Elaine Forrestal

Life Blood

Clara Saunders, at 16 years of age, in 1894

Clara saunders has been taking up most of my brain space as I put the finishing touches to the latest draft of Life Blood. Yes the name of the new novel has changed. I decided that the Blood-red Hammers of Day, while evocative and poetic, was way too complicated and difficult for people to remember. Life Blood references both the violence that each desperate rush to cash in on the latest gold discovery brought; and the lack of water in the desert region where such vast treasure troves of the precious metal were found in the late nineteenth century. Humans can survive without gold. But they can not survive more than a day or so without water. The combination of water and blood, life and death, is captured in the new, two word title.

Of course the story is about much more than that. It is about growing up, leaving your known world behind and setting out on a grand adventure. Clara’s world was a vastly different one from ours, and yet the basic needs for survival haven’t changed. Water, food, shelter from the elements and, eventually, contact with other human beings, still keep us alive. In the remote goldfields of inland Western Australia parties, sing-a-longs, dances and picnics took people’s minds off their desperate circumstances. Most of them lived in tents. Everything was shared, except their hard-won claims, pegged in hazardous country by men who sometimes hadn’t eaten for days. These claims were fiercely guarded. Their owners defended them, sometimes to the death, with their fists or, if they could get hold of them, pistols, shotguns and rifles. Life was tough in the frontier towns of Coolgardie and later, Kalgoorlie, where men vastly  outnumbered women. But even at fourteen years of age, Clara relished the challenge.

Watch this space for more about Clara in the next few weeks.

The Reciprocal Nature of Words and Images

Words create images.

This is such a fundamental statement that we tend to take it for granted. Not only that – we forget that the reverse is also true. Images not only create, but demand words. Like the images created by the words, the words created by the images are often only in our minds. But without them we, as human beings, could only function at a much more basic level. In the ballet, Milky Way – River of Stars, the image of a whole company of European dancers and a small group of Aboriginals trying, but never quite succeeding, to make contact with each other is repeated on the stage over and over again. After the first two or three attempts I wanted to shout out ‘Speak to them! Say something – anything.’ But of course I didn’t and neither did they. The repetition of the same image eventually made that point. And while I love the ballet, I couldn’t help thinking that the addition of even one word would have speeded up the process of communication.

A variety of words and images

Communication, in both words and pictures, is what the annual Make Your Own Storybook Competition is about. You don’t necessarily need to be a bidding artist to illustrate your story. Photographs (taken by the student of course), collage and other innovative visual images are acceptable. And the list of high profile author/illustrators who won prizes in this competition while they were still at school includes Shaun Tan, James Foley and Karen Blair.

Go on, have a go!

Time Spins On

Part of our own world in a different time – before water was piped into our houses.

Time is such and elusive thing. It slows down, and speeds up. Sometimes it reveals (‘time will tell’). Later it proceeds to dim and distort, as memory fades and events are retold. It has often puzzled me how three, or more, people can witness the same events and yet, in the retelling over time, such different versions of the story will emerge. Each teller of the story swears that his or her version in the accurate one. ‘I was there! I saw it all!’ they say adamantly when their ‘truth’ is challenged.

This makes life particularly difficult for writers like me, who become fascinated by people and events from the past. When I uncover a compelling story, not only do I want to go back there myself, I want to take my readers back with me to experience the life that my characters had. It is a life so different from our own it can seem as if those events, which we know to be real, took place in another world. And yet there are some things that remain the same through the centuries. Courage, loyalty, love, and fear, which can so often turn to hatred. These are the essential human emotions that don’t change with time. Only the way we experience them changes. which is why we need those stories from the past. And we need to allow writers to tell those stories in a way that is compelling, engaging and able to transport us back to that time. If the story is not written in a compelling way, how many people will read it?

Writers of historical fiction need to be given some leeway to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by our incomplete records of the the past. Otherwise we will not know where we have come from and how we can survive in this ever changing world.

 

More precious than gold

My grandparents lived in a tent like this in Kalgoorlie in 1905/6

Historical Fiction, Reimagined History, Faction? No matter which of the many labels you choose, the same two dilemmas confront the author.

After you have gathered your facts there is the problem of telling them in a fictional way, shaping them into a compelling story that people will actually be interested to read.

Then there is the problem of the plot. The history on which your story is based is already out there. It’s just as available to everyone else in the world as it is to you. They already know how the story ends but you, the author, has to somehow keep them reading, turning those pages right to the end of the book.

In my case I had been thinking about goldfields stories for some time. My grandparents, who came from market gardening families in Victoria, spent the first year of their marriage living in a tent in Kalgoorlie in 1905/6. It would be unthinkable today, but they survived. Then it occurred to me that the story of a significant part of my own childhood is not dissimilar. We lived on the north eastern edge of the wheatbelt, not far from the Yilgarn goldfields, at a time when rain was our only source of water. I grew up knowing that water is precious. In some cases more precious than gold. But I still needed a new angle. So much has already been written about the goldfields – its colourful characters, its culture of hardship, mate-ship, greed, violence and death. I wanted to write a different story.

Then I discovered Clara Saunders. At 14 years of age she volunteered to leave her family behind in Southern Cross and go out into the desert to work in the fledgeling Exchange Hotel. She made the torturous three day journey over bush tracks in Snell’s Coach and became one of only two females on the new diggings at Bayley’s Reward. Men kept flocking in from all over the world, but it was another six months before Coolgardie was declared a town. Even then there were less than a dozen women among six thousand men. But Clara saw it as a big adventure. She wanted to be an independent woman and saw this as her opportunity.

After many drafts and two major re-writes Clara’s story is nearly ready to emerge. Keep watching this space.

The Runaway Suitcase

Temporary cover for the Chapter book The Runaway Suitcase

People often tell me I should write a story about this or that. The problem is the things they suggest have grabbed their imagination, for whatever reason, but they haven’t grabbed mine. In this case, however, it was more of a throwaway line than a serious suggestion.

When I was complaining to my daughter recently about being in a foreign country without my luggage – yet again – she said, ‘Mum, you are always losing your luggage! You should write a story about it.’ I laughed. It is true, though. I can board a plane with my husband, with a group or on my own, it makes no difference. At the end of the journey everyone else’s luggage will arrive, but not mine. Once, during a baggage handlers strike, my suitcase was stuck in Charles de Gaulle Airport for seven days! Most recently, because of fog throughout western Europe, we had to change flights. I had an important meeting in Sauveterre (in the south of France) the next day and had to leave before my luggage arrived in Paris. I was going on to Montpellier two days after that so there was no chance of my suitcase catching up with me, and no time or opportunity for buying clothes. As you can imagine I was ecstatic to see my suitcase waiting for me at the apartment when I finally arrived in Paris a week later. There is nothing quite as comforting as having your own clean clothes to put on.

Initially I dismissed the story idea. There are so many variations on the old joke about breakfast in London, lunch in Paris, luggage in Berlin. But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. It kept coming back, nagging at me, forcing me to find a new angle, a way to tell this story that would make it quirky and unique.

Now that it is finished, the task will be to get it published. Bon vacance.