How gorgeous is this?
It’s the series logo for The Fire Watcher Chronicles, my new time travel trilogy with Scholastic. I can’t wait for you to see the cover design for book one, Brimstone.
How gorgeous is this?
It’s the series logo for The Fire Watcher Chronicles, my new time travel trilogy with Scholastic. I can’t wait for you to see the cover design for book one, Brimstone.
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.
Hope to see you out celebrating women’s history month. Or if you’d rather, stay inside and read some instead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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?
What’s it like to walk through clouds?
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?
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?
If I walk around the site of the Chinese camp, can I see any traces of the miners’ lives?
How secure, really, were those old timber slab police lock-ups?
What’s it like, crossing the High Plains when all the wildflowers are out? (And ooh, what’s all that purple stuff?)
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.
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.
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.
I look at the ancient folds of the land, and the old cattlemen’s huts and the distant valleys.
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.
I listen. You can hear snow melt streams trickling all through the hillsides. And currawongs. And magpies. And wind through tussock grass.
It’s all research. I never know what will end up in the stories.
I breathe it in and write it out.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
The Awards were held on Friday night in two stunning rooms in the State Library of NSW – one had hundreds of early editions of Don Quixote in glass-fronted bookcases. It was lovely to hear the Premier say that she’s a voracious reader, to hear the Minister for the Arts talk about his own writing, to welcome the new State Librarian of NSW, and to be part of the launch of History Week. My thanks to the State Library (where I also spent all day yesterday deep in research), Create NSW, the History Council and the judges for this recognition of 1917 and for inviting me to be part of the evening’s celebrations. I’ve been on literary awards shortlists but it’s a very different kind of feeling to have my book acknowledged as a work of history-making.
The History Awards are judged by an extraordinary panel of senior historians, and I’m honoured to be shortlisted – and to be in the company of the authors and creators on the Young People’s History Prize list and all the shortlists. Congratulations to every single one. And of course now I want to read all the books.
Our shortlist was pretty short. The two other books were:
Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda—Lake Eyre (Pamela Freeman & Liz Anelli, Walker Books)
Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story (Christobel Mattingley, A&U)
And the prize was won by Christobel Mattingley for Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story. In accepting the award, Christobel talked about the artist Yvonne Edwards, her family, and the Anangu people, so many of whom were exposed to radiation by the nuclear bomb tests on Maralinga Tjarutja lands, and so many of whom have died of cancer since the bombs – including, sadly, Yvonne. Profits from the book go to her family. Congratulations to Christobel, who also worked with Yvonne and the communities to tell their stories in Maralinga, the Anangu Story, so that their children and other children can know the truth of their experiences.
It’s wonderful that there is a Young People’s History Prize alongside awards for Australian, general (as in, everywhere else) and community or local history, as well as multimedia. That says a lot about the important work we do encouraging young people’s engagement with history.
1917 is partly about the divisive conscription campaign on the Home Front, and I remember choosing not to use the word ‘plebiscite’ when I wrote it, because young readers might not know what that old-fashioned word meant. I had no idea then that the country would undergo another plebiscite debate in 2017, and that young people would take to the streets to protest about it. But perhaps we always write and read about the past to reflect on the present.
Some of the fictional characters in the book are based on members of my family, especially my great-aunts who were children – and peace activists – during the war. I wish they were still with us so they could see how they – like young readers today – really do make history.
Header image: Inside the Mitchell Library by Littleyiye Creative Commons by Attribution
Had a fabulous time recording this series of interviews with authors of historical fiction, as part of the lead-up to our big historical novel conference in September.
Imagining the Past is presented by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, and produced by the good folk at Swinburne University (thanks team – they even composed the music!).
You can hear me chat to:
Here’s the conversation with the lovely Kate Forsyth:
The conference runs from 8-10 September, at Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus, with these great writers and many, many others – you can see the full programme here.
For anyone interested in learning to use Scrivener, I’m running a workshop on the Sunday (10/9) to introduce people to this wonderful software for writers – and there are a whole lot of other workshops too, on topics from research to armour (how cool is that?).
There’s also an academic stream, including a panel on biofictions.
Hope to see you at the conference.
