Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

Stocktake on Words – 2019

I do my writing in two shifts. I create new worlds and fictional characters during those dark, shadowy hours between 4 and 6.30am, and during the bright, daylight hours between 9am and 3pm I work on my blogs and other non-fiction endeavours.

I even work in different rooms on my different forms of writing – upstairs for fiction, downstairs for non-fiction. It’s as though my writing resides in two separate worlds, and I speak different languages depending on what is showing on the clock.

2019 started slowly for me. My novel set in pre-WW1 Perth had been sitting on the back-burner for a few months, and I couldn’t seem to get past a blockage that was preventing me from picking it up again.

Then a few things happened all at once. Inspiration struck, not once but twice and I felt compelled to start two new projects.

In February I made myself a deal, that if I wrote for 100 days between then and my birthday in August, I would buy myself a Little Street Library. Not only did I write for 100 days, but in the 7 months I managed to write a complete manuscript of 99,900 words, a novel called Behind Closed Doors that sprawls between the 1960s and 1980s. It was the first book I have managed to finished (and believe me, I’ve started a more than a couple), and it won me a place on the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre First Edition Retreat, as part of the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program.

While I was creating drama upstairs in the wee hours of the morning, during the day I began researching a new project, inspired by my youngest daughter’s recent diagnosis of dyslexia. I would plan my week, dividing my time between this new project, Fundraising Mums and a handful of other small writing projects. Where the start of 2019 had been like the proverbial dried up desert, suddenly I was drowning in ideas and lately there hasn’t been enough hours in the day to get it all done.

So how does 2019 stack up?

Income

The less said about the financial end of things the better. Luckily I don’t need my writing to finance my life, but I do find it essential to enrich it.

Articles and Readers

I had a moderate year writing a handful of articles (19) for WeekendNotes. My huge library of WeekendNotes articles, reaching back to 2010 together with old articles from Hub Garden (all of which still earns a tiny income) reached around 74,500 readers.

For my Fundraising Mums site I researched and published 49 articles and clocked up 126,000 readers from Australia and around the globe. I am proud of the work I did there this year.

I also wrote a dozen or so articles for this site and my parenting blog, Relentless… and yes, I do wonder sometimes if I am stretching myself too thin between all these blogs.

Non-fiction project

I finished 49 stories for my dyslexia project. It’s funny that for both my dyslexia project and Fundraising Mums – the two projects I have spent most of my time working on – I finished the year with 49 articles apiece… is there something about the magical number 50 that I cannot crack?

All up I estimate I wrote around 170,000 words this year. This is significantly less than the quarter million words I wrote in 2017, but the majority of my work has been for books not blogs, and I feel like the writing I have done this year has more heft, and more potential.

This leaves me feeling excited for 2020. I am about a third of the way through a re-draft of Behind Closed Doors, which I am working on steadily (but slowly) in the mornings before I head downstairs. Editing and redrafting is not nearly as much fun as writing.

I am also feeling very positive about my other project, and hope that 2020 brings with it some exciting news…

 

 

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.

paper-1100254_1280

100 Days of Writing

Almost six months ago I made myself a deal. Wanting an incentive to sit and write every day, I promised myself that if I wrote for 100 days between that day – the 18th of February – and my birthday, which falls mid-August, I would let myself get a Little Street Library.

I love Little Street Libraries. I keep my eyes peeled for them when I am driving around. I have seen them at churches and in laneways, outside shops and homes. My favourite is one that looks like a small red phonebooth, brimming with books and stories. I wanted my own, partly as a way of recycling books I no longer needed, and partly as a source of new reading. I didn’t even know where I would put it, I just wanted one.

I had no goal with regard to how much I would write, just the simple act of climbing out of bed at 4am or 5am or even 6am, regardless of how much light was in the sky, or how cold my legs were under my robe, and sitting at my desk and placing my fingers on the keys.

