Sunday, August 01, 2010

Our Australian Girl (TM)

Over the past few months, a few people have asked me what I've been working on - and probably regretted the question! Because my answer was to launch into a description of the series I have been writing - four books in Penguin Australia's Our Australian Girl (TM).* It's quite a job taking on a series - there are lots of things that you might not think about in the beginning, or if you do, might assume it would be a breeze. Like keeping a book under a certain word limit. If you're a big blabbermouth writer like me, that can be a problem!

I didn't used to be. I used to think a word limit was an excuse to stretch a bit. Not any more. But writing this series has been more than just word limits. It's been an incredible amount of research. When the series was first proposed, and I was given the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring, I thought about the various periods in Australian history that I knew something about. What I didn't know anything about was Federation - and wouldn't you know, that's what I was given! Good grief, I thought. So the states all got together and became one country. So?

But along the way, I've discovered many fascinating things - that's the nature of research. The deeper you delve, the more you see and the more stories you read and the more snippets and anecdotes you discover. For instance, before Federation every state in Australia "did its own thing". Which meant if you wanted to travel by train from one city to another, odds were you'd have to change
trains at the state border because most states had built rail lines of different gauges (widths). And there were referendums to see if everyone thought Federation was a good idea, and NSW didn't because they thought Victoria would demand that the capital city be Melbourne (the insults flying around at the time are hilarious).

In the end, of course, the compromise was that an entirely new capital city would be built, which became Canberra. Despite finding out all of these interesting facts, I was writing a series that was historical fiction, so my job went a lot further than research. I created a character, Rose, who features in the four books, along with her family and friends. Rose turns eleven as the first book opens, and her birthday on 9th May 1901, closes the fourth book as this is the date of the first sitting of Federal parliament. There were amazing celebrations in Melbourne, with huge ornate arches in the city streets and light shows (for a city that had just started moving from gas to electricity, the lights were fabulous to the people there).

My main question as I planned out the books was: how on earth could I make Federation an interesting background? The answer came from more research. This was also the time of the suffragette movement in Australia, with Vida Goldstein leading the charge in Melbourne. How perfect! Rose has a 'spinster' aunt, Alice, who is a suffragette and goes to protest meetings and debates, and sh
ows Rose what having a say in her country's future is all about. What would I do without a feisty aunt who causes trouble in the family?

But really the story is about Rose, who has her own battles against a corset (yes, at her age!), a horrible governess, and her overbearing, social-climbing mother. It all feeds her keen desire to learn and go to school and, eventually one day, to university. I'm still working away on these four books - they are all in different stages. It's exciting to see what the Penguin team are doing with covers, extra materials, page illustrations and the iconic charm bracelets. I'm devastated that I cannot find the silver charm bracelet I had as a child, but on the other hand, now I get to create a new one with the charms that are most meaningful to Rose.

There are several things that are significant in Rose's story - cricket, for a start. At that time, women's cricket was laughed at by most men, which is not surprising considering most games were played in long skirts and hats! Bicycles were ridden mostly by men, and women who did ride them often wore pantaloons (scandalous!). Rose gets to ride on her first cable tram and watch the grip man operate it, and she also has a hankering to ride in an automobile. A visit to St Kilda beach means a paddle with skirts held up - no full-length swimsuit just yet. And Rose also visits Coles Arcade in the city, with books, monkeys, parrots and toy machines.

I have a fascination with the food of the time. There was plenty of game on the table (Rose's family is well-off) but like most kids, Rose has food hates, especially sardines and tongue. You can probably see why I'm having trouble with the word limits - there's so much I want to include! But I spend a lot of time with the hatchet out, trimming and hacking as needed. If I can get young readers to enjoy the era as much as I do, I'll be happy.
* That's a trademark sign, because it's the way series go these days. You might be interested to look at the American Girl books and website as a comparison.


Lisa said...

Hi Sherryl,

I've also done a lot of research into early Melbourne for a novel I'm working on. It's fasinating isn't it!


Sherryl said...

There has been a series on SBS recently - Supersizers Go... where they spend a week eating only food from a certain period in history.
Edwardian was very useful to me, but the others have been equally fascinating!
I'm surprised they didn't all expire from constipation - although from what the doctors said, I think they did! Or related illnesses.

Kristi Holl said...

I'm really looking forward to reading the finished products! The few chapters I read last spring (I think it was) made me love Rose.

I bet this series will be a HUGE success!

Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog