1880’s Girl Sketch #2

Rose Sketch by 1880s girl Amber C Seah

Unfinished Rose-yes I intend to post even if the sketch isn’t finished.

Lessons Learned

  1. Don’t draw in the dark. (especially if trying to follow a grid)
  2. Still not dark enough for the scanner
  3. I am starting to get a feel for the different types of lead, but still a work in progress


  • Graphite
  • A5 150gsm paper

Why I Went Indie-Part 2: I Don’t Write “Marketable” Fiction

Hmmm is this marketable? I wonder how quick a return I will get on my investment?

Marketable fiction

Books that fit neatly into a bookstore category and appeal to a large enough piece of the market in a given physical location that it is worth the cost of printing, shipping, unpacking and shelving them. If a book isn’t selling in sufficient quantities within three months or less then it is pulled from the shelves and sent to the bargain basement to die a lingering death.

This fate does not mean the book was no good. It does not mean there are no readers out there who would love it and be eager for the next book by that author. It just means that those readers were not geographically located at the right place at the right time.

Just as there will always be room for an Independent Bakery that makes genuinely unique and delicious cakes, but cakes entirely unsuited for mass production, so there will always be room for Independent Authors who put out high-quality books suited to a unique taste.

Listen up, I’m setting up my soap box to tell it like it is.

Why my fiction isn’t marketable

Unmarketable, as in the opposite of marketable, does not mean books no one wants to read. It means books that large companies don’t see their way to making a quick return on. They may not know how to shelve it or how to market it. The traditional publishing model is extremely expensive and if they are going to stay in business they need to make money. And they need to make it reasonably quickly.

In plain and simple terms I don’t write “Marketable” Fiction.

You see, I don’t blow things up, unless it’s an accident. There are no demons lurking in the sewers of my New York city nor do cyborgs invade William Kerr’s Fine Printery.

Theodore is not a secret werewolf and Helen isn’t a Vampire.

My characters are ordinary middle-class people.  Helen is not a queen or lady-in-waiting to a queen or 2nd mistress to a scandalous baron or even a servant in the house of a man plotting to overthrow the government.

Her story doesn’t unfold against the backdrop of the plague, or during the Irish famine or the civil war and she isn’t trying to be the first female anything.

She is a hard working young woman who wants to carry on the family printing business, look after her ageing parents and hopes to be at least as happy as her neighbours. But like in life circumstances change, things happen, sometimes she handles it with aplomb sometimes she flies off the handle.

Theodore is more complicated and decidedly upper-class but desperately unhappy about the path his family has marked out for him, as some young men are prone to be. He wants a more fulfilling life than trailing around the world after his older siblings until they manage to marry him off, at which point he can then trail around after his wealthy wife.

Is it such an odd thing for a man to want to do something meaningful with his life while at the same time getting as far away from his overbearing family as possible?

In a nutshell

File:Britannica Hickory Carya alba fruit.png

That would be in a hickory nutshell to be precise.

what I don’t write

I’m a middle-class person whose ancestors were lower-middle class, so I write about middle-class people.
I don’t swear (no really I don’t) so my characters and narrators don’t swear.
I don’t want to read violence so I don’t write violence.
I find wars and politics in the main boring. If the writer is bored so will the reader be.
I don’t do supernatural, ghosts, vampires, witches or sorcerers.
And the only demons my characters wrestle with are the ones inside their minds.
I write love stories but not bodice rippers.

My books are clean but not religious. ( Religious fiction is hugely marketable)

You may begin to wonder with all those goosebump-raising, controversial things out of the picture what is there left to write about?

As it turns out, a whole lot.

what I do write

I write about:

  • mental illness
  • physical illness
  • disability
  • poverty
  • broken families
  • racial tensions
  • the consequences of bad decisions
  • misunderstandings

But on the small middle-class domestic scale of the late 19th century.

Then there is the treasure trove of amazing women in the 19th century whose stories are untapped, their existence and the existence of hundreds of women like them whose lives remain buried in history just waiting to be told.

I write the stories I want to read.

If I want to read stories with heart that make me laugh and cry and sigh with pleasure, then it stands to reason there are other people out there who want to read them too.

I write stories for this audience.

