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Celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen: An interview with Susannah Fullerton

July 18 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. Two years (and two children) ago I went to listen to Susannah Fullerton speak in the Blue Mountains. Susannah is a literary lecturer, author, and President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.  Her wealth of knowledge about all things Jane and the regency period is incredible and it is an absolute joy to hear her speak.

‘There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them’

Mansfield Park

If you’ve spent more than five minutes on this blog you’ll know that I love Jane Austen. Her novels are like old friends, we know each other, and yet they are constantly surprising me. The subtlety of her wit, so gentle and yet so sharp is, as a reader delightful, and as a fellow writer, quite depressing, frankly.

Pride and Prejudice has always been my favourite, the comedy, the romance and, as I get older, the social commentary,  make this a story that never bores or disappoints.  And the characters! I have met them all in my own life, as one of five siblings I’m convinced I’ve lived with most of them. We all have a Mr Collins in our life, a Charlotte Lucas and a Mrs Bennet.

‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.’

Pride and Prejudice

I have always loved the elegance of Elizabeth Bennet’s manners. Even though her family quite often drive her mad and her neighbours make her laugh, her criticism of the other characters in the book is never displayed by bad manners or rash words. Her patience in refusing Mr Collins and foiling Lady Catherine is praiseworthy, and I remember, even as a young reader, being impressed by her forbearance when speaking about her parents. She can love her mother, even without thinking well of her, and her sense of filial duty, as well as her sister Jane’s, is something that has always made an impression on me.

‘I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it’

Emma

July 18 marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. Two years (and two children) ago I went to listen to Susannah Fullerton speak in the Blue Mountains. Susannah is a literary lecturer, author, and President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia.  Her wealth of knowledge about all things Jane and the regency period is incredible and it is an absolute joy to hear her speak. Susannah is speaking at many events over the month of July as part of the bicentenary celebrations. If you have the chance to go and hear her speak, make sure you take it!

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Jane Austen is to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note 200 years after her death.

 

I emailed Susannah recently and asked her some questions about Jane Austen, Australian literary history, and research. I hope you enjoy reading her responses as much as I did.

To begin with, an easy question, although perhaps not an easy answer; who is your favourite Jane Austen character?

My favourite Jane Austen character is Emma Woodhouse. She has faults and virtues and is so wonderfully human. I have learned so much from Emma, I admire and love her, and feel, just like Mr Knightley, that she is “faultless in spite of all her faults”.

What do you think is Jane Austen’s most important legacy?

Jane Austen hugely developed the progress of the novel. She was the first writer in English to use the technique of free indirect discourse, something soon taken for granted in fiction, and she made other writers realise that the domestic scene could be a good subject for fiction. She also set a standard for the novel which, in my view, no other author has ever matched. She balanced humour and seriousness, gave us characters to love or to hate, and she made every single sentence work – Jane Austen never wasted a word!

What has been the most astonishing fact you have come across in your research? 

When I wrote my book ‘Jane Austen and Crime’ I came across many things that astonished me about crime in the Georgian era, and the ways Jane Austen used crimes in her writing. It is amazing to note that some of her characters commit hanging offences in the novels and juvenilia. I began that book as the subject for a short talk, but found so many crimes in her fiction and such interesting ways of using them, that the talk turned into a book that took me 7 years to write. I felt very proud that I was showing modern readers things Jane Austen’s contemporaries would all have taken for granted when they read her novels. 
 in vain notebook

In your book Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia 1836-1936 you delve into the visits of a diverse array of writers to Australia. Who do you think is Australia’s biggest literary legend? 

I had a wonderful time following 11 different authors in their travels around Australia – Darwin, Trollope, Conrad, Kipling, RL Stevenson, Twain, London, Conan Doyle, DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and HG Wells – and writing ‘Brief Encounters’. It was fascinating to view this country through their eyes and to see how the visits they made here influenced their future writings. When it comes to Australia’s own literary legends, I guess it has to be Patrick White who is the only Australian Nobel Prize winner, but I am not a Patrick White fan, nor do I know many people who really love his novels and return to them again and again. I think ‘Seven Little Australians’ is a wonderful Aussie classic.

And finally, for all of us writing historical fiction, what are your top three research tips? 

I adore historical fiction, but lack of research can so easily cause some awful blunder which immediately collapses any conviction on the part of the reader. I think the most important advice is READ, READ, READ – books about the era, other novels set in that era, biographies of people who lived then. And a good dictionary is an essential tool, so you can make sure that words you use are not anachronistic. 

 

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Who is your favourite Austen Character?

Thank you Susannah, I tried out one of my many dictionaries on anachronistic, and I’m pleased to report that it is up to the job. Readers, tell me, who is your favourite Jane Austen character? What is your favourite quote? Do you agonise over the language in your historical writing?  What is the most interesting thing you have read in the name of research?

And just like that, my blog and I are back from maternity leave. It’s nice to be back. Next month I have another interview, this time with Kirsty Manning, author of The Midsummer Garden. Until then, make sure you keep in touch and come say hi to me over on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Stay warm everyone, I’ll see you all in a month.

 

Image credits for header illustration AG Doyle.

How Motherhood has Allowed me to Write

This has been a valuable lesson in what I am capable of, even from the depths of exhaustion. If I write, something eventually will come out of it.

Having Children has allowed me the time to write.

Not the physical time — I honestly don’t know what I did with all those hours in the days before kids — but the mental time. I’m very lucky in that I haven’t had to go back to full time work since having children, the few hours a week I work are stimulating rather than draining, and that means when I’m spending an hour and a half walking 500m down the road, or endless hours at the park, or doing the dishes, or playing Lego, or cooking, my mind is fresh and sharp and eagerly plotting its way through the next hurdle of my story.

