From Hook to Book

Archive for the category “Research”

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.


Viva La France

Parlez-vous français?

Mais oui!

Gotta love a research trip. Mine is set to go. With flights to France booked for next year and a preliminary itinerary planned, it’s been made real.

This week my French language course books arrived. Tres excitement! Flipping through the pages I’m already recalling my high school French.

I studied the language for three years in secondary school. Funnily enough I recall almost everything I learnt from the first six months and virtually nothing from the next two-and-a-half years. I remember the basics: the numbers, the verb être “to be”, foods and vocabulary, thanks to the Poirot family who liked to eat poisson (fish).

When I began form one (year seven), my family were living for a two-year stretch in a country town in northern Victoria and I went to the Catholic high school where one of the nuns taught French – sans accent. Dare I blame my deplorable French pronunciation on the formidable Sister Austin whose rote learning of verbs and vocabulary impressed the words indelibly into my brain? Perhaps. Sadly, she cannot be blamed for my ongoing struggle to successfully roll my Rs!

We moved back to Melbourne mid-year and I immediately found myself drowning in a class run by a ferocious French woman who refused to allow a word to be uttered not French. To this day, I cannot fathom how she expected me to explain my lack of understanding and language in French, especially when 99 per cent of the time I had no clue what she was saying back to me.

The situation was not helped by her sighting my Term I and II reports where I was shown as an A+ student in French at my previous school. I’m sure she thought I was fudging or lazy.

Mais non!

What I’d understood perfectly well spoken in slow, Australian accented, basic French did not translate coming at me in rapid-fire real French.

Next year, we’ve planned to spend the final two weeks of the trip settled in an authentic French house in a small village in Provence so that I can write up the balance of my notes and write some actual scenes while immersed in the atmosphere and culture of France. This was my one regret from my last novel’s rushed research trip. This time I want to ‘live’ the life (if mostly in my imagination being such a different era) and I see speaking to the locals in the village where we’re staying in their language as an important part. Or at least attempting to.

Armed with a basic French course book, cds and dictionary, I’m hoping to learn to converse enough to pass the time of day and request “un vin blanc, s’il vous plaît” at the very least.

So over the next few months hubby and I are both going to dive into language and all things French in preparation for the trip. Not to mention me researching and sorting heaps of questions, locations and history preparatory to my research around the battlefields in the north.

Here’s hoping any new language and vocabulary I learn will stick too, unlike Mandarin. A recent cleanout turned up my one semester workbook and I was disappointed to realise it was all just Chinese to me.


No. 510

Or what should be titled “The best conversation starter ever”.

What began as a trip in 2008 to explore my ancestral roots, grew into a niggle that refused to be stilled. Perhaps weeks of researching my family tree and their migration from Ireland to Scotland and on to Australia placed me in just the right mood to be open to the teeming vibration of possibilities I found from the moment I began to walk through the reconstructed setting of the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine.

Writers will recognise that feeling – that stir – there’s a story here. I didn’t know what it was at the time. All I knew was – “it’s here”. And what a setting? What a history? What a backstory?

I couldn’t use my family story because, well, there wasn’t one. Okay, of course, there is a family background, a migration, of good, solid, hard-working people who flew under the radar and left little trace of themselves or their lives. Not in the newspapers, nor in diaries, or letters – nowhere it seemed of note. A lot of people ask if my novel is my family story. No, it is not. But it is their background, their journey and representative of lives lived in the early nineteen-hundreds, a time of mass migration to this country and the age of the coal industry.

I found little oral history to be told either, much as I quizzed my mother, imploring her to search perhaps missed grey areas of her memory that may turn up some trinkets of possibility. But no. My great-grandparents were battlers who got on with life, despite the loss of more than half their children at birth and in infancy, uprooting themselves twice in search of a better life for their family. They made no fuss or show of their lives and seemingly had no desire to record it. But their background, their journey to Australia, the places they lived, those details I’ve lifted and molded to my story. Some extras too, remembered from anecdotes told by my grandmother, embellished and expanded by Mum, have been woven into a work that is otherwise entirely fiction. But it is the small gems of truth that bring authenticity and texture to my story and were a great thrill for me to include beyond the more impersonal, yet invaluable greater research.

