Writing Insider – Catherine McCullagh

Catherine discusses what led her to become a writer of historical fiction and how she researches and develops her work for publication.

Starting out

Why did you start writing?

I started as an editor, a field in which I worked for over twenty years and absolutely loved.  I also did some ghost writing, by which I mean I took scraps of stories, usually memoir or biography, and rewrote them using the voice of the storyteller. I think it was the success of these stories that eventually persuaded me that I could write my own. Then a story came to me, annexed my mind, settled in and became an obsession and that was it — I simply had to write it!

How did you go about it?

I just wrote. I don’t have a laptop, so I just use my PC and, if I travel, I take a series of notebooks with me and several pens and just scribble away. I tried courses but couldn’t find any I liked or that suited me. I quickly realised that I was far happier just writing the story as it came to me. It was very much a case of learning by doing.

What stories, worlds or characters were you writing in the early days of your writing journey?

And to what purpose?

Because the bulk of my editing work had been in military history, it was probably inevitable that I would write war stories. I was also fascinated by the accounts of ordinary people in what can only be described as extraordinary circumstances. I began with my ghost-written stories. The second of these required me to write the story of a woman I had never met who grew up in a place I had never visited and which had ceased to exist after World War II, and to follow the story of a life I could barely imagine. I had so little information that it became almost historical fiction, except that the skeletal account of the woman’s life was absolutely true. The book was War Child, which was published in 2016 and also translated into German as the central figure had grown up in a tiny German village close to the Polish border. This was the book that really taught me what I could do.

Who or what inspires you?

Stories inspire me. I read a great deal of non-fiction, often about ordinary people responding to challenging times. I love the tiny teasers, the subtle asides and the brief mentions in footnotes of those whose stories have never been told, but sound fascinating. I have chased these stories and discovered events, movements and personalities that have disappeared from the history books or never really been documented. These often form the inspiration for the stories that I write.

What kept you going?

I’m probably manic. I would write all day, every day, if I could. But I recognise that stories need time to breathe and so I start the day with a walk and then take plenty of breaks as I work so that the path I’m following can develop, take form and become a reasonable part of whatever plot I’m constructing. It’s also difficult to run a family, house, pets, cars and a social scene if you do nothing but write, and husbands and children have an irritating need to be fed on a regular basis.

Writing practice

What did your writing practice look like in the beginning?

I squeezed my writing in around my editing jobs and tried to balance one against the other. It was an exercise in self-discipline and I’m only grateful it wasn’t assessed as I would probably have failed. It was also an exercise in frustration as all I really wanted to do was write.

What does your writing practice look like when you are working on a book?

Extremely untidy. I surround my PC with the tools of my trade: scribbled notes on old exercise books, dictionaries, random scraps of paper with sudden bits of inspiration and reference books. Then I just write — madly and obsessively. I always have a plot line to follow, although the ending may be hazy and the plot and characters invariably change. Much of the time I find myself playing catch-up as the plot sprints and I am a terrible typist. Sometimes I simply have to stop and scribble or I will lose an idea.

What does your writing practice look like in the between times?

I really don’t have between times. I gave up editing when my workplace restructured two years ago and now I just write. So I probably break every rule in the writing manual as I always have more than one story on the go at any one time. But, you see, I need that. I need to finish the draft of a book and then work on a completely different book so that my mind can distance itself from the first book. Then, when the draft of the next book is finished, I return to the first with a sense of longing, of excitement, of being reunited with something I love.

What are your obsessions if any?

I’m probably obsessed with World War II — don’t ask me why as my military history editing almost always focused on World War I, Vietnam, Korea and just a smattering of books on World War II. But my writing has been almost exclusively focused on the period from 1940 to 1946 and on women in a mix of occupations: nurses, showgirls and dancers, secretaries, housewives, Red Cross searchers. My main characters have tended to be both men and women, although my next story will feature a male central protagonist for the first time. I’m quite excited with that development … although I can’t explain where it came from!

The beginning of a book

How did you come to writing your book?

My first novel, Dancing with Deception, just came to me. I have no idea where it came from, although I recall feeling annoyed at some of the myths associated with the French resistance and decided that someone needed to write about resisters who were not brave and noble for a change. So I wrote the story of an Australian nurse who finds herself in Paris when the Germans invade and is pretty much blackmailed into working for the resistance, who are shady, bloodthirsty, vengeful and altogether unattractive characters. The Germans were far nicer to her, which made her question her own loyalties and, by the way, she was working for the Red Cross and was supposed to be neutral. What fun! This is what I love about writing — the ability to turn mainstream expectations upside down and then play with the result. It’s absolutely addictive.

How did you know what you were working on was going to become a book?

Having worked as an editor for so many years, I had some idea of what publishers were looking for. But, at the same time, I wrote Dancing for me — it was a piece of pure indulgence because I loved the story so much. So, at that point, I didn’t care whether it was ever published. It was only later, having polished and refined it (and cut about 20,000 words from the back story), that I wondered whether it would find a home. Fortunately the publisher I was editing for was expanding his range and his manuscript reader loved it.

What was your writing process?

At the time I wrote my first book I was madly juggling family and work while also trying to write. My children were still in school, my husband was overseas with the Army and I was editing full-time. At that point I generally wrote from 9.00 pm to midnight and was surprisingly productive. But it was a hard slog and it took me a long time to finish the story and complete all the necessary research.

When did you know you had a first draft?

I always write the story through from start to finish, no matter how poorly formed the plot or how pedestrian the prose. I have to write it all down or I’ll lose it. But once the plot is there, even if the ending is a tad vague, I can start again from the beginning and I know where I’m going. That’s the best part, the surge of excitement as a story takes form. This draft then becomes the main draft, the master copy, the skeleton that I work on fleshing out — and I love detail, so the next phase takes me quite some time.

What about research

What sort of research did you have to do to develop this work?

My research is lengthy, painstaking and very time-consuming. But it is also enthralling. I love details and, because I write historical fiction, I need to get the details right. Just creating a family home, an elaborate dinner, a journey from one country to another, can mean weeks of intensive research and can also produce surprising results and, yes, the inevitable tangents! I love diaries, biography and memoir as they invariably provide the sort of mundane detail that populates the settings in my books.

How did you balance the process of writing and researching?

The plot comes first for me — always. I write the story — as far as I know it, that is — then I start from the beginning once again using a process not unlike colouring-in. I look at every scene, every protagonist, every movement and I research what people are wearing, eating, smoking and holding in their hands before turning to the setting and doing the same. Once I have enough detail — and there is such a thing as too much detail, so discipline is required here — I turn back to the process of refining the writing and the plot itself.

Did the research change the shape of the book? If so, how?

Sometimes the research does change the shape of the book. For example, it is often not possible for people to travel in time of war. I have to be very careful to stay within the boundaries imposed by my setting because my books are set either during World War II or in its immediate aftermath. I have often had to change the location of particular scenes because of the difficulty of moving my characters to that place. Then there’s rationing, which dictates what people can wear, eat or even what cigarettes they smoke — and there was a shortage of matches in England during the war. Petrol was heavily rationed and there was no leather for shoes in Paris. The blackout made it difficult for people to drive at night and the Blitz made it extremely dangerous. My characters complain a great deal about rationing and the blackout, all behaviour determined by the time in which they live.

Developing the work

What was your drafting process?

My drafting process is quite simple really. I write it all down, fill in the detail and then take the axe to it once it’s complete. One story topped out at 237,000 words which was clearly too long. So I killed six characters and plenty of darlings. I also rewrote the ending five times to see which one I liked best. While it was fun at the time, it is a seriously difficult business to kill your darlings and I was very sorry to see these go. But it was for the best. The story is now a very streamlined 156,000 words which would certainly be far more acceptable to my publisher and also to readers, I suspect. I had to be quite ruthless with myself as I was quite precious about some of the scenes I cut. But, once they were gone, I recognised that the story was far better without them.

What helped you along the way?

Having my own writing space and having time — even in short bursts — when I was left alone to create. I also relish my morning walks as these provide valuable thinking time. We’re fortunate enough to live close to bushland and there are myriad tracks we can follow that take us away from people and human habitation. This provides me space to think, to simply focus on wherever I am with a particular story at the time and to solve any problems in plotting that crop up.

How and when do you address the craft of the work?

I work on the craft of writing as I go and refine it in subsequent drafts. Inevitably I’m unhappy with the standard of writing in the first draft, but that’s because it’s all about the plot at that stage. I can refine the writing at a later stage once the plot is fairly settled and the detail is there.

Who do you go to for help?

I have several beta readers who see my late-stage drafts. These are long-time friends, people whose advice I trust and who I know will provide honest comments. One is a professional editor, but none of the others are connected in any way to the publishing industry. Using beta readers is really valuable and I would never submit a manuscript to my publisher without sending it out for comment first. I have changed entire plotlines based on the reaction of a beta reader — sometimes only they can make the scales fall from your eyes!

And how do you take on other people’s points of view?

I’m very happy to listen to the views of others, although of course it’s always difficult to swallow criticism, particularly if you know it’s unjustified. Not every reader will understand your book and I’ve learned to just grin and bear it. There are some authors who never read reviews of their work and I really understand that. But I feel there’s plenty to learn from the views of readers, so I tend to read all the reviews of my books.

How do you know when the work is ready to submit?

That’s tricky. My father, also an author, used to say that a book needed 100 drafts to be ready for publication. I certainly go through my drafts 100 times changing and refining as I go. But I do reach the stage where I feel I have made all my changes and that the story is ready to tell. Then it goes to my beta readers. Once their comments are back, I adjust the manuscript if necessary and then let it sit for a few weeks before reading it again. If, at this stage, I have made no more changes, I will send it to my publisher’s manuscript reader. She reads it, usually accepts it (to this point, anyway!) and then she will develop a publishing schedule. This means I generally know when the final manuscript has to be submitted. But there was one book which I think suffered from a shortened process in which the publisher suddenly announced that he needed the manuscript. This meant I was completing the final proofing in a hurry and I’m sure I missed something.

