Mail and my novels

‘The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.’ 
- Lewis Carroll

Once upon a time I used to write letters. As a child I had many overseas pen friends who I enjoyed writing to. I would run to the mail box each day after school in anticipation of their reply. 

When I was backpacking in Europe in the early ‘90s I spent many evenings in the hostel writing countless pages to friends at home, filling them in on my adventures. 

Releasing my thoughts onto a piece of paper was cathartic and exciting and made me feel closer to home. I would sit for hours planning my letters, choosing exactly the right word or phrase to capture the experience. I would even get a thrill from sticking a foreign stamp onto the envelope and always hoped the recipient would appreciate its exoticism.

‘To write is human, to get mail, divine!’

With the advent of email, mobile phones, texting, Facebook and Twitter my letter writing stopped. I can’t remember the last time I put pen to paper to catch-up with a friend I’ve not seen in a while. It’s faster and more efficient, just to text them. 
We’re all following each other’s lives on Facebook anyway. But these are just snippets, a Kodak moment captured with an image, a few abbreviated words or an emoticon. There’s no real substance in a tweet. We’re living in a world where the word ‘address’ has a completely new meaning.

While technology has made our lives easier, it has also made obsolete the joy and the immense sense of satisfaction one receives from penning a lengthy and considered correspondence.

‘Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.’

As an author of historical fiction much of my research involves reading letters - correspondences written by and to the real life characters in my novels. Very often I feel a little like an eavesdropper, as though I’m listening in on a telephone conversation or reading someone else’s text messages. But it’s through these letters that I’m able to get an authentic glimpse of the person. In those days, people poured their hearts and souls onto the page. 

What will remain for historians and authors to scrutinise fifty years from now?
As letters were once one of the only means with which people could communicate they held a great deal of power. This is the reason I like to use them in my novels.

In Perfect North, set in the late 19th century, it is a series of love letters written by a doomed Arctic explorer to his fiancĂ©e that sparks the drama of the tale.

When Eleanor Roosevelt in The President’s Lunch is not knitting, she is writing to a friend or relation. The First Lady was an avid letter writer whose immense collection of correspondences gave me an intimate insight into her character.
In my latest book, Hummingbirds, the 18th century pirate Palgrave Williams uses letter writing as a safeguard, as a means of remembering his family in Cape Cod.

I would like to think that one day letter writing might come back into fashion. But I suspect it may not. Besides, I no longer know any of my friend’s addresses.

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

First draft of novel #3 is finished!

As my Facebook friends may have seen last week, I have recently completed the first draft of my third novel, Hummingbirds. However, the book still has a long way to fly until it lands on a bookstore shelf.
So what next? For me, the next step in the process of writing a book is letting someone else read it. Up until now it had been protected from all eyes apart from mine. This is deliberate and runs against the process of most other writers. But there are reasons for it:

- I’m a firm believer in the adage, Too many cooks …

- The first draft of my novels vary only slightly to the final published version. Of course, there are cuts, revisions and changes, commas are added and deleted and characters are fleshed out where necessary but, in general, there is no dramatic redrafting of the overall structure.

- I edit my own work as I write. This is something most writers and writing instructors frown upon. But I just can’t help myself. I need to have a scene near perfect before I can move on. This is, in fact, what I love most about the writing process - polishing the scene until it shines.

- I have discovered that it’s extremely difficult for a reader that is not well acquainted with historical fiction to step into the shoes of characters inhabiting another world entirely. As a reader, I have the same problem with science fiction and fantasy. Although I appreciate the genres, I cannot read it without scepticism.
My husband, Chris has the privilege of reading and suggesting changes to the first draft of my books. He is a journalist, editor and writer who has lived and breathed the written word for the past twenty-five years. I value his opinion and suggestions more than those of anyone else.

He began reading Hummingbirds on the weekend. I’ll be interested to hear what he thinks.

Do you have any comments or questions about my process?

Places of inspiration

Writers from Daniel Defoe and Herman Melville to Tim Winton and Yann Martel have used the ocean as the inspiration and setting for their novels. Winton has even written a wonderful children’s book called The Deep, about a young girl overcoming her fear of the sea.
I spent last week in the NSW seaside hamlet of Kiama, hoping to gain similar inspiration. My third novel centres around the pirate Sam Bellamy (aka ‘Black Sam’) and much of the action takes place in, on and around the sea.
It may not be the Caribbean (Sam Bellamy’s stomping ground), but I did find the coastline around Kiama to be extremely inspiring. During my morning walks along the harbour, up to the lighthouse and to the renowned Kiama Blowhole, I discovered that the ocean has many quickly varying moods and tempers. The trick will be bringing this to life in my book.
What types of places do you find inspiring?

Boardwalk Empire S5 - a historical fiction author's review

Since it debuted I have been a big fan of Boardwalk Empire. I consider the HBO drama to be historical fiction at its finest. The plot and character of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) are based on the real-life exploits of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, the king of bootlegging and racketeering in Atlantic City during the 1920s and 30s. In Boardwalk Empire real-life characters such as gangster Al Capone, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and entertainer Eddie Cantor are woven into the fictional narrative alongside invented characters with seamless ease. Creator Terence Winter and the team behind the much-acclaimed series invoke the glamour of the era as well as the poverty, lawlessness and violence associated with Prohibition.
When I tuned in to watch episode one of the fifth and final season a few weeks ago I learned the show has skipped seven years since the last series, with the action jumping to 1931. America is suffering through the worst years of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is being touted as the Democrats’ most likely candidate in the following year’s election. If the Democrats win then prohibition will be repealed and gangsters such as Nucky, who have made a fortune from bootlegging, will have to find another revenue stream.

Finding meaning in a holiday

Currently the ACT is the meat in a public holiday sandwich. Last Monday it was Family & Community Day, an ACT public holiday since 2007. The reason for this day off explained Andrew Barr, the Chief Minister for Industrial Relations at the time of the holiday’s creation, was 'to enable workers to take a break from their hectic working lives...'
This coming Monday the entire nation celebrates Labour Day, a commemoration of the achievements of unions to bring about the introduction of the eight-hour day in the late 1850s.

I like a public holiday as much as anyone, but I feel the meaning behind these days has been lost. When it comes to holidays I often wonder just what it is that we are celebrating. This is especially the case with bank holidays. Why should bankers get a special a day off?

Thanks to the research process for my novel THE PRESIDENT’S LUNCH, there is one historic bank holiday that I understand the significance of completely.