Hidden Moments of Humanity

A moment raw and human lying forgotten amongst the enormity of history that somehow still manages to speak for itself with quiet unassuming dignity.

Every now and then I come across something in my research that stops me in my tracks. A moment raw and human lying forgotten amongst the enormity of history that somehow still manages to speak for itself with quiet unassuming dignity.
I found a moment like this recently. A few lines in a diary from 1943 that made me pause and assess everything I knew, or thought I knew about the morality of World War Two.
By December 1943, Rome had been under German occupation for three months and the religious houses all over the city were full of refugees. In the early hours of December 22, the sheltered peace of the men hiding in three of these houses was shattered when, in flagrant disregard of the Lateran treaty that protected all pontifical property, a group of armed fascists forced their way in to search for patriots and Jews. Many got away, some were caught.
One of the properties raided was the Russicum, the college for Russian Church students. Three men were arrested, and as the fascists were leaving the leader turned to the Rector and asked him: ‘Why did you hide these men?’
He answered: ‘For the same reason for which I shall probably be hiding you before long.’
The humanity of this response has stayed with me. Such a simple response, such powerful compassion behind it. In that one sentence the politics, the bloodshed and the importance of everything the government argued about and the soldiers enforced slipped away. For this Rector nationalism, religion, political creed, guilt or innocence didn’t matter. For him all that mattered was the fact that there were fellow human beings in need, men that he was in a position to help.
At first, I must admit, I found the Rector’s response a bit counter-intuitive. The fascists, the Germans, they were the enemy. Why would you hide them? Why would you shelter them from the consequences of their own evil deeds? But as I thought on it, and I did think on it because that simple response stuck with me throughout the day, I realised it was not the Rector’s intention to save a man from answering for his crimes. He was not talking about hiding a man from justice. He was talking about protecting a human life, and maybe even giving a second chance to a damaged soul. No matter what. Perhaps, in a spiritual sense, the fascists and the Nazis needed his help more than anyone else, and he was clear-sighted enough to realise that.

I wonder if the Fascist commander realised that too?

Have you come across any hidden moments of humanity in your reading or research? Tell me about them in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
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On another note, tomorrow is the start of NaNoWriMo, a challenge that writers all over the world participate in to try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I’ll be trying to get my historical novel finished during NaNoWriMo this year, and probably not sleeping a whole lot in the mean time. So, if you’re also NaNo-ing, good luck! I’ll be burying my head in 1943, trying to keep my heroine out of trouble (while at the same time pitching her into it) and getting my head around just what could and couldn’t be purchased in a city that was cut off from the southern end of their country. If you’d like to know more about the novel I’m working on, you can check it out here. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Submitting your manuscript: tips from the team at Hachette Australia

Increasingly it’s been feeling like the process of submitting a manuscript, let alone writing the thing in the first place, is a minefield of ritual and know-how known only to the initiated and enlightened few.

How exactly does one submit a manuscript to a publisher?

It’s a step that, for me, has been on the far distant horizon for so long that until recently, I’ve given it very little thought. Increasingly though, over the past year as I’ve inched my way towards completing my manuscript, I’ve come across many scraps of advice here and there, some confusing, some contradictory, and some seeming to require a level of expertise that I simply don’t have.

Perhaps it’s all part of the mirage of the imposter syndrome I’ve been reading about, but increasingly it’s been feeling like the process of submitting a manuscript, let alone writing the thing in the first place, is a minefield of ritual and know-how known only to the initiated and enlightened few. (I don’t know who these people are, but I’m pretty sure they all have English Lit majors and wear black, mostly, and write in elegantly boho-chic garrets at the top of Victorian London houses).

Even though this isn’t true, and these literary masterminds (probably) don’t exist, it doesn’t stop the task of dipping my toe into the glittering world of publishing from seeming incredibly overwhelming.

Last month however, I took a step that showed me just how false this feeling is. I attended an event called ‘Inside the Publishing House’ at Hachette Australia headquarters in Sydney. This event was organised by the incredible Emerging Writers’ Festival and it is easily the best writing event I have ever been to.

Here is what I learnt.

Publishers are not fierce, snobby literati gate keepers (and not all of them wear black), they are simply really passionate readers, lovely people who are so very keen to help emerging writers. The enthusiasm shown by the whole Hachette team (publishers, editors, authors, publicists, marketing and sales teams) was not only surprising, but incredibly inspiring. Everyone who spoke to us during the day was incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, answering all of our eager questions, helping to wipe the mist of uncertainty away from the submission and publishing process, and making the possibility of publication seem just that little more real.hachette-australia-transparent-logo_grey-pantone-431

And speaking of the submission process; how exactly does one give their manuscript the best chance of standing out and being read amongst the flurry of submissions that hit publishers’ inboxes every week?

