From Hook to Book

Archive for the category “Research”

Libraries Rule for Research

As a writer of historical fiction, many an hour I’ve spent to great result in the State Library of Victoria, PROV and various local and overseas’ libraries. So it was dismaying for me to read a recent blog post on research, on a major, international writing website, that alleged researching your novel in a library is an “old school” approach. Excusez moi!

Old School research!Many research rarities can only be found in physical libraries, especially unpublished manuscripts, obscure, old and out-of-print books, pamphlets, annuals etc. It is often in these that true gems can be found – through authentic, first-hand accounts and records, in the language and tone of the era. Many such items that I’ve utilised in my research cannot be bought or found online. So for me, Libraries Rule for Research. (Of course, Wikipedia, Trove and the internet are invaluable resources, and usually my first point of reference, and often the way I source some hard to find references. But it’s madness to count out the usually necessary attendance in a bricks and mortar library required for certain aspects of research.)

IMG_3515My first YA historical novel idea originated while rummaging in an antiquarian bookshop, where I turned up a small volume that had been published as a result of a much longer PhD written in the 50s. The moment I opened it, I thought, ‘there’s a story here’.

Chris Bell NLASo it was one of the highlights of my research and writing life recently to visit the National Library of Australia in Canberra on a fact finding/checking mission and finally have the chance to view the full manuscript of that original PhD. A copy, yes, but the text in its entirety. Oh, the prickles of anticipation as I carefully leafed through the precious pages. I know the place of subject so well in my mind, it almost came to life in front of me.

What an amazing place is our National Library! One of inestimable resources within its totally 21st century, digital age, tech savvy environs, and a fabulous example of research the modern way. I pre-ordered all my materials online from Melbourne on the Sunday and arrived on the Tuesday to find them all ready and waiting for me. I then had opportunity to source further material for two other novels and access and download several academic papers and articles I’d not seen or known of previously through the database.

I wondered if it was just me who felt a buzz of expectation in the air, despite the quiet of the surroundings and studious attitude of my fellow readers. I don’t think so from the avid looks on the faces poring over piles of books, magazines and exciting packets of papers. Still it did not equal the hum in the Special Collections room where readers and researchers dipped into cardboard boxes offering up manuscripts, maps, collections of letters and all kinds of ephemera – present and past. (Yes, I was guilty of a little sticky-beaking on my way past – strictly in the name of research for this post, of course!)

P1030047 Conscription voteI found an unexpected treasure trove myself, sharing my PhD manuscript box: a bounty of letters, cards and periodicals belonging to a politician from the exact era of my current WIP. Imagine my delight when I brought them out and found letters dated 1916, written by a politician discussing the conscription referendum. A serendipitous bounty!

Pandora archiveSo after falling a little in love with the NLA, I was extra delighted to have been asked, just the week before my visit, if I would permit the NLA’s PANDORA Web Archive to archive my blog From Hook to Book for posterity.

“PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive, is a growing collection of Australian online publications, established initially by the National Library of Australia in 1996, and now built in collaboration with nine other Australian libraries and cultural collecting organisations.”

The name, PANDORA, is an acronym for: Preserving and Accessing Networked Documentary Resources of Australia.

I feel particularly honoured to have From Hook to Book included in the archive, considering Pandora state in their manifesto, they “select those (websites) that they consider are of significance and to have long-term research value”.

So now it’s time to return to a more regular blogging schedule – inspired – after taking time-out over recent months to prioritise my WIP. I can’t let posterity down.

 

Writer Meets Research

IMG_7909 Ribblehead Viaduct croppedFrom the instant the wheels of the London train began to cross the twenty-four arches of the Ribblehead viaduct, it seemed everything Mary had ever known fell behind and no one seemed even to care. Every thud served a stab to her heart like each span were crumbling, blocking her way back. When they reached the far side of the bridge, it struck her that every moment passing instantly becomes a memory. Worse, she became only a memory to it too and all trace of the reality either side knew—gone.