My books are not like your average grocery store baked goods or even your chain-cafe-slightly-more specialised baked goods. They are like that Independent Cafe on the corner that sells gluten-free-sugar-free-raw and utterly delicious treats.

Check out what is happening at 1880s Press

1880s Girl Sketch #1

Lighthouse by Amber C Seah

Hmmm things look a little different under the scanner

Lessons Learned

  1. When drawing lighthouses use a ruler
  2. Make the lines darker than you think they need to be
  3. I really like how the texture of the paper shows  up with the shading

Medium used

  • Graphite
  • Colour pencils
  • A5 150gsm paper

1880s Girl’s- Sketching Challenge an Introduction


NPG P1825; Beatrix Potter (Mrs Heelis) by Charles King

One of my favourite Victorian Illustrators, Beatrix Potter. Photo by  Charles G.Y. King (1854-1937) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows that sketching and watercolour are vital accomplishments for any Victorian woman with pretensions to class or education.

This 1880s girl has no pretensions to class nor is she extensively educated but I do like to draw and in High School showed some promise in watercolours.

The Dream


My original hero, Laura Ingalls Wilder (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My childhood ambition was to either grow up to be Laura Ingalls and write the story of my life.

Or to be Beatrix Potter and write and illustrate picture books.

Or in the same way a child may want to be an astronaut and a ballerina, I thought I might manage to be both Laura and Beatrix at the same time.

The Reality

Then life happened and choices must be made, rent paid, children raised and there simply are not enough hours in the day to cultivate all our passions and interests.

For me, writing is a necessity. Art is a luxury.

Sometimes even working class 1880s girls get to indulge in a little luxury.


Inspired by the interview with Tania McCartney on episode 150 of the So You Want to be a Writer Podcast I toyed with the possibility of a weekly illustration. But where to find the time?

Enter Little Miss Seah…

The Plan

Little Miss Seah likes me to sit with her and watch Better Homes and Gardens on Friday night. I’m not very good at sitting still especially during commercials so I decided to sketch and watch.

A sketch is less intimidating than an illustration, just a bit of fun.

I will post a sketch every Friday with a brief commentary on lessons learned.

I mean everyone gets better with practice right?

Maybe when I’ve gained a little confidence I’ll take on the official 52-week challenge but until then I will aim to post one sketch a week to my blog.



A 5th Grader’s Guide to a Creative Date

1880s Girl's Creative Date with Little Miss Seah

Tea for Two at our local Pink Salt Cafe

Little Miss Seah, list maker extraordinaire and charming daughter with nine and a half years experience, fully planned a creative date for the two of us last Tuesday.

A few years ago, inspired byJulia Cameron’s  The Sound of Paper, I decided to include my daughter in my creative date during the school holidays. This has led to a tradition of choosing one day of each holiday and making it a creative day.

This year Little Miss Seah, having succumbed to the charms of powerpoint creation, wanted to plan the whole thing, complete with progressive slide show outlining the points at each stage.

And of course like any special event it came complete with an invitation.


!!!You Are Invited!!!

To: Amber C. Seah  Author of Helen’s Summer, Helens Autumn and Helens Winter

What: A Creative Date Hosted By Little Miss Seah

Where: Wait in the Living Room Where Your Hostess Will Meet You and Escort You to the Site of this Event

When: 9:00 18/4/2017

Who: You And Me Of Course

Contact: Little Miss Seah At 3:00 As Soon As Possible

Please Bring: Coloured Pencils, Drawing Paper of Your Choice, Writing Paper of Your Choice, A Pencil and Eraser, Your Purse and Your Computer

Notes: Please Dress Comfortably According to a Genre of Your Choice. Also, have a pre- prepared lunch

Hope You Can Make It

Needless to say, I cleared my calendar and made it a top priority appointment.

Little Miss Seah’s Powerpoint Presentation for a Creative Date-April 2017

She wrote up all the slides herself without any help or suggestions from me, I didn’t even get to see them until we reached the library on the day.

These are just 8 of the 30 slides she made.

Very effective design theme, don’t you think?

She had clearly defined goals for our day.

The best part is leaving with a manuscript in your hand.

I really like this Little-Miss-Seah-original description of Brainstorming.

She included clear instructions each step of the way….

This was really more like a full day workshop than a creative date.

After brainstorming we created visual aids before beginning to write.

