Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Friends with Monya Clayton

Welcome to our Friday Friend, Australian writer Monya Clayton, who's going to tell us about her research for a historical novel in the days before the internet.

So I Decided to Write a Historical

This, dear readers, is a map of the city of Charles Town, South Carolina (pardon me, just Carolina at the time) in 1704. A small part of the modern city, and at that time the only walled city in the Americas. My daughter found it for me on the infant Internet about 1995, before Google, before I myself owned or could use a computer.

I had this idea for a story, you see, about a young Puritan woman on the way to New England (um, it was Massachusetts Bay Colony), whose ship is sunk by pirates and she herself captured, off that coast. Mercy Penhall grew in my mind like a friend, a strong character in spite of the fact she couldn’t speak. And the reluctant pirate Edmund Gramercy was as kind a soul as was possible in his circumstances and in his times. That was the beginning of the story. And after then I started chewing my pencil. Pencil because in those pre-computer days I wrote my first drafts in pencil, then typed the second drafts onto the portable mechanical typewriter, and the final draft onto the electric typewriter. Final draft, hah! I was completely ignorant of the publishing world in those days. Edits were an unknown quantity.

I’m an Australian. What did I know about the British colonies of what is now the U.S.A. in the early 18th century? Practically nothing. I was deeply interested in history, loved good historical fiction, had read some historical romances, seen some historical movies. I knew men wore long wigs. I possessed some vague knowledge of the beginnings of British colonisation, of the Puritan faith and the Salem witch trials. What I knew about the topography of eastern America might fill a teacup. There my knowledge ground to a stop.

No Google. I looked up my encyclopaedias. South Carolina, Charleston, New England, Virginia. Piracy. Puritanism, Quakerism, the French Protestants called Huguenots, who were among the original settlers of Carolina. Costumes of the era. Weapons. The war. What war? Originally I picked 1704 because it possessed the only date I recalled, for the Battle of Blenheim in Europe, an incident of the War Of The Spanish Succession against France. Discovery: the war was called in the American colonies Queen Anne’s War. Believe me, it was pure serendipity to find the map above dated 1704! I closed my set of books with my mind chock full of incomplete facts. Obviously I needed to look further afield.

At that time we lived in a farmhouse in sub-tropical Queensland. We shopped in Gympie, 14 miles away, and borrowed books from the library there. I did a little more research in their reference section – while my husband patiently waited in the car! Then, to spare him, drove down to the new library in Noosa on the coast and enjoyed myself hugely, investigating their reference section and borrowing their books. Found one about ships and shipping in the 18th century. I searched opportunity (charity) shops and second-hand shops in both towns, found some old National Geographic magazines. One had a great article about Charleston, another about the Sea Islands, another about the massacre at the New England town of Deerfield by the French and their Indian allies.

Right. I was getting the background together. Still incomplete, though. I wrote to the U.S. Embassy in our capital, Canberra, asking for addresses for Historical Societies and Museums in the areas I needed to find out about. I addressed the letter to “The Cultural Attache”, hoping it was the right title. And, bless him, he sent me back addresses to the Societies in Charleston and Richmond, Virginia. I wrote to Charleston. They wrote back: they were a self-supporting organization. If I wanted to ask questions, the cost would be $5 U.S. per query. Plus postage, plus the cost of getting money there by international bank cheque. No PayPal either! I understood their position and wrote instead to another address provided by the Embassy, the State Department of Archives in Columbia, capital of South Carolina.

And a dear man there sent me reams of photocopied material about the city, the state, the Sea Islands, their history. (I sent him a thank-you copy of an Aussie book and, MUCH later, a pdf copy of my finished novel.) And, immersing myself in all this fascinating information, I was in danger of neglecting my story out of sheer fascination with the research. Deer hides etc. were their first export item, then they planted rice fields. Cotton came much later. (Richmond, Virginia, didn’t answer my letter at all. I can see their point of view: What business did this unknown woman in Australia have writing a story about the historical U.S.A.?)

I discovered one fact which was all important. My point of view must change to grasp all these historical truths. I must stop thinking like a 20th century person. Roads existed but they were few and poor. Almost all transport was by ship. There was little communication among the original colonies so anyone moving from one to the other needed a darned good reason to risk the sea voyage. I also must stop thinking like an Australian. The Carolina coastlines were not like ours, which are mostly sand beaches with occasional mangrove bays. Their rivers were big, so were their swamps. (Australia is the driest continent on earth, it has one large river system, the Murray-Darling, and isn’t big on swamps either.) South Carolina is sub-tropical like southern Queensland. Cold New England and cool temperate Virginia were beyond my experience, and again their coastlines varied. Everything in Virginia developed around the great Tidewater. New England was barren ashore, with, in autumn (fall) and winter, wild seas, wild storms, and SNOW. I’d never seen snow.

