We sat down and had a chat to authors,
Jane Stevens and Belinda Dettmann, about their book Agnes the Secret Princess: An Australian Story. We wanted to know a little bit more about what drove them to write this historical non-fiction
tale and how it has impacted their lives.
Here, Belinda and Jane share a little
about their writing journey with us…
ABOUT THE AUTHORS…
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourselves?
What did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?
JANE: My interests have always been artistic. I learned the piano from the age of four; I was considering a classical ballet career; I learned other instruments at school; and in my final years at High School became interested in art and design. I left school wanting to be an architect. In terms of writing, I have always been a creative writer. I will never forget sitting for the ‘Entrance Exam’ into Abbotsleigh High School and worrying about my mathematical ability yet getting completely absorbed in the creative writing piece which was set for us in that exam. I ended up winning a scholarship, I believe on the basis of that piece.
BELINDA: When I grew up I really wanted to be a statistician. Although only moderate at maths I have always loved numbers and the patterns they make. I also like solving puzzles so I turned out to be a natural scientist. I made a career as a biometrician (biometry is the application of statistics to a wide range of topics in biology) – I designed experiments, analysed results, and interpreted what those results meant in collaboration with scientists in the fields of agricultural science, genetics, and wildlife biology.
I have also been a computer programmer, a geneticist, an agricultural scientist and a wildlife biologist. In retirement I have become a genealogist, member of the International Society of Genetic Genealogists (ISOGG), and an expert on the use
of DNA tests to investigate ancestry.
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT (MS) and THE WRITING PROCESS…
Can you describe your manuscript in 100 words?
BELINDA: We have spent years verifying the family legend that our great great grandmother Agnes Dettmann, nee Kroll, was the illegitimate daughter of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, later Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, and his sweetheart, Princess Elisa Radziwill of Poland.
After much research and a number of crucial DNA tests the legend has become fact, and our book was published in January 2015.
It connects an Australian dynasty to controversial historical events in Europe and it represents 20 years of research into our own family history. It includes expert DNA analysis alongside a personal journey wrapped up in a ripping yarn.
What prompted you to start writing?
JANE: The story haunted my childhood, and was a family secret; in fact, the working title was ‘Pas Devant Les Enfants’ which was what we children heard whenever the grown-ups were discussing this behind closed doors. It was a curious mixture of pride and shame, which came through at these early times of my youth. We have to realise that in Australia we had two world wars against the Germans, and people changed their names and kept silent about German ancestry, though there is and always will be the intrigue of a ‘European royal connection’.
Belinda and I became fascinated at both the idea of this secret and the way it was kept yet subtly perpetuated, so we determined to do the hard yards of research and get to the bottom of it. The ball started rolling with Mary Barrett, our father’s cousin and then the Who Do You Think You Are? SBS programme with our cousin Geoffrey Robertson. This programme launched the research into a full scale project which led us to further information and even led me to research overseas in Germany, Poland and Russia.
Can you tell us a little bit about what made you write this particular story?
JANE: The ‘story’ is non-fiction and is the result of years of detailed research, mainly by Belinda and as described above.
We have a strong feeling of commitment in sharing a history that is ours, yet is more universal; a kind of responsibility really.
Once we became aware of the story we felt it added to European history, whilst making an amazing royal connection with Australia.
BELINDA: The story started as a factual description of what we knew about Agnes’s ancestry. But it was such an intriguing mystery, with hints of wealth, royalty, cover-ups, and then flight to Australia, that it was crying out for the full story to be told – if we could find it!
What genre would you say your writing would fit into?
BELINDA: It’s a mix: history, family history, biography, perhaps even fictional biography. When we started to write the book we thought it might be described as fictional biography but as we learned more about what had actually happened it became much more history and biography and less fiction.
JANE: As our first book there was always the problem of the proportion of non-fiction and fiction due to the need to interpret some facts in the story as well as some supposition. Whilst the book is substantially non-fiction, we have tried to bring it to life from a simple historical account, to give some colour and texture to the ‘characters’.
How long have you been writing?
And how long have you been writing this particular MS?
BELINDA: I have been writing scientific reports since University days and I have more than 50 publications in my list. We started writing this book in 2011 when we realised that Princess Elisa Radziwill must have been Agnes’s mother.
