Interviewing Experts for your Novel

‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’

I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’

‘Perfect.’

Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.

I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.

I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.

There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.

Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.

Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.

Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:

  1. Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
  2. Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
  3. Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
  4. Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
  5. As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
  6. If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
  7. Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
  8. Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
  9. Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.

What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?

 

author and Stephen Clarke

With chef Stephen Clarke

Writing the Time of COVID-19

When I’m immersed in writing a book, I tend to utilise the wee, dark hours when there’s little chance of being disturbed or taken out of the world I am creating. I may change screens to research a quick fact, or display images that evoke a mood or scene I am writing, but I try to avoid anything that may cause a crack in my fictional universe and send real life flooding in.

This is why I do my best work before 6.30am. Children have the tendency to bring reality crashing down, and there’s nothing more damaging to crafting the fine fabric of a delicate sentence than squabbles over whose turn it is to feed the dog.

I write historical fiction and I love nothing more than diving into a period of time and discovering what life might have been like for my protagonists, from their clothing, the transport system, the food they ate to major events happening in the world around them. My books are always based here in Perth, which means it’s never far to go and visit the locations where my stories are set.

Fortunately, many of Perth’s beautiful old buildings still exist, and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to go and be physically present in the space where their story is taking place, even if the story and the writing of it are separated by decades or even a century.

My most recent manuscript, Letting Go is probably the most complicated story I have ever written. It consists of six main characters whose lives are interwoven and who are all implicated in a shocking event. It’s also written in the present, which is a first for me, because I love the concrete detail of history.

If I write about heeled housewives, black and white television, the Australian Dream, Korean War and the appearance of new electrical appliances into the home you immediately know I am talking about the 1950s. The lived experience of the time would be different for all, but there are major signposts which identify it as a specific historical period.

But for everyone who is currently living in the time of COVID-19, you will recognise that this will soon become a neatly packaged historical era in its own right, with its own terminology, apparel, social norms and dramatic world events.

The chance to write about history as it is currently taking place is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am embracing with both hands. Yet unlike working on other books where the ping of a microwave might pull me out of pre-WW1 Perth or the hiss of an electric train rouses me from the 1970s, there are no noises (other than squabbling children) that can disrupt me from writing about the present.

On the contrary, even the sounds that I am hearing (more sirens but less traffic) will one day become a marker for this unique time. So with my windows thrown open wide, I am listening to the world as I write it, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

When should you say goodbye?

It’s certainly not my favourite thing to do, but every now and then I follow my business mentor’s advice and think about boring things like SEO and search terms. Deep down I’m a writer, and my greatest joy is putting words on a page and sending them out to the world. Worrying about whether those words make it to the right audience or land on the first page of Google isn’t something I tend to worry about, until reminded by my mentor (and my bank balance) that in fact, they are quite important.

Fundraising Mums - comprehensive fundraising ideas for schools and sporting clubs

Digging around in my website’s rear-end sounds like a rather private and uncomfortable activity but what it really involves is me looking at the search terms people have used before winding up on my Fundraising Mums page.

For example, type in ‘how to run a cake stall’ and up pops Fundraising Mums ‘How to Run A Profitable Cake Stall’. Type ‘lessons from fete’ or ‘escape room for kids’ and my articles will pop up.

But sometimes people type in rather more obscure search terms only to be directed to my page. One of my favourite requests is the very specific ‘how much onion on average on a sausage’ which directs you to my Bunnings sausage sizzle article (answer 10kg of onions for 400-600 sausages).

I have been writing for Fundraising Mums since 2015 and I started it on a rather cynical yet optimistic note. I have always been heavily involved in the P&C, fundraising and events at my daughters’ school. I will be at my local primary school for thirteen years as a parent – I figure I should roll my sleeves up and get involved – but if I was going to do the work, I may as well write about it and share what I learned. There are over 10,000 schools in Australia and over 6,500 community sporting clubs. I figured if there was just one person in each school and club who wanted fundraising ideas then I would have a readership.

