From Hook to Book

Archive for the category “Writing Tips”

Standing in Elite Company

Hemingway stood up to writeStanding up to work is a growing trend, though it seems Ernest Hemingway always wrote standing up due to a WW1 war injury. Only he stood at a typewriter balanced on a bookcase according to a 1954 interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review. “He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.” 

I can’t boast such an exotic foot mat as Hemingway, but I’m really excited to have a brand new standing desk thanks to writer and Facebook buddy Tania McCartney heralding the Varidesk you see pictured below.

Hemingway wasn’t alone. Well he probably was, while he was writing, but it seems that a few other well-known writers stood up to write too i.e. Lewis Carroll, Alexander Nabokov, George Sand and Virginia Woolf. So it seems I’ve joined good company.

Varidesk standing deskLots of medical studies these days are revealing the health benefits of standing up to work too, at least part of the day, including James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who cites the following benefits:

  1. Reduced Risk of Obesity
  2. Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Other Metabolic Problems
  3. Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
  4. Reduced Risk of Cancer
  5. Lower Long-Term Mortality Risk

(You can read more on Levine’s study:

I’d never heard of a standing-desk until I went to work in 2004 for a company run by an innovative and very creative Dane. To me, at first, standing up to work seemed a very tiring idea. But, as I learned through my occasional opportunities to stand up at one or other of the two standing-desks in the office, it’s really good for your concentration, not to mention your back and posture.

I’ve often thought of getting a purpose-built stand-up desk in my own office at home since, but couldn’t justify the expense fearing that my good intentions might tire quicker than my legs.

So, YAY! to Tania because the Varidesk is a very good idea. More a riser than an actual desk as it sits on top of my desk, but it’s really easy to put up and put down so I can stand up or sit down to work at a whim. It even comes with an app to download onto your computer to tell you when to stand up, sit down and even how many calories you’re burning. I don’t quite care how accurate it might be calorie counting-wise, but it’s a great reminder when I’ve been sitting awhile to stand up again.Varidesk timer  calorie counter

I’ve got to say I work best standing up to email, research and even type a blog post, but when serious prose writing I tend to need to sit down. I get so absorbed that I don’t want to strain anything standing too long, since in these early days of adjustment, I’m not quite in tune yet with the whole standing business. I just know that my back is going to thank me long term and hopefully my butt and hips too.

Mainly I’m just aiming to be fitter and thinner, and hopefully live a whole lot longer to write a whole lot more books!




A Bakers Dozen Writing Tips

When one of my blog commenters, a new writer, asked me a couple of posts ago what tips did I have for new writers, I thought why not share them in a blog post too.

  1. Write every day
  2. Read widely – the masters, classics, short stories, poetry and contemporary fiction. Learn to read as a writer. Ask how did the writer make this work? What techniques is the writer using? How does the writer achieve this effect?
  3. Write the story you want to write; the story you believe in; write from the heart. This is the kind of story that will reach out from the page: touch your heart or grip you by the throat. (Maybe not in the first draft, but if the essence is there, and the writer’s passion, the rest can be redrafted, edited, polished to brilliance.)
  4. Seek feedback – find a critique buddy. Utilise what resonates. Mull the opinions before discarding any not in tune with your intention for your story. What may sting at first can be found to be gold a few days later.
  5. Write because you love it as your first priority. Publication is a bonus, but aim for it. (If you have a story worth telling, you want it to be read.)
  6. Experiment: try different styles of writing, don’t stick to just what you know or the way/style you always write.
  7. Up the stakes/conflict: Always ask, have I gone far enough?
  8. Play with language/Experiment with voice
  9. Sign up for a short course through your state/local writers’ centre: some expert guidance and ground rules can save years of trial and error and frustration.
  10. Redraft/edit/proofread diligently
  11. Put your work away for a week (or better several). Fresh eyes see many jolts and jars and inconsistencies in the writing.
  12. Submit – get your work out there to be read  OR Enter competitions – gain writing credits and confidence.
  13. Persevere and Persist: the essential Ps and two most important attributes for writers. These can win out over raw talent. Meanwhile you’re learning your craft. It’s the apprenticeship.

Enjoy the roller coaster. It’s a really scary ride, but worth it if you hold your nerve.