She may have a future as a non-fiction writer or a workshop guru.

Here is my visual aid, please keep in mind this is based on a 5-minute brainstorm session, before I had a plot line or anything (and they were drawn very quickly)

Inspiration for three main characters in a Victorian Girl’s adventure story, don’t let the drab dress of the governess fool you.

Elements of a 7 Paragraph Story

And like any good workshop leader, she had me do a review of the day over tea and raw chocolate torte.

The only problem was that instead of a 7 paragraph story I ended up with the first chapter of a middle-grade novel. And not just any idea but an amazing idea I never thought could come out of my head and actually work.

A big thank you to the lovely Little Miss Seah for organising and carrying out such a creative, inspirational and productive creative day!



Local Treasure #1- 5 Perfect Reasons to Visit Simply Secondhand

This is the start of a new feature showcasing the treasures in my own area.

My favorite spot to search for tactile inspiration.

As an Indie author, I feel it is important to support other kinds of Indies. Independent bookstores, independent second-hand shops, independent cafe’s you get the idea. I love original places with a personal touch. Places to add to my virtual Curiosity Cabinet.

This is a treasure that yields treasure each and every time I visit. I often passed the shop and wanted to stop in but you know how it is, I was always in a hurry, late to pick up the kids, a never ending to do list etc etc etc.

But then came the day I needed props and there was no looking back.

5 perfect reasons to visit Simply Secondhand!

1. Photo Props

I decided to shoot the cover to Helen’s Summer myself. I knew exactly what I needed; an old looking fancy tea cup, preferably chipped and a pair of secateurs that look like they could be from 1885.

The first cover for Helen’s Summer (you can’t tell but the cup really is chipped)

This isn’t the cover that ended up on the book but I did get some beautiful shots that make an appearance here and there on the blog, and the finds kept me coming back.

2. Tactile Inspiration

I am a very kinesthetic person, my imagination responds to tactile stimulation. Every time I enter this shop of curiosities my fingers itch for a sketchbook, my mind begins to buzz with words.

I have a strong inkling for things made of metal like this precious little pully.

Pulley in a child's hand by Amber Seah

This little treasure is going to make its way into decorating my new house.

3. To find things that are almost victorian

Science Primers: Botany by Sir J D Hooker, from MacMillan and Co, Photograph by Amber Seah

A 1909 Edition of a science primer first published in 1876

Maybe it is from immersing myself in the world of Georgiana Molloy, or maybe it is because one of the supporting characters in Helen’s Autumn has a scientific bend, or maybe it is because it’s a perfect example of what Helen and Theodore might print when they move to expand their printery. But after passing it up twice I finally bought it.

But after passing it up twice I finally bought it, Science Primers: Botany by Sir JD Hooker.

All in the name of research, right?

4. the occasional genuine victorian find

Victorian French English Dictionary photo by Amber C Seah

I do not speak French, nor am I learning but I could not resist this tiny piece of 1880s perfection

This particular find was so exciting that I will be devoting an entire post to expounding its particular virtues and attractions.

5. Pure frivolous enjoyment

photo by 1880s girl Amber C Seah

Any store that can yield a Kate DiCamillo book I have not heard of gets two thumbs up

Whether it’s for the smell of musty books, the glitter of old crystal, the excitement of piles of old tins and typewriters, wooden drawers of gardening tools or unique pieces of furniture, there are plenty of reasons to visit this local treasure.

What local treasures are in your area?

Why I chose to go Indie-Part 1: or the 9 Steps to Traditional Publishing

1880's Girl Asks why

You are self-publishing? Why? Isn’t your writing good enough to be picked up?

There is still a common misconception about why people choose to self-publish. The general belief being your work isn’t good enough for traditional publishers. This is perhaps what your next door neighbour thinks, or the lady at the shops or even your own family.

But for thousands of Indie’s out there, it has nothing to do with being a substandard writer.

More and more writers are choosing to go Indie as a first choice, and each has their own reasons unique to their lifestyle and career goals.

Before deciding which publishing path suits your needs and expectations do your research.

Doing publishing Research

As a writer, I read extensively, especially things about writing: books, magazines, blogs, twitter it’s a sort of writerly compulsion.

I also listen to author interviews on ABC radio, RN Radio and podcasts.

