Natasha Lester-On Researching ‘Her Mother’s Secret’

Natasha Lester author of A Kiss From Mr Fitgerald and Her Mother's Secret

Welcome to the Fabulous Natasha Lester

Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts at Curtin University as well as her first novel, What is Left Over, After, which won the TAG Hungerford Award for fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You was published in 2012 and her first historical novel, the bestselling A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, was published in 2016. Her latest book is Her Mother’s Secret (2017). The Age newspaper has described her as “a remarkable Australian talent.”

She has been the recipient of grants by the Australia Council, and a writing residency from Varuna, The Writers House. In her spare time, she loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found drinking tea, buying shoes, doing headstands at yoga, or playing dress-ups with her 3 children. She lives in Perth.

Her Mother’s Secret


1880’s Girl: For Her Mother’s Secret there were so many avenues of research there is New York City, Sutton Veny, the history of cosmetics from cottage industry to million dollar market, the clothes, department stores, Elizabeth Arden, the Spanish flu, 1920’s upper-class night life just to name a few. So…

Q1: How much research do you do before you start writing?

Natasha: None!

I do a little research while writing my first draft; every lunch time I take half an hour to eat and to read from a research book. But that’s about all I do, except for quick, basic fact checking that I can do on the internet, such as: what was the street address of Lord & Taylor department store in 1920. The reason I do it this way is because I’m a pantser; I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it. If I was to research first, I’d research too much and I’d research things I don’t actually need to know about.

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I then have a research blueprint. I research to fill in all the gaps in that first draft, so I can be really focused. I’ll take about a month off writing at this point and just do research, which might involve travelling to locations, going through archival material, reading primary and secondary sources etc.How do you balance the story with historical accuracy?

Q2: How do you balance the story with historical accuracy?

Natasha: I always aim to be as historically accurate as possible. If I discover that a certain plot point isn’t possible based on the research, then I have to work out a way to alter the plot so the story can still unfold in a similar way, but with historical accuracy.

This often means spending lots of time on painful small details, such as which passenger ships were making the run between England and New York after the end of the first world war and at what month in 1919 was it likely that my heroine might be on such a ship. But, to me, it’s important that the reader feels completely swept away into the time and place in which my books are set, and you can only do this if the history is as accurate as you can possibly make it.

Q3: Where did you find your information on how to make cosmetics?

Natasha: I purchased Volumes 1-4 of Cosmetics: Science and Technology, which were the first cosmetic chemistry handbooks ever to be published in 1957. They provide an overview of traditional recipes for every kind of cosmetic, plus trace the evolution of those recipes through to the 1950s. This made me realise that a lot of the natural beauty websites which now provide recipes for going back to basics and making your own cosmetics are based on the recipes women used pre-1920, before they could purchase such things in stores.

Q4: What motivated you to have-a-go at making Cosmetics yourself rather than just reading about it?

Natasha: I wanted to know what it felt like. To write accurately about

To write accurately about a woman mixing up pots of lip colour on a stove is only possible if you’ve actually done it. And, once I discovered how few ingredients the early lip colours had (pre-lipstick tube days) then I knew I had to have a go. It’s just wax, oil, pigment and scent, so four basic ingredients. I feel like the scenes where Leo is experimenting with her cosmetic formulations are so much more authentic now as they’re based on my own experience of doing the same thing; I know how the texture changes as it heats, how the mixture looks once the pigments are stirred in etc.

It’s just wax, oil, pigment and scent,  four basic ingredients. I feel like the scenes where Leo is experimenting with her cosmetic formulations are so much more authentic now as they’re based on my own experience of doing the same thing; I know how the texture changes as it heats, how the mixture looks once the pigments are stirred in etc.

Q5:  How did you locate and then get access to primary sources?

1880’s Girl: For Her Mother’s Secret you accessed Elizabeth Arden’s archive, and for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, you went through the medical notes of some of the first female medical students How did you locate and then get access to these primary sources?

