LIGHT AND SHADOWS: the bright lights and the dark places of writing

A quick update on what’s ‘s been keeping me so busy for the last few months. I haven’t added a blog post on here since October but I have been keeping up to date on my two Facebook pages, Instagram and Twitter so I haven’t been slacking!

What have I been up to? I’m still in the business of trying to juggle several different writing projects at the same time and I’ve come to realise that it will always be that way. The work that’s obsessed me for fifteen years, researching the history of the WA’s southwest, continues and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop searching for more pieces of that historical jigsaw but I’ve also discovered that I love writing fiction.  Two years have flown by since the first nervous steps I took, months of research and a year of writing a draft of the first novel (currently known as ‘Last Year’s Manuscript’) followed by a year of research and writing of ‘This Year’s Manuscript’ while tweaking constantly at LYM which seems never to be completely finished. In the last few weeks I’ve also been pulling together the notes for a new non-fiction book, collecting all the new research gathered in the years since my biography of Georgiana Molloy was first published. I don’t have a title yet and I have no idea how long the writing will take but if I can finish work on TYM soon, things might go more quickly. And, just in case there’s ever any spare writing time hanging around, I’ve already done the research and first notes for Next Year’s Manuscript. When I find the time to start writing NYM, it’ll be another nineteenth century story, set in South Australia and Cornwall, the beautiful place where I grew up. The first chapter is based on a short story I wrote thirty years ago and kept to myself but it’s been calling to me all this time.

Writing is one of the things that make me feel most alive, like living in a bright light, but there are often times when the same work, especially the research, feels like walking in shadows. The choices I’ve made for plots and settings in the last few years have taken me into history’s dark corners. As I continue researching the lives of the Molloys and the other Augusta settlers, as well as the background for LYM, I come across information that shocks and saddens me, and I realise that being a historian and a writer both carry a heavy weight of responsibility. I’m not sure we can ever know the truth of the past, or even if there is such a thing,  but it’s important to face full-on the evidence that surfaces.

Research for past and current projects has taken me many times to archives on slavery in British colonies and I’ve read so much that I didn’t think there was more for me to learn about those terrible times. Last week when I was searching for information about the life of one particular individual, something new appeared on my screen and I was back again in those dark, terrible places, the hidden corners of history. Here’s a summary. The information speaks for itself.

In 1795, when the threat of an invasion by Napoleon’s forces seemed imminent, the British government felt they needed to raise a new regiment of soldiers to protect their interests in the highly valuable colonies of the West Indies. These islands had been providing huge wealth for years and important trade in sugar and rum. The army needed men quickly, so they purchased enslaved people from their enslavers, the plantation owners. The government also purchased enslaved men directly from the ‘slavers’, off the ships that had carried them from the places where they were captured on the west coast of Africa.

Between 1795 and 1808, the British government bought more than 13,000 enslaved men, paying around £80 for each human being. (This was roughly equal to an English curate’s annual salary at that time.) The army believed their new troops would be more resilient to life in a tropical climate and the deadly Yellow Fever that was killing so many soldiers from Britain.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British Army was the single largest purchaser of enslaved people.

There’s a strong argument that they did more to continue slavery in the British colonies of the West Indies than anyone else, including the plantation owners, the ‘slave factors’ who bought and sold people at markets or the companies who owned and operated the ‘slave ships’ that carried enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean.

There was already a huge wave of public condemnation of slavery but surely, in paying money to each enslaver, the British government acknowledged in a very public way their belief that one human being can have ownership over another.

A Private of the 5th West India Regiment 1812

J C Stadler after Charles Hamilton Smith: ‘Costumes of the Army of the British Empire,

according to the last regulations 1812‘ National Army Museum         Public Domain

 

 

Thoughts on the season’s turning

Every now and then I post one of the texts I’ve transcribed as part of my continuing research into the life and work of Georgiana Molloy. Some of the things on my mind lately have been the connections between us all – Georgiana and me and you – that transcend time and place. A conversation with an old friend last night reminded me of the importance of holding on to the very personal stories that forge those links between women, the stories that aren’t limited by when we live, or where, or even how.