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And being short on time means I don’t waste a free second. If the children are happily distracted, or even asleep, I sit down and I write. Even when I’m exhausted and feel like my three-year-old could come up with better material, I write, because I don’t know how long it will be until the next opportunity comes along. And this has been a valuable lesson in what I am capable of, even from the depths of exhaustion. If I write, something eventually will come out of it.

The children are all at an age where they constantly crave my attention.

I keep reminding myself to embrace this period of unconditional love and desire for my approval. I know it’s not going to last. This isn’t always easy, and I’m often not as gracious about it as I would like to be. When my 3-year-old asks me if I need a lie down, I know I have not been winning at the so-called peaceful communication, but I have learnt that if I can give them my attention in full, at regular intervals, I can ask more of them down the track.

 

For instance, we are a household of book lovers. Occasionally there are rare, glimmering moments of domestic bliss when all of us are bunkered down in the loungeroom with a book — even the 17mo who likes to identify as many dogs as she can in any given book. The girls emulate the thousands of times they have heard us read to them to facilitate their own reading experiences, usually with quite hilarious digressions. These moments last twenty minutes at the outer limit, but during these times I feel so much love for my family, so much gratitude for my blessings, and not a little smug at my household management abilities. Inevitably these moments will end abruptly and catastrophically in a potty-training incident or something broken, or someone in tears, or all of the above, usually before I’ve even properly enjoyed my smugness.

Motherhood is an incredible blessing.

Having this time at home, watching my children grow, getting to be with them every moment of the day is a blessing not everyone has, and I am daily grateful for it. Even when I’m an emotional wreck, even when it’s hard, even when all I want is for everyone to shut up for five minutes. I know how blessed I am to be given this chance.

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 Also, I am grateful for the pause in my professional working life that has allowed me to give myself permission to follow my creative desire. And I am especially grateful to my husband for all his love and support. He doesn’t necessary understand the havoc my imaginary world can wreck on my day, but he understands that it is important to me, and has been an unfailing support, and a quiet encourager through the slow journey to creative ownership, even if he often falls asleep when I’m nutting through a plot problem with him at 11:30pm (at least I know the story won’t be spoiled for him when the book comes out).

Above all, the biggest thing that my children have taught me is that I really want to do this. It’s hard. Keeping little people alive day in day out is hard enough, trying to carve time out of that to write a novel is, emotional. But I love it and want it too much to quit, so I will make it work — hopefully without turning completely nuts and damaging my children beyond repair in the process.

 Last week we welcomed the newest member of our family into the world. Our first little boy, bringing our clan to a total of 3. Needless to say, he is an adorable little bundle, all snuggles and beautiful new-born smells and cute little pops and squeaks.

Which brings me to a massive thank you I must give.

This blog post is brought to you courtesy of my fabulous mother, who has given up weeks of her time to come and cook, clean, wash, mediate, grandmother and basically take charge while I take time out to get to know our little man and create. She is incredibly untiring and it is so wonderful to have this time with her all to myself (and my children) and I am so grateful for her support. Thanks Mum. You are the absolute best.

The all-important question of balance.

I mentioned back in January that I would pass on any tips I had for achieving an elegant breast-feeding-1582923_1280motherhood/creativity balance. I would have to say the biggest lesson I have learnt (and I learnt this the hard way with little cherub number two) is that you have to let go of expectations. If I try to plan my day around a certain word count or to do list, I will inevitably end up stressed off my nut, cranky, exhausted and all without having achieved my target. It’s like the kids can sense when you have an ulterior motive and do their darnedest to interrupt your plans. If I resign myself instead to taking all the stolen moments I can and doing my best with those, my mind (and my heart) are free to devote my attention to the kids with more joy. This is the way that works for me. I tried the other way and it was messy, emotional and detrimental to the entire family.

 

 This way, I can still work towards a goal, but in a more relaxed fashion (and it is surprising how much you achieve with those stolen moments), and, more importantly, I am not missing those precious moments of the childhoods that are all too fleeting.

Where I’m at.

I’ve spent the time granted to me by Mum’s visit beginning the first round of re-writes for my manuscript, I’m excited by the direction the story has taken, and enjoying the improvements! I’ve also been doing some research for my upcoming blog posts. Next week marks 100 years since the beginning of the Russian revolution, and I had planned to write a historical post on Russia, but it evolved into a European history post, with a twist of political musing, something a little different from me. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy autumn everyone (every writer’s favourite month), I’ll see you next week!

 

 

 

 

The Research Question: Will I Ever Get it Right?

My problem with the book isn’t the writing, or the pictures, or the story. It’s a tiny detail, so small to be of almost no significance, but it is wrong and it bugs me like you wouldn’t believe.

We have a book in our children’s collection called Mouseton Abbey, and it drives me insane.

It’s a sweet book, the pictures are all made up of knitted mice dressed in cute outfits having adventures against the backdrop of their illustrated abbey. There are ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ mice, and the whole thing is an entertaining parody of Downton Abbey.

My problem with the book isn’t the writing, or the pictures, or the story. It’s a tiny detail, so small to be of almost no significance, but it is wrong and it bugs me like you wouldn’t believe.

The Housekeeper’s name is Miss Swiss.

Housekeepers are never Miss. Nor, for that matter, are cooks. They are always Mrs, regardless of whether or not there is a Mr Swiss on the scene.

Why? I don’t know. I could look into it, but frankly, I’m spending enough time on the internet at the moment researching the different suburbs, or quarters of Rome, mapping the Allied advance through Italy during the second world war, and trying to get a handle on how the black market operated in Rome in 1943-44.

Research for one’s writing is a funny thing.

There is so much I can tell you about occupied Rome. For instance, the occupation happened on the 10th of September two days after the Italian’s announced that they were switching sides of the war, and 45 days after the Italian’s deposed their long-standing dictator, Mussolini.

