History and fiction

Here’s the text of a speech I gave at a History Council of Victoria seminar on History and Fiction, 28 August 2018.

Other speakers were Linda Weste and Ali Alizadeh, and the panel was chaired by Kathleen Neal.

Here’s (roughly) what I said.

What is historical fiction? You may have an idea in your head – a shelf of maritime novels by Patrick O’Brien, or blockbusters glimpsed in airport bookshops – all armour and abs and authors names in gold lettering. In truth, it’s a broad church. The definition of the Historical Novel Society is simply that it is fiction set more than 50 years ago, or beyond the personal experience of the author. It includes incredibly popular genres such as historical crime and romance, sub-genres such as military or adventure tales, cosy mysteries and thrillers, literary or experimental fiction set in the past, entire industries of Regency and Tudor novels, or biographical novels, especially about neglected figures. It includes War and Peace and Wolf Hall and The Book Thief. And as you see this evening, we three alone span thousands of years in terms of era and setting.

We can make a few generalisations across genres and forms, across diverse readerships, and across international boundaries. Every novelist I know is obsessed with research and takes the accuracy of historical detail extremely seriously, just as every historian I know sees their writing as a creative process, and takes the task of story-telling extremely seriously. We have much to learn from each other, and much in common – more than you might think, given some of the fraught debates of the past.

How do we balance documented historical data with informed speculation? And how do we understand and convey the world view of people from the past?

These questions become even more critical when writing about people who really lived, as they do for a historian writing a biography of an individual.

Here are a few questions and approaches involved in two of my projects based on the lives of real historical figures but imagined in fiction. The first, Goddess, published a few years ago now, was an interpretation of the life of Julie d’Aubigny, or Mademoiselle de Maupin, a seventeenth-century French swordswoman and opera singer.

Her story has been told before, on the page and on screen, usually as a series of extraordinary events. But her life is largely undocumented. I undertook years of original research into her life and career, for example, compiling the first comprehensive list of her opera performances, as any biographer would do. I wanted to create a credible narrative of her life, but I also had to decide how to treat those incredible episodes for which she is most famous. My decision as a novelist, which is probably not a decision a historian could make, was to include the wild stories if they served the narrative, unless I could prove them demonstrably wrong. I also knew that leaving them out would’ve meant the novel would disappoint many people.

Because famous or infamous people already loom larger than life in the mind of the reader. One of the most dramatic episodes in La Maupin’s early life was when she fell in love with another young woman whose family then threw her into a convent to get her away from Julie’s influence. Julie followed, and together they burned down the convent and eloped. It’s this kind of adventure that has seen her dubbed bad ass of the month online and made her into a Thelma and Louise-style feminist icon.

But I wanted to dig into that.

I crawled through the early accounts, trying to pin down details and find proof of the whole affair. But it’s the sort of thing that no convent is going to crow about, and the early biographers are coy. I found the most likely candidate for the convent in Avignon, but its current owner has no record of the incident.

Perhaps it was another convent, in another town.

Image of front cover of GoddessPerhaps it never happened. But it’s not worth writing the story of the legend of La Maupin without that episode. She was fifteen and on the run, having committed what even she would have acknowledged as a sin, sentenced to burn at the stake. The two girls had no money, no friends, nowhere to go. The girl was found and sent to another convent, where she died. Julie became a star. Imagine how that was for her.

It must surely, if true, have made her into the adult woman she became, strutting through Paris in men’s clothes, fighting three duels on one night, at once brave enough to be openly bisexual and challenge noblemen to duels, and fragile enough to attempt suicide. So in my imagined life of La Maupin, it became one of the emotional events that defined her as a character.

A novelist looks for the stories that help explain the people, and keep the plot humming along, but has to decide whether the action is likely – truth may be stranger than fiction, but is it credible?

More recently, writing Grace, a novel about the lives of Queen Elizabeth I and the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, I’ve faced similar questions, but from different angles. Again, two enigmatic people – why do I do it to myself? And although their stories are better documented, their inner lives remain elusive.

The tale I’m telling – and I’ve just finished redrafting it – is of the meeting of Grace and Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in 1593. They were older when they met, both shrewd politicians and warriors in different ways. They were, in theory, lifelong enemies. Grace had led the rebellion against Elizabeth’s troops in the west of Ireland, for decades.

They were also, possibly, more alike than anyone either of them had ever met. They surely both experienced the shock of meeting a woman as assured, as cunning, as dangerous, as themselves.

Nobody knows what they said to each other. And in that absence, lies my fiction.

The Irish writer Emma Donoghue has said that ‘stories are a different kind of true.’[i] So how do we get to some truth of these two women’s stories? Can we? Whose truth is it? Theirs? Mine? Yours? The many historians who’ve written their own versions?

For me, and my readers, fiction has to be as historically accurate as possible. I’m not one of those authors who easily shifts the past around to make it fit the story I want to tell.

That means I try to get everything right – all the biographical and historical data – as well as all those moments that I can and must imagine.

I have the liberty to ask: how might Grace have felt, out on the open sea, or in a prison cell facing execution, or going to the palace to meet her enemy? There’s nothing in the archives to tell me that.

In many ways, Elizabeth is just as difficult to capture on the page. Her life was more regimented and more documented, and as she once said, ‘A thousand eyes see all I do.’ [ii]

But Elizabeth is just a little too iconic.

actresses as Elizabeth

 

We think we know her, but we don’t. I chose to focus on aspects of Elizabeth perhaps not as well known to readers of fiction. She was, for example, one of the foremost translators of her time, and was a prolific poet, writing every day. She often wrote hymns or sermons and then ordered that they be printed and distributed to every church in the kingdom. As you do.

So I started thinking about all the things these women had in common. In both their lives, and often around the same age, there were parallel stories to tell, and as they grew older those stories tangled together.

After years of war between them, somehow they reached agreement, perhaps even a degree of mutual respect. How? That’s the question the novel, Grace, explores. It is told in two voices, alternating between the points of view of these two remarkable leaders.

Which brings me to the critical creative decision novelists make – voice. How do we render characters’ speech, point of view, and narrative voice? And in this, lies one of the central questions about the nature of historical fiction.

You’ll often hear readers and writers talking about whether or not historical fiction, and the voices that convey it, are authentic. As if ‘authenticity’ is the holy grail of historical fiction, and distinguishes it from other forms of fiction and from nonfiction history writing. As if ‘authenticity’ can be used interchangeably with ‘accuracy’. As if authenticity is required to somehow compensate for the fact that what we’re reading is fiction, not history, or even that it offers a more truthful truth.

Sorry. There is no such thing as authenticity in historical fiction. There is historical accuracy, or not. But particularly when it comes to voice, the very idea is, as Henry James put it, ‘humbug.’[iii]

Authenticity, by definition, can’t be created.

‘Authenticity’ of voice, in particular, simply doesn’t and cannot exist in fiction set in the distant past. If I really wrote Grace O’Malley’s words as she’d have spoken them, you’d never understand it. What we aim for is something different altogether.

In 1820, introducing Ivanhoe, Walter Scott wrote: ‘It is necessary, for exciting interest of any kind, that the subject should be, … translated into the manners as well as the language of the age we live in.’

I suggest that what some writers now mean by authenticity, and what readers have been led to expect, is exactly what Scott outlined nearly two hundred years ago. It is not authenticity, but an accepted form of the historical novel. This is where history and fiction truly diverge.

The expectation of historical fiction is not really that it will be authentic, but instead that it will feel familiar to us from our reading of the genre – and often that familiarity actually comes from reading Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson and their descendants.

How many readers (or movie-goers) now believe that an ‘authentic’ Caribbean pirate voice is the one dreamed up centuries later and half a world away by the young Scotsman who wrote Treasure Island?

Image result for treasure island book cover

Authenticity in historical fiction is, in itself, a fiction, and at worst its own dialect set in the aspic jelly of the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century Georgette Heyer redefined the Regency, while Rosemary Sutcliff created speech patterns that appeared to suit early Britons but were essentially modern, and Geoffrey Trease refined the model of a voice almost invisible to young readers like me, but with no glaring anachronisms. You will not hear any of his medieval knights say, ‘OK.’

Trease warned against the ‘costume novel’, in which all the tiny details of food, footwear and forsoothery are right but the psychology and vocabulary are all wrong. It’s the world view that matters, not ye olde worlde language – and here is one of our great challenges: creating characters whose emotional and intellectual frameworks seem to come from the past as a ‘foreign country’, but which at the same time can be understood by a modern reader – for example, in characters’ attitudes to religion or colonialism.

Historical fiction that is unaware of this process runs the risk of being mistaken about both past and present, and so less valuable as both history and fiction – perhaps even dangerous.

So – how do we work with that knowledge? What I did in Goddess was to knowingly perform a version of La Maupin, on the page, in a constructed voice that is overtly modern and consciously anti-authentic – while at the same time avoiding anachronism in the worldview, recognising that a seventeenth century woman could have no sense of what we might now call identity.

Or we can attempt the ventriloquism of A S Byatt in Possession (1990), Sarah Waters in The Night Watch (2006), or Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1983), references ancient and medieval texts and philosophies related by transparently modern voices – all in the guise of a crime thriller.

These authors’ metafictional approaches rest on a formidable body of historical research and technical story-telling ability.

They play with the irony that underpins historical fiction: that writers try to construct a world that will be accepted as ‘real’ by the reader, even if they know better than anyone else that it can’t possibly be so.

We know we’re reading, and we bring to that experience everything we’ve read before – but then we forget we’re reading. We know we’re reading about an imagined past, and we hold that in our minds at the same time as an awareness of our own modernity.

‘The paradox at the heart of fiction, the engine that drives it,’ writes Richard Lea, ‘is the tension between the knowledge that what you’re reading is all made up and the overwhelming feeling that it’s all true.’ [iv]

We acknowledge that historical fiction also has a role in telling history; as one of the ways in which people experience and understand history, and we often say that we write about the past to understand both past and present.

But perhaps what we really do when we write historical fiction is to imagine the past in the context of the present, and the voices with which we speak are our own.

 

 

 

[i] Donoghue, Emma, 2010, Room, HarperCollins, Toronto.

[ii] Borman, Tracey,  2017, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Hodder Staughton, London.

[iii] In 1901, James wrote: ‘You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like ― the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought […] You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, ― or rather fifty ― whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force ― & even then it’s all humbug.’ James, Henry 1974, Henry James: Letters vol. 4, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[iv] Lea, Richard, 2012, ‘The truth about memory and the novel’, Guardian book blog, 14 June 2012.

Coming up

Not long until Brimstone, the first book in my new Firewatcher Chronicles series, is in the bookshops.

1 September 2018, to be precise.

So you can get your hands on it soon.

In the meantime, here are a few events I have on my dance card.

Book cover And ThenThe new And Then… adventure story anthologies will be launched (there are two hugevolumes) on 5 August at the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne. A whole lot of the authors will be there, including Kerry Greenwood, Sulari Gentill, Alison Goodman and me.

(This is the anthology – Volume 2 – which includes my first ever ‘Boots and the Bushranger’ story).

 

Also in August is Bendigo Writers Festival, a terrific festival – always a great line-up, thoughtful programming, and a wonderful host city.  It’s schools program, Text Marks the Spot, is equally fab. I’ll be there (10-12 August), talking about podcasting, interviewing some lovely authors, and launching Rachel Nightingale’s new novel, Columbine’s Tale.

On 28 August, I’ll be speaking alongside Linda Weste and Ali Alizadeh on History and Fiction, as part of the History Council of Victoria’s ‘Making Public Histories’ seminar series.

Phew. That’ll keep me out of mischief for a couple of weeks, anyway.

I’ll update you soon on events to celebrate the release of Brimstone.

Ciao.

PS Did I mention I’ve just been on holiday in Berlin and Prague? Oh my. So many story ideas. So much fascinating history.

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?

 

Coming up

What’s happening?

It’s Women’s History Month.

I’ll be having a chat about writing about women of the past at the Women’s History day at Eltham Library on March 3.


Then on 19 March, I’ll be reading a bit from the draft of Grace, on the lives of Irish pirate Grace O’Malley and Elizabeth 1, at the Wheeler Centre.

Details here.

Hope to see you out celebrating women’s history month. Or if you’d rather, stay inside and read some instead.

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 …

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