Natasha: The first thing I always do is go straight to the source. In A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Evie attends Columbia Medical School. So I went to their website and located the pages about their archives. Every archive has a Finding Guide, which is usually on the website. I looked through the finding guide and discovered they had the papers of a woman who’d been to Columbia Medical School in 1922.

Then I emailed the archivist and asked if it was possible to view the papers when I was in New York. I explained what my book was about and he then suggested some other resources from the archives that might be of use. So I booked in a time and date with him, he made sure to get all the materials out of the archive that I needed, and when I arrived I spent the day looking through them. Always tell the archivist what you’re working on because they know the collection better than anyone and will be able to suggest extra materials for you.

I followed the same process for the Elizabeth Arden archives and, just recently, to view Claire McCardell’s 1930s-1940s fashion illustrations at Parsons Design School in New York.

The New York Public Library recommended by Natasha Lester

The New York Public Library has fantastic resources for the amateur historian. Photo Attribution see here

Q6: If a writer/amateur historian finds an archive they would want to access what is the best way of going about getting access?

Natasha: These days, archival material has often been scanned and made available on the internet. The New York Public Library, for instance, has digitised a lot of its photo collections so you can access images online quickly and easily and I love using their resources. For example, for both books, I used Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series of photographs from the 1930s extensively, which are all available online. So that’s the first thing I’d try.

When looking for archive resources, begin with the archive Finding Guide. This will narrow down your search and let you know which material can be accessed online and which can only be accessed in person, and whether you need to make an appointment or if you can just turn up.

If the materials aren’t online, email the archivist. Their details will be on the website. Tell them what you’re working on, what you’d like to see and ask whether you can access it. Sometimes, only rarely, I’ve wanted to see materials that are so delicate they’re not made available to anyone other than university fellows. But always ask, because you never know! Then make an appointment and off you go!

Q7: How much do you rely on internet sources for your research?

Natasha: Besides accessing digitised archive materials, not that much. I only use it for quick and easy fact checks, such as the date the Germans arrived in Paris in the second world war. Even then, I would always double check the fact from two reliable websites.

I get the most value out of location research and archival research. Nothing beats primary sources or being on the ground. My next most valuable set of resources would be books published in the era: I have a book called New York in 7 Days, for instance, which I purchased from Abe Books. It was published in 1922 and details the walks of two ladies around different parts of the city. It lists the buildings on each street, landmarks, where they go for lunch and what they eat, what they buy at which shops; it’s like having a bird’s eye view of an area in New York in 1922.

Q8: How do you organise your research so you can go back to it?

Natasha: Anything I find online I save as a weblink or pdf in Scrivener, so it’s right there in my manuscript. Any photographs I take on location I save straight into Scrivener so I can easily look at them when I’m writing. I can even create a link in a particular sentence in Scrivener to take me straight to a particular photograph.

When I’m in an archive, I photograph everything I think I might need: pages of lecture notes, fashion illustrations—nobody photocopies anything anymore when your phone is the best way of saving and storing material.

For information from books, I just use an old fashioned notebook and pen and take lots of notes. Once I’ve finished taking notes, I’ll go back through what I’ve written and highlight particular sections that I know will fit straight into the book, or make a note on which chapter of my book they might go into or, sometimes, I’ll make a note in my writing notebook of a scene I know I need to write based on what I’ve learned from the research. It’s a pretty simple process but it works for me!What was your

Svenska: Fransk modeteckning. 1920-tal. "Médée". "Jaquette de kasha uni bleu lin"

Who doesn’t love 1920’s fashion? Love this ensemble from Fransk modeteckning. 1920-tal.

Q9: What was your favourite thing to research?

1880’s Girl: Though I think I know the answer, would by any chance be clothes?

Natasha: I love all of the research; I think you have to in order to write historical fiction.

