In what she describes as a ‘Five Faves Geneameme’ Jill Ball of Geniaus, the Australian family history blog, has invited other family history bloggers to share details of five books they’ve found most useful in their ‘geneactivities’. (Enough puns already … )
So here, whittled down with great difficulty and in no particular order, are my chosen inspirations:
Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, by Frank Welsh (The Overlook Press, New York, 2006)
Since my books are set very much in the context of early colonial Australia I needed to gen up on my history. This book is not just all-encompassing, it looks at Australia in the context of a larger colonial world. It’s also very readable and has a nice, wry take on historical events, which I really like.
Next on the list is Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988)
Also very readable, with some wonderful anecdotes about the New Chums in early colonial Australia. (The ‘New Chum’ was the Pom who arrived fresh-faced and dewy-eyed and ready to make his fortune on the land without knowing a horse from a heifer; a bit like me.) Essential introduction to a subject I knew nothing about.
Eleanor Dark was doing in the 1940s what other writers such as Kate Grenville don’t dare to do in the 21st century, which is to write about events such as the arrival of the First Fleet from the point of view of Aboriginal people. In fact she writes from the point of view of everyone, from Governor Phillip to convicts and settlers, evenly-handedly and with great perception and understanding. The Timeless Landis book one in a novel trilogy.
Macquarie Country by D G Bowd, (Library of Australian History, 1979)
I had to include this one. It’s about the Hawkesbury – where my ancestors made their first home in New South Wales in 1802 – in the days of Governor Macquarie. It even features my family, who were visited by the governor and his lady wife soon after they arrived in the colony. Full of vivid and useful detail about the earlier days of settlement.
In her memoir Old Days, Old Ways (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934)Mary Gilmore was actually writing about her childhood in the Riverina district in the latter part of the 19th century, where she was brought up. The book is a cornucopia of intricate and sometimes hilarious social history; such as the rope that was strung across the room during the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup ball in order to segregate the ‘grandees’ from the ‘commonage’; and the way in which ladies riding horses in crinolines wore weights in their hems in order that their ankles should remain hidden from the gentlemen. Like Eleanor Dark she writes with great humanity and understanding and, crucially, humour.
So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?
I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.
My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.
I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.
I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.
But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.
And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.
But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.
So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.
It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.
So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.
Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.
It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.
Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.
The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.
The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.
I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the World, were granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.
The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia
Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.
*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.
Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?
… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.
I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.
I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:
If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.
We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.
There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?
To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover.I’d be interested in your comments.
If Shakespeare had kept a diary there would arguably be far fewer books written about him.
If we knew for instance
What he got up to during the ‘missing years’
How he got to leave his home in Stratford and fetch up as an actor/playwright in London
How much of the 37 plays he actually wrote
Whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or someone else
Who the Dark Lady of the sonnets was
Whether or not he got on with his wife
Etc etc etc
We wouldn’t need to endlessly speculate. And it would not be half as much fun.
What will people say about you when you’re gone?
Diary-less ancestors tend to be remembered for what they did rather than what they might have said. Or rather for what they did that made the public records. So we are likely to know more about men than women, especially if they played a prominent part in society. We may also know more about the ones who got into trouble, and the ones with police records, especially if they ended up in Australia.
As a family historian I’d have given anything for my ancestors to have kept diaries so I knew exactly why my four times great grandmother decided to emigrate to a penal colony.
On the other hand lacking the facts gives one scope for one’s imagination; so what would have been a case of simple transcribing becomes something rather more creative. The challenge of filling in the gaps while remaining as true as possible to the character you think your four times great grandmother was, for instance, is a fascinating one.
Claudia kept a detailed diary of a crucial period in her life when she made a discovery that altered her entire outlook on life and on the people in it. The fact that she kept this diary in her loft, to be discovered by generations to come, suggests to me she wanted them to be found, and to be published.
Nonetheless such was the intimate nature of the diary I went to great lengths to protect her reputation by not just changing her name but the names, and some details, of her daughters and her friends, and a few other bits and pieces beside.
