Elaine Forrestal

Beginnings

Mr Snell’s Coach leaving Coolgardie c1894

Unlike endings, which need to have a satisfying shape to them and a sense of completion, beginnings can be anything you want them to be. Short, sharp, dynamic. Mysterious, intriguing, slowly unfolding with cunning twists and turns. One thing they can not be, however, is boring. A good beginning has a hook. Perhaps, like a fisherman’s fly, the hook will be concealed. The reader will be kept guessing at first, wondering about characters, setting, plot. Gradually, one step at a time, more details will be revealed. By then, hopefully, your reader will have begun to care about the main character and will keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

True to form, the beginning of my new goldfields story, Life Blood, is into its third major rewrite. I do have a reputation for having to loose the first two or three Chapters of my manuscripts. It seems to take me that long to ‘write myself in’ to the story proper. The central character is always my main focus, but I have to keep feeling my way, trying out different beginnings, until I am confident that I can carry my readers along with me into the heart of the story. I have to get rid of a lot of extraneous matter which seems to fit, at first, but ends up getting in the way. Obviously with a real person like Clara Saunders there is a lot more to her story than I can tell successfully in one book. I have chosen to tell about her first adventures as a fourteen year old, initially one of only two females, on the new gold diggings at what would become Coolgardie. She went on to became a pioneering woman who helped establish Western civilisation in at least three different outback locations in Western Australia. But the adventures she had in those formative years are the ones I have focused on for now. Having so much material to draw on from the ‘Memories’ she wrote down in her exercise book has presented me with some difficult choices. But I must say I have loved every minute of it. Clara is such a strong interesting character. A woman of the late 19th century, but well ahead of her time.

I’m looking forward to introducing her to all of you.

Knowing when to stop

Elaine Forrestal keeping warm

One of my favourite things to do on a Sunday morning is sit down with my first cup of coffee and read Review, the magazine in The Weekend Australian. This morning my attention was caught by this statement. ‘Spare us the storytellers who don’t know when to stop …’ (Jonathan Dean, August 4-5, 2018) I was certainly like that as a child. I loved playing with words and sentences, changing them around to make different pictures, trying to evoke, on the page, emotions as powerful as the ones I felt when I read the scary bits of Alan Garner’s books. I was an avid reader and greatly admired writers who could make me cry. I wanted to be able to do the same. But although my stories started out well they seemed to just keep going on and on. I kept thinking of new adventures, instead of resolving the ones I had already started. I couldn’t seem to end them, which was a problem when my Literacy homework was due – then overdue. It was not until many years later that I realised what the problem was. I kept on becoming so fond of my characters that I didn’t want to let them go. I wanted to keep them with me for as long as possible. It took a lot more practice as a writer before I was able to recognise at which point a particular character’s story had come to an end.

I still become very involved with my characters. When I am working on a novel I look forward to going into my office in the morning to make contact with them again. I want to chat to them and see what has been happening in their world since I left the office the day before. They are like imaginary friends to me. Perhaps that’s why most of my novels have open endings. I don’t want to loose that closeness with a character.

I do believe in a story needing to be shaped. The ending needs a sense of closure, a satisfying resolution to the main conflict. But it also needs to be open enough for readers to find their place in it. Readers who feel, by the end of the book, that the story is theirs will carry the characters around in their heads. They will be thinking about them, imagining what might happen next, extending the life of those characters long after the book has been closed and put back on the shelf. Those are the sort of endings I want my books to have. I’m still experimenting with ways to pull it off.

Beginnings are also tricky. Next week I will talk about them. Stay tuned.

Too Busy Living Their Lives

The Great Western Hotel, Coolgardie, 1893

In between judging two writing competitions I have been working on my historical fiction about the life of Clara Saunders. I have been busy. And I have been thinking about just how tough and resilient those early pioneers of the goldfields were – especially the women.

We don’t tend to hear much about the women in remote desert goldfields. Possibly because they were too busy simply surviving from one day to the next to write down their experiences. The weather was extremely hot and dry.There was very little wild life that they could catch and kill when they ran out of food. Water was so scarce that, if you couldn’t pay 2 shillings and 6 pence (about $26) per gallon (4.56 litres) you had to go without. Many of the early prospectors died of thirst, or typhoid from drinking contaminated water. In those days it was cheaper to buy a bottle of Champagne. The story goes that two prospectors pushing further east looking for gold came across a water hole. They found no water in it, but two skeletons lay in the bottom of the hole. A billy-can made from a kerosine tin with the top cut out, and a twist of wire for a handle, lay beside them. Enquiries were made but no one ever found out who the two men were.

