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SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My novel BITTER GREENS (a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale) is being studied this semester at the University of Queensland. The class tutor (and one of my all-time favourite writers) Kim Wilkins asked me if it was possible to show the students some of the pages from my notebooks. 

I realised I had never posted about my working techniques for BITTER GREENS, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. 


I buy a new notebook whenever I begin a new book. Normally, I try and buy something really beautiful and special, but for BITTER GREENS I had been given a pile of plain black notebooks and I thought I had better use those first. 

To make them pretty and special, I stuck images on the front:


These are the covers for the notebook devoted to the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in 17th century Paris and Versailles and the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie in the French countryside. The paintings are not of Charlotte-Rose herself, but of anonymous 17th century French ladies that spoke to me somehow. This is the only image I was able to find of Charlotte-Rose de la Force:

This is the cover of my notebook for the scenes set in Renaissance Venice, which tell the story of Margherita (my maiden) and Selena Leonelli (my witch). The image is one of Titian's most famous paintings of the mysterious women who was his muse. It is called 'Woman with a Mirror' and you can see the original in the Louvre (I did!) 


The opening pages of my notebook - the pink stick-it note was from a dinner party where I met some Germans who told me the perfect place to set my Rapunzel scenes in the tower - Sirmione in Lake Garda.  I ended up setting this scenes a few miles away at Rocca del Manerba:


Some early pages from my notebook.

It is always very important to me that I plan my key turning points as early as possible in the writing process. I try and find the underlying pattern in the story, which is a process I find very exciting and liberating - it helps me know my key emotional beats, and the scenes which I wish to foreshadow early in the story. BITTER GREENS was a complicated story, so I created a graph like this for each of my major characters - seeing where their stories intersected and how many words each section should be. I often change my graph as the story develops and I learn more about my story - in which case, I draw this diagram again and again, as I try to understand the key underpinnings of the story's architecture.  

These are the opening lines of BITTER GREENS, written longhand in my notebook. I often write key scenes longhand first, to slow myself down and think through what I want to say. Typing is an amazing technological breakthrough for writers, but it can lead to quick and facile writing. I like to write slow and deep and thoughtful at times - usually for my most important scenes or when a line or paragraph is causing me trouble and always, always, always, when I am writing poetry.


I have a very visual imagination, so I like to be able to "see" things before I describe them. Consequently I am always sticking in maps, diagrams, and photos into my notebooks, or drawing little maps for myself (this sketch is of Margherita's tower)

An early chapter outline


Lists of characters


Random pages I thought you might find interesting


My notebooks are not particularly pretty - my handwriting is awful and my drawings even worse. They are, however, a record of the creative process from the earliest ideas through to the finished product. I date my pages, keep a record of my word counts, and say where I am when I am working on that page (Paris, Venice, Florence and the south of France all feature in these pages.) 

Writing BITTER GREENS was an extraordinary experience for me. No book I have written has ever dug so deeply into who I truly am. 

 I have written a lot on my blog about Bitter Greens - I hope you will go and explore further! Or take a look at my Pinterest pages on Titian's paintings of his muse, Rapunzel  or my inspirational pinboard for BITTER GREENS

But - most of all - I hope you love the book!