I primarily listen to two podcasts: So You Want to be a Writer from the Australian Writers Centre and The Creative Penn by Joanna Penn.

The former covers a broad spectrum of writing from features, to copy, to novels but primarily in the sphere of traditional publishing. The later is all things Indie.

Other sources I used to make an informed publishing decision are: author websites, The Perth Writer’s Festival, Publisher websites and Indie publishing platforms such as KDP and Kobo.

The sum of the matter, all things having been heard is that for my genre, my expectation, intentions and the writing lifestyle I want to build, Indie publishing best meets my needs at this time, for this project.

In this and future posts, I will be covering the main reasons for this decision.

 Reason #1 for self-publishing: stress

I thought this an apt but more tasteful illustration than a chicken with it’s head cut off.

This is the first circumstance that led me to consider self-publishing. The amount of time, effort and stress it took to research and submit to publishers or agents was overwhelming.

Sure it’s easy to say, “Stop griping and toughen up, it’s just part of the business.”

I don’t gripe.

I know it’s part of the business.

That is why, in 2009, I decided I just wasn’t cut out to be a writer, not a published one anyway, and stopped submitting.

why it causes Stress

To people who can skim articles and read quickly, to those with a background in research or journalism, to those who have been formally trained in a BA or MFA program this is probably not a big deal.

But for a person who is dyslexic, who also struggles with depression and anxiety and an auto-immune disease, researching publishers and agents is incredibly time-consuming, tedious, confusing and head-bangingly frustrating.

For the uninitiated here is the 9 step process to traditional publishing:

Step 1:  Finish your manuscript

Step 2:  Find a list of potential publishers: you can use free or paid subscriber on-line sources or buy a physical book (something like the yellow pages for publishers) or you can go scour the library/bookstore for books in your genre and check who publishes them.

Step 3: Check the website for each publisher of interest answering these questions:

  • What are their submission guidelines? (outside of magazines pretty much no one in the US takes unsolicited manuscripts. In Australia submissions are generally limited to specific days or months)
  • What do they publish?
  • How many books a year?
  • Of those books how many if any are from unsolicited manuscripts? (this means the slush pile, manuscripts they did not specifically ask to see)

Step 4: For each publisher that looks promising, you now need to check their recent catalogue and their backlist and come up with convincing reasons why this company should publish your book. Where does it fit in their catalogue? Have they already published three picture books about wombats or do they already have a series about a lady detective set in 1860?

Step 5: If none of your ideal publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts go back to start. Follow the method above, only this time in search of a literary agent,  before proceeding to step 6.

Step 6:  You finally have a short list, in order of preference, your dream publishers: Now you must sell your book to the publisher in a letter no longer than one page that summarises these points:

  • The story (What is it’s hook?)
  • Why should they publish it?
  • Where does it fit in the market?
  • Any pertinent information about you (publishing credits, awards etc)

All this information must be written in so compelling and concise a manner that the sub-editor can’t wait to read more. To this letter attach your manuscript (the whole thing for picture books, an excerpt for longer works as per submission guidelines)

Step 7: You press send (or you stick the stamp and put it in the nearest postbox) then you wait. While you wait you write more stories, you do author business, build your platform.  You wait some more and then just keep waiting.

Step 8: After 3-6 months the rejection arrives, though some publishers don’t even send rejections their guidelines say that if you don’t hear back within 6 months assume they are not interested.

Step 9: Repeat.

side effects of the 9 step process

For a healthy person without dyslexic complications, this is not such a big deal. But I found it impossible to both write AND successfully research for submission.

I became grumpy, short-tempered and occasionally pulled out my hair and screamed like a banshee. The gatekeepers of the publishing world loomed in nightmarish proportions over my shoulder until my writing ground to a halt.

It wasn’t the rejection. I had some very nice rejection letters.

It was about the time and frustration it took to acquire those few precious rejections.

how do you want to spend your time?

  • I would rather use my limited time and energy to write stories than submission letters.
  • I’d rather be researching my novel than publishers and agents.
  • I’d rather be editing and honing my craft than my pitch.
  • I’d rather pitch to readers than editors/agents.

Before Amazon, before Kobo and Create Space and Draft to Digital and Smashwords there really wasn’t much choice. These nine steps were the only way to publication.

