Ep 332 Meet Christine Bell, author of ‘No Small Shame’.

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In Episode 332 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Christine Bell, author of No Small Shame. Discover how to use guest posting as a book promotion strategy. Learn 5 tips for writing a cracking thriller from L.A. Larkin! Plus, we have 3 copies of The Silence by Susan Allott to give away.

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Show Notes

How to guest post successfully: 6 tips for authors

So You Want To Be A Writer Block Party

5 top tips for thriller writing from author L.A. Larkin

Writer in Residence

Christine Bell

Christine Bell is a Melbourne fiction writer. Her debut novel No Small Shame is published by Ventura Press (Impact Press Imprint) through Simon and Schuster.

Christine has a long history of writing for children. Writing No Small Shame represented a shift to writing adult fiction and a desire to explore the challenges of ordinary women and how society and cultural expectations changed during the 20th Century.

In October 2019 she was awarded the inaugural HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Author. Christine was awarded a Varuna Creative Retreat Fellowship in 2014 for her YA historical manuscript Prison Boy. She holds a Master of Creative Writing (RMIT) and a Diploma of Arts – Professional Writing and Editing.

Christine is now working on her second adult historical novel: the story of a young Australian soldier who stays on in France after WW1 and the traumatic reason he refuses to go home.

Follow Christine Bell on Twitter

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WIN: The Silence by Susan Allott

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Thanks for joining us Christine.

 

Christine Bell

Thank you for having me Valerie.

 

Valerie Khoo

Congratulations on your debut novel, No Small Shame. Now for readers who haven't got a copy of your book yet, can you tell us what it is about?

 

Christine Bell

It is about a young Catholic immigrant who comes to Australia on the eve of World War I, believing that she is coming to a much better world with a lot more options and she has, but, and she is, in-love with a boy from her village. But once she arrives, she discovers that he is no longer interested in her, and in a very short time, she makes a very dreadful mistake and becomes pregnant to him and is forced into an unhappy marriage.

 

Valerie Khoo

So this is fiction, but it is inspired by your grandparents' history. Can you tell us about that?

 

Christine Bell

Yes. My great, great, my Great-Grandparents are from Ireland originally, and they travelled from Ireland to Bothwellhaugh in Scotland – which was a pit mining village in Lanarkshire. And they immigrated out to Australia to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine in 1913 and 1912. And I was researching the family history and went to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, and because I'd learned a lot about them and their background, I um, as I'm walking around the museum I kept hearing whispers, ‘There's a story here. There's a story here.' And um, yes. I went into a lot of research into steam ship journeys and Bothwellhaugh, and in a very short time Mary turned up and kept insisting on telling her story.

 

Valerie Khoo

That's great. So um, obviously you – I assume – you didn't know of your Grandparent's story when you were younger – only when you started learning about your family history that this came to the fore. Why were you researching your family history? And what age were you, you know, like when was this kind of thing? When you were quite young, or, or later, or what?

 

Christine Bell

No, I had actually started, um, doing another novel back in 2008, but I also wanted to know, to see if I could go back a few generations to find out more about my family. And, when this book kept insisting on being written, I had to put aside the book that I had begun at the beginning of the year and start researching this. But I didn't know much beyond the fact that they had come out to Australia.

I knew nothing really about what they did, and so, Mum, my Mother was able to fill me in on a few bits – but they didn't have a story as such. And when I went to research their story – a part from finding my Great-Grandfather's start and finish dates at the mine – there was nothing further. They didn't appear in newspapers or anything, so I had to make the actual story up. But I did use their journey from Scotland to Australia, and a little bit of honouring of the same steam ships that they came on. And sort of followed a similar path that they did.

 

Valerie Khoo

So, that was the seed of the idea and you brought forward the rest of the story from your imagination. How did that happen? Did you start with their story, or, or an equivalent of their story, and then start writing to see what was going to happen yourself, to discover it yourself? Or did you already kind of plan a story arc?

