Writing advice, research tips and how to fight creative self doubt: An interview with Kirsty Manning.

From medieval France to contemporary Tasmania, two remarkable women discover their strengths, passions and loves.

Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.

1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists’ lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the Chateau. But who will she trust?

2014 Pip Arnet is an expert in predicting threats to healthy ecosystems. Trouble is, she doesn’t seem to recognise these signs in her own life. What Pip holds dearest right now is her potential to make a real difference in the marine biology of her beloved Tasmanian coastline. She’d thought that her fiance Jack understood this, believed that he knew she couldn’t make any plans until her studies were complete. But lately, since she’s finally moved in with him, Jack appears to have forgotten everything they’d discussed.

When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip’s kitchen, the two stories come together in a rich and sensuous celebration of family and love, passion and sacrifice.

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Kirsty Manning‘s debut novel, The Midsummer Garden is a masterpiece of historical and contemporary storytelling. From the wild Tasmanian coast line to the mellow midsummer garden of a French Chateau, the settings of this novel are drawn with a richness that entices the senses (and quite often the taste buds).

I devoured The Midsummer Garden, then stalked Kirsty’s  Instagram and emailed her with far too many excited questions which she very graciously answered.  I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I did!

When did the idea for The Midsummer Garden first occur to you?

I was on holidays in France and walked past an old chateau (Chateau de Brie http://www.chateaudebrie.fr/fr/) that really looked quite forgotten. It lay solid in a field, past the brambles and hedgerow. I went for a tour of the chateau and walked up some old, worn granite stairs and thought ‘who lived here?’ The stairs led to a tiny room at the top of a turret that looked over a walled garden. Quite suddenly, I had the idea for a cook and a herbalist, Artemisia, who was set to prepare a midsummer wedding in the garden, who hid a secret of her own …

 

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The setting and idea for the last scene for The Midsummer Garden came to me fully formed. I just had to work out what happened for the rest of the book. That’s when I settled upon two timeframes. So I could compare and contrast a medieval women contained within garden walls, against a contemporary woman and the metaphorical walls that constrained her.

 

I see from your Instagram account and your blog that you did a lot of travel for the research of this book, what was your research travel highlight?

The first book I didn’t travel specifically for. It came from a series of travel experiences I’d had over the years. For instance, we regularly go to Tasmania and spend time along that coastline foraging for clams and pippies, hiking and fishing. My husband did do vintage outside Lucca, Tuscany,  at Tenuta di Valgiano (http://www.valgiano.it/en/diary/) and we holidayed around Chalus.

tuscan pot

The ideas from my second and third books have also stemmed from holidays. Sometimes it takes an idea a while to brew, other times it just hits you on the spot. I can imagine someone who lived there, or an incident.  But then I travel back to the area to research and speak to people about specific incidents and special sites.

 

You also mention in your acknowledgements all the professionals that you were in contact with to keep the facts of the story right. How did you go about finding and contacting all these specialists (asking for a friend…)?

I really started to google the topics I was writing about, looking at interviews, research papers and noting who the subjects and authors were. I then tracked them down and emailed them explaining what I was trying to write about, and asking if they would be willing to answer some quite specific questions via phone or email.

What was the biggest learning curve you had writing The Midsummer Garden?

That it isn’t about the inspiration, it is all about the work. I had no idea how much focus it took to get to the end of a draft. And then to go back and rewrite all over again!

What was the biggest surprise about writing The Midsummer Garden? What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

It’s a bit like having a baby. Nothing prepares you for how absorbing the work can be. It’s a particular kind of magic to spend a day daydreaming and trying to work out how to get that dream down onto the page in the best way possible. Now I am a writer, I can’t imagine doing anything else …

And your least favourite?

Since starting to write in earnest, nothing prepared me for the deep wells of self-doubt that I’d stumble across in any given week.

No-one can do the writing for you, so you really have to push aside the nerves and what-if’s and just focus on the writing and rewriting (and there will be plenty of re-writing!). When all else fails, break it down to a single scene. Or even a piece of dialogue. Polish that tiny piece until you feel ready to pop back out and look at the bigger picture.

