Elaine Forrestal

Splicing History and Fiction

Charles Kings­ford Smith in the cock­pit of the South­ern Cross. Part of the exten­sive research needed for writ­ing On Wings of Steel.

This week I have been work­ing on the Big­ger Pic­ture Note for On Wings of Steel. While the novel itself is firmly based on the facts of Charles Ulm’s life I need to be aware of mak­ing the story work for the Young Adult reader. As I try to bal­ance the two ele­ments of his­tory and fic­tion I am reminded of a very use­ful phrase used by one of my men­tors. He refers to the splic­ing of his­tory with fic­tion. When you splice two pieces of rope you weave together all the strands, some of which are frayed or bro­ken, so that they become com­pletely inte­grated. The one whole rope formed by this inter­weav­ing will be stronger and more use­ful than either of the two pieces you began with.

There has been a lot of debate about where the line between fact and fic­tion should be drawn or whether, in the end, such a line exists at all? Obvi­ously in our law courts it is imper­a­tive to present only those facts which can be proven. But when writ­ers become involved in telling sto­ries from the past many of the ‘facts’ are not, and can never be, known. The writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion takes on the task of bring­ing the past back to life. It is impor­tant to do this, not only so that we can be aware of, and learn form, pre­vi­ous mis­takes, but so that we can build a pic­ture of who we are and where we come from.

In today’s time-poor soci­ety peo­ple need rel­a­tively easy access to their his­tory. What bet­ter way to pro­vide this than by using the age-old vehi­cle of story? In order to cap­ture and hold someone’s atten­tion, how­ever,  the story needs to be lively, believ­able and com­pre­hen­sive. While stay­ing true to the facts, the bare bones of the story, a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion must be applied to flesh out the skele­ton and bring to life those impor­tant mile­stones in our history.

This is my job. Using thor­ough research and com­plete immer­sion in the life and times of my char­ac­ters, I believe I do it! Wish me luck.

The blurb

Authors and illus­tra­tors, Meg McKin­lay, Jen Ban­yard, Frane Lessac and Elaine Forrestal

Now that the first line-edit of On Wings of Steel has gone back to join the queue on the editor’s desk, I have been try­ing to deal with all the nitty-gritty bits and bobs. The blurb, the blog (for the publisher’s web­site), the biog. and so on, which invari­ably turn out to be more time-consuming than they look.

With so few words to play with (250) and yet so much rid­ing on them in terms of who buys the fin­ished book, the blurb and cover-copy line can take weeks to write. The blurb is like love, or hate, at first sight. Brows­ing through the book­shop my poten­tial reader picks up my book. After briefly tak­ing in the title and author’s name, the book is flipped over. Then comes the make or break moment when the blurb is read.

As a writer I ago­nise over that blurb. More than any other words in the whole book, they will seal my fate. The blurb must encap­su­late the story, with­out giv­ing away too many clues. It must grab the reader’s atten­tion with­out dilut­ing the dra­matic, sur­pris­ing, excit­ing moments to come if they buy the book. It must say just enough, not too much or too lit­tle. Although I do at least seven, and some­times twenty, drafts of the man­u­script, the blurb will always take more as I des­per­ately try to both reveal and con­ceal what the reader will find within the cov­ers of my book.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, the say­ing goes. But authors and pub­lish­ers know that, inevitably, peo­ple will. I for one want to rise to the chal­lenge, and grasp the oppor­tu­nity offered by the blurb.

Taking off — On Wings of Steel

The South­ern Cross lev­el­ling out after take-off.

My man­u­script has now flown the coop for the sec­ond time.

Mid-year, after I did a quick revi­sion and sent it off to my pub­lisher at the National Library of Aus­tralia, it was for­mally accepted by the children’s book advi­sory panel. Now the con­tract has been signed and the first line-edit has been com­pleted. I feel really lucky to be work­ing with the same edi­tor who did To See the World. And, as I prob­a­bly said back then, I do love the line-editing process. While it means sev­eral weeks of intense con­cen­tra­tion, self exam­i­na­tion and fact-checking, I rel­ish the chal­lenge that work­ing with a good edi­tor presents. The oppor­tu­nity to bounce ideas off some­one who knows and appre­ci­ates your work is rel­a­tively rare in any pro­fes­sion, and the sense of the story mov­ing for­ward is worth all the hours of sit­ting in front of my com­puter screen.

