Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: Books

Another first time event – chairing an author panel

At the beginning of March, I sat on my first ever author panel. Mid-March, I did my first ‘real’ author talk. On April 9, I will chair my first panel. After which, I’m going to flee the country.

I won’t be idle in the U.K., of course. I have three days in London (for research). Followed by a week of Mam-gu duty with my son and his family (pushing swings, rocking my new baby grandson and playing trains with his older brother). After which, I will spend a Welsh-language-only week in Caernarfon with members of the SSiW community. Then I will be busy researching my next novel. But prior to all that fun, I have this one final author event to look forward to.

So far, I’ve read the three designated historical novels for young readers (yes, I’m putting my YA librarian’s hat back on), perused the websites of the participating authors, read the bios provided and have slept with Gabrielle Ryan’s helpful notes on how-to-prepare-for-an-author-panel under my pillow. It’s time to write up a riveting list of questions. However, I don’t know about you? But I never know what I think until I have written about it. Which gives me a perfect excuse to tell you about the three participating authors and their books.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose – by Pamela Rushby

Lizzie and Margaret Rose tells the story of ten-year old London girl who is orphaned by an enemy air raid and evacuated to the safety of her aunt’s family in Australia. As Margaret Rose makes the perilous sea journey to Townsville, her cousin Lizzie has mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of her cousin, especially one as needy as Margaret Rose. As Lizzie faces the displacement of sharing her life with a stranger and war makes its mark on the communities of northern Queensland, Margaret Rose wonders whether she will ever feel safe again. In the end, both girls must learn how to adjust and belong.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose begins with a prologue and is subsequently told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Lizzie and Margret Rose. Lizzie’s pique is drawn in a way that does not make her unlikeable. Margaret Rose’s character evokes sympathy without her being too perfect. The experience of war in northern Australia is portrayed with an age appropriate realism that is not too terrifying. The result—a heartwarming book, handling a difficult topic, that is perfectly pitched to its primary school aged readership. This is hardly surprising. Pamela Rushby is the author of over two hundred books for children. I am very much looking forward to meeting her on April 9th.

Within these walls – by Robyn Bavati

Miri and her family live in Warsaw. Her father, a hard working tailor, speaks Polish well enough for the family to live outside of the Jewish quarter. Their innocent lives are made up of food, family, riding bikes and coloured pencils. But when the Nazi’s invade Miri’s family are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Warsaw ghetto. Group-by-group people are rounded up and secreted away to work camps. As starvation, desperation and separation tear this family asunder, Miri must find the will to survive. Even though, at times it would be easier to give up and die.

As part of the Melbourne Jewish community, Bavati felt a personal connection to the Holocaust, even though her ancestors had left for England long before WWII began. But Within these Walls is her first foray into historical fiction. Bavati was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. Told in Miri’s first person voice, the novel gives a realistic portrayal of the ugly, desperate reality of Nazi occupation and, although the subject is grim and most of Miri’s family are obliterated, she manages to enthuse the novel with a sense of hope and belonging. This novel will make a great springboard for classroom discussions about the evils of mindless prejudice.

That Stranger Next Door – by Goldie Alexander

The Stranger Next Door tells the story of Ruth, a 1950’s teenager who has won a scholarship to a private college and longs to study medicine at university rather than conform to her family’s expecatations that she will marry a nice Jewish boy and raise a family. In Eva, a mysterious Russian woman who has recently moved into their apartment block, Ruth finds a perfect alibi for her liaisons with the Catholic school boy, Patrick O’Sullivan. But Ruth’s father was once a member of the communist party and Patrick’s father is working for the anti-communist, B A Santamaria. As Ruth tests family boundaries in the strained political atmosphere of 1950’s Australia, even the helpful Eva is not who she seems.

Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Ruth and Eva, The Stranger Next Door is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which the political tensions of 1950’s Australia form an interesting backdrop to Ruth’s rebellion against the expectations of her family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how the two strands connected but the links became clear eventually making the ending of the novel quiet satisfying. I was intrigued to imagine how much of the author’s own journey was tied up in Ruth’s experience and will look forward to asking Goldie Alexander how much the novel reflected her own coming-of-age in Melbourne’s 1950’s Jewish community.