Like most things though, being a primary school mum is a phase that eventually you pass through and leave. My youngest daughter is now in Year 3, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. While that doesn’t necessarily mean I will no longer be involved in fundraising at all, it does seem that a natural end is upon me. One I am seriously considering embracing.

According to a 2009 survey, 95% of the 133 million blogs in existence had not been updated in 120 days – and were considered abandoned. Today, there are over 500 million blogs in existence (five of which belong to me) which if I extrapolated, would mean there are 475 million abandoned blogs littering the virtual highway (three of which belong to me).

I am trying to decide if I should add another to that number?

When is it time to say goodbye to a project that you have nurtured for years? Should it be an economic decision? A question of time? Or is it when you have lost the joy?

woman looking at pig

I don’t think I could completely abandon Fundraising Mums. It’s been my primary project for the last five years, and represents thousands of hours of my time spent researching and writing. I see my stories making their way out into the world, to places I never imagined. Ireland, India and Germany feature in the top 10 countries of FRM readers. I have built relationships with readers and advertisers alike. I am proud of the work I have done.

But over the past year I have been drawn in a different direction – away from the real world into the fictional worlds I have created in my novels. It’s there I want to spend my time.

The closure of schools, cancellation of sports and decimation of the events industry has been reflected in the readership of Fundraising Mums. I fear that by the end of the COVID-19 crisis there will be fewer Australian fundraising businesses than there was at the beginning of 2020. There will be casualties and perhaps Fundraising Mums will be amongst them.

But as long as I write a new story every 120 days then at least it won’t be entirely abandoned.

Just neglected.

 

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

When Good Comes From Bad

The last few months have seen some of the worst bushfires in Australian history, probably world history. Almost 16 million hectares burnt across 7 states and territories. Over 3,500 homes lost. More than 1 billion animals perished.

And 33 lives lost.

In early January, two Aussie authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman decided to do something about it. They put the call out on Twitter to other writers to donate something for auction, with the money raised going to fundraisers supporting the bushfire effort.

Enter #authorsforfireys

The original goal was modest: to raise $13,000 to support our beloved fireys, but before long it was clear that the twitter auction was going to be much more.

By the close of the auction, more than 1,200 items had been donated included signed books, the chance to named as a character in a book, manuscript appraisals, introductions, author visits to bookclubs, personalised poems, original illustrations, even a handmade rug.

I bid on a number of items, including Tess Wood’s incredible Italian feast for eight people. For much of the week I was the leading bidder. I had already chosen my guests, a mix of new and established Perth-based writers and I could already taste the tiramisu. Sadly, it was not to be, although I could hardly begrudge the winner, especially when they more than doubled my final bid.

There were a few other things I bid on with more success.

Last year I finished a manuscript called Behind Closed Doors that won me a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program and KSP First Edition Retreat. Wise advice from facilitator Laurie Steed suggested I get a sensitivity check on a scene involving one of my characters. I needed to find out if something I wrote would be realistic for a closeted gay man in the 1970s.

The problem being of course, I didn’t know any closeted gay men who were around in the 1970s.

‘Talk to Holden Sheppard,’ he suggested. Not that Holden is closeted or anywhere near old enough to be alive in the 1970s, but he is generous and open and a very good writer.

I had read and loved Holden’s incredible book Invisible Boys, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not the sort to send an unsolicited email asking for help.

Then the #AuthorsForFiries auction happened, and Holden was offering a one hour chat about anything writing related over a cup of coffee. It was like the universe heard what I was saying and delivered it in a neat, hashtagged parcel.

At the very last minute I was outbid by a measly $1. I was devasted.

But then, about an hour after the auction closed, I received a message from Holden. If I was happy to donate my bid to another good cause, he would give me the one hour consult. See what I mean about being generous?

Shannon and Holden Sheppard

With Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys

There was no way I was missing out on being the winning bidder for a manuscript appraisal by Louise Allen, author of the very beautiful The Sisters Song. I even upped my own bid at one point, because it was such a good cause. I had been following Louise’s blog for a number of years and there is no one else I would have wanted to read the first few chapters of my novel set here in Perth just before the start of World War 1 [click here to find out how it all started].

This week we met and sat for two hours, just talking about my book and characters, the real life people whose stories form the basis of the book, and my own journey as I researched.

Anyone who spends much of their lives closeted away writing will know how indulgent it is just to talk about your precious project with another writer. It was instructive and enlightening and has given me much needed motivation to pick the story back up and keep working on it.

Shannon and Louise Allen

With Louise Allen, author of The Sisters Song

The #AuthorsForFireys auction raised more than half a million dollars in less than a week. One nice aspect was that each author or illustrator who offered something for the auction was able to choose the specific cause they wanted their winner to donate to. This meant funds were spread around the country, benefiting local fire volunteers and animal rescue, local charities and greening groups.

The twitter auction also forged connections and relationships between writers across the country, bringing a tightknit community closer, and showing the real power of words.

And I made a couple of friends.

 

Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.

Why writing a first draft is like having a baby

Writing the first draft of a novel is a bit like having a baby. Hidden from view, the most amazing creation is being formed inside of you, and then one day, a small slimy, mass emerges – and you instantly fall in love with it.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful pink, chubby, smiling baby? Even though your baby doesn’t quite look like that yet, you also know babies grow. You have faith in your baby, and can already imagine what it will look like in your head.

So you assume that everyone else will love your wrinkly, red newborn, which cries incessantly and smells strange – because that’s not what you see. You are already looking at your baby with the benefit of birth hormones and nitrous oxide. You know it is the most beautiful baby in the world and everyone will agree with you.

In short, you are deluded.

Writing a first draft, I have discovered, is a bit like that. Growing a book inside you is like being pregnant. So much is going on inside your head that it can begin to take over your entire life, you live and breathe it, think about it during the day, dream about it at night. But it’s all going on inside you – so no one can really understand what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of what is taking place.

Then one day you announce you have written a book. Plop.

Some friends will immediately ask to read it. They’re either ignorant of all of the slime and blood still covering your creation, or they just love books (or you) so much, they want to read it, even if it means having the literary equivalent of meconium dribbling onto their laps and never being able to get the smell of sour milk (and poorly formed, clichéd characters) out of their noses.

You can give your stinky newborn book to your best friend or sister or partner or mum to read, but beyond this circle, it’s best to at least wash and dress the baby book before passing it on to the next visitor. After all, you’d like your visitor to come back again and not slink away in embarrassment, wiping vomit from their shoulder, never to look you in the eye again.

And while you may be convinced your book will grow up to be as handsome as Orlando Bloom, this does not give you permission to thrust your infant novel, still in nappies, at the nearest publisher demanding they agree ‘how good (looking) it is.’

And so as writers we must allow our newborn books to grow, to develop. We must wait for them to move through the stages at their own pace, and never be impatient for them to run before they can walk, or indeed, before they can even crawl.

Personally, I am hoping it won’t take 18 years for my freshly delivered, still mewling newborn book to develop to the stage where it’s ready to take on its own life, but I am fascinated to see what happens from here, and how it will grow and change.

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Meeting the Family

A few months back I put out an open letter to the Turpin, Regan and Blair families, asking descendants of these families to get in contact. It was wishful thinking – I wasn’t sure if I ever expected a reply.

Then one day the doorbell rang.

The woman who stood there had never known Doris, but she was family. Doris died long before she was born, but Yolanda was her great niece, and now lived only a suburb away. She promised to send me photographs, and to come back again with more of Doris’ family.

