Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Interview with Belinda Murrell

Today we are delighted to welcome Belinda Murrell to the blog. Belinda has been fascinated with history and writing since she was a child. Now she is a bestselling, internationally published children’s and Young Adult author currently writing her 28th book. These include The Sun Sword fantasy trilogy as well as the popular Lulu Bell series for younger readers. She is also known for her collection of historical timeslip novels including The Sequin Star, The River Charm, The Locket of Dreams, The Forgotten Pearl, The Ruby Talisman and The Ivory Rose, which have been recognised by various awards, including Honour Book KOALAS 2013, shortlisted in the KOALA and YABBA children’s choice awards for the last six years, CBCA Notable List and highly commended in the PM’s Literary Awards. Belinda’s latest book is The Lost Sapphire, set in Melbourne during the 1920’s.

Belinda comes from a very literary family, with a history of Australian writers stretching back 180 years. Her great-great-great-great grandfather James Atkinson published his book on Australia in 1826, while his wife Charlotte published the first Australian children’s book A Mother’s Offering to her Children, in 1841. Belinda’s brother, Nick Humphrey and sister, Kate Forsyth are both best selling authors. Belinda’s website is www.belindamurrell.com.au

What is the inspiration for your current book?

My most recent book is The Lost Sapphire, which is a time slip novel for young adults, set in Melbourne during the fabulous roaring 1920s. It was originally inspired by a couple of experiences where I was taken to visit some beautiful historic mansions, which had been abandoned. One of these was in Melbourne and another was in Tenterfield in Northern NSW. With both houses I immediately began wondering about the people who had lived there and why the mansion might have been abandoned.  Then suddenly I seemed to stumble across several derelict houses, all with fascinating stories.

The book is about a modern day teenager called Marli. She is reluctantly staying with her dad in Melbourne for the summer, while her Mum is overseas for work, and she is missing all her friends back home. Then Marli discovers an intriguing mystery… her family is to inherit a grand, abandoned mansion called Riversleigh, on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne. Marli is fascinated by the dilapidated old house, which has been locked up for years. She sneaks into the gardens where she meets an infuriating boy called Luca who has his own link to Riversleigh. Together they set out to solve the mystery of the old house, and the secrets of the Hamilton family who lived there. With the locked up, overgrown garden there are echoes The Secret Garden, which was one of my favourite books as I was growing up.

Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book?

With all of my time slip books, I am fascinated by the idea of exploring the past, and learning lessons which can help us understand our own time and issues more clearly. The Lost Sapphire is set in the Roaring 20s in Melbourne - a fascinating time where the world shifted. A frivolous era of short skirts, bobbed hair and risqué jazzing, but also of massive social change. The old ways, where on one side of the Yarra River, Melbourne’s aristocrats lived a life of extravagance and wealth, contrasted sharply to life in the slums, just across the bridge,  – of poverty, disease and crime, where 13 year old kids had to work long hours to feed their families. It was also a time where prejudices ran strong. Intolerance of Anglicans versus Catholics. Suspicion and fear of different cultural, social or religious practises. Yet Australian society was very much made up of refugees seeking a better life – whether those fleeing poverty in Ireland or Italy or Scotland, or those fleeing war-torn Europe or the Russian Revolution.

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why?

I have always loved history and historical fiction from Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, to Celtic Britain, European history from the Middle Ages, through the French and Russian Revolutions to the first and second world wars. However with my seven historical time slip books for young adults, I have chosen to focus primarily on different periods of Australian history during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I believe it is so important for Australian children and teenagers to have an insight into Australian history and stories.

What resources do you use to research your book?

Research is a huge part of my planning for the books. I can spend months reading old newspapers, magazines, advertisements, history books, diaries, articles on the internet, books written during the 1920s, biographies, letters, and memoirs. I also try to understand the culture of the period by watching historic film clips and home movies and listening to music. Trove, the on-line archive of the National Library of Australia is a fantastic research tool. For this book, I also went to Melbourne to visit historic houses, museums, exhibitions of fashion and clothes, old factories, and ensure that my setting was as accurate as possible. In the name of research I have crawled in the tunnels under the streets of Paris, ridden horses across the French countryside, baked scones in a woodfired stove, made damper in a camp fire, cooked and eaten eighteenth century French feasts, taken archery and fencing lessons, visited remote cattle stations, mustered cattle, and sailed on tiny boats across the ocean. It is not just the grand picture of politics and social change which intrigues me – it is the everyday family lives of ordinary people.

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy?

As a writer for children and young adults, I believe that it is vital that my books are entertaining as well as allowing the reader to learn about life in the past. So it is important to tread lightly with historical detail. I do months of research to make sure that facts are historically accurate, and that the historic world that I create feels authentic and realistic, but I also ensure that the story is enthralling. 