Agents and publishers

How did you get your first book published?

I decided to try pitching my book to publishers and received a lukewarm response. Yes, they liked the book, but no-one was publishing historical fiction set in World War II featuring women at that time (can you believe that??!!). In the end it was the manuscript reader at the publishing house I was editing for who asked if I had written anything of my own. From there it was a short step to publication because they knew me and they knew my work as an editor and she really liked the book.

Do you have any advice on putting together a pitch package?

You don’t need an agent, although having one probably helps. I recently pitched a ghost-written book to a series of publishers (it was true crime, so out of my usual genre) and I found that it helped to have read widely in the genre you’re pitching towards. That way you can list comparable titles, particularly any that may have been published by the company you are targeting. There are plenty of publishers who will accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s a matter of trawling the various websites and finding out when to submit your manuscript. It’s important that the covering letter (if applicable) is well written and that the manuscript is in the most perfect state you can manage. And find an edge. My book was true crime, a double murder in Queanbeyan of all places, so I argued that this would have tremendous local appeal. We’re a ghoulish lot here!

Any advice on rejection?

Don’t be too disheartened. Remember J.K. Rowling received a dozen rejections for her first Harry Potter novel. Rejection simply means your book didn’t suit that publisher. Typically, publishers follow trends, so what didn’t suit the market this year, may well suit it next year — as I discovered with my first book. These days you can’t count the number of novels set in World War II with a female primary protagonist! So keep trying. Don’t limit yourself to the major publishers, try small publishing houses as well. You can also try self-publishing as many authors do these days. Sometimes a big publisher will pick up a book that was initially self-published as they consider the story has been market-tested. So that’s also worth considering.

Acquisition to publication

How, if at all, did your work change in the hands of a publisher?

My publisher decided that my titles should follow a pattern: Dancing with Deception; Secrets and Showgirls; Love and Retribution … you get the drift. I’m happy enough to play along as they know far more about marketing than I do and title is important in marketing. They also have a great deal of influence over the cover design. Fortunately, I have good designers who will listen to me. But I’m not sure that’s the case with every publisher.

What do you wish you knew about the publishing process before you were published?

I wish I had known just how much marketing the author is expected to do as I would have applied myself a little earlier. Instead I played frantic catch-up for the last year or two, learning about social media and how to market a book. Fortunately I have adult children who can explain the complexities of social media in words of one syllable. And the rest? I complete any online courses that the various author associations offer. I also accept any offers from writing groups to publicise my book in return for publicising theirs. It can only help!

And, overall

What was the hardest thing about writing and bringing this book into the world?

Letting go. Handing over the book that you have created, slaved over, loved and cherished for several years is extremely difficult — in fact, it’s like losing a member of your immediate family. It’s also difficult to see social media posts about the best books by Australian authors, what’s trending at the time, etc, etc and not see your book mentioned. You just have to get used to the fact that your book will not suit everyone. But that shouldn’t diminish the joy you experience in creating a wonderful story with truly memorable characters. That is an extraordinary achievement.

What has been the most joyful part of the process?

Having people contact me to tell me how much they enjoyed my books. I love talking about my characters, plotlines, research, anything to do with those books I so enjoyed creating. And of course, the process of creating those books brings me infinite joy. I was serious when I wrote earlier that I could sit and write all day, every day. It is the purest, most sublime form of escapism.


Catherine McCullagh, Author

Catherine McCullagh trained as a history and language teacher, spent twenty years in the Australian Army and then left to establish herself as a freelance editor. Fifteen years later, inspired by the extraordinary stories that surrounded her, she embarked on a new career, this time as a writer.

She has published three non-fiction works, Willingly into the Fray, War Child and Unconquered. Her first historical novel, Dancing with Deception, was followed by Secrets and Showgirls and her latest work, Love and Retribution. Catherine lives in Canberra, Australia, and loves bushwalking, reading and travelling to exotic locations.


Love and Retribution, Catherine McCullagh
Historical fiction. Blue Sky Publishing, 2022
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It’s 1943 and young widow Emmy Penry-Jones discovers two men washed up on the beach below her house in Cornwall. But these men are not like the shipwrecked sailors she has rescued before and Emmy is drawn into a web of intrigue that will truly test her. Rocked by accusations of war crimes against a man she knows to be innocent, she races to defend him, aware that the accusers could turn on her. The trial marks a turning point and Emmy is drawn into a deadly cycle of post-war retribution from which only one man can save her.

Secrets and Showgirls, Catherine McCullagh
Historical Fiction. Blue Sky Publishing, 2021

Dancing with Deception, Catherine McCullagh
Historical Fiction. Blue Sky Publishing, 2017