It seems a lifetime ago since I first wrote those words into my adult historical novel. They spoke of a place I’d never seen, but one I had a great affinity for through both my characters’ journey south from Glasgow to London early in 1914 and following in the footsteps of, or close to, my grandmother and great-grandparents when they journeyed to Australia, just prior to World War One, from their tiny pit village in Scotland to the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine in Australia.

That journey is the impetus for my novel. Though the plot and characters are entirely fictitious, it is a small nod to my forebears and my heritage. A story born of whispers when I first visited the reconstructed State Coal Mine site in Wonthaggi back in 2008.

P1010591 Yorkshire DalesmanSo it was my utter thrill to return to Scotland recently and take the steam rail journey on the Yorkshire Dalesman from Skipton to Carlisle and cross the Ribblehead Viaduct and see for myself this amazing landscape and piece of history. The views, I suspect, are not so very different from the vista a century ago when my family travelled the same rails.

P1010611 Yorkshire DalesWe were lucky to experience a fabulous blue sky day and witness the etchings of clouds on the hillsides and valley floors. I wasn’t the only one catching flitters of coal grit and straining for a look (photo opp) out the window. Our fellow travellers appeared seized with a like excitement and thrill. For me it held a deeply personal resonance and I found my eyes prickling at the double whammy of life meeting art, and the timeliness. I’m sure my ancestors experienced an even greater excitement, perhaps fear, heading for a new land, rather than a delicious bistro lunch and glass of vino.

The viaduct was built between 1870 to 1874 by over one-hundred navvies (manual labourers) who set up camps and shanty towns on the land around the site, which is now a scheduled archaeological monument. Over one-hundred men died during in its construction through accidents and illness and lie alongside an equal number of their women and children in nearby cemeteries.

The viaduct is 400 metres long and sits 32 metres at its highest point. It is breathtaking to see and a credit to the workmanship and hardship endured by those who built it. And to those who dared travel its breadth and beyond.

P1010559 Chris Bell Yorkshire DalesmanOnce again it reminded me of the courage and exertions of our forebears and how very, very lucky I am to all these years later to have had the opportunity to experience the same journey and tiny part of the history for myself.

If you’d like a small taste of a similar journey crossing the viaduct, please check out the Youtube video below.

 

Dangerous Research on The Burning Sea – Sean McMullen

Sean McMullenToday I am delighted to welcome Sean McMullen back to From Hook to Book to celebrate the launch of his latest fantasy novel The Burning Seathe first of six books in The Warlock’s Child series, co-authored by Paul Collins and published by Ford Street Publishing.

Fans will be thrilled to learn that they won’t have to wait long for the following five books in the series, one due to be released each month April through September.

Congratulations againSean, and thank you very much also for sharing some of your research methodology and tips below, as well as a few traps that I recognise all too well.

First a little background: Sean sold his first stories in the late 1980s and has become one of Australia’s top science fiction and fantasy authors. In the late 90s he established himself in the American market, and his work has been translated into Polish, French, Japanese and other languages.The settings for Sean’s work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future. His work is a mixture of romance, invention and adventure, while populated by strange but dynamic characters. His novelette Eight Miles was runner-up in the 2011 Hugo Awards and his next novelette Ninety Thousand Horses won the Analog Readers’ Award in 2013.

Book 1 - BURNING SEA - front cover

There is no lower rank than cabin boy on the warship Invincible. But Dantar knows he is important, because anyone who threatens his life gets turned into a pile of ashes. His older sister Velza is a shapecasting warrior, in a world where only men fight. Until now. Together they must solve the mystery of broken magic and escape the dragon.

Now, over to Sean.

Dangerous Research

Just after World War Two the Soviets were developing an atomic bomb. Their spies stole a sample of enriched uranium from the Americans and analysed it. It was not as pure as the Soviets’ uranium, and a minister boasted about this to an abducted German scientist. He replied that the Americans had only refined their uranium enough to get an explosion. The more pure Soviet uranium would give exactly the same explosion. They had gone to a lot of extra trouble and expense for nothing.

