Writing the war

Among the many decisions we make when writing for young readers are creative and ethical decisions about violence and grief.

I’ve always been very conscious of how to treat scenes like swordfights or battles in fiction for young readers. It’s not that I shy away from the reality of violence – quite the opposite. I feel like I have a responsibility to think about how to present it honestly, and not just as a big, mindless adventure (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different type of book).

So say a kid had their first swordfight. Say they were just a little bit older than the reader – twelve or thirteen, maybe, facing off against a grown man. It’s all very exciting, and I make sure it’s an action scene with plenty of – ahem – punch. But then I wonder, if that was you, and you’d just actually stabbed someone, wounded someone, drawn blood for the first time in your life, how would you feel? Say you’d been chased by a baddie all over the Mediterranean, and finally came up against him in a duel on the clifftops and he ended up dead. How would you feel? Even if you were a pirate?

I made certain decisions about how to present fighting and battles in the Swashbuckler series, then how to present torture and loss in Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. (That makes them all sound terribly grim. I promise they’re not.)

But writing about war, in particular writing about the First World War, in 1917 presented a different set of challenges. How do you explain shell-shock to a reader aged ten? How do you present the war in the air without glorifying the aces and ignoring their casualties? Which of your characters will survive? (It’s the Western Front. They can’t all make it through unscathed.) How do you convey the intense grief of those whose best mates or loved ones were killed or wounded or missing?

How do you do all that without it becoming unbearable for the reader?

Battleground with wounded

Frank Hurley’s famous photo of the morning after the first battle of Passchendaele, 1917 (Source: ABC/NLA)

The life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front in 1917 was just a couple of weeks. They lived in a state of heightened tension and with impending doom, as did the men in the trenches. They could never explain it to the people at home. Their letters home are often totally different to their diary entries, or the oral histories recorded years later. On the other hand, the newspapers were filled with stories about dashing flying aces and their kills, as if each kill was just a number, not a human being.

How do you write a war?

Well, I hope I’ve managed to balance the needs of the reader with the pleading voices of the past.

We’ll see.

Any day now…

My new book comes out in a few weeks.

1917 is part of the Australia’s Great War series  by Scholastic.

When I was asked to be part of the series by publisher Clare Hallifax, I knew immediately what I wanted to write: a story about a pilot whose family is opposed to the war – or at least, opposed to conscription.

RE8 plane

An RE8, as flown by 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (Source: AWM)

1917 was seen by so many people as one of the worst years of the war. The losses on the Western Front were horrendous, ANZAC troops were involved in shockingly brutal encounters like Bullecourt and Passchendaele, and on the home front there were strikes and food shortages and arguments about the second plebiscite on conscription. Women’s roles were changing, new technology made warfare unlike anything ever witnessed before, and the war itself seemed to show no signs of ending.

Yung women on a farm gate

Young women helping out on a farm (Source: Telegraph UK)

My own family was involved in those conscription debates,  so I grew up with stories about the huge rallies through the streets of Melbourne, and my fire-eating great-grandmother. But my grandfather (who was only little during the war) was obsessed with planes, and joined the Flying Corps as a mechanic as soon as he could, well after the war. I never understood how one family could reconcile those two things. But they did. I guess.

Anyway, 1917 is kind of but not really about them, and more about the many people like them who were worried sick about sons or daughters at the Front, but also affected by everything that was going on at home and struggling to make ends meet.

The main characters are invented, but plenty of real people make appearances, including activists Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst. It’s set on the Western Front – in Flanders, here in my own suburb of Coburg, as well as Point Cook air base, Mordialloc Women’s Farm, the orchards of Box Hill, and pilot training bases in the UK.

You can read more about the book here. It’s written for readers 9 and over.

I do hope you like it.

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.