One treasure I did unearth during the research is the medallion I am wearing in the photograph at top left of this blog and reproduced below – No. 510. This is a replica of my great-grandfather John McConaghy’s miner’s token. Every time a pit worker went down the mine, he took his token off the board so that the mine management would know who was below and who to search for in the event of an accident. John’s number was 510 for all the eighteen-years he worked there. My grand-father, Ted Nash, who later married my grandmother (and John’s daughter), along with his four brothers all worked at the mine too, though most of them, including my grandfather, only briefly.

I wear the token on a strip of leather, often, and it never fails to amuse and delight me how often a stranger will ask me the meaning of the number 510, or what the medallion represents. I’ve had strangers ask on trains, in Melbourne Central, restaurants, the supermarket, even in London, who cannot keep their eyes from it, and I watch as their curiosity grows. They’re always intrigued with its background too. I’m often surprised how many people are connected in some way to the State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi or who’ve had ancestors working in coal mines somewhere in the world.

Just thought I’d share this gem and tangible link to my past and my story, which, to me, makes it all the more precious.

What I am Reading

Words to transport me across generations, centuries, continents and viewpoints – such is the mastery of writer Arnold Zable in his acclaimed memoir Jewels and Ashes.

What began as a “case study” for my Master’s exegesis – too dry a term by far for this riveting narrative and beautifully told story – became a lesson in the art of traversing narrative time. I chose Zable’s work because I’ve long admired him and his writing and have attended various of his talks and his inspirational Painting with Words workshop. (You know how every now and again you get that feeling your writing has upped a level, well, I believe this workshop prompted one of those shifts. But, I digress.)

With my next novel unstarted, at the time, but swirling in my mind, I wanted to write my exegesis to inform on an aspect of its writing. I can already see the structure of my new novel forming as a complex narrative where I plan to show three characters’ viewpoints and visit them in different time spans, on different continents and be able to crisscross between them all. Hence my exegesis topic: Traversing Narrative Time, Space and Viewpoint. Part of the reflective practice in my uni subject’s title is to look to the masters to see how they’ve achieved such techniques. Zable was my first choice, though I also studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is the master Zable says he studied to learn his artistry of transitions.

Jewels and Ashes traces the author’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of his Jewish parents, (in Bialystok, Poland), crisscrossing the decades of the twentieth century to uncover the truth and fate of his extended family. When I first read the book several years ago, I marvelled at how Zable showed history while weaving his family background around his 1986 journey to Poland, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing craftwise, how he was doing it or why. I just knew whatever he was doing transported me on one amazing journey. Mind you the way Zable paints his words in such rich detail and description transports you with seamless ease too.

Of course, I’ve read many novels featuring multiple viewpoints, time and places, but I’d always been keenly aware of the transitions from one to the next. Some jolt you out of the story with a clunk, or shifts only occur at the end of chapters or storybreaks, whereas Zable weaves into the next event, place, time with seamless transitions, be they in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

How does he do it?

Through my study of Jewels and Ashes, and Arnold’s own explanation of his technique, I understand him to effect many of his transitions by connecting story fragments or threads using subtle and well placed links. Closer study of the text reveals these to be both tangible and intangible associations, such as events, trees, photographs and letters, and/or sensory connections, such as memories, smells and sounds. For the purpose of my exegesis I extracted the examples below to demonstrate:

  • Decades later,… (p. 8 ) a simple flashforward (prolepsis)
  • We leap through the centuries (p. 46) transition bringing narrative forward two-hundred years
  • As a child I would often gaze at his portrait in the Bialystok photo album… (p. 46) transition back through flashback (analepsis)
  • Father has now warmed to the subject. He draws me with him to Nieronies Lane. (p. 76) transition of place
  • Years later, when Mother fell on a Melbourne street, the memory of another fall, in a time and place far removed, came flooding back. (p. 88) incident as link to another time
  • At 4 a.m. on summer mornings, throughout the twenties… (p. 93) connects one paragraph later through the link of season to On a summer morning in 1986…
  • Above all, Father recalls the seasons (p.139) a memory and seasonal transition of time and place.