31 July is the anniversary of the start of one of the bloodiest and muddiest battles of the First World War: Passchendaele.
What we now call the battle of Passchendaele (or Third Battle of Ypres) stretched from late July into December, all through one of the soggiest seasons the troops could remember.
Crucial days for the Australian and New Zealand troops occurred later, in a series of assaults through deep mud against seemingly impregnable fortifications. They include names that you will often see on war memorials in small Australian and New Zealand towns: Polygon Wood, Menin Road, Broodseinde, and Poelcappelle. But it was the name Passchendaele that became a by-word for slaughter.
‘There was a flat muddy bog in front of our trenches and the ground sloped uphill to some pill boxes [German fortifications] which completely dominated the position; as our shell fire had not reached theses concrete shelters or the barbed wire entanglements, what chance had our infantry to get out of that mud and climb that bare hill against machine gun fire? It was just pure murder.’
Alfred Stratton, gunner
cited by Glyn Harper in Massacre at Passchendaele
On 12 October alone, there were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders. It is remembered as one of the worst days in New Zealand military history.
‘A tragedy without equal in New Zealand history’
Glyn Harper, Massacre at Passchendaele
If you’ve read 1917, you’ll know that my fictional characters are asked to fly low over the German lines to identify artillery that might fire upon the Anzac troops.
Here’s what Ace and Charlie would have seen: the poor little village of Passchendaele from the air, before and after the shelling.
Each one of those hundreds of dots is a shell hole.
The shelling and the rain turned the entire battleground into a swamp – worse than a swamp, because it was littered with bodies and barbed wire, destroyed equipment, and shrapnel. Some of the most famous photos of the war are from this time.
‘Our feet were so swollen and painful that we had to cut our boots off, and not one of us could raise our voices above the merest whisper. Our uniform was concealed by a solid casing of mud to our armpits.Bloodshot eyes shone from haggard faces, so that we could hardly recognise ourselves.’
Stretcher bearer Linus TJ Ryan,
cited by Glyn Harper in Massacre at Passchendaele
‘It was mud, mud, everywhere: mud in the trenches, mud in front of the trenches, mud behind the trenches. Every shell-hole was a sea of filthy oozing mud.’
Bombadier JW Palmer,
Lost Voices of the First World War
August is writers festival season here.
Oh, who am I kidding? Every month is writers festival time here.
But August is one of the busiest months, especially with the massive Melbourne Writers Festival taking over the heart of the city (and lots of other places as well).
So here’s when you can see me. (Of course, you can see a whole lot of other amazing people too, which is what I’ll be doing.)
One of the great regional festivals, with a huge line-up. I’m looking forward to talking with Belinda Murrell about researching and writing historical fiction, as part of the schools day, Text Marks the Spot.
If you’re a writer, you might like to join me for a special workshop on research for writers (11 August), where you’ll learn techniques and tips to help your research and writing process.
For fans of young adult fiction, there’s a #LoveOzYA super-session of three panels on 12 August, with me and the lovely Michael Pryor, followed by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff talking all things Illuminae, and then author Will Kostakis and comics genius Bruce Mutard on heroes.
I wish I was a school student, and able to go to MWF sessions – honestly, what a cast of thousands and so many great authors and illustrators. The main festival program is released in a few days, so I can spend next week figuring out how many of the visiting and local authors I can hear in one festival. Paradise.
A few days after MWF finishes, we have the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia.
Running from 8 to 10 September, it features dozens of talks, workshops and panels with writers of historical fictions of all kinds. You can hear the likes of Kate Forsyth, Kerry Greenwood, Deb Challinor, Sophie Masson, Lucy Treloar, Kate Mildenhall, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, and Robyn Cadwallader. This year’s conference focus is on identities, and the first keynote address will be from memoirists Lesley and Tammy Williams.
I’ll be there all weekend, chairing panels and running a couple of sessions, including an introduction to the writing software Scrivener.
With my colleague Catherine Padmore, I’m convening an academic panel on biofiction.
In the lead-up to the conference, I’ve had great fun interviewing a lot of the authors for a podcast series, Imagining the Past. You can listen here (there are more to come).
Hope to see you out there.