It doesn’t have a title yet. Or a contract. But here’s a taste…
Writing Historical Fiction
People often ask how authors motivate themselves when working so much alone, particularly if they have no looming deadline. As a writer of historical fiction, one of my tactics is to read myself into motivation. In the early stages of a new book idea I don’t have the impetus of lots of words already written to get me going, so I turn to other authors’ words (usually nonfiction) to inspire my creativity. Prod it along, so to speak. Inevitably an idea strikes. In other words, for me reading = writing.
Here is a stack of books I turned to when writing my latest novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. Perhaps the titles will give you a few clues as to its setting. If you sense that the book covers quite a bit of territory, you’d be right. Set in the early twentieth century, it moves from a grand country house in Devon, England, to a homestead in rural Australia. Life in the English Country House and Historic Homesteads are both excellent pictorial references that helped me envisage these settings. And Servants was an excellent resource to understand the relationship between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ at that time.
Along the way, the characters travel by ship through the Suez Canal, sailing via Colombo, Sri Lanka, before reaching Australia. Two Happy Years in Ceylon is a reprinted travelogue from the late nineteenth-century, and a treasure trove of description about Sri Lanka at that time from an English traveller’s perspective.
And although the novel isn’t set on the battlefields of World War One, the characters’ lives are impacted by these events. Hence, Vera Brittain’s must-read Testament of Youth, Juliet Nicholson’s The Great Silence and several wonderful and moving collections of letters and diaries by Australian soldiers, which helped give an authentic voice to some of the passages in the novel.
There were many more books, of course, plus a myriad of online sources. But these were a few that really helped me through some rough patches in the writing process.
The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay
My latest novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay is a darkly gripping, dual-time novel, with a wealth of twists, turns and secrets.
Rose and ivy board a ship for Australia. One is travelling there to marry a man she has never met. One is destined never to arrive.
Amongst her late grandmother’s possessions, Molly uncovers a photograph of two girls dressed in First World War nurses’ uniforms, labelled ‘Rose and Ivy 1917’, and a letter from her grandmother asking her to find out what happened to her own mother Rose, who disappeared in the 1960s.
Compelled to carry out her grandmother’s last wish, Molly embarks on a journey to England to unravel the mystery of the two girls whose photograph promised they’d be ‘together forever’…
Praise for The secrets of bridgewater bay
‘I thoroughly enjoyed this immersive story which spans both generations and continents. The evocative details and impeccable research make for a delightful reading experience and I can pay it no greater compliment other than to say, I wish I’d written it‘ KATHRYN HUGHES
‘A sweeping tale of family secrets, betrayal, jealousy, ambition and forbidden romance . . . Fans of The Thorn Birds and Downton Abbey will love the epic scope of this novel’ ALI MERCER
‘This is an epic dual-time novel which draws the reader in right from the start and keeps you in thrall until the very last page. The writing is superb, the descriptions detailed, lush and evocative’ CHRISTINA COURTENAY
‘A gripping story full of family secrets: the price of love and loss within two generations . . . convincing and poignant’ LEAH FLEMING
‘Rich in evocative detail – the complex mystery kept me guessing right up to the last page’ MUNA SHEHADI
Living Arts Canberra Podcast
Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Barbie Robinson at Living Arts Canberra about The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. You can catch the interview and read her review of the book at https://www.livingartscanberra.com.au/julie-brooks-the-secrets-of-bridgewater-bay/
Living Arts Canberra features interviews with authors from many genres and for various audiences so there’s something for everyone. It also features stories on local artists and events in the Canberra region. Please do take a look if you live nearby or are travelling to Canberra.
A vista of images is more inspiring than a blank wall for this writer.
As a writer of historical fiction I am always collecting images as part of my research. Maps, plans, photographs, drawings and paintings, all form part of my collection. I file some in topic folders with other clippings and print-outs of reference material, but others I blu-tack to the the wall my desk faces as a constant reference and source of inspiration.
If you look closely at the photographs on this page you’ll see a central image of two WW1 nurses that was an early source of inspiration for The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. In a way, this photograph set the mood for the entire novel. And around it I added other images that became integral to the story.
Some are photographs I took myself, of locations that appear in the novel. Others are historical photographs of people, places and objects from the early years of the 20th century when the novel is set. Clothing, cars, houses, ships, even a doll’s house that caught my attention and demanded to be included in the story. Of particular inspiration to the mood of the novel were the historical photographs of Colombo in Sri Lanka and Port Said, Egypt. Whenever I felt lost, uncertain where the story needed to go next, or not feeling very inspired, my wall of images lured me back.
