Research for writing 1: DISTANCE NO OBJECT

I’ve been thinking lately about the many different ways that research contributes to my own writing. There’s been a lot on the social media landscape about the ways other writers use research. In reality, it can be a very expensive process and can seem problematic or impossible if it involves travel.

I gave a talk this week about the research behind my last book, a biography of 19th century botanist, Georgiana Molloy, and just yesterday I had a completely new kind of research experience so I think the time has come to say a bit about what all this means to me. Research is so much a part of the work I do, so embedded in my writing and thinking, that this blog will probably have to be a two-parter!

In the early days of the research for ‘The Mind That Shines’ I occasionally had to travel to the UK for work and it was a chance to do first-hand research in the archives at weekends while I was there. I even travelled to the places where Georgiana had lived in London and Scotland, though time was seriously limited by my budget. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know I emptied my bank account for a train ticket and the cheapest hotel in town to see a diary in the north of England the day before I came home to WA. I realise now that I might have been able to apply for a grant to support some of that decade of research but I was happy just to follow in Georgiana’s footsteps while I was on that side of the world. My husband spent his weeks off – for years – in graveyards and museums in lieu of holidays and I’ll always be grateful to him for his forbearance.

Time has moved on. The research question comes up again and again. I’ve finished work on another story set partly in Jamaica in the late 18th century. I’ve never been there. I’m retired so now I have all the free time I ever dreamt of but a research trip for that book was financially out of the question. So, I used first-hand contemporary accounts, available free online, and immersed myself in descriptions, diaries, letters. I read for hours and hours until I felt as if I knew the place. I could feel it and smell it. Perhaps not the same as a visit but perhaps even better – I needed to know what it was like to be there in 1790.

Today, I’m in the early stages of a novel set in London in the early 19th century and it involves a true crime. With a list of vital documents in the archives there, papers I need to see, I felt blocked in moving any further with my writing. A long-distance trip to the UK is out of the question. How many of us can choose to travel interstate, or even further afield, just to do research for a book?

But there are ways! A generous friend who lives near London agreed to visit one of the archives on a sunny London morning. I spent the evening here in Western Australia  and she sent me some photographs of a document, just as if I was there with her. It was a thrilling experience to see somethingI longed to see for myself, popping up on my computer screen – perhaps even more exciting than it would have been to be there myself.

It was Miranda’s first go at archival research and I’m happy to say she enjoyed it very much. Actually, I think that’s an understatement. She was moved by the closeness such an old document can give us to people who lived in the past “I must say it is VERY exciting to hold something that may not have been read for 200 years. You do rather feel the ghosts.” She was in awe of the amazing knowledge the archivists have. “They were so incredibly knowledgeable and good at their job.” I saw her connection to the story growing as her emails came through. “It’s been really enjoyable so far! And very different. It’s everything you expect it to be but 100% more.”

So, if you really want to write about a place you don’t know from personal experience… If you want to see a document that’s hidden away in a library somewhere… If you want to just know what it’s like to stand in a particular place, far away, and your finances don’t smile back at you…. Don’t give up, at least not until you’ve explored all the research pathways that could take you there in other ways. It’s obvious that the first choice for all of us would be to make the trip, feel the paper, see the landscape, touch the bricks. But if that isn’t an option we can travel in other ways. We have imagination and when that merges with careful research, distance does not have to be a barrier. Other writers may feel differently, and I can only pass on my own experience, but I hope these thoughts might be helpful.

 

Perth Writers Festival 2017

I look forward to three days of immersion into the world of books every year at the Perth Writers Festival, held at the UWA campus. It’s always exciting but this year I experienced a different kind of anticipation. I was there as invited author with two panel sessions to take part in and a 3-hour writing workshop to run for twenty-five people. Packing for what was clearly going to be one of the hottest weekends of the year, I wondered how I’d manage to look cool and calm while my nerves were speeding along in overdrive. How would I know what to do, where to go, how to get there and when?

I needn’t have worried. From the moment I arrived at the hotel, the PWF team had everything under control and the organisation behind the scenes worked like a very well-oiled machine. I was helped and looked-after in every way, including ensuring there was vego food available and literally guiding me from one place to another between sessions.  Even so, it was hard not to feel the world around me was surreal, especially when I first saw my own book on the shelves in the Green Room alongside publications by all the other authors at the festival, including some of my favourite writers like Patrick Holland, Jessie Burton and Hannah Kent.

The first panel session took place in the Tropical Grove amid the sound of parrots and the fringed shadows of palms, a perfect outdoor setting for a discussion about a botanical collector and an artist who painted birds. Convenor Barbara Horgan expertly guided Melissa Ashley and me through a lively discussion about the iconic women who are the subjects of our books. We did have one short interruption, when two members of the audience passed out from the heat!  If you haven’t already read Melissa’s beautiful book, ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ I highly recommend it. You’ll find that Elizabeth Gould and Georgiana Molloy had much in common.

The second panel, convened by Vivienne Glance (who so skilfully drew out the less obvious connections between my book and that of Amy Stewart) was just as lively and even standing room at the back of the lecture theatre was full. Feeling a bit more relaxed after two days of nervousness, I found myself laughing as loudly as everyone else at Amy’s hilarious descriptions of the personal research she and her husband ‘had to do’ on the alcoholic beverages that are the subject of her book, The Drunken Botanist. If you fancy creating your next tipple entirely from plants, you’ll need to try her recipes!

The writing workshop on Saturday morning was a great pleasure for me, working with twenty-five writers at just about every different stage you could imagine. There were writers of fiction and non-fiction, writers who had already completed a first draft of their manuscript and others who were still making early notes, experienced writers and even writers who didn’t yet think they WERE writers. Working with others opens the mind, especially if they bring fresh new views about how and why we write. I always learn as much as I pass on and this time, I’m sure, I’ll be seeing a few names I recognise on publishers’ lists of new releases before too long. Good luck, everyone!

I must admit to you that meeting some of my favourite authors, having dinner with them and having photographs taken with them while we sat in the book-signing area was a huge thrill. How could it not be? I’m a reader! But there were other wonderful things to remember. My publisher, Picador, is based in Sydney but the team were in Perth for the festival so it was very special to have time for long discussions. Phone calls do their job but nothing can replace talking face to face. But the best thing of all was the same thing that always means most to me and often makes my eyes fill up with emotions I can’t really describe. My biggest thank-you goes to all the readers who came to my sessions, asked questions, bought the book, talked to me and told me snippets of their own stories, so many people I’ve never met before. Somehow, the book I wrote, the book you read, has forged a link between us in the magical way that happens when readers and writers connect. In the end, you’re the only reason I believe it’s all true and I really am a writer.

 

One of my fan-girl moments. My book on sale next to the latest by Sebastian Barry, one of my favourite books of 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

Endings or beginnings?

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When the frenzy of writing has been going on for more than a year it begins to feel like the only thing there is. It invades every waking moment and sometimes the sleeping time, too. I dream of words. Not sentences or meaningful phrases, just words. Then suddenly, it comes to an end, on the day a complete manuscript is saved and printed.

That happened to me recently and I hadn’t experienced the feeling of closure for two years, something seemingly enormous, finished. I sat at my computer the day after the manuscript was sent off to my agent and looked at my ‘writing wall’ as I have done for hours every day through a summer, an autumn, a winter and a spring. It’s a large board, covered in pictures, photographs, snippets of text and anything else that captures the essence of the places and people in the story. Photographs of old portraits provide faces for me to stare at while I search for the best words to describe a nose, or a smile, or a way of standing. Landscape paintings show me the settings I’m trying to recreate in words. Since part of the plot is set in places I’ve never been, these add something more to the other research that underpins everything. I don’t need my writing wall any more but I can’t bear the idea of a blank canvas in front of me so it will stay right where it is until I begin collecting images for the next one and that won’t be until after Christmas.

Time at the end of December has already been set aside for the reading I’ve missed out on for months. The Reading Pile has become The Reading Tower. There’s always at least one book on the go but it’s a long time since I’ve been able to do that delicious thing of disappearing into a book and devouring it from beginning to end in one long gluttonous read. Reading is still the most important part of writing, for me anyway, because that’s where everything begins – characters, places, lives, words. Especially words.

Sorting through the piles of loose papers on my desk today, I’ve realised that finishing one thing isn’t an ending, it’s a beginning. There’ll be a lot more work to do on my manuscript next year. There’s a historical writing project to begin in January, that’s been waiting patiently in the wings for months. And there’s a backlog of transcription that I can’t set aside any longer if I want to write more on the story of Georgiana Molloy, to make new information available before the end of next year.

I never like to wish time away but I’m looking forward to 2017. Here’s the exciting news: at the end of February, I’ll be joining about 60 other authors at the Perth Writers Festival. I can’t think of much that could be more thrilling than taking part in my own local festival to celebrate reading and writing. 2016 is ending on an equally exciting note too. The wonderful crew at ‘Readings’ bookstores in Melbourne included ‘Georgiana Molloy: the Mind That Shines’ in their list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’.  While I was writing the book I had no idea I might create something that could be described as ‘a good read’ so that means a great deal to me.

There are so many times when writing makes you feel vulnerable and inadequate, useless and foolish, but other writers tell me they often experience the same self-doubts. We have to keep going, bent over notebooks and keyboards, finding a way through to the end of the story. And then beginning another.

 

See the Readings bookstores list of ‘50 great reads by Australian women in 2016’ here.

Lizard on a log?

Well, that hasn’t been me over the last two months since my last blog! I haven’t been slacking but the current projects have been moving forward in fits and starts in a busy diary of events including a few overnight trips to Perth. Last week was the final booking until November so I’m back to editing my new manuscript and working on some transcriptions that have been patiently waiting, so I’m hoping to tick a few longstanding things off the list very soon. A week of illness was frustrating – sneezing and coughing but no writing – though there was a bright side: all that thinking time and now I have a brand new file on my computer: the title of the next manuscript. It even contains some character and plot notes. If I ever get to the writing (2017?) it will be a prequel and that feels like an interesting challenge.

img_6563 St Bartholomew’s, East Perth

Last weekend was the wonderful, annual Perth Heritage festival and I was lucky enough to speak in two very special venues, each so different. Perth Town Hall was grand and impressive, the most elegant stage I’ve ever been on to talk about Georgiana Molloy.  St Bartholomew’s in East Perth was small and intimate, a beautiful little building and a very moving setting because two of Georgiana’s daughters were buried there.  A big thank you to Heritage Perth and to the National Trust for inviting me. The sore throat and disappearing voice arrived just hours after I finished the second talk so it was lucky timing!

Perth Town Hall img_6571 img_6574