So, those are my three designated novels. Thanks for listening to my thoughts. If you want to hear more from these authors and their work, why not join us at the Mail Exchange Hotel on the 9th of April.

Bookings are essential.


Announcing the 2015 Reader Survey …. by M. K. Tod

Writers and readers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader.

What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favourite reading blogs? These and other questions have been the subject of two previousreader surveys.


ANNOUNCING A 2015 READER SURVEYdesigned to solicit further input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favourite authors and, for the first time, favourite historical fiction. THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.

Highlights from previous surveys:

HISTORICAL FICTION IS MAINSTREAM: Less than 2% of participants said they rarely or never read historical fiction.

GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Women and men differ significantly in their reading habits and preferences and their views of historical fiction.

AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Those under 30 have different preferences for genre and time period 
and have different patterns of consumption and acquisition.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A BIG IMPACTON READING: Social media and online sites play an increasingly significant role for those choosing, purchasing, and talking about fiction.

BOOK BLOGS ARE VERY POPULAR: 1,473 participants listed one, two or three favourite blogs.

GEOGRAPHY: Responses to questions such as the use of online tools for recommendations and purchasing and preferred setting for historical fiction varied by geography.

PRICING: Sadly, readers are pushing for low prices. For example, 60% want e-books at $5.99 or less and 66% want paperbacks at $10.99 or less.

ONLINE BOOK CLUBS ARE GAINING POPULARITY: 21% belong to online clubs while 15% belong to clubs meeting in a physical location

VOLUME OF BOOKS READ MAKES A DIFFERENCE: for example, high volume readers have different expectations for book reviews, a higher interest in tracking their books, and higher usage of online tools and social media to augment their reading experience.

If you are a reader or a writer, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] withfriends and family and on your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year’s survey even more significant. Those who take the survey will be able to sign up to receive a summary report when it becomes available.

M. K. Tod

Leap the Wild Water – how I caved into Twitter spam

Confession: I have a love hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, I get to read great articles and have chats with interesting people from around the world. On the other, I have to scroll through miles of spam. Why on earth authors think promoting their book involves repeatedly Tweeting its merits is beyond my comprehension. From the outset, I made a silent pact never to respond to these Tweets. Or to any others that consistently jammed up my newsfeed. But…have you ever noticed never is a dangerous word. Once declared, the words, 'Oh, well, just this once,’ do begin a battle in your head.

One of the things I do on Twitter is search for people with common interests. One of my perennial hash tags is #historicalfiction. While scrolling through this feed, I noticed one book, Leap the wild water, by Jenny Lloyd clogging up my feed. I also noticed it was getting consistently good reviews. Now Lloyd is a Welsh name and, in case you haven’t noticed, I have a mild (cough) interest in all things Welsh. When I realised this was a historical novel, set in Wales, written by a Welsh author my resolve began to cave. I clicked over to Amazon, found the novel was set in the nineteenth century, my particular era of interest, and thought damn: I’m going to have to buy this book.

I did and, thanks to Amazon’s ‘one click’ buying process Leap the Wild Water was downloaded before I had a chance to re-think my decision.

Now, here’s the thing about caving in – you must be magnanimous in your defeat. I read Leap the Wild Water in one weekend. I enjoyed it so much, I asked the Historical Novel Society whether I could write a review for the Indie section of their website. As it turns out, they were interested, so interested, that Indie reviews editor Helen Hollick shortlisted the review on her blog. Meanwhile, I contacted Jenny Lloyd, told her about my extensive blog readership (even bigger cough) and asked whether she would like to do an interview. Turns out, she not only wrote a great first novel, but she is also a nice person. I am pleased therefore, to present you an interview with Jenny Lloyd:

Thanks Jenny for taking the time to answer my questions.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me.

I notice you have an interest in family history. Is Leap the Wild Water a family story? If yes, what came first, the intention to write a novel or family history research?

The intention to write a novel had been with me since childhood but it was finding this story during my family history research which inspired Leap the Wild Water.

How long did the novel take you to write?

Following the research, writing the first draft to publication took over four years. It took that long because I suffered two bereavements shortly after finishing the first draft which rendered me incapable of writing for a year. When I went back to it, I cut the first fifty pages and rewrote them. I then redrafted the rest of the book.