JANE: Writing on this scale is fairly new to me, though I do write a lot in my everyday life and about many issues. I love putting words on paper.
How did your manuscript develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process?
BELINDA: Jane was the organiser and ideas person and I did the research and a lot of the writing. We reviewed and rewrote continually throughout the process and the manuscript just grew and grew. We began to write the book from the viewpoint of what we believed had happened, although we couldn’t prove it.
Then we had just reached the stage of being ready to publish when I got the results of some DNA tests that confirmed our relationship to Prince Wilhelm and Princess Elisa. So we changed the emphasis of the book from what we thought had happened to what must have actually happened, all at the last minute.
JANE: The process was, frankly, agonising. Whilst Belinda and I make a great creative team, our writing styles are quite different. I was initially insecure about my ability to contribute, but gradually the problem of ‘two voices’ became blended and solved. It is now hard for people to go through the book and say who wrote which.
When you write, do you have to jot down all your ideas first
or do they come to you as you go? What is your process?
JANE: Both. The initial plan for the book was entirely mine; I made a list of chapter headings, which followed the real time events. After that it was a matter of filling in the blanks and writing the story, we then added historical explanations to cast more light on the time period and the thoughts and views that were current in the day – it is sometimes difficult to look from a modern perspective at what people several hundred years ago were going through and why.
BELINDA: Jane jotted down our ideas and gave us an overall outline, as a starting point, then I dived in to write a few scenes and we let it develop from there. As I got the factual bit of the story written, Jane might be inspired to write a vignette, or imagined contribution by one of our characters. Later, after Jane had been to Europe, she wrote the chapter that told the story of her search for our ancestors in Russia and Poland.
What happened in writing that you didn’t expect would happen?
BELINDA: We had a lot of disconnected bits of evidence about Agnes’s life, and I set up a timeline of what had happened to her, and what was happening to the other protagonists. Then as I started to write a sensible narrative I kept seeing connections that we hadn’t realised were there. I would tell Jane about these and she would often come up with further suggestions or revelations. In some ways the story began to shape itself. It was quite eerie, and the more we wrote the more we became convinced that we were on the right track. We kept noticing little tiny facts that fitted our ideas like a glove. We didn’t make these up – they were already there, waiting to be noticed. There are still a few blank areas in the story which we have pointed out, or filled with what we suspect really happened, but these got fewer and fewer as we wrote more and found out more.
JANE: I found my voice. My sister’s admirable attention to detail and amazing historical knowledge and understanding meant many pyjama-clad meetings, discussions, think-tank and revelatory ideas which sometimes came from absolutely nowhere.
Why did you decide to pursue publishing and ultimately self-publishing?
BELINDA: We had considered self-publishing from the start, and we found a local printer who helps authors to self-publish. He gave us the name of our first editor, and she thought the story was worth publishing with a bit more revision, so on her advice we submitted the manuscript to the various Australian publishers who accepted such submissions online. This delayed things for several months but nothing eventuated, so we decided to go ahead on our own.
After the series of rejections or non-responses another contact mentioned The Manuscript Agency, and we decided to pay for an expert opinion on whether our book was worth publishing. The editor’s report was very helpful and encouraging and ultimately helped us to write a better book. So after further editing, we could tell our printer we wanted to go ahead.
JANE: Basically we were universally rejected – our product did not fit into any categories and in the current climate were considered ‘risky – but we still wanted the story to be told, it needed to be told after all the work research effort and hard work, not just for us but to add something new and interesting to the historical record.
What did you find easy, difficult, surprising about the self-publishing process?
JANE: With hindsight, it is the best thing we could have done. It was amazingly easy due to finding the right self-publisher and working well with their team. I am a visual artist and with the technical skills of their designer, my sister’s eye for detail and common sense, we ended up with a product that we are pretty happy with. It is all our own work and we didn’t have to please a publisher so creative onus was completely on us.
BELINDA: We were very lucky to find a printer who supports authors who wish to self-publish, and he had an onsite designer who helped us with the final design of the book layout and cover – we had a six-hour session with him, settling on the design details. This turned out to be an absolute godsend, because although I knew how to format a manuscript using Word, and Jane knew roughly what she wanted the cover to look like, the final result was a truly collaborative effort between the printer, designer, Jane (as the ‘ideas person’), and me (as the details editor). At the end of the day the printer gave us a mock-up of our actual book. That was very exciting!
Do you usually read e-books or traditional format?
Where do you mostly buy your books from?
JANE: I read conventional books, though I must admit to being more of a movie fan. It would be wonderful if our story could be turned into some kind of visual feast!
BELINDA: I read lots of traditional books – mostly mysteries, histories and biographies. I also have a Kindle e-reader but since I started to write my own book I have not had time to read or buy e-books. I have bought a few recent printed histories or biographies which were relevant to our research but writing has taken priority over reading.
I prefer to buy from local bookstores where possible, but many of the books I like are published overseas so I often have to buy them online, mostly through The Book Depository, Abebooks or Amazon.com.
Where can we buy your book?
And is there anywhere else we can find out more about you?
What do you hope people will take away from reading your work?
BELINDA: Enjoyment from the unravelling of a real-life historical mystery, and perhaps some better understanding of a forgotten period of history.
JANE: Our work is not intended as a great literary piece because it is intended to tell a story that is of historical interest and importance whilst providing a most unusual link to royalty for all Australians.
So many people are interested in their family history, and our story is truly a case of once you start researching, you never know what you might find. Hence the story has some interest for genealogical buffs and of course anyone with an interest in 19th century history both here and in Europe as it was so crucial to the events of the 20th century, and in our story the seeds of these events have been shown. Being royal historical figures the protagonists’ lives were shaped by these events in a most heartbreaking way.
Which authors do you most admire, and why?
BELINDA: The fiction authors I read include Jane Austen, Ann Bridge, Rita Mae Brown, John Buchan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Carola Dunn, George McDonald Fraser, Kerry Greenwood, Georgette Heyer, Laurie R. King, John Le Carré, Terry Pratchett, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Anthony Price, J.K. Rowling, Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey, Jacqueline Winspear.
Non-fiction: Bill Bryson, David Cannadine, Christopher Clark, Jill Ker Conway, Stephen Jay Gould, Ian Stewart.
Why? Jane Austen. I read excerpts from her collected letters every night before going to sleep, and I love all aspects of these – the writing of course, the details of social life, the family relationships, the local history and the facts that emerge (or are hidden) about her own life. My favourite book is Persuasion, perhaps because I think it is the book that most closely mirrors aspects of Jane Austen’s own personal life. But I loved the book before I made those connections so that is only a retrospective reason for liking it. I also like Pride and Prejudice, but I didn’t enjoy Mansfield Park.
Apart from Ms Austen my favourite reading is ‘whodunits’. I particularly like historical mysteries, and this dates from the time I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time back in the 1960s. It was written as a mystery which unravelled the true story of King Richard III and it may have influenced my approach to the mystery of our Agnes.
JANE: This is a difficult question as I have a wide range of interests, though I do love a good historical novel.
Tell us what’s next for you?
BELINDA: We are fully occupied trying to sell our first book. My sister-in-law works in the publishing industry and she tells us that writing a book is the easy part – it’s marketing it that is more difficult.
JANE: Yes, she is right. But because our motives for the book were to get the story ‘out there’ and not with a monetary incentive, we are happy for it to be a slow burner. The story is timeless. I would really like for it to be taken further either in film or a mini-series.
Because we had some interesting input just before publication, finding out that Agnes had a brother, there are huge opportunities for expanding this research in a second volume, and more parochially we would like to tell more of the story of Agnes and Louis and their children and grandchildren etc in Australia.
Are there any writing forums, blogs, groups that you follow
or belong to that you have found to be invaluable?
BELINDA: I mostly read historical mysteries so I belong to the CrimeThruTime online discussion list. A number of well-known mystery authors subscribe to the list and they gave me useful advice and help with some technical aspects of my historical research.
I belong to various online DNA and family history lists and I am a regular contributor to these. I also act as administrator or co-administrator of a number of DNA surname projects.
JANE: Actually, no. I just fell into having a go at writing and hopefully will further improve over time.