Now there is a choice.

I finished Helen’s Summer and turned it into a series for the purpose of self-publish.

I never submitted it to publishers because Indie publishing was my first choice.

Why not have a read and decide for yourself if it is “good enough”.

Click below to read Helen’s Summer

How about you?

I’d love to hear which road to publication you have or want to follow and why!

Leave a comment or connect on twitter @SeahAmber.


Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the Amateur Historian

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines

On Monday we heard from the lovely Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, if you missed it do go here and have a look.

These are Bernice Barry’s top 3 tips for the amateur historian:

1. Keep a note of everything

Keep a note of everything, a passing record of sources. It doesn’t take a moment to put a scribbled list of document names into an ‘Old Stuff’ folder for safekeeping or to copy and paste a link from your browser into the notes you’re making for a particular chapter. Years later, a name or a place might finally surface in your research and you’ll realise you’ve seen it before, somewhere…

2. Retrace your steps occasionally

Retrace your steps occasionally. As you learn more, your knowledge of the subject or topic widens and deepens. At first, you’re sort of skating the surface of information, top level facts, but as time passes the small details and secondary characters become more relevant and interesting.

Digging deeper where you’ve already dug once before often reveals new things that you wouldn’t have recognised the first time around.

Even now, I sometimes re-read documents or online links I first saved twelve years ago and I notice something new just because I know so much more today than I did then. And more old sources are being digitised all the time so a repeat of an old search today can sometimes bring up information that wasn’t available online even a few months ago.

3. Spread your net wide

Spread your net wide. The key information you gather about what happened and when and where is the spine of a story but I think it’s the accumulated effect of tiny background details that fuels your own empathy with the people you’re writing about.

Reading contemporary texts gives you a feel for the sentence structures and vocabulary of the time, and adverts in newspapers tell you so much about people’s lives – what they desired, feared, laughed at and what they bought and used in their homes.

Find as much as you can that was written at the time and in the region you’re researching and read, read, read. Authentic images and words will find their way early into your writing in a more natural way than trying to inject background research later when you redraft.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Georgiana Molloy, the early settlement of Australia, the history of botany or for those who enjoy a good historical biography told with warmth and understanding.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website: www.bernicebarry.com
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone
Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines

1880s’ Girl Highly Recommends Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, A biography of one of Australia’s first female botanical collectors.

 Bernice Barry’s top on-line resources.

If you are doing historical research, especially for the UK and Australia try…

Thank you again, Bernice for sharing your experience in writing and researching Georgian Malloy: the mind that shines.

Bernice Barry- On Researching Georgiana Molloy

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Malloy: the mind that shines

Author Bernice Barry, in the bushland Georgiana loved.

Originally from the beautiful, craggy Atlantic coast of Cornwall in the UK, Bernice emigrated to Australia’s far south-west coast near Margaret River in 2001, after two landlocked decades living in England’s midlands. She has spent the last fourteen years creating a native garden in a forest near the Indian Ocean. In 2011, she closed the door on a career in international curriculum innovation, as an adviser on the teaching of literacy, to focus on her lifelong interest in writing, literature and history.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website: www.bernicebarry.com
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone

A big Welcome to Bernice Barry!

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this book for it’s writing, the journey it takes the reader on and for setting the record straight about Georgiana Molloy and her husband John, who were among the first European settlers on Western Australia’s southern coast.

On With the Conversation…

1880s Girl: In the chapter, An Unbroken Spirit, you say:

“It was a moment of realisation and a reminder why I decided to tell her story always through the historical context of her own time and place.”

In recent years it has become popular to write novelizations of real people and events, for example, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Gould, Charlotte Bronte and even Madame Mao.

Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines by Bernice Berry

This is a fabulous biography written with compassion, respect and minute attention to detail.

Q1: Did you at any time consider writing a fictional account of Georgiana’s life? What influenced your decision?

Bernice: From the beginning, my aim was to make public the rather different picture of Georgiana that had emerged through my research. It was important to me that new and correct information was made available about both Georgiana and her husband John Molloy.

I had a rule not to include anything, however small, that I couldn’t backup with secure evidence, even down to what the weather was like on the day John Molloy was baptised in London in 1786, so a fictional account didn’t enter my mind.

