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

Historical fiction podcast series

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.

Coming up: Festivals and conferences

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.)

Bendigo Writers Festival, 11-13 August

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.

Melbourne Writers Festival, 25 August – 3 September

This year, I’m part of another simply brilliant Schools Program, in conversation with Mark Smith about one of my favourite topics: the hero’s journey (29 August).

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.

Historical Novels conference

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.

Cry me a river

It seems I’ve been making people cry.

Well, not so much me as my book.

And yes, that is the plan.

I’ve posted before about the decisions I made in writing 1917, especially about portraying violence and loss.

But while writing it, I was also thinking about the tears I shed over books when I was the same age as my readers – over Helen in Jane Eyre, over everyone in The Isle of the Blue Dolphin … and don’t get me started on Little Women.  I might be scarred for life about the sad demise of Beth March, but it’s the sort of scarring that is easier to bear in fiction than in real life. It’s loss that feels real, but isn’t.

When you write about the First World War, you can’t shy away from sorrow. The world was grieving – and I do mean the world, as there were civilian and military casualties from so many countries. By 1917, communities on the Home Front reeled from the news every day of more loss, more destruction. They mourned family members and friends, and in some cases entire villages or workplaces, especially after the slaughter of 1916 on the Somme.

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

And for those in the fighting, the terror and grief never ended. Shell-shock was finally beginning to be understood and treated, but the diaries, letters, poems and memoirs tell us that almost everyone was profoundly affected by the loss of friends, the constant bombardment, a sense of foreboding, and the physical effects of sleep deprivation, inadequate food and water, lice and rats, mud and snow, disease, living out in the elements every day and night – a nightmare that never seemed to end.

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

It’s war. I couldn’t write about it honestly, couldn’t do justice to the voices in those diaries, letters and memoirs, without trying to reflect that reality. Without breaking a few hearts.

I just remembered this old interview I did with Writers Victoria, published while I was researching 1917:

When was the last time you cried after reading a book? Which book and why did it make you cry?

I’ve been reading a few World War One diaries lately. They are all heart-breaking but sometimes they just stop. Yesterday I saw one in the State Library and got to an entry that reads, “I seem to have come through all right so far”. Then that’s it. There’s no more.

 

So it makes me cry too.

 

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

Coming up

March is a busy month.

But what fun.

I get to chat with my old mate Kate Mildenhall about writing 1917, and especially about the research and writing about war and politics for young readers. That’s a special event for teachers and librarians at Readings Books in Hawthorn on 7 March 2017. Details and bookings here.

But that’s not all.

It’s Women’s History Month, and there’s stacks going on, including a whole program of events based around Eltham.  First up is a full day of discussion about writing history and historical fiction, starting with a panel (Oh look! Kate again)  on why women write history on 5 March.

780c9281-48a8-464a-859d-af1f2e0a7fb5-6469-000005f78a9b7621_tmp

There are events every weekend, and then I’m back again in Eltham for a debate on 25 March on the powerful and different ways that nonfiction and fiction tell the stories of the past, and why women are so good at telling these kinds of stories. The panel includes:

  • Professor Josie Arnold
  • Barbara Gaskell Denvil
  • Glenice Whitting
  • Me.

Details of all the events for Women’s History Month at the gorgeous Eltham Library are here.

But that’s not all.

I’m hosting a discussion on researching and writing biography on 21 March at State Library Victoria (I’m lucky enough to work there). I’ll be talking with Minna Muhlen-Schulte  and Sandra McComb about their work in history and biography, and particularly their new articles in the La Trobe Journal.

And then the very next day, Unladylike podcast records live for the first time, as part of the Castlemaine State Festival. Unladylike co-host Adele and I will be interviewing Lynne Kelly and Robyn Annear about writing nonfiction – how they manage to convey incredible detail and knowledge for their readers.  That’s on 22 March in beautiful Castlemaine.

Phew! Well, we wouldn’t want to sit still for too long, would we?

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.

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

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

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.