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why?

My protagonist from 1922 is Violet Hamilton, a fifteen year old girl, whose mother is dead and whose father is distant, stubborn and conservative. Violet’s life is one of luxury, with boating parties, picnics and extravagant balls. Over one summer, Violet comes to learn about the lives of those who live in the slums of Richmond, just across the Yarra River, and to realise that all is not as it seems for the servants who look after the family – especially new chauffeur Nikolai, a young Russian émigré. Violet must decide what is important to her and to stand up for what she believes in.

Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? How long does it generally take you to write a book?

I think my writing process is a combination of the two. With my publisher, Penguin Random House, I always sign a contract before I start work writing the book, so I need to complete a detailed synopsis of characters, setting, plot and story summary to get them excited. This has to be strong enough to be pitched to the whole editorial, sales and marketing team. So it is essential I have a clear idea of the story before I start. But having said that, the story itself always evolves and improves as I’m writing it. The Lost Sapphire took me over a year to write, although the very first seeds of the idea came to my three or four years before that. It generally takes me about four months to research and plan the book, four months to write a complete first draft, then a couple of months of editing.

Which authors have influenced you?

I love the work of many authors including Kate Morton, Sebastian Faulks, Philippa Gregory, Ian McEwan and Geraldine Brooks, as well as old classics by authors such as Ethel Turner, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Louise May Alcott.  

What advice would you give an aspiring author?

I have five tips which all begin with P! They are:

Passion – write what you love. Write from your heart. Don’t try to follow trends. Write for yourself and have fun doing it!

Persistence – there are so many writers with talent, who write extremely well. But to succeed as a writer you need bucketloads of determination and tenacity. Succeeding as a writer can only be achieved through lots of hard work over many years!
Practise – write constantly. Write every day. Take a notebook with you everywhere and fill it.

Pack your bags – travel the world and have amazing adventures. Work at various jobs, volunteer, experience life, fill your notebooks with sights, people and experiences. There’s nothing like crawling down in the tunnels under the streets of Paris, galloping a horse across the countryside, sailing down the river on an ancient fishing boat, or climbing the ramparts of a medieval castle to get your imagination bubbling.

Patience - The flip side is sitting at your desk. At some point the book won’t get written unless you sit at your desk and stay there! Just keep chipping away until it’s finished.

Tell us about your next book or work in progress.

This year, I am so excited to be launching a completely new children’s series, (which is set in modern times!) called Pippa’s Island, for girls about 8 to 10 years old, as a step up from my Lulu Bell series.
So Pippa’s Island, is about a girl called Pippa, who moves with her family from London, to a small tropical island on the other side of the world. She has to leave her home, her school and all her friends behind her, which is really tough.

So the series is about making friends, finding your courage and coping with change. It is about also a gang of best friends, who form a secret club, who meet after school in a round tower on top of a boat-house. The girls are lively, fun-loving, bold, brave, creative and happy. But like all kids they have real life problems to face and lessons to learn – making friends, school, sport, squabbles, secrets, getting in trouble, fitting in, fashion, music, naughty pets, family, siblings and all the things that tween girls love and worry about. 

The first two books – The Beach Shack and Cub Reporters will be released in July 2017, with a further two books that I’m writing at the moment, to be released in early 2018. Thank you so much for sharing with us, Belinda. You can find out more about Belinda Murrell's wonderful books here.

HNSA 2017 Conference

The HNSA 2017 Conference in Melbourne is being held on 8-10 September 2017. 
Belinda Murrell will be appearing the following panel in Session Five on Saturday 9 September at 2.15-3.15 pm.

The Outlander Effect: Parallel Narratives and Time Travelling

The success of the Diana Garabaldon’s Outlander series has inspired authors to delve into the lives of characters through parallel narratives, fantasy and cracks in time. Ella Carey, Belinda Murrell, Gary Crew and Felicity Pulman discuss with Catherine Padmore the challenges of interweaving the tales of two or more protagonists from different periods into their plotlines and themes.

Belinda is also appearing in our free Sydney HNSA Meet the Author event on 29 March 7-9 pm at Mosman Library with Felicity Pulman, Elisabeth Storrs, Lauren Chater and Lynette McDermott. Bookings essential. More details can be found on the HNSA website.

Early bird registration is open for the HNSA 2017 Conference. You will receive 15% off the full price for our weekend programme.  The same discount also applies for tickets to our opening reception

This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing our theme, inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses. You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Manuscript assessments will be conducted by industry experts, Alison Arnold and Irina Dunn. And there are two calls for papers in our free extended academic programme.
Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize!

Let’s make a noise about historical fiction!

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