Food was scarce in Rome in the initial days after the occupation due to the looting that occurred while the city was in chaos. A ration system was in operation, but with the southern part of the country in the hands of the allies, certain products became near impossible to obtain. Salt and sulphur both came from Sicily, which was in the hands of the allies, and so matches with their sulphur tips became scarce, which was a problem because gas was only available for short periods three times a day, and so you needed three matches a day to light your stove to cook.

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Reading the facts is one thing, trying to keep track of them an entirely different story!

There was no coffee, but people attempted substitutes, one of which was barley, roasted and ground (an apparently very unsuccessful imitation). No milk, half a pound of sugar per person per month, 150g of bread per day and no tea.

But even though I can tell you that the curfew was originally set from 9pm-5am, and that by January it had shifted to 5pm-6am (with shops and cinemas and cafes closing at 3pm), there is still so much left unknown, so much room for tiny, inconsequential Miss Swiss type errors.

This is the conundrum of the writer.

Will I ever get it right? Will I ever do enough research to make this story plausible? What if I’m found out? What if someone loves the story, the characters, the writing, but can’t forgive the fact that the wrong tree was flowering in chapter three?

And then there are the truly great works of fiction that inspire and cause despair all at once. I just finished reading the incredible Wild Island by Jennifer Livett. Historical fiction done to perfection, however I read in the afterword that she’d been working on that novel for forty years. And Hannah Kent, when she was researching Burial Rites travelled to Iceland and spent months translating documents from ancient Icelandic into English to use for her research. Is that what it takes to be truly great at this genre? Because I would rather not spend forty years per book, and I don’t speak ancient Icelandic (or for that matter Italian, which would be much more useful for my novel).

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At what point do you say enough is enough, and just write the thing?

My Strategy So Far:

I’ve collected diaries and memoirs, watched documentaries and movies, spent a heck of a time on the Australian War Memorial website, talked to them briefly on the phone, nagged my arts-student sister for pointers, and have been gathering about myself people who can read over my manuscript (when it’s fit for human consumption) to give me tips on different topics. I feel like slowly, slowly I’m creeping towards a credible story.

But still the fear is there that it will not be enough.

What is your pet peeve as a reader? And for the writers out there, how do you approach the research question? Advice, tips, and complaints welcome!

Next Week on the Blog

Actually, this month I’ll be taking a break from my weekly blog posts. A new little member of the family is due to arrive any day now, so my hormone-saturated brain and I will spare you our mumblings and I’ll spend February putting in some quality time with my little people. I’ll be back in March with an update on the family and my manuscript (currently halfway through first edit. Lot of slashing happening, a lot of re-writing on the cards). I’ll have three little darlings under three at that point, so if I have managed to come up with some winning methods of balancing the motherhood/writing lifestyle I’ll be sure to share. Or — and this is the more likely scenario — if I’m a raging, weeping, sleep-deprived, under-achieving mess, that could be quite fun to read about too.

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Glamourous and serene motherhood goals for autumn.

To make sure you don’t miss this, or any of my posts, you can subscribe to the blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Enjoy the last month of summer everyone, I’ll see you in autumn!

5 Surprising Facts from Australian History

‘Australian history… is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’ Mark Twain

I read the above quote as a fairly accurate description of our hurly-burly, courageous, messy, spectacular and sinister history. Below are five snippets of that history that I have come across in my reading that have both surprised and amused me.

 

Royal Assassination Attempt

 

While Queen Elizabeth II is the only reigning monarch to have visited Australia, there have been plenty of visits from members of the British royal household in the history of Australia. The first was made by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1867 and included an attempt on his life. Queen Victoria’s second son was picnicking on the beach at Clontarf (Sydney) when he was shot by Henry James O’Farrell, an impoverished Irishman suffering from mental illness.

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Henry James O’Farrell. There were rumours of a Fenian conspiracy after the Irishman’s attempted assassination attempt.

The Duke was wounded but not fatally, and hospitalised for two weeks. Prince Alfred tried to have the life of Henry O’Farrell spared, but the latter was executed in April of 1868.

 

Franco-Prussian Media War

 

Vietnam has often been referred to as the TV war, but the Franco-Prussian War has been dubbed ‘the first media war’. This conflict erupted in Europe in 1870-71, the first major conflict to break on European soil since the end on the Napoleonic wars, and the first to take place after Europe and America were connected via the telegraph. For the first time, people in Britain and America could know the outcome of a battle on the same day it had been fought.

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The Franco-Prussian war: the first media war.

The Australians had yet to be so closely connected to Europe as the Americans, and the quickest way to receive up-to-date information on the war was via the fastest mail boats from the US. This caused quite an air of anticipation as the people of the colonies awaited each fresh snippet of information.

‘The entire population was in upheaval until the whole town was in possession of the news. The War Intelligence was the subject of animated discussion in the business marts and under the veranda in the afternoon, and in the evening the clubs, cafes and bars resounded with varied comments on the credibility of the telegrams.’

Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis. Susan K Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi

 

Russian War Ships in Adelaide

 

The ‘Russian threat’ was a very real concern in nineteenth century Australia. There was a feeling in the late 1870s that war was imminent between England and Russia, and the Australian Colonies were terrified of becoming a victim of this potential conflict, lying vulnerable, undefended and wealthy at the bottom of the globe. Therefore, when the residents of the seaside town of Glenelg in South Australia awoke to find a Russian fleet anchored on their doorstep in February of 1882, the initial reaction was one of panic.

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Port Adelaide in 1888 from The Picturesque Atlas of Australia 1888

The Civic Authorities, however, were in a pickle. War between Britain and Russia had not been declared, so they had no choice but to invite the unwelcome visitors ashore, and throw a ball in their honour.

As the Russians sailed away a few weeks later (without having plundered Adelaide) it was decided that perhaps some defence measures ought to be put in place along the South Australian coast.

 

The Block

 

It seems incredible to any twenty-first century resident of Melbourne, but in the late nineteenth century, the Saturday AFL game took second place to another social institution. This was known as ‘the Block’.