I have, from time to time. It makes for hilarious and sometimes embarrassing reading. It is also a handy reminder of the person you once used to be, and if you think – as I often have – you are still an eighteen-year-old wrapped up in a middle-aged woman’s body, it is good to be reminded that, actually, you aren’t.
But I wouldn’t want anyone to read them, no way. Unlike Claudia I will make a point of destroying them before I pop my clogs.
As Dorset gears itself for its annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival it is interesting to note that so many of the earliest free settlers to make their lives in the penal colony of New South Wales came from this same county.
The first family to take the plunge were Thomas and Jane Rose from Blandford with their four children, a niece, a friend and her baby. They migrated on the Bellona in 1792, just four years after the First Fleet planted the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
Nine years later it was the turn of my four times great grandmother Mary Pitt and her five children, from Fiddleford, subject of my book The Worst Country in the World.They arrived in 1801 and the following year were granted land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney.
It is hard to overestimate the courage of these early settlers, who sacrificed everything they had ever known to make a new life the opposite side of the world, living among convicts, in a country hardly anyone could be persuaded to go to voluntarily. The man responsible was – in the case of Mary and quite possibly the Roses too – George Matcham, Admiral Nelson’s brother-in-law.
George was Mary’s cousin and was married to Nelson’s sister Kitty. He was one of the first to recognise the opportunities in the far-off newly-discovered colony, even though he never went there himself. His relationship to Nelson helped, naturally. It was partly thanks to the Nelson connection that the Pitts were given grants on the Hawkesbury, which they named Pitt and Nelson Farms, later combined under the name of Bronte, again in recognition of the Admiral, whose full title was Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte.
The names Bronte and Nelson were and still are ubiquitous throughout Australia, not just on houses but on places – the suburb of Bronte in Sydney is named after nearby Bronte House – and people. There’s even a Bronte Park in Tasmania, named after the admiral by George’s son-in-law Captain Arthur Davies, who married George’s daughter Elizabeth and migrated there in the 1828.
But of all these groups the only ‘legitimates’ – in other words those transported ‘for their country’s good’ – were the Tolpuddle Martyrs themselves, who were convicted on a trumped-up charge of making a secret oath and spent barely two years in the penal colony before being released, thanks to public protest; and whose legacy lives on to this day.
No, I’m not going to tell you how to design your book cover. I will say find a professional to do it for you as there’s nothing worse than a shoddy cover, and I speak from painful experience.
I decided to change the cover of my non fiction book about my Australian ancestors. The book has been out for nearly four years and is selling reasonably well, but I figured it could do with a boost, and besides it received a general thumbs-down from my writer colleagues on the ALLi Facebook forum.
The photo is of the Hawkesbury River, where my story is largely set, and was taken by my good self a few years ago. Criticisms of it included the fact that it was not obviously about Australia, that the colour was wrong for that country, that the image contradicted the title (which was the point) and that it was too contemporary. Of all those the one comment that made sense to me was the last.
I found a designer, recommended by ALLi and as it happens Australian, and I found an image I liked – a 19th century painting of the Hawkesbury River by an artist called William Pigeunit. It had just the right element of threat.
Unfortunately while the picture itself is in the public domain I could not find a copy of it with a high enough resolution – I think that’s the term – ie, 1MB or more.
So I found another painting – A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts – again in the public domain but in the possession of an art gallery in Victoria, Australia. They wanted a fee to provide me with a high res image, and they also sent me a licence to sign promising we would not alter the image in any way, and asking to approve a proof of the cover before publishing. My designer (Jessica Bell) decided one way or another she couldn’t work with the picture without making alterations. So back to square one. In the end she worked on my original image, and the end result, which I am very happy with, is below.
Jessica has managed not just to make the picture a good deal more vivid (by comparison the original looks decidedly drab), she has added depth and interest, and the font suggests a story not set in contemporary times. The miniature silhouette of the woman’s head adds a touch of human interest and hints the book is about a woman, which it is.
So, I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know before in my many years of self publishing, and here they are for the edification of anyone out there contemplating using an existing painting for their book cover.
Make sure the image is out of copyright and in the public domain.
Make sure the image is at least 1MB.
