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Research on the road

December 5th, 2016

Eleanor

Now that it is summer here in Australia I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have two summers this year, and that I have yet to write about the research I did for my novel in the United States in July. I have taught a few seminars about researching for writing and spoken to many writer friends about this over the years, but I haven’t written about how I use different types of research while writing a novel. So here goes.

My initial purpose of travelling to the US was to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop, but once I was well into the draft of this novel I realised how worthwhile it would be to research the gaps in my story as well. I am writing a novel about a war bride from Australia who meets and marries an American GI during World War II and subsequently moves to the US. Through Dr Robyn Arrowsmith, author of the fascinating social history All The Way To The USA: Australian WWII War Brides, I was introduced to several WWII war brides, two of whom I was able to visit with during my trip.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

First I flew into Los Angeles, for the dual purpose of visiting an old friend and to see the Queen Mary,
a retired ocean liner from the Cunard line which was used as a troop ship during WWII and also transported war brides from the UK to the USA after the war was over in 1946. While the Queen Mary was never used to transport Australian war brides, the original art deco interiors were similar to some of the ships which Australian war brides sailed on. The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach now as a hotel and tourist site, and my friend (who was eight months pregnant and had a two-year-old in tow) was kind enough to share me with the ship. We stayed on board (though she had heard it was haunted). We didn’t see ghosts, but I was delighted to see that the cabins were largely unchanged, with original built-ins and taps in the bathroom for seawater or freshwater.

To write a novel I have to inhabit a character, and so much of this means imagining myself in situations they might have been in, placing myself in environments similar to those they experienced. This allows the detail of their life to creep through my imaginings. It’s a kind of talismanic research – where the things around me are what allow me to inhabit them. Just walking around the areas of the ship – the infirmary, the bridge, the engine room, the ballrooms – I was able to get a sense of what three weeks at sea on such a vessel for my character would have been like.

The SS Jeremiah O'Brien

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien

Once I left Long Beach behind I travelled to San Francisco, staying by Fisherman’s Wharf, where the (fictional) war bride I am writing about sailed into in 1946 from Sydney. I walked around the Hyde Pier with its historic ships and then over to the SS Jeremiah O’Brien a WWII Liberty troopship which also carried war brides at one point. The SS O’Brien was such a stark contrast to the Queen Mary – it is a utilitarian ship in every way – purely built for the purposes of war. While in San Francisco I took a tourist ferry on the harbour, simply to get that perspective of what it was like to approach the city from the sea.

Little details like what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like from underneath are important to me. The war brides I have spoken to and those I have read interviews with emphasise how the journey was such an adventure – and how it was like they were seeing the world for the first time.

From San Francisco I took the commuter train to visit my first war bride, Mrs Dorothy Pence Berry in San Jose. Her daughter Beverley picked me up from the station and drove me to Dorothy’s house. When she was 19 Dorothy met American Naval Petty Officer Roy Pence in Brisbane. They married in 1943 and she had already had her daughter Beverley when she got passage on the troop ship SS General Mann to the US in December 1944. The war was still on and she remembers the mines they dodged at sea, and the bunk she shared with her baby. At night the whole ship would be in blackout, and there were no facilities for babies, no baby food, and only 27 war brides and 10 babies on board.

The Golden Gate Bridge from beneath.

The Golden Gate Bridge from beneath.

Beverley prepared a beautiful lunch for us while Dorothy told me about her journey, about her memories of Australia and the difficulties she faced as a new war bride in the US. She showed me photographs and her Australian memorabilia, and it struck me how memories of a place can suspend it in time, so that it is as much that place as that time in your life that you miss.

“Australia will always be home to me,” Dorothy said, showing me her Arnott’s biscuit tins. She has imbued her children with this love, one lives in Australia, another is the president of the US World War II War Brides Association, and another has a travelling exhibition of war bride wedding dresses.

After San Jose I returned to San Francisco to take the train up to Portland for the writing workshop and to meet another war bride. First I was going to catch up with a few friends, and they were curious as to why I insisted on taking the Coast Starlight Amtrak rather than flying – why take a 22-hour train when I could take a (less than) two-hour flight? More research, I insisted, since my character took a train across the US after sailing into San Francisco. It had been many years since I took a long distance train journey and though I know it is different now, I wanted to immerse myself in that pace again – the way the scenery passes and the time takes on a different quality. The sounds, the dining cars and the restrooms and the way strangers talk to one another– no one is rushed and stressed like we are in airports or on freeways.

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The view out my window on the Coast Starlight train.

To prove this point, the train was delayed about six hours and no one even seemed to mind (besides my poor friends waiting for me in Portland). There was a band travelling across the US playing music on the train, a Santa Claus impersonator and a woman who was taking her stuffed teddy bear across the US and taking photographs of him in different scenic spots. The Amtrak staff were some of the friendliest I’ve met, and while it’s probably not a good option if you’re in a hurry, I loved my slow journey up the coast.

After visiting with my dear, patient friends and checking in to my dormitory at Reed College, I had one more war bride to meet in Portland. I met Mrs Joann Patterson and three of her five children for brunch at a French restaurant in Portland. She met her American serviceman, Joe Patterson in Melbourne in 1942, when he followed her and her friend out of a restaurant and then waited for her outside of the night school class she was attending. Joann joined the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service in the Signal Corps) and Joe was relocated to Townsville. They got to know one another by letter and he would come and find her when he could get leave. They married in 1944 in Brisbane and honeymooned for a week before having to part again. They didn’t see each other again for 16 months, until she sailed into San Francisco aboard the Monterey. He was driving across the country from Ohio to pick up his bride, but his car broke down en route and he was not there when the brides disembarked from the ship. Luckily he was able to call a friend, who drove up from San Jose and picked up Joann the day after the ship had pulled into port. Joe arrived the next day. Joann and her children and grandchildren have travelled to Australia many times, partly because her husband Joe (who was in the US Air Force) went on to become a commercial airline pilot.

Looking out over the deck of the Queen Mary, beneath a lifeboat.

Looking out over the deck of the Queen Mary, beneath a lifeboat.

Joann had me to her house at the end of my week in Portland and cooked dinner for me and three of her children, no small feat for a 92-year-old. While she had her own difficulties as a war bride fitting in to her husband’s Catholic family, she was also keenly aware that her experience was easier than many because she was able to fly back to Australia frequently to visit. Her children all feel closely connected to Australia and have kept in contact with relatives there.

While the main character of my novel is not based on either of the war brides I interviewed or any one particular story I read, I felt as though speaking to these generous and adventurous women gave me so much insight into the story I was writing, the motivations and the challenges, the implications for future generations. I was lucky to have been invited into their homes, to have heard their stories and seen their old photographs and newspaper clippings.

I can read until my eyes are tired, but to hear these women tell their stories given an extra dimension to the book I am writing – this is the kind of research that no library can hold.

Funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Creative Individuals Career Fund allowed me to travel to the USA.

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