I loved the thrill of sitting in the Columbia Medical School archives and reading the handwritten lecture notes of a medical student from 1922. I also loved going to The Met Museum in New York and seeing their latest costume exhibition—nothing helps you describe the clothes of an era better than having actually seen them, photographed them and having them as reference points to use later.

Walking the streets of Paris as research for next year’s book was pretty cool too—hard to believe that it’s actually work!

Thank you, Natasha Lester, for this fabulous interview.

To grab your own copy of Her Mother’s Secrets Visit Hachette

To connect with Natasha go to:


4 Tools Archivists Use to Digitize Our History-In the stacks of the Battye Library:


Information desk at the Battye Library Perth WA

The Battye Library is located inside the State Library of Western Australi at the Perth Cultural Centre

In celebration of National Library week (22-26 May 2017) the State Library of Western Australia ran ‘back lot’ tours of the Battye Library, taking the eager and the curious into the stacks where 100,000’s of items are restored, preserved and stored. 

It was more exciting than Universal Studios backlot, at least for the amateur historian and lover of all things old. This isn’t a pretty post but I write it for those who like to know.

I was especially interested in how archivists digitise items. This work is vital for the modern day researcher, it helps to preserve the original items and makes them available to the wider public. 

How else, may I ask, is a historical fiction writer in Western Australia going to access archives in England and Europe?

Or how can a researcher in Queensland look through the journals of explorers kept in Perth, WA?

Digital Images of Primary Sources

Here are four of the methods used at West Australia’s very own Battye Library


Okay if you want to get nit-picky all these methods are forms of photography hence why they are overseen by a photographer. George was the photographer on duty the day I toured. He was very generous with his time and expertise.

An overhead digital camera allowing for the best angle and lighting.

It captures all the information required to make a digital record for access by the public.

2-Flatbed Scanner

No this is not at all like your home scanner from office works, for one thing, it is much much bigger. It is an A3 flatbed scanner which can do everything from glass slides and daguerreotypes to large photos.

This particular specimen is a technological dinosaur but George tells us there is nothing newer that does the job as well. They even have to keep an old PC in good repair in order to operate the scanner.

Sorry for the wonky angle I was trying not to get any people in the shot.

He showed us an example of Australian Diggers posing on a pyramid in Egypt 1915. The original photo was slightly larger than an 8 1/2″ x 12″ and contains over a hundred soldiers.

The quality of the scanned image is so clear that it can be magnified on the computer for researchers to identify individual faces.

Pretty impressive.

3-An Up-right scanner

An upright scanner being used for soft negatives as opposed to glass slides which are rigid

I’ll be completely honest, I can’t remember exactly what this scanner is called. I have never seen one like it. It is for capturing things on soft film such as 35mm photos. Another words smaller negatives that can bend as the scanner rolls them through the mechanism.

4-The book scanner

This is my personal favourite!

The book scanner

This book scanner has a soft cradle to cushion the ageing book and a thick glass shield that comes down to press the pages flat and protect the book, then it scans from overhead. Lift the glass, turn the page, lower and scan again.

The image quality is beautiful, full-colour showing every water mark and yellowed edge. It is the next best thing to handling the item yourself.

I wish there was somewhere you could pay to use this machine, I’d love to preserve my great-Grandfather’s book in this fashion.

For less antique items, for instance,  hand typed transcripts on foolscap, they use a high-speed office scanner capable of doing I think it was 100 images an hour.

Hours and hours of work go into making these priceless treasures of the past accessible on-line for the general public.

Hop on over and check out what treasures await you at the State Library of Western Australia

An Ode to Cast-iron! And 3 Tips to Care for Your Cast-iron

My favourite cast iron kettle.

I love cast-iron and this is an unashamed ode to my favourite cookware.