Arnold Zable is not only a wonderful storyteller, but a generous humanitarian, and I was lucky enough on two chance occasions during the writing of my exegesis to have opportunity to speak to him and ask him about his practice when writing his memoir. Arnold told me he did not plot the narrative of Jewels and Ashes, but followed his physical journey and allowed the threads of the greater story to emerge instinctively. However organically these evolved, the chronological discontinuity and disruption of story serve to build a sense of mounting dread even in a fact-based narrative where the reader knows the holocaust history:

‘At Linowe station the trains were drawn up by the platform, waiting. The time-tabling was precise, the organisation efficient. The doors of the cattle wagons slid to a close on entire families, crammed together, robbed of light, air and hope. Soon after they were on the move: a journey of several hundred kilometres southwest, across the breadth of Poland, to a town called Auschwitz’ (p.137).

The switch to a new focus in the next paragraph serves to discontinue the narrative and heighten tension even with foreknowledge of the horror coming.

This post offers only a glimpse of one of the multiple narrative devices available to traverse time, space and viewpoint to best dramatic and emotional effect. Regardless of whether you’re interested in the writing craft, I urge you to read Jewels and Ashes. You’re in for a treat, a harsh history beautifully told and one that must never pass out of memory. Honour goes to Zable and all those it recalls.

It is so true what they say about  the value of reading as a writer and what you can learn. Though I’ve never studied a topic quite so intently (or academically) before, and found the initial drafting of my exegesis extremely challenging, I can honestly say what I’ve learned is invaluable. If I can begin the writing of my new novel and in some small way emulate the beauty of the transitions of Arnold Zable in his writing, I’ll  be thrilled. What once seemed impossible, now seems achievable.

I hope this post excites the idea of some ‘narrative’ time travel in your writing. If so, I’d love you to let me know or leave any thoughts you’d like to add in the comments.

Research Tips for Writers – Guest blogger Tania McCartney on the Riley and the Grumpy Wombat Blog Tour

I’m delighted to welcome, guest poster, Tania McCartney, author, editor, publisher and founder of the wonderful children’s literature site, Kids Book Review – in celebration of her latest release Riley and the Grumpy Wombat (Ford Street Publishing). Tania is the creator of the popular Riley the Little Aviator series of travelogue picture books, and is both published and self-published in children’s fiction and adult non-fiction. She’s here to share her Research Tips for Writers. Welcome, and I’ll hand over to Tania.

Along with picture books, I have a quiet addiction to history and historical writing. I know – chalk and cheese, right? Perhaps not. The current spate of enormously successful faction books and picture books with historical undertones tell us history is the new black for children’s literature.

Notoriously, history books of the past have been bogged in a morass of boring… but very crafty, highly creative authors, illustrators and publishers are windsurfing across that bog with bright, light, whimsical and thoroughly entertaining stories that are truly shifting the way we teach history to kids.

History Books
Having studied history at uni, it felt like a natural progression for me to move into historical fiction, and I’ve recently finished a non-fiction book for the National Library of Australia (Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline, out 2012) that takes Australian history and unfurls it like a long-lost scroll, and takes kids on a journey through time. Part of the process of writing this book – and the historical fiction I’m currently working on – was to hone my research skills, and work out a format that works for me.

My personal ‘format’ relies on visuals. I operate visually and even note-taking is documented in a visual way – via spread sheets and images that help capture the message I’m trying to convey. For Australian Story, I kept spread sheets that documented each event, timeframes, people involved, key dates, links and where I sourced the information. I also placed selected images on the spread sheet, and made my own additional notes to help with context.

One of my key tips for researching books that require a lot of detail, is to keep several versions of your document. Every few weeks I would save my spread sheets as new versions, date the old ones and archive them. This allowed me to keep several ‘works in progress’ that I could refer to down the track as the main document was updated and edited and altered towards a final version. Sure enough – in the final stages of production, these archived early versions came in very handy.

Picture Books
Researching is vital for historical fiction, sure, but it can also be important for fiction-writing… even picture books.

For my newest Riley book – Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A journey around Melbourne – I actually did a lot of research both for the book proper, and for my teachers’ notes and kids’ activities, which I write to complement the book. Although I’m a Melbourne girl, I really wanted to open and explore the sights of this gorgeous city and surrounds even further – and I needed to know MORE in order to do that.

When you write a book, you should know your material. Even for a low text picture book like Grumpy Wombat, I took the time to get to know more about each site featured in the book so I could answer questions for children and write some ‘fun facts’ into an activity book I have created for my book launches (these will eventually be on my website This research was also priceless for my teachers’ notes, which offer teachers some fascinating ways to engage children in the story.

For all my Riley books, I spend time researching the featured animal as well as the featured city. I need to do this not only for my teachers’ notes and school presentations, but also because I weave both cultural and faunal facts and intimations and metaphors into each story… like the fact that wombats are often in a bad mood (well, they appear to be, anyway – and you would, too, if you had to spend most of your time alone and live in a cold, dank hole in the ground).

In 2007, I began work on a YA novel (working title: The One) that was based on ancient spiritual beliefs. The research required to write this took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to spend so much time researching for this book, but the need arose naturally and I ran with it. The more wonderful moments of synchronicity I experienced in writing The One, the more I wanted to give weight to what I was writing.

And nothing gives weight and power to fiction like historical facts.

For The One, I was required to explore not only other countries and cultures but the customs and rites of ancient peoples. I loved every minute of this. My findings really enriched the storyline and – most surprisingly – were actually responsible for bringing together my plot threads into one glorious ending.

I highly recommend researching to add intensity and weight to fiction, no matter how far removed the plot core is from reality.

Of course, research is vital for factional writing, and the process can be an intense one. Authors write this type of book in different ways but I prefer to research and write the parts I need as I go along. Some authors read up on and completely research a person’s life or an event from start to finish, before penning a single word of their story. I like to combine the research and the penning so my writing and comprehension of the subject matter is fresh.

Some authors write out the entire plot before commencing the story proper. This allows them to get an overview of where the book will go, and how they can incorporate and flesh out their characters and story structure.

For my current faction novel, I keep notes on my research findings then write them immediately into the storyline without becoming too pedantic about things being ‘perfect’. Interpretation and fictional additions, especially dialogue, are what make faction novels so special, and getting bogged down or paranoid about ‘getting things perfect’ while you’re still busy plotting the story, may disable you.

Writing a first draft with a light touch may help you plot the bones of the book and could be the key to actually getting a first draft complete. Getting bogged in minor detail can hinder the process, and these more detailed elements are much easier to add to a skeleton storyline a little down the track.

Once the first-draft bones of your faction novel are complete, you can then think about how to pad things out, develop your characters, and ensure all vital parts of the historical puzzle are covered – not only in the right order, but with clarity and accuracy.

Absolute accuracy on content is the final stage – and some reworking, adding and deleting may be required.

Authors develop their characters in many different ways – some know them instantly and intimately, while others get to know them as they unfold. One of the most effective ways to develop characters (who are the driving force and emotion behind any story) is to research them either before or during the book-writing process.

Keep a spread sheet of your characters and make notes about their personality traits, their background, their likes and dislikes, their idiosyncrasies. Dig deep and get to know who they are. This kind of ‘research’ can be the most fun of all.

Researching Tips

• The internet provides a wealth of information at your fingertips, but don’t rely on it. There is a lot of pap and inaccuracy out there. If I’m researching on the internet, I search several sites and compare findings. I also frequent sites I can trust – like the sites of governments, organisations and established professionals.
• Cross-check your internet finds with printed books.
• Utilise your library, and if you can’t access the books you need, ask them to order books for you.
• If you are writing historical work for a publisher, your work will need to be heavily (and repeatedly) fact-checked. I was fastidious with my book for the National Library yet I missed several important entries and several were questioned for accuracy. Outside readers, historians and fact-checkers are a must, no matter how thorough you are.
• The wording used in historical work is subject to interpretation (and misinterpretation) so the right wording is vital. Be prepared to have your wording altered to minimise inaccuracy, misinterpretation, political correctness or subjectivity.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A Journey around Melbourne
Tania McCartney, illustrations by Kieron Pratt
Ford Street Publishing, A$22.95, hardcover          

For more, see and

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat Blog Tour Dates:

Thursday 1 September

Blog Tour Announcement Tania McCartney Blogspot

Blog Tour Schedule Kids Book Review

Book Review and Giveaway Bug in a Book

Publishing v Self-Publishing Claire Saxby’s Let’s Have Words blog

Friday 2 September

Author Guest Post and Book Review Read Plus

Hosting a Fabulous Book Launch Sheryl Gwyther 4 Kids blog

Melbourne Via the Pages of Grumpy Wombat Buzz Words’ Book blog

Book Giveaway Handmade Canberra

Saturday 3 September

Interview with Riley Boomerang Books, Kids’ Book Capers blog

Book Giveaway Fat Mum Slim

Speaking at Schools Under the Apple Tree with Angela Sunde blog

Book Giveaway HerCanberra

Sunday 4 September

Book Giveaway Posie, The Blog

Writing Effective Teachers’ Notes Sandy Fussell’s Stories Are Light

Interview with Wombat My Little Bookcase

Book Giveaway Alphabet Street

Monday 5 September

Creating Effective Presentations for Schools  Blue Dingo

Researching Tips for Writers Chris Bell’s From Hook to Book blog

Book Resources for Parents The Book Chook

Top 10 Tips for Writing a Submission Sally Murphy’s Writing for Children Blog

Tuesday 6 September

Writing Processes Soup Blog

Top 10 Book Writing Tips and Top 10 Book Marketing Tips DeeScribe blog

Travelling with Children Wise Words blog

Author Interview HerCanberra 

Wednesday 7 September

Book Review Buzz Words’ Book blog

Author Interview Helen Ross Writes blog

Book Review My Little Bookcase

Book Giveaway Australian Women Online

Thursday 8 September

Balancing Motherhood with Career Planning with Kids

Self-Publishing Journey, Review, Book Giveaway Pass It On blog

Tania McCartney Blog Blog Tour Wrap Up and Exciting Announcement

Writerly (and research) Influences

This week, as part of my Master’s subject Reflective Practice and Exegesis, we’re compiling a research archive. Instead of making it all about our WIP, we can focus on any subject, collection, or a theme of our choosing.

I’m using China – more specifically my 2006 trip to live and work as an ESL teacher – with a strong focus on how it influenced me as a writer, not to mention as a person.

Gathering all the bits and pieces together equals so many amazing memories. But… What to choose: student lists, lesson plans, contract, invitation letter, journal, photos, mementos, tickets, receipts, bank book, ESL diploma, antique pot, emails, letters, cards, chop sticks, good luck charm, China sim, visa application, passport, Olay facecream bottle – in Chinese.

I know I’ve far too much to include in my project. And that is a major part of the assignment – deciding the value of each piece and where it sits in the hierarchy of importance of the research.

At first glimpse some things don’t seem so important, like the bank book. An item I’d take for granted at home, (if we still used passbooks) but my Bank of China passbook represented a rite of passage, making me, Chris Bell, a resident in China – accepted as a working teacher in a foreign country. A huge and significant shift in my mindset – not to mention one gigantic thrill.

Class photos of my students, annotated with their “English” names, proved hugely important in connecting me to each of them as people. (The college’s choice to use English names – not mine.) The names came to reflect their personalities, despite a couple of girls who wanted to change their English name every class because they’d found a new name they liked “better”. (I did have to stomp on that practice with visions of  four classes times forty-plus students wanting to change their names every week too.)

A little brass pot, haggled for in the antique market by my fellow Aussie teacher is a prize I treasure, but where does it sit in the hierarchy of my research? Not so very high, as it turns out.


A photo of a key cutter’s shop near my apartment – hugely important. My fiction story The Key Cutter’s Grandson  was written and accepted for publication whilst I was in China. Photos from my day trip to what I thought was a centuries old tower (turned out to be a decade old) and the local “dog” market became major influences and storylines in a commissioned work for Pearson The Doublecross on my return from China.

I think my most important research piece for this project – at this stage of my reckoning – is my journal. Begun on the day I made up my mind to go and teach in China, and written up every day of my time away, it’s a complete chronicle of the joys and thrills and challenges. A rollercoaster read for me even now. But I’m so glad to have it and it has to place high in the hierarchy of my project for the influence it had at the time and now. Insights, observations – many forgotten consciously – scribed between the pages, alongside snapshots of emails, receipts, tickets, letters, photos of what was at times, a fraught, emotional journey. (Leaving home and hearth, husband of twenty-five years [whom I married at tender eighteen], children, dog, parents and a country I’d never stepped out of – + alone – turned out to be quite a big, incredible deal.)

Just like in any writing research, it’s all about deciding what’s important to leave in, or leave out.

Where each item sits in the research hierarchy– it’s value – is exactly the same as choosing what merits going into your novel/or story and what doesn’t. The heirarchy and value system reveals how some things may have so much meaning or interest,  but aren’t necessarily good vehicles to show the journey/story, like my little antique pot. It’s about weeding out the things, you’d just really love to show because they’re so interesting, or fun, or you just happened to learn about.

I guess, it turns out my assignment isn’t all about fun and reflection after all.

