Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Can you write a novel if you've never read one?

Can you write a novel if you've never read one? I'm sure there are a whole host of people out there anxious to assure me that it can and has been done. I welcome the comments and the lists of books written by non-reading writers. If they are available I promise to check them out. I wonder if any of the writers have taken the novel writing courses I teach.

One young man, a few years ago, told me he didn't need to read anything to be able to write his crime novel set in New York. He'd watched every episode of Law and Order on television. He hadn't been to New York either which, alas, neither have I. he wasn't able to tell me anything about the environment in which his crime was being perpetrated, where his villians lived, where the actioned happened or even what the weather was like on that particular day. He though, perhaps, he would borrow the Lonely Planet Guide for New York from the library so he could answer my questions.

I can't remember his name so I don't know whether he achieved his goal of writing the great New York crime novel. I do know, that teaching novel writing to the non-readers in any class does present some challenges. Fortunately they do tend to be in the minority in each new batch of students I face.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ancestor Worship

Why are we so fascinated by the lives our forebears lived? What makes us want to unravel the mysteries surrounding their decision to up and leave the countries of their birth for the unknown of the New World? Are we still so insecure about our identity that we need to relate ourselves to our parents, grandparents or great grandparents places of origin? Or do we simply need to dig about in the past to find something salacious, secret or scandalous in our family tree which will set us apart from the rest of humanity? Or perhaps it's just plain curiosity, or the need to fill in the gaps between family legend and the real story.

Whatever the reason, genealogy has become an obsession for many. There are societies in every town made up of dedicated family historians who, when they are not delving into their own ancestry, are providing advice to newcomers about to embark on their search into the past. Until recently this required considerable patience and stamina. Endless hours had to be endured reading microfiche records and microfilm copies of newspapers in state and regional libraries for the chance of finding mention of ancient relatives. To trace them back to their country of origin was even more difficult. if overseas travel was out of the question, the researcher had to rely on inconsistent lines of communication by mail.

Not anymore. So much is on the internet. Births, deaths, marriages, shipping records and so much more! Genealogical centres are contactable by email although it still falls to volunteers to field requests and provide answers. Websites and blogs abound as I found out when I went looking for sites on which I could advertise my own efforts to tell the story of why my mother's family came to Victoria during the middle of the 19th century. Anyone who is interested in the Irish Famine Orphans, the impact of the Young Ireland uprising and the devastation heaped on places like County Clare will no doubt relate to the story which runs though my Famine novel Brigid.

where to get Brigid

Monday, March 21, 2011

Workshopping in Ballarat

Congratulations to Ballarat Writers Inc. In response to requests from members, this year they have instituted a series of writing workshops which are open to both members and those outside the organisation who are keen to improve their writing skills. The first of the workshops was held in the Williamson Foyer of the Ballarat mechanics' Institute on Saturday 12th March. Called Getting Published it was presented by freelance writer and cartoonist Sheila Hollingworth. Further workshops will be presented throughout the year dealing with aspects of the writing process. The final one for the year, in November will cater for all the poets of the region. Full details of the workshops can be found on the website www.ballaratwriters.com

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An Irish Obsession

For more than a decade from the mid 1990s I seemed to be spending much of my psychological time in the 19th century. Physically, during the last years of the 20th century I was a boarding house mistress at one of the exclusive girls schools on Sydney's leafy North Shore sharing a house with 30 year 9 girls - the rampant hormone year. Than as we moved towards the 21st century I accepted a scholarship from the University of Ballarat to write a novel as part of my PhD so my mind stayed in the 19th century and the people who inhabited it with me were mostly Irish. Some were real people I read about in the history books I was devouring for my exigesis. Others were figments of my imagination created to perform fictional duties in the plots I was devising.

The first of them was O'Shaughnessy, a cultured man of medicine, exiled to Van Diemen's Land for his part in Young Ireland activities and from there to the infamous Norfolk Island were the commandant and his lieutenants exercised a sadistic brutality over the convicts in their charge. Two history tours to Norfolk Island led to the writing of the romantic drama The Pines Hold their Secrets.
For more details about the Pines Hold Their Secrets

Having studied the tumultuous history of Ireland up to and including the Great Potato Famine so I could develop the characters and the plot lines for the Pines Hold their Secrets I decided it was time to become physically acquainted with the place. My daughter suggested I take a package tour so I wouldn't be lonely, or get lost, or both. Loneliness didn't bother me. You can be lonely anywhere and my experience of package tours through Asia many years ago had turned me off that mode of travel.

As a child I always had imaginary friends, so as a concession to Emma, I decided to take my oldest Australian relative with me. Her name was Bridget and she had arrived in Melbourne during the goldrush, but little was known about what brought her there. I could invent her to my heart's content. From the moment I arrived in Ireland with her she dictated what sort of book I would eventually write. The result was Brigid, now available in both print and ebook format.
For details about where to purchase Brigid

How the Irish fared in goldrush Ballarat became the subject of my PhD novel the Liberator's Birthday because it is set on the centenary of the birthday of Daniel O'Connell, Irish statesman and politician, though it is not about him. Underlying this romantic drama is dictatorial clergy determined to force its will on its flock.
For details see

Just when I thought I had left the Irish behind I was asked to teach Irish history for the U3A in Ballarat.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Discoveries, discoveries

I now know what a ning is. At least I think I do. I have joined one called Book Blogs and I am gradually finding my way around it. Several book bloggers have contacted me, one with an offer to interview me some time in the future, and others who expressed interest in my writing.