Karen Nicol commented on 18-Mar-2015 03:01 PM
OMG. Just read your post and scrolled through your notebook pages. I have always wanted to write and life has always got in the way. I have notebooks where I have jotted down ideas, drawn sketches and included photos and clippings very similar to what you have done. I have always assumed my methods were old fashioned and writers don't work like that. I am humbled to find that you do this also. The difference is that I have never followed through with anything. You have motivated me beyond belief. I have collections (not ordered or filed) of places, people, objects, ideas etc that I mean to set up as a fantasy file (would you believe I even keep lists of possible character names!). Considering joining Australian Writers Centre so some day becomes a reality. Thank you for sharing this insight into your writing process.
Karen Nicol
Linda Henry commented on 18-Mar-2015 03:03 PM
Thank you so much for sharing this.
I think your note book is beautiful :)
Doug Miles commented on 19-Mar-2015 01:06 AM
It amazing to see the creative process laid out like this, Kate. I agree fully with the longhand writing approach - I have to write my poetry to same way. I'll often craft a poem, or part thereof, in my head first, mull over it for while, turn it around and upside down, trying to see if it is going to work, if it is worthwhile. Sometimes I'll realise that the premise is flawed, the structure doesn't work, or it is just crap. If it seems to be working ok, then I hand write what I have into a notebook to give myself "tinkering room". Play with it, change it, add to it, polish it, and only commit it to type when it is ready. I have experimented with going straight to type but it rarely works as well.
Cynthia Naden commented on 19-Mar-2015 02:58 AM
Thanks so much for sharing. So very motivational - needed this to get my BIC!
All the best to you!!!!!
Tina commented on 20-Mar-2015 01:03 AM
So fascinating. Thank you Kate for sharing and for the wonderful Bitter Greens. xx
Joe Simington commented on 24-Mar-2015 02:59 PM
Being one of those Uni of Qld students studying your book, I'm finding this incredibly informative and really appreciate seeing how all that 'idea slush' that goes on when writing, can be splashed onto the page. Thanks for sharing!
Jess Brown commented on 25-Mar-2015 03:07 PM
Bitter greens is such as good book and it's always interesting to see a writer's process. It adds a whole other dimension to studying the book (in Kim's class). Thanks
Aurora Hill commented on 25-Mar-2015 11:05 PM
Thank you so much. That was wonderful. Naked, messy thoughts. I am also in Kim's class, and have just finished the novel. I particularly love that we got to know who La Strega was, and how she got to be. I loved living with her, learning the craft, and dealing with plague...That sounds strange!
I really loved seeing one particular thing in your notes- "Why?" scrawled everywhere! :) This is what I do, and it's exciting to see someone who is writing such beautiful, successful work talking to herself the way I do. :)
Thankyou again. It is a beautiful story.

Erin Kelly commented on 26-Mar-2015 04:23 AM
This was such an insight and I thank you very much! I'm in Kate's class at UQ and thoroughly enjoyed the "how to" class we had this week. I'm not quite finished BITTER GREENS yet, but what I've read has been so thoroughly researched and is so meticulously detailed in regards to the time and place that I fell in love in the early pages easily. The storytelling in the book makes it feel like a dream for me, it really does. I love it but back on topic, it was so fantastic to see your workbooks and I thank you again for that. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who makes such a right mess in them! ;)
Kate Ferrett commented on 26-Mar-2015 11:09 AM
Hi Kate
I'm one of Kim's students who is also reading this amazing work. Kim has had us also thinking about clothing of the period to do some "cosplay" in the lecture and I've found that visualising your story and the clothing your characters wear (thank you for the amazing description of the court garments and many undergarments) has really added depth to the story. The horror of moving from elegant French silks to the scratchy tactile terrors of the nun's habit has been particularly affecting for me.

Thank you for sharing your process with us.
Jeff commented on 27-Mar-2015 06:03 PM
Hi Kate. I'm studying Bitter Greens under Kim's course - this intimate snapshot of your creative process is illuminating. I'm sure it will make aspiring writers less self-conscious about their notebook scribbles too!

The novel itself is quite something. Suffice to say I'll be meaning to pick it up in a few months and read through it again.

Best wishes from a new fan.
Meg commented on 31-Mar-2015 01:30 PM
Kate, I enjoyed Bitter Greens immensely - thank you for creating this incredible book allowing me to sink into the pleasure and complexity of these characters and worlds. As I read the final pages, I was torn between the desire to keep reading and the urge to take it slow to make the story last. It is fascinating to see the insights into your creative process you have shared here, and to discuss them with students. Meg x
Kate Forsyth commented on 01-Apr-2015 03:35 PM
Thank you all so much for your lovely comments - I'm glad that you have all enjoyed BITTER GREENS and that you found my very messy notebook interesting and inspiring. I do love the process of creativity - the early ideas and the way they change and grow. Best of luck with all your own endeavours!

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