1880s Girl: I really love that you take the reader on the journey of discovery with you to uncover the lives of Georgiana and John Molloy, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person inspired to take up their own journey of historical discovery.

Now, Bernice, you have degrees in English, French, Spanish, teaching, reading and education so research is not new to you but…

Q2: Take us back to the very beginning how did you start your research into Georgiana’s life? The very first steps?

Bernice: The first steps came from my longstanding interest in 19th Century literature. I’d read a biography of Georgiana Molloy and didn’t really connect with her a lot at that point but it seemed strange that the books she packed in her trunk for the voyage to WA didn’t match with the woman described in the book.

I read her diary at the Battye Library in Perth and saw significant, personal entries not mentioned in the biography. I realised there was a lot more to her story.  I began doing quick searches online. As new information began appearing in front of me, it threw up mysteries in her life and I was hooked.

view of the Blackwood River in Augusta by Orderinchaos

The view of the Blackwood River in Augusta Western Australia, Georgiana Malloy’s first home in Australia (photo by Orderinchaos)

Q3: Once Georgiana’s story took full hold on your imagination, on a practical level how did you expand your research? And how long did it take you to write the book?

Bernice: I wish I’d known from the beginning that one day I’d decide to write a book.

The research was spasmodic when I had time. In those days I was still travelling to the UK about once a year for work and I used those opportunities for research visits. I’m very lucky to have a partner who was happy to go on graveyard and dusty archive trips instead of holidays!

I ended up with a huge, jumbled collection of notes and lists and photographs and a picture of her life that was very detailed but not organised as a research project.

One day I realised that if anything happened to me, everything I’d discovered would be lost once again. Writing a book seemed like the best way of gathering all that stuff and sharing it. The first draft took about a year (2011) and there were 12 more drafts before we self-published in 2015. The Picador edition was published exactly a year later in 2016.

1880s Girl: One of my favourite quotes from the book is:

“There are many approaches to research and they do not just involve the finding and interpretation of facts. Sometimes it is only by combining imagination and empathy with knowledge and secure sources that the past begins to appear. Questions that ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’ and ‘What did that mean for the way these people lived their days, hour by hour?’ can sometimes flick open the closed door of time.”

Your empathy for Georgiana, the early settlers and the Noongar people comes across in each chapter. The book glows with warmth and compassion that makes this a unique historical biography.

Kilcreggan pier and village in Scotland is one of the places Bernice visited that was familiar to Georgiana. There is an undeniable familiarity between the vistas of Kilcreggan and Augusta. (Photo by William Craig)

Q4: How important was it for you to visit the scenes of Georgiana’s early life both to inform your writing and to further your research?

Bernice: I think it’s possible to write well about a place you’ve never been to if you immerse yourself in first-hand, contemporary descriptions and images, and feel as if you’ve experienced the place yourself.

Even so, being in the places that were part of Georgiana’s life was the most significant thing of all for me, especially places that are new to the story, like the garden of her school in London and the flower garden in Scotland where she gathered the flowers for her wedding. It’s impossible to describe how very close she felt at those times and, in one particular place where her emotion was running high in 1829 and mine was too in 2007, I felt sure that, somehow, we’d actually connected through time.

1880s Girl: About 9 years ago  just before becoming very ill, I tried to learn more about Georgiana myself through primary resources available at the Battye Library in Perth, but with no experience, no idea who to approach or request information from and suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and a lack of self-confidence I gave it up. What with juggling being a new mum and debilitating fatigue, delving into dusty archives took a back seat but it raises the question,

Q5: How does a private individual gain access to archives from institutions?

Bernice: There are times when access is a bit easier if you have academic weight behind your enquiries but my experience has been that most queries end up in front of a librarian or archivist who will work just as hard to help you as they would anyone else. These are knowledgeable, professional people and I’ve always been blown away by their kindness, patience and expertise.

You can usually find a contact phone number or email address, even for the archives of the most lofty institutions. Being a bit shy doesn’t help but I’ve learned to be brave and ruthless when I’m desperate! Knock on a door. Write a letter. Just ask.

1880s Girl: How exciting that moment was when you got to put your hand on the very stem of the Acacia extensa cut by Georgiana herself! Just thinking about it makes my heart palpitate with excitement.