Men outnumbered women by a thousand to one in those first few weeks that 14 Year old Clara lived at Fly Flat.  In other areas women wrote letters, but that was a luxury for Clara. There was no regular mail service and the road ended in Coolgardie. If you found time to write a letter, in between struggling to survive, you then had to also find someone who was travelling back to Southern Cross, the only town in a 167 mile radius. There are lots of tall tales and dubious yarns written by men on the goldfields. These yarns are full of daring deeds, survival of the fittest and drinking competitions. A woman’s voice was rarely heard and even more rarely written down and preserved.

Notes from the Memories of Clara Saunders, now held in the Battye Library, is a rare document indeed.

The Writing Competition season

This is one of my favourite seasons. I hate the cold weather, but reading the entries in my sections of two annual writing competitions gives me the perfect excuse to stay indoors by the heater.

With the judging now finished for Make Your Own Storybook and almost there for the Tim Winton Awards I am once again reminded of the depth of talent we have here in Western Australia. The best of our young writers show a stunningly mature grasp of language and an ability to engage even experienced adult readers in their stories, at the highest emotional level. Over the last two months I have been entertained and enlightened. I have laughed and cried. And been provoked to look at the world through different eyes by these articulate writers.

However, one thing that worries me is the overuse, and even inappropriate use, of adjectives. I have noticed this trend, to a lesser degree, in past years. This year it seems that the longer and more complicated a word is, the more likely it is to be dropped into a sentence. With no regard for the rhythmic effect, the image (or lack of) provoked by the word, or even the meaning conveyed, these ridiculously pretentious words are scattered through the narrative like confetti. Sometimes not one but several of these monstrosities appear in the same sentence! It is tempting to blame the dreaded NAPLAN test, administered in Years 3,5,7 and 9. The rules of this test impose the totally unrealistic expectation that a worthwhile narrative can be written in 20 minutes. Whereas even if some light-bulb moment of inspiration does happen to come along at the right time and words flow down onto the page in a rush of creativity, the result can only ever be first draft work. In a desperate attempt to rescue their students from this stressful and potentially damaging situation, teachers can be forgiven for hammering the use of adjectives. The more the merrier, they seem to say. The longer and more complex the better. Alas, this might look good and boost their word count but, until the time comes when some form of artificial intelligence is marking their work, this approach is doing them more harm than good.

Adjectives, sparingly used, can enhance the rhythm, evoke a more vivid mental image and help give the reader a satisfying experience. But don’t get carried away. Remember, in this case, less is definitely more.

Good luck if you entered this year. And, no matter what happens, don’t forget to keep writing.

Western Australia’s own Brigadoon

Elaine Forrestal helping kids write their own stories in Balingup

Driving along the winding country road between the Bussell Highway and Nannup you will pass through many fly specs on the map. Actually they would be fly specs if they were even recorded on the map. Sometimes the speed limit changes and you’ve already passed through the town before you see that it has a name. For much of the year Balingup is like that. Two or three shops on either side of a straight road to somewhere else. But don’t be fooled.

Three times a year this almost invisible town bursts into life. And once a year, in the middle of winter, you will cross the bridge and find yourself right in the middle of a storybook world where the Queen of Hearts is handing out tarts, the Pied Piper is enticing people out into the street and a rather nervous grey mouse is taking its life in its paws to stop the traffic on the main road and offer cheese. Much like the Scottish village of Brigadoon emerging from the mists for just one day, Balingup fills us with awe and wonder.

Of course all this magic is wrought by sheer hard work and dedication. With the support of the whole community, the organisers of the annual Telling Tales Festival provide a range of book and story based activities for kids on the middle weekend of the winter school holidays. Their parents, who may have driven them from Kalgoorlie, Esperance, Perth or nearby Bunbury, often can’t resist the opportunity to join in the writing, drawing, kite-making, book-binding. Or they simply relax and soak up the vibrant and friendly atmosphere while their children’s imaginations are stretched.

Beginning in 2010 the Balingup Telling Tales Festival has survived economic downturn, shifting population and inclement weather. Long may it continue!