Did you begin with two alternating voices or did that come later? How did the process of drafting and redrafting unfold?

In the first draft, I just let the character’s voices pour out on the page. Initially, the book was written in two parts; the first part was from Megan’s POV, the second part was written from her brother’s POV, with their individual stories converging at the end. I took a risk in writing each character in the first person because it meant their individual voices had to be very strong but both viewpoints were integral to the story.

I played around with the narrative structure for ages until it made my head spin. I don’t know how others do it, but I found it impossible to make major changes without typing off the entire manuscript. I laid out all the individual chapters on the floor and rearranged them into a pattern which I felt gave the narrative and plot more power and suspense. In making these changes, I then needed to alter the beginning and ending of each chapter so the whole blended together seamlessly.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of all I learned during the writing process of that first novel, I realise that I made my task all the harder by not making decisions about the structure before beginning to write. The writing of the sequel (coming soon) has been infinitely easier in that respect because the outline of the story structure was in my head before I began. Having said that, it is the characters, and the choices they make, which ultimately drive the narrative and they constantly throw up surprises.

Are you part of a writing group?

I’m not part of a writing group. I’m a self-taught writer and most of what I’ve learned about writing has been through reading. I read the very best in the genre, and read the worst, and all the ones in between. My advice to anyone wanting to improve their writing skills is to read, read, and then read more until you have absorbed the rules of good writing and what makes the difference between good and bad writing.

When researching a historical novel you have to know so much more historical detail than what finally appears in the finished product. Was there anything you'd love to have shoehorned into the narrative but simply couldn't find a place for?

When I first began researching my family history it was with no idea that it would lead to the writing of a novel. The discoveries I made during that time led me to want to learn all that I could about how my ancestors had lived and survived. I researched every aspect of their lives; what they wore and ate; how they travelled around such rugged terrain; their daily tasks; their religion and superstitions; and the inequalities and constraints women were subject to. I amassed a large collection of books on every aspect of Welsh life in the past.

There was so much more I would have liked to include but I was wary of how much of the background stuff I weaved into the story. I felt that to include too much would have got in the way of the story and altered its pace. For me, the main purpose of all that research was so that I was able to vividly imagine the lives of my characters. When I think of the novel now, it seems more like recalling personal memory than recalling a work of fiction that I have written. I feel like I have lived in that time and place.

Your descriptions of the Welsh countryside are so evocative. Can you tell me where you live? What aspects of the landscape inspired your writing? Are they real places? Would you consider writing something set outside of Wales?

I was born in mid-Wales and have lived here for most of my life. The wild, open mountains are the most special places in the world to me. I’ve been keeping journals of my walks for many years. In them, I have recorded the wildflowers I find, and also descriptions of the weather and the landscape, along with some poetry. I never thought of them as an aid to novel writing until I began Leap the Wild Water. I then realised that I had a wealth of descriptive detail which had been written with immediacy and detail that I would never have attained if recalling from memory alone.

Though the landscapes in Leap the Wild Water were mostly imaginary, they were certainly inspired by the area where my ancestors lived. The Welsh landscape and the difficulties my ancestors went through have been my inspiration. For those reasons, I can’t imagine writing a novel set outside Wales, but you never know.

Is this your first work of fiction? Did you seek traditional publication? What are the advantages of Indie publishing?

Leap the Wild Water was the first full length novel I’d written. It was so long in the research and writing that when I felt I’d made it the best it could be, I was impatient for it to be published. I’d heard of so many people trying and failing to get published in the traditional way that I chose not to go down that route. The downside of indie publishing is that the author, however good their work, never gets to see their novels on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. The best thing about being an indie author is that the novel I published is exactly as I wrote it; nobody else has come along and changed it in any way, which seems to be what happens to traditionally published authors.

You can buy the book on Amazon but before you do why not check out the review on the HNS site.


Burial Rites – a recovery piece

Sometimes, when I read a novel, I forget that I'm a writer. Though, these days it happens less often. While immersed in the story I more often find myself thinking nice metaphor… Or that's a passive sentence. Or when going down a seemingly predictable path, how's the author going to turn this? Mostly these thoughts are like flies buzzing around in the background, a now familiar part of my reading experience. But sometimes, a book turns me fizz-green with envy. I struggle to concentrate because the precision of its prose rarely falters. In a frenzy of despair, I consider hurling my MacBook off a cliff and never writing again.

