• Sheryl Gwyther

Writing 'Sweet Adversity' ... FAQ

Sweet Adversity, an historical adventure novel for Middle Grade readers (10-14). I rarely think in terms of limits to reading age because I know adults will enjoy it too. The story has been out in reader-land now for three weeks, so it's time to answer some frequently asked questions.

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What inspired you to write the novel?

Around 12 years ago, in one of those half-dream you get before waking, I saw her ... a young girl in an old-fashioned pinafore, fleeing along a dusty bush road. She was frightened and also angry as a box of bees. I woke up then, but not before realising she had a cockatiel with her who quoted Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare aspect wasn’t all that surprising. I’d been cleaning out my elderly mother-in-law’s garage and rescued a book from the white-ants ... an antique copy of The Works of William Shakespeare Complete. It had belonged to her mother, an actress who, along with her father were travelling actors in the 1870s in country NSW.

Did the story change much as you were writing it?

It did evolve over those 12 years (in between me writing other books, short stories and plays). I sensed the dream-girl was Australia and it felt right to set her story in 1930, during the Great Depression. The hardest part, as usual for me, was writing the first draft ... I tend to overcomplicate plots. That's why I realise nowadays how important it is to get STRUCTURE right.

I nipped and tucked at the plot, added tension, made sure the historical stuff was in there seamlessly, increased the villainy of the villains, created secondary characters with their own narrative arcs, developed Addie’s character and personality, and created even more danger and tension for her – and the story was all the better for it.

I also added more Shakespeare … via Macbeth and his quotes and insults, and through Addie’s desire to one day be a Shakespearean actor. Some people advised me leave out the Shakespeare 'stuff’ because kids aren’t interested, and it wasn’t in the primary school curriculum anyway. The story faced rejections over those years (although I do recognise the structure needed much work too).

I stood my ground re The Bard … I’ve always believed Shakespeare’s words are universal to any human … his understanding of human nature and the human condition is like no other. Check out any of his many plays in foreign countries … adapted to local customs and language, the passion and drama is still there.

So Shakespeare’s quotes abound in the novel … all in the right places too, of course. And kids love it! Especially when Macbeth flings lusty insults in true Shakespearean style.

It took someone like Lisa Berryman at HarperCollins Australia to recognise what I was trying to do with this novel. She totally ‘got’ Addie and Macbeth, the narrative and best of all, she loved the way I write … a style best described as lyrical, I guess.

How much research is needed for your historical novels?

Good research is essential for writing stories set in the past. As is the utter important of slipping in information via what the characters see, feel, hear, taste and touch.

For my first novel, Secrets of Eromanga, I worked as a volunteer on the Elliot Dinosaur dig site near Winton in western Queensland for 2 weeks. There, I had access to eminent paleontologists. Because I was writing a novel for children they went out of their way to answer my many questions. I also found my first dinosaur fossil there. This book, published by Lothian/Hachette Books is still found in many school libraries across Queensland and beyond, even though it’s out of print.

For my just finished manuscript, The Four Seasons of Caterina, I stayed in Venice for 2 weeks in October to research the city in the 1700s, and also the relationship between the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for abandoned children and Antonio Vivaldi, their music teacher, and also what life was like for Caterina, a young street beggar. You can't really write about Venice without knowing what this unique island sounds and smells like especially ... the plash, plash of the waves hitting slippery stone steps, the briny smell of the full tide, the canal's jade green water where you can see large, lazy fish swimming.

Sweet Adversity has many aspects that required diligent research, from the effects of Australia’s Great Depression on children; the tragic Rothbury Miners’ Strike in NSW; what a Buick car looked like in 1930, to Sydney’s vaudeville shows, cockatiel behaviour, popular music of the late 1920s, and of course, Shakespeare’s works.

Being awarded a SCBWI Work-of-Outstanding Progress grant in 2013 for allowed me to travel to Canberra’s National Library several times - the best place to access and research books, film, and images of the Great Depression in Australia.

What themes does Sweet Adversity explore?

I never know what the story themes are before I start writing … yes, tricky when a publisher asks, What’s your story’s main theme? But as you get into the story you begin to sense what’s important, what the heart of your story is … generally that comes to me via the main character and what she/he must face. My advise is not to stress too much in the beginning about theme ... I know it means extra work later on, but you'll have a better grasp of this important aspect once you know your story and characters well.

With Sweet Adversity, I ended up with several themes that connect the more one delves into the layers.

  • Dark and dire times bring out the worst and the best in people – morality and choice.

  • Against the worst obstacles endured, some will discover resilience, courage and compassion to lead. And goodness will prevail.

  • The bonds of friendship, loyalty and love will endure all.

  • You will never know how strong you really are until being strong is the only choice you have left.

  • Recognising human frailties is the first step to compassion and acceptance.

Most of these I didn’t realise what I was doing until afterwards and had the chance to read it as a whole. That’s when I recognised the truth of Addie’s hero's quest, for it’s not just an cliff-hanging adventure through the Great Depression, but a coming-of-age story as well.

Latest book review: Author, Cate Whittle's ON MY BOOKSHELF ... Sweet Adversity


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