Elaine Forrestal

New Workshops

Elaine For­re­stal con­duct­ing a writ­ing work­shop with Year 9 students.

It’s NAPLAN time again and writ­ing work­shops are all the go.

While I’m sure NAPLAN has its uses, I think the expec­ta­tion that stu­dents will write any sort of nar­ra­tive in twenty min­utes, with­out the oppor­tu­nity to re-draft, is ridicu­lous. Nev­er­the­less, while NAPLAN is a fact of life, we need to give our stu­dents their best chance of doing well. The usual strat­egy is to give them prac­tise at writ­ing nar­ra­tive. But they also need to go into the test with a firm idea in their head about which of their many sto­ries they will spend that pre­cious twenty min­utes writ­ing. They need to have the basic plot worked out, and to already be famil­iar with their char­ac­ters — who does what? when? and why? They also need to be aware of the most com­mon destroy­ers of good nar­ra­tive. Too many char­ac­ters, too much irrel­e­vant detail and, while a few adjec­tives are a good thing, too many of them are poi­so­nous. They can kill off a good nar­ra­tive faster than almost any­thing else.

I always feel dis­tressed when I think about how much impor­tance is attached to such an unre­al­is­tic test. But that’s the real­ity we have to live with, so i am busily devel­op­ing two new work­shop out­lines to add to the list in ‘Pages’ on this site.

Keep watch­ing this space.

Walking the History/Fiction Tightrope

Elaine For­re­stal trans­port­ing read­ers back to 1817 via To See the World

Splic­ing his­tory with fic­tion has always cre­ated a dif­fi­cult bal­anc­ing act. And yet I still firmly believe that his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is by far the best way to present the peo­ple and events of the past to a new audi­ence, young or old.

His­tor­i­cal facts, with­out a good fiction-flavoured sauce to bind them together, make a dry and crumbly meal. It is reas­sur­ing to know that this sauce is not just adding flavour. A much bet­ter under­stand­ing of the facts can be gained when they are pre­sented in a fic­tional form rather than the more tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal text. The fic­tion brings those long lost peo­ple to life and makes them much more mem­o­rable than the flat two-dimensional char­ac­ters we tend to find in his­tory books. Research sup­port­ing this idea is now widely avail­able through The Lit­er­a­ture Cen­tre and var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties around the world. Of course for this read­ing of his­tory to be effec­tive the fic­tion must be well researched, the story engag­ing and the char­ac­ters fleshed out so that they are not only believ­able, but so con­vinc­ing that they can take the reader with them, back in time, and to their own spe­cial places. Along the way the reader will gain insights into how the times and cir­cum­stances in which peo­ple lived influ­enced their actions. They may also dis­cover that even heroes are not perfect.

Walk­ing any tightrope can be fraught with dan­ger. The trick is to stay focused and believe that every­thing is possible.

On Wings of Steel has flown the coup

The South­ern Cross. With its can­vas body and open cock­pit it car­ried Ulm and Smithy around the world in the 1920s and 1930s.

Recently my NLA Pub­lish­ing edi­tor and I fin­ished our work on the new man­u­script, On Wings of Steel. Our ‘baby’ has now moved on into the hands of the designer. From there it will go to the rest of the pub­lish­ing team. There will still be final proof-reading and tiny adjust­ments to be made but, when I think of that book now, the expres­sion ‘flown the coup’ seems to invari­ably come to mind. I know these words are some­times used when a pris­oner has escaped from gaol, but for me it has always had much more fam­ily ori­ented con­no­ta­tions. It was used by my par­ents when­ever teenagers or young adults, their own or other people’s, were leav­ing home for the first time and going off to make their own way in the world.

When I’m talk­ing to stu­dents in work­shops and meet-the-author sit­u­a­tions one of the ques­tions they fre­quently ask me is, ‘which one of your books do you like the best?’ Strangely, I find this the hard­est of all ques­tions to answer. Per­haps that is because, inevitably, my books become my ‘chil­dren’. The older ones grow up and leave home, find­ing their place in book shops, libraries, pri­vate homes and pubic col­lec­tions, leav­ing the new one behind to even­tu­ally fol­low in their foot­steps. The new one — the one I am still work­ing on — then becomes the baby of the fam­ily. It demands the most atten­tion, sit­ting there at the front of my mind. It’s the one that I am clos­est to, but Iron­i­cally it’s the one that is most dif­fi­cult to talk to the stu­dents about. With all my other books I have some­thing to show for my efforts. I have the copy in my hand. I can talk about the story, the process of writ­ing it. They can see for them­selves what the cover looks like, how thick the book is, what size print it has. They can relate to it much more eas­ily than they can to some­thing less con­crete, some­thing I can only describe through the eyes of other peo­ple because I am still too close to it to be objective.

Nev­er­the­less it is very excit­ing stage and I can hardly wait  to see how the new book will look and feel. The trans­for­ma­tion from a bun­dle of typed pages to a real book with cov­ers is quite mag­i­cal and rates, for me, as the best part of being an author.

