I love escaping to another time and place with a great historical fiction book. If you do too, you will want to read this. Today I bring you an insightful interview with Australian Historical Fiction author Jacqueline Hodder. Jacqueline tells us about her love of history, and the inspiration behind her debut novel titled 'The Sentinel'.
Tell me about yourself
Hi, my name’s Jacqui Hodder. I live on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria with my little family, my husband, son, and daughter. I work as a teacher in a local high school and enjoy bushwalking and photography, as well as writing. I’ve wanted to be a published author since forever and, last October, I finally realised my dream when my debut novel, ‘The Sentinel’, was released.
How long have you been writing?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I won a small competition when I was young (the Mary Grant Bruce Award for Children’s Literature) and this spurred me on to complete a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Professional Writing. I kept writing over the years (I was employed to write for a public relations firm interviewing athletes on scholarships) and I’ve also dabbled in radio (I wrote an episode for the ABC Science Show examining the amazing desert tree, ‘Acacia Peuce’) but fiction is my first love.
Did you have a favourite book as a child?
When I was a child I adored the 'Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis. I loved the magical realism of the novels and how the stories transported me to a world full of wonderful characters. I loved them so much I named my daughter, Lucy, after one of the main characters. Other favourites were ‘Swallows & Amazons’ and ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’.
What do you love about writing historical fiction?
What I love most about writing historical fiction is being transported to another time and place. A bit like my experience of reading the Narnia books as a child, when I write historical fiction, I lose myself in that world. I hope to transport my readers in the same way.
When I researched ‘The Sentinel’, I took myself to the State Library of Victoria (and my local library) every Saturday for months. I loved learning about life in 1880s Victoria and researching schooling, lighthouses, lighthouse keepers’ lives and what Melbourne was like in its glory days. Researching lighthouses also gave me an excuse to travel to lighthouses up and down the Victorian coastline.
I’ll never forget going to the State Library one day and asking to see the original diaries of the Cape Otway lighthouse keeper, Henry Bayles Ford. Bayles Ford was the lightkeeper at this station for almost thirty years and is famous in the district for his service to the lighthouse, the boats who sailed the waters, and the local community. I was in awe as I waited, fingers twitching, for the librarian to bring out the diaries. As I took the first journal out of its plastic casing, I thought how special this moment was because I was touching history. I opened the journals to reveal Bayles Ford’s towering lettering – magnificent curling arcs and determined downstrokes – which I found difficult to read at first. After I deciphered the writing, I became engrossed in Bayles Ford’s everyday life; daily tasks such as, ‘employed in caring for the gear of the Lantern’, and ‘employed in painting the railing of the balcony’, mixed in with weather and shipping reports. I was intrigued though, to read of his conflict with his assistant keepers and the difficulty he had controlling them. Such conflicts became the heart of my own novel, ‘The Sentinel’.
Can you tell me about your book titled ‘The Sentinel’?
‘The Sentinel’ is my first full-length novel and I am so proud of it. The idea for the book came to me when my husband, son and I did a three-day hike to the southern tip of mainland Australia, a place that is loved by Victorians, called Wilson’s Promontory. It’s possible to stay at the lighthouse at the tip of the ‘Prom’ but the only way in is to walk – and it’s an 18km walk one way! The isolation as well as the landscape is an overwhelming experience but so worth it.
We were privileged to have the current keepers (they are Parks Victoria employees) take us on a tour of the lighthouse and lighthouse station. They explained that a school had operated at the Prom for two months during the 1880s when the arrival of a new keeper and his multitude of children necessitated the appointment of a teacher. Then, something happened and the keeper was dismissed which meant the school was not viable anymore, and the teacher and the keeper’s family had to leave. That set me thinking: What could have happened to make a keeper leave? What would the teacher have thought?
That was the spark which led to my book. It’s a gothic tale of isolation, strength, despair, and redemption. Here is the blurb:
Escaping from a disastrous relationship, Kathleen Devine flees to an isolated lighthouse off the Victorian coastline. Taking up the position of Head Teacher to the lighthouse keepers’ children, she is ensnared in the lives of those marooned on the lonely outpost and soon realises no-one can escape their past. When the fearsome Head Lightkeeper, Mr Johannsson forms an unlikely friendship with the daughter of one of the keepers, it threatens to destroy their fragile peace. Can Kathleen find the strength to survive?
Describe your perfect hero or heroine
Great question! My perfect hero or heroine must be someone who struggles, makes mistakes, cries, laughs and experiences moments of desperation, and joy. In other words, a hero or heroine that is as human as possible. I like the hero of my novel, Mr Johannsson, the Head Lightkeeper of the Sentinel. He has a fearsome reputation; authoritarian, disciplined, and strict, but this has come at a cost to his personal life. The choices he makes in the book raise questions about his integrity but I don’t think he’d compromise himself, he has too much moral fibre for that, and I respect him for the way he keeps a watch over his charges.
Can you describe your writing process?
It’s not pretty. I wish I had a more organised approach but I don’t. When I have an idea, I work on fleshing it out to see if it’s strong enough to carry me through the years it takes to finish a book. Then I’ll work on a story outline and graph the plot points on a three-act structure diagram I have on my whiteboard. From there, I use the Guardian’s ‘How to write a novel in 30 days’ worksheets which help me develop the characters, story, themes, background, research questions and dialogue. Once I’ve been through those, I’ll start working on the first draft. While I’m writing, I plaster my walls in visuals of the story – pictures I print out from the internet – of what I think my characters look like, the setting, symbols and motifs and anything else I think is relevant. I may also work on a Spotify playlist to help me write. The other thing I do is to brainstorm each chapter or scene before I write it.
Another thing I do, either before or after the first draft, is to write every single scene on cue cards and put them on display. This gives me a visual check of the novel’s structure. I can move the cards around to figure out which scene should come where and it also helps me discover if I need to delete any scenes or write some more.
I may go back and adjust my plotting diagram at this point but the main thing now is to finish the first draft. Once I’ve completed a draft, I’ll most likely rewrite it from scratch, bringing in the new scenes, deleting old ones or reworking the structure. This part of the process takes forever. While I’m doing the rewriting I’m also trying to make sure the point of view of the narrator is as strong as possible.
My next draft is what I call the ‘layering process’. By this I mean, I’ll go back and check the worksheets I completed earlier, and use these to layer in the characters motivations (external and internal), their characteristics, foreshadowing devices (now I know where the novel is going) and anything else I think is vital to the story.
My last few drafts are about tightening the narrative, tying up loose ends and doing a comprehensive read through of the whole book. At this point I may print it out and read it aloud. Then, and only then, will I think about sending it to an editor for an assessment.
How do you approach conducting research for your stories?
There are lots of questions to answer when writing historical fiction, but it’s often not the big historical events which ground an audience in the world the author’s creating, but the details. For instance, what did people eat for breakfast in 1880’s Victoria, what did the children write on, what readers did they use, what clothes did people wear, and how did a lighthouse work? Once I know what questions to ask, I use libraries, online searches, books, and visits to find the answers. I was fortunate that an exhibition of Victorian era clothing was on at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat when I was in the middle of researching my novel. The exhibition helped me visualise the dresses my main character wore compared with her lower-class compatriots and it helped me understand how bonnets were constructed.
As I said earlier, I spent a lot of time in the State Library of Victoria researching, but I also discovered their wonderful online resource called ‘Ask a Librarian’. You ask your research question through this service and, within a few days, the librarian has responded with a detailed answer which includes follow up resources and links. It’s such a great help and a valuable tool for any researcher.
A fun part of the research was, of course, visiting lighthouses. The story initially came from a visit I made with my family to the Wilson’s Prom lighthouse but I also visited other lighthouses so that I could immerse myself in the landscape. One of the most beautiful places I visited was the Cape Schanck Lighthouse on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. I based the lantern room of the Sentinel on the beautiful room at the top of this little lighthouse.
Describe your writing space
I grab opportunities to write where I can as I work full-time but, when I’m at home, I have a nook tucked away near the back of the house where I’ve set up a writing space. I put an armchair in there and a desk. The desk sits over the heater vent so I can’t use the excuse of being cold not to write!
I have my favourite childhood books in a little bookcase near the door. I’ve also put other special mementoes around the room, including my landscape photography books, my framed flamenco prints, and other favourite books.
What advice would you give a new author?
One of my biggest regrets is that I thought publication equalled success. Of course, I want people to read my work, that’s a large part of why I write but when I failed to find a publisher when I was in my 20s and 30s, I pretty much gave up. Finally, I decided, if I was going to do this thing (i.e. write a book), I needed to commit to the process with everything I had.
My biggest piece of advice for a new author would be, to always remember why you write. Write because you love it, because it helps you, because you want to tell a story, not because you want to be published. This may happen but don’t let the lack of publication spoil your love for writing. Never lose the joy it brings you and do everything in your power to protect this most precious part of who you are.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I adore flamenco dancing. I discovered it after watching the film ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and continued with it for close to 25 years. I still get out my castanets from time to time and am planning to fulfil a long-held dream to live in Granada, Spain.
I also love landscape photography. I love that it combines two great passions of mine: being in nature and being creative. I love getting lost in the process of photographing an awe-inspiring scene and it helps me remember what a wonderful world we live in.
Thank you to Jacqueline for sharing her inspiration with us. Now I want to go and visit these beautiful light houses myself. If you would like to check out her work, click on the links below.