‘Doing the Block’ was a social must for the upper classes of Colonial Melbourne, and took place on Thursday and Saturday afternoons between two and four o’clock.

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‘Doing the block’ c1905 from The Streets of Melbourne by Joe Murray and Peter McIntosh

 

The Block was essentially a promenade that was enjoyed along the North side of Collins street, between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, and one ‘did the Block’ in order to see and be seen (preferably arrayed in the latest fashions) and to meet friends and beaux (under the strict eye of a chaperone of course). The beaux even had a fashionable lamppost, on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets, that they gathered under as they appraised the fair parade that passed by.

Japanese Invasion Currency

 

In the museum of the small Northern Victorian town of Benalla, I came across a Japanese Australian one shilling note. This money formed part of what was known as the ‘Japanese invasion currency’, currency issued by the Japanese Military Authority as a replacement for local currencies after conquest was achieved during the second world war. According to the Australian War Memorial website, the philosophy behind the currency was ‘to maintain stability within the occupied country and to abolish all traces of Western influence and establish Japan as the dominant economic influence’.

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Japanese Invasion Currency: Japenese-Australian one shilling note

I must admit, I was impressed by the confidence and organisation of the Japanese, even while being grateful that the currency, in Australia at least, never got the chance to be used.

 

This list could be a whole lot longer.

The history of Australia is nothing if not interesting. If you have any facts of your own that you’d like to add, post them in the comments below, or let me know on Facebook or Twitter.

Next week on the Blog

I’ll be sharing some more research with you-this time on the limitations and restrictions of life in Nazi occupied Rome. To make sure you don’t miss this, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to the blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy Australia Day everyone, I’ll see you next week!

 

 

The Letter Allure

What do you talk about in letters that your correspondent hasn’t already seen on your Facebook page or on that of your mutual friends? You can’t actually share news via letter anymore, and because of that, that the letter loses something of its magic.

‘Sarah, my love for you is deathless… the memories of the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard is it for me to give them up; and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when God willing we might have still loved and loved together and see our boys grow up to honourable manhood around us.’

So goes one of my all-time favourite letters. I first heard it read aloud on the ABC radio as I was driving to work one morning. It was written by a man called Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah, in July of 1861, as his company prepared for the first major battle of the American Civil War. Sullivan wrote this letter because he was ‘suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart’. As I listened to the presenter read the letter with all its haunting tenderness, I was desperate to hear that the story had a happy ending. Sullivan, however, was right in his premonition; he was killed two weeks later, his 24-year-old widow never re-married and I arrived at work a blubbering mess.

I have always loved letters. I love their ability to capture the essence of a writer unlike any other medium. There is something about having an expanse of paper laid out before you that invites a plumbing of your thoughts, bringing to light confidences you might not otherwise have thought to share. Often times, passion is more easily expressed via a letter, which is why letters are the favourite weapon of lovers and haters alike.

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Letters: the weapon of choice of lovers and haters alike.

 

The Age of Letters is Over

Even though I write and receive more letters than most (and yes, I hear you languishing epistolarians — the writing of the letters has been in sad proportion to the receiving of late, but I’m writing a novel for crying out loud. I’ll get on it, I promise) I see that the need for letters is shrinking with the advent of each new social media platform and the ever-increasing ease of information sharing. What do you talk about in letters that your correspondent hasn’t already seen on your Facebook page or on that of your mutual friends? You can’t actually share news via letter anymore, and because of that, that the letter loses something of its magic.

This fact was born home to me recently as I was — get this — writing a letter. I have a friend whose circumstances have recently changed dramatically. She has left her highly connected, social media saturated world and joined a convent. In another country. There is no social media allowed. No mobiles and only a few phone calls a week that naturally go to her family.

I have to be honest, at first I was (rather selfishly) depressed by the reduction in communication. Obviously this change was much harder for my friend than it was for me, but I still got a pang of sadness every time I had to skip over her name in my Snapchat kid-spam list, or refrain from sharing a post I knew she would like on Facebook, or sending her yet another Trump meme.

But then I got her first letter.

I was not prepared for the utter joy and anticipation receiving that missive brought me. Finally, I could hear her thoughts, find out what the convent was like, the other sisters, the food, the accommodation, the rules. How she was enjoying it, her studies — what were they like? And I could share again, pour onto paper all the things I’d been holding back for her because I could no longer send aimless thoughts her way with a half-conscious click of a button.

I was so excited to ‘talk’ to her again that (please glance aside neglected correspondents) I immediately pulled out my writing set and spent the next week replying to her, filling her in on all the little dramas that had unfolded during my domestic week, savouring particularly entertaining news items, and anything about our common friends that I did not think she would have heard through her family. It was such a joy to be able to disseminate information that one knew would be novel to the reader, rather than just stating yet another opinion on a topic already well canvassed online. A nice, comfortable, newsy (read gossipy) letter.

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A whole pile of gossip.

 

Two of my sisters, my mother, my grandmother and an aunt of mine all keep up a semi-regular correspondence.

I am sadly in debt, having received mail from all of them which has gone unanswered since as far back as September, but we’ve texted, talked, and caught up in the mean-time, so it is easy to forget the urgency. The letter from my friend in the convent has made me realise what a pale excuse of a letter they have all been receiving from me to date. I have spent some time thinking over this during the preparation for this blog post and I see now that I need to formulate a better plan for our correspondence, that my letters to them need to include unique pieces of information and request the same in return.

I need to raise the stakes.

Think of Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzy Bennet’s impatience in waiting for her Aunt Gardener’s response to her request for information regarding Mr Darcy’s presence at Lydia’s wedding. That’s the sort of anticipation I want for my future letter-writing efforts.

How to achieve this? What should I put in my letters to increase the drama and expectation? Do you have any suggestions? What news would you like to receive in your letterbox?

