There’s too much to this story – too much to remember, too much to explain. I will write it down, and I will write it down in English. There must be a record. So much depends, as I have discovered, on things that are written down on paper.

Paula Morris, Rangatira a novel on the life of Paratene Te Manu.

 

On the road

A couple of days ago I was back at Hampton Court Palace, the last of many castles and palaces I’ve visited in the last few weeks, on the interwoven trails of Queen Elizabeth 1 and the Irish pirate and rebel, Grace O’Malley.

I’ll post more photos in a bit, but right now my main thought is that the politics of both the Tudor court and early modern Ireland, and the moments when the two intersect, are so complex that this book is going to take a lot longer to write than I imagined.

It’s daunting. But it’s OK.

In other news, 1917 goes to press this week – that freaky moment where you have to accept you can’t change a thing.

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.

JK Rowling on writing

You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process.

And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.

JK Rowling

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.

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

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.

 

Great novels to read this month

In honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, here are just a few of my favourite novels by and about women, all illuminating the lives of women in the past and today.

 

book cover angela carter

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
A thrilling trapeze act of character, voice and magic.

 

Beloved, Toni Morrison
Unflinching. Utterly captivating. A writing masterclass in one small but enormous book.

 

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
One of the great postmodern historical novels, The Passion is a lesson in using voice to connect past and present, and in combining heartbreak with restraint.

 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
I’ve said this before, I know: this is virtuosic ventriloquism and storytelling, with a twist that will have you throwing the book across the room and then scrambling to pick it up again to find out what happens next.

 

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker
It never gets old. Never.

 

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Chilling. Brilliant.

 

Possession, A. S. Byatt
Another neo-Victorian ventriloquist’s performance, capturing all the melodrama of a Dickens novel.

 

Orlando, Virginia Woolf
I wish there was another word for seminal. How about: the book that gave birth to us all? (Here’s Tilda Swinton’s take on it.)

 

film adaptation of orlando

Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth (and two excellent hounds) in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando.

 

And some more recent titles:
Skin, Ilke Tampke
Beautifully written and reimagined world of early Britain during the confrontation with Rome.

 

Theodora, Stella Duffy
The appropriately riotous tale of the acrobat who became Empress of half the known world.

 

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
It’s brutal and stunning and unforgettable.

 

Hild, Nicola Griffith
Another miraculous reimagining of Britain – this time in the early decades of the Christian missionaries and saints.

 

book cover for Hild

 

I could go on and on but I won’t. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

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.