Q7: What were the most exciting moments of discovery for you while researching Georgiana?

Bernice: There were lots. A highlight would have to be the moment when I found the connection between John Molloy and the Kennedy family, leading me to work out when and how John and Georgiana first met, soon after her fourteenth birthday. Another was finally working out where she went to school in London, visiting that garden and touching trees that had been there since those days.

1880s Girl: At the Perth Writer’s Festival you mentioned that for each fact, especially on new information, you set yourself a standard of needing three points of proof.

Bernice Barry organizational tips for amateur historians

Tips on how to keep track of all that information.

Q8: On a practical level how on earth did you organise and keep track of all 630 references that made it into the book and undoubtedly the many that did not?

Did you use a computer program? a spreadsheet? alphabetized manila folders in a file cabinet?

Bernice: I wish I had, but for years I wasn’t planning to write a book. Luckily, I’m an obsessive hoarder so I kept a record of every source as I gathered information.

When I started the first draft, I saved my writing every couple of days with a new filename so I had a complete record of everything, even after I’d deleted bits.

The first notes for each chapter were just a structural collection of the sources and quotes and facts I wanted to group together in that section.

I drew on those and built the text around them as I wrote the first draft. As I was writing, I inserted an endnote as an aide memoire to myself for every fact I mentioned, so I could always track back to find out where each bit of information came from.

When the final draft was complete, I went through and edited the endnotes down to reduce the load but I’ve still got all of them safely saved – just in case.

And finally for the encouragement and edification of all us amateurs out there…

Q9. What websites or online sources do you recommend for the budding historian?

The most useful ones to me have all been obvious but I couldn’t have done my research without them.

  • Trove for Australian history, particularly shipping records, advertisements and clues about the weather!
  • The Australian National Archives and UK National Archives online because searching is quick and easy. When I’ve ordered documents online, the photographs have arrived in moments by email.
  • The British Library website always seems to have what I’m looking for, however obscure. I use it mainly for background information, like photographs or paintings of places to help me with the description of settings and for examples of books or magazines published in the years I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Bernice, for your time and generosity in sharing your research process with us.

And thank you, readers, for joining us. Check in Friday for Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the amateur historian.

From Idea to Book-5 lessons you can learn from my journey with Helen’s Summer

Where will an idea take you?

I hear from time to time writers complain about being asked where their ideas come from. Maybe it is my interest in the brain, thought processes and the origins of everything from words to scissors but I find it fascinating to hear how random events come together to form a plot, a setting or a character.

What makes that one thought different?

Why does that one idea keep niggling at us until we just have to write it down?

And once written down why do some ideas take on a life of their own and others stay quietly in dusty journals?

The short answer is: Nobody knows.

The long answer is the individual retelling of a book’s journey-conception to completion. Here is the genesis of Helen’s Seasons and five lessons you can take away from the journey.

1. It’s True good ideas really will stick

Recently both on “So You Want to Be a Writer” and on “The Creative Penn” podcasts I have heard authors renounce the age old wisdom of writing down every scrap of an idea.

As a journal devotee from the age of 8, I baulked at so cavalier an attitude to those precious seeds, known as random-thoughts-that-might-make-a-good-story-someday.

Victorian Gardening, Victorian Advertising, Where ideas come from

Seeds can sprout years after they are first collected.

Of course, the original idea doesn’t at all resemble the final product.

The original seed for Helen’s Summer was sown in September 1997, when I was 17 years old, yes it was 20 years in the making. and yes I did record the moment in a journal but when the seed first sprouted in 2004 I had recently moved to Perth and had no access to my journals.  I did eventually find them and review my entries but not until after the first draft was written.

Good ideas really do stick!!

My parents took brother number 2 and I to New York to visit brother number 1 and his wife who were living in Brooklyn Heights. At that age, I was avidly and continuously researching the history of New York City and Brooklyn in relation to child labour; especially newsies, factory workers, immigrants and orphans.

So thorough was my knowledge of Manhattan I could navigate the streets from Brooklyn heights to Central Park without a map. Oh if only I could remember it now.

2. Inspiration Rarely strikes where you expect

To my surprise, it wasn’t the Metropolitan Museum, or the historical buildings or Grand Central that triggered my imagination. It was getting lost somewhere on the borders of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I don’t remember what my brother wanted to show us but we found ourselves pulling up to the Vanderbilt’s summer house on the banks of the Hudson.

