From Hook to Book

Archive for the tag “Writing Journey”

Inspiration, Imagination and an Operation

I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration and imagination of late. This has been an unusual year for me, as it’s mostly been taken up with editing and rewriting and not a lot of new writing. After a spinal surgery last December, I gave myself time out to rest and recuperate, but back then I had no idea how long it would be before I’d get back to my WIP, or started on my new adult novel project or even how neglected my blog would be since then.

Then, while researching the new novel, Hugo turned up. In truth, the name of the young man pictured above is not Hugo. I will share his real name and shattering story another day, but for now this image (blu-tacked to my Mac screen) represents my protagonist in my new adult work. His deeply expressive eyes drew me in and in short time the character has become real to me. The voluminous research has sparked so many ideas and every day I add more to my story map. The excitement and pull to begin writing is electric. It’s like an adrenaline shot that I’m sure all creators experience. It’s made me think a lot about inspiration, imagination and what helps us create place and people when we’re not out in the world physically scouting settings or spying on Joe or Jillian Public.

Sitting at my desk, I’m sure, like other creators, I’m surrounded by ephemera deeply connected to my writing life. The bits and bobs, I’ve collected over time that resonate with my stories and ideas, but may look like an assortment of oddities to anyone else.

My fascination for the Great War and post-war years continues and is probably the reason my inspirational touchstones have not changed much over recent years. Though I was almost sorry to roll away my rabid gang of 1830s convicts that served as evil inspiration while writing (my war-based exception) a YA historical convict era novel. The sometimes defeated, sad, ugly, vicious, devastated faces of these men filled my dreams some nights and I’m sure gave rise to traits in one or more of the vile characters that I’ve been told I write very well. Not sure what writing them says or reveals about me.

I’ve now returned to a large wall map of the Somme that I bought during a trip to France in 2012. My research at the time was not as in depth, as the novel I was writing was set largely in Australia. I couldn’t have imagined then the significance of that battlefields’ visit or the excitement of the story idea that has emerged since.

The shrapnel and rusty wire pictured were retrieved from the edge of a field on the roadside by our guide. I debated whether it was somehow wrong to remove them, but accepted after I was assured that farmers are digging up shrapnel, bits of barbed wire and WW1 relics all the time and that the soil of the Somme will probably never be rid of it. Just as it still gives up a body, or rather skeleton, on occasions.

The small pebble (at left) comes from the banks of the Strathclyde Loch in Strathclyde Country Park, Motherwell, Scotland. Undoubtedly, it was brought in for the construction of the park, long after the pit village of Bothwellhaugh was removed and the paths my great-parents trod, or stones they skipped in the River Clyde, had long gone. But it connects me to them and to my story, the day I stood on the water’s edge writing a scene that refused to wait for me to get out of the lightly, misting rain.

The silver miniature of the coal miner with pick axe came from a shop in a museum in Scotland. It reminds me daily of my great-grandfather and the life he and my characters, Liam, Joe and Da led.

The little steam engine came out of a Kinder Surprise™ many, many years ago. Somehow I still have it, and it has become a touchstone to my great-grandparents journey from Scotland down to catch the steamship at Tilbury Dock, along with my character’s journey, and my own steam train ride through the Yorkshire Dales where I crossed the same spans of the Ribble Head Bridge in 2015.  (My blog banner at the top of the page features my photo as we’re about to cross that amazing bridge.)

I bought the decorative horse brass (at right) from a small, cluttered craft shop at Land’s End in Cornwall. The pit pony and miner on the cart practically jumped off a pile of dusty similar brasses as I passed, which items tend to do when I’m travelling and/or in story mode. They seem to find me as often as I find them.

I wonder, what’s your inspiration?

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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.

 

Baggage limit? But there are books to buy!

Bartrums Hay-on-WyeHow can a travelling author be given a baggage weight limit when there are books to buy? Lots of books. Plus lots of amazing new book shops to visit, not to mention literary museums and quirky stationery shops! And when one location turns out to be the very setting and inspiration the author was searching for, complete with printed histories, background info and individual (published) stories…

P1000641 Chris Hay on Wye

Eek, the conundrum! Especially when said author has a small domestic flight from Belfast to Inverness that insists on only 20kgs of baggage and a stop off first, in Hay-on-Wye – national book town of Wales – where every second shop is book related – plus they have the incredible Bartrums & Co Stationers. How was I possibly going to gain less than 3 kgs before flying?

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Of course, I couldn’t leave Hay-on-Wye empty handed and I picked up several books including two novels The Miniaturist and The Little Paris Bookshop at the wonderful Richard Booth’s Bookshop. I know I could get both of these novels at home, but I do have to say it, books are cheaper in the UK – even applying the horrifying June 2015 exchange rate of the Aussie dollar to GBP. Here The Miniaturist sells in the three majors I checked for A$19.99. I paid £7.99 (equiv approx. $16.00). The Little Paris Bookshop sells in Australia for $29.99 and I paid £12.99 (equiv approx. $26.00).

Isn’t it good when one can make an almost reasonable excuse for one’s passions (read obsessions)?
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Admittedly, I did have to add 67 euros postage in Ireland to post my purchases and paper paraphernalia back to Oz pre domestic flight. But by then I’d also found my potential story setting and acquired a lot more accompanying research literature besides, so the novels didn’t substantially affect the 7 kilo cost.

Books bought os

The hoard pictured above is the greater majority of my book and literature purchases this trip, bar a couple lent out already. Alas, most of it purchased pre domestic flight! Hence the hefty postage charge.

It doesn’t include all the associated brochures, maps and sight-seeing site literature one picks up along the tourist trail. I can’t believe how much paper stuff I discarded. Tourism sure takes a hefty chomp out of the world’s tree population. In fact, I think I think it should be mandatory that every castle, museum, place of interest, provide recycle bins at exits for visitors to dump printed paraphernalia. Most tourists probably bin it before stepping back on the plane anyway. Except writers, of course, who often want to study the minutiae later, on the look out for that elusive idea, word, name, inspiration that they may have missed whilst taking in the vista. Or while saving their concentration for climbing and descending the multiple x multiple stairs UK/Europe insist upon to earn your rite of passage!

Yet I could’ve bought so much more, especially post small domestic flight.

P1020477 Chris Bell Foyles LondonFoyles in London, is reader heaven. I practically had to be dragged out of the place. I was incredibly well controlled though, as I wouldn’t buy anything I could buy at home once back in England. But the range in Foyles, spread over four levels, is incredible. I was possibly too overawed to even think much about purchasing. I was also too busy plotting how could I move to Charing Cross Road, work there/write there. At least for a year or two!

Book buying is almost always as much part of my holiday pleasure as reading. I’m not sure if I should be worried that I spent more time buying books while away than actually reading them.

Every writer needs a hobby

Writers are lucky. We love our work. Well we do when we’re not having to rewrite whole slabs that seemed so promising at first, but fell so flat; or freaking out didn’t I change that bit last week? Have I lost that draft? Aaah! Or suddenly discovering that something we’ve set up cannot work and it’s all about to come crashing down. Eeek! Etc, etc.

We love our story so much that sometimes it’s easy to keep writing, day in and day out, until one day, you realise that you’ve not only forgotten to smell the roses, but they’ve budded up, bloomed and fallen while you’ve not been looking. I think the official term is “lack of balance”.

This year I’m going to try working to more like office hours, take weekends. (Of course flexi-time is included. And maybe even RDOs, since I do the roster.) At least when not working to a deadline or in that heady, urgent “new” story zone that demands you write, right then, to catch all the ideas and characters buzzing in your head.

It’s sort-of hard getting away from writing/work when one’s hobbies are reading and writing poetry though, but, with a new address and larger garden, I’ve discovered a new passion – growing vegies and herbs and all things edible.

DSC04620Growing food is not unlike writing a new story, especially watching it grow from seed. Waiting to see if that tiny kernel will sprout into a seedling. One that will grow and grow and flower and once the prettiness falls away, the fruit remains to develop and mature into something palatable. Something to be enjoyed and satisfy and leave  you recalling it later. (Sorry, that could just be indigestion!)

I’m loving the watering (thinking time), harvest, and the eating of what we are growing. Nearly as much as sending a new manuscript out into the world and seeing a published book come back.

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A Varuna Fellowship – a tick off the old bucket list!

Varuna Writers HouseWhen I first started writing seriously and heard of Varuna Writing Fellowships, and Varuna Writers’ House, I wrote “achieve a Varuna Fellowship” clearly on my bucket list of writing goals.

So forgive me while I jump up and down with excitement to share the news that I have been awarded a 2014 Varuna Retreat Fellowship to work on my YA historical novel Prison Boy.

I have been to Varuna. Back in 2011, I paid for a one-week residency. It was writer heaven to be encircled by the quiet of the house, knowing my fellow writers too were squirrelled away at their desks, writing, reading, imagining. Best, there were no interruptions. No appointments, no ringing phone, no clothes to wash and most importantly and best of all (if you don’t count the writing) no meals to prepare. The wonderful Sheila prepares and cooks the most incredible meals and all one has to do is come down to dinner. Oh, and share a drink and conversation with fellow writers and/or illustrators.

I have to say that last time, a little part of me didn’t quite feel I’d earned the right to be there. I still coveted a Fellowship. Three weeks after the announcement, I’m still pinching myself.

Maggie the MuseI can’t wait to revisit, hopefully, the same productivity and inspiration of last time. Also I want to see if my little mate, Maggie, the magpie, and muse, with his twisted foot, is still there. I hope so.

Varuna, here I come!

Celebrating Poetrix, Poets and Adieu!

Poetrix 40 coverSaturday 1st June saw the birth of this new poet with the publication of my poem Life in the final issue of Poetrix. It was a thrill to see my first published poem in print and have the opportunity to read it aloud in front of poetrix peers and poetry lovers, all gathered to celebrate the launch of Poetrix 40 and herald its farewell at the Williamstown Literary Festival.

It was inspirational to hear the thanks of poets who read their work and how Poetrix gave many their first chance at publication too. Some said that first acceptance also gave them the confidence to continue submitting to both Poetrix and other publications and grow their body of work.

Chris reading "Life" at Poetrix LaunchI am honoured for my poem to be included in this final issue alongside some powerful and beautiful poetry and some very well-known, well-published poets. I mourn the closing of Poetrix, just when I am just starting out, but none could argue that Sherryl Clark and her editorial team deserve a rest after producing two issues a year for over two decades. That’s a lot of reading, editing, collating and organising!

Sherryl Clark launching PoetrixPoetrix has seen twenty years of production, the publication of hundreds of poems and the birth of many new poets. In her launch speech, Sherryl explained how Poetrix began in 1993 after a survey revealed the disparity between the numbers of female to male poets being published and reviewed, and after a reported slur by an editor who refused to publish women’s poetry calling their poems “domestic, suburban vignettes”. Western Women Writers went to work to remedy the disparity and through lots of hard work raised the funds to set up Poetrix magazine.

I loved Sherryl’s explanation for the logic behind the title – how if a female aviator is called an aviatrix, a female poet must be called a poetrix.

Thank you Poetrix for enabling my poetry debut and for the warm encouragement of those I spoke to on the Committee. Now to honour your faith by continuing to submit and hopefully see my poetry further published. And now, I can call myself a poet.

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)

Every Writing Milestone Needs Celebrating

A lovely shot of encouragement for me this week with one of my novel manuscripts being long-listed in a major UK children’s writing competition.

I’m a great believer in celebrating each and every writing milestone. Even the smaller stepping stones.

They give me, firstly, delight that a forward shift is happening and a great excuse to break out the bubbly.  Plus they encourage me that publication of this novel might not be too far away. Secondly, competition awards and short/long-listings add to the CV and help build my writing credits, hopefully enhancing future submissions to agents and/or publishers. Thirdly, such milestones give me something to blog about.

I was glad I stuck to domestic bubbly when I found out the $43 Aust post charge to send the full manuscript to the UK. I wouldn’t want to do that every day, but it will be worth every cent if the manuscript is short-listed.

No matter whether it goes forward to a short-listing, I’m thrilled for the validation of this one, that is close to my heart, and I passionately believe is a great story.

Meanwhile, my fingers, toes, eye brows and everything are crossed for the next stage. Roll on December.

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.

A few good words… (To word count or not to word count?)

In keeping with the promise of a fresh start to the year, setting new goals, tweaking the lifestyle, I thought a new theme for my blog would be cool. So here I am with a whole new look. (Hair cut next week too.)

With a new year, new goals, new challenges, I want to look at word counts. They’re a pretty important deal for writers. How they’re achieved is a varied process. I’m pretty diligent, but I’ve never worked to a per week word-count target on a novel before. While I deeply admire those who can achieve the 50,000-words of NaNoWrMo in the month of November, I know it’s not for me.

Historical fiction, particularly in the early days can be a real stop/start business. A lot of lines of manuscript can trail off in a series of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’s, the details to be worked in after checking the facts, discovering whether trains actually ran every day to a certain stop, or whether that small country town had cars as early as 1919 etc. etc.

But I want to finish this new novel in “good” time. What does that mean? I’m not under contract, so I’m not bound to one year or eighteen months to complete it to publishable standard, but I am working as a full-time, professional writer, who aims to be published and read. So how do I ensure that I don’t meander along at snail’s pace, waiting for my muse to appear and giving in to a deliciously organic process that might side-track or detour me along varied paths before I get to point B?

I’ve got to set a word-count target and not let myself off the hook. But neither do I wish to produce crap to achieve that aim. So I’m working with the goal of “good” words. Keepers. Or at least a strong basis and a trajectory that is heading to the finale.

I can write 3000-words a day when I’m on fire. I’m sure I could write more if I forced myself. But I’m happy to aim for 1000-words a day – on writing days – I will have to take time out for uni. And I really want a “good” life/work balance this year. (A blog for another day.) If I’m firing, I’ll keep going, but I won’t add that into my weekly target and say, Yay! I got it done in two days, so now I can play. I’ll sit down the next day and tap, write, sweat out those next thousand words.

And, I’ve faced the fact I’ve known for quite some time, perhaps since mid-2010 when I joined a certain social network, that it’s brilliant to keep in touch, finger on the pulse, and connected with writing buddies and peers, except, Man, does it eat into your writing time. So FBook is another tweak. Everything in its time and place. First and foremost, I am a writer. I want, live, breathe, to write. And I’d like it to translate to a new novel sometime next year.

I love my blog too, so I’ll be ranting and raving and talking writing to anyone good enough to drop in.

Being a writer means I have an inherent curiosity as to how other writers “do it”. Come on now, lift your minds a bit higher please. I mean write, achieve words, word count goals.  Do you set a target? What gets you motivated, gets those words on the page? Let me know in the comments.

PS: Condolences to all the clichés that gave themselves in the creation of this post.

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