Now I’d better start writing up some descriptions and formally valuing my items and assigning them their place in the hierarchy. Hopefully this lesson will enable me to avoid  being one of those authors whose done heaps of research and forces the reader to know it.

Meantime, I’ve loved looking back and seeing how the research and my lived experience has taken me forward as a writer and a person. I value all of it, but most would never make it into “the book”.

Writing Organically – I can do it!

I’ve just had the revelatory experience of reading back over some of my notebooks kept from the beginnings of my novel. Strange. And enlightening.

I’m amazed how much has changed. Character names, story tracks, the intention, definitely the outcome.

A little history: I started writing this novel as part of Year of the Novel 2008 at the VWC. I swapped novel ideas mid-year when the starting settings, of what became my new project, fired my imagination and lit a fuse of research passion. At first I could barely start the writing, so engrossed was I in emigrant life aboard the steamship, living in a coal-mining pit village in Scotland, and the era of the Great War. BUT…  I  wrote copious notes of story ideas and character profiles. (Interestingly, no one remotely resembles my initial physical descriptions and personality profiles. I think I wrote them out and then completely disregarded them!)

For the course, I had to come up with a 250 word synopsis (to sum up my novel idea). BUT… and, for me, a big hurdle of a but, (I may already talked about before) – I was encouraged to write it organically. Me – a plotter and planner, not a pantser. The thought was exciting, the reality – terrifying. For six weeks between our bi-monthly classes, I couldn’t write a word. I didn’t know what to write. I wrote characters, ideas, snapshots, but with no plot point to start, I couldn’t begin. Not even to write my way in.


I cheated. I wrote out 13 possible plot points and the starter’s flag dropped. I was away, and kept on going for 136,000 words. (I’ve since cut many thousand of them from the early writing, but added as many back.)

I find it fascinating over the course of writing both the novel and three notebooks, how in the early stages, the chapter or storyline ideas morphed into entirely different beasts. Yet, the early incomplete synopsis is almost identical to the basic narrative line of the story. So much surrounding it is different though. Better, for sure. Deeper, more thoughtful and character full. The story has deepened and taken on texture of the lives of the contributing cast and the effects of the Great War.

At a point, and I’ll guestimate here from memory, it was around the 60,000 word mark, when I handwrote scenes in my notebooks, some became keepers. Whereas earlier, I wrote chapters by hand, but never looked at them while I typed the actual scene. It always came out so differently anyway – as I typed.

Suddenly, I found some handwritten chapters worked on the page, the voice strong and the narrative line connected directly into the story. New writing could suddenly be typed as written direct into the manuscript. It was a flashpoint: The voice of the novel was set. Finally I knew my characters well enough to trust their decisions and let them lead me a little more. I knew how they’d react to different circumstances and events. Of course, they, and those they came in contact with, continued to surprise me totally on occasions with some contrary behaviour and choices. (Thrilling when that happens – in context.)

The thrill for me too is in realising how organic the process of writing my novel turned out – despite my thinking I couldn’t write organically. In spite of me thinking my process strictly that of a planner’s because I knew where it was going. So much altered in the writing and I can see now looking back how I had no intention of certain outcomes originally, but I knew little back then of the Great War and its fallout. My story evolved and grew into something far beyond my original scope or what I believed my scope to be. The journey totally transported me during the writing, and I’m hoping it will do the same for my future readers.

I’m edging toward the starting line again. It’s a little daunting facing the blank page, but hugely exciting to be meeting new characters and glimpsing their lives and stories. A new notebook is started and I can’t help wondering how much these characters stories, and mine, will alter when they begin to lead the journey. I can’t wait. I’m excited to be going with them. I like a couple of them already. Though I see some trouble and troublemakers on their horizon.

So plotters and pantsers all, how do your stories grow and change? Do they? Do you dare to let them?

Changing Yesterday – Guest blog by Sean McMullen

I am delighted to welcome guest blogger and award winning SF and fantasy author Sean McMullen to my blog. Sean shares some of  his historical research techniques, as well as the challenges when weaving plot with the limits of the times and technology of 1901.

My latest novel, Changing Yesterday is set in 1901, and concerns a plot to start a war between Britain and Germany to unify the British Empire. In an alternate history, the conspirators (the Lionhearts), succeed too well, and the war lasts over a hundred years. With the entire world on the brink of destruction, two military cadets, Liore and Fox, travel back through time to stop the bombing and prevent the war from ever happening.

