Lillian dressed then stole down the stairs and out the hotel’s side entrance to make her way down to the harbour. She crushed the wild fennel that lined the path, releasing its pungent smell into the soft gauze of the morning air. Ridges of grey pebbles and clumps of driftwood fringed the tide-line. Gulls bobbed on the milky green-blue sea. She could hear the surf’s distant applause, but the beach was deserted. Lillian walked to the water’s edge. Her eyes combed the vast emptiness of the ocean beyond the curved bay. The horizon seemed boundless but so unattainable.
Chapter 24, The Aerial Queen
One of the themes from the NZ Festival that has resonated with me is the importance of time and place. It started with Home, a magical shapeshifting production that explored (without words) the generations of people who inhabit a home. “The heart of the show is this notion that the place you live in, any building, is also occupied by the people who came before you and the people who will, somehow, come after you” its creator, Geoff Sobelle, says in this interview.
On my bookshelf I have the trilogy of books by Richard Holmes on the art of biography: Footsteps, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit (respectively subtitled Adventures, Explorations, and Reflections of a Romantic Biographer). Holmes writes about his “footsteps principle”: The serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough.
But it’s not just biographers that do this. At the NZ Festival Writers & Readers sessions, many authors described finding inspiration by physically going to the place they were writing about.
Francis Spufford talked about trying to peel away the layers in New York for his novel Golden Hill, but there were no surviving buildings from the 18th century, just a few gravestones in the Trinity Churchyard and some iron railings in Bowling Green (the crowns that capped the railings were sawn off in 1776).
Nick Earls had published five novellas about Australian characters visiting cities overseas: Gotham, NoHo, Juneau, Venice, Vancouver. Juneau was about a father & son seeking an ancestor who had disappeared during the gold-mining era in the 1890s, based on his own great-great uncle. Well I had to buy that one, didn’t I?
Back in 2007 (when I was a writers’ festival newbie), I purchased Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River — a fascinating book about writing historical fiction. She also writes about looking for layers underneath the surface and suspends her search for her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, in London’s archives: Instead I’d look for him in the places where the past had happened: the lanes and streets, the churches, and above all the river.
So what should an aspiring novelist, with limited time/money and a character who travels all over New Zealand and Australia, do? One of the places I did manage to visit was Oamaru with its marvellous Victorian precinct, full of whitestone buildings that haven’t changed much since 1885.
I stayed in the Criterion Hotel (on right in photo) and time-travelled back to 1894 when hansom cabs raced neck and neck down Tyne street to meet the train at the Wansbeck Street station. Another feature of Oamaru is its authentic Victorian/Edwardian deepwater port and it’s easy to see how vital sea and rail transport was in the 19th century. There’s an informative series of heritage panels along the harbour and during my walk, I took this stone from the beach. The stone became a talisman, taking me back to that place and a motif in the novel to link the past and the present.