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.  

Coming up: workshops with Writers Victoria

Happy new year! How did that happen? It seems like only yesterday it was 1987.  Then there were a few years after that which are a bit of a blur. And now suddenly it’s 2016. ALLEGEDLY.

It’s definitely summer here in Melbourne, anyway, and I’m just back from a week or so at the beach, reading Sherlock Holmes stories and getting sunburned. It’s an annual tradition.

Sherlock Holmes story

So. Where were we? Ah yes.

I’m teaching a couple of new workshops for the good people at Writers Victoria this coming term.

First up, we’ll be unravelling the mysteries of Scrivener in an all-day class on 10 April. If you haven’t heard of it, Scrivener is software created especially for writers. I love it, and I’ll show you how to make the most of it too.

Then there’s a webinar on Online Marketing on 10 May at 6pm.  We’ll talk about how to engage with readers online and create a public persona that supports writing practice but doesn’t (we hope!) sound like hard-sell advertising.

If you’ve never been part of a webinar before, it’s like a live web-based video workshop in which everyone can participate.

You can find details of both workshops here.

Busy bee

It’s spring here in Melbourne. Sunday. I ought to be gardening or, given that I’m a Melburnian, out to brunch, but instead I’m crazy busy.

All good though.

Yesterday I went to a briefing about the Dinosaur Dreaming project at Melbourne Museum. I’ve volunteered to go on a dig along the “Dinosaur coast” in February. Next weekend, they teach us to break rocks. You have to take your own chisel and magnifying lens thingummy. I can’t tell you how thrilling that is.

Then I spent the afternoon on a panel at the Professional Historians Association’s social media masterclass, full of excited historians embracing Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest and Periscope.

The ebook I co-edited earlier this year has just come out: academic papers from the fourth global Gender and Love conference in Oxford. It’s called Past and Present: Perspectives on gender and love. 

Earlier in the week I gave a paper to colleagues in my department at La Trobe University – my initial thoughts on something which just keeps getting bigger and more complex, about the idea of the “strong female character” in young adult fiction, where it comes from and what impact it has.  See? There’s another book project right there. As if I haven’t got enough to do. But it’s so fascinating. Early days. I don’t even really know what questions I’m investigating yet.

And I’m loving the idea that Goddess is now out in the US and Julie is becoming famous all over again, in places she couldn’t even imagine.

She deserves it.

I’ve had a few questions from readers coming through, so I’ve just published some FAQs about the book and Julie. If you think of any more, drop me a comment below.

Lately I’ve been…

Travelling.

I was in the UK for a couple of conferences in Oxford, and then headed north through the ancient Roman and Viking site of York, the pilgrimage destination of Durham (breathtakingly beautiful), Newcastle (more Romans – this time in museums), and finally out along Hadrian’s Wall.

Durham Cathedral

Cloister at Durham Cathedral

So in a couple of weeks, I went from discussing life writing and celebrity with historians and writers, and then gender and love with academics from many fields, to researching three writing projects at once. And I walked a long way.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, near the village of Once Brewed

I also flew a long way, which not only gives a busy person plenty of time to catch up on movies and TV shows I’ve missed (Poldark! Agents of SHIELD!), but also endless hours to read.

Sadly, what you read at 3am somewhere over Albania after being awake for twenty hours doesn’t tend to stick in the brain for long, so I stuck to re-reading favourites on my Kobo.

But here’s what I’ve been reading or rereading since:

  • The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins. Like taking a long walk with a thoughtful friend who points out details you’d otherwise miss.
  • The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters’ latest, and yet another novel perfectly evocative of time and place.
  • The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume, which I decided to re-read while I also delve into Lucy Sussex’s book about Hume and his book, Blockbuster.
  • Cloudwish by one of Australia’s finest writers of young adult fiction, Fiona Wood – yet another inspiring visit to her fictional contemporary world.

Now I’m onto Oxford, by one of my writing heroes, Jan Morris, which is just as wonderful as I expected, and keeps me laughing aloud at the antics of students and dons over hundreds of years and in delight at its perfect phrases and word choice.

Book cover of Oxford

Has she ever written a bad book? Or essay? Or travel story? I don’t think so. Every one is a treasure.

 

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.