 

Christine Bell

No, I knew that it was going to be about Mary coming out to Australia and wanting to be with Liam, and him not wanting to be with her. But beyond that, it really had to grow quite organically – that's why it took so long. There were so many parts of it that developed after I thought I was finished the novel. At one stage, I thought I had finished, then I got some feedback that it didn't have a strong enough focus – either to be short and focused enough to be a literary novel, or quite there for the bigger story. It needed something more unique and it needed a focus – which absolutely threw me, because I thought the book was done.

So, I had to put it aside for two or three years and think about it. But I absolutely loved the characters and place, and the voice. And so, bit-by-bit, things began to come to me and I came to realise that it was also much a story about Mary's relationship with her mother. But what held me back for a long time was because I thought this was a story about ordinary people – I don't have, like, an iconic woman in history that is going to suddenly do a huge thing that is going to propel her into the limelight. But it took me a long time to actually work out that it was okay to write about ordinary people and ordinary lives, because it's important for us to know how we got to where we are, and not every woman was a suffragette or out there rebelling or doing things in a big way. There were many women who had to find their agency in very small ways.

 

 

Valerie Khoo

Mmm. And so, when you were writing it – so it was a while ago that you started it because you put it away for some years. But when you were writing that first draft, um, over what period of time was that? And did you, was that over a really, a very long period, or intense period, where you decided how you were going to achieve, you know, a certain amount of words per day or chapters per week, or whatever?

 

Christine Bell

Well I think in that in 2008 I'd written about 45, 40,000 words. And at the beginning of 2009, I tried to get as many words down as I could, because my Mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I wanted to get as far along as I could so she could read as much as possible. And, then there was not a lot of writing for about six months after that. I thought I was writing, but I realised later that I was really tweaking. And a lot of what I wrote, I had to go back and I had to lose because I had suddenly realised a lot of my characters were dying. And I realised why that was – it was the influence of what was going on in my personal life. But that wasn't going to make the book very good. So, that needed to be addressed.

Then in 2010, I started doing my Masters. So, the book – my manuscript – was my major project for my Masters’ Degree. But of course, that had a lot of components to it and a lot of work. So, you know, it didn't progress in pace, but I did think that I had finished it by the end of that Masters’ Degree. But it was a literary agent and a professional reader that made me realise I really needed to think about that. And, and partly I agreed too, because I realised I didn't really have a strong enough idea of what I wanted the novel to say. So, it did need that extra thought and time there. So, that was probably three, four years to get to that point. And then the break and then it was really intense when I went back to it and knew exactly what I wanted to do.

 

Valerie Khoo

How did you know what exactly you wanted to do? How did you get to that point?

 

Christine Bell

Well, I came to the conclusion that it was okay to write about ordinary people.

 

Valerie Khoo

Ahhh, okay.

 

Christine Bell

And once I knew that, I thought well, write this story as if it is something that has happened to someone. But I knew I had to go deeper to, into each of their backstories because it was important to me that even though it was Mary's story, I wanted the other characters to be very real people. And, it wasn't enough to have a mother who was dogmatic and stringent in her beliefs, and insistent on those without knowing exactly what formed those sorts and that attitude for her. And the same with Liam, he needed to have real motivations and reasons as to why he was the way he was.

 

Valerie Khoo

So, what um. I mean you started in 2008, that is tenacity to keep that going – to keep the desire, to get it published and going. What kept you going for the last 12 years?

 

Christine Bell

Well, I did write other things in the meantime – short ones and I wrote a YA novel. And during that two years' break, I wrote a YA novel and um.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes, but they only served to distract you. What kept you, you know, coming back to this?

 

Christine Bell

I really believed it was a good story. And, I, I knew I was in-love with it and I always believed that it was publishable. Um, I just needed to get it right. But I think I went through a stage of being afraid of sending it out too, and I hung onto it a lot longer than necessary.

 

Valerie Khoo

Right, yeah, yeah. And how did you get over that stage? Because I, i'm sure other listeners can relate.

 

Christine Bell

Well, a big part of it was realising the ticking clock and thinking look. And realising that I had, I was holding onto it too long and not being brave. And I put it in for review with a trusted source, and she was very, very enthusiastic about it and said, ‘This is an important story and it's, it's a really good read. And it is ready to go out, it's ready to be published.'