Sound familiar? Have you ever begun some research that should have taken ten minutes then spent the entire day reading something interesting? When you are doing research you need to know when to stop.

There are three types of research. The first is just writing from your background. The second is learning all about a subject by reading lots and lots. The third is just checking details. Why is all this important? When Paul Collins asked me to collaborate on the series The Warlock’s Child, I had four months to add seventy thousand words to the existing file. This meant no time for spurious research.

Much of our series is set aboard ships. I have helped out on yachts, and an ancestor of mine served on the Bounty, so I knew a bit about life on sailing ships. This meant I could write nearly all the shipboard material without any extra research. Depend as much as you can on this sort of research. It’s already done.

I did quite a lot of the second type of research, because I needed to know how ships fought before they had cannons. This is getting the background right, and you can do it with textbooks. You need to do this before you start writing. Our series was a fantasy involving medieval warfare at sea, which I did not know much about. Why use textbooks, when writing fantasy? I once assessed an unpublished novel with a supposedly medieval setting that also had steam trains and machine guns, and where people said things like “Hey you guys, let’s get outa here!” in moments of stress. Even fantasy needs a convincing backdrop.

The third type of research is the most dangerous, and takes discipline. How long does a sailing ship take to travel a hundred miles? How far can an arrow fly? You can check facts like there on the internet, but you will be tempted to keep reading. Resist that temptation. Why learn enough to write a PhD on archery, when all you wanted to know in the first place was how far to stand from a castle wall to be out of bowshot?

If your name is Suzanna Clarke and you are taking ten years to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, no problem, take all the time you like to do your research. I have to be careful how much research I let myself do, because my schedules are measured in months.

The Warlock’s Child series (readers 10+)

Coming Soon: 

Book 2 - Dragonfall Mountain - front cover      Book 3 - The Iron Claw - front cover

Book 4 - Trial by Dragons - front cover      Book 5 - VOYAGE TO MORTICAS - front cover

Book 6 - THE GUARDIANS - front cover

If you’d like to check out some of Sean’s other works, you can visit his website here and co-author Paul Collins here.

The Burning Sea is published by Ford Street Publishing: ISBN 9781925000924

 

Authenticity vs Action

Certain indisputable beliefs were planted in the minds of all television-watching children of the fifties and sixties raised on a diet of cowboy and wild west movies. And of course John Wayne.

john-wayne imageSettlers rode horses, carried guns, could shoot an indian off a hillside half-a-mile away and pick off their dinner prey with a single shot.

And that’s what I believed about hunting and shooting in colonial days. But it seems our forebears in Van Diemen’s Land – circa 1830 – were not blessed with the sharp shooters of the American wild west. They could neither afford nor had access to rifles or shotguns, their single option being to purchase the cast-off Brown Bess muskets of the British military. Even the military themselves could not afford to upgrade to the easier loading, more accurate rifled guns.

Muskets proved useless though to hunt wary kangaroos, wallabies and emus. The timid creatures, unused to white man and his weapons, were quite safe from the inaccurate Brown Bess, even if they had been curious enough to stick around and see what the noisy, long, hit and miss sticks were about.

Muskets work best at a range of no more than twenty yards (18.28 metres). Beyond that the hunter would be lucky to hit his target. Too close and there wouldn’t be much left to salvage for the cooking pot.

Settlers, convicts and bushrangers used snares to catch rabbits, which were populous already in Van Diemen’s Land by the 1820s. To go after larger game, they used dogs aka imported hunting hounds. Even the first settlers on the island, the aborigines, quickly converted their own hunting strategies to include the skill and speed of dogs.

tasmanianaboriginesNative herbivores, having lived a previously dogless existence, bar the thylacine who it’s believed went in for a more ambush than pursuit attack, were no match for the speed and power of the dogs. The open grasslands of Van Diemen’s Land provided a perfect environment for the chase and few places to hide.

An interview with Dr Leo Laden (antique gun authority and owner of the Colonial Arms Museum in Perth) provided me with a detailed explanation on loading, firing and the range of the Brown Bess for my novel. Thanks to him, I’m pretty confident I could load a Brown Bess. Hitting a target, I’m not so sure about. But it seems even well trained soldiers were more lucky than reliable at hitting their targets in the Brown Bess era. Dr Laden explained how, to his disappointment, modern day movie reenactments of colonial life and war more often pursue effect rather than authenticity. I’m confident though, with his guidance, that I’ve got my story portrayal right at least.

Don’t you love writing in the days of the internet? Articles, experts, videos only a Google search away. Who have you interviewed lately? I’d love to know what you are researching?

If you’d like to see the Brown Bess in action, click on the youtube video link below.

Killer Clothes – Literally

arsenic bottleDuring the 1800s the population of Victorian England were quite literally eating, wearing, sleeping and washing themselves to death with arsenic.

While researching rat poison, strictly for my novel, of course, I came across some startling facts. Arsenic was used as a common green colourant, creating the gorgeous Scheeles green, Emerald and Paris green dyes. Arsenic dyes went into everything from wallpaper, clothing, jellies, sweets, artificial flowers, soaps and candles, as well as children’s toys.

green dressLadies swooned in their bright crinoline gowns, never suspecting their dresses were poisoning them and the cause of their aches and pains. A person could become ill just sleeping in his bed surrounded by fashionable green wallpapering, breathing in the paper dust and vapours.

Green wallpaperWith the ready availability of the impossible to taste, smell, detect, common household grains or bottles of liquid arsenic, there were plenty of deliberate poisonings too. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning imitated common gastric complaints and ailments: stomach pains, cramping muscles and sweating, and it is thought that many murder victims went to their graves under the guise of food poisoning or intestinal diseases. Desperate murderers of the day often sought to claim the “life insurance” held by many householders  to afford them a decent burial when the time came. For some, that time came sooner than expected.

It was the late 1800s before synthetic dyes began to replace arsenic greens, and quite some years after their poisonous nature was first discovered. Makers of millions of yards of wallpaper and other manufacturers held out insisting that their products caused no harm, until science could irrefutably prove that arsenic was poisonous in such applications and not just through ingestion by mouth. By the 1900s forensic science could detect arsenic in the deceased and it passed out of popularity with poisoners too.

Now to the writing month that was October

Books Read:                          1 x YA novel (no time to read – see “houses moved”)

Words Written:                       12000

Words Edited:                         20000

Convict Slang Learned:

Knuckle – to pick pockets

Horney – a constable

Glim stick – a candlestick

Houses Moved                       1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was gobsmacked to see this guy moving house in Fuzhou, China back in 2006. It was incredible how much he had stacked on such a small cart. We were  lucky to have a large moving van and a couple of energetic professionals to assist us in relocating our worldly goods.

Source: Convict slang A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (Author James Hardy Vaux 1812)

A Writer’s Week Done

Read:

2 junior novels

1 YA novel

Words Written:   4700

Words Edited:    9300

CONVICT SLANG:

bolter – one who runs away or leaves a place suddenly

crap’d – hanged

qock’d – forgetful, absent in mind

Wild horse familyDID YOU KNOW?

Horses in convict Tasmania were a rarity. The high cost of owning a horse was prohibitive and usually only wealthy settlers, senior officials and military officers rode or owned the animals.

Just one of the interesting snippets I’ve learned while researching my current WIP. I read heaps and did lots of research before even starting to write my story, but some of the everyday work/life details, I just merrily wrote in thinking that I would verify the details later. Horses and dogs seemed a given, but then I discovered – no, not so. It’s amazing how changing some of these small details can require significant changes to a chapter. We don’t just write ‘the man rode his horse’. We incorporate the imagery of that horse ride into the scene, which means that all the subsequent references, sounds of harness clinking, flicking a fly with the reins, smell of horse sweat have to go too. Of course, I would always rather discover such errors myself in draft stage rather than have someone pick up my mistake in a published book. Still it amazed me to discover that a horse, something I saw as part of ordinary, working day life in Australia, even in convict times, was such a rarity due to our immense isolation from mother England and the expense of shipping livestock so prohibitive. Nothing is certain in historical fiction until it’s cross-checked and verified. Even though fiction, it needs to be right.