As I write, I am about to begin a wall for a new story. Be prepared for Sussex cottages, Regency dresses and the mighty Brisbane River.
Home Sweet Homestead
As a writer of historical fiction, there is nothing more helpful than being able to experience the places I’m writing about. Travelling to the cities and countryside where my characters would have lived or journeyed, helps me picture the sights, scents and sounds of my story. Being able to walk through buildings from the time is especially useful in plotting action. If I can see a floor plan in my mind, the action becomes more real. Of course, this isn’t always possible. But even getting close helps me enter the story world.
One of the setttings for my novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay is the homestead of a sheep property in the Western District of Victoria, Australia. Luckily for me, I have spent time at properties like this over the years, so it was easy to imagine my characters living in one of these Victorian-era bluestone homesteads. The dark granite was spat from volcanoes thousands of years ago. The Indigenous people used it to build their homes, eel and fishtraps, while the European settlers who came after used it to build shearers cottages, drystone walls, homesteads, woolsheds, and pubs, of course!
The woolshed at Skene
The veranda at Tarndwarncoort
The rear of Tarndwarncoort showing the earlier cottage
Another grand woolshed at South Mokanger
Decades ago (let’s not reveal exactly how many) I lived in a timber cottage on a 5000-acre sheep and wheat farm known as Skene. Skene is graced by a large bluestone homestead with a later 1920s facade, and to my young teacher’s eyes, it had what seemed like a hundred rooms. It also had a particularly magnificent woolshed.
Several years ago, I spent a wonderful Easter holiday staying at Tarndwarncoort, another Western District homestead built largely of bluestone. The original modest house of rubble walls has been incorporated into a later, grander Victorian Italianate style building.
And more recently my partner and I, accompanied by our ancient dog, stayed in a shearer’s cottage at South Mokanger, with a fine view of its woolshed sprawling grandly under the spreading branches of ancient redgums.
All these places have made a contribution to my vision of Wuurnong, the homestead in The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. The towering bunya pines, the verandas, the old settlers chairs, the dams, the view over volcanic plains — all helped me envisage how the action would transpire and how my characters might inhabit this setting.
A day trip to remind me of Wye River, one of the locales for my novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay, became fraught with danger when the locals attacked.
Wye River is a small bay on the southwest coast of Victoria. What it lacks in size it makes up for with its panoramic views, its great surf and its popular pub. (I was lucky enough to see a breaching whale from the pub’s veranda one lazy Sunday afternoon.)
Last year, in a brief hiatus from lockdown, my partner and I took a drive down to Wye River to take some photographs of the beach where one of my characters experiences a life altering event. The river flows gently into the sea here, or at least it does most of the time. Sometimes the water pools behind the sand. The beach is cradled at both points of the bay by tidal rock pools. And while the sea looks gentle in these photographs there are rips that can drag the unwary swimmer far out to sea.
But back to the animals. We made a lunch stop at Lorne on the way down, where the local cockatoos got up close and personal with my lunch. My crime? Eating a sausage roll uninvited. Before I knew it, my lunch was gone. And so were the cockatoos.
Road Trip Two
Strange encounters of the feathered kind…
In a previous post I alluded to the feral goats I encountered on a road trip to North Devon, while researching my novel The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay. A further trip to south west Victoria, a region I have visited often in the past, brought a strange encounter with a very large, feathered opportunist.
As parts of the novel are set on a farming property in this volcanic region I wanted to refresh my memory of the countryside. The volcanic soils make it perfect for farming and it is famed for its wool, dairy and wheat. The old cones of dormant volcanoes speckle the rich farmlands, many of them with lake-filled craters. For example, Lake Purrumbete, near Camperdown, is one of the world’s largest crater lakes at 2.8 kilometres across.
The basalt rocks that once spewed from these volcanoes are ubiquitous as building materials throughout the area. Dry stone fences, woolsheds and homesteads are all constructed of this dark blue/grey stone, including the fictional homestead ‘Wuurnong’ of my novel. As a young woman I lived for a year on a 5000-acre sheep and wheat property in this region and I remember its magnificent bluestone woolshed. I think I was more impressed by the woolshed than the grand bluestone homestead.
Anyway, a refresher trip was called for and a pitstop on that journey was one of my favourite picnic and walking spots near Warrnambool — Tower Hill. Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve sits in a volcanic crater at the heart of a cone shaped hill, partly filled by a lake. It is part of the Aboriginal cultural landscape and visitors can join a walk through the reserve with a guide from the local Worn Gundidj people. Another interesting fact about Tower Hill is that the land was degraded by pastoral activities but in the 1960s volunteer groups began replanting the crater using a 1855 painting by colonial painter Eugene von Gerard as a guide.
