writing the weather

Lawyers Bay

Smails Beach & Lawyers Head Dunedin, 29 Jan 2015.  Picture by Paul Le Comte

“It was a dark and stormy night” predisposes a reader to expect dark and stormy action within a story.  As writers, we manipulate the weather – and some might say, the reader – to suit our story.  It’s fiction after all: who is to say what patterns the weather follows in our make-believe world?

But in writing historical fiction, the weather may well be as important to our story as the landscape.  My stories are set in Dunedin in 1877.  Instead of manipulating the weather to suit the story, I made the decision to accommodate the actual weather into the story.  In doing so, I gained an important insight into the spread of Scarlet Fever; evidence to support the charges of cruelty against Martha Reid; and evidence of perjury committed by several individuals in another case before the Supreme Court.

I’d be interested to hear from other writers who have written through the weather rather than dictating it.

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to keep women from falling…

42HoweStreet

The Dunedin Servants’ Home: a purpose-built Mason & Wales building of 1876.  Image: Google 2012

In Victorian times, all that stood between a woman and ruin was her character.  Any blemish, actual or imagined, could prevent her securing a situation and achieving financial independence.  Of particular concern in 1870s Dunedin were the young immigrant women arriving without the protection of family or friends to work as domestic servants.  The Otago Daily Times (ODT) Editor wrote in 1874:

We are aware of one case in which the want of such a place of temporary refuge resulted in the loss of all that is dear to women.  Residence in a low public-house was fatal to the character, and added one more to the list of unfortunates that make our streets hideous at night.  We do not doubt that the same result will not infrequently ensue in the case of friendless girls cast adrift in our midst.  A Servants’ Home where board and lodging could be secured by any servant during the interim while changing her situation, is a great want here.

Dunedin ladies formed a committee to provide such a Home, which would incorporate a Registry Office and be a place where servants could meet for tea on their afternoon off.  While no men were involved in the Committee, they were never shy in voicing their opinion.  At a public meeting held to seek public support for their project, men monopolised the discussion, advising the women on what rules they should form and what they should name the institution.  Bishop Nevill was adamant that a good ‘character’ – what we would call a reference – be a condition of entry, so that ‘they should not introduce a black sheep amongst a lot of white ones’.  The ladies must have longed for the founding meeting of the Dunedin Female Refuge, when the gentlemen had given their blessing, and left.   However, it appears the women let the men vent, and got on and did exactly as they had originally planned.  The Servants’ Home was built, opened, and run entirely by the Ladies Committee: another early venture by Dunedin women to improve the lives of their fellow women.

The Servants’ Home did not house the only Registry Office in Dunedin.  Margaret McIntyre, a central character in Murder: 1877 was hired from Mrs Wilson’s Registry Office in the Octagon, and Miss Allan ran a Registry Office in George Street.  Mrs Wilson eventually added accommodation for women to her Registry Office, a practice that became popular until the 1895 Servants Registry Office Act expressly forebade such establishments.

The building at 40 Howe Street, in common with those surrounding it, is now a student flat.  From the newspaper of the day, it has a frontage of 44′, a depth of 34′, and the elevation to the eaves is 23′.  The lower portion is built of stone, and the upper portion of cement.  The lower floor consisted of five rooms: the Committee room, the matron’s room, dining room, store room, and kitchen, while upstairs were nine dormitories with ample accommodation for twenty beds.  The building cost £1,200, and opened with a debt of £500.

stocktaking the cemetery

SouvenirdelaMalmaison

Souvenir de la Malmaison

This week has been devoted to the biennial Dunedin Northern Cemetery stocktake.  I’ve been wandering around the cemetery with a clipboard, counting roses and plots and ticking items off my list.  It’s a sight that has perplexed those walking through the cemetery.  I’m not worried: perplexed is fine.  It’s the ones that have been startled, or possibly traumatised, by us appearing with spades saying “there’s room for one more over here” that concern me.  We showed them the bare-root roses we were about to plant, but they still weren’t convinced we weren’t disposing of bodies.  Too much NCIS, no doubt.

The stocktake is a big job, given we have over 1,001 roses planted in the twenty-odd acres of the cemetery, but we do it to keep our mapped roses lists accurate.  In the past we have organised groups of rosarians to assist in this task – and each time the the event has been rained out.  We’re not talking a sprinkle of rain – which any gardener worth their salt ignores, if not welcomes – but deluges of rain, even though the day had been dry up to an hour before the event.  All those stocktakes accomplished was a pulped pile of checklists.

