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:

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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 http://www.melissaashley.com.au

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 www.melissaashley.com.au.

Or connect with her on…

Facebook: @1melissa.ashley

Twitter: @Baronessdualnoy

Instagram: @Melissa Ashley @sylviemina