Next week, to celebrate Australia Day, I’ll be sharing a list of my top five most surprising discoveries about colonial Australia. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Have a great weekend everyone, I’ll see you next week!

Author Interview: Carolyn Denham on her debut novel Songlines

I recently finished reading Songlines, the first Young Adult book I’ve read in a long time. It’s a genre that I’ve always loved, and conveniently I have younger siblings who quit that age group much more recently than I did to keep me abreast of what’s good in the YA field. Like everything though, I phase in and out of it. I’ve been focussing on reading a lot more in my own genre this year (Historical Fiction/Women’s fiction) and it was nice to pick up a book to read for reading’s sake alone again.

Songlines is the story of Lainie, a country girl who is just trying to finish year twelve. But there’s a problem. When a big mining company starts exploring on Lainie’s sheep farm, strange things start happening, to Lainie and to the people around her. Suddenly year twelve is the least of her problems as she has to come to grips with a family secret that is about to change the whole course of her life.

I could not put this book down (not strictly true, I did put it down to feed the children and sleep occasionally, but I wasn’t happy about it) and once I was finished I immediately stalked Carolyn to find out when the next one would be out — which happily, is soon-ish. April 2017! The main character Lainie is such fun company and her growing tribe of fellow victims of the mining interruption are an endearing bunch to spend your days with. Carolyn has taken a fantasy theme and layered it in casual rural Australiana to produce a story that is a compelling mix of intensity and laid-back humour.

The more time I spend in the Australian bush, the more I realise that this is a country made for fantasy stories of raw power and brutal passions, and Carolyn has captured that perfectly in her debut novel Songlines.

If you would like a taste of Lainie’s world, there is a free prequel Barramundi Triangle Available to read. There is also a book trailer for Songlines available to view via YouTube.

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I had a chat with Carolyn after I’d finished Songlines, just to make sure that she was working hard to get the next book out, and to find out some more about her and her writing. The details of that chat are below, but first, a little about Carolyn herself:

Carolyn lives on a small hobby farm on the outskirts of Melbourne. She has a science degree, far too many pets and a fear of the ocean that makes her Mauritian mother roll her eyes. Somehow between her mortgage-broking job, driving her kids crazy (mostly by asking their friends’ opinions about the Singularity) and feeding 63 baby axolotls, she has managed to write short stories for Aurealis and Andromeda Spaceways magazines. She is currently working to complete the fourth and final book in The Sentinels of Eden and after that she has promised that she will finally vacuum the bedrooms.

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Carolyn, when did the idea for the Sentinels of Eden first occur to you? Did you think it would be just one book or were you always planning a series?

 It’s so hard to pinpoint an exact moment when random thought turns into an ‘idea’. I was having many discussions with my brother regarding Christian apologetics at the same time as I was trying to encourage my daughter to write a spec fiction story. Thinking through what a perfect God (whose nature is the very definition of Love) would have intended for the human race… who wouldn’t get caught up in the possibilities? And no, at the start I wasn’t even confident that my ramblings would turn into a whole story, let alone a series. I was just trying to get my girl started. Whoops.

What sort of research did you have to undertake to write this book?

Other than a crash course (by pulling other books off the shelf) in how to structure my writing, the research took me all sorts of places. Farm life – I live on a small acreage, so that part was easy and fun to explore (although my first editor did say it sounded like it was set on a hobby farm – I wonder why?) Aboriginal culture – I never set out to write about it, but I quickly realised it would be an unforgiveable tragedy to disregard. Certainly that research made me ask questions that every Australian should be asking. Get curious. Ask questions, share stories appropriately, keep those complex and beautiful cultures as relevant as possible.

How long did it take you to write your first book?

The first draft took me just a few weeks to finish. Then four years to get right!

What was your biggest learning curve?

Mastering all those apps, platforms and marketing tools. I think I created about 20 new accounts in the space of 2 months. All easy to learn, but there were just so many. 

What was the biggest surprise about writing?

How addictive it can be. And embarassing. Yeah, when someone asks how your day has been and you reply with: ‘Stressful! You wouldn’t believe what Noah did last night!’

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

 Playing out conversations in your head between characters you’ve made up. If only I could control both sides of real life conversations the same way. Life would be much more interesting.

And your least favourite?  

Self-doubt. Happens to everyone. It will make me a better writer though, so it’s necessary. Just keep swimming.

I really enjoyed reading this story through Lainie’s perspective, she cracks me up. Is her character inspired by anyone?

 Not intentionally, but she does have a lot of similarities to my eldest daughter. Also to me, so I’ve been told. It worries me a little, because it’s important to write characters with their own ‘voice’, but what if Lainie has my voice and all future characters I write just end up sounding like me too? Good thing I’m so likeable…

How do you manage to juggle your family, your work, your farm and your writing?

 Badly! I can smell the scent of burning gnocchi as we speak… Or is that simply my secret way of encouraging the kids to start helping out with dinner more often? The truth is, you will always find time for the things you enjoy, and that’s exactly as it should be.

Have your kids read your book? What do they think of it?

 They hounded me for each new chapter of the first draft – four years ago, but apparently the novelty has since worn off. Possibly because this journey has turned them into talented editors. Oh… I’ve ruined reading for them forever! (Sob) So much for my original intention.

The note in the back of Songlines mentions that you are working on the final book of Eden, What’s next?

 That’s easy. I’m hanging out to sink my teeth into a fresh story. First draft of book 1 is done, but remember, it took me years to get Songlines right. Hopefully I’ve learnt enough that it will be a bit quicker now. I hope so, because this post-singularity-time-distortion-romance-adventure needs to be out in the world. Or at least out of my head.

And finally, when can we get our hands on book two?

Release is scheduled for April 2017. First I need my amazing beta-readers to tell me things like ‘wattle trees don’t flower at that time of year’ and ‘myna bird populations haven’t spread that far north yet, pick a different species’. Yeah, I am blessed with some very clever (and patient) helpers.

 

If you have any questions of your own for Carolyn, or if you would like to keep an eye on Carolyn’s progress you can find her at the following places:

 

carolyndenman.com

Facebook: Carolyn J Denman

Twitter: @CDenmanAuthor

Email: carolyn@carolyndenman.com

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Songlines is available in paperback or ebook form and can be purchased from Amazon.    

Jane Austen on Editing

There is a wealth of differing information in the two choices of phrasing. A woman who is mortified suggests and entirely different social situation than a woman who is angry.

It is a truth universally (if somewhat despairingly) acknowledged that a manuscript once written is no more fit for the eyes of a publisher or agent than a manuscript half written. One does not get to hit the send button simply because one has slogged it out until typing The End. The simple (and occasionally depressing) fact is that just because it is written, does not mean that it is finished. There are the edits.

 

What are these edits that everyone talks about with hushed voices and glazed stares? What makes them so daunting and universally loathed? Well, there is of course the structural edit, there might be something more after that, and then there is the line edit, see?

No? I didn’t either.

Since finishing my second draft (an almost complete re-write of the first) I’ve been trawling the internet and doing a bit of poking about in my various writing books to try and discover what is involved in this horrible task of editing that lies ahead of me.

I decided to start with the purpose of the edits. What exactly am I trying to achieve by reading my manuscript over and over and over until I’m heartily sick of the thing? In the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Other Works Nicholas Seager describes Austen’s revision process as ‘the art of controlling readers’ responses to characters and situations’. He gives some examples of Austen’s edits to show the power of choosing the right words for a given situation. In an excerpt from The Watsons (an unfinished manuscript by Austen) there is a line in which a woman is shown ‘stifling her own angry feelings [mortification]’. There is a wealth of differing information in the two choices of phrasing. A woman who is mortified suggests and entirely different social situation than a woman who is angry. Nicholas Seager makes the point that you can be angered by your inferiors, but not your superiors. Which goes on to change our opinion, not only of the victim, but of the perpetrator as well. To anger someone is different, and perhaps more forgivable than to mortify them.

 

So, I had an aim: to control responses to the characters and situations I had created, but how to go about it exactly? I had lots of little scraps of information about things that needed to be cut from first (or second first) drafts, but the whole thing was still a terribly confusing mass of formless information that was as overwhelming as the edits I was supposed – somehow — to be doing.

 

That was when I stumbled upon a gem of a blog post by Zachery Petit on writersdigest.com called What to Look for When Editing Your Manuscript. In it he details a list of edits (and I mean details) that need to be considered before sending your work off to an agent or publisher. The list is not his own, he got it from the Crime Writer Patricia Gussin, and I am in turn stealing it from him. I won’t give the full details of the list here, for that you should check out the blog post, but I’ll give a brief overview of what is involved. The editing method is called the 5 Reread Program, in which you re-read your manuscript five separate times looking for specific flaws and doing specific edits each time.

Read 1: The content (I think this is what is also known as structural edit. Does your manuscript make sense? What can you cut out of it?)

Read 2: The enhancement (this will be the part where I’ll be cracking out the Thesaurus of Emotions so that my characters can show surprise by more than a lift of their eyebrows every second page)

Read 3: The sentence level (also known as a line edit. Do you really mean that sentence? Do you? Can it be said any better? Agonise over it… and repeat. For Every Sentence. Just like Jane did.)

Read 4: The little things (I have a Margaret who somehow became a Moira by the end of the book — stuff like that)

Read 5: Read out loud (my husband can’t wait for this one, although I suspect it will be my new little baby who will be the privileged recipient of most of this edit.)

 

The original list is much more extensive, there is a beautiful structure to it and I love having a game plan once more, rather the vague aim of ‘making this manuscript better’. I highly recommend checking it out if you’d like to demystify the editing process.

 

Today I started Read 1 in earnest. I have already completed bits and pieces of this one along the way, so I’m hoping it won’t be too painful. My aim is to cut a whole lot of words and iron out some time-line issues that have cropped up along the way. There are also quite a few notes peppered throughout my manuscript to the tune of ‘insert vital-yet-to-be-determined piece of information here’, so hopefully I work those out while I’m at it. I would like to get Read 1 finished by the end of January. Any fingers crossed on my behalf would be very much appreciated!

 

Next week on the blog is my very first Author Interview! I’ll be interviewing Carolyn Denman, the super talented author of Songlines, a YA novel, the first in the Sentinels of Eden series, and a cracking great read. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy New Year everyone, I’ll see you next week!

 

Literary Survival List

There were some dark days at the end as November was disappearing but my word count remained unchanged. I was feeling frustrated and slightly desperate, and very, very tired.

It can be hard to find the balance between keeping on top of your writing and giving your family the attention they need. I had a very real struggle with this at the end of November this year.

 

I had given myself a deadline. Novel finished by the end of November. Which seemed so easy at the beginning of November because we were away staying with family, and it was easy to ignore the girls for a couple of hours a day because they were quite happy to ignore me back and hang out with their more entertaining (and much more permissive) grandparents. But then we came home and my husband was away a lot, and everyone decided that sleeping during the day or night was overrated and suddenly it was Advent and there was a lot of Christmas baking to do, and still so many words to write.

 

There were some dark days at the end as November was disappearing but my word count remained unchanged. I was feeling frustrated and slightly desperate, and very, very tired. And guilty. I don’t want my writing to be something that happens at the expense of my family, and yet I do want it. I think I may be able to make a go of it, and even if I can’t, I want the chance to try. My writing might be terrible, but then again, what if I’m actually quite good at it? It’s a question I need to find the answer to.

 

So, as the days were slipping by and the computer stayed off and the girls stayed awake, I busied myself keeping in touch with my writerly self in other ways. I call it the Literary Survival Guide and here it is; a quick list of survival techniques for the literarily deprived.

