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, my new ‘work in progress’ is 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 needed 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 take up the challenge of finding some old documents for me. Yesterday, as she worked her way through the archives on a sunny London morning, I spent the evening here in Western Australia receiving the photos she sent through, document by document, just as if I was there with her. It was a thrilling experience to see the clues I’d hoped for, popping up on my computer screen as the answers to so many questions– perhaps even more exciting than it would have been to be there myself. As the words appeared, things I hadn’t anticipated became clear and brought tears to my eyes.

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 old documents 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.

 

A book without a reader

Did you, or did someone you know, visit Swallows Welcome winery (near Margaret River WA) more than a year ago and buy a copy of the self-published edition of this book for a friend? Someone paid for the book, left details of the dedication they wanted me to write inside and said they’d call in a few days later, but didn’t return to collect it.

We’ve waited a long time… Perhaps this will jog someone’s memory now. If the mystery customer was you, just let me know the name you asked to be written inside and I can finally reunite you with your purchase.This first, self-published edition is no longer available so someone, somewhere, might be very pleased to receive your thoughtful gift!

Travelling, writing, reading, talking

The last month has been a time of three worlds: time in the city with travelling to and fro’ for book events in Perth, gardening days to plant and weed now the rain has returned, and being a writing hermit again whenever I can catch a day to shut myself away and work on my manuscript.

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June: gardening days at home

 

Bernice Barry.jpg Talking with Edwina Davies-Ward at Kings Park, Perth WA for the Friends of KP  and Boffins Books

The best times of all are still the conversations with readers, and the messages they send me, that make the most personal rewards of writing a book continue long after the writing is finished. There have been more interviews, too, and if I ever expected to be asked the same questions again and again, I was quite wrong. Every interview seems to have its own tone and mood – sometimes we talk about the sad times in Georgiana Molloy’s life, sometimes we focus on her botany and sometimes the discussion leans more towards her family situation but there are always new questions that make me think for the first time about some aspect of her world.

IMG_1614  Margaret River Readers & Writers festival with William Yeoman

 

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AT the RWAHS with the Robert Burns poetry anthology that Georgiana brought with her to WA. it gave me the first mystery and the sub-title for my book, ‘The Mind That Shines’.

The last week has been the busiest, with the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, a talk for the Friends of Kings Park and Boffins Bookshop in Perth, a talk at the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and a botanical expedition to Augusta, all within five days. If you followed the story of the ‘little blue flowers’ on my Facebook page, this latest visit to Augusta was another follow-up, again in the expert company of eminent WA botanist, Dr Alex George. Georgiana collected flowers to place in her baby’s coffin in 1830 and we went back to the area on June 6, the same date but 186 years later, to check our previous findings from a few weeks ago and work out which species she collected in those first few days. It was a moving, fruitful day and you can read more about it on my Georgiana Molloy website here.

IMG_6936 Botanical adventures in Augusta WA on 6 June, 2016

Way back in January, when I realised how slowly I was writing my current manuscript, I set myself a deadline and that seems to be working. Writing fiction is such a new area but I’m loving every minute. I get those times (that I now know most other writers get) when I believe I’m writing rubbish but I’ve found a few ways of dealing with that negativity. I flip open a book that I think is wonderfully written and remind myself what good writing feels like, looks like, sounds like. At the moment, that book is ‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar. I also hook up with other writers and talk, often using social media because I live in the rural southwest. Recently I met up with other authors at a social get-together in Perth, organised by the Australian Society of Authors and that was fantastic. Those connections are always reassuring and motivating. It’s easy to lock yourself away to write, and to think you have to struggle alone. If you’re a writer too, having a dark moment or an ideas block or a time of self-doubt, talk it through with someone who’ll know exactly what you’re going through. You might both solve some writerly problems together.

10th May 1839 and 10th May 2012

It’s a significant date for me, this one. On this day in 1839, Georgiana Molloy arrived at her new home by the Vasse River for the first time, travelling on a donkey with her plants from Augusta wrapped in wet moss in a basket on her lap. She thought the terrain looked flat and was disappointed that she couldn’t see the setting sun for the trees but was about to discover that she had moved into another region of incredible biodiversity. The plants in that area became significant to her next collections. You never know what’s ahead…

It’s also the day in 2012 when I clicked ‘SAVE’ and completed the very first draft of the manuscript for ‘Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines’.  Friends came round for dinner and we celebrated with Champagne. There were twelve more drafts ahead of me that night!  A lot more work… But the most eventful years were still to come and the pleasure in finding exciting new ways to share the research is still going on today. Still so very thankful for the kindness, support and encouragement that have come from many directions – but most of all from readers. That’s why writers write.

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A new video link

The video of my talk for Writing WA’s ‘A Glass of Wine and a Good Book’ at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre has now been added to YouTube and you can view it HERE.

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