Back to work: The second draft

A week ago I returned from a six-week tour of Europe. The purpose of my journey was twofold. First, it was a celebration of twenty years of marriage. Second, I was researching my fourth novel which is partly based on the life of Frankenstein author, Mary Shelley. The trip was designed to add colour and a little more authenticity to the story. In December, a few weeks before we left, I completed the first draft of this book. My computer hissed then fizzed and expired in a small pouf only moments after I placed the final full-stop on the page. It was a dramatic final punctuation point, I thought, that perfectly reflected my emotional state at the time of completion. Despite my computer’s pyrotechnics, at the time I thought the manuscript was pretty near perfect. Well, as perfect as I was ever going to get it.
Here it is, in all its perfection
It was an extraordinary six weeks (see our family travel blog HERE). By means of plane, train and automobile we crossed England, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, with side steps into France and Austria, and followed the path laid down by Mary and her partner, Percy Bysshe Shelley, on one of their ‘Grand Tours’ 200 years ago. Specifically, it was the tour during which she came up with the idea for Frankenstein.
My son thought Frankenstein's monster was quite charming!
Not only was the trip a fantastic experience for the family, but visiting sites where Mary Shelley lived and worked, places she found inspiring and that were crucial in her development as a writer and as a woman, not only inspired me but forced me to look at my first draft in an entirely different light. About a week into the trip I realised the first draft was far from perfect. In fact, it was exactly what writer Anne Lamott believes all first drafts are – ‘shitty’. A splash of colour was what I was after, but what I got was an entirely new palette.

Was I thrown? Not in the slightest!

With 16,000 kilometres between me and my manuscript, I was overcome with fresh ideas and energised by new possibilities for the manuscript. I took copious and detailed notes, snapped hundreds of photos and wrote new scenes in messy longhand that came to me as I moved forward on my journey. But now I’m back, with my manuscript in front of me, with only centimetres separating us, I am terrified.
Outside Villa Diodati, where Mary was challenged to write a ghost story
I can’t ignore what I saw and learned on the tour. I can’t close the new windows in plot and character that have been opened. The horse has already bolted (I know I’m mixing metaphors here…). So now jet lag has disappeared and the kids are back at school I have to begin the daunting task of redrafting my novel. It’s like the diligent ladies who embroidered the Bayeaux Tapestry tying off their final stitch then saying, ‘I think a darker shade of blue would work better. Let’s unpick it and start again.’

So where do I begin?

At the beginning.

Chapter one. Page one. Paragraph one. Sentence #1. At the very first word.
A side trip into stunning Annecy, in France
Over the next six months I’ll be unstitching scenes, cutting them, shuffling and reshaping them, weaving new threads and varying shades of colour that I discovered during the trip. I’ll be wracking my brain for hours, possibly days, until the perfect word comes to mind, until the various components of a single sentence drop in impeccable alignment. I’ll be creating new scenes and characters and also fleshing out and adding weight to a few of the minor characters who I realised I’ve allowed to starve. I’ll also be trimming back others with whom I’ve been indulgent because they’ve become friends and I liked hanging out with them. I’ll be rewriting dialogue, reading it aloud until I know the words by heart. I’ll be painstakingly examining every stitch, every strand, one scene at a time. I’ll be frustrated then joyful then depressed then, one day down the track, I’ll be satisfied. Fingers crossed.

And when I think draft #2 is perfect?

Draft #3.
By the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley

A writer’s diet

People are always shocked when I tell them that I don’t read for pleasure any longer. I simply don’t have the time. I have two young children and when they’re out of the house, I write.

That’s not to say I don’t read, but the books I read are associated with what I am writing – biographies and autobiographies of the real people in my novels. And i do enjoy them. But it has been a while since I have read a work of fiction for pleasure.
A small collection of books I have had to devour
in order to write my novels.
For a long time this concerned me because before I had children, I read all the time. I would consume two novels a week. As I saw it, reading and writing went hand in hand. For an author to remain creative, their imagination must be fed. I believed all authors should be nourished by a colourful buffet of fiction and non-fiction, meaning my current diet is severely lacking. Click here for Jenni Curry’s take on this dilemma.
How's your literary diet?
However, my publisher recently eased my mind. She told me that many authors refuse to read while they’re writing, fearful they might unconsciously steal another writer’s ideas and images. They prefer to keep temptation well out of reach.

