How to Write a Female

I thought I’d write this post to help demystify the female thought process somewhat.

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A regular theme on Twitter this year (and possibly every year, I’ve only really been paying attention this year) is how poorly some male authors write women. I haven’t noticed it myself, except when the writing in general is poor, but I thought I’d write this post to help demystify the female thought process somewhat. This blog presupposes that you are familiar with the ‘girl with the nail in her head’ clip. If not you can watch it here.

What follows is a behind the scenes look at what is actually going on in the minds of the two characters in the skit.

 

Male: There’s a freaking nail in your head. Of course you feel pressure. Take it out. Are you an idiot?

 

Female: Thank you genius. I know there is a nail in my head, I am not an idiot (I can’t believe you even thought that, is that what you really think of me? I thought we had a better understanding and more mutual respect than that. Sometimes I feel like you don’t even know me at all). And I’m a girl, moron, I do look in the mirror occasionally. But why is the nail there? Is that all that’s causing the pressure, or was it put in to help alleviate the pain? How far in has it gone? Has it pierced my skull, or, dear Lord, my brain? I can’t just pull it out, what if it has hit an artery and that small piece of metal is all that’s stopping me from haemorrhaging?

I should get an MRI. Except I can’t. no metal in an MRI machine, which means I have to have a CT scan and I’ve heard those things give you like a ton of radiation, what if I get cancer, or can’t have children after going in one of those machines? Not that I’m ready for children, because I’m not, I mean I need to graduate and then work for a while and really establish myself, you have no idea how competitive my field is, I can’t be distracted by kids right now. But after a few years, for sure I want kids. Maybe a bunch, I don’t know. But I guess I can’t have kids if I die of a brain infection thanks to this stupid nail in my head, so I’ll just have to have the CT and hope for the best. Maybe if I do some yoga or something beforehand it’ll help.

I may even have to have surgery. And they’ll keep me awake while they’re messing around in my head and that is so freaking weird I can’t even begin to think about that right now. And when it’s out, what then? I’ll have a hole right in the middle of my forehead. I’ll have to have plastic surgery, and don’t think I don’t know where they’ll get the extra skin from, the place they always get it from. The butt. So I’ll be a butt head. Great. I don’t need you to tell me there is a nail in my head and that it needs to come out Captain Obvious, I need you to listen to me and understand how terrifying this is for me, and give me the support I need to get through this. I don’t need you to solve anything; unless you’re some kind of brain surgeon suddenly, you can’t. So stop stating the obvious and please just listen and help me through the emotional stress of this whole ordeal.

OK?

 

Male: Wait – you want kids?

 

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 …

 

herb bouquets

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.

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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.

 

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. 
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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!

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!

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!

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!

Hidden Moments of Humanity

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

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

I wonder if the Fascist commander realised that too?

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

Submitting your manuscript: tips from the team at Hachette Australia

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

How exactly does one submit a manuscript to a publisher?

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

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

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

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

Here is what I learnt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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