When I think of a dutch oven or a spider kettle my head swims with visions of Ma Ingalls on the prairie cooking corn cakes and stew over an open fire. It makes me think of my own Mom’s Tamale pie always cooked in the cast-iron chicken fryer or my Dad’s Sunday morning eggs cooked in bacon grease in the cast-iron frypan

It makes me think of my own Mom’s Tamale pie always cooked in the cast-iron chicken fryer or my Dad’s Sunday morning eggs cooked in bacon grease in the cast-iron frypan

The history of cast-iron cookware goes back to China at least 2,000 years ago and was the primary cookware of the 19th century unless you were posh enough for copper.

To read more on the history of cast-iron cookware check out this post by Samantha Johnson.

This isn’t a history lesson. It is a love story.

12 wonderful things about Cast-iron

  1. The weight of it-it is satisfyingly heavy. What may deter other cooks attracts me.
  2. Even cooking -at high and very low temperatures (has to do with its heaviness)
  3. The original Non-stick skillet-If properly seasoned it outperforms stainless-steel and aluminium by a country mile and is better than Teflon or other advertised “non-stick” pans.
  4. Easy to clean– I’m not kidding, no soap required and if you follow the three tips below you won’t ever use elbow grease again on your cast-iron.
  5. Great for Anemia-cooking in cast-iron increases the iron content of everything you cook in it not just red meat and leafy greens. WARNING: If you have hemochromatosis, do not use cast-iron.
  6. Browning– I can get almost anything to take on a lovely golden hue in my cast-iron pan
  7. Indestructible-this is probably the most important thing for this 1880s girl. The only thing that will ruin your cast-iron is if you leave it out in the rain or leave it sprinkled with water, even then the damage is mostly reversible if you get on to it.
  8. Scratch resistant-I never remember to avoid metal on the non-stick cookware, cast-iron can take any utensil, wood, plastic and metal, even forks and knives for the hurried cook.
  9. It Looks Good -I love the individuality of cast iron, every piece has its own character
  10. The feel– I’m a tactile person and I love running my hand over the sometimes rough and pock-marked surface of my cast-iron cookware.
  11. Versatility-It goes from stove top to oven without fear of shattering or warping, it bakes fries, stews, braises and browns, it is the true all-purpose cookware. And can be used on an open fire.
  12. A piece of History– I feel more my 1880s self when I cook with cast-iron, knowing it is the way my grandmothers have been doing it for centuries.

I could go on and on about how much I love my cast-iron and anyone who comes to dinner at my place will hear me extol its virtues. But it is true cast-iron doesn’t suit everyone.

The Draw Backs

Cast-iron is just about perfect in my eyes but it does have special considerations

  1. If you drop it on the floor it will make a dent or crack the tiles, or break your toe.
  2. It is not user-friendly for those suffering arthritis in their hands, carpal tunnel syndrome or having a flare up of RSI
  3. If you leave food in the pan over night it will take on a very strong iron taste, not recommended.
  4. Seasoning your cast-iron is likely to set off your smoke alarm.

1880s girl’s top tips for cast-iron care

  1. Always heat dry your pans/pots and rub them with oil, let them smoke a bit, it keeps them well seasoned.
  2. When there are fried bits stuck to your pans or up the sides of the pot, cover with water and bring to the boil for 5 minutes, everything will come off, just wipe clean and heat dry
  3. Use steel wool for any stubborn bits or drips on the outside of the pot/pan.

Once you’ve come to know your cast-iron you’ll never look back.

PS This post is not in any way sponsered or linked to manufacturers of cast-iron, I just simply adore it and want to tell you how much.

Melissa Ashley’s Top 3 Tips for Amateur Historians


Portrait of Elizabeth Gould, artist unknown

Elizabeth Gould the original portrait, painted from life.

We have it on the authority of an art-critic from Melissa Ashley’s University faculty that this portrait was likely painted from life.  And though my artistic skills are amateur in the extreme, I have to say, seen side by side, this portrait would be my obvious choice. There is a clarity to the features a brightness about the eyes that is absent in the second portrait, the one with the cockatiel.

If you aren’t convinced have a look back at last weeks post and compare the two.

Now drum roll, please….