I started strongly, writing almost every day for the rest of February, and was thrilled when I had put almost 10,000 words on paper in only ten days. This was a new story, and it flowed easily. I had reached my halfway point of 50 days by the start of May, and with it a count of over 46,000 words.

Today, on August 1st, a fortnight before the deadline, I ticked off my 100th day of writing. It’s been harder to write during the winter months. It’s just harder to get out of bed. And as I have neared the end of my novel, the story has slowed down, and uncertainty of how to find closure has decelerated my speed of writing.

But I now have a first draft – an enormous first draft at 93,000 words – that is 99% complete. And in theory, I have earned myself a Little Street Library.

Except about three months ago, as we were driving past my neighbour’s house, I could see her painting a beautiful, hand made little library that she had fixed to her front wall. My heart sank. Later that afternoon I walked to her house, carrying the two big bags of books I had been saving for when I got my own Street Library. There was only a matter of metres between our houses, and even I with my deep love of books, could not justify two Little Street Libraries right next to each other.

It turns out it didn’t matter. The reward for my writing, was the story itself. It spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s and is full of both my childhood memories growing up in Perth, stories I had heard, and research gleaned from the internet. It is rich with history, from the Meckering quake to the change to the metric system. The old Coles cafeteria in the city makes an appearance, as do the swans at Perth airport.

I don’t know if the story will ever be more than just 500 pages of a Word document on my laptop. I hope so. But even though I probably will never get my own Little Street Library, I feel so proud today of my 100 days of writing. I think I might buy myself a cupcake!

An open letter to members of the Turpin, Regan and Blair families

My name is Shannon Meyerkort and I am a writer, currently researching and writing a novel set here in Perth just prior to WW1. The reason why I am contacting you, is that you may be related to one of the people who have inspired my story, and I am writing as a courtesy and also to try and make connections with the families of the people whose stories have motivated me to write.

Firstly, it’s important that I stress that the novel I am writing is fictional. It is not an autobiography although I aim for it to be historically accurate. However it is inspired by three people:

Doris Isabelle TURPIN (1873-1968) of Daglish, WA

John REGAN (1895-1915) of Jarrahdale, WA

Walter Bell BLAIR of Murwillumbah NSW/Maddington WA (1893-1915)

All three were students at the Claremont Training College around the period 1912-1914, which was the teacher training college of Perth at the time, and is now part of the University of WA.

I began researching Doris as she was the original owner of my house in Daglish. After making contact with her niece in 2014, I discovered that Doris (who had died a spinster at the age of 75) had a sweetheart who was a teacher, but he had died in WW1.

It was the question of who this man might be, although no one living could possibly know who he was, that led me to research fellow students at the College. Both John and Walter attended the College at the same time as Doris, and sadly, both men lost their lives in the early days of WW1. There is no way of knowing who Doris’s sweetheart really was, but as a writer I wanted to find the stories of men who could have been. Therefore, some aspects of both John and Walter’s stories (which I have been able to discover via sites such as Trove and ancestry.com) have informed the characters in my novel.

Neither Doris, nor John nor Walter ever married and had children, but they all had siblings and most likely have a large extended family still living here in Perth. I am trying to reach out to people who may be related, and this is why I have written this letter. With dozens and dozens of Turpins, Blairs and Regans listed in the white pages, it isn’t possible for me to contact everyone individually, and I am hoping this letter eventually reaches the right people, perhaps someone knows someone who knows someone.

I am not asking you for anything, but I just wanted to let you know about the story I am writing. It is obviously much larger than just Doris, Walter and John – as there were many thousands of men who lives were cut short by WW1 and many thousands of women back home, whose lives were irrevocably changed by the death of their sweethearts and husbands. I hope to do justice to their memories and am very happy to share the information I have discovered about them as a result of my research.

If you would like any further information please do not hesitate to contact me at meyerkortshannon@gmail.com

Sincerely

Shannon Meyerkort

A Stroke of Bad Luck

This is a section that I have already removed from my novel as I am now limiting the story to the period 1912-1915. However, if you read the previous blog post about Doris, you will recognise this story as from the day of her stroke.

 

1968

Fred stretched in the early morning air, surveying the street as he searched for the paper. Finding it wedged in his wife’s prize rose bush, he shook his head in despair. These paper boys were getting worse and worse, he thought. No care.

Tucking it under his arm, he ambled up the street. It was both a habit and obligation, checking to see that the old lady next door had collected her paper, a sign that all was well. Finding no sign of the paper, he glanced towards the house and gave a brief wave, even though he had no idea if anyone was watching. There was no movement in the windows, but there rarely was. Duty done, Fred unfolded his own paper as he walked the few steps back to his house, already immersed in the day’s headlines.

+ + +

Fred wrapped his scarf tighter around his throat and stepped out into the brisk afternoon air. The wind immediately made his eyes water, and he considered staying inside, the fire was particularly well built today, and the smell of dinner was very enticing. But something drew him out into the cold afternoon that day, and it wasn’t simply his wife needing more butter for dinner, nor her insistence that he was getting loose around the middle and a brisk walk would do him good. Something else brought him outside that day.

Hands deep in his pockets, and eyes half closed to the wind Fred set off down the street. He had only gone a few steps when he kicked something unexpectedly. A newspaper rolled out from under the hedge and stopped against his shoe. Fred felt his insides dissolve as he looked towards the old lady’s house. It was still and dark, no lights burning in the front rooms, despite the heavy clouds that day. Fred bent to pick up the paper and reluctantly stepped towards the house.

Although no larger than any of the other houses in the area, its situation on the high corner block meant you had to look up at it slightly. He crossed the grass slowly and stepped up to the verandah, its white squat columns offering scant protection from the wintery elements.

Glancing longingly next door to where his house glowed with life, and the smells of dinner came wafting through the air, Fred knocked on the front door. Straining to hear a noise, he knocked again. Louder, more desperately.

He longed to be in his home, in his favourite chair with May and the children chattering and laughing. The silence at number 14 was heavy. Even the wind had stopped blowing and Fred felt very alone.

‘Miss Turpin,’ he shouted, a wobble in his voice betraying him. ‘Miss Turpin, are you in there? I have your paper.’ There was no movement from inside the house, no tell-tale squeak from the floorboards, no doors banging. Yet Fred could feel a presence and he knew she was inside. He stepped back from the door and balanced on the stairs, hand cupping his face as he peered into the front window, trying to see inside the dark room. The long white nightgown made the shape of her body lying next to the bed appear like a ghost and Fred suddenly yelled, but the words were caught in his throat.

Dropping the paper into the garden, he banged on the window, trying to call to the old lady, to his wife, to anyone who might be able to help but the wind had picked up again, and his words were tossed around helplessly, like a paper boat in a storm.

 

How I came to start my novel, Part III: Doris Turpin, the teacher

This is the story of the second owner of the ‘House of Women’, and the woman whose story my novel is loosely based upon.

Doris was born Doris Isabel Turpin in 1893 to Isabelle ‘Bella’ Stokes and Walter Turpin.  She first appeared in the 1916 electoral roll, when she was living with her parents at 63 Guildford Road, Mt Lawley. Walter was an accountant, while Bella was listed as doing ‘home duties.’

Doris lived in her family home until she was in her late 30s, with the 1931 Electoral Roll, showing that Doris had finally moved was now living at 102 Zebina Street in East Perth. By this stage, Doris had been a teacher for more than fifteen years. Her middle name had also changed from Isabel to Isabella – whether this was something she deliberately did following the death of her mother, or simply a typo, I have not been able to determine.

A year later in 1932, Doris purchased the land in Daglish. She was 39 years old, and both her parents had passed away, first her father and then her mother. It is likely that on the death of her mother, Doris inherited a small amount of money which enabled her to purchase the land.

Although Doris purchased the block of land in 1932, it was many years before she built a house in Daglish, allowing the block to sit empty for almost a decade. During this time Doris worked as a teacher, and moved between properties on Hay Street in West Perth.

According to the title, Doris did not organise a mortgage until January 1939 indicating that she paid for the land outright and the mortgage was to finance the building of the house. The mortgage was with the Perth Benefit Building Investment and Loan Society and was for £126, which was more than the cost of the two blocks of land a decade previously. Doris worked hard and was able to pay off the loan by 1950.

It wasn’t until the 1943 Electoral Roll that Doris Turpin was finally listed as living at the house on Lutey Ave in Daglish, although I believe she moved in around 1941/42. At this stage, she would have been fifty years old and working as a teacher at Beaconsfield School. It would be another six years until she was transferred to Subiaco School, which was less than a ten minute walk across the train-line. In all her lifetime, Doris never learned to drive a car, and it must have been a great relief as she got older, that she no longer had to catch buses and trains to get to work every day.

I should admit here, that when I originally started researching Doris, I made a very unfair assumption about her. After she died, the house in Daglish sat empty for almost a full year and I supposed that since she was a spinster, and because the house remained unsold for so long that she had died without a will, with no family and no beneficiaries. Why else would a house sit unsold and empty for so long?

At this stage of my research, I made a second, even more mortifying mistake.

On the 1931 electoral roll, I saw a Walter Turpin living in Pingelly and knowing that Walter was no longer listed as living at the family home in My Lawley [I hadn’t realised he had died], I made the assumption that Doris’s father had left his wife and daughter and remarried. I remember calling my mother, saddened at the break-up of those who I had begun to regard as family. Of course, further research showed that the Walter living in Pingelly was not Doris’ father, but a younger brother I had not previously realised existed (he was born in 1900). He had been living in Melbourne at the time of Walter Sr’s death in 1920, which is why he was not previously on the Electoral Roll. After coming back to Perth following his father’s death, Walter Jr moved out to the country, approximately 160 kilometres from Perth, where the Electoral Roll shows him living with a group of other Turpins, whom I assumed to be a grandfather and uncles. A later conversation with Walter’s daughter, Gwenyth, confirmed that he moved in with his uncle (Walter Sr’s brother) and eventually fell in love with – and married – his first cousin Lucy May.

Back in Perth, Doris was now a middle-aged spinster, a teacher and building her first house. Although the majority of houses in Daglish were built in the years immediately following the suburb’s development (late 1920s/early 1930s), Doris’s house was one of the last in the area to be built, finally being finished around 1941. The block next door, sold to Edwina Henson in the 1920s, sat empty for even longer, with the house finally being finished in the early 1950s.

Because it was at least a decade newer than other houses in the street, Doris’ house did not have some of the traditional ‘interwar’ features, such as gables, or lead-lighting in the windows. It was also quite large for a single woman: featuring a large master bedroom with attached sleep-out, a large lounge-room with fireplace, a second bedroom, internal bathroom, kitchen and a separate dining room. Access to the laundry and toilet was through the kitchen. Very high ceilings, wooden floors and decorated ceiling roses in each room were features common to the era.

It was when Doris finally appeared on the 1943 Electoral Roll as living in her new house in Daglish, that I made the surprising discovery that she was not alone. With World War II in full swing and many young men of Perth away fighting in Europe, it was common for older men living in country areas to be ‘manpowered’ and compelled to return to Perth to assist with occupations that were being unfulfilled due to the shortage of men. This is why Walter Jr, his wife Lucy (who was also Doris’s first cousin) and their three children moved from Pingelly back to Perth. Due to a shortage of housing at the time (with many young men away at war there were less labourers to build), Doris invited her brother and his family to live with her in her brand new house.

Gwenyth, the eldest of Walter’s children was almost 12 at the time she moved from Pingelly to Daglish. She remembered her aunt as being a very nice and patient women. Aunt Dorrie never got upset even though she was a teacher and had been around kids all day, and then returned home to a house full of children. The house had two bedrooms, with Doris living in the main front bedroom, and Walter and Lucy in the second bedroom with their baby. Gwenyth slept in the small sleep-out adjacent to her Aunty and her bother slept on a couch in the dining room. The family stayed with Doris for a number of years (around five or six), enough time for Lucy to have another baby and Gwenyth was old enough to get her first job. By the time the war was over and people were building again, Walter was able buy his own house on Heytesbury Rd in Subiaco. At the age of 56, Doris finally had her house to herself.

She lived alone for almost two more decades. One evening in 1968, Doris attended Lucy’s birthday party in Subiaco. As she did not drive and only travelled by bus, I can only assume that Walter or Lucy (or one of the grown up children) had dropped the elderly Doris home after the party.

The couple next door, May and Fred Mason, who were at least twenty years her junior and who had built their house in 1951, kept an eye on their elderly neighbour, checking each day that Doris had collected her newspaper and was ok. The morning after the party Doris’ neighbour checked for the newspaper as usual, but it had rolled under a bush and he assumed that she had collected it. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that he saw the paper under the bush and he realised that something must have happened to Doris. Fred looked through the front bedroom window and could see Doris lying by the side of her bed. She’d had a stroke. He called an ambulance and Doris was transferred to a hospice. Doris never returned to her home in Daglish and she died soon after, at the age of 75.

It was a conversation I had with Gwenyth, Doris’s niece who would have been in her early 80s at the time of our conversation, that finally sparked the inspiration for my novel and will form the subject of my next blog.

Doris Isabella Turpin 1893-1968

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my desk 2017

How I Came to Start My Novel, Part 2: The 1920s Landowner

This is the story of the first owner of my house, the first of the ‘House of Women’.

The first owner of our house was a woman by the name of Ethel Lottie Rogerson, a married woman who lived in Mount Lawley, an old suburb approximately 8 kilometres north east of Daglish. Technically, she just owned the land, as the house was not built until almost two decades later; but her name is the first that appears on the title, and therefore the first of the women whose history is entwined with my own.

The Daglish precinct only came into existence in 1925, marketed as an affordable and spacious alternative to the more pricey blocks in Subiaco and Shenton Park across the train line (and it still is). When the Daglish train station was commissioned in 1925, land to the west of the train line and south of Hay Street was made available for sale, encroaching on the then-virgin bushland. Daglish was the first major development area in the City of Subiaco since the area was gazetted in 1897, and the streets were still only sand and rocks in 1928 when Ethel purchased not only the block of land that our house was built on, but the neighbouring block as well, a piece of land described as ‘one rood, 11 and 8 tenth perches’ and for which she paid the sum of £119 (approximately $8,000 today).

Curious as to how a married woman might become the owner of two pieces of land I began to research Ethel using the digitised newspaper system Trove and ancestry.com.au which gave me access to the old electoral rolls. I wanted to go back to early in Ethel’s story, to find out as much as I could about her.

Ethel was born in 1887 to parents Charlotte and John, and seemingly lived her entire life in Perth, dying at the age of 80 in 1967. At the time of the 1916 electoral roll (when she was 29), Ethel was married to a contractor (builder) by the name of Robert Rogerson and living in East Perth. Over the next fifteen years, Ethel and Robert moved a few times, never very far – even at time moving to the house next door (from 701 Beaufort Street in Mount Lawley to 699 Beaufort St).

As I read through the electoral rolls, I could see as their various children came of age (the voting age at the time was 21). Sadly, Ethel and Robert’s first daughter Grace, who was born in 1910, passed away at the age of two years and five months, when Ethel was still very young, age 23. Many years later their son Arthur Edward, recorded as a student and a daughter Gwendoline Alice, a nurse, appeared on the 1936 electoral roll, indicating they had both turned 21. The following year, in 1937, neither Arthur nor Gwendoline appeared as living at the house in Beaufort Street, suggesting they had moved out of home, but by 1943 another daughter Jean Ethel appeared on the electoral roll, and Robert was now recorded as being a ‘builder.’

In 1949, when Ethel would have been 62 and Robert some years older, Gwendoline moved home again. Listed on the electoral roll as a nursing sister, it is my suspicion that she moved home to assist her elderly mother with her very sick father. Robert Rogerson died shortly after, on July 12th, 1949, leaving Gwen temporarily at home with her mother and youngest sister Jean. Jean appears to have lived at home with her mother Ethel for her entire life, or at least until the historic electoral rolls end in 1963.

However it was many years earlier, in the early days of the Great Depression, when Ethel started selling off the land in Daglish. Given that Ethel didn’t work, it is a fair assumption that she was acting under instruction from her husband, who may have chosen to have the land in his wife’s name for legal or business reasons. (However it is possible she may purchased the land using an inheritance, my research has not progress that far. Yet.)

After purchasing the Daglish land in 1928, the block was divided into two, and then she sold Lot 137, (now my neighbours block) to Edwina Evie Henson in December 1929. Perhaps due to poor sales during the Depression, Ethel held onto the second piece of land for another three years, finally selling the empty corner block to Doris Isabella Turpin, a ‘spinster’ living in 1320 Hay Street Perth on September 7th, 1932.

Doris – who is the inspiration behind my novel – and her story will be the subject of my next blog.

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my desk 2017

How I came to start my novel

July 2005

As she walked down the stairs to her waiting car, Judith looked up at the house one more time.

‘You know,’ she said, ‘this house has only ever been owned by women.’ She smiled at me, her eyes crinkling against the winter sun, and then she got into her car and drove to her new home. I turned and surveyed the house my husband and I had just bought. It was a rambling late 1920s (or so I thought) interwar cottage. Built solidly of limestone and bricks, and wood and tile it had the traditional wooden floors and high ceilings in the original, front part of the house, and a large sunlit modern extension in the back. Judith had bought the smaller original house in the 1980s, and raised a family within its walls, extending it with her architect husband, Greg, in the early 1990s. Then in 2005, my husband and I bought the house.

At the time I considered her comment curious, thinking it would be unusual that a house of that vintage would be owned solely by women in such a traditional male-centred society as 20th century Western Australia, but I didn’t investigate the claim further until almost a decade later.

In 2014, I was three quarters of the way through a post-graduate professional writing degree at Curtin University. I had enrolled in a unit called Writing the Past, and I knew before term even started what my major project was going to be. I was going to research Judith’s claim – and discover the women who had previously owned my house. I even knew what I was going to call it: The House of Women.

I had ordered a copy of the house title the year before, but not spent much time pouring over its spidery copperplate writing. When I pulled it out of the yellow envelope, my eye quickly fell upon a name that immediately disproved Judith’s claim that only women had owned the house. A husband and wife had owned the house in the 1970s. I was surprisingly disappointed, but not enough to stop me from persisting in my research when I saw all the other owners had been women, all the way back to the 1920s. I pulled a notebook from my shelf and began taking notes.

It is from within these notes and the stories I discovered along the way, that my novel has originated. While in 2014 my research was strictly for personal interest (and the university assignment), the notion that I could turn any part of it into a novel was not seeded until much later. A throwaway comment in 2005 started a journey that now in 2018, I am still pursuing. And the story of a woman who lived in my house over fifty years ago, has formed the basis of my novel.

Since the novel is based on real people in a real time and place, historical accuracy is very important to me. I’m also a complete research nerd, and will happily spend hours pouring over photographs and old books to determine how things really looked, what things cost, how people travelled and what they ate.

But while my novel is fiction, it is based on a number of individuals who are very real. They are modest people, every day people that you would not know about unless they were a distant relative, (or unless a random writer one day stumbled upon their stories). But while I type my novel, I will also be sharing real stories here, the real lives on which my novel is based. Because they deserve to be written as well.

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my desk 2017

My writing space has been set up with images of the people and places I am writing about, with the added nostalgia of my own grandmother’s clock and crystal