view from my desk at Bundanon

I’m working on the first draft of 1917, a novel for readers ten years and over, and part of the Australia’s Great War series for Scholastic. One comes out each year – Sophie Masson’s 1914 and Sally Murphy’s 1915 are out already and have had terrific reviews (no pressure). Each book in the series focuses on a different aspect of the First World War from a different point of view. 1914 sees the start of the war through the eyes of a young man who becomes a war correspondent, while in 1915 a teacher from Western Australia experiences Gallipoli.

I’m trying to do two things in writing about 1917, often called ‘the hardest year’:  canvass the issues on the Home Front, with the General Strike and the second conscription referendum; and try to convey the horror of the war in the air over the Western Front and Passchandaele … for ten year-olds.  Luckily I get to see how Sophie and Sally have already dealt with issues like death and grief as I come up against them in my book – and I like grappling with these ethical and tonal issues for that age group, as I had to do with the Swashbuckler series. It’s hard, but compelling, inquiry: does your hero/heroine actually kill anyone, and if so, what do they feel about it later? How much grief, how much shell-shock can and should you convey?  How do you support a young reader through it, and write about war without glorifying it and without preachifying?

I was talking about this the other evening with local legend Ralph, who works on bush regeneration here at Bundanon.  “How do you give them hope?” he asked. And that is, indeed, the question. (I’d written myself into a hopeless hole that day, and that was just what I needed to hear.) There are no right answers. I have to work my way to the words that are right for the characters and the real people who lived through it and the readers.

Anyway, this is what I do. I hit the desk by about 8am and I don’t leave it until I go to bed. I take breaks, of course (but probably not enough) and sometimes force myself outside for a walk. A fair bit of chocolate is consumed. It’s a privilege to be here and a luxury to have uninterrupted writing time, so I don’t want to waste a minute.

I just draft, trying not to edit as I go, to make the most of the momentum – this is just the first step in the process. Half of it might be crap, half of it may end up in the bin – that’s OK, we’ll sort that out later. On the way, I’m working out what happens and who feels what when and where everyone is on their path through the story.

Image of studio at Bundanon

Freedman studio at Bundanon

I have a huge studio here, so there’s a writing desk and a research desk, which makes life much easier. Maps of Flanders are spread out, with the airfields marked on them, so I can see where everyone was. I drove here, so I could bring stacks of books, as well as a couple of things to remind me of the people who were there.

Princess Mary Christmas tin, 1914

Princess Mary Christmas tin, issued to all Empire troops in 1914

I did all my general research before I got here, including visits to airfields and museums in England and Flanders last year, and came through Canberra to spend some time (not enough!) at the War Memorial. Now, I just have to look up certain things from time to time, and know where to find them. Usually, I spend the first hour or two of each day looking stuff up, or reading first-hand accounts of events or experiences, before I start writing.

I didn’t (stupidly) bring my books about the conscription debate – in which my great-grandmother was deeply involved – so I have to sketch those sections out and fill them in later. I do look things up in digitised newspapers via Trove from time to time, but don’t want to tarry too long – just need to write it down, get it out of the brain.

Image of desk with books and maps

On the wall are twelve bits of paper with scribbles on them, each one a timeline – the same months, but from different points of view: battles, squadron movements, new model plane releases, political events in Australia and Russia, major turning points in the war. Then timelines for the two main characters (brother and sister) and the people around them, lined up against the events or battles in which they take part. I scribble these as I go along. Usually, this would be in a spreadsheet, but there’s just so much white wall!

Part of the 1917 timeline

Part of the 1917 timeline

There’s also a hero’s journey map for each of them, which take shape as the writing progresses. One journey is into the quagmire of Flanders, one into the hope and excitement of the thriving women’s movement of the war years.

At least, that’s how it looks today.

image of kangaroo

Metamorphoses

Am loving reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here at Varuna.

I have been meaning to read it for ages because I never have, and it’s the text on which the French Baroque composers based many of the operas in which La Maupin performed. Also because, hidden in among the exploits of Jason and Perseus is the story of Iphis, who was raised as a boy: a story La Maupin would have known well.

I don’t get much reading time, but it’s glorious, and one of those splendid, robust 20th-century translations (Rolfe Humphries, Indiana University Press, 1955).  I imagine Eleanor Dark reading this, while the wind rages around the house, as Juno (or whoever is in charge of the weather in Katoomba) decides to flood the earth:

… he turned loose

The South-wind, and the South-wind came out streaming

With dripping wings, and pitch-black darkness veiling

His terrible countenance. His beard is heavy

With rain-cloud, and his hoary locks a torrent,

Mists are his chaplet, and his wings and garments

Run with rain. His broad hands squeeze together

Low-hanging clouds, and crash and rumble follow

Before the cloudburst, and the rainbow, Iris,

Draws water from the teeming earth, and feeds it

Into the clouds again.