Sometimes I can’t believe my luck that I get to do this unbelievable job and have people read my stories.
Creating the story world
There are no wizards or warriors in my novels, but I do get to create my own worlds. They are as true to history as I can make them, yet still very much a product of my imagination. Like a bower bird, I pick and choose my favourite pieces to construct the story world. Sometimes the tiniest details tell the story more precisely than pages of description. In The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay, it is middle-aged Rose’s twinset and stockings and child Rose’s enormous collar flapping at her shoulders that tell us when the story is set as much as any date. Plus, I can call my main characters after my grandmothers if I feel like it. After all, I am the boss of my story world.
Researching the facts
Research is so addictive that it can be difficult knowing when to stop. For The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay, I immersed myself in books about life in the trenches of World War One, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, grand country houses, passenger ships and early twentieth-century Sri Lanka. But not every fact needs to go into the novel. (Actually, readers will be relieved that ninety-nine percent wasn’t included.) Do my readers need to know everything about life in the trenches? Probably not. But knowing that the men were shipped about ‘like livestock in horseboxes labelled “40 hommes, 8 cheveux”’, and spent ‘half their day hunting lice from their clothes and the other half chasing rats’ gives them a pretty good idea.
Planning the puzzle
Every novel is a puzzle. Somewhere near the beginning, the writer poses a central story question that the reader will want answered. In The Secrets of Bridgewater Bay that question is ‘What happened to Rose?’. So how to create the puzzle the reader must solve to answer that question? It’s all part of the fun.
Engaging the reader
Speaking of puzzles, I’m not a writer who wants the answer to come as a total shock. Actually, when I read a novel where the person who ‘dunnit’ hardly features in the story I feel cheated. I love that writer and reader go on a journey together where the writer plants the clues and the reader finds them. Maybe they’ll guess the answer then a later clue will leave them doubting that guess, often several times over. It’s the twists that matter.
Holding the book in my hands
Oh, that moment when the box of author copies arrives and I hold my amazing new book in my hands for the first time. I can’t resist sniffing the pages, running my hands over the jacket and turning the book this way and that so the light catches the pretty colours. And then I think about all the people involved in creating this lovely thing and all the people who will read it and I feel privileged to be a writer.
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.
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.
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.