Doris Turpin early 60s at Maralyns wedding

It was a few days later when I opened my letter box and a packet of photographs fell out. The first photo was a black and white image of an older woman clearly taken in the 1960s; she had three strands of pearls at her neck, a hat decorated with flowers perched atop her head, and a pair of ubiquitous cats eye glasses. But it was her smile that captured my heart. This elderly lady, clearly in her 70s looked like such fun. I flicked to the next photo. The same woman but many years younger, smiling widely at the camera, outside in the garden, with a young boy kneeling on her lap, and little girl with a cheeky grin, sitting next to her.

 

In all I had been given almost a dozen photographs, each showing the woman who I never believed I would ever get to see. A woman I had been researching for the better part of a decade, who had walked the same floorboards as I, who looked through the same windows. The woman whose story had inspired a novel and who I knew so much about except what she looked like – and finally, here she was in my hands.

Unknown group with Doris Turpin, front left seated in all white outfit

The most precious was a photo likely taken at Claremont Training College itself, of a teenaged Doris, sitting with five other students. The sepia tones verifies its age, the men are wearing full three piece suits, starched collars, ties and carefully oiled hair. The woman all wear long skirts and button-down shirts with tiny neck bows. Their hands are clasped primly in their laps, their expression blank as required by the time. But one of the men has clearly moved during the photograph: he has four hands and three feet, and perhaps for this reason Doris, dressed all in white, and the man behind her are smiling. The smiling man gazes at something out of frame, he is no longer even looking at the photographer, but Doris – eighteen or nineteen years old – squints at the camera, with the same cheeky smile that is apparent in photos almost fifty years later.

I could not have been more emotional about finally meeting Doris, than if she had been my own long-lost relative. In truth she felt like family.

Weeks later, my new friend Yolanda returned with her aunty Maralyn. Maralyn lived at my house in Daglish in the 1940s when she was very young, and she continued to visit even after the family moved to their new home in Subiaco. She brought with her Doris’ own photo album and diligently went through every photo, pointing out who everyone was, telling little stories like I was a part of the family. She showed us a picture of her on her wedding day in the front lounge – I could recognise the brickwork around the fireplace. It hadn’t changed in 60 years.

Doris Turpin with Kenneth Walter (Dick) and Gwenyth Turpin

Yolanda’s mother was the youngest of the four children, born during the time her family shared the 2 bedroom house on Lutey Avenue with Doris. Yolanda said she had felt an affinity with Lutey Avenue growing up; she would deliberately detour to walk down the small, tree-lined street, although she had no idea that her great-aunt had once lived on the street.

Maralyn shared many stories that afternoon, giving clarity to stories that her older sister Gwenyth, now deceased, had told me over the phone years earlier, and filling in some blanks.

She and her brother and sisters went to Subiaco Primary at the same time Doris was a teacher there. Doris taught upper primary and had the reputation of being a good and fair teacher. Maralyn recalled that the other students would call her ‘Old Turps’, but made Maralyn promise not to tell her Aunty about the nickname. As an adult she remembers asking Doris if she was aware of what the students called her, and Doris had laughed and said that all the teachers knew what the kids nicknames for them were.

It’s hard to quantify what the photos mean, to explain how it felt like to hear stories about Doris from someone who knew and loved her. None of it has any bearing on the fictional story I am writing, but they represent an extra step in my writing journey, an extra piece in the puzzle.

Prior to this I had photos of my ANZAC boys John Regan and Walter Blair. As men, and soldiers who died, they were always more likely to be photographed and mentioned in the papers. But as a woman, Doris was always less likely to be so publicly mentioned. I thought I would never get to see what she looked like. But it is bittersweet seeing her as an old lady, surrounded by family, because there would never be any comparative photos of the boys, who died so young at Gallipoli. They would never be old men, surrounded by loved ones.

Doris Turpin

I now keep a photo of Doris on the wall of my office. She smiles down at me as I work, eyes squinting at the camera, with a smile that suggests she is having a private joke. It never fails to make me smile back, a smile shared over sixty years.

 

These photos of Doris Turpin have been republished with kind permission from Maralyn Johnson (nee Turpin) and Yolanda Savage.

 

The ANZAC Boys

Perhaps the most tantalising story Gwenyth told me about her aunt, Doris, was in response to my question about why she had never married. Gwenyth explained that many years after Doris had died, she found out from her father (Doris’ younger brother, Walter) that when Doris was very young, she’d had a sweetheart – a teacher – but that he had died in World War 1. After he died, she never talked about him because she found it too painful to have lost the man she loved, and she decided she never wanted to marry anyone else.

Since Doris graduated from Claremont Teachers College in 1913, and WW1 was over by 1918, this only leaves a window of 5 or 6 years when she would have met her sweetheart. The man might have been another student from her time at the College or a teacher from her first jobs after graduating. Between 1914 and 1916 she was moved between the schools at East Perth, Geraldton, Northampton and Bayswater before being sent to East Vic Park School in February 1917 where she stayed for more than twenty years.

Curious about who the man might have been, I wrote to Shannon Lovelady, a historian who I had seen in the local paper as having done research about West Australians who died at Gallipoli in WW1. She wrote back within days with a list of nine names – all the West Australian teachers who died in Gallipoli WWI, adding there would have been more who died on the Western Front. She liked the idea of John Regan as the potential sweetheart since he was at Claremont Teachers College the same time as Doris.

But while Gwenyth said that Doris’ sweetheart was a teacher, she didn’t specifically know if Doris had met him while at college. It was also possible that the man she was in love with, had moved from the Eastern States, and might not have registered for service here in Perth. If he moved back east before enlisting, there would be no way of finding out who he was.

During this time I was also undertaking a writing course with Natasha Lester at UWA Claremont, which is actually the old Teachers’ Training College where Doris studied a century earlier. Not only did I find photographs of the 1912-13 teaching students lining the walls of the main corridor, but I found a memorial in front of the building dedicated to all the students and teachers who died during WW1. There were 35 names on the memorial, each potentially a candidate to be Doris’s sweetheart. Inside the building, there was a board with the names of 116 men, all teachers who enlisted for service in WW1, and presumably made it home again.

To my understanding there is no living person who knows the name of the man – Doris did not talk about him with her family: if her brother knew the man’s name, he did not pass it onto Gwenyth, and anyone else who may know the story of the dead soldier would have passed away long ago.

I decided to research a couple of the more likely suitors – chosen because they were at College at the same time as Doris and were therefore a similar age. Plaques inside the College, erected by classmates included

Walter Blair (class of 1913)

Sydney Forbes (class of 1913)

George Hall (1913-1914, so presumably class of 1914)

John Regan (class of 1914)

Malcolm Stewart (class of 1913)

Ronald Wallace (class of 1912)

Frank Matthews (class of 1908).

However, this put our ‘favourite’, John Regan in a different class to Doris, as she  graduated in 1913, while he is recorded as having graduated with the class of 1914. Their dates of enrolment and attendance match, but for some reason he did not matriculate until the following year. After requesting his student records from the University, I discovered that for some reason John failed to turn up to his final two exams in 1913. However he must have sat them at a later stage because he graduated the next year, putting him in the Class of 1914. So although he and Doris would have been in the same classes for two years, he did not officially graduate until the year after she did.

While researching on Trove I came across an article in the Western Mail article, dated Friday 28t April 1916 which detailed the commemoration service of three students who died in WW1. The three students were Frank Matthews (who was several years older than Doris) John Regan and Walter Blair, both of whom started their teaching course at the College in 1912 – the same year as Doris. I could imagine Doris returning to the College for the special service, and standing there listening to the Minister of Education talk about the man she loved. With two possible candidates, I started researching both John and Walter further, and the seeds of my novel was born. Although it has now been removed from my current draft, this scene of Doris standing at the back of the room while the commemoration service took place at the College, was the first I ever wrote.