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I’m like that in my garden too. It’s 2 hectares and some days it feels like way too much. My garden will never be finished or look like the perfect vision I have in my head. But I’ve earmarked just one area to be planted out this winter. So I’ll do that this season and come spring it will be a little piece of magic that blooms along with all the other areas I’ve already planted.

I really enjoyed the food creations in your story; food is something I find very tricky to write. Was it difficult to come up with so many diverse and fabulous dishes?

I had a lot of fun with the food. I’m that person who tries pretty much anything on the menu when I travel. I’m always looking for interesting local dishes. I had a ball researching the medieval dishes and attempting to cook things like the green herbal sauce to go over meat at a family barbecue (my children not so much …) We are a family who loves to grow food, eat food and cook food, so it is really just a part of our lives. Like gardening.

food

I don’t want my books to be just about the gardens or the food, but for me they are a way into the narrative to talk about the culture. It’s my way of giving meaning to a place …  my way of bringing that place alive for the reader.

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

My work gets rather intense. My kids are tweens and teens and so they have a rather hectic extra-curricular life. I write a lot beside swimming pools and in basketball stadiums and even in the car sometimes. I try to contain my work to school hours, but that last draft, and during the editorial phase I tend to get lost in my story. It’s anything goes and all semblance of a structured life goes out the window.

My husband is a great help ferrying kids to sport and taking them on outings so the house is quiet. My kids are good cooks so that sometimes buys me an hour as they will often cook dinner. My family just seem to rally and get on with life around me until I pop up from my writing and daydreaming and join in. I’m not sure I have the perfect balance, but writing is a life of extremes and they get that. I tell myself that I’m teaching my kids how to work hard to achieve their goals.

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When I’m not writing, we have all the time in the world for hiking, sport, dinners and curling up with books together.

As for the garden, it’s actually pretty low maintenance. The kids help with the raking and some of the maintenance stuff, but I’ve had to relax and realise that I only have so many hours in the day. I have a lull between projects, so I plan to do some translating, pruning and raking to put my garden to bed for winter …

I see from your Instagram account that you are working on the next book, are we allowed to know a little about what’s coming next?

Hmmm, I’m keeping it a little close to my chest at the moment as I just finished and sent it to my publisher. It’s a far bigger, more powerful, story and I’ve undertaken an overseas research trip plus lots of reading and interviews from people who lived through this event to make my book hit just the right note.

It is another family mystery, set in two different eras (the first of which is just before WW2). There’s some new locations, plus lots of food, gardens and travel on the path to self-discovery.

The food in The Midsummer Garden made me feel equal parts hungry and impatient to expand my cooking repertoire. Can we be expecting any Midsummer Garden inspired cooking courses any time soon?

No, no cooking courses! But you are all welcome to come to our wine bar, Bellota (http://bellota.com.au/), in South Melbourne and enjoy the food and wine. We have a new chef, Nicky Riemer, and she is superb! I have set a cheeky scene in my next book in cool suburban wine bar …

And finally, what are your top three tips for writers?  
  1. Finish the damn book! ‘Can’t edit nothing’ has become my mantra. You don’t know if it is a book, or what the problems are until you’ve really wrestled with it to the end. You also don’t know how to solve the problems until you see how you do it.
  2. Get yourself some good readers and mentors. Be tough, don’t ask  Jan down the street who always says nice things. You need people who will be straight with you. (But it is crucial to be gracious with that feedback. Don’t throw a tantrum and behave like a toddler. You asked for the feedback, remember!)
  3. Do your research. It will give you something to cling to when there’s nothing else!

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To find out more about Kirsty, her writing and her fabulous garden, check out her website. If you would like to get lost in the adventures of Pip and Artemisia, you can buy The Midsummer Garden here or head over to my FaceBook page and enter the giveaway to win a signed copy.

 

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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!

 

 

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!

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!

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!

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?

birds-on-wire

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!