Tower Hill is renowned for its wildlife, with 150 species of birds, grey kangaroos, koalas and… emus. I had encountered the emus of Tower Hill before. One tried to steal an ice cream from my son on a previous trip. (At a winery picnic an emu stole one of those hard umbrella-shaped lollies on a stick from a friend’s child and we watched in horror the lollie’s progress down that poor emu’s very, very long neck).
This time my husband and I looked on fascinated as the emu in the photograph strode over to a tradie taking time out to eat lunch in his ute with the window open. As the emu approached, the sensible man quickly closed his window. Then we all watched in amusement as it knocked on the window with its beak for about a minute before walking away in disgust when the man refused to wind down the window and offer it his sandwich.
The rangers ask that you don’t feed the animals. But I think they forgot to tell the emus.
Road Trip One
The furred and feathered friends you make are the highlight of any road trip.
One of the best aspects of research has to be the road trip. In researching The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay I made several road trips. I dragged my partner around south west Victoria a couple of times (posts to follow) but exploring North Devon on a trip to the UK was most exciting for this Australian author.
The rugged coastline is wild and reminded me a great deal of the Victorian coast. The biggest difference between the two is that North Devon is so green and lush, whereas the south west coast of Victoria is sheer rock with windblown coastal scrub. The Devon coast is known for its smugglers and wreckers in centuries past, while this region of Victoria is known as the Shipwreck Coast. Both are highly dramatic and make for wonderful scenery.
She noticed the headlands jutting out into the Bristol Channel, like giant paws clawing a tenuous hold from the seaThe Secrets of Bridgewater Bay
Our road trip around North Devon included getting lost on Exmoor in a fog because I thought I knew better than the satellite navigation. I still say it deliberately led me astray! We had a few close calls on those narrow one-lane country roads too until we got the hang of the lay-bys.
We were charmed by Ilfracombe, Lynton and Lee Bay but it was Valley of the Rocks where we had our most surprising encounter. I’d read about the feral goats living in the area and was scanning the rock formations searching for them, quite excited to spot a few in the distance, when I turned around and discovered these fellas walking along the top of a stone wall. Of course I had to include them in the book.
When I decided to set the first chapter of The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay in a Victorian coastal town, Port Fairy came to mind immediately. It’s a popular holiday town but also one of the oldest European settlements in Victoria. On the banks of the Moyne River, adjacent to a small historic island that is home to a colony of shearwaters and with a great surf beach, Port Fairy has plenty of atmosphere. It’s also a fishing port and its streets are lined with early colonial architecture.
She listened to the water lapping at the pylons and fancied it beckoning softly to all those who would venture out into unknown seas.The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay
The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay is a dual-time novel and my contemporary protagonist’s family hail from this region of Australia. I decided I needed to find her grandmother a suitable house in Port Fairy. The house where she discovers that first clue to the disappearance of her great-grandmother Rose.
There are numerous simple stone cottages in Port Fairy, mostly built in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many are built from the local basalt, a volcanic rock found throughout the area. South-west Victoria is pockmarked with 400 volcanoes, now long dormant, but they have left behind craters filled with lakes. More of that in another post.
For the moment, imagine my character Molly sifting through the contents of her dead grandmother’s home and wandering along the boardwalk by the river, haunted by the ghosts of her own past.
The boardwalk along the Moyne River, Port Fairy
Some writers hate revising but it’s my favourite part of the writing process. It means I’ve done the hardest part – conquered the blank page.
So here I am, at my final draft before I submit the manuscript for my next book to my editor, and I’m working with hard copy again. This time I’ve printed the manuscript on green paper to trick me into seeing it with fresh eyes. And it has caused me to rethink my first page completely. Actually, it has caused me to rethink the entire first chapter.
It has also prompted me to cut swathes of writing that I previously thought quite brilliant. I thought I’d already done a structural edit and a line edit so the story was dressed and ready to walk out the door. But no…
Re-reading in hard copy (aloud until my throat began protesting) can give the writer an entirely new perspective so that you see things you didn’t notice on the screen. I suspect that’s because it’s closer to the experience of reading a finished book. This is especially so if you don’t fiddle with the little things on that reading. Just consider the story’s pace and flow and mood.
And do put the manuscript aside for a couple of weeks before you begin the process.
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