My favourite writing research tools

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about technology I’ve been using to help me write. Today I thought I’d share my technological research tools. There may be something here you haven’t come across – or perhaps you’ve a great suggestion you’d like to share!

My favourite writers’ research tools

This year I’ve found myself using eBooks as well as print books for research. I rarely use my clunky old Kindle – but do use the wonderful Kindle app for the iPad. This sits on your iPad desktop like any other app but allows you to read Kindle eBooks.

I’m currently writing stories set in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, and on the Kindle store I’ve found lots of free literature written during this period. I lucked upon the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It’s full of familiar words that have changed meaning over the years, as well as words that have disappeared. It’s like time-travelling, only through language. Classic books are all there. In fact any classic that’s out of copyright is likely to be on the Kindle store. This means I don’t have to keep my bookcases cluttered with paperback classics.

My only warning here is that many of the free Kindle eBooks are poorly-formatted. At least with freebies you haven’t spent any money.

(I hope this doesn’t sound like I don’t like spending money on eBooks! I do, cross my heart. I also buy picture book apps, which are those all-singing, all-dancing magic books. But this is usually for entertainment, rather than research.)

Another iPad app I use for research is the British Library Historical Collection. It’s a portal to their historical collection. There’s a lot there within my own niche area of interest that I can’t access at my local, the State Library of Victoria. And as it’s curated by librarians, the collection can be searched in a variety of ways. Even browsing is a lot of fun – perfect for inspiration.

Robert Fortune’s Two visits to the Tea countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya recently caught my fancy. Although The History of a Lump of Chalk by Alexander Watt sounds good too!

Nothing beats visiting the place in which you’re setting your story. If you can’t do that, there’s always Google maps. And major libraries have been busy digitising their collections – particularly useful for accessing maps, photographs – any sort illustrative material. This means I don’t have to visit the library in person. I can sit at home and view and print the material I need. I discovered the Alma Collection at the State Library of Victoria in this way. It’s material collected by Will Alma on the history of magic and magicians in Melbourne. There are hundreds of wonderfully atmospheric photos and posters.

Researching what’s hot and what’s not

If you’re like me and want to know what other publishers and authors are producing, there’s nothing like a spot of market research. Having lost 20% of bookstores in Australia in recent times, I’ve been backing up my bookstore research with online research.

On Amazon, you can search your region as well as new releases from the last 30 or 90 days. However, given Amazon’s less-than-generous terms for most publishers outside the US, this is probably not a representative sample for Australian publishing.

The Apple iBookstore is growing, and there is strong representation from Australian publishers. On the iBookstore you can download samples of every title for free. Unfortunately this doesn’t always give you a good indication of the title. With picture books in particular, I’ve found you can end up with a cover, the usual preliminary material, then straight to the ‘buy this book’ button. So not always a helpful guide. I should mention you do need an iPad or iPhone to access iBookstore.

I always find it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what particular publishing companies are publishing. These are companies who release similar material to what I write. On their websites, most book publishers have subscription-based e-newsletters where they’ll periodically announce their latest releases. If you ignore the spin, these can be useful for market research.

I haven’t signed up for it so can’t really comment – but I’ve heard Netgalley is a good way of seeing what publishers and authors are up to.

So that’s it for the technology I find useful for writing. If you’ve any suggestions for research tools, as usual I’d love to hear them!

The joys & pitfalls of historical research: A guest blog by Richard Blackburn

Today’s guest blogger, author Richard Blackburn, writes about the difficulties and pleasures of researching the historical settings for his books. He also includes some fascinating tidbits about medieval life!

The joys & pitfalls of writing a story with an historical setting
A guest blog from Richard Blackburn

I must admit, first up, that I hate being wrong. Many readers of fiction are quite happy if the setting is vague or some things obviously incorrect – such as showing Henry VIII throwing half-gnawed chicken bones over his shoulder or Vikings wearing helmets with horns sticking out of them. These are commonly-held myths but I couldn’t stand having them in my work.

Trying to get things right isn’t always easy. My three books often feature peasants living in the years 1347–1356. There are lots of paintings, books and biographies about lords and ladies, Kings and Queens – but not much about peasants.

I believe some of the traces that do exist are misinterpreted. One historian discussing Brugel’s paintings stated that they must have represented a time of unrest – the men all had sheathed knives on their belts. At the time knives weren’t laid out at the table in poor people’s homes. Everyone used their own at meal time. These knives would be used every day by peasants as they worked the land. They’d cut honeysuckle vine to make string or rope, if fences needed mending and so on. So knives were a part of their everyday dress.

Russell advised his readers: don’t blow your nose on the table cloth … Don’t spit too far away … but WHEN you DO spit, place your hand to the side of your mouth and spit neatly to the side of your chair.

I’ve found some good sources – at high school I studied Chaucer in the vernacular as well as Shakespeare. These are worth reading for some understanding of the lives of the lower classes. There are also a thousand letters from or about members of the Pastern family who lived in the early 1400s. They wrote about their day-to-day existence as middle class, and somewhat privileged, citizens but they also include a lot of interesting facts about the unrest of the time.

One fascinating short piece was written by John Russell, a servant in the middle 1400s. His words were printed in the late 1500s by Wynkyn de Worde in a booklet called The Boke of Keruynge (The Book of Carving). As well as showing things such as how the three table cloths were arranged on each table, he gives us good advice on manners. He tells his readers not to spit over the table cloth or onto it. He says definitely don’t blow your nose on the table cloth. And when the water is brought around to wash your hands, you shouldn’t spit into that. Don’t spit too far away, he says, but WHEN you DO spit, place your hand to the side of your mouth and spit neatly to the side of your chair. With at least fifty people eating at the castle where he worked, I wouldn’t have liked cleaning the floor after a meal!

I’ve also read a translation of Froissart’s Chronicles. This is a French nobleman’s account of the early part of the 100 Years War. That brings me to another important point: histories are the writings of people who see history from their own country’s perspective. The enemy’s treacherous and murderous assaults would be our brilliant, innovative campaigns. So be very wary of the internet and cross reference everything, but also read extensively around even our most respected historians. Treat nothing as absolute.

Histories are the writings of people who see history from their own country’s perspective.

There are very useful sources of information from the writings of the times I write about. I can also gain an idea of how people spoke in those times from these texts. Of course, I couldn’t have the peasants in my books speaking in Medieval English. That would be too hard to read. But I also mustn’t include phrases or concepts they wouldn’t use.

In 1347 I couldn’t have a peasant say something went off ‘half cocked’ or that someone was ‘a flash in the pan’. These sayings come from the use of gunpowder in muskets which was a long time later. Before 1496 the word ‘lynch’ wouldn’t have been used for stringing some luckless person up by the neck. On that year an Irish mayor, John Lynch, hanged his son without a trial and the word was born with his son’s death.

The word ‘posh’ comes from Port Out, Starboard Home when well-heeled English families sailed to India in the coolest cabins. Talking about India, the word ‘thug’ came from a brutal Indian religious group discovered in the late 1700s. And my characters couldn’t ‘fall asleep’. This saying came from stagecoach days, when the poorer passengers, sitting on the roof, would doze off and actually fall off. So the cry would go up, ‘he’s fallen, asleep’. The same for ‘dropped off’.

As well as sayings becoming dated, the food people ate reflects the times. At the table where John Russell was serving, only the highest level of society would eat manchet bread, the white bread made from fine flour sifted through boulting cloth. They wouldn’t have eaten potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, chillies or corn. These came to Europe from South America in 1536. Pumpkins came from North America. But in the Pastern Letters, Margaret Paston asks her husband to send her rice, saffron and galangal. So rich people did eat some very exotic food.

By reading works written in the time of my stories, looking at pictures from those times, and examining the period for anything that would stand out as different from life today, I hope to make my work interesting and informative … as well as fun to read.

About Richard Blackburn
Richard’s three books are published in Australia by Zeus Publications. They are The Gatekeeper, Rudigor’s Revenge and The Regiment; die Kompanie. All have now been accepted for the New South Wales Premier’s Reading Challenge. The first book has also been published as The Guardian of the Gate by Lachesis Publishing. It’s available in paperback format in USA and Canada and also in eBook format by all major eBook outlets.

Click here to visit Richard’s website and find out more about Richard and his books.

Head hopping, dialogue tag adverbs & ‘said’ bookisms: Technical errors that turn off publishers

Today I’m posting a guest blog from YA historical fiction author, Richard Blackburn. Richard shares his remedies for mistakes that novice writers often make.

Following is what Richard has to say about:

  • dialogue-tag adverbs
  • ‘said’ bookisms
  • head hopping
  • third-person filtering

There are a few common mistakes that writers make without ever knowing they are wrong. I know. I used to do all of them until my editor at Lachesis (a Canadian publisher) refused to allow them in my book. This was a shock because I was already published in Australia! 

I realized that my previous submissions to major publishers could have been rejected because of these mistakes. Since then I’ve passed on this information to scores of writers. I hope they help readers of this blog.

1. Dialogue-tag adverbs

An adverb is a word that, among other things, qualifies or describes a verb. “I ran fast” is an example. Ran is the verb, fast is the adverb. 

A dialogue-tag is a verb that links a piece of dialogue to the rest of the writing.

In the following example, shouted is the verb, and angrily is the dialogue-tag adverb: 

“You absolute idiots,” Andrew shouted angrily. 

The reason the word angrily is not good is because it tells you a fact, rather than showing you. A better way to write the sentence is:

‘Andrew stormed into the room and looked around angrily.

“You absolute idiots,” he shouted.’

2. ‘Said’ Bookisms

In the 1930s there was a book published called The Said Book. This gave writers a huge number of verbs to use instead of the word said. These days publishers prefer writers to keep it simple and use said.

A major mistake is to use verbs that don’t have anything to do with uttering sounds.

‘ “Oh my darling,” she sighed.’

You cannot sigh words. It’s the same with roar, squeak, growl and hiss.

A hint: 

I try to give my main characters and character groups a distinctive sound. So the Lords and Ladies in the year 1347 might say:

“I do believe he will be apprehended and they shall hang him.”

My main character, the modern-day, time-travelling Jenny, and people in the middle classes would say:

“If they catch him, I’m pretty sure they’ll hang him.”

And the peasants would say:

“If they get ‘im, it’s ‘anged e’ll be fer sure.”

In this way I can have a long section of dialogue, say between Jenny and Blind Bob, the peasant, and I’ll only have to use “Jenny said” and “Bob said” for the first two sentences then it’s obvious who is speaking and I don’t have to use a dialogue tag at all.

A note from Cathryn

If you’re interested in reading further about ‘said’ bookisms, try Uncle Orson’s Writing Class (by Orson Scott Card). 

3. Third Person Head Hopping

When you write in the limited third person, it is important that you keep everything in that person’s POV and not switch around.

Say I’m writing in Jenny’s point of view. I can say what Jenny does and says, and also what she thinks and feels. I can say what anyone else does and says but not what they think or feel.

‘Jenny suddenly saw the enemy horsemen in the valley in front of her. She caught her breath sharply. She felt sick. She was horrified.’

That’s alright but in following example doesn’t work:

‘Jenny suddenly saw the enemy horsemen in the valley in front of her. She caught her breath sharply. She felt sick. She looked at John. He was horrified as well.’

Here I’m hopping from Jenny’s head into John’s. I could say that he looked horrified, that he was obviously horrified, or have him say that he is horrified. 

But I can’t say what he feels, because I am writing from Jenny’s perspective.

4. Filtering

When writing in the third person, there is another mistake that is easy to make. Look at the following sentence:

‘Jenny lay patiently on the floor of the hut, peering at the silent village before her. After what seemed like an eternity she saw a slight movement from among the dark trees to her right.’

I should not have included she saw. This is called filtering. It is unnecessary and removes immediacy between the POV and the action.

Another comment from Cathryn:

Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters and Viewpoint, has a visual description of the different types of third-person perspective (pp. 163-169 in the 1988 edn, Writers’ Digest Books).

Have you made these mistakes in your writing? Are there other craft errors that your writing group members have alerted you to? I’m curious to know.

I know I was taught to put ‘interesting’ adverbs in my stories when I was at secondary  school.

Here’s some info about Richard Blackburn and his books:

Richard is Zeus Publication’s bestselling author. He has written a historical fiction trilogy: The GatekeeperRudigor’s Revenge (both listed in the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge) and The RegimentRichard lives in Queensland and travels extensively to do book signings.

Click here to visit Richard’s website.

Richard Blackburn’s tips for successful book signings

I recently chatted to author Richard Blackburn about book signings. The conventional wisdom is, unless you’re a bestselling author, don’t do them.

Contrary to this, Richard does well with signings. He sent me this piece with his suggestions.

Here’s what Richard has to say about book signings.

I usually have six signings per month. Having written a trilogy this is very important. People coming back to buy the second and third book is the best proof that my books are being enjoyed.

The reason I was moved to write on this subject is that I’ve seen authors sitting at tables with piles of their books in front of them … and nobody to talk to. They look like losers. They look self conscious. They don’t look worth a second glance unless out of pity.

I give a big smile and say, ‘this is my first book’.

I sell an average of 20 books each signing and I believe there are a number of reasons for this.

When’s the best time for a book signing?

I usually sign on Thursdays (for the late night shopping) or Saturdays. Managers of the stores I visit confirm that these are the best days. Otherwise I sign during school holidays or just before Mothers’ Day and important occasions like that. I ask the manager about possible problems.

I once made a mistake of being at Mt Ommaney store on the Saturday of the Amberly Airforce Base’s annual show. The shopping mall was deserted.

What’s the best way to promote the signing?

I email the newspapers in the area of the signing a couple of weeks in advance. People who have bought the first book will make a special trip to buy a signed copy of the second one.

How to set up

I like to arrive at the store early, so I have time to set up. My genre is Historical Fiction so I have a suitable cloth for the table – rich blue velvet. On this I place my chain-mail vest and Norman helmet.

My books’ covers are distinctive so I have a couple of big plastic posters of the cover art, one to face each way the shoppers are walking. So people will see me well in advance and have a good idea of my books’ genre. That means people not interested will just walk past. I’m happy with that. I like to have a high strike rate when people stop to talk to me. That means they are almost converted!

How to engage customers

I always stand up. I look at the passing shoppers in the eye and smile. I say ‘Good Day’ and watch for signs of interest. Some people walk straight up and ask what the book is about. I have a well-rehearsed, 1.45 minute spiel to tantalize them. Others barely glance – I still smile. Some show a bit of interest. I give a big smile and tell them ‘this is my first book’. This usually brings them over. If people don’t come to hear about the book, there’s little chance they’ll buy it.

 I like to have a high strike rate when people stop to talk to me.

Another ploy is best used when parents have collected students from school and are shopping on the way home. Youngsters look longingly at the helmet and I invite them to try it on. While they are marveling at the weight of the head gear and the amount of work in the chain mail, I explain to the parent what my book