The native animals were/are also different from our marsupials, of course; bears, deer, alligators, possums, raccoons, wildcats. More geographical research… And I’d hardly started on the people! The Europeans among whom my story was set, that is. I became conscious of the enormous differences the lay of the land imposes on its peoples. Aboriginal Australians were/are a totally different culture to Native Americans. Yet out of this part of the research emerged the secondary character of Mercy Penhall’s friend, Soulange de Vaugeret. Finally I finished the final (ha, ha) draft.

I did say I was ignorant of the realities of publishing. I joined the Romance Writers of Australia. I began to send the completed manuscript to publishers. Australian publishers prefer local content (after all, our population is only 20 million). The cost of postage overseas was murderous, but I continually posted the typewritten book to London and New York in turn. Often it languished in slush piles. Often I wrote letters enquiring of its fate. I received a (very) few almost encouraging answers. We would like to print it, but… and I’m reading between the lines here. But it doesn’t fit our present requirements. (Won’t sell enough copies.) But it has no – er - sensual scenes. (Not a bodice ripper! We thought it would be a bodice ripper.) It’s difficult to market an unknown author. (I wasn’t famous.) And so on. The writers among you will know the sort of thing I mean!

In the meantime, life went on. We left the farmhouse and moved inland to be closer to our children and grandchildren. My husband built a shed on our allotment in a small town more or less in the middle of them all, and we lived in it for three years while we built our own house. At the time, when I could find a moment, I was writing a contemporary. Son number two, the I.T. professional, had by now provided me with a computer he pieced together out of spare parts and was making me learn to use it. This was pretty painful for someone born in 1941. The first time I looked at the screen full of all these unknown symbols I asked him, “What am I supposed to do? Fly it?”

He started me off learning to play Solitaire on the thing, so I could get used to using the mouse. Aussies used to call the game Patience, and oh boy, did it require patience. I’d never played it before, you see, so I was learning the game as well as the computer. Very tentatively I began to use Word. I came to a full stop the first time because there was no paper carriage to roll to the next line… The printer was pretty temperamental but hey, my words came out one end of it! Then, in 2003, while I recovered from the insertion of a steel pin into an injured ankle, he put me on the Internet. And wow, I began to discover new worlds. Including places called “e-book publishers”.

I sent a query and first three chapters of my pirate saga to one of these, a newish firm called The Wild Rose Press. The historical editor asked for the whole manuscript. I waited. Nicole McCaffrey, an historical romance author herself, was unabashedly enthusiastic about the story, which soothed my rejection-wounded soul no end. Then, she added gently, we need to change just a few things… And I became familiar with the hard-work world of editing, cutting, adding, changing and (shudder) correcting galleys. At least it could all be done on the computer! Nic became, and remains, a good friend. She emailed me the cover designed by Kim Mendoza, not of a half-naked couple in a clinch but a dignified and striking picture of a large ship bearing down on a smaller one. AND Nic mailed me a poster of the cover. Then I received my free pdf copy of the novel, and, a few months later, a print copy…

Girls, it was worth all the work and all the research!

And, as was to be expected in the course of so much primitive research, I transferred a couple of mistakes to the final draft. I doubt if many readers noticed either. One - I mentioned lemons twice - in the 350 page novel. I live in a warm climate and lemons are a fact of life. It didn't occur to me they would have been practically unknown to most Europeans in the early 18th century. I do know now limes were grown in the West Indies about that time or perhaps a little later. And when I did mention it at our local writers group meeting, an English-born member confirmed for me that all citrus fruits were imported to England from Spain until the 1950s! And before then, I believe, citrus originated in China-Asia, but I'm not about to research it again now!

Two - This is a fact any Americans who study the history of the Puritans would know, particularly New Englanders. I described their place of worship as a "church". The Puritans fled to America partly to escape the churches of the Catholic and Church of England faiths. They called their - er, churches - meeting houses. Or meetinghouse, one word. I knew Quakers used the word meeting instead of "congregation" and called their places of worship "meetinghouses". So I should have worked out the Puritans would have done the same before them! Smack my fingers!

I don't doubt there are other historical errors in the m.s., but gosh, we're stuck with the book as it is now.

My own blog - shamefully neglected - is:
and there's an older one at:


  1. Great to have you with us today, Monya. In these days of having 'instant' information on our computer screens, it's easy to forget the time when we had to spend hours at libraries or send off for information (and wait ages for any reply). Thanks for the reminder, too, of the old typewriters!

  2. Oh I remember it well, the wait for books you needed to arrive. Sitting in over hot libraries, staring at view finders, and if that wasnt enough manual typewriter and tippex. It's a wonder we stuck it out.