 

Valerie Khoo

Great. So, you bit the bullet. Now, can you just give listeners just a brief potted career history of your career so far? So that they can have an understanding of, you know, some context.

 

 

Christine Bell

Right, well. I'd always wanted to be a writer. But as a, when I was young, I had this idea that writers were born, not made. And there were no writing courses when I was young. You were either a journalist, or that was probably your only career path. Bt I got married quite young and then I had a family, and it wasn't until the kids were half-grown when I saw this sign as I was driving down the freeway one day, saying: ‘Do you want to be a writer?' in great big letters on a billboard. And I was like: yes, I do!

 

Valerie Khoo

Wow!

 

Christine Bell

I had to pull over and see what it was, and it was an advertisement for a professional writing and editing at a…

 

Valerie Khoo

It was literally a sign.

 

Christine Bell

Yes! A very big one. It was a substantial billboard too. I think I needed a big, strong whack over the head to actually get it. So I started doing that course and made up my mind that I had to, that if I had to be published before I completed the Diploma or otherwise it was telling me that I wasn't cut out to be a writer. Which was a terrible-

 

Valerie Khoo

That's bizarre.

 

Christine Bell

…terrible thing to do to yourself, but to put the pressure on myself to do that. But by the time I finished, I had two short fiction books published by Cengage Learning. And a couple of others on the way and that sort of set me on the way going on the path for writing short fiction for children which I did for quite a long time. But I also wrote a Young Adult novel that I started at that course and that went to acquisitions two or three times and didn't get through. And then, so I was pretty devoted to writing the kids' fiction for a long time and I wrote another couple of short novels. And then, it was interesting to watch though, as my children got older, what I, the characters that I was writing got older too. And my children are all well grown up now, and as they became older I found myself wanting more and more to write about women's issues and adult's issues.

 

Valerie Khoo

Right.

 

Christine Bell

So that was part of the change. And when I started doing my Masters’ I thought: you've always wanted to write novels – now is the time to start focusing.

 

Valerie

Apart from the research that you did initially about your grandparents. For the rest of the story, because it is set in a different time, what kind of research did you have to, to get that right and authentic?

 

Christine Bell

Beyond the Bothwellhaugh part in Scotland do you mean, or?

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. Just, what, you know, what was the butter of the day. Or whether milk was delivered in this size or this size. You know, that sort of thing.

 

Christine Bell

It's one of those things that it seems like nearly other, every other word you write in historical fiction in that era seemed to have to be investigated, because you also had a fine line between what might have been around then to what is around today – and those things changed quite significantly. So, there was a lot of um, a lot of googling, a lot of books. I went to um, the Historical Society in Wonthaggi – which has a substantial museum with a lot of artefacts of the day. But I've got various resources here like ‘Australia in the Good Old Days'. And one of them, like  ‘Australia in the Good Old Days' is a actually like a catalogue from one of the bg stores, and it's got all sorts of things in it from the pens they used to the ladies' clothing to the butter dishes – absolutely everything in it. It's just a brilliant resource.

 

Valerie Khoo

So yeah, apart from that?

 

 

Christine Bell

There was a lot of research into the War, even though it, it, it's not on the battlefront, and I don't cover that at all. That I did have to know what exactly was going on in the War to be able to weave that in – so that all had to be worked out for the time line and I had to know what was going on when and why. The Spanish Flu came into that era too, in the timeline of my story, so I had to research that. The clothing, the way the houses looked like at the time.

 

Valerie Khoo

So, how did you go about that? Did you do your research first? Or did you start writing and then you come across something that you think oh I need to check that, and then write yourself a note and check it later? Or research it as you went?

 

Christine Bell

If I was procrastinating, I researched at the time. But there were a lot of notes in the manuscript to check this and check that – and highlighting. I went to a lot of different places that had older houses and um, there's so much follow up. I erred in the first case, because I had a lot of bookmarks on the internet, and a lot of loose pieces and paper. And I have since learnt that it is super important to have a big spreadsheet, and every fact you check, record where you source-your source is from, and-

 

Valerie Khoo

Well done.