 

Source: Convict slang A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (Author James Hardy Vaux 1812)

How Sweet It is…

to be a writer!

photoGot to love it when you get to make old-fashioned toffee in the name of research.

This batch is a tad bitter because I was trying to make it as if I couldn’t adjust the heat on the gas, since the toffee in my story is being made a very, very time long ago, under less than ideal conditions, in my new YA historical.

And since I must suffer for my art, I had to eat it too. It was actually very delicious toffee. But don’t tell anyone, because a writer’s life is supposed to be full of bitter pills.

What fun/scary/fabulous things have you done lately for your art?

The BIG Question in your Novel?

Big ProblemThe first time I was asked: “What is the big question in your novel?” I responded with a blank look.

BIG question??? Hmm! Hadn’t really thought about a BIG question. I was just writing what I hoped was a cracker of a story and following my main character’s journey through a testing and changing time for women during the era of The Great War.

“Wrong. No! You must be writing to answer a question,” insisted my uni research tutor.

Really!???

Turned out, I was actually asking and exploring quite a few questions, but it took me some considerable effort to seek them out and, even more so, to articulate them and find the core question.

Being an historical novel, I thought, at first, that my questions would be very different to those that might be posed in a contemporary story. I considered them to be all about a woman’s right to happiness and did they have any rights to it, over duty, in the era of 1912 – 1920? I thought the question not relevant to young women in western society today, who often have so many choices.

Eventually I worked the major question in my novel through to:

At what point do we question the rightness and rationale of what we’ve been taught? (Or should we?)

Of course, this turned out to be a timeless question, relevant to as many women/people in the world today as much as a century ago. A right of passage and a question that – in some form – has  been explored and debated in books the world over – through every genre.

Bunyips Don'tI remember having a debate with my Writing for Children tutor, several years ago, when I wrote a glowing review on the picture book Bunyips Don’t by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Kim Gamble. My tutor maintained how could the book end with a celebration when Young Bunyip had moved to the sunny side of the swamp with new friends leaving old Bunyip alone? To her, Young Bunyip was bucking his heritage and a selfish creature for deserting Old Bunyip. I argued that Young Bunyip tried to encourage miserable Old Bunyip, living in the dank and dark, that he could dance and play (be happy) on the sunny side of the swamp and to come with him. Old Bunyip chose not to just because Bunyips Don’t dance and play and live on the sunny side. He chose to live the same old unhappy life rather than make a choice to change. In the end, my tutor was more convinced but still struggled with Young Bunyip “abandoning” his heritage and his kind’s way of life.

Doesn’t enjoyment and love for a book often come down to reader perspective?

If I hadn’t been going to uni, would I have ultimately learned as much just in the writing of my novel and formulated the same BIG question? Perhaps!

But the scope of my Master’s degree insisted I explore and articulate the social context and big question of my novel leading me to discover and thrill to what I discovered were the many layers to my story. Many intentional but some that I found had emerged organically too.

Chris pre-grad (Large)So last week, I walked the ramp to the RMIT graduation stage with a huge grin on my face and grasped my degree, very pleased and proud to be a Master of Creative Media (Creative Writing) with Distinction.

Now – onward to get my novel published. And discover the BIG question in my new manuscript/s.

Often I hear writers asked, did your idea spring from plot, character or setting? Not, what question are you asking. So I’m asking you: Do you write with a BIG question in mind?

Chris post graduation (Large)

Talk to me, I’m a writer!

And people do. Incredibly generously. No matter where I go, if I ask a question and say I’m writing a book, mouths and doors open. Even when we barely speak the same language.