Here, according to publisher Sophie Hamley, is the best possible form of a submission:

  • • A well-structured submission email. This needs to be professional; remember, you’re looking to enter a professional relationship with this publisher. Be polite. (For more on the submission email, Sophie Hamley has an article in the current Queensland Writers’ Centre magazine)• Include a brief discussion of what your work is about. This needs to give the publisher a reason to first want to read, and then sell your book.
    • Author bio. Include what else you are looking to write. It takes a lot of effort to break out a debut author, so the publisher wants to know that they can continue working with you.

    • FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. This point was really stressed, so there must be a lot of dodgy submissions going into the slush pile. This has to be the easiest part of the submission to get right, so I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t follow the guidelines. Best to triple check, just to make sure you’ve got this one covered.

    • Know where your manuscript fits in the Australian marketplace. Show that you have done your research and that you support other Australian authors. Mention you favourites. (Which means more time in the bookshop buying your favourite books, all in the name of furthering your writing career- yay!)

    • And lastly, if you’re not sure, ask! Give the publishing house a call and ask the desk your questions, or, if it’s a really basic question, tweet the publishing house. They love to help, after all, at the end of the day it makes their job easier if more submissions come through correctly formatted than not.

So my advice, after my wonderful day at Hachette, is to sign up to any and every event you possibly can where you can get a little inside glimpse into the world of publishing, it’s amazingly re-assuring. Talk to the publishers, editors, and marketing team. Learn what your manuscript is up against and what you need to do to get it over all the hurdles that come before publication. It can’t be more daunting than not knowing.

I would love to hear any anecdotes about other people’s publishing experiences, or any advice of your own you have to share. This submission business is so thrilling and daunting and breathtakingly exciting all at once. Post in the comments if you have any stories or advice to share, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Book Review: The Shifting Fog

The Shifting Fog is the story of the Hartfords, but it is also the story of Grace, and of a time and a place and a world that no longer exist. It is beautifully done.

What is the etiquette around ignoring your new husband on your honeymoon? This was the dilemma I faced as I browsed the books at the airport before we set off for our honeymoon in New Zealand. You see, I had just discovered Kate Morton and there, in the airport newsagent sat one of her beautifully written, thick and intriguing novels.
The Shifting Fog is Kate Morton’s first Novel. Set in two eras, it tells the story of the beautiful and tragic Hartford sisters, told through the eyes of their maid Grace.
Grace is fourteen when she starts in service at the grand Riverton Manor, home to Lord Ashbury and the Hartford family. It is June, 1914 and the grandchildren are all home for the summer holidays, and Grace, taking us along with her, quickly falls under the spell of the beauty, glamour and camaraderie of the Hartford children.
The First World War erupts and leaves the family shattered, and as they try to pull themselves back together in the aftermath, and the decade slips away quietly, we watch the tangled lives of the Hartford sisters change direction with the new, post war headiness of the twenties.
We are told about the tragedy at the heart of the story from the start. Grace thinks on it constantly as she reminisces and pulls us through time with her, thinks on it guiltily. She is involved somehow, it is her secret, and at age 98, with time running out, she finally decides to tell someone. Even though we have been forewarned, from the very first pages, such is the power of Morton’s storytelling that when the time comes for the tragedy to occur, so swept up are we in the lives of the sisters, we are almost certain it won’t.
It does. Of course it does, we knew it would and we are left shocked and saddened and a little bit impressed by the way it all unfolds.
Kate Morton is my favourite contemporary author. She has an incredible skill in taking the reader to an era as though she has lived it. She creates characters you desperately care about and situations that are as romantic as they are hopeless. The Shifting Fog is the story of the Hartfords, but it is also the story of Grace, and of a time and a place and a world that no longer exist. It is beautifully done.
Back at the airport, all set for my honeymoon, I looked longingly at the sultry 1920s beauty on the cover of the The Shifting Fog, the faded lakeside mansion in the background promising all the opulence and mystery I’d come to love from Morton’s work. I temporised, and then I compromised. I bought the book, and a different book for my new husband, handing it to him with a generous, guilty smile. That was when I discovered that my darling husband was a voracious reader. He had been studying the whole time we had been together and never allowed himself the indulgence of a novel. I was so thrilled, I would have married him on the spot had I not already done so twenty four hours earlier. We boarded our flight, arrived in the beautiful Bay of Islands, checked into our Bed and Breakfast, hit the pool side with our books and proceeded to ignore each other for the next few days in in companionable, connubial bliss.
Let me know what you think- are you are Kate Morton fan? Do you love the glamour and tragedy of the pre-war/post war period? Drop me a line in the comments below or if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

The Loneliest Bride in Paris

The decision they have made that what they build together in love will be more than what they could do apart. I love those stolen, tender moments.

There is a black and white photograph of a tired Parisian street in 1963. The day looks to be just beginning, empty chairs are clustered outside a café where the curtains are still drawn, mobile kerbside market stalls have their wares under cover and shutters are still closed on the apartments above the stores.