Even if you’ve found an image in the public domain if it is not a high enough res you may have to pay for one that is.
It is up to the writer rather than the designer to check image copyright.
Your designer may and probably will have access to copyright-free images, so discuss it with her or him.
If your book is about a person or persons a touch of human interest in the cover is a good idea.
The writer isn’t necessarily the best judge of the sort of cover that will make a book sell.
That’s it really. I wish you the best of luck with your cover design adventure, and again if you have any queries get in touch!
On Tuesday evening courtesy of ALLI (The Alliance of Independent Authors) we had the pleasure of a talk from Andy Bromley from Ingram Spark.
When I first published The World Country in the World back in 2012 the only option for indie publishers was Amazon. Ingram, a family firm (then and now), existed as book distributors only, and their print arm Lightning Source was aimed largely at traditional publishers.
All that has now changed with the ‘Spark’ added specifically for independent authors.
The great advantage of Ingram Spark is that they have print outlets not just in the US but here in the UK (in Milton Keynes) and in Australia (Melbourne). This cuts down on both shipping costs and delivery time (although paradoxically ordering a book to be sent from the UK to Australia is, though quicker, more expensive if printed there – due presumably to GST). I’ve had my latest novel The Unlikely Adventures of Claudia Faraday printed by both Ingram Spark and Amazon Createspace and quality-wise there’s very little to choose between them except that the print on the IS version is very slightly clearer.
Ingram Spark is growing all the time and, much as we all love and hate Amazon it’s very good to see some competition. Submission is almost as easy as with Createspace, the only differences are:
The submission costs on Ingram Spark are $US49 for ebook and print or for print only, and $US25 for ebook only (ALLI members get a discount), as opposed to free on Createspace.
Amazon Createspace provides its own ISBN, for free, but this means your book will have Createspace printed on it, which tells everyone it’s self published. With Ingram Spark you provide your own ISBN (in the UK from Neilson, minimum of 10 costing £144), but you get to create and name your own publishing outfit so nobody can tell whether you are self- or traditionally published.
International – ie outside the US – distribution is cheaper and easier through Ingram Spark.
Received wisdom, confirmed by Andy Bromley, recommends for print versions of your book to use BOTH Amazon Createspace AND Ingram Spark. If you submit your book to Createspace and DON’T click on Expanded Distribution then all sales outside the US will go through Ingram Spark, under your own publisher’s name.
And another thing for Australian writers: The Book Depository (owned by Amazon) is apparently about to open up in Australia, and offers free worldwide delivery. Since Australian Amazon handles ebooks only it’s good to see another online company providing competition for print retailers such as Booktopia.
Also on the heels of Amazon is Wordery, an online bookshop handling print books only and offering free worldwide delivery (and currently better deals on both my books!).
I was chatting over the weekend with a writer friend who was having difficulty creating one of the characters in the book she was working on.
He was a real person from several centuries ago: an estate manager who fell in love with and married the boss’ daughter, resulting in her disinheritance from the family fortune. She couldn’t figure out what he looked like, how he spoke, walked, and so on. So I asked her when she sells the film rights to this as-yet-unwritten masterpiece, who she would cast in the role, which set us off into a flurry of googling thirty-/forty-something actors who could play both tough and tender, with a bit of the Four Musketeers thrown in.
My first suggestion, Tom Hiddleston, was rejected because he looked too ‘nice’, though I tried in vain to explain to my friend that his Coriolanus was far from ‘nice’. (That was just as well as I rather fancied him to play George Matcham, the tall, rich and elegant gentleman who appeared in my book.)
That got me thinking about who might play Claudia in my as-yet-to-be-published novel The Unlikely Adventures of … People from Glenda Jackson on complain still about the lack of parts for mature actresses, but I struggled to think of a suitable one. Vanessa Redgrave (a tad too old), Maggie Smith (too mannered), Judi Dench (perfect, if she was younger), Charlotte Rampling (at a pinch). I ended up eventually with Penelope Wilton.
This is not just a fun game, it’s a useful exercise for writers. If you can see your character, hear what she/he sounds like, it might just help to create him or her in the first place.