StocktakeCemetery

Perle d’Or, one of the ‘Sweetheart Roses’

This week has been hot, and while humid, it never precipitated down.  Instead of rain, it was the scent of the roses that nearly overwhelmed me, and not just from the many blooms that are presently dotting the bushes.  The Sweet Briar rose, known also as Rosa eglanteria or rubiginosa, is not get its name for its cure little pink flowers.  The Sweet references the fragrance that comes from the roses foliage.  On a humid day the scent travels throughout the cemetery, and is vaguely reminiscent of apples.  Delicious!  There are a small number of roses that were bred from the Sweet Briar that also share this trait.  In the cemetery we have modern Apple Jack (1973), the ancient Manning’s Blush (1797), and Meg Merrilies (1894), one of the Penzance hybrids.  The last two make huge bushes in excess of 2m tall and just as wide.  The cemetery is the perfect place to enjoy them.

writing roses in historical fiction

Rosa_'Tuscany'_J1

Tuscany Superb – known and grown since 1837

Roses are beautiful: they’re soft, they’re scented, and they’re seductive.  They universally symbolise love.  They deserve a central place in every piece of fiction: there isn’t an heroine out there who won’t appreciate a gift of roses.  But please, I’m begging you: do not write *yellow* roses into pre-twentieth century fiction.  They’re as out of place there as the Model-T Ford.  Yellow roses as we know them are a recent invention: the first being the 1900 Soleil d’Or, the result of man-made crosses in the nursery of Joseph Pernet-Ducher, the ‘Wizard of Lyon.’

If your story is set in or before the nineteenth century, have your hero bestow pink roses on your heroine, or red roses.  If it’s early summer, the rose bushes (rose trees for those of you writing pre-nineteenth century) will be dripping with flowers, and their perfume will be intoxicating.  Have your heroine collect their petals and go into the stillroom (which BTW is more akin to a science lab than you may have thought) and have her distil rose water.  It’s not difficult – you can check it out here.  Don’t have her whip up a batch of rose beads in an afternoon: they take a tonne of petals and an absolute age to make.

Your pre-1800 heroine will be plumb out of luck if she’s hoping for roses in the spring or autumn – they called them June roses for a reason.  After 1800, the Monthly roses arrived from China, and these flowered from spring through to autumn, mainly in shades of pink.  The great thing, from a novellist’s point of view, is that our historical heroines weren’t too bothered about rose names: kudos to you if you name roses accurately, but if you refer simply to a pink Monthly rose, or to a scented French rose, you’re doing just fine.

And one last point, while my pendanticism is in full flight: your Georgian heroine will not be strolling about a rose garden.  She’ll be in the flower garden or the shrubbery, in which rose bushes will have been planted.  The formal roses-only garden was an invention of rose-exhibiting Victorians.

I’m sorry if I burst your bubble.  I’m sorry to have added one more item to your long list of things to check out as you write historical fiction.  But if you are already Googling the entymology of terms and words to check they are historically accurate, you’ll appreciate the heads up about this minefield.  Keep writing about roses, if for no other reason than rose growers and gardeners are avid readers, and love reading about their favourite flowers, but make your roses pink, not yellow.

CharlesdesMills

Rosa Charles de Mills photo by Amanda Slate

life is not all keyboards

WritingPrompts
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils”

There’s no going back to pens and pencils for writers; there’s not even any going back to typewriters.  The ease and convenience of computers, being able to insert/correct/change what you write as you write it, and finish with legible copy, is a gift that is just too great to walk away from.

And yet  I find myself using pen and paper, and using a typewriter.

All my research notes are handwritten in hardcover notebooks.  And while I find it diabolically difficult to locate a particular sentence or reference when I need it, there’s something liberating about being able to leaf through the research instead of having to peer at small sections of it through a glass window.

Similarly, there’s something inordinately inspiring in finishing another page of your manuscript, and of being able to put that page on top of another page, and to see a pile forming.  My typing isn’t perfect, and that’s patently obvious in what comes off the machine, but it’s only a first draft for crying out loud: it’s supposed to be rewritten.

I don’t hand-write or type-write entire novels, nor yet entire chapters.  But I do take to pen to tackle particularly difficult or important passages, and find that it helps focus my thoughts and channel what needs to be written.

creating characters with real names

AlexanderTurnbull

Alexander Turnbull

One of the great joys in life is naming children.  Writers extend that joy by naming their characters, and generally have more success as writers than as parents in controlling the outcome of that decision.  Children will at some stage hate the name you gave them – one of mine wished I had called her Lily, for crying out loud – but your characters have not that luxury: they are the products of our controlling imagination.

In writing the Adeline books, I have had to forgo the pleasure of naming almost all my characters.  Adeline is an exception, along with those she left behind in Scotland, so too are the Sexton and his wife, Donald and Jessie Maindonald, and two bit-players, Emily Yates and Catherine Gorn.  Every other character in the books – every other character, is a real person, or at least, was a real person.  Given that the books are set in 1877, none of the characters in my books still lives, nor does anyone who knew them directly – thank goodness.