Regan_John_2John Regan

John Regan was one of nine children born to John and Margaret Regan. The two eldest, both daughters, were born in Ireland and the young couple then immigrated to Western Australia in the mid-1880s. Their first son Patrick, was born in Jarrahdale in 1888. Margaret then had another six children, all boys except for one girl Arlene, a twin born in 1899. There was 22 years between the eldest child, Margaret born in 1880 and the youngest, Charles, born in 1902, with John being the 6th child born in 1895. This also makes him two years younger than Doris, who was born in 1893.

Photos of John show him to have a slight build, a delicate face with dark eyes, dark hair and a rather sensuous mouth.

According to an article on Trove, John Sr was granted an ‘Eating and Boarding House’ licence on December 14th, 1900. At this time he had eight children, although the eldest daughters may have married and moved out by then. It is possible he and his wife took in boarders to help pay the bills from feeding and caring for such a large family.

Four Regan brothers enlisted in World War 1 – Patrick, Michael, John and James. John was the first to sign up, on 21st October 1914, shortly after graduating college. Interestingly, John’s papers say he was 20 years and 9 months when he enlisted, but he was actually born in 1895 so he pretended to be a year older than he really was. According to Shannon Lovelady, this was quite common: the enlistment age was 21, and if you were younger than this you either needed signed parental consent, or to lie about your age.

John would have been 19 when he enlisted. By lying and adding a year to his age, he made his age close enough to 21 to make ‘the enlistment officer look the other way’, especially since due to training (2 months) and the long time it took to reach Europe by ship (one month), he would be 21 by the time he was on the battlefield. He made the rank of Trooper.

John was killed within a year, on 7th August 1915 in Egypt. He had a horrible death, with a gunshot wound to his right arm, and both legs amputated at the No: 15 General Hospital in Alexandria. He died from his extreme wounds the following day. John would have been twenty years old.

His brothers all enlisted after John was killed in 1915. Michael, the second eldest son was killed, but both Patrick and James both returned home. Charles was too young to serve (born 1902), and I cannot tell why Daniel (born 1892) did not enlist.

When you look at the Regan brothers’ enlistment papers, it becomes clear that John, although not the youngest, was the smallest of the brothers. His brothers were either taller or heavier or broader than he was. Patrick, the eldest was married and living in Bunbury where he worked as a fireman on a locomotive, and he was drafted to the Railway Unit and reinforcements special draft.

The brothers were no angels. Michael (aged 26) was written up and fined for drunkenness while on service, while James had a venereal disease card amongst his war service record. I wonder if perhaps John was considered the runt of the family. While his brawny brothers laboured and worked as firemen and timberworkers in the Jarrahdale, John was the ‘brains’ of the family, winning a five year scholarship to No. 6 Jarrahdale school, and enrolling at a very young age at Claremont Training College. The WA Record writes in his obituary that he had ‘a brilliant course’ at Claremont, suggesting he was very bright.

John Regan embarked for the front on February 17th, 1915. He was part of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, ‘C’ Squadron, and sailed on the ship Surada from Fremantle. Of the approximately 165 men in board, only 10 were younger than John, recorded as being 18 or 19 years of age, and all but one of these boys returned home. John was one of the unlucky ones, being killed after having been in Europe for only a few months. In the article in the Western Mail about the commemoration of the plaques at the Training College, it said “Trooper Regan, a young man of great promise, whose ambition it was to serve his country in some public capacity”, making me wonder if he had hoped to run for public office or the government had he have lived.

walter BlairWalter Blair

Born in NSW (Murwillumbah) in March 1893, Walter Bell Blair was the son of Thomas and Jessie Blair. When he enlisted at the age of 20 years, he was working at Maylands School, while his family now lived in Maddington. He completed his two year teaching course at the same time as Doris, and was well known as a footballer (soccer), being part of the Claremont ‘Training College’ football team. A number of obituaries lamented the loss to ‘Association Football’ after he died. An enlarged photograph of Walter was also unveiled at the Maylands State School as part of an ANZAC Day ceremony in 1916, with the MLA Mr R. T. Robinson conducting the ceremony.