Melissa Ashley’s Top 3 Tips                                     for the Amateur Historian

1. Google Books, Google Books, Google books

I got the feeling that Melissa would have put Google Books for all three of the top tips.

While talking to her, I mentioned I wanted to find a digitised copy of Burke’s Peerage. In about 30 seconds she found the exact book which is actually called Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry. 

There is also this gem with a doozy of a title: A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, Enjoying Territorial Possessions Or High Official Rank: But Univested with Heritable Honours, Volume 4, also by the estimable John Burke, dated 1838. (This is where you’ll find Mr Darcy)

If you’re curious, check out this link.

I, for one, am a convert.

Here are the reasons why every amateur historian should check out google books/play.

  1. Many out-of-print books are digitised and freely available.
  2.  Access to 1,000s of primary or contemporary sources for your time period without even needing a researchers ticket or librarian.
  3. Google Play or  ‘Books, My Books,’ stores your digital books which you can read on any device logged into with Gmail account. You can often make electronic notes, bookmarks, etc.
  4. There is also the option to download these texts as a PDF, they can then be printed for those of us who prefer to make handwritten notes and markups.
  5. If you have the funds and a copy is available you may be able to buy the actual physical book, Google books links you to a range of print booksellers.

Now be honest, how many of you at number 5 went all dreamy-eyed and giddy at the thought of owning the actual faded document with its yellowed pages and smell of dusty decay?

2. visual Aids

This is Melissa Ashley’s wall of inspiration for the novel she is currently writing, about the 17th-century fairy tale writer, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

If you are doing historical research for the purpose of writing fiction consider collecting images of artworks, illustrations, objects, documents and items from the time period to inform and inspire your writing.

Try looking for….

  • Fashion plates
  • Maps from the time period
  • Architecture
  • Illustrations and periodicals from the time period (Google books can help with that)
  • And don’t forget to check museum on-line catalogues for artefacts that may be helpful, pottery, paintings, tool etc.

You can also use Google Maps, satellite view, to wander the streets of the city you are writing about.

3. check your sources

Don’t just see something on a blog post or Wikipedia and assume it is true, rather use the information in the post to start a trail.

Where did the writer source their information? Is Wikipedia their only source or is it from a reputed authority? Is it reliable? For example is it from a reputable institution or known expert in the field? Or is it simply pulled off of Pinterest?

Bibliographies are always a good sign, such as A Damsel in This Dress includes, but other bloggers, for instance, 1880’s Girl, might be more challenged in the area of organising their sources and bear checking up on.

The Birdman’s Wife Cover reveal…

Now Last but not least the secret inside the cover of The Birdman’s Wife.

You won’t know this if you borrow the book from the library.

Slip cover for The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Asheley

This beautiful slip cover, with its touches of gold, has not been used to dress up a plain and dreary cover

The true cover of The Birdmans wife by Melissa Ashley

It is secreting the nest of a superb fairy wren.

Now you see why The Birdman’s Wife is short-listed for the Australian Book Design Awards 2017!

Buy The Birdman’s Wife here.

It is definitely worth reading!

To find out more about Melissa Ashley and her writing check out her blog

Or connect with her on…

Facebook: @1melissa.ashley

Twitter: @Baronessdualnoy

Instagram: @sylviemina

5 Lessons from Melissa Ashley to Boost Your Historical Research

Promotional photo of Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley Author of The Birdman’s Wife

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.

The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Ashley

This has to be one of the most gorgeous covers in modern bookmaking, and it has a secret.

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 Ashley, volunteer taxidermist at the Queensland Museum

Melissa Ashley learning the art of taxidermy in the name of research.

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.

She explains:

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.

Elizabeth Gould with cockatiel

Elizabeth Gould with Falcon

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

Or connect with her on…

Facebook: @1melissa.ashley

Twitter: @Baronessdualnoy

Instagram: @Melissa Ashley @sylviemina

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’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!



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:
  • 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.