Today, as the ancient festival of Samhain approaches once again, I think about this time of year when, in the old religion, the beautiful young earth-girl Bride curls back into herself and the time comes for the Cailleach, the wise woman, the old woman who brings long dark days to the land, stillness and death. She’s the beginning of rebirth and the only way that Spring can come back to us.

Women they call ‘older women’ are the biggest demographic on planet Earth — and that’s not the only reason we matter!  We share histories and understandings and strengths and often go about our days quietly, like winter, like the Cailleach.

Here’s something for all of us, those who’ve ever had a child, lost a child or wanted a child. Georgiana Molloy wrote this in 1830 soon after her first daughter died in a tent on the beach in Augusta WA. It was sent to her mother along with the letter that told the full story of her first few weeks in the new colony. Evidence within the text suggests that she copied it from her own notes and the fact that she sent it as a separate document shows how important she thought it was to record every detail of little Elizabeth’s short life. I think it’s a reminder of the deep-rooted ways that women are connected through time and across cultures and spaces. We share and understand.

 

On Monday the 24th May 1830 Elizabeth Mary the only child of John and Georgiana Molloy was born. She laid for some time about ¾ of an hour without a single thing being done to her and sneezed 6 times but owing to circumstances which I had not power to obviate no remedy could be obtained. She was quiet and appeared to sleep all that day but at eleven or twelve at night I found her lying with her eyes wide open and looking quite awake. All said the moment she was born she was a fat child and her limbs well formed and very long, especially her legs and fingers. I never thought her in the least fat. Every symptom that day highly favourable.

On Tuesday 25th about 5 in the morning I called Mrs Heppingstone to attend her on seeing some marks on her cloaths [sic] & she was much alarmed in finding her dress and blanket soaked in blood owing to the navel string being so imperfectly tied as to be quite loose when the roller was unpinned, she said she thought poor Baby must have lost half a pint of blood. She with difficulty arranged it and Baby slept all that day, but towards evening the favourable symptoms began to change and her bowels assumed a palish green colour. She had only taken about a teaspoonful altogether of oatmeal gruel independent of what I gave her and she appeared to take her natural food with great avidity.

Wednesday 26 [sic] I gave her a little Magnesia and she did not seem affected by it in the least. Her feet and legs were icy cold and never any heat but when I either rubbed or held them. She seemed incapable of retaining warmth but still laid quiet and never cryed [sic] but when much disturbed such as being washed etc. I all along thought her a her fingers weakly child, her fingers and nails were so very long and she had much hair for so young an infant & her cry though very seldom was short & weak.

Thursday the 27th She continued much the same. I fed her occasionally as she used frequently to suck her beautiful fingers. She slept all day and I found her at night with her eyes fixed on the top of the tent. She had a very old expression in her eyes, sometimes making me laugh. I thought she frequently laughed but found afterwards her features twisted the same in her convulsions. The greeness [sic] still encreased. [sic]

Friday 28th We both took some Castor Oil, she a tea-spoonful which appeared to do her a little good but not immediately She could take more than I could give her but refused gruel.

Saturday 29th I observed some little white spots like blisters on her mouth and rubbed the inside of her lips with a little Borax which my beloved mother had provided for me. She was much better and her eyes were open nearly all day. The weather which before had been damp and cold was now very warm and she seemed benefitted by the change. I sat up doing many things, among the rest unpacking a little box with the seeds dear & kind Mr Butlin gave me little did I expect to open it at such a time. I pounded some Borax in the mortar. After 5 we both had a long & refreshing sleep till 8.

Sunday 30th She was quiet and slept much throughout the day, and seemed much the same.