There seems to be thousands of book bloggers all over the world. As yet I've not discovered any other Australians, but I feel sure there must be some out there. Some of the bloggers are writers, some readers and some both. They uses the site to promote their own writing or to write reviews of what they have read. Some prefer to read books in hard copy, others are happy to buy ebooks on line.

And that was another thing I learnt last week. Amazon has a facility called 'text to speech' for ebooks available on Kindle. Apparently its existance caused a giant brouhaha in the USA with some publishers and authors opposing its use as it breached their copyright. They demanded it be removed. It seems that a compromise has been reached with Amazon making it possible for publishers to disenable the facility id they so wish. This, of course, disappointed the vision impaired who, for the first time, had access to the same range of ebooks as sighted people. That prompted me to find out whether Brigid was 'text to speech' enabled as I could not recall the option being offered to us when Emma uploaded it to Amazon. A quick search showed that it was which I was pleased about. I would not want to deprive anyone of the opportunity of reading Brigid. I would like to know, though, what it sounds like. Does the mechanical voice reading Brigid have an Irish accent?
Find out about Brigid

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Introducing Brigid - a synopsis

An Australian woman travelling to Ireland for the first time finds she has an uninvited companion, the ghost of her great great aunt, Brigid. Not content to follow the planned itinerary, Brigid almost immediately dictates the route they will take, the places they will visit and the impressions which the woman must form along the way.

The woman soon realises that Brigid is on a mission to set right a wrong which had been perpetrated before she left Ireland to migrate to Australia at the height of the Great Potato Famine. Though she is spare with information about this deed and how it involves her, it would appear that its victim was a member of the rebel organisation Young Ireland who had come to her aid when she was attacked by her landlord's overseer. His kindness had unforeseen consequences for her family and the community she lived in as it brought them under the suspicion of the British authorities.

Through the snippets of information the woman is able to glean from Brigid, together with what she learns from her own research, a picture emerges of the impact of the Great Potato Famine on the Burren region of County Clare. She also understands why the activities of Young Ireland did more harm than good at a time when the population was too hungry to think of rebellion. She is able to forgive Brigid's disruption of her holiday as she attempts to find a way for the ghost to finally find her rest.

Find Brigid on Amazon

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

This book has been in the bookshops for two years now, and it has been on my bedside table waiting to be read for nearly as long. With my history course on the War of the Roses beginning last month for the University of the Third Age in Ballarat, it was timely that I fitted it in along with several histories of the period, particularly those which address the civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York directly. I have read and re-read both Desmond Seward's and Alison Weir's Wars of the Roses, Paul Murray Kendall's and Rosemary Horrox's Richard III and several books dealing with the Princes in the Tower, the subject of the first of my Abbie series of children's historical fiction which is yet to be completed.

Philippa Gregory has chosen to write a novel in which the main character and narrator is Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. A woman who is generally portrayed by the historians as, at best, a schemer and fortune seeker, and at worst, as manipulative and dangerous, she is painted in a more favourable light in this novel. Determined to become the wife, not the mistress, to Edward who had wrenched the crown from the mad Lancastrian Henry VI, she ensures that her extended family is well endowed as she gets down to the task of producing a York heir. It is not until her husband's grasp on the throne is under threat from Lancastrian interests and erstwhile supporters that she produces her first son, after several daughters, while she is seeking sanctuary from her Edward's enemies in Westminster Abbey.

Gregory's portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville is one of a dutiful wife to a philandering husband, a loving mother and a protector of her family's interests. She also believes firmly the legend of her mother's Burgundian ancestry that she is descended from the water goddess Melusina and has magical powers whiuch she puts to use against her enemies.

While there is no indication, either in the histories or in Gregory's novel that the relationship between Edward and Elizabeth had cooled to any degree over the years, the king must have been sufficiently wary of his wife's lust for influence that, as he lay on his deathbed, he appointed his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, hot her, to ast as protector to his heir, the twelve year old Edward, Prince of Wales.

While little is made of the alleged marriage contract Edward had entered into before he met and married Elizabeth in this novel, her distrust of Richard is vindicated when he uses this information to convince Parliament that his brother's marriage has been adulterous and that the son is illegitimate.

Writers and historians from Thomas More and Shakespeare onward have attributed the disappearance and presumed murder of Edward V and his younger brother to Richard III although there have always been those with opposing views. Cases against Henry Tudor and the Duke of Buckingham have also been made and the suggestion has been made that Elizabeth was also prepared to sacrifice sons who had no chance of sitting on the throne of England for her eldest daughter's prospect of becoming the wife of Henry Tudor.

Gregory exonerates Richard III from boys' death even as she paints him as a villian. She does, however, link him romantically with the daughter Elizabeth even before his won wife has died. The story finishes before Richard is killed on Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor as snatched the throne and taken Elizabeth as his wife.

Gregory revives another of the legends surrounding this incredible time as she has Elizabeth Woodville substitute a page boy for her younger son Richard of York whom she smuggles across to France where he is given the name Perkin by his foster parents. The significance of this action would be apparent to those who know the story of the Perkin Warbeck who presents himself as Richard IV, and the legitimate heir to the throne, during the reign of Henry Tudor.

The beauty of historical fiction is that it allows the reader the opportunity to speculate about issues, events and personalities who sometimes receive only passing notice in the history books or are portrayed according to the historian's take on the period. The historical fiction writer can complement what is already known using a well informed imagination so the view is enlarged. By giving Elizabeth Woodville the task of telling her own story in the White Queen, Gregory is allowing us to see a woman who, for all her scheming, is a mother, wife and sister determined to put her family first and to avenge those who do it harm. it is a most readable story. I can hardly wait to start on the Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor.