Writing groups and getting into character

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An image to work from - my 1900s character, Rose

An image to work from: my late 1800s, early 1900s character

So I’ve joined a writing group. Our plan is to share a piece of writing – possibly a chapter, possibly a short passage – in the interim since we’ve last met, and we’ll reconvene each month. It’s not such a lot to achieve, but knowing that I’ll have to prepare something for the next meeting should keep me on track. Novel two is due on 1 May next year, and it’s already feeling a lot closer than it seems.

If you write, have you ever thought about joining a group? I’ve always been a bit nervous about it (the exposure!) but of course groups are fantastic for keeping you motivated. And we’ve set a strict rule of confidentiality – no sharing plots with friends or family, which have a way of turning up everywhere once you decide to write something.

We had our first meeting last Thursday. Although it’s early days, I’m feeling quite excited. There’ll be five of us – a big group – and I’m genuinely intrigued by the book ideas the other members shared. I think it’s going to be quite inspiring. Each of us is at a different stage with our novels and we’re all working on something completely different. Just to begin with, they suggested some ideas about how I might unfold my central mystery. I don’t think I would have hit upon this myself – five heads are definitely better than one.

For years I’ve been meaning to answer the famous Proust questionnaire for each of my characters, so we’ve decided to do this for our next meeting as well – at least with our main protagonists. It’s always illuminating reading the celebrity responses to these questions in the back of Vanity Fair, but I found this particularly fun when thinking about how my key characters would answer (read David Bowie’s answers here if you have a moment “What is your favorite journey? The road of artistic excess”).

If you’d like to give it a go yourself, here’s a (slightly amended) version from The Write Practice. One of my characters has answered the top ten:

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Being adored
  2. What is your greatest fear? Not making an impact
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Submission
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Artifice
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Emily Pankhurst
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Fashion
  7. What is your current state of mind? Confident
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Temperance
  9. On what occasion do you lie? When I feel cornered, to impress
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? My feet (do you remember when Naomi Campbell said this? It’s always made me laugh…)
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero of fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?
Evening dress of the 1800s

Evening dress of the 1800s

Another practice I’ve found helpful is finding likely pictures of my characters and what they were wearing on the interwebz. It helps clarify them in my mind and can also be nifty when it comes time to describe them. Descriptions change a lot throughout the course of a book, so clear images are a great grounder.

What are some of your best tips for characterization, and do you have any ideas for what we should do next? Please share!

Putting imagination into (cover) images

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Mood board for Precious Things

Mood board for Precious Things

HarperCollins is in the process of designing the cover for my first novel, Precious Things. I’m so excited to see it – it should be ready in the next few weeks, and hopefully in time to grace the cover of the reading copies, which they’re working on at the moment.

My publisher Catherine and I have been going back and forth for some time on ideas about how it will look. Firstly, I was asked to send through some book covers I liked with suggestions as to what I thought worked or didn’t work about them for Precious Things. I sent through about fifteen covers, some with heavily stylised photographs and others with illustrations. Then I was asked to put together a mood board about my main character, so that Catherine could brief the designer on what the book’s about.

Maggie vintage shambolic_Precious Things

This is what I came up with. The images aren’t meant to be taken literally. My protagonist – a warm, sensitive woman called Maggie – isn’t a model, after all, but she is gorgeous in her way and these are meant to give a sense of how I see her. I compiled the mood board with tear sheets taken from fashion magazines laid out on my kitchen bench and overlaid with some of the beaded, richly embroidered and quirky vintage pieces Maggie collects. There’s also a postcard painting in there of a circus setting, which reflects her fascination with costumes and unusual or special pieces.

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I loved doing this – it’s quite fun to be asked to contribute to the design of your book and I realised I had all the images I needed, already collected in a folder which accompanied me throughout the writing process. Whenever I saw an appropriate image, I put it in there just for my own reference, along with articles that seemed to evoke the mood or setting I was looking for.

The funny part about the cover process is that you can provide all sorts of background ideas and images to designers, but it often happens that inspiration strikes them, and they come up with something so unexpected, extraordinary and right – but completely different to what was envisaged. That’s the magic of what they do.

Stay tuned for news on the reading copies. I’m hoping to be given some extra to hand out to those of you in book groups, so you can spread the word in advance x

Maggie work_Precious Things

8 lessons learned

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Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, and me at my desk. Carrie Bradshaw we ain't.

Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, aka me at my desk. Carrie Bradshaw we ain’t.

I recently sent off the last big structural edit for Precious Things and it’s such a relief. It was the most fun edit I’ve done to date, because it feels like the book is so close to completion now… I can hardly believe it. Just one more copy edit and a proofread, then it goes off to print.

A friend asked me if I wouldn’t mind sharing with her writing group what I’ve learned. I’ve been mulling over what to say for weeks now, so here’s a few important points I wish I’d known beforehand, in case it might help you too:

1) Novels need conflict (it seems obvious, right? It wasn’t to me, not at first). I thought I could create a story about perfect characters who led fabulous lives and did everything better than me… That’s before I realised it would also make my book incredibly BORING. Cue putting them through the wringer in the name of good storytelling. Once I figured this out, it was more enjoyable throwing obstacles in their way than you might think.

2) It’s alright to create a bad first draft, but it’s also near impossible to do otherwise. Trust that you’ll get there after many rewrites and efforts at polishing. ‘Shitty first drafts’ is one of the tenets of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the best book on writing I’ve read. In fact, just read Bird by Bird and you’re already streets ahead.

3) Give yourself time between edits. This is one of those things I find hardest to do, but damn it works. I had about five months off between the last structural edit and the one before, where I forced myself not to tinker with it. The flaws just jumped out at me when I finally picked it up again. Some days I wish I could go back and give all my early books the same luxury.

4) There are hardly ever the perfect conditions for writing. There’ll be family dramas or house problems, or work issues going on at the same time, pretty much always. There’s only one option and that’s to ‘turn it on’ when you need to, no matter what the circumstances – even if your house is being pulled down around your ears like ours has been recently. If I waited for those days when inspiration strikes or everything was quiet and calm, I wouldn’t have written more than a few chapters. As Henry Miller put it when devising a writing plan to finish his first novel, ‘when you can’t create, you can work.’ It’s a good point.

5) Every sentence and every word should have a purpose. If it’s not giving the reader any new or important information, it shouldn’t be in there. You might need to ‘waste’ tens of thousands of words figuring it out (I did… maybe over 100,000) but that’s what it comes down to in the end; precise prose.

6) Description is necessary at the beginning of a book but needs to give way to action the closer you are to reaching the end. This keeps the pace ticking along nicely and spurs readers on. When it’s successful, they’ll feel like they can’t put it down. When it’s not, great swathes of description or unnecessary scenes should be cut out or shifted to earlier in the book to keep the story moving.

7) Similarly, each chapter should contain a miniature story arc that climaxes at the end so that readers feel compelled to keep turning the pages. Even if you’re not writing commercial fiction, this really works. I’m convinced the massive success of The Hunger Games trilogy is thanks to Suzanne Collins’ supreme understanding and mastery of this skill.

8) And this is more of a personal preference; every year I take a few days’ out to visit Sydney Writers’ Festival and see those sessions I think I’ll get the most out of. It’s like a cheap crash-writing course. Similarly, I listen to advice from other writers on what works for them, and am prepared to give anything a go when I’m stuck. I saw Graeme Simsion’s session at SWF this year and his answer to writers’ block is to a) focus on another scene or b) lower his standards, trusting that he’ll improve with the next draft. It’s so easy to get fixated on getting something right, you can waste days or even weeks ‘perfecting’ things. That’s a killer piece of advice and it really works – momentum is everything!

Some news

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Early artist's impression of the collar / coronet by my dear, talented friend, Jessica Guthrie

Early artist’s impression of one of the characters in Precious Things by my dear, talented friend, Jessica Guthrie

Exciting news, which I can finally share with you lovelies! This was published in today’s Bookseller & Publisher:

Two-Book Deal for Kelly Doust

HarperCollins is thrilled to announce that we have acquired Kelly Doust’s debut novel in a two-book deal for ANZ rights via Gregory and Company, UK.

Precious Things, to be published in May 2016, is a sweeping, absorbing and lush work of commercial fiction, telling the story of a beautiful embroidered collar and its journey through time in the hands of the women who created it, loved it, wore it and lost it—and the modern-day woman who can’t help but be intrigued by its mysterious past.

HarperCollins Publisher Catherine Milne says: ‘Kelly is well-known to booksellers as the author of the Crafty Minx books, and it’s wonderful to see this talented writer move into fiction—which as it turns out is her natural home.’

Kelly says: ‘I am delighted to be publishing my fiction with HarperCollins and thrilled to be working with Catherine Milne and the rest of the HCP team.’

I’m editing at the moment – more to follow soon x

Feeding the book

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Wise owl by Nathalie Lete

Owl by Nathalie Lete

Neil Gaiman calls it his ‘staring at the wall’ phase. Carrie Tiffany hosted a workshop at Faber Academy and described it as being like ‘a car without gas’. Kazuo Ishiguro writes like a madman before experiencing an almighty crash. I call it brain freeze; that time when you’re feeling all dense yet scooped-out inside, and the thaw seems like it could be months or even years away. When I’m like that, it’s probably more precise to say I don’t feel anything – at least, I couldn’t tell you what’s going on inside my head because there’s nothing much going on at all.

I think all writers must go through this process. That time after any period of intense writing where one feels totally and utterly spent. And not just writers; almost anyone after a huge project ends and before a new one begins.

That was a lot of last year for me and I was beginning to wonder whether I’d ever see my way through it. But I’ve realised they were all right; it does end, and all you can do when the car’s empty is fill up – totally gorge yourself on information and circle around, letting the ideas sift and settle, waiting to see which ones stick.

Will you look at this gorgeous woman? Artist Nathalie Lete, looking every bit like one of her paintings.

Will you look at this gorgeous woman? Nathalie Lete, looking every bit as lovely as her paintings.

I’m not quite ready to write yet, not properly. I have a new notebook (a very pretty one from French artist Nathalie Lete, almost half-full already) with a new plot and many more discarded ones and various ideas which will never see the light of day, as well as some that will. Some may feed into the following book, or the one after that.

There’s almost a fated process at work now. Ideas germinate from even the smallest daily encounters and a conversation, news story or non-fiction read comes at just the right time. Sometimes it feels like such a perfect fit for my next book, it’s hard to believe it’s only a coincidence. This can seem like pure magic, if you believe in such things.

Raining ideasWhen I was writing the last book I visited the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Francis Bacon exhibition. I knew I wanted to feature an artist in the book but had all these stale ideas about who the character would be, and how they would fit in. Seeing the works and reading about Bacon’s life, I started to picture her more clearly; where she might have come from, what drove her and how her story was different from anyone else’s. Similarly, I’m now reading a non-fiction book called The Last Curtsey, about the end of the debutantes, and I’m starting to get a clearer idea of who my next character will be. I know her lifestyle and the times that shaped her, so she’ll be more than just a composite of someone I want to write about. This is making her feel real to me, almost as real as people I actually know.

Other seeds of ideas come in conversations with friends or new acquaintances, snippets overheard in cafés, or a look between two people that I witnessed. And they all feed into some of the broader ideas I’ve been mulling over for decades, mostly on a subconscious level. About how to behave, how to treat people, how families work or don’t work and knotty issues such as narcissism, sibling rivalry and infidelity.

Because what is a novel if not a manifesto of sorts? A moral code by which the book is governed? Authors tell you how they think things should be, not necessarily how they are, but there’s a lot of real emotion being poured into their work. Readers can only read between the lines.

I used to have an old boyfriend who wouldn’t touch fiction, saying he didn’t want to read about things that weren’t real (no, it wasn’t a perfect match). The novel might be an amalgamation of clever ideas and gimmicks sometimes – outrageous characters and scenes amped up for dramatic effect – but the book’s soul is a real thing. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t connect with it at all. It’s also hard to see why the writer would bother with such an undertaking in the first place, given the effect on our poor brains following a novel’s completion (please refer to first paragraph)!

A few of my favourite things

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11057273_1538219093109222_6852092253340208011_nTO READ: THE STORIED LIFE OF AJ FIKRY
Bookish folk, this is for you. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a perfect novel about a failing bookstore, its cranky owner, a perky sales rep and a precocious foundling. Mostly it’s about love, though – love and books. Mr Fikry, you’re my kind of man.

TO WATCH: BIG EYES
The story of artist Margaret Keane and her domineering cheat of a husband is so extraordinary, it seems hard to believe it hasn’t been told sooner on the big screen. Tim Burton does the tale justice without going over the top on the magic realism and it’s a better film for it, but I loved the small touches that were present in the haunting eyes of Keane’s women and children. Don’t fret, Amy Adams fans… Oscar’s coming for her one day soon. Great 60s fashion and architecture, too for all the die-hard vintage peeps out there.

10305063_1541679779429820_54041439847273506_nTO LUST AFTER: NEW-SEASON GUCCI
Frida Giannini’s nailed it – this is all I want to wear in the coming season. I’m thinking 70s nostalgia is a-ok when I missed it first time round… just. I didn’t miss out on a very fetching bowl cut, though (all photographic evidence destroyed). How amazing is this jacket!?

AND SOME ACE TV: GIRLS SEASON 4
Lena Dunham’s comedy about four twenty-something women in New York just gets better and better, and this season was the pinnacle for me. Jemima Kirk’s Jessa is a joy to behold but man, she’s a piece of work!

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ALSO – VISIT: YOUR LOCAL ARTIST’S STUDIO
I recently made a trip to The Bakehouse Studio, workspace of Marrickville artist Lisa Holzl. I’m writing a clay sculptor into the next novel and got such a great feel for her character and life in this magical space.

Thinking visually: behind the scenes at Major & Tom

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Under the jacket, A Life in Frocks

Under the jacket, A Life in Frocks

Pages from A Life in Frocks: a memoir

Pages from A Life in Frocks: a memoir

It’s hard to imagine publishing a book that won’t allow me to use visual cues to get my message across. There’ll be a jacket image – either illustrated or photographic – and maybe even something extra inside, but the novel’s unlikely to be a hybrid of both. I like using a variety of mediums, and I’m going to miss it. Let’s see if we can cook something up…

If you’ve read A Life in Frocks, you’ll know I was lucky enough to have illustrations done by the talented Zoe Sadokierski and an unusual layout (Frocks won an Australian Publisher’s Association Award: Best-Designed Non-Fiction Book, 2010). Even in an age of digital publishing and e-readers, I still believe the book is a beautiful object people want to have and to hold. Such covetable objects will always exist, even in a rarefied form (we hope)!

With that in mind, I present you with a little snapshot of life behind-the-scenes at Major & Tom Propery St Peters, written by Naomi van Groll. Major & Tom provided some of the gorgeous vintage props we used to illustrate The Crafty Minx at Home, which were expertly styled by the wonderful Clare Delmar and photographed by Amanda Prior. A passionate publishing student and Major & Tom fixture, I thought Naomi could best explain what her day consists of and why stylists are so very clever for doing what they do…

The lovely Naomi van Groll

The lovely Naomi van Groll

“When I completed my tax return last year, the closest description I could find for my occupation was ‘furniture packer.’ And in fact, this is pretty accurate. If by furniture you include engraved silver cutlery, hand-dyed fabrics of every size and colour, any patterned cup or saucer you please or old French glass essence jars still faintly smelling of cinnamon. These are the items that are stacked to the ceiling of my workplace, and I will pack, unpack and restack them each day in the trove of kitchenware and vintage treasures that fills Major & Tom.

Behind the aisles of plates and jugs is Georgie, diviner of beautiful old bowls, creator of moody canvases and restorer of French dining tables. From her workshop filled with beeswax and paint, Georgie has created a warehouse from which food stylists and art directors can pluck just the right teapot for their roaring twenties-themed film set, or source a worn timber tabletop for the next issue of Gourmet Traveller. Travelling from Paris to Adelaide to Rozelle markets to find worn English biscuit tins and the latest in Danish design, Georgie’s eye is unparalleled. Her warehouse is an evolving display of possibilities for a stylist’s next brief.

Armed with such a brief, stylists pop in to Major & Tom and will often settle in for the day. They will set their bag and laptop on the long pine table that runs the length of the warehouse, and – if they are in at the right moment – will be offered a cup of tea to ease them into the hunt. First off, the wall of tabletops and surfaces is scoured, with questions like colour, texture and budget determining whether to choose a crackled teal cypress or a bright white oregan. Once the background and surface has been matched to the brief, the stylist will look at each recipe and shot in order to determine whether specific items are needed, like a cakestand or casserole dish, and what mood is to be achieved. It is here that the magic happens. I have a lot of admiration for stylists, who have to interpret the ideas of the art and marketing teams into a beautiful image that pleases everyone and looks delicious. Instagram filters may help me to jazz up last night’s bowl of soup, but after watching food stylists in action, I can assure you it is always going to look better when left to the professionals.

Surrounded by these beautiful things every day, I am very happy to call myself a furniture packer. Each day brings different stylists working on a huge range of interesting creative projects. As they peruse our colour-coded aisles, I am admiring their selections and learning the nuances of design briefs and shot lists, not to mention getting a glimpse of upcoming recipes in my favourite food magazines. As a student learning about publishing, I am extremely lucky to be able to quiz freelance stylists about how the industry operates, as well as having the opportunity to meet such talented creative people living in my own city. The more I learn about the industry, and the more lovely and passionate stylists I meet, the more excited I am about the future of food styling and photography, no matter what the medium.

Australia is the highest per capita consumer of magazines in the world, which is a reassuring statistic for a person hoping to break into the industry and stay in it for as long as I can. I must also come to terms with the fact that printed magazines face a decline in readers as more and more people share their stories and creativity on blogs, forums, apps and online magazines. This does not deter me from my confidence in the longevity of stylists, photographers and writers. I am more convinced than ever that creative individuals and industries will flourish as their content travels around the world via computers and the faithful print magazine. As long as people appreciate being immersed in beautiful things, as I do, there will be a place for wonderful places like Major & Tom.” – Naomi van Groll

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Organised vintage loveliness at Major & Tom

Organised vintage gorgeousness at Major & Tom

Five books worth reading

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We’re in the process of packing up the house for renovation so I’ve spent the last two weekends culling furniture, clothes, crockery and – wowsers – about 100 titles from my bookshelves. It was either that or stop buying new ones, and we know that’s not going to happen. Almost the first to go was a weighty tome on the so-called greatest writers of the last 2,500 years of civilisation. There wasn’t a single female listed in its 1,000-something pages, or anyone who hadn’t been dead for over a hundred years. Some of those book bucket lists are the worst. It hit the wall before it hit the charity store. Forget that, life’s simply too short.

I remember when we first had our daughter, it was such a huge leap to understand how I’d fit my former (leisurely) life into this newly-shapen one. My reading time and cognitive ability was shot. No matter how planned or prepared I felt, it simply wasn’t enough. Like every other set of new parents, we stumbled around figuring things out, bruising ourselves silly along the way and feeling incompetent in almost every department. We soon found our rhythm, and then everything changed. We adapted. They changed again… of course they did. And every single time I went into a full-on tail spin.

Like an old band aid, children kind of rip away that sense of order and control – the idea that life will continue on just the same as it always has, and that death is somehow being kept at bay – every single day. It feels like a brutal and important process. It certainly informs my writing, and my reading, too. That sense of time running out – especially after the death of a parent and one school year ticking over into another – is, gloomy as it sounds, what stops me carrying on with things I just don’t connect with anymore. Whereas I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started, now I’m no longer so cavalier. More aware that my reading time (arggh, I mean life) is finite. But it’s liberating too.

In the past year, these books were my favourites. Books that I can say, hand on my heart, will make your life better, richer and more interesting for having read them. Or at least they did so for me. At the very least, they make for good dinner party conversation:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber

As a teenager I read a tonne of fantasy and science fiction, but haven’t given the genre much time since. This book made me feel like that’s a mistake. I don’t want to ruin it for you with too much detail because it’s worth just diving in. I was given an advance reading copy and knew nothing about it, and the unfolding thrilled me to bits.

Basic plot: It’s the future. Some shady corporation sends a minister to another galaxy to proselytize to the aliens where they’re setting up a human colony. The last minister disappeared, and things are changing back on Planet Earth. What is the true nature of these people, and what does it mean to be human?

It hit me not with a bang, but with a whimper – and that was SO good. Incredible writing, I don’t think Faber’s put a single word out of place in this, his sixth novel. I read somewhere that it took almost ten years to write. It shows.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

What can I say? You’ve probably read all the reviews or read it yourself by now, but I do love Tartt’s writing. The hero of this book isn’t its protagonist but Boris, a childhood Russian friend who makes his appearance about a third of the way through. It’s obvious Tartt fell in love with Boris and as a character he just leaps off the page and lodges somewhere in your solar plexus. I fell for him instantly.

The descriptions of the New York antiques-dealing world are totally absorbing for any vintage freak, but the very beginning will have you reminding yourself to breathe – it’s that tense.

It’s a brick of a book and it does start to feel a bit long towards the end, but it’s nothing short of a masterpiece (just like Fabritius’ Goldfinch of the title). Who really wants writing like this to end? All hail Donna Tartt!

Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink

The American healthcare system scares the bejayzus out of me. Ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, I’ve been so grateful for Medicare and the UK’s NHS. If Australia ever ends up like the US in this respect, please someone put me out of my misery. And cross your fingers against hurricanes (and cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes).

This book is a meticulously researched lesson in everything that can go wrong when you put a large corporation in charge of assigning value to human life. Sheri Fink is a doctor herself and relates this horrific and heroic tale like a thriller.

First, forget the natural disaster that culminated in the events – doctors euthanizing patients in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina because they felt so desperate and abandoned – and look at the system that’s really broken: the law (not to mention the government’s so-called Disaster Response). The crazy litigation that takes place across the entire country is why healthcare costs so much for US citizens, and it’s the reason behind poor doctors and patients being kneecapped by exorbitant insurance premiums.

It’s enough to make you want to riot.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert years ago and although I admired the writing, her book didn’t speak to me the way it has to millions of other women. I think it was a case of being at a different life stage, but I was still curious to read The Signature of All Things when a friend recommended it. To go from mere curiosity to absolute devotion towards her fiction in only a few chapters surprised me.

The research in this book blows me away. Spanning the period from the late 1700s through to the end of the 19th century, it tackles big ideas like evolution and the human soul on an intimate, thoroughly engrossing scale. Alma Whittaker and her irascible father, Henry are the sort of characters you rarely come across in fiction – complex, fascinating, heartfelt and utterly unforgettable. I loved them to bits. The Signature of All Things also taught me more about botany and biology than I learned in school, and for that feat alone I award it five out of five stars.

The Mitford Girls, Mary S. Lovell

Oh how I wish I’d met the Mitford girls… to be a fly on the wall at one of their family dinner parties would have been quite something!

Mary S. Lovell said that when she started writing this book, she thought it would be ‘a frothy biography of life in Society between the wars’. But when she started delving into the story of the Mitfords, Lovell saw how their polarized ideologies mirrored those of society at large at the time, and how their filial bonds were quickly strained by politics and the onset of the second world war. To think that Sydney and David Mitford – the parents of these extraordinary girls and their brother, Tom – spawned a famous novelist (Nancy), a runaway communist (Decca), two fascists (Diana and Unity) and two relatively normal women for their social class (Pam and Debo) is somewhat astounding. Thankfully their characters live on through the volumes of letters left behind, Nancy’s fictionalised version of their lives in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, and in Lovell’s sparkling, vivid book. Totally brilliant.

Running away with the circus

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Merry go roundIt being school holidays my friend Jess and I decided to take the smalls to Circus Factory at the Powerhouse Museum. We thought it might be more fun for them than us. How wrong we were!

Wending our way through two lower floors of amusements, performances and other curiosities – including an authentic Gypsy caravan from the early 19th century – we finally arrived at the costume collection.

Gypsy caravan

Situated on the third floor, we realised this extraordinary archive of circus costumes and accessories was the lemon butter on top of a prizewinning cake of an exhibition. Definitely up there with a V&A presentation, it made me wish I’d bought a season pass so I could visit another few times to soak it all in. At AU$35, the one-off entrance fee is a bit pricey but hot damn it’s worth it.

I was so enthralled, an attendant was obliged to warn me of Olive running up and down the viewing paths, hooting at the top of her lungs… I was so totally lost reading up on all the descriptions, off in a fantasy imagining where those pieces might have been. Who were their original owners, I wondered, and where were they now? How had these incredibly hard-worn threads managed to survive all these years?

If the same costumes had been around while I was researching and writing my last novel, I’d have been in heaven. Or at least camped out at the Powerhouse for a week. I had to be satisfied browsing through books on Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes instead, and ended up scouring the markets, with only one or two really good finds to show for my days of toil. That was about this time last year. And I spent tens of hours lost in an Etsy wormhole researching vintage dresses and dancing paraphernalia from the Belle Epoque era to 1920s, without much success. It wasn’t a hardship but I really wish these had been around then, because one of the characters in my new novel is a trapeze artist (I may as well introduce you to her now; an Austro-Hungarian beauty who falls in love with the circus’ resident Strong Man).

My character started off being inspired by Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, but she definitely grew into herself as the writing wore on. Actually, it’s not fair to say the writing wore on at all, because at times she almost wrote herself. It was a matter of my fingers keeping up with her story – always a blessed relief when others seem so difficult to wrangle onto the page.

Anyway, back to the costumes. Designed and embellished and meticulously repaired, I had to be pulled away from these exquisite pieces (literally, Olive had grown quite bored by that stage), but I may go back soon. Here’s some of my favourites – the photos don’t do them justice.

Tightrope costume

Circus headpiece

Repair kit concealed under porcelain doll's skirt

Repair kit concealed under porcelain doll’s skirt

Capes

Send in the clowns

Send in the clowns 4

Band leader

Send in the clowns 2

Send in the clowns 3

History is what’s always drawn me to vintage clothing. So much more exciting than new things, don’t you think? Dangerous, even.

I once bought a fringed tan leather skirt from a willowy actress-slash-model, and she told me that skirt had seen some wild parties in her day. Whether it was the preface she’d given me, or something ingrained in the supple leather hide of that barely-there skirt, I’ll never know, but I went on to have a good few nights of partying wearing her myself. I hope she’s still making memories (alas, I passed her on when I feared I was becoming too old for miniskirts, but have since bought two or three… there goes that theory; today I simply don’t care). And my love of vintage is what caused me to start writing fiction with an historical element in the first place. I don’t know why, but I feel the inexorable pull of the past whenever I see or touch a vintage dress… it’s my form of catnip. That and Reese’s butter cups.

This is probably a good time to mention Australia’s first Historical Novel Society Conference, to be held between 20-22 March this year. What can fiction writers learn from historians? A lot, I imagine. I’m looking forward to hearing authors such as Kate Forsyth, Colin Falconer, Toni Jordan, Jesse Blackadder and many more speak on the theme, ‘The Historical Novel in Peace and War’, and will be thinking about what characters were wearing, at all times.

More on that later, but have I convinced you for the time being to visit Circus Factory? Make haste – this wonderfully curated show won’t be on forever.

Programme