As a novelist this gave me lots of challenges. For a start, not many novels have been written about the everyday life of teenagers in Melbourne in 1901, so I had to do a lot of research in a lot of scattered sources. I also had to get some pretty obscure details right, like were the first motorbikes available in Melbourne in 1901, was there an overnight train to Adelaide, and just what did people do to kill time during the six week voyage from Melbourne to England?

I started with Google, as one does, but the internet’s limitations soon became clear. Not everything is online, and not everything that is online is accurate. You have to check three or four sites to make sure that the content of the first hit is not just wishful thinking on the part of author. Another problem was that some questions were just too general for the average website. What was life like on a passenger liner traveling to England in 1901? You have to look in autobiographies to find that sort of thing, and that takes days of work in real libraries.

Changing Yesterday continues the adventure begun in Before the Storm. The bombing of parliament has been foiled by the time traveling cadets, aided by the Melbourne teenagers Daniel, Emily, Barry and Muriel. These characters needed backgrounds. Daniel and Emily are from a rich family, so they were not hard. Tour some of the National Trust houses and you get a pretty good idea of how people with money lived back then. Barry is a school dropout who works at the local railway station, and is learning to be a petty thief in his spare time. He was also easy. Muriel was originally going to be a shopkeeper’s daughter, somewhere in the social middle ground. Then I realised that Melbourne was an important artistic centre in 1901, and was called the Paris of the South. Suddenly Muriel could be an exotic young artist, who hangs out in coffee houses, knows Norman Lindsay, plans to have a career, and even poses nude for art classes. When she starts dating Daniel, it causes a scandal. This is the great thing about research: you keep finding the answers to questions you have not even asked.

By the beginning of Changing Yesterday the alliance of teenagers that saved the world is falling apart, but the Lionhearts are still trying to start a war between Britain and Germany. When Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off with Fox, Daniel has a nervous breakdown. His parents put him on a ship to England, so he can have some sense thrashed into him in an English boarding school. Meantime the Barry steals a deadly plasma rifle that Liore brought with her from the future. He steals some money and respectable clothes, then flees for England on Daniel’s ship, intending to sell Liore’s weapon to the king, and hopefully get knighted as well. Liore chases after Barry on another ship. So do the Lionhearts, who now know about the weapon. They think they can use it to start a war with Germany, and they are right. Liore catches up with the ship at Colombo, then the Lionhearts sneak aboard. At this point the story has been described as the Terminator on the Titanic, but by the end the book the world has been saved – and I didn’t even sink the ship.

So, most of the action happens aboard ships going to England, and that is a six week voyage. What did people do on six week voyages in 1901? The internet was no help, and although the movie Titanic was very well researched and gave a great feel for life aboard big passenger liners in this period, the Atlantic crossing took only a few days – icebergs permitting – while the trip from Australia took six weeks or more. A couple of days of reading biographies in the State Library answered enough questions to let me keep writing. The main differences involved a greater need to keep the passengers entertained for weeks at a time. There were concerts, singalongs, dances, fancy dress balls and deck games, in addition to reading books from the ship’s library and listening to lectures and readings by important passengers. Quite a lot of flirting went on between passengers as well. Daniel finds this out as the only eligible boy available to the couple of dozen teenage girls traveling first class (Barry is definitely not available, having been thrown into the brig very early for petty theft, creating a nuisance, and appalling manners).

“I LOVED this book! Great characters plus sizzling action equals a ‘Terminator on the Titanic’ epic story!”
Claudia Christian (Star of Babylon 5 television series)

At this stage I went back to the web, looking for the popular songs and dances of 1901. This time I found more detail than I needed. This was an interesting lesson. Check the web about 1901 songs, dances, fashions, art, pistols or radios, and you will find answers really quickly. Try to work out what the people of 1901 did when they were in the middle of the Indian Ocean and bored senseless, and things go really quiet. The web was also great for technical detail. There were plenty of pictures and diagrams of 1901 ships, and more data on triple and quadruple expansion steam engines than I ever wanted to know. There were also contemporary photographs of Colombo and Port Said, where ships called to fill up with coal. This helped me put in a lot more detail, which I would have to have guessed about otherwise.

One unexpected side effect of all the technical detail on the web was the way it steered the plot. The early radios had a very limited range, but they had such a cool, steampunk look that I actually changed the plot to work one in. Because I was learning so much about ships’ engines, I decided to have Daniel spend a lot of time down in the engine hall, and by the end of the book he has decided to forget becoming a lawyer and run away to sea and become a ship’s engineer. Interestingly, the artist did a steam powered broken heart for the cover, which is pretty symbolic of Daniel’s condition for most of the book.

Originally, I thought that by using retro science fiction and alternate history, I would be taking a pretty boring setting and making it really exciting. Instead, I discovered that life aboard the early passenger liners could be a lot of fun, that you could stay in Melbourne and still have a great Bohemian lifestyle, and that in spite of all the social restrictions of 1901 society, in many ways they were more liberated than we are. As for research, use the web to get an overview and avoid dead-ends, but don’t give up just because what you want is not there. Books and libraries are really good value for finding great details that are not online. Too many people give up if it’s not on the web. As an author, that can give you a real edge.

Changing Yesterday was released by Ford Street Publishing on 1 July 2011

Visit Sean’s website:

Writing into the Inspiration of Place

Roman brig – Bothwellhaugh – 1911

During my time in Scotland, researching my novel, I fell in love with a small Roman brig near the site of where my great-grandparents’ mining village once stood. (Bothwellhaugh, Lanarkshire) It conjured for me a strong sense of place and a romanticism that followed me home, begging me to write it into my story.

I knew that it really had no place to sit naturally, so for a long time I gave up on the idea. Until… I needed a short intro to the setting and characters that I wanted to set some years previous to the story.

In my mind, I could see a laddie and a wee lass with him, hiding under the brig (as they called it) and could hear them whispering. The rest you’ll have to wait to find out about when you read the book. I wanted to share my source of inspiration though.

Chris at Roman Brig – Bothwellhaugh 2010

(Special thanks to the marvellous Tom Eadie in Scotland for sharing so generously, and often, of his knowledge of Bothwellhaugh and things Scottish. And for sharing the image on the postcard pictured at top.)

Researching a lost village

How do you research a place that no longer exists?

My WIP begins in a tiny Scottish coal mining village gone from existence some fifty years plus. A common enough story in Scotland. Mighty bings that once dominated the backdrop of such villages have all been removed and little remains as evidence of the hundreds of coal mining villages once dotted across the country.

Research – according to one dictionary – means the diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject. Sounds pretty dull. Not so.  I’ve found the research for my WIP, a young adult crossover novel, to be anything but… Spellbound more aptly describes it – from day one.

The passion I feel for the settings and era of my novel keeps drawing me back to learn more. Sometimes I have to give myself a serious slap and close the window on research to get some actual story writing done. I can see and hear my characters and place them in the moment I’m researching. Never more so than during my recent research trip to Scotland.

I was able to confirm much of what I’d investigated previously, though I did discover a couple of my “Scottishisms” were incorrect. The matter of a few miles can change the way of referring to the simplest of things. For instance, I was calling my protagonist’s mother Mam, but in Lanark, I’m told, it should be Mum or ma or maw. Also I learned that babies are called weans in that part of the land, not bairns as they are known further east. Small details, yes, but, regardless of  fiction, they must be correct.

I spent time in the local heritage centre and library going through old files and newspapers and found references bearing out my previous library, internet and personal interview research. Old ordinance maps showed the layout of the village and surrounding landscape, not to mention some very un-PC references to the nearby town Poorhouse and lunatic asylum. I was fortunate to meet with a local ranger and spent several hours with him poring over old photographs of the mining village and its inhabitants while he regaled me with stories and invaluable connections to place and time.

Travel takes us not only over the seas to new lands but into new places in the mind. Sights, smells, sounds, the mystery written in the face of a passing stranger all combine with the promise of story. As an avid writer, I was ready and open to catch them passing on the breeze. And, boy, did they come.

On the banks of the Strathclyde Loch I found the village come to life. Echoes of the past vivid in my mind and unbeknownst to me my husband snapped the photo seen here of me intent on writing a scene on the spot. I was so engrossed I didn’t even notice when it started to rain.

Most importantly, I also felt a strong emotional connection to my grandmother and her family that for me was not altogether unexpected but overwhelming in its intensity. I visited the cemetery where my grandmother’s  baby sister was buried in common ground and words cannot explain the deep peace and sense of satisfaction I found in being there.

Now, on with the writing…

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