  3. Sounds fascinating, Monya! I get so wrapped up in research, I don't have time to write the story! Sounds terrific and congrats for being published. I never did receive a free copy of my book from Wild Rose Press!!! Guess I needed to live in Australia. :) If you're with the Australian Romance Readers, I'll be blogging with them in Dec and giving a free book away (Wolf Fever) to 3 winners!

  4. Hello Monya! I am a Virginian and oft visited and have family in the Carolinas, and I write American historicals, (among other things) so I really enjoyed your post. Wow. I can imagine all you went through because, I too, wrote in those early days back in the 90's by pen and paper, using a lot of white out, and made many trips to the library. Also relied heavily on a local anthropologist/archeologist and historians to help me recapture colonial America in the mid to latter 1700's. What an enormous amount of research we have both done and under less than optimum circumstances. You are to be most applauded undertaking this venture from Australia. I'm so impressed. Loved reading your publishing journey.

  5. Thanks Paula, Margaret, Terry and Beth! Glad you enjoyed the post.

    I did forget to mention in the post that the book was written as Mary Clayton. I thought it sounded more "historical" than my first name, it's my second name.

    Oh, the whiteout, tippex, whatever we called it. In New Zealand it's Twink! But gosh, it was better than typing rubbers (erasers), which made an awful mess on the paper.

    Gosh, Beth, you'd be just the girl to find out if I DID make any other mistakes!

  6. Oh yes, erasers - and if you had a carbon you had to put a white piece of paper between the carbon copy! Oh my - tippex before whiteout - little strips that you put over the word, and the chalk-like substance allegedly blanked out the mis-typed word. My gosh, we are ancient, LOL!

  7. Oh, Margaret, I thought I'd managed to forget carbon paper... I wonder if you can still buy it?

    (By the way, everyone, the photo of my desk carries the date 2001. My old digital camera insists that's this year, not 2010!)

    Paula, I still have my typewriters somewhere. The poor little portable did so much work a couple of the keys conked out. Can you imagine typing a book without the letters 'p' and 's'?

  8. Now there's a challenge, Monya - maybe not a book but a 250 word story without using 'p' or 's'? Wonder if it could be done? :-)

  9. Newbies can not imagine the patience the process took in those days.

  10. Oh, such memories. Thank you, Monya, for reminding me of the hours spent in the libraries.

  11. Ah, the good 'ol days of research the old fashioned way. Even with the Internet (which I don't trust completely) I still do alot of library research. Fascinating that the U.S. Embassy actually helped you.
    Great post!
    Liz Arnold

  12. Monya,

    We totally take modern technology for granted these days. Even back in my college days all of my papers were typewritten. It's strange to think I didn't have a computer even then, since I rely on one so heavily every single day now. For work and play!

    Love the cover!

    Thanks for visiting with us today.

  13. Great post. So much easier to research now, but your article brought back memories. My first historical fiction came out in 1982. Popular computers and the Internet were glimmers in techies' thoughts.
    I hope the book is doing well.

  14. Monya,
    Thank you for this wonderful post. The Internet is great, but can be just as frustrating as the Dewey Decimal system in libraries. Best wishes for continued success!

  15. Just out of interest - back in the 1970's I attempted to start a historical novel, set in the 14th century. I wanted a French ship entering Calais harbour (Calais still belonged to England then) and spent hours in the library trying to find out what flag it would be flying - and failed. I just tried an internet search and found the information in about two minutes! Vive l'internet!

  16. I'm glad I brought back memories for you, ladies! Very tickled by Paula's flag on the Internet. It has it's uses!

    I had a flag problem of my own. I mentioned a ship flying "the red cross of England". Yet some authorities said paintings existed of ships with the Union Jack hoisted after James VI of Scotland succeeded to the British throne as James I in 1603. Even though "official" union didn't occur until 1707. So it was a confusing detail!

    Another couple of items of serendipity occurred during the time I wrote The Pirate And The Puritan. I bought a second-hand book called "Travel Stories", and lo, it mentioned Madam Sarah Knight's ride to New Haven, so I sneaked it into Mercy's interview with Soulange. And I found on a charity tray at the petrol (gas) station, "Norfolk", which was the history of the Virginian city of that name. So the boy Ben Heslett, who helps Mercy escape from the pirate ship, has an absolute genuine first-settler surname. It's marvellous the details one runs across just in general reading!

    Now Paula, are you going to write that historical after all?

  17. Nope, not going to tackle a historical. Takes me all my time researching facts for a contemporary!
    Love your serendipity moments though.
    Many thanks for being with us at HWH, Monya - and for all the memories you've stirred up!

  18. Monya, what a fun post! My guess is you now know more about the beginnings of America than many Americans know - a shame.

    I began my writing research in libraries, also, trying to figure out Scottish methods and places and such, and doing my drafts in longhand. It was much harder, but in a way, much more enjoyable. Maybe it's time for another day of library research, just because.