What were some of the challenges involved in writing about a family member for The River Charm?
The River Charm is the story of my great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, and her family, set during the 1840s in colonial Australia. Writing the book was like solving a very complex jigsaw puzzle, when many of the pieces had been hidden in the mists of time. It was both incredibly exciting and also sometimes frustrating when I found conflicting information or had to guess at what might have happened. I loved discovering so much about the incredible courage and determination that my ancestors showed. Every time my publisher commented on something which seemed incredible or far-fetched, I always seemed to reply ‘I know – but that part is absolutely true!’
One of the key difficulties was to take real life events, and shape them into a gripping narrative. Luckily there were plenty of true adventures, tragedies and triumphs to inspire me. While there were some huge challenges involved in writing The River Charm, it has been one of the most rewarding books I have written.
How did you research The River Charm?
It took months. Fortunately, several members of the family were prolific writers so there were plenty of primary sources. There were the books written by Charlotte’s parents and her sister Louisa dating from the 1820s to the 1850s. The Atkinsons were one of the eminent families in the colony so there were many contemporary newspapers articles, legal documents and letters as well as modern books written about the family, such as Pioneer Writer by Patricia Clarke.
During the school holidays, I took my three children down to Berrima for a few days. We visited the old estate of Oldbury that was built by my great-great-great-great grandparents, and visited their graves. I trawled the archives of the Berrima Historical Society and spoke to some of the older residents. We drove in our 4WD following the epic journey that Charlotte Waring Atkinson made, fleeing for her life on horseback, with four young children, their pet koala and her writing desk. Even now, nearly two hundred years later, it is almost impenetrable wilderness. Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman. With huge courage and determination she fought the entrenched sexism of the 19th century legal system for the right to manage her own affairs and keep her children.
One of my most exciting discoveries was a journal written in 1826 by Charlotte Waring (my great-great-great-great grandmother) which is now held in the National Library. It was amazing to read her handwritten account of her voyage to Australia. The journal covers just a short few weeks but during this time she left her family and homeland for ever, met her future husband, enjoyed their early romance and survived a terrifying storm which nearly destroyed their ship.
Finally, I read dozens of historical books on nineteenth century Australia - about life, clothing, food, medicine, etiquette, servants, convicts, bushrangers and politics so I could make that world come alive for the reader.
How have you managed to balance writing for different ages at the same time? Do you have several writing projects that you are working on concurrently or do you approach them one at a time?
As a mother of three children, I find my life is a constant juggle! However I am not very good at writing completely different projects at the same time. With the Lulu Bell series, I sat down and wrote the first three books one after the other. I completely immersed myself in the life of Lulu, her family, friends and animal adventures. Lulu Bell was also hugely inspired by my own family. But this time it was my childhood growing up in a vet hospital and all the funny adventures we had.
I remember that my publisher was very keen to see the synopsis for The River Charm. But I couldn’t start writing that until I had finished the Lulu Bell stories. When the three books were finished, I put them aside and then immersed myself in The River Charm for six months. Then I went back to Lulu Bell to write the fourth book and edit them all.
How does working on novels by yourself compare with working on the Lulu Bell books with Serena Geddes?
It has been so much fun to write the Lulu Bell series. Writing for younger children was a refreshing change from the long, research-intense historical adventures. In some ways, the process was the same because three of the books were written before Serena was selected to be the illustrator. So the writing stage was still very solitary.
However once Serena began illustrating the characters it added a whole new dimension to the process. Serena has done the most amazing job of bringing Lulu and her family to life. I must admit I was nervous, as this is the first time I have worked with an illustrator, so I was worried I might not like the way she depicted the characters.
However Serena is so talented and I could not have been more delighted. We worked very closely during the illustration process, meeting up for cups of tea, sharing ideas and chatting on the phone. Serena borrowed family photos for inspiration, and then added her own special magic to create the characters.
The River Charm, Lulu Bell and the Birthday Unicorn and Lulu Bell and the Fairy Penguin are all published by Random House and are available at all good bookstores and online from early June 2013. Two further Lulu Bell titles will be released in August 2013.
Visit Belinda Murrell's website for more information about Belinda and her books.