 

Christine Bell

Yes I, well, when I wanted to back and double check a lot of facts to make sure they were right – I released the err of my ways and how important it is to keep a really good track of what your sources and your resources are.

 

Valerie Khoo

Great. Um, so now this book is out – congratulations. What is next for you? What are you working on now?

 

Christine Bell

I am working on another war-time novel, but this one is set in the year to 18 months directly following World War I but it is set in France and the protagonist is an Australian soldier. And it is his story of um, his love for a French shop-girl and his dramatic reasons for not wanting to go home

 

Valerie Khoo

And what's this inspired by?

 

Christine Bell

I won't tell you what the question was. But I did a tour of the French battlefields, um, a few years ago and I asked a question on that tour and the answer fascinated me. But I came home to check into exactly what the background was and discovered there was quite a story there. So, but I can't really give it away at this stage exactly.

 

Valerie Khoo

That's alright. Now that you're on first draft, I assume – what does your writing day look like? Because you predominantly write fulltime. Do you know, do you clock in for a certain number of hours or certain number of words? What does it look like?

 

Christine Bell

Well, over the years it has changed. So um, up until this last promotional period in ‘No Small Shame', I was aiming for between 500 and 1000 words a day. And that has been going quite well, so I am very close to the end of that first draft – so it is not going to take 12 years this time. I am learning for, to go from, you know, very short fiction to um, a book that at one stage was 140,000 words long.

 

Valerie Khoo

So, are you a morning writer? Or an evening writer? Are you more productive at certain times of day?

 

Chrisitine

I, I tend to be more mornings now. But only because I am making it my discipline to sit down and write first, and not answer emails and not check social media. Uh, get that done, because otherwise I have been guilty of procrastinating all day. And for some reason at 3:30pm, it's like a switch flicks, and then out comes the 1000 words. But yeah, I do like to try and get it done.

 

Valerie Khoo

And uh, do you have any particular routine? Like work at a particular desk or have a cup of tea first? Or put on some music? Anything like that, anything to do with any writing rituals you might have. Or it doesn't, or you don't have any?

 

 

Christine Bell

Oh no, there has to be a cup of tea. It does have to be in one of two cups. And that's pretty well a constant all day – but I often call myself a tea-aholic. That's a good thing, it gets me up and down, which is good for us. I have an electric standing desk, that I have down in a seated position when I am actually writing. I can edit while I am standing up and I can email and do social media while I am standing up. But when I am sitting, when I'm actually writing a fresh scene, I need to be sitting down.

 

Valerie Khoo

And do you actually, ’cause I'll admit I have an adjustable standing desk – not a fancy electric, but it is very easy to put up and down. And 99% of the time it's down. are you a bit more rigorous in the variety in your, in the height of your desk?

 

Chrisitine

Look I can get a bit slack, but this does have, you know, you can adjust the settings. And I had spinal surgery three years ago, so I am a little more religious about trying to be, to look after my back – which is fine now – but it is really important. But in saying that, when I'm writing and it's down, I can be very aware sometimes my lack of good posture, as I am slumped over peering at the screen and all good intentions go out the window. But I must admit, this one has been a lot more inspirational, I used one with the pull up and pull down ones, but I find that a bit painful.

 

Valerie Khoo

And so finally, what's your advice for aspiring writers – your top three tips, you know, to writers who'd like to see their debut novel out one day?

 

Chrisitine

Persistence.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yeah well, yes, for sure.

 

Chrisitine

And um, also keep writing through all of the rejections because you'll have a body of work behind you then, you know, I always recall Elizabeth Jolly who took 20 years to get her first novel published but then everything she had written behind, before that, then got published. I could never have dreamt that it could take so long but, yes, I have learned that it can take a long time to, to keep writing through rejection and, and believe in yourself. And let it go – when it's ready, let it go!

 

Valerie Khoo

Oh yes. Yes. And well, congratulations on letting it go which you obviously, finally did. You put it out there into the world so everyone can check it out: ‘No Small Shame' by Christine Bell. Thank you so much for your time today Christine.

 

Christine Bell

Thank you Valerie.

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