The man­u­script will come back, prob­a­bly sev­eral times. How­ever, the chance to revisit it and give it another pol­ish will be just as reward­ing then as it is now.

Celebrate Reading Conference 2015

Elaine For­re­stal speak­ing to a group in the main gallery at The Lit­er­a­ture Centre.

What a treat! After being a pre­sen­ter at the Inter­na­tional Book Fair in Bologna, a speaker at the AFCC Con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore, and a work­shop pre­sen­ter at the Cre­ative Writ­ing Camp in Sin­ga­pore and at the schools on the Cocos Islands, all in one year, it was a real lux­ury for me to sim­ply relax and soak up the atmos­phere  of the annual Cel­e­brate Read­ing National Con­fer­ence at The Lit­er­a­ture Cen­tre in Fremantle.

Cel­e­brate Read­ing is always an inspir­ing event. The sin­gle stream for­mat with a care­fully thought-out mix of indi­vid­ual speak­ers, panel ses­sions, read­ings and illus­tra­tors demon­strat­ing their art, pro­vides some­thing for every­one. The metic­u­lous atten­tion to detail of The Lit­er­a­ture Cen­tre staff ensures that every part of the pro­gramme runs smoothly. Of course  acts of God can not be fore­seen, but when they do occur you can be con­fi­dent that these ver­sa­tile, hard-working peo­ple will not only have a Plan B, but they will be able to switch to it with a min­i­mum of dis­rup­tion. Indeed the first two Cel­e­brate Read­ing Con­fer­ences were chal­lenged. The first by a heat­wave and the sec­ond by a vio­lent storm. So when the air-conditioning unit in the main mar­quee broke down at the begin­ning of day two of this, the fourth Con­fer­ence, we all thought, ‘Oh oh. Here we go again.’ But the sides of the mar­quee were opened up and, after an hour or so, the Fre­man­tle Doc­tor came in and saved the day. And what a great day it was. We laughed, we cried and we came away enriched by the qual­ity of the speak­ers and the books they produce.

Many, many thanks to the Direc­tor, Les­ley Reece, and the ded­i­cated team of staff and vol­un­teers she is able to gather around her to help pro­mote top qual­ity Aus­tralian children’s literature.

Less is more — On Wings of Steel

John Ulm, son of CTP ULm, with Charles Kings­ford Smith in 1935

At the moment my edi­tor and I are wrestling with the con­cept of less is more. I believe whole­heart­edly in this seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory notion which is about cre­at­ing more emo­tional impact in a story by leav­ing out some of the detail. Short, but absolutely pre­cise, sen­tences move the story to the point where it tugs at the heart strings. Of course there has to be enough back­ground infor­ma­tion to make read­ers feel that they know the char­ac­ters and have some sense of what is going to hap­pen. But the temp­ta­tion to make the punch line too flow­ery, too poetic, or just those few words too long, is some­thing that has to be resisted — in my case, constantly.

How­ever, there are times when I want to use the rhythm of a sen­tence, as well as the words, to give read­ers a sense of what is hap­pen­ing. This week Johnny, the main char­ac­ter in On Wings of Steel, has been wait­ing impa­tiently for an impor­tant date on his cal­en­dar to arrive. He has been count­ing the days by cross­ing each one off as it passes until, finally, the great day has come. Johnny has care­fully made his prepa­ra­tions and checked them off, one by one, from his list. Then he has checked them off again — and again. At last the day dawns and he wakes with a feel­ing of excitement.

Some­thing light and flut­tery stirs in my stom­ach [and I can feel a smile spread­ing across my face].”  In this case less is more and we took out the last part of the sen­tence — the part inside the square brack­ets. But it’s only morn­ing and Johnny’s date with des­tiny is in the after­noon. How will he fill in the time?

I get out bread, but­ter, honey, make toast, cut an orange in half and squeeze the juice into a jug. The rest of the morn­ing drags by.” This is a very long sen­tence and the four com­mas draw it out even more. In most instances I would edit this down sig­nif­i­cantly, but in this case I need the reader to feel as if time is pass­ing slowly, the hours are drag­ging by, just as they are for Johnny.

As always in writ­ing there are no hard and fast rules. What suits one sit­u­a­tion doesn’t suit another and you have to be will­ing to change your mind. Whether its on the advice of your edi­tor or because your own inner radar is send­ing out an alert, every­thing must be exam­ined with an open mind.

So, less is more — except when the rhythm of a sen­tence dic­tates that more is not quite enough. Back to the editing!