There is a subtle difference in herding characters with real names about the pages, as opposed to herding entirely fictitious characters, as Jane Woodham has found.  They have an independence of mind.  They have all the motivation Lynette Noni could ask for, and they are willful.  Each seems determined to have their say, and wrest the story from my grip.  Through their influence, I have come to respect coincidences.

Dr Edward (Dr Edward Hulme) presented himself to me very early on, when I was searching for someone for Adeline to talk to.  Quite frankly, I could not have written a better character than he, nor dared stretch coincidence to encompass all that he was.  The Rev John (Reverend John Williams) also appeared, ready formed, as the natural leader of the Community. Stephen King once commented that writing a story is a process of archeological excavation, and I find myself in complete agreement.  Some days I feel as if I am merely channeling the story of my characters into print.

If, as a writer, you find yourself looking for inspiration, you could do worse than grab to a bunch of names from those long dead, and write their story.  We Kiwis have the Papers Past website to consult; our Aussie neighbours have Trove (Papers Past is immensely superior, but let’s not spat), and there must be similar sites of archived newspapers for those elsewhere.

Ka kite anō, Fiona.

PS.  Alexander Turnbull, above?  Not one of my characters (as yet), but there must be a story there for the finding.

a basket for our dream readers

Basket of dreams

Basket of Dreams sculpture, on Queenstown Hill, New Zealand

Climb 500m up Queenstown Hill, and you’ll find this amazing Millennial sculpture by Caroline Robinson called Basket of Dreams.  It’s big: people can and do climb up into it to enjoy and photograph the spectacular views.  That’s Lake Wakatipu, with the Remarkables to the left and Cecil Peak to the right, (or as the locals say, Lake Wakatip and the Remarks).

The Basket of Dream‘s plaque reads:

BasketofDreams2

Basket of Dreams

The Basket’s spiral of steel follows you
inward
to reflect
to draw inspiration from the mountains,
lake and from those who are with you,
outward
to dream for the future.
Time flies, eternity waits,

kintsugi and the art of repairing New Year’s resolutions

Tea_bowl_fixed_in_the_Kintsugi_method
kintsugi: the Japanese art of mending pottery with gold resin.  Things get broken. You mend them. That’s life. Make it beautiful.

My New Year resolution rarely outlasts January: it tends to founder on January 11 (anniversary dinner) or January 22 (birthday cake).  Once broken, that resolution joins all the others on the mountainous heap of failure.  But not this year.  This year I am determined to succeed.  I am holding fast to kintsugi philosophy and placing my faith in a recent study that promises me today’s failure will not affect my long-term stickability.  Yes, my New Year resolution is broken.  But I fixed it with glitter glue.  I picked myself up and gave myself a pep-talk.  I am back on the straight and narrow.  A single slip does not predict failure.  Tomorrow I will continue on, secure in the knowledge that glitter glue is gold.

if you’re going through hell, keep going

If-youre-going-through-hell-keep-going_www.EpicWpp.com_

I confess to having been blasé about writer’s block.  As recently as this morning.  I should have known better.  Karma works small circles around me.  I should have learned that when I laughed at advertisements for those with sensitive teeth.  I should have remembered that after brushing my teeth with Sensodyne this morning.  What I laugh at comes back to bite me.  So to speak.

I find myself struggling to complete today’s Blogging 101 assignment, while fourteen items remain on my editing checklist and Central Otago in glorious summer sunshine waits outside.  This is my fourth and final attempt to complete this assignment.  The first three attempts were trashed, and that’s a good thing.

I finish by demonstrating that I have learned how to ‘Embed from Pinterest’. This is something else Winston Churchill didn’t say, but probably wished he had.  If you’re interested in either of these not-from-Churchill quotes, check out the Quote Investigator’s blog: http://quoteinvestigator.com/

Kia ora, and greetings from Middle-Earth = New Zealand

Lake Hayes panorama

Lake Hayes, just down the road from Queenstown, New Zealand

I’m a writer aiming to become an author this year.

Today I’ve turned my back on the beautiful scenery outside (see photo above) and edited the first four chapters of Fever: 1877, my historical novel set in Dunedin, New Zealand.  When I’ve finished editing the remaining chapters, the novel will go to a literary agent who has said they’re “very interested.”  I’m very excited.  And nervous.  And I’m putting together this blog as part of building an author platform to convince publishers that I’m in earnest.  And I am, hence signing up for Blogging 101.

This is my fifth post.  You can (please do!) visit https://fionaknox.wordpress.com/ and read the others: a shout-out welcome, a New Years greeting, a piece about my writing that is duplicated on the home page, and my favourite, a piece called “losing the last word: bloom where you are.”  I’m hoping to share the writing journey and promote my writing through my blog.

My biggest challenges will be to increase visitor/follower numbers and not to spend too much time reading everyone else’s blogs, which are fascinating.

Ka kite anō, Fiona