Today (Saturday 30th April 2022) was the last working day of my writer’s residency at Bundanon, the former home of artists Arthur and Yvonne Boyd. We will ship out of here tomorrow (that’s a reference to how wet it has been), via the actual art museum (we are at the ‘Artist’s in Residence’ section) where we will give a talk on our experience, work, and writing in general.
My newest favourite word is ‘iteration’. Rather than refer to my manuscript by which version I am up to, I will henceforth say ‘iteration’. I feel that better represents the tinkering I have done over the years. Saying version, in my opinion, suggests to the listener that massive changes have taken place. On the other hand, in hindsight, some massive changes have taken place, and yet, sometimes it seems as if I have merely come around in a big circle.
I first began Louisa’s Legacy in September 2016 as an historical novel closely based on my great-grandmother’s life. I showed it to the agent who had got me the publishing contract for my memoir I Belong to No One. She suggested I dump the first chapters which reimagined a sailing ship voyage from England to Australia circa 1880 (queue massive grief over losing all that research). I had already dumped massive sections which dealt with her father’s death and mother’s bankruptcy (queue massive grief over losing all the research I did on – with thanks to Agnes Ashe – ‘Death & Funerals in the Victorian era’, as well as what little I could find on a woman becoming insolvent in 1876). When I resubmitted the revised manuscript, my agent liked the first half, but not the second which included scenes from Louisa’s true to life death in an ‘Asylum’ for destitute women. She said my heroine was too much of a victim for modern taste (i.e. too much like ‘Tess of the D’urbevilles).
Then I tried it as a form of novelised memoir, and fell in a heap two-thirds through. So then I went back to the historical novel concept. I still put Louisa on a ship, but this time I kept the focus on why. Apparently having your heroine run away with a married man will also alienate the reader from the get go. It was another ‘no’ from the agent.
So then I turned to a professional editor, who suggested I break the manuscript in two. Great idea. Which I had already unsuccessfully pitched to my agent, but went ahead with this time anyway. And somehow, through the editing process and our enthusiastic rapport (with my editor, not my agent 🙂 ), the second half turned into a hybrid memoir/faction novel called Florence & Lucy. A chapter of ‘me’ and my search for these two women, alternates with a chapter of my novelised take on their lives at the time. That non-standard approach is a hard sell to mainstream publishers, so at the moment it is homeless. Well, actually, it has a home. It’s a green USB stick.
Splitting a manuscript in two is not the easiest thing to do, at least for a newbie writer such as myself, but about six months back I turned my attention back to the first half, Louisa’s Legacy. Having maintained my rage about sticking to the truth, and therefore exhausting all I I wanted to say in F&L, this time I was happy to ‘bend’ some of the facts of Louisa’s life to fit into a pure historical novel. I mean to say that some of things that I have happening to Louisa were not actually her experiences. But they were other women’s, so from that respect, they are still true to my research. And by the way, Louisa still dies in the Asylum for destitute women, but it happens in F&L, where she is not the central protagonist, so it is not the same letdown for the reader. Well. Actually. It is a letdown, but at that point we are more invested in how Lucy will cope going forward. (Hope you’re still with me at this point.)
Anyway, I arrived at this residency without having had the time to work on Louisa’s Legacy for a couple of months. I wasn’t sure exactly where I had left Louisa, or even whether her spirit was still waiting for me. But, lo! Six days of solid writing, and, would you believe, I am within coo-eee of yet another complete iteration of what is mostly her story. Louisa still gets here on a sailing ship by the way, but on board with her is the man she will eventually marry in Australia. He is a stowaway (true) and Louisa is a cabinmate with his wife and baby son (half true – his wife was a paying passenger). But when that wife dies about eighteen months after arriving in Australia, the stowaway marries Louisa and she becomes stepmother to the baby son (all true).
Last Monday I had no idea how the manuscript would finish, whether I would attempt an ending that would set the reader up for Florence & Lucy, or whether I would go down my agent’s path, and give Louisa an improbably happy ending. Then, around mid-afternoon today, it just dropped in. I was only a few paragraphs from typing ‘the end’ when we broke for our regular afternoon group conflab session. But if the idea doesn’t morph into something else overnight, then we leave Louisa, after having suffered one set back after another, finally reaching a point of happiness and hope for the future. Then Florence & Lucy picks up about twelve years later, when we see that life for their mother (Louisa) is once again throwing up what, despite her best efforts, prove to be insurmountable challenges, but by then we are invested in what happens to her two daughters.
Gosh! I had no idea I would write all this. How weird. Albeit virtual, this must be a version of debriefing 🙂 I hope you enjoyed the ramble, and in the meantime, leave you with a photo of the barn in which I have been writing for the last week.
And here is the studio in which Arthur Boyd painted.
More photos from my daily walks in my next post. It’s definitely bedtime now. Hope I can sleep. The road into this retreat is 9klm (6 miles) of dirt and gravel that has been washed away in all the rain and storms of the last two months. Heavy trucks hired this week to do some other remedial earthworks have caused further damage. So now the onsite caretaker will lead us out in the morning in a convoy of six cars, to assist us negotiate the potholes, ruts, and ravines that is meant to be a road. He left me today with the words, ‘Don’t let it intimidate you.’ Huh! If Louisa’s Legacy hasn’t beaten me yet, then that drive has no chance!