Monday 31 [sic] She was not so well and much of an unwholesome colour evacuated. I thought the weather affected her from its again being damp. I observed some spots on her nose and forehead they called “the Gum” Mrs Dawson says, she perceived the poor child becoming thinner every day.

Tuesday June 1st I gave her more Magnesia. I thought she had taken cold and there was inflammation on her lungs, as her breathing was so short, and whenever she laid either on her side or stomach she cried, she seemed indifferent to food and sighed and caught her breath like myself frequently, she also cried more than she had previously done. Mrs Turner thought it was cold, but I think she had a cold from the time of her birth as she then sneezed 6 times before being dressed.

Wednesday 2nd I would not let her remain out of bed to be dressed, for fear of more cold but about eleven gave her a little Castor Oil which did not improve her malady. Her evacuations throughout were regular and the Meconium at her birth very profuse, which they said was a very favourable sign. This day she seemed much worse and cried and started when moved in her sleep even when well as I imagine she started often. At night she seemed much easier, but no variation in the colour still of a paler hue. She seemed very thirsty and I fed her as much as I possibly could.

Thursday the 3rd I had a very little sleep with her and she began to be very uneasy and cry much, about two in the morning she seemed to be instantly in the extremes of heat or cold so I gave her into Molloy’s arms where she laid more still and quiet but uneasily until about 6. She cried very much and seemed to twist her features & then cry! Her countenance was changed since the preceeding [sic] night her eyes much fuller and her mouth more projecting She shrieked when she cried and refused any food. I began to fear the worst – – – –

For the remainder see your letter which closes the scene of her few and evil days on earth. Some time after her burial Dear Molloy went unknown to me and sowed Rye Grass and Clover over it and has recently put some twigs across it to form a sort of trellice [sic] work with the surrounding creepers which in this country are very numerous. I have also sowed Clover & Mynionette [sic] which are up and planted Pumpkins which will rapidly creep on the twigs over it & form a sort of Dome. Was it not curious that on February the ninth I was very sick being at sea, and nearly all day in bed, & in mistake I had written in my Pocket Book (for the 23rd of May as I suppose) on the 24th) where shall we be this day.  & that was the very day of our poor childs birth.

Cumbria Archive Centre DKEN 28/3

 

Image credit: Daria Tumanova

Through a different lens

This image is a photograph of a letter seen through the magnifying lens of the Reading Room camera at the Battye Library. I chose this one because I wanted to write today about different ways of looking and different ways of thinking.

I’ve been bent over my keyboard for weeks trying to complete some writing by the end of May. It’s been a challenging activity. Some days, my mind has been blocked, twisted into knots with uncertainty. Other days, the words pour out easily and I can’t stop the flow.  When writing feels difficult, I treasure the solace, empathy and support that come from talking with friends who are writers. I know I’m not alone in that. I also find guidance and inspiration in reading. The words on the pages are the building blocks of stories and noticing the way other writers put those words together, sit them next to one another along the lines, that always helps me. But lately, I’ve realised that staying with what I know, the familiar and the comforting, is not the only way to learn and grow in my own work.

I’ve had lots of opportunities in the last couple of months to enjoy the creative outcomes of artists in a range of different media. That’s been a reminder that there are many, many ways of looking and many ways of telling stories. The freedom from words feels a bit like walking a new path that connects two places you know well. You arrive by a different route and the journey is different. You see things you’ve never seen before along the way. Whether the new track you’re taking is music, photography, sculpture or painting, or any other medium, seeing things from a different perspective can shed light in remarkable ways on your own viewpoint when you sit down to write again.

Today I visited the studio of Elisa Markes-Young, a local artist, as part of the wonderful Margaret River Region Open Studios annual event. I’d been in touch with Elisa and her partner, Christopher Young, last year when they held a joint exhibition that included some pieces inspired by the life and work of Georgiana Molloy. MRROS draws in such a wide range of artists in this region that it’s impossible to see everything. It’s an amazing privilege to see creative people working in their own environment so we always try to visit a few studios we haven’t been to before. I heard that Elisa is exhibiting one of the Georgiana works this year so her studio was at the top of my list.

She talked to us about the thinking behind the piece, and last year’s exhibition, and described how she had first come to the idea of representing the journey into botany as Georgiana’s refuge following the death of her eighteen-month old son by drowning. After thirteen years of research, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Georgiana Molloy and perhaps I do know most of the facts but what Elisa showed me was a completely different, new way of looking at the life of a woman I know well.  Something to do with a different viewpoint. Something to do with the life experiences of Elisa herself. Something to do with personal memories and emotions. Something to do with working in a medium that does not rely entirely on words. It was refreshing, inspiring and very moving. And I learned a lot.

One of the images here is from that piece which includes black mourning ribbons, embroidered with words from a letter Georgiana wrote in 1837 about her little boy’s death.

MRROS is on for another week and I’m definitely planning to stretch my mind and heart again over the next few days by exploring artists who work in different media.  If you’re around, or just down this way for a while, don’t miss out!  The list of contributing artists is HERE. Elisa and Chris are number 73 in the list and their delightful studio is close to Margaret River town centre.

 

 

 

Over the hills and far away

It was just an evening walk along the beach so I was a bit surprised to see myself caught on camera trying to get a signal on my iPad. I’ve been a bit obsessed lately with research for a new book and it turns out that when I’m doing one thing I’m often (usually?) still thinking about that story. It won’t let me go. The fierce hold it has on me is what gives me the momentum and energy to make myself sit down again at my desk, day after day, even when the sun shines and the world outside is beautiful.

But I think I’ve come to the end of the road with research I can do from so far away. The story, a true tale, takes place in London in the eighteenth century. It’s amazing how much can be discovered using online searches and digital images of records available in the public domain. I’ve pieced together the bare facts of the protagonist’s life and found some wonderful detail about the settings. I’ve used my imagination to take me there, back through time and across oceans. I’ve drafted scenes and written dialogue using transcripts of documents from websites. But this is as far as I can go without travelling in real time and space. There’s so much more. But it’s all in London – in archives and museums and libraries – and I’m on a beach in Western Australia. Far, far away.

This morning, something new appeared in my online rummaging and it’s so exciting that it made my heart pound but it will be impossible to find out more without going on a very expensive journey. So, for now, I’ll keep doing what I tell everyone else to do!

Search. Imagine. Write. And never give up.

Steps forward, steps backward

I write this on the day I heard the sad news that Ursula K Le Guin has died and, once again, I think of journeys. She told us it’s ‘the journey that matters, in the end’ (The Left hand of Darkness 1969) and I’ve reflected on that many times over the years.

When I was fifteen, I kept a notebook (what would now be called a writer’s journal, I suppose) and filled it with words. My own writing, then, was mostly poetry full of the anguish and passion of youth, but I also copied onto its pages anything that moved me or resonated with my teenage brain. I was already devouring anything I could find in the school library written in the eighteenth century, and poems ruled my heart.

When I emigrated to Australia sixteen years ago, just a single packing box was lost during the journey and my notebook was in that box, but I still remember with great clarity the power of one particular line and the way it made me feel when I first read it. The long poem it came from was called ‘The Journey’, written by Charles Churchill (1731-1764) and I copied the seven words so they were alone on the page.

‘I on my journey all alone proceed.’

I wasn’t the only teenager ever to feel the grip of disillusion and isolation even in the company of friends but I do remember, as I wrote the words, the sudden conviction that whatever might lie ahead in my life, the steps in that journey were mine alone to make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of those same words and felt very connected to the girl who found a personal truth in a line of poetry. I don’t think of it now as a sad concept, because the years since then have been filled with friendship and love. It’s more the idea that, in the end (even if we happen to be surrounded by family and friends) the choices made, in the moment, belong to each of us. I’ve learned that there was always more in that line of poetry than I realised when I was fifteen. The journey is so many things.

When I write, each day can be a long journey, and so can just one page. Sometimes even a word, if it’s a hard one to find. A single moment can move me from one thought to another, changing the direction of everything.  And each time I sit down at my desk, and wonder whether doing something else might be a better idea, what I choose to do is the next step.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the main character in the novel I’m writing at the moment has a habit of counting her steps. Towards someone, away from something, nearer, further away. Steps forward, steps backward, but always proceeding in life. Like a story.

The skating minister: how I found a protagonist

This is the story of a protagonist and how he found his way into my imagination.

In late 2014, I had the bare bones of a new book, the themes and basic structure. I had the main characters too, but I still knew very little about them. I was really challenging myself when I suddenly decided to make the main character a man. Would I be able to look at the world through his eyes, think his thoughts and speak for him through the dialogue? How would I get to know him well enough to write convincingly?

On a visit to the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh, I was blown away by the amazing collection but there was one portrait that I didn’t want to walk away from. The moment I saw ‘the skating minister’ I knew I’d found the man I’d been trying to picture in my imagination for weeks. Everything was right: the subject was the right age, born in the right year, and he was painted in Scotland. I thought about that painting for months and when I looked at it again on the Internet, back at my desk in western Australia, I began to get to know my fictional character better.

I was spending time randomly doing research for the book while I worked on self-publishing and marketing ‘Georgiana Molloy, the Mind That Shines’ and I was still not sure whether or not to start work on a new piece of writing that would keep me busy for at least a year.

In November 2015 Mike and I went to Sydney for a few days and I met with Alex Craig at Picador for the first time, to finalise details of the new publishing contract for ‘Georgiana Molloy’. Right after that meeting, I walked with Mike across the park to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see an exhibition I’d read about and was really keen to see. It was called, ‘The Greats’ and all I knew was that it included some of the most famous paintings in the world. As we walked into the foyer, I went cold, on the hottest November day in Sydney for twenty years. The skating minster was everywhere around me, on enormous posters, on every display area and on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. I’d had no idea, until that moment, that all the paintings had been loaned by the National Gallery of Scotland, and that the painting by Sir Henry Raeburn that had captured my imagination had been chosen as the main iconic image.

The Reverend Robert Walker, skating on Duddingston Loch, had followed me from Scotland to Australia and I stood in front of him once again and stared even more closely. I bought his face on a T-shirt, on a bag, on a postcard and even on a case for my glasses.

I knew then, without any doubt, I had to write the story of my fictional David Dennisoun Sinclair. The portrait gave me most of the important characteristics of the man I came to know well over the next two years. He had once studied to become a minister of the church. The black clothes he wore for the rest of his life would contrast well with another main character who dressed very differently. The painting itself gave me one of the most important scenes in the story, too. And there was much more.

While I was writing and redrafting and editing, I looked at the skating minister every day, pinned next to my computer. Writers work in so many different ways and what works for one doesn’t work for another. I know that, for me, a character that has its roots in something real – even just a place, a name, a face – is what makes me want to write. If someone is real to me, they matter.

Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch
Sir Henry Raeburn c1795
Attribution:Henry Raeburn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Research for writing 2: THE TEXTURE OF LIVED EXPERIENCE

The writing has been going slowly during the last couple of weeks, not because I’ve been slacking but because I’ve been researching more than usual as I write. It’s a reminder that research, for a writer, is so much more than checking names and dates and background events when drafting the plot.

I’ve been reading more than usual as well. I’m writing in a genre that’s new to me and I learn from the books I really enjoy as a reader. It’s all there on the pages, how to do it well. Sometimes, how to get it wrong (for me, anyway) is there too, and I learn from that. I’ve realised that the way a writer uses their research, the way it lives and breathes in the story, very often makes the difference between a book I can’t put down and one I struggle to stick with past the first chapter.

When a show house is ready for viewing, the designers ‘dress’ the rooms for the public, to make them look lived-in and attractive: scatter cushions, vases, books on the coffee table, magazines by the bed and pictures on the walls. And yet, somehow, nothing looks real. The appearance of human habitation has been dropped in and it doesn’t fool anyone. Nobody’s home. The same thing happens when the outcomes of a writer’s research are scattered like those cushions, placed deliberately to add the sounds and smells and sights of a particular historic period. The name of a song popular at that time, the title of a book that was being read, the name of someone who was in the news, an apparently casual reference to something topical, dressing the spaces. It all adds up to an effect that’s attractive, just like the ornamentation in a show house, but it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t take you into the minds and bodies of the characters living there.

Hilary Mantel has said that the job of a novelist is to ‘recreate the texture of lived experience’ and, from my own reading, that doesn’t happen when historical authenticity has been injected into the story in the redrafting. I can only say what I know about my own writing but for me, research is as much a part of the writing process as it is part of the preparation for writing. It takes a long time to understand the world picture of the lives lived by my characters from the past. When I write about them, or find the words to let them think or speak, I need to know what they care about, what they fear, what makes them laugh. I agree with Hilary Mantel when she says it’s time to write when you ‘not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back’.

Sometimes I feel that slipping away from me and that’s when I have to step back and re-immerse myself in the world my characters inhabit. What’s available from a free Internet download is varied and surprising. My protagonist is nineteen years old in the chapter I’m writing at the moment, and the year is 1798. I’m reading the same stories she read in women’s magazines that year, studying the newspaper cartoons she saw that caricatured politicians and well-known people. I’ve spent several hours reading a cookery book published that same year, which helpfully includes advice about how to maintain a household, including how to remove bed bugs from a headboard and how to use wet sand to clean a kitchen floor. I’m reading poetry published in monthly magazines, newspaper reports and, more than anything else, the advertisements, those self-contained little stories that reveal so much about what mattered to men and to women. It’s not a fact-gathering activity. It’s a method of transportation through time and I can feel myself shifting back into her world. The cotton cambric on her back feels light, flimsy, too cold on a day like this. Discomfort.

‘Research is not a separate phase from writing. There is no point where the writer can say, “I know enough.” Writing a novel is not like building a wall.’

The quotations are all from the fourth of Hilary Mantel’s 2017 BBC Reith lectures, ‘Can these bones live?’ broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and available as Podcasts

Pleased to meet you!

It’s been happening again, that thing.

I’m sitting at my keyboard, thinking I’m writing a novel and doing what authors do. Managing the plot. Creating characters. Making things happen. Deciding who does what and why. After all, it’s fiction. Then, even as I type the words, I become an observer. Forced to stop my silly game of authorial control, I see what really happened, like playing the action on a DVD. They show me what they did, the people in my story, what they said, they even hint at why. Now and then I’m forced to watch, helpless, as someone I wasn’t even expecting walks in to the room bold as brass, someone (I now realise) who will be essential to untangling the mess of motivations and situations I plotted (Ha! Ha!) when I wrote that first plan a few weeks ago.

I don’t spend much time scanning social media but even my quick, half-awake early morning visits to Twitter reveal that I’m not the only writer to experience this phenomenon. But I still don’t understand what’s going on. I’m more convinced than ever that I don’t write what I make up. I write what I’ve already watched taking place. After a few lines, I close my eyes and just wait to see the next bit of the current scene, with no idea what might happen. Of course, I decide which episode I’ll watch (‘I need to write the bit where…’) but after that, it’s all down to them, those people I thought I’d just made up, conjured from the rich tapestry of stereotypes who populate my imagination after six decades of story-reading. But it turns out they’re real, my characters, they have lives and they want me to get the facts right.

They have names, too. Between you and me, it’s a bit creepy sometimes, the way it goes. Today, for example, a new character has just joined the story, a cook who worked for a family in London in 1799. I didn’t know she’d be arriving. She’s a very minor character (at least, as far as I know at the moment but she might have more to tell me) and I needed to know her name. That’s it exactly. She really did have a name and it’s not for me to just make one up. I did what I usually do, and looked for her name. Sometimes it’s the parish registers I go to, for the right place and the right years. Today I knew I’d find her in the trial transcripts for the Old Bailey in London. I scanned down hundreds of names until I found her. There she was. Poor woman stole a loaf of bread while she distracted the baker by discussing the cost of cooking a gooseberry pie in his oven. But it was definitely her.

Mrs Whiskin, pleased to meet you, after all this time. I look forward to getting to know you.

 

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.

 

Learning to write

In a blog about writing and being a writer, it’s well past the time for saying something about READING and being a reader. It must be thirty years since I first heard the phrase ‘the reader within the writer’ and I used it often as a teacher of writing but it began to feel like such a simple, obvious concept that it eventually dropped off my radar, replaced by other, newer ideas.

In the last year, as I struggled with writing in an unfamiliar genre, managing the voice of an 18th century male protagonist, I found myself to be the learner once again. I examined every paragraph, every line, every word and tried to work out what works and what doesn’t. What’s good and needs to stay just as it is? What’s okay but needs different words or a different sentence shape? What’s awful, too repetitive, too weighty, too light, too obscure, too detailed?  There are writerly decisions to be made with every tap of the finger on keyboard. Deciding what to say next and how, which words to use and how to shape them into chunks of meaning, all that affects not just the content of my plot but also the style of the whole manuscript, the pace of it, the mood and colour of it, the things that are left with a reader long after they’ve finished reading.

So, I’ve been learning again in a big way, learning more about writing and trying to understand what makes really good writing so good.  What I’ve found – and I know it’s just a personal thing, this – is that if I can’t work out, at least in a simple way, why something I’ve read is really good, I don’t stand a chance of writing something that good myself. I don’t believe that the best writing happens by accident. At least, not the kind of books I enjoy as a reader. When the words demand to be re-read and read aloud, when I want to lay down in the words and breathe them in, I usually have the feeling I’m enjoying the results of an author’s hard work, their time and effort and skill and not just the quick’n’easy out-churning of their talent.

I realise now, more than ever, that it’s the reader in me who sits and tap-tap-taps every day at my desk. I admit now that I try to write what I’d like to read. Over and over again, I read what I’ve just written out loud to ‘hear how it reads’ and I find it’s the best way to spot the stumbles and repetitions and weak bits. With every word, I have to satisfy me, the reader.

When I feel really stuck, I sit down and read for a few minutes. I pick up a book that I love as a reader and remind myself what good writing looks and feels and sounds like. Last year, my go-to Good Book was Lucy Treloar’s wonderful Salt Creek’, a place where I soaked up the very best of dialogue, description and action. Sometimes it was a reminder about the effect on me – as a reader – of the juxtaposition of long and short sentences, the way Lucy created a reading rhythm.  Sometimes it was a lesson in how to develop character, lightly and unobtrusively by weaving thoughts, memories and feelings into narration. And more…

There have been many other great books for me since I’ve been working on my own manuscripts and I discover new things about writing from all of them. There will always be something to learn. In the last few months, I’ve been excited by authors who do different, surprising things with historical stories. Books I’ve read lately, like Sara Schmidt’s See What I Have Done’, make me want to shove myself out of the comfort zone and write in braver ways.  I’m just finishing the research for something new, something that I guess will take me to the end of 2017 at least, and I’m planning to try something that, for me, will feel really different. I know it won’t be easy and I’ll need to choose a couple of good books to sit on my desk, sustenance for the many moments of frustration and despair. One thing’s for sure, the more I read, the better I’ll write.