In the centre of the photo is a bride striding across the street, the sole person in the frame. Her head bent, a bouquet grasped tightly in one gloved hand, she is wearing a lace gown with three quarter length sleeves, the ballerina style skirt ending at the knee, showing off her thin calves and white pointed stilettos. She wears a communion length veil that has a fine detail picked out along the edge and her dark hair is piled on top of her head. She is completely alone.

Her lack of attendants and family and fuss is exacerbated by the slightly shabby feel of the street. Uneven awnings hang limply over one of the street stalls, another has someone’s forgotten coat and a page from a newspaper littering the top of it. One of the stalls is a hand cart, another appears to be on the back of a small truck and the third is simply a few boards sat atop some upturned crates.

The bride walks with great determination, the photographer (xx) has caught her mid stride, the moment that both her feet clear the ground. She has about her the air of someone very much set on where she is going, a woman with a job to do.

This is not your typical romantic bridal shot, no bridesmaids, no glossy car, no softly lit church, and no adoring groom. But then perhaps the solitary bride, making her way unattended through the unkempt streets of Paris in the early morning to her wedding is the most romantic figure of all. Perhaps she is marrying despite the lack of support of her friends and family because she truly loves this man, and she can’t afford to wait any more on the convenience of others.

What I love about this photo is the absolute certainty of the bride. The early sixties were still a relatively conservative period, Woodstock was still six years away from the time of this photo, and women bucking social trends was not the norm. This woman is in charge of her destiny, and she is off to meet her groom, with or without anyone’s blessing.

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There is a certain romance to this shot too. My favourite movie wedding scene is the one from Braveheart where William Wallace and his bride meet in a forest clearing in the middle of the night with only a priest to witness their marriage. It is a beautifully poignant and romantic moment. That these two people have decided to marry, despite the danger that doing so will put them in, means that for those few hours in the forest all that matters is the promises they make to each other. The decision they have made that what they build together in love will be more than what they could do apart. I love those stolen, tender moments.

What do you think about this bride? Is she off to a happy marriage, a prosperous future, a life of love? Or is her decision to go her wedding alone a portent of a lonely life? Let me know in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you in a week!

Chapel of Secrets

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

The village of Roslin, Scotland is nothing very special in itself. It consists of a narrow stone-fronted main street, a small patch of village green and surrounding sweeps of beautiful, wild Scottish countryside. But the Rosslyn Chapel is another story entirely. Construction on the chapel began in 1446, and through a long association with the Freemasons (and an alleged association with the Knights Templar) the Rosslyn Chapel has grown about itself an aura of mystery and legend. There are rumours of a hidden underground vault, secret medieval chests, and whispers of the Holy Grail. Throughout the interior of the chapel are ornate and elaborate carvings rich in symbolism and hidden meaning. There is an especially famous and beautiful pillar in the chapel called the Apprentice Pillar. Legend has it that the master mason didn’t believe that his apprentice could carve the beautiful column without seeing the original. The master mason went by himself to view the original pillar and found on his return that the apprentice had already completed the column, and so killed him in a fit of rage by striking him on the head with his mallet. They say, as punishment, the Master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner so that, as punishment, he would forever have to gaze on his apprentice’s work.

Perhaps most intriguing of all the secrets and symbols of the Rosslyn chapel, is the code hidden in the 213 symbols carved into the cubes on the ceiling. This code was broken in 2005 by Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell. He decided, after 20 years of pondering, that the cubes formed a piece of music. The key to unlocking the mystery, said Mr Mitchell in an interview in The Scotsman , ‘lay in the discovery that the stones at the bottom of each of the twelve pillars inside the chapel formed a cadence of which there were only three types known or used in the fifteenth century’. After deciding that the cubes, or rather the pictures on the cubes, were the basis of a musical score, Mr Mitchell found further clues in the chapel about the nature of the piece of music. Carved into the pillars are musicians all playing different instruments used in the playing of the piece. He put the music into triple time and named it The Rosslyn Cannon of Proportions.

I do wonder though, if Mr Mitchell had been a geologist instead of a musician, would the code have read differently for him?

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In the same interview, Mr Mitchell stated that in his search to crack the code ‘he found a lot of symbolism and decoys to throw people off.’ What if what was decoy to Stuart Mitchell, held great significance to someone else? What if the code, steeped in mathematics, as is music, plays a gentle medieval chant quite incidentally? After all, people can play beautiful pieces of music just by playing the notes formed by a picture of birds sitting on telephone wires (see here).

So if you are travelling to Scotland any time soon, stop by the village of Roslin, check out the mythical chapel and have a look at the ceiling. Perhaps, if you’re a bit of a savant, you won’t need twenty years to interpret the message coded in the cubes. Maybe you’ve already been there and have your own theories? I’d love to hear them if you do! Let me know your theories about this or any other piece of puzzling architecture in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!