Research for writing 1: DISTANCE NO OBJECT

I’ve been thinking lately about the many different ways that research contributes to my own writing. There’s been a lot on the social media landscape about the ways other writers use research. In reality, it can be a very expensive process and can seem problematic or impossible if it involves travel.

I gave a talk this week about the research behind my last book, a biography of 19th century botanist, Georgiana Molloy, and just yesterday I had a completely new kind of research experience so I think the time has come to say a bit about what all this means to me. Research is so much a part of the work I do, so embedded in my writing and thinking, that this blog will probably have to be a two-parter!

In the early days of the research for ‘The Mind That Shines’ I occasionally had to travel to the UK for work and it was a chance to do first-hand research in the archives at weekends while I was there. I even travelled to the places where Georgiana had lived in London and Scotland, though time was seriously limited by my budget. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know I emptied my bank account for a train ticket and the cheapest hotel in town to see a diary in the north of England the day before I came home to WA. I realise now that I might have been able to apply for a grant to support some of that decade of research but I was happy just to follow in Georgiana’s footsteps while I was on that side of the world. My husband spent his weeks off – for years – in graveyards and museums in lieu of holidays and I’ll always be grateful to him for his forbearance.

Time has moved on. The research question comes up again and again. I’ve finished work on another story set partly in Jamaica in the late 18th century. I’ve never been there. I’m retired so now I have all the free time I ever dreamt of but a research trip for that book was financially out of the question. So, I used first-hand contemporary accounts, available free online, and immersed myself in descriptions, diaries, letters. I read for hours and hours until I felt as if I knew the place. I could feel it and smell it. Perhaps not the same as a visit but perhaps even better – I needed to know what it was like to be there in 1790.

Today, my new ‘work in progress’ is set in London in the early 19th century and it involves a true crime. With a list of vital documents in the archives there, papers I needed to see, I felt blocked in moving any further with my writing. A long-distance trip to the UK is out of the question. How many of us can choose to travel interstate, or even further afield, just to do research for a book?

But there are ways! A generous friend who lives near London agreed to take up the challenge of finding some old documents for me. Yesterday, as she worked her way through the archives on a sunny London morning, I spent the evening here in Western Australia receiving the photos she sent through, document by document, just as if I was there with her. It was a thrilling experience to see the clues I’d hoped for, popping up on my computer screen as the answers to so many questions– perhaps even more exciting than it would have been to be there myself. As the words appeared, things I hadn’t anticipated became clear and brought tears to my eyes.

It was Miranda’s first go at archival research and I’m happy to say she enjoyed it very much. Actually, I think that’s an understatement. She was moved by the closeness old documents can give us to people who lived in the past “I must say it is VERY exciting to hold something that may not have been read for 200 years. You do rather feel the ghosts.” She was in awe of the amazing knowledge the archivists have. “They were so incredibly knowledgeable and good at their job.” I saw her connection to the story growing as her emails came through. “It’s been really enjoyable so far! And very different. It’s everything you expect it to be but 100% more.”

So, if you really want to write about a place you don’t know from personal experience… If you want to see a document that’s hidden away in a library somewhere… If you want to just know what it’s like to stand in a particular place, far away, and your finances don’t smile back at you…. Don’t give up, at least not until you’ve explored all the research pathways that could take you there in other ways. It’s obvious that the first choice for all of us would be to make the trip, feel the paper, see the landscape, touch the bricks. But if that isn’t an option we can travel in other ways. We have imagination and when that merges with careful research, distance does not have to be a barrier. Other writers may feel differently, and I can only pass on my own experience, but I hope these thoughts might be helpful.

 

Lizard on a log?

Well, that hasn’t been me over the last two months since my last blog! I haven’t been slacking but the current projects have been moving forward in fits and starts in a busy diary of events including a few overnight trips to Perth. Last week was the final booking until November so I’m back to editing my new manuscript and working on some transcriptions that have been patiently waiting, so I’m hoping to tick a few longstanding things off the list very soon. A week of illness was frustrating – sneezing and coughing but no writing – though there was a bright side: all that thinking time and now I have a brand new file on my computer: the title of the next manuscript. It even contains some character and plot notes. If I ever get to the writing (2017?) it will be a prequel and that feels like an interesting challenge.

img_6563 St Bartholomew’s, East Perth

Last weekend was the wonderful, annual Perth Heritage festival and I was lucky enough to speak in two very special venues, each so different. Perth Town Hall was grand and impressive, the most elegant stage I’ve ever been on to talk about Georgiana Molloy.  St Bartholomew’s in East Perth was small and intimate, a beautiful little building and a very moving setting because two of Georgiana’s daughters were buried there.  A big thank you to Heritage Perth and to the National Trust for inviting me. The sore throat and disappearing voice arrived just hours after I finished the second talk so it was lucky timing!

Perth Town Hall img_6571 img_6574

Tiny details

Minutiae…  Small pieces of information can fascinate.  They don’t usually answer the big questions but they work together in magical ways to bring the past to life.  An individual is placed in a more detailed setting and their world is populated with real objects, against a background of colours and sounds. Even now, for most of us, each day is usually an accumulation of small experiences.  Finding details in the lives of the Molloys and the people whose lives touched theirs in some way (as family, friends, ancestors or descendants) was an important part of learning to understand their world but most of the information that I found so absorbing couldn’t be included in the book; long lists of facts aren’t always welcome as part of storytelling! But the small things that intrigued me continue to do so because they make people I’ll never meet seem just a little more real. Here’s a small and very random selection of information that came my way. I hope it gives you a sense of the enjoyment I find in history.

*When Georgiana was at school in London in the 1820s, she had her hair cut about every five weeks. Her mother had to pay additional costs for almost everything apart from the food she ate: washing for each year, the sheet music provided for her music lessons, visits to the opera, the cleaning of bonnet ribbons, the fees of her ‘Dancing’ teacher and any hairdressing required. She attended a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and for some reason I can’t imagine, she needed purple net and a black silk apron.

*The Adult Orphan Institution where two of the Bussell sisters were educated in London after their father’s death was started by Sophia Williams. Sophia was an illegitimate daughter of (Giacomo) Casanova, the Italian writer known today for his amorous affairs.

*When Georgiana’s mother married David Kennedy in Carlisle in 1800, it was an unusually warm autumn. In the English countryside, Michaelmas daisies flowered and walkers who were out in the early evening air saw gossamer floating on the breeze.

*Captain Duncan Darroch of Drums near Dumbarton, a friend of Georgiana when she was living in Scotland, was even more dashing and eligible than I had space to detail in the book. This future Baron of Gourock was part of the military guard for the exiled French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the small, barren island of St Helena. He was present when Napoleon died, an event that caused even the most patriotic English soldiers to collect souvenirs – a lock of hair or a piece of lint dipped in Napoleon’s blood.

*The research of Georgiana’s granddaughter, Georgie Bisdee née Hale, helped me find the right pathways to explore. There wasn’t room in the book to include the beautiful details of her wedding, an occasion that showed how John and Georgiana’s descendants had thrived.

‘Her dress was white crepe de Chine over white silk, trimmed with some beautiful old lace and chiffon. The bridal veil, arranged to shade the face and to fall in graceful folds past the waist at the back, was a piece of lovely old Brussels lace, and had been worn by the mother of the bridegroom on her wedding day more than sixty years ago. It was caught at the back with a diamond fillet. A shower bouquet of white roses and bouvardia completed the costume. The two bridesmaids were Miss Dorothy Bisdee, niece, and Miss Joan Cox, cousin of the bridegroom, who both looked very pretty in gowns of cream-embroidered mousseline de soto over silk, with cream straw hats, trimmed with champagne coloured ribbon, and carried bouquets of fortune’s yellow roses and autumn leaves, with trails of Virginia creeper.’

Western Mail Perth WA 7 May 1904 (trove.nla.gov)

*Listening to music from the past, recent or distant, can seem to make the years disappear. On 17 March 1812, as John Molloy’s regiment took up their battle position outside the town wall of Badajoz in Spain, their band was playing the very appropriate tune,  ‘St. Patrick’s Day’. On 15 June, after weeks of marching, hunger and hardship, the regiment arrived at Puente Arenas, a town where they could rest and re-supply. The band of the 1st Battalion played, ‘The Downfall of Paris’ (another traditional dance tune) as they marched over the bridge and camped nearby. There are many versions available to listen to but this one transported me to a place side by side with the marching men of the Rifle Brigade.

And on this clip the wonderful Martin Carthy tells the full story of how this tune came to be a favourite during the Napoleonic War.

*By the time Georgiana’s mother was forced to move out of Crosby Lodge, she had reduced her household to just two servants, a man to do the heavy work/odd jobs and a woman. This meant that Mrs Kennedy had to take on some domestic duties herself, probably for the first time in her life.

*The city of Ladysmith in South Africa was named in 1850 for Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith, the wife of Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith. This Harry Smith was John Molloy’s old friend from his days in the Rifle Brigade and Molloy was with him when he first met Juana in Spain during the Peninsular War in 1812.  Georgiana met her too during their stay at the Cape of Good Hope. Juana taught the newlywed Mrs Molloy the Spanish folk songs that she and John later sang to their children.

*In her letters, Georgiana often made reference to poems and stories from her childhood, or mentioned the fact that her children knew them too. Most of these can still be traced through Internet searches. The nursery song, ‘Dame Durdan’ tells a story of farm life much like Georgiana’s in Augusta:

‘Dame Durdan kept five servant maids to carry the milking pail,
She also kept five labouring men to use the spade and flail.’

Another example: in 1833 she asked her sister to send her some books for little Sabina, ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s feast’. A poem written by the Princess Mary tells this simple story (Bell 1808) and other versions (William Roscoe) were designed for children. New editions and adaptations of both are still in publication today.

‘And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black

Who carried the Emmet, his friend, on his back;

And there came the Gnat and the Dragon-fly too,

And all their relations, green, orange and blue.’

 

‘Emmet’ is an old English word for an ant. You can see the rest of this 1808 text here.

*Captain Francis Byrne was an army colleague and friend of John Molloy but when the two couples travelled together to Perth, Georgiana found that she disliked Mrs Byrne. Anne-Matilda was the daughter of Sir Amos Norcott, a commander in the Rifle Brigade. Her brother Charles sailed to WA with her and became Superintendent of Police. The area known as Norcott Plains was named after him and so was a street in Perth, but ‘Noreatt Place’ was the result of someone misreading the spelling of his name!

A wintery update

The beginning of June is the beginning of Winter in Western Australia. The native plants in the garden are coming into flower and there are lambs in the paddocks but the rain isn’t stopping for a while yet so time today to get on with some indoor jobs – like posting an update.

Good news yesterday. In the Bookcaffé (Claremont, Perth) newsletter for June, ‘Georgiana’ was in the top four best-selling non-fiction books for May.

It was wonderful to hear from Mr R Richardson-Bunbury, a descendant of John and Georgiana Molloy, over the weekend. He sent  a photograph of ‘Fairlawn’ that he took in the 1990s and he’s given kind permission for me to share it here. Comparing this photograph with the older image opposite p 247 in my book shows that the shape of the house as it was around 1860 was still evident in the 1990s.

Fairlawn 1990s

It might be a cold one… but today’s an exciting milestone. We received the proof copy for the second print run of ‘Georgiana Molloy, the mind that shines’ less than 12 weeks after the book first arrived in bookshops. So if you spotted that missing space – no more worries. Lots and lots of boxes will be arriving very soon from the printer in Perth  – and just in time!

Proof copy June 2015