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites is one of those books.

Winner of Writing Australia's unpublished novel award, twenty eight year old PhD student, Hannah Kent's debut novel secured lucrative international publishing deals and has gone on to attract wide literary acclaim <insert wild eyes, foaming mouth and gnashing teeth> In fact, considering the strength of my reaction (no, I'm not prone to exaggeration) you may be wondering why I'm writing this blog? And that is a good question.

You may consider it a form of therapy.

Burial Rites is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdottir an Icelandic woman who was sentenced to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. In the year 1829, between her sentencing and execution, Agnes was held in custody at Kornsá a farming district in the North of Iceland. Historical documents are used extensively throughout this novel, infusing the narrative with an air of authority. They also relieve the author of a need to shoe-horn information into the plot. Apart from these primary sources, which Kent translated from Icelandic, the story is told from multiple points-of-view, the most haunting being the first person voice of Agnes herself.

In terms of the historical sentencing and execution this novel can offer no surprises. Agnes Magnúsdottir was tried, sentenced and executed on January 12th, 1830. However, we are given to believe that Magnúsdottir never actually confessed to these murders. Kent therefore takes the historical record along with the considerable folk imagination surrounding the case and furnishes it with mood, character and motive. The question did she actually do it? becomes the driving force of the novel.

In addition to primary sources, Kent uses many Icelandic words and phrases throughout the novel. Personally, I like this in a book. It gives a sense of time and place. But I hadn't got far into Burial Rites before I started thinking, hang on a sec, this author actually speaks Icelandic. Secretly, if ever when my first novel is published, I hope someone thinks, gee, this author speaks some Welsh (sadly, they'll more likely think, gee, she's stuffed up her mutations). Anyway (cough), on noticing this evident bilingualism, I turned to the author biography at the front of the book. I learned that Hannah Kent spent a year in Iceland as an exchange student.

Now, if you know anything about my family, you will know that our daughter went to Switzerland on a year long AFS exchange during her teens. In return, we had the privelege of hosting three European girls. Exchange is a special relationship – the first time each girl called me mum a magical moment. For that one word changed the entire relationship. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting any of my girls were criminals. However the process of having a stranger enter your home and the gentle, wondrous process of forging a mother, daughter relationship is unique. Call me fanciful, but I suggest this experience underpinned Kent's consciousness as she wove the unlikely bonds between Agnes and her custodial family.

One of our host daughters, Winnie, came from the Faroe Islands. These tiny islands in the North Sea are now affiliated with Denmark. Faroe Islanders speak Faroese which Winnie informed us is not unlike a form of Icelandic. The Faroe Islands do not suffer the extreme temperatures of Iceland. However, many of Kent's descriptions were reminiscent of Winne's life. For, in the Faroes, many still live on agricultural holdings. They hunt whale and eat it's meat. They keep livestock, dry fish and make sheep's blood pancakes. They also experience long dark winters and a summer without nights. No doubt, Kent did a great deal of research to produce the authentic details of farming life and slaughtering practices in nineteenth century Iceland. But, if her exchange program did it's job, she'd also have been exposed to these traditions. And it shows. Her descriptions and detail speak of a conscious cultural immersion.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel is it's representations of religion. For according to the historical record, Agnes Magnúsdottir chose Tóti, a young, inexperienced assistant clergyman as her spiritual guardian. Initially, the fictional Tóti was dwarfed by the horror and magnitude of this request, his official role being to preach, pray and basically bludgeon Agnes Magnúsdottir into a state of repentance. In fact, Tóti does the opposite. And the effect is a poignant depiction of gospel love in all it's clumsiness, mixed motives and short comings.

Finally, a word of warning. In a recent tea room discussion at the library (yes, we do talk about books in our break) Burial Rites came up for discussion. One staff member who was listening to the talking book version of the novel said: It's beautiful, the writing is beautiful but, God, it's bleak. And she was right. This is not a light, feel good summer holiday read. Kent's depiction of Agnes Magnúsdottir's final days is chilling, both in it's terror and its beauty. If you need a taster check out the book trailer. And remember before you open the book cover Kent called Burial Rites her 'dark love letter to Iceland.'

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