Love to know if any writers reading this have any tips they’d like to share or what do you wish you’d known when you started out?

Step by step to publication


After lots of emails crossing paths in the ether all week from various writing buddies… I’m putting it out there. How can we writers inspire, buoy, encourage and fool ourselves into keeping steadfast on our journey to publication?

More often than not, it’s a long, long haul from Point A – the idea that inspired the story to Point B – publication.

Sounds simple enough. I mean how hard can it be? A few thousand words! How long can it take? A few months!

Turns out – not so easy. Not so fast. A novel isn’t written in a day, a week, a month or, for most us, even a year. It needs to evolve, develop and be written page by painful page, draft by draft. (Unless, of course, the muse is in town and on those golden days it verily hurtles along.)

We need sustenance along the way. Small incentives towards making the dream a reality and I’m not  talking chocolate, a glass of bubbles on each chapter completed or trinkets in small velvet boxes. No, I mean some writerly stepping stones to support our self-belief and enthusiasm from point A to B. Because at some point along the path, there’ll be more quicksand than shore, more shale than stone under our feet. With no agent, or publisher beside us mopping our brows and waving the chequered flag, we can be the ones to flag. Our writing stalls and suddenly that brilliant idea seems trite, unoriginal and going nowhere.

We don’t get a treasure map, or to kick the odd doubloon to tell us we’re on track. We shake the compass, but it only points north – as the crow flies. It doesn’t tell us the easy roads or shortcuts.

What we need is some tips to inspire and gain some kudos along the way – always great for the C.V. but more important, great for our confidence and self-belief.

Here’s my top ten stepping stones towards publication:

  1. WRITE – only words on the page can grow a story.
  2. Join a writing group (find kindred spirits who get what you’re doing, and offer real, productive critiquing that helps your work, builds your craft, and theirs, spiralling you all towards publication).
  3. Enter competitions – to gain confidence, writing credits and crafting competence. (Not to mention certificates for your achievements book. Okay, brag book, if you want to call it that. See tip 5)
  4. Submit to anthologies, magazines – to get your name out there, gain confidence, writing credits and inspiration to continue.
  5. Keep an achievement (display) book to keep copies of those small steps, Letters to the editor, commendations, reviews you’ve written – great to browse those milestones on days you need a reminder that you’re moving forward.
  6. Build a website – create a cyber presence, AND/OR create and maintain a blog – gain a voice, a following, a kinship with fellow bloggers. (Remember to comment on other blogs and exchange reciprocal links.)
  7. Rework your chapter, story, base premise, for fiction short markets, or find non-fiction links and submit to newspapers, magazines, journals, e-sources for publication, gain writing credits and link back to your WIP.
  8. Build your writing profile through social media i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Jacketflap, LinkedIn. (Suggest keeping your Facebook author persona separate from your personal family/friends persona.)
  9. Network – online groups, associations, writing organisations, attend conferences, lit festivals and industry talks.
  10. Daydream – see your book cover on the shelf – crucial to keep motivation and self-belief alive. (I’ve been known to create a cover to manifest the dream. Love modern tech.)

My writing friends and crit buddies are invaluable in keeping me focussed and motivated. Their successes enthuse me and absolutely inspire and energise me to try to keep up with them and pull out all the stops to emulate their successes. And when none of us are getting far, we can commiserate together because none of us want to kick the dog.

Sometimes that finish line PUBLICATION seems invisible and as unreachable, un-navigable as a line in a river of frothing, foaming, rushing water.

Love to hear how you hold the sometimes rickety writing craft on course – please let me know in the comments.

Writing can be a pain in the butt

Literally! And if a writer doesn’t stretch and move and shake those lower back muscles, boy, can they scream at you – just as my sciatic nerve has been screeching at me all week.

“Do you have to write?” asked my physio.

Well, it is my income, my passion and my day job, spasmodically paid as it is, so yeah, I sort-of do need to write.

“Then you and your writing and your butt are going to have to learn to work (and NOT work so often) together.”

Now, after ignoring my manuscript, my blog, Facebook and as many other activities that require sitting as I can, enabling me to catch up on heaps of other things, I’m past the agony stage and into aggravating discomfort. I must be getting better. Seems like a good time to address the issue of back care for writers and other desk jockeys and sedentary types.