Walter achieved the rank of Lance Corporal and was serving in the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion, when he was killed in action in the landing at Gallipoli. He is in the famous Cheops Pyramid photograph, seated towards the top left hand corner, one of the few men with his hat off, instead holding it in both hands between his legs. Photos of Walter show him to be very serious, almost sad. In images of Walter surrounded by school mates, when others may be smiling, he is always serious.

Walter had at least two brothers, Thomas the eldest, who was listed on the electoral rolls in 1925 as a ‘traveller’ and John Esperance Blair, named because he was born in Esperance, was three years younger than Walter. John Blair also enlisted in WW1, and joined the 27th Battalion in mid-1916 (one year after Walter had been killed). John was wounded in action at the very end of the war with gunshot wounds to both thighs, but he was invalided to England and returned to Australia at the end of 1918.

 

cheops.jpg

Image used with thanks from 11th Battalion Cheops Project http://11btn.wags.org.au/

 

*

I will never know if either John or Walter was indeed Doris’ sweetheart. But there was something about their stories that made me want to pursue them, and now I feel they are like family to me. Unlike Doris, of whom I have never seen a photograph so I have no idea what she looks like, I have a number of images of both John and Walter. It is their faces who look out at me from a silver frame on my desk. When I write, it is them I am thinking of, and elements of their personal appearance and life have inspired characters in my novel.

But the truth is, there were thousands of men like John and Walter, young men who signed up for this great adventure across the sea, and who now lie buried across Europe. These men – boys really – never had a chance to really start their lives, let alone finish them. And there are just as many women like Doris, whose life took a sad and unexpected turn, when their sweetheart never returned home. My novel may be inspired by Doris’ life, but it really will be the story of many women, and it is my way of remembering them and the thousands of other young Australian men and women whose lives were cut short or irrevocably changed by the Great War.

ANZAC Day, April 25th 2018

Cheops image has been sourced from the 11th Battalion Cheops  Project.

 

Snubbed by a Plumber

Things have been falling apart in our house lately. First the kitchen sink started leaking. Then the toilet started leaking. Then another toilet decided to stop flushing altogether, which instantly brings you back into the middle-ages and reaffirms your love affair with modern plumbing and disappearing bodily waste.

So over the past few weeks I have been establishing a first-name basis relationship with the local plumber. Let’s call him Bob.

Bob is an older fellow, knowledgeable far beyond the physics of plumbing. Over his three recent visits we have talked about my writing, the perils of working from home, and the frustrations of parenting.

Yesterday in between plunging the precariously full bowl of my upstairs toilet and a gentle lecture on P bends and air flow in pipes, he asked me how my writing was going.

‘Oh well, I am pretty busy with the kids at the moment…’

‘I am struggling with my novel because I am more used to writing short-form articles…’

‘The school holidays are almost here…’

‘It’s hard to get adequate paid work…’

Bob straightened up and pointed the plunger at me.

‘You know what it sounds like to me, if you don’t mind me saying…’ he started to say.

I leaned forward – would he have the solution to my problems?

‘It sounds like a discipline problem to me.’ And he flushed the toilet and everything went away.

I was floored, but only because it was the simple truth. I have no obstacles to my writing, except myself. I have the same number of hours in my day as everyone else, and I probably have significantly fewer constraints than many others.

On the weekend I went to a Writers’ Convention and my first session was Overcoming Obstacles to Writing by the amazing Annabel Smith. She too (in a more roundabout way and with significantly less raw sewage) came to the same conclusion.

And so I am breathing life back into this blog, not (only) as a way to procrastinate, but I find that any form of creative writing is like mental exercise for me, a way to start jogging before the marathon of the novel.

And even though Bob farewelled me with the comment ‘Well I hope I don’t have to see you again anytime soon’ (and I am sure he meant that in the nicest possible way), I am hoping that the next time our paths (or plungers) cross, I will have a much better response when he asks me how my writing is going – with no more excuses.