I don’t think I’m one of those writers and probably, once my children are older and I have more time to myself, I will begin reading for pleasure again. But until then I am on a strict diet...

Weird & wacky research

As an author of historical fiction I am frequently diverted down surprising and unusual roads in my pursuit of historical accuracy.

Below are the top five topics I’ve found myself researching in recent weeks.

  1. The treatment of bovine mastitis in Puritan New England. Rubbing peppermint oil on the udder eased the cow’s discomfort.
  2. Stage coach travel to and from London in the early 19th century. Expensive, slow and arduous. Click here if you’d like to learn more on this topic. It’s quite fascinating! 
  3. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Architect Sir Christopher Wren conceived the dome, while Sir James Thornhill painted the inside of the structure. It features eight scenes from the life of St Paul.
  4. The funeral of Baroness Thatcher. It lasted three hours and I watched every minute on YouTube.
  5. The letter writing habits of Caribbean pirates in 1715. Those that were literate did correspond with loved ones at home. However, the chances of the letter ever reaching its destination were slim.

Starting your novel

I've been procrastinating since Christmas. Starting work on my fourth novel has been difficult. At first, I used the school holidays as an excuse. Since the kids began back at school, I've been telling myself that I haven't progressed enough with the research.

The truth is, I've been frightened. What if a publisher doesn't want it? What if I spend twelve to eighteen months of my life writing this book and nobody reads it? What if it isn't a success?

There's simply no certainty in writing a book.

Was Edmund Hillary certain he would reach the summit of Mount Everest when he took the first step in 1953?

Then I asked myself, what's the worst thing that can happen? A publisher might not buy it. My manuscript may never see the light of day. This isn't such a catastrophe in the big scheme of things. At least I'm certain I'll not get frost bite.

Nevertheless, it's nerve wracking starting out, putting the first word on the page. It's a leap of faith. But it's a leap I'm proud to say I've now taken.

How did I overcome my fear and begin writing?       

There's a story in me that needs to be written. I really had no choice.

HERE are some great pointers about staying positive and focussed when you're writing a novel.

My journey into books and reading

When were you first bitten by the book bug?

Unlike most authors I didn’t grow up surrounded by books. As a child I was neither encouraged nor discouraged to read. Books just weren’t something my family discussed. I can’t remember my parents reading anything apart from newspapers and magazines.

Like all children I brought home my first readers from school in kindergarten. They featured Pam, Sam and Digger. I can’t recall bringing home any books after kindergarten. My brother began reading me the books of Dr Seuss, but I didn’t like them. I didn’t appreciate the magic of Dr Seuss until I was older.
I find myself wondering how I learned to read.

When I was seven or eight years old my mother began sending me to the corner shop every afternoon with fifty cents. My task was to purchase The Daily Mirror. This was back in the days when newspapers had a morning and an afternoon edition. 

I took to scanning the front page as I walked back up the hill to my home. Initially I just examined the images. Soon I began reading the articles. I’d lean on a fence or sit on a neighbour’s wall eating the Freckles I had bought with the change while I read the stories and the cartoons.

While Pam, Sam and Digger had taught me the basics, it was on these walks home that I learned to read proficiently.
With knowledge comes power. I wanted to read more. I began on the Trixie Belden mysteries - a series of children’s books about a girl detective. These books were recommended by my school librarian. I was hooked. Hungry for more, I quickly moved on to the Agatha Christie mysteries. My mother had recently seen an advertisement in a magazine and as a result purchased the entire collection. They were hardcover and the dust jackets featured images such as a dagger, a vial of poison or a smoking pistol, sensational images that appealed to my ten-year-old self.
Now there was no stopping me. In final year at school, when I was seventeen, I received an award for being the student that had borrowed the most books from the school library.

Now, as a parent, I encourage my kids to read and I read to them every day. I want to nurture their love of stories as much as possible. I’m not going to leave it to chance .

If you’re interested in what’s best for kids to read, as I am, check out this article that covers both sides of the debate.

Terrible Titles

I’ve been tagged by my friend and fellow writer, Rebecca James, to join in the Terrible Titles Blog Hop.

