A week ago I had the privilege to talk with Melissa Ashley over the phone and pepper her with questions about how she researched The Birdman’s Wife, about Elizabeth Gould and about her current work in progress based on the life of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a French writer of fairytales before the days of the Grimm brothers.
I only wish I had a podcast so you could hear the whole conversation, in lieu of that here are 5 valuable lessons I picked out to help you along the winding road of historical research.
To purchase The Birdman’s Wife go here.
Meet Melissa Ashley
Melissa Ashley is the author of The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press, October 2016), the fictional memoir of the extraordinary 19th-century bird illustrator, Elizabeth Gould. The Birdman’s Wife is the child of her PhD in creative writing research (University of Queensland). In addition to a PhD, she has an MPhil in creative writing and a first class honours degree in literature. She teaches creative writing workshops at the University of Queensland and has worked in disability services and as the assistant director of the Queensland Poetry Festival.
The Birdman’s Wife has been short-listed for the General Fiction Category, Australian Book Industry Awards 2017 AND has been short-listed for the Australian Book Design Awards 2017 and it is easy to see why.
Melissa Ashley In conversation with 1880’s Girl
While reading The Birdman’s Wife I made a list of 10 general topics and 8 factual characters, other than John and Elizabeth Gould, that Melissa describes or discusses with depth and animation. I have to admit it makes me feel a bit slack in the research department and I was dying to know how she went about it.
Here are the highlights from our conversation.
Lesson #1: Biography vs novelisation-How to choose
Everywhere I look I see novelisations of the lives of real people I was curious to know what influenced Melissa’s decision to write a novel instead of a biography.
Consideration #1 availability of primary sources: The chief difficulty facing a would-be biographer for Elizabeth Gould is that, to date, there are only 14 letters and 8 pages of her diary. And there is her collection of over 600 illustrations but as they are all of birds, it doesn’t open the door to the private life of Elizabeth Gould, her thoughts or personality. Not a lot to go on for an entire book.
Consideration #2 Personal Expertise: Writing a biography is a different kettle of fish to writing fiction, as anyone who has tried will know. Melissa explained that as her academic background is all to do with creative writing, not non-fiction, that had the strongest influence on her decision to write a novel over a biography.
That being said Melissa was a stickler for the story following as closely as possible the real life and times of Elizabeth Gould and her husband John. Her focus was to illuminate the life of this amazing woman and her accomplishments, to help Elizabeth step out from the shadow of her husband.
Lesson #2 search out and remember “forgotten” women
In an email conversation with Melissa she told me she intends to devote her future writing to forgotten women in history, her current project is focused on a group of female writers in 17th century France.
History is littered with women whose accomplishments, discoveries and contributions are glossed over, omitted or credited to men. I love the idea of uncovering the lives of these “Forgotten”. In researching The Birdman’s Wife, Melissa came across these women whose trail you may be interested in following.
- Maria Sibylla Merian(1647-1717), Germany, naturalist and scientific illustrator.
- Sarah Stone(1760-1844), England, naturalist and scientific illustrator.
- Lady Jane Franklin(1791-1875), Tasmania, scientist, explorer and wife of the governor.
- Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena(1832-1910) Scott, Ash Island in the Hunter River New South Wales, entomologists and scientific illustrators.
- Georgiana Molloy(1805-1843) Western Australia a botanical collector and budding botanist.
- Louisa Anne Meredith(1812-1895) Tasmania, a novelist, natural history observer and an illustrator.
The first two are mentioned in The Birdman’s Wife.
Currently while researching another novel (unpublished) Melissa discovered an entire group of aristocratic women writers who held literary Salons to perform their music, poems and stories. These women were influential and important as their work on fairytales predates the Grimm brothers collection. Although academic scholarship has been carried out on their contribution to the fairytale, their fascinating life stories are not that well known
Lesson #3 Balancing Research and Writing
Melissa spent four years researching and writing The Birdman’s Wife as part of her PhD in creative writing. She says, “I’ll never do that again,” with a wry smile in her voice.
I did about 6 months of reading before I started. One day my supervisor said to me, “Are you going to start writing?”
“Oh no, I’m not ready.”
“Well you’ll never be ready so just start.”
And I started. I started writing like crazy and doing a bit of reading as I was going along.
With The Birdman’s Wife, there was so much she needed to keep a hold of in her head and have factually correct that she kept returning to her notes and rewriting.
Her next novel about, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, is entirely different. While there is endless material to become familiar with, a new century, new country, new culture, the architecture and legal structure, as a published writer she no longer has the luxury of devoting several years to full-time research. So she writes, then reads, then writes doing a bit each day, making notes about details or events she might need to check. The second time around her research is a lot more targeted.
The moral: You’ll never feel “ready” to start so just start and research what you need to know as you go along.
Lesson #4 How to keep track of your research
This is 1880s Girl’s biggest problem is keeping track of what I saw where so I can reference back to it. There are probably as many ways to get organised as there are ways to research but here are two from Melissa’s Experience
Round 1: For The Birdman’s Wife Melissa had a physical folder for each chapter with copies of references, Elizabeth Gould’s illustrations for that chapter and other visual and written information. She does not recommend this solution as it turned out to be so time-consuming to organise and we all know how our inner procrastinator would rather file than write.
Round2: For Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy she is trying to go digital, keeping information for each chapter together with the chapter on the computer. This includes articles and web links.
In Common: For both projects, she has a large A3 notebook she uses to outline, stick post-it notes on and visual inspiration. She also finds it helpful to print out sources or use a digital format that allows note taking to be able to actually highlight, bookmark and make notes for future reference.
Can you guess which one was painted from life and which is the copy?
The answer will be revealed in the next post along with secret hiding in the cover of The Birdman’s Wife.
Lesson #5 using digital resources and Librarians
Maximise use of digital resources
There is no way I could write either historical novel without the internet. It opens the whole world for you and is so democratic. Anyone can go online to discover their own favourite little pocket of history.
Some of the resources she found of invaluable use were: Images of the Gould’s work, especially from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library which has digitalized all 2,000 items in their Gouldanian collection, home guides to taxidermy and lithography from the 1820s, advertisements, fashion plates and newspaper articles all from their era.
For Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy she is using 17th-century travel guides, maps, architectural drawings and google earth along with digitised collections of 17th-century English translations of the French fairytales.
Befriend a research librarian.
They are the guardians of their institutions precious primary material (that you want to get your hands on), and in my experience they are morte than happy to help you retrieve material, or show you how to do this yourself, as it can get complicated.
Melissa couldn’t have written The Birdman’s Wife without the invaluable assistance of the librarians at the Spencer Library who helped her locate specific documents. Every institution has their own way to sort and file so a librarian is your best bet to find what you are looking for, especially if the information is very specific.
These are only 5 of the lessons I learned from the delightful Melissa Ashley. I am so looking forward to her new book and will let all of you know when it comes out.
Check back with us next Monday for Melissa Ashely’s Top 3 Tips for Amateur Historians.
Until then check out Melissa’s beautiful blog at www.melissaashley.com.au.
Or connect with her on…
Instagram: @Melissa Ashley @sylviemina