According to my physiotherapist, when we sit for long periods, everything contracts and compresses, and then presses onto nerves and muscles that don’t like it much and the only way they can tell us they hurt is to make us hurt worse.

So the tricks:

  • Get up regularly and move around – stretch, bend and arch that back in a reverse position (walking stiffly to the kettle or the loo does not count)
  • Walk regularly outside of the house – in the fresh air – go up hills and down dales and stretch all sorts of different muscles
  • Ensure your desk chair is ergonomic and correctly positioned for your height, build and good posture.

My physio has me doing a few gentle exercises to stretch out my muscles and extend my lower back that seem to be really helping. He’s a muscle maestro and my back’s new bf.

Next step – Pilates class.

In keeping with doctor’s orders that’s it for this short post – most of which was written standing up. Except to say, if you have any tips or advice for back care or good writerly ergonomics, I’d love you to leave them in the comments.

Don’t Write What You Know

“Are you French? No, then set your novel in Australia. Write what you know!”  Words to spark a blogpost and debate.

The jury is out on my Google search into who first spoke the words Write what you know, though Mark Twain and William Faulkner seem to be the main-listed culprits.

Write what you Know would probably have been the first (and most oft repeated) piece of advice I’ve heard quoted as a writer. For a long time, I stuck slavishly to it. Believed in it. Passed on the words of wisdom myself. UNTIL…the day I realised it was given and explained (to me) by someone who took it as literally as I took it from her. Too often “write what you know” advice is given to new writers without adding the all important addendum, until you learn to write and are ready to explore beyond the breadth of your own experience. Or boredom takes you out, whichever comes first.

I mean, was Anna Sewell ever a horse? Was Toni Morrison ever a slave? Did Geraldine Brooks ever live in a sixteenth-century village consumed by the plague?

No. And why didn’t they need to have lived the life, in the place, at the time of the characters and stories they were writing? Because one doesn’t have to be a horse to know how any warm-blooded creature feels to be beaten, starved or left out in the freezing cold. We all recognise and know pain. We all experience illness and the fear of our own mortality. Few of us escape the pain of loss of a loved one.

We live, therefore we experience. As writers we can take those emotions and feelings and impose them on our characters and story events, transport them to places and eras we’ve not personally lived in and make them real. Authenticity comes through connecting the reader to the emotional and lived experience in ways that resonate, in ways a reader can engage with and feel the pain, pleasure or emotional happenings in the story.

I find I sometimes draw subconsciously on my own personal, emotional experiences and don’t necessarily recognise the origins until later. A bit like dreams, I suppose. Some mean nothing and others we can see the wellspring, even if the dawning doesn’t come until much later on.

Sometimes my writing reveals that I know more than I think I know. This proves itself in those rare and wondrous moments when words appear on the page and I sit back and go, Wow! Where did that insight, knowledge, revelation come from? Other times, fine details and rich imagery of place and setting emerge out of much reading and research I may have done months or even years before.

Research, lots and lots of days and weeks of research, shows in the authenticity and emotional connection of good story and characterisation, not merely through the insertion of historical facts or costume/period details. So I can write about a girl in France, enmeshed in a war I did not fight in the trenches or on the homefront. I know how this girl feels to be betrayed, lied to, and scared on finding herself alone in the world, because I can summon up memories of those exact same feelings. I might need to magnify them significantly for my character’s usage, but I’ve been lied to, betrayed and found myself alone in a foreign country, albeit in the latter case by choice. I can impose like feelings and emotions onto my character and make her experience real through adding description and evoking the place.

Yes, I can write what I don’t know, what I’ve never experienced and yet still make it real. So I’m on the no side of the debate team that says “Don’t write what you know”.

If writers did not give themselves permission to write outside their experience, there’d be no science fiction, no spec fiction, no fantasy. No hobbits, or time-travelling Doctor Whos, no Star Wars, ET or Hunger Games.

Personal experience and emotions may be the foundation stone, but the walls and windows come from imagination. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same old same old.

Writing fiction takes courage and research and getting into the psyche of living, breathing people, or animals in Black Beauty’s case. If a writer can take me into the skin of a horse, a Frenchwoman, a soldier, a space warrior, or a Neanderthal tribesman and make it real, I’m happy to go on the journey with them. That is the writer’s job – to transport the reader beyond their disbelief, to a new place, time, life. The writer must believe in their story and bring it to life beyond what they knew when they started out the writing.

Do you write what you know? Or do you go where no man, woman or writer has gone before you? 

Never poke a writer (or a Mama Bird)

This time last year I made a vow – after discovering a tiny baby bird alive but flopped on our back deck with a bleeding cut on its back – that if Mrs Pigeon showed any sign of setting up house this year, I would wave her off sans hésitation. I had no wish to repeat that worry or ensuing mercy dash to the vet. I never rang to enquire after the baby’s health but chose instead to believe that she pulled through and grew up to rear a family of her own.

But when the day came a few weeks ago that Mrs Pigeon flitted and fluttered around my deck, carrying twigs and fluff and the usual building blocks of a pigeon home, I couldn’t bring myself to stop her. What if she was ready to nest and I upset the process and as a result another chick was lost? The dilemma was momentary and I gritted my teeth, hoping for windless days and no premature barrelling overboard this time.

We’ve watched and listened while Mrs Pigeon cooed and sat, sat and cooed until finally, after her comings and goings recommenced, we got to see a little head poking up yesterday and one eye peeping over the top of the nest. A short time later when I went out with my camera, Mama bird had returned and so I asked hubby if he could climb the ladder and take her picture. To my absolute horror, he ventured too close, (we have zoom Mr B, 10x zoom!), and Mrs Pigeon panicked. She flew out of the nest, under the pergola, crashed into both windows before flying away into the treetops. I’m not sure who got more of a shock, her or us, and I was bereft fearing she may not return and what would happen to baby bird then?

Thank goodness, an hour after we slunk inside, out of sight, she returned. This morning, she is cooing and peaceful and I assume that means baby bird is too.

Baby birds are as fragile as new stories and Mama birds as flighty as any writer of a new work. Don’t poke the nest or creep too close. Any interference or perceived danger can send the writer fleeing, project abandoned and all the promise of that new work doomed without persistent warmth, heart and gentle coaxing. It may never take wing at all without a long gestation, application, and a writer willing to stick around long enough for it to be ready to throw it out of the nest.

Yesterday’s episode is a reminder to me too not share too much of my new WIP at this very early, fragile stage. Sometimes interested others can poke the writer’s nest without intending to and we can be such a flighty bunch. I have great hopes and plans to stick around, but I also have a feeling I’ll be nesting and sitting here a lot longer than Mrs Pigeon.

Do you share your WIP? Talk about it? Discuss it with family, friends or the postman?

My Year of Reading Challenge

Book 6

In the Human Night by Peter Bakowski 1995 (2000)

I love Peter Bakowski’s poetry. I can actually understand it and with its varied and recognisable subjects, refrigerators, mountains, clocks and kings, it speaks to me. So many gorgeous lines like “back under the axe of being alone: hearts eaten by banknotes: In your arms I find puddles, xylophones and all my chains turned into skipping rope”.

 Hale & Iremonger ISBN: 978 0 86806 539 0

Book 7

 We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Nick Lantz 2010 

My daughter introduced me to the poetry of Nick Lantz. I found much to love in his lines but my favourite poem has to be Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake, an amazing poem on Alzheimer’s that resonated keenly with me. You can read it by clicking this link

Graywolf Press MN ISBN: 978 1 55597 552 4

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.

Writers Write

It takes time to “own” being a writer. For me it took several published books and a few royalty cheques. This was pre-author website, self-promotion and social networking days. Back when writing was a far more solitary and silent act. But, I digress. Of course, being a writer is not only about being published, but the act of writing. Writers write.

How often do you meet someone socially who enquires, what do you do?
“I’m a writer.”
“Really, I always wanted to write a book. I just don’t have the time.”
Gotta love these people. If only they could grab that snatch of time and tap out that book. Thank goodness, they don’t, because that would mean all the more competition in an already crowded marketplace.

I think a lot of people more love the “idea” of being a writer. The physical act, time needed and learning the craft of writing is a whole other ball game.

Making writing time and owning being a writer are about setting yourself up for success. A mindset that worked for me. So I thought I’d share a few tips and ideas for new writers.

Before you solve the lack of writing time conundrum, you need to:

1. Know why you write

a. Hobbyist
b. Professional /budding author
c. Cannot not write
Work out, do you like to write and the idea of being published? Or, do you believe yourself to be a writer and write to be published?

2. Believe being a writer is who you are

It’s hard in the beginning to allow ourselves the right to take writing time, especially when it cuts into family/friend/social time. Call it. Own it as you’re writing, producing words, crafting an actual manuscript. Join a writing group for support and critique. Send out your work to competitions, markets – both free and paying to start.

3. Enlist help

To do this you need: (if you aren’t living on your own)
a) An understanding partner
b) A partner who knows “writing” is what you do
c) Kids that know “writing” is what Mum/Dad does
d) Family who know “writing” is what you do

***they can only know this by seeing you do it.***

4. Show you are a writer by writing

When you write and produce and – are seen to do so – your dedication is how others come to take you seriously as a writer. Once they do, this is when you can really call in practical support and understanding.

This change in mindset for you and your family helps set you up for “writing time” success.


Writing time tips:

1. Schedule /block out time to write every day
2. Swap TV time for writing time
3. Take phone off hook/Turn off mobile – be unavailable during your writing time
4. Close email program – turn off widget that notifies incoming email, if you can’t avoid looking
5. Give yourself permission to be anti-social – negotiate with partner/family
6. Young children: Get the family to help with chores, don’t accept excuses.
7. Older children: Organise a roster for household jobs AND ENFORCE IT.
8. Put a sign on the door to say “Writer at Work!” And mean it.
9. Hire a cleaner/gardener/lawn care person.
10. Drop back from full-time to part-time work or arrange flexi-time.
11. Get up an hour earlier OR go to bed an hour later
12. Negotiate writing time with partner/family at weekends.
13. Write in short bursts – grab time wherever/whenever you can.
14. Own your right to your own time

Sometimes  you just have to choose writing over a social engagement; a movie you want to see; a loved hobby; your windows might not be as clean, or your garden as perfect as it once was; your cupboards may be less tidy – you cannot have it all. How much do want you want to write? If you really want it, just do it. Even snatches add up. Three hundred words isn’t much. 300 words a day by 300 days of the year = 90,000 words. That, people, is a novel.

There is only one way to write a novel. Write!

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

A Novel Synopsis

I’ve learned a lot about writing novel synopses over the past fortnight, workshopping my long length version with my two writing groups and uni class. Leading to some serious hair tearing, and a bad case of Confusius Maximus. Plus my eyeballs have started a weird twitching.

Here are some hot tips on what I’ve learned and/or not learned.

  • Keep the voice and tone of your synopsis true to your novel
  • Don’t use the voice of your novel – it’s you as an author presenting the synopsis
  • Only include the plot points, not themes
  • State the themes and turning points
  • Include subplots
  • Omit subplots
  • Use the synopsis to sell your project
  • Don’t use the synopsis to sell your project, that’s what your cover letter is for
  • Tell the ending
  • Don’t tell the ending
  • Keep it under a page
  • Write two pages, ½ page, 4 para’s etc, etc, etc.

Ah, eye twitch explained!

Seriously: I absolutely agree on the need for several versions of synopsis from the one liner, elevator pitch, one paragraph, one page.

The jury is out on the right and wrong of some of the rest. A lot seems to come down to publisher/editor/reader preference or who taught you to write a synopsis. With multiple styles and ways of writing a synopsis, I accept I’m never likely to get it perfect to every reader’s understanding of the “right” way.

Whichever way a synopsis is written, I think the bottom line and most valuable thing I’ve learned is that it needs to be more than an invitation to buy. You want it to create a need to ‘buy’, read, want to know more.

Hook and Reel

Hook and reel, People.

So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I do think I have a much clearer idea of the direction I need to head in.

Love to know, do you love writing synopses? Or is it tear out your hair time? Do you have any great tips? Leave a comment if you like.


(Of course, this is all meant very tongue-in-cheek and in no way intended as insulting to my kind and generous critiquers.)



“Book worm Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on

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