Being There

Chal­lis House, Mar­tin Place, Sydney

The inter­net is a won­der­ful tool for researchers like me. But no mat­ter how detailed the descrip­tion or how close-up the pho­tographs, they can not show the atmos­phere of a place. Although I write mostly real­is­tic fic­tion, atmos­phere is very impor­tant. There are always ele­ments of magic, mys­tery and imag­i­na­tion even in the most his­tor­i­cally accu­rate sto­ries and it is essen­tial to cap­ture this. In order to trans­port my read­ers back in time and to places where they have never been I must be able to describe the unique atmos­phere of the places where my sto­ries are set.

In the case of On Wings of Steel, descrip­tions of Chal­lis House in Mar­tin Place, Syd­ney, and the house of Charles and Jo Ulm in Dover Heights are cru­cial to the authen­tic­ity of the story. Grow­ing up in West­ern Aus­tralia, as I did, I have so far had to rely on the descrip­tions of these places given to me by oth­ers. In Syd­ney this week I took the oppor­tu­nity to walk down Eliz­a­beth Street, find Mar­tin Place and visit Chal­lis House where the pio­neer avi­a­tors, Charles Ulm and Charles Kings­ford Smith, had an office on the 3rd floor.

It was a long walk, even for me, and I imag­ined that I was 6 year-old Johnny Ulm, hur­ry­ing to keep up with the long-legged Miss Ellen Rogers, his father’s sec­re­tary, while gaz­ing in won­der at the enor­mous build­ings, the crowds of peo­ple, and the roads clut­tered with a mix of horses, carts and the occa­sional motor car. When I arrived at num­ber 4 Mar­tin Place,  the fully-restored Chal­lis House tow­ered over me. It was built in the 1890s of bricks and local stone, and sits among the most pres­ti­gious build­ings of its time. Its name and num­ber are ornately carved above the entrance with ele­gant pil­lars and large dis­play win­dows at ground level. Up above, row on row of smaller rec­tan­gu­lar win­dows look out over Mar­tin Place. I counted the rows and located the win­dows that my research indi­cated would be Ulm and Smithy’s office. This was where they planned their ambi­tious and dan­ger­ous mis­sions to con­quer the world and to make air travel safe and con­ve­nient for every­one, whether trav­el­ling for busi­ness or pleasure.

Just as these two pio­neer avi­a­tors pre­dicted, we now give no more thought to catch­ing a plane than peo­ple in 1927 did to catch­ing a train. I flew from Perth to Syd­ney in a Qan­tas Air­bus 330 in three and a half hours. In 1929 Ulm and Smithy halved the record time for a flight from Mel­bourne to Perth. It still took them two days. When my plane touched down at Sydney’s Kings­ford Smith Air­port I left the pres­surised cabin with its plush seats, seat belts and indi­vid­ual TV screens and walked through the con­certi­naed umbil­i­cal cord into the air-conditioned Ter­mi­nal that bears Smithy’s name. I thought of the South­ern Cross with its open cock­pit, can­vas body and wooden wings, in which Charles Ulm and Charles Kings­ford Smith flew around the world.

Just as they pre­dicted, the air­line indus­try has taken off. It has come a long way in 89 years, but it needed vision­ary men with nerves of steel to take those first steps. Ulm and Smithy were those men.

Lobby, Chal­lis House, show­ing orig­i­nal wood pan­elling and cir­cu­lar mirror

The Greater Geraldton Region

Elaine For­re­stal with stu­dents at the Nabawa Com­mu­nity Library

When I saw the stu­dents, all in their uni­forms, chas­ing, som­er­sault­ing, play-fighting on the square patch of bright green grass — the only splash of colour in the wide brown land­scape — I knew that I had come home. At least I had come back to my for­mer home.

I do a lot of work in schools and fre­quently see chil­dren play­ing on grassed ovals and play­grounds. But these chil­dren, although mostly unre­lated, were obvi­ously part of one big fam­ily. They ranged in age from Year 3 to Year 6 and came from the tiny towns of Yuna and Chap­man Val­ley in the Ger­ald­ton Region. Because I grew up in very sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances and went to school in small coun­try towns (four in all) I instantly recog­nised that mix of aggres­sive affec­tion and fierce loy­alty that places like that gen­er­ate. I could have watched the chil­dren play­ing for hours, observ­ing the sub­tle ambi­gu­i­ties of their rela­tion­ships and their pure delight at being together, out doors play­ing, at a time when they would nor­mally have been sit­ting in class.

How­ever, I was there to talk to them about sto­ries — mine and theirs — and thanks to the lost trea­sure of Straggler’s Reef we did have a lively and engross­ing con­ver­sa­tion before they had to get back on their buses for the long ride home. I have since had enthu­si­as­tic emails from some of them and look for­ward to see­ing more of their work.