 

Podcasts

A great way to keep in touch with the literary world whilst doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to the park, or tackling the mountain of ironing. Writing and history podcasts are my favourites. Anything with and Author interview is always good, sometimes it’s nice to hear the ones who made it had no idea what they were doing to begin with either. I also get a lot of joy out of listening to shows about random topics or shows that express very different opinions or beliefs to the ones I hold; it’s interesting to learn how people come to their conclusions, and it’s great for potential character development. It’s also good for research if you need information on a particular topic and the hallowed halls of the library don’t encourage you and your menagerie to visit that often.

My favourites:   So you want to be a writer by the Australian Writers’ Centre (my number one go-`to pick-me-up, get in the zone, light the fire podcast)

History Extra by the BBC History Magazine (for when I’m in the mood for some light entertainment and easy learning)

The History of English by Kevin Stroud (basically a history of Europe- incredibly well researched)

Reith Lectures by BBC Radio 4 (I spent hours listening to V.S. Ramachandran talk about   Neurology. Not only is his topic fascinating, but he has the most wonderful thick, Liam Neeson-esque accent that is just heavenly to listen to. Highly recommend.)

LSE Public Lectures and Events by the London School of Economics (because I like to keep abreast of random topics and different thought patterns)

 

 Short stories

A well written short story can be just the thing you need to get you through the afternoon haze. I started reading a collection by Georgette Heyer during NaNoWriMo to keep me sane and it was wonderful. Everything I love about Georgette Heyer delivered in twenty minutes or so. A delicious way to end the day.

 

Read quality children’s books

If you’re reading them, chances are you are reading them a lot. And with little variety. We have a lot of children’s books, but usually only two or three on rotation at a time. If the kids like a book, they will listen to it to death. I’ve always heard that kids’ books are hard to write, and now I know why. If you are writing for children, you are also writing for parents, and your words must stand the test of being read upwards of five times a day. Which is why Alison Lester and Mem Fox and Janet and Allan Ahlberg are so treasured in our house, because my husband and I are so happy to oblige when sticky little fingers present their works to us. The less enjoyable works are very quickly phased out of circulation. 

As a writer, there is a lot to be learnt from the well-written children’s book. It’s a little like poetry in that it must say a lot with very little, and that is an art-form well worth studying. Australian author and illustrator Kate Knapp from Twigseeds studio does this in the most divine way with her Ruby Red Shoes books, and yes, we’ve been reading them a lot lately!

 

Take your kids to the book shop

I must admit, when my children started to walk, I thought my bookshop browsing days were about to take a serious hiatus (which would have possibly devastated the national economy), but our local bookshop is magnificent. They are so welcoming to me and my girls. They have a toy basket set up in the middle of the kids’ book section, little chairs to entice them into with their captured books or toys and are very encouraging when the girls want to be read to. If none of the staff are available to read to her, and I am taking too long browsing, my eldest is quite happy to prowl the aisles and unleash her big, green eyes and messy curls on unsuspecting patrons until someone is secured to her service. But it means I get a break. Five minutes to cast my eye over new works on the shelves, or to touch base with old favourites. A dip into a work of literary advice or a peek behind an unfamiliar cover. And is there anything better than carrying away a paper bag containing a new book promising information and adventures untold? The anticipation of settling down to that story is almost as good as reading the first page and feeling that sense of delighted immersion as you retreat into another world.

 

Word on your phone

I have Valerie Khoo from the Australian Writers’ Centre to thank for this tip. I am not very good with technology, and I didn’t even know it was possible to have Word on your phone. And while not overly useful for anything that takes a considerable amount of time, it is perfect for those stolen moments of creativity that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about. The moments when you are at the park, and no-one is requiring your attention or adoration right now, for the waiting room when the children are occupied with the toys and the receptionist. Instead of checking Facebook, I can re-read the writing I wrote the day before to get me in the zone for later in the day. I can add a few lines to a chapter or a blog post, I can do a spot of editing. I can be writing, and that is always a good thing.

 

 

With this handy arsenal of sanity-savers, we struggled on through to the end of November. My book was not finished by November thirty, but it was finished two days later on December second, and you can bet you that I had one heck of an iced orange juice to celebrate. What does it mean to have finished the book? Well, I’ve spent the last two weeks working that out, and I’ll tell you all about it in the next blog post. Until then, if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Merry Christmas everyone, I’ll see you next week!

Ancient Secrets of the Written Word

There is a large scale fascination with cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the root of this fascination lies in the fact that codes are secrets and secrets were made to be discovered.

Writing in code is an old art. Apparently human beings have had secrets and intrigue right from the start. There is a large scale fascination with cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the root of this fascination lies in the fact that codes are secrets and secrets were made to be discovered. The breaking of codes, without the help of a computer or a savant has always seemed impossible to me. Like Columbus and his egg, I just can’t comprehend how it can be done until someone shows me the way.

I have always loved codes. In my box of mementos I still have the collections of fabulous substitution ciphers my friends and I devised to send each other our classroom secrets. There is one cipher that is made up of a particularly elaborate system of symbols, and another that looks like the love-child of shorthand and hieroglyphics. The hours we put into devising our codes and encrypting our (not overly exciting) messages!

When we were feeling less artistic or inventive, my friends and I often reverted to the simple alphabet shift ciphers (or Caesar Shifts as I have since learnt they are called). Though these codes still appeared difficult, I could see how, with a bit of perseverance, they could be broken. We just trusted to the fact that, if found, none of our teachers or classmates would invest the required time to crack them. The substitution codes though, with their captivatingly confusing array of dots and lines and squiggles were, we thought, much more sophisticated and impossible to break.