It was getting lost somewhere on the borders of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I don’t remember what my brother wanted to show us but we found ourselves pulling up to the Vanderbilt’s summer house on the banks of the Hudson.

We were too late to tour the house but went through the displays in the stable block, the grandest stables I have ever seen, even the Vanderbilt’s horses were kept in palatial elegance.

And the Gardens.

The Inspiration for the Garden’s at Hamilton Hill In Helen’s Summer
Picture from VAMAmediapics.


The Garden’s were magnificent. I would have gladly spent an entire day there but there was not much in the Victorian gardens to interest the male members of our party beyond speculation on the quality of the fishing and if you could farm edible fish in the decorative pond and if so how big they might get.

As I walked I naturally saw the gardens through the eyes of an impoverished city child, one of those tenement raised young ones who had never seen grass and thought it was something to eat. What would they make of all this green?

The Vanderbilt summer house

The inspiration for Hamilton Hill in Helen’s Summer.

Then standing at the back of the house, peeping in the windows and surveying the afternoon sun across the terrace I could see a young woman, simply dressed, with a bouquet in her hand and complete delight on her face at the novelty of such flowers.

That was the birth of Helen.

3. It’s okay to put seeds into storage

My original idea was a cross between Mansfield Park and An Old Fashioned Girl, a lower middle-class girl who had never been outside the city, makes friends with a rich girl who out of pity and compassion invites her to the country for the summer. The story was going to be about friendship across the social divide and of course, the girl was going to meet some improbable person and marry very well.

I never wrote that story, but the image of the girl and the feeling of the place never left me.

Then in 2004, I moved with my husband to Perth, Western Australia where most of the flowers and trees were entirely unknown to me. Every visit to Kings Park, or Whiteman Park or John Forrest National Park was an exploration, a discovery and a delight.

We were still newlyweds and temporarily living with my in-laws which brought home to me how disparate was my background from my husbands. When I think of my early childhood six people in a single-wide trailer on a dirt road in Wyoming compared with my husband’s childhood in Singapore I marvelled anew at how we came together to form such a good team.

I learnt that his mother came from a family with servants and they were not the sort of people who go to expensive San Francisco restaurants and order nothing but clam chowder but the sort who don’t look at prices and order multiple dishes.

For some reason the botanical wonder of my new surroundings and learning more about my husbands background converged with the image of that New York city girl crossing the lawn at the Vanderbilt’s house with a posy in her hand.

4. when the seed finally sprouts- ask lots of questions

When the first tap root emerges ask lots of questions to firmly establish the idea.                              Photo by J. J. Harrison

Who was that girl? Why was she there? Who does she meet? How do they meet?

A rags-to-riches story had lost its appeal. I wanted something more probable, I wanted a real heroine, with grit, and wit, hard working but naive. That ruled out her being associated with the wealthy family.

I wanted an educated working girl, that brought me around to a tradesman’s daughter.

A forgotten trip to the Whiteman Park Print shop resurfaced in my memory, combined with my own love of tactile work, metal, ink and words.

A print shop was the obvious place for Helen to be.

The seed finally sprouted!  I wrote feverishly every chance I could and completed a first draft in a few weeks. My first completed novel!

I decided to go over it, edit it and print it out for my Mom when she came to visit in August 2005, and I shared it with a very few close friends (namely my two Jessica’s).

5. don’t be afraid to try new avenues

Then at the end of 2014 one of my Jessica’s was encouraging me to try self-publishing. She said something to the effect of “Don’t you have that story about a girl and those gardens, why don’t you work it over and publish that as a practice.”

“What a good idea,” thought I. ” I’ll spend 2 months on it, clean it up and publish it in time to give my niece when we attend the wedding of brother number 3.”

But as I read through the story I thought Helen and Theodore deserved better than that.

So here we are March 2017 and Helen’s Summer is finally released with Helen’s Autumn and Winter in production.

I am a blogger, a twitter aficionado, an Indie author with my own imprint, 1880’s Press, and my first series underway all starting from a little seed of an idea 20 years ago.

To read Helen’s Summer for yourself and see how my scattered collection of seeds bore fruit go….