Here’s how it works:

Authors scroll through their current manuscript and let their cursor fall on random places. Those words or phrases become the alternate, terrible title for their novel. I’m scrolling through my latest manuscript, currently titled Hummingbirds. But after this, perhaps that title will change!

I’ve discovered some doozies hidden among the pages...

1. Tarnished Vase
2. Break Her
3. Fifty Hogsheads of Sugar
4. Troublesome Old Fart
5. The Most Profitable Brothel on the Island
6. Raw Iron and Earth
7. Gnarled Potatoes
8. Liberal Views

My personal favourite is Fifty Hogsheads of Sugar. The casual, not-too-attentive book browser might mistake it for Fifty Shades of Grey. It would fly off the shelves!

One of my favourite real-life bizarre titles is on a book by my author friend Mark Dapin - Fridge Magnets Are Bastards.

Captain Trimmer's self-published book won an award for
Oddest Title Of The Year in 1992, and went into second edition!
Malcolm Bradbury attracted attention
with this wonderful title.

Historical fiction: marrying reality and invention

Since THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH was released in July 2014 I’ve been invited to speak at a number of reader events and book clubs. At these events people most like to discuss the real characters in the novel - Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - and the research I carried out in order to gain an insight into the lives of these extraordinary individuals.

When I spotted this Citroen Tourer at the National Museum of Australia, 
it struck me as just the kind of car Monty Chapel would drive.
There’s no denying that the president and his wife are worth talking about, but I don’t feel that I, as the author, made these characters extraordinary. In reality, Franklin and Eleanor were remarkable people long before I ever began writing about them. I merely portrayed a portion of their lives in print.
World War 2 correspondents such as the 'Murrow Boys'
were my inspiration for Sam Jacobson.
That’s why, a couple of Sundays ago when I visited a book club to chat about THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH, I was delighted when the women revealed they would prefer to discuss the fictional characters. These are characters that were born in my own imagination, people I sweated over to bring to life on the page. There were no biographies, memoirs, diaries or letters to read. There were no photographs or historical documents to scour. These are the characters in THE PRESIDENT'S LUNCH that are my real achievement.
It was the clothes of American designer Elizabeth Hawes
that helped me shape the character of Iris McIntosh.
It is extremely hard work researching real-life characters. Visiting libraries and reading endless lists of autobiographies and other historical texts takes time and discipline. Then organising the resulting information and utilising it well takes patience.

However, I consider it far more challenging to create a believable life for characters who never existed. And that’s what the ladies at the book club understood and appreciated.

Rear Window

The most common question people ask me is why I became an author. I never have a satisfactory response to this query. The truth is I haven’t been certain of the answer until today.

Once or twice a week I take an early morning bike ride around the lake not far from our house. And when I say early, I mean early. Sunrise. I ride along bike paths from my home to the lake and back again. It’s a round trip of 22 kilometres. It’s peaceful and relaxing and allows me the solitude and time to reflect on the present, the future and, of course, my novels.
The view from my bike seat
But it struck me this morning that I enjoy the excursion for one other reason – the peek I get into other peoples’ lives.

As I ride by the homes that back onto the bike paths I glance into the window of a townhouse and see a middle-aged woman in a faded dressing gown, staring seriously into an open fridge as though the contents will provide her with the meaning she’s been seeking.

In another house I spy an elderly woman in a comfy recliner. She is watching television, the early news I guess. There’s an expression of severe consternation on her face. It’s not even six, yet she’s already dressed in a skirt, blouse and lace-up shoes. Hot rollers cover her head. I muse on the possibilities. Where is she heading today and what news story has concerned her so?

In another home a man pounds away on a treadmill that’s situated in his living room. A woman, his wife I presume, sits straight-backed at a table drinking coffee. There’s a newspaper in front of her. The living room overlooks the lake and I find myself wondering why he is not running outdoors. Agoraphobia? Ornithophobia?
I know, it all seems a bit creepy. It’s a bad habit, I admit. But don’t worry, I’m not gawking through key holes or drilling peep holes in walls … yet.

So that’s the answer, I suppose. Why did I become an author? I simply like creating stories about people. As my legs turn the bike pedals I am working out my creativity as well as my body. And perhaps one day during a ride I’ll see something I can turn into a nifty premise for a novel.