However, in the course of writing my current novel, I’ve done a bit of research on codes, and it would appear that these substitution ciphers are amongst the easiest to crack. The undoing of these codes is down to the Muslim scholars of the Islamic culture golden age (which lasted from about 750CE to the thirteenth century). They realised that letters in any language appear with regular and reliable frequency and so they developed a technique to crack substitution ciphers called Frequency Analysis. This process was explained beautifully in my go-to code resource; Codebreaker: The History of Secret Communication by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary. I’ve used it as a reference for an earlier blogpost, Chapel of Secrets and as a guide for the secret writings in my novel. Below I’ve summarised the method of breaking a substitution cipher.

Basically, as explained above, there is a certain frequency followed by the English alphabet as to how often each letter will appear in a body of text. E makes the most regular appearance, coming in at 12 percent of all the letters in any given piece of writing, followed by T at 9 percent and A at 8 percent. The expected relative frequencies of the whole English alphabet are shown in the table below.

expected-relative-frequencies-graph

Now, if you have an encrypted piece of text, one which has been encrypted using a substitution cypher, you can make your own record of how often each letter or symbol appears by using a similar chart to the one above. Say for example we have the text (encrypted using www.braingle.com) :

Znoy oy znk vuckx, otjkkj znk cnurk vuotz ul zngz zoxkj urj (haz tkbkxznkrkyy zxak) sgtzxg ‘ynuc jut’z zkrr’. Ol eua igt ynuc payz ktuamn yu zngz euax gajoktik corr lorr ot znk mgvy znksykrbky, znke corr zgqk ut g qotj ul uctkxynov ul euax yzuxe. Euax gajoktik hkiusky otbkyzkj ot g cge zngz qkkvy znks iruyk zu znk yzuxe, grsuyz g vgxz ul oz.

Then the corresponding graph would look like this:

coded-graph

A similar shape to our original expected frequencies graph, only shifted. So, comparing our two graphs, it would seem that the letter K has been substituted for the letter E. Which means that G has been substituted for A, and H for B and so on. And following this through, you get the decrypted cipher (from last week’s blog post) reading:

This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.

So there you have it, quite simple once you know how, isn’t it? Of course, this technique only works for monoalphabetic cyphers, which are cyphers that use a single substitution for each letter of the alphabet. Polyalphabetic cyphers, in which each letter of the alphabet can be represented by a number of different letters, numerals or symbols, are a different story. I’ll tell you more about them some other day.

In case you’re itching to have a go at this, I’ll leave you with this coded piece of text from one of my favourite authors. Let me know the name of the author in the comments below if you manage to break it (but leave the text a secret so that everyone can enjoy the fun). NB: I’ve taken out all the punctuation for this piece to make it more realistic.

ro cdyzzon k zkccsxq qekbn led nsnxd nkbo woxdsyx zvkdpybw xsxo kxn drboo aekbdobc dro qekbn rkn xofob rokbn yp ryqgkbdc kxn grox rkbbi myevnxd ofox dovv rsw grsmr zkbd yp dro myexdbi sd gkc sx ro cdkbdon dy qod kxxyion kc dryeqr rkbbi gkc losxq cdezsn yx zebzyco

If you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week, happy cryptanalysis!

Secrets of the Silverscreen

There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film.

What is it about the silver screen classics that make them so re-watchable? What is the secret to writing something that gives a little more of itself every time you watch it?
I’ve been watching a few old movies lately, Casablanca is one of my two year old’s favourite movies, so we’ve had that on fairly high rotation. Every time I watch it there is something I didn’t see or hear before, and a new depth is added to my understanding an appreciation of the movie. Watching it for the first time in the context of writing a novel, I’ve been paying particular attention to the dramatic devices used to create all that wonderful tension that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart portray so well.
Now; a disclaimer. I have no training in media analysis or movie reviews, and I’ve never tried to write a script, I am just a girl, trying to write a book, wanting some of that Casablanca magic for myself.
Part of that magic is that it’s hard to define. It’s subtle and pervasive and very convincing. I love that the classics don’t feel the need to explain everything to the audience. There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film. I think Jane Austen put it rather well when she said:
‘I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’
This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.
In Casablanca there is a scene where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to see Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after his Café Américain has closed for the night. She tries to explain herself to him, but he is drunk, bitter, and won’t listen to her. Eventually he brushes her off with a snide, angry remark.
Tell me, who was it you left me for. Was it Laszlo- or were there others in between- or aren’t you the kind that tells?’
We see the pain Rick’s words cause Ilsa, we hear the insult and we see the wound, but she says nothing. She leaves. She does not explain her hurt with trite dialogue or impassioned speeches, she simply looks devastated. The script directions are as follows:
Ilsa, shuddering, gets up. Tears in her eyes she stops in the doorway, looks back at him, then she turns and walks out.
And we are left wondering and making our own surmises.
There is another famous line from Casablanca. When Rick and Ilsa first meet unexpectedly in Rick’s Café, Ilsa tries breezily to pass of their acquaintance as simply that, nothing more. She wonders when they can have last met and Rick tells her exactly. It was the day the Germans marched into Paris. She is pleased he remembers and he replies;
‘I remember every detail, the Germans wore grey, you wore blue.’
What a wealth of imagery in a single line.
I can’t remember who it was who suggested reading movie scripts as a way to learn about dialogue, some wonderful writer I was listening to on a podcast (and that podcast was most likely So You Want to be a Writer), but I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Not only is it an interesting way to look at dialogue, but it’s a great way to learn about the written emotional response as well. After all, the movies are all about showing, and some do it so very well. I recommend giving it a go. You can find the scripts to most movies just by googling them.
To finish I’m going to leave you with my favourite example of ‘show don’t tell’.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
-Anton Chekhov
Tell me what’s your favourite classic movie? What are your secrets to achieving the perfect balance of ‘show and tell’? How hard do you work to achieve it in your writing?
For everyone doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations on getting the first week down. I hope you’re all getting enough sleep and good luck with the next week. 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!