My recent research revealed that the location of French farmhouses, at least in the Somme area of France, aren’t like our Aussie farmhouses situated out in the middle of paddocks, far from town, but are located within the village, often on the main street.

Big buildings with high wooden doors and entries, or perhaps steel for the more modern, can line the street, like in the photo here. Beyond the walls and doorways are the yard in the middle and the farmhouse at the back. When asked why farmhouses weren’t on the farm land, my guide explained that it’s safer in the village (in numbers) unlike being isolated out on the land alone. In a country invaded often over the centuries, this made a lot of sense.

The farmyards’ location and set-out is integral to an important meeting of two central characters in my story and when I learned of their true location, I realised I’d set up their meeting all wrong. Only trouble was, since my guide wasn’t a farmer, how did I find out what lay behind the closed doors and gates of French farmyards to even begin to imagine their set out or setup? Many haven’t changed layout much over the century since the war, but, of course, most are much more modern in technology and living arrangements today.

Skulking along the main road of a small village seemed the closest I could get to seeing inside, snapping surreptitious photos through the odd door or gate left ajar. Until… My sidekick and I came across the huge house (pictured) next door to a “farmhouse”.  When Jackie, as we came to know him, stepped out the farm gate to retrieve something from his car, we bade him ‘Bon jour,’ and when he responded in-kind, I took the opportunity to ask him how old was the house as a lead in to asking about the farm.

He said he’d pop back and ask the owner of the “chateau” who was inside. Minutes later he returned and asked us to come in and meet the owner. Before we knew it, we were shaking hands with Jacques, Jean Claude and Jackie and explaining my interest as a writer in both the chateau and the farm. To my bemusement, Jean Claude started filming me while I interviewed Jacques. I feared, he may have misunderstood and thought me famous. The word writer seems to carry such weight. I started to explain that I was your garden variety writer, not discovered yet, but knew my words not understood by Jean Claude’s grin and failure to put down the camera, so we both continued to enjoy the moment.

Next thing, Annik, Jacque’s wife arrived and she very graciously took us off to show us through the lower floor of their delightful chateau. I was both awestruck and embarrassed, not having meant to impose so much on their kindness and generosity of spirit. My time with Annik stretched my French to surprising lengths and I found long forgotten phrases and words in my efforts to communicate with her. How could I forget, la fenêtre, the window and other such descriptions around the house from Form One French class? Sr Austin would be proud of me.

Annik and Jacques allowed me to take photos and answered all my questions. I also got to see through the disused farmhouse and imagine how it might have been when one of my characters lived there so very long ago. She may not live next to the chateau but I’m hoping it’s going to find a small role in the book too.

The meeting reminded me how often and how much people are happy to share their knowledge, expertise and sometimes important parts of their lives with me, indulging my writer’s curiosity with an openness of spirit I delight in and very much appreciate. I’ve spoken to rodeo clowns, sailors, itinerent workers, coal miners and now chateau owners to bring authenticity to my stories. Each time I feel they’ve given me a gift. They certainly enrich my stories.

Publication is a tough gig, but the writing life is pretty damn cool.

Return to the Coal-face

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandfather trekked down the pit road six and a half days a week, sometimes a mile into the gloom, to reach the current coal face of the Hamilton Palace Colliery in Lanarkshire, Scotland. (Those who lived in the colliery’s tiny pit village of Bothwellhaugh affectionately knew it as the “Paillis”.) It might have taken John an hour before shift start for him to ride the cage down hundreds of metres to the road below before beginning his walk, and he didn’t earn a shilling until the first coal shards hewn hit the bottom of his skip.

In the quiet of the mine, every noise magnifies, the laughter and cursing of men, the snickers and snorts of pit ponies, the clang of picks on rock and shot fired into the bords bringing down stone and coal and earth. Some shifts, depending on your bord (work face), you’d spend soaked to the skin from start to end, if not soaked with sweat from the heat generated deep underground, you’d be wet through from the sodden roads or lying crouched in cramped quarters to get at the coal.

We can read a hundred books, and scan a thousand photographs and still be hard pressed to realise the eerie, cloying nature of dust-filled air and the closed-in walls of the underground caves of a coal mine. Tiny lamp lights carried not far in front, especially in the days of naked flame lamps pre-gas and battery lit lanterns. Danger lurked in a myriad of life-threatening ways. Precipitous rock was not always given to staying put leading to frequent “falls of stone”, or men and lads might face a panicking pit pony sending a tonne of skip and coal  careering down the tracks to crush any body unable to jump into a cutaway in the wall, or see the pony fall victim itself, another of the many unfortunate creatures  lost to the task.

Men might  drown with an inrush of water. Others fell down shafts or found themselves crushed between hutch (skip) and props. The tales and manner of demise of workers, especially in the shameful era before men’s lives were considered more important than the tonnage hewn, are endless, even without the oft written about explosions from fire damp and roof falls. I cannot imagine many miners, wheelers, shiftmen or engine drivers began their shifts at ease, nor saw their loved ones wave them off without a prayer. In the course of writing my novel, I’ve imagined their discomfort, the dirt, the wet, and the fettered fear that must have travelled the pit road with all who worked the tunnels. Last week, for a second time, I ventured down a coal mine too.

My first trip underground was mid-2010 when I went down a Lanarkshire coal mine, into the gloom, yet fully trusting of our guide and in the knowing we were down for a limited time and with all the safety precautions of modern-day OH&S. Still I found it unnerving and the prickles jagging up my spine only eased on stepping back into daylight. I was determined though to tour underground at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, it being my great-grandfather, John McConaghy’s workplace the last eighteen-years of his working life before ill health saw him retire in 1930.

Regardless of whether you’ve a family history connected to mining, the tour at Wonthaggi offers excellent insight into the workplace/life of a miner, wheeler or shiftman. From the steep trek down a (tourist smooth) path between the skip tracks to the ride out up the very steep incline in a cage train, I found the tour took me not only down into the mine but transported me to another time. Part of me wanted the human voices to hush and let me hear the whispers and sounds of the long-ago workings take up instead. Only the coward in me remained happy to keep it real and modern and focused. A few seconds pause, at one stage, saw our humorous guide, Rod, snapping off the lights to give us an inkling into just how black, dark can be. From then on, though the periodic lamp lighting somewhat injured the pretence going on in my imagination I was most grateful for the light they cast just the same.

Rod told us tales of how the miners used to kick the thunder box before opening the lid for a sit, lest they got a bite on the bum from a rat for their oversight. Yet the rats were the miners’ mates. The miners used to feed them. And if the rats hung around, you knew you were pretty right. But if the rats were running past, you knew to high-tail it out of there fast too.

We writers and descendants are lucky to have such opportunities to hear the whispers of our forebears and vicariously experience a tiny taste of their lives, without the danger, the suffering, the physical and health damage working in any mine (be it coal, gold, tin, or other) can inflict on a body leading to premature illness or death. I’ve often lost sight of some of the harsh realities while writing my novel, which is set in both Wonthaggi and Bothwellhaugh. At times I saw only the romantic side of a different era and place and lifestyle, despite working hard to establish authenticity, but then even war can take on a romantic side in literature. We can paint the suffocating air, the crash and grind and squeal of a hutch careening out of control and slamming into flesh, but I am grateful not have to see and live the aftermath and grieve as men, and wives and mothers did often in days when many had no choice but to follow the pit road. I am grateful as are some I’ve interviewed and read about that those days are gone. Though there are others that equally mourned the passing of such days and a life that was all they knew.

I’ll be proud to see the novel that has resulted from my research published. I’m delighted that the feedback coming already has acclaimed its veracity and believability. Research is my bliss in being a writer, almost equal to the writing, be it interviewing a rodeo clown, climbing down a coal mine, or scuba diving in the ocean. I wonder what on earth, above or below, is coming next…

I’d love to know what type of things you’ve done or adventures you’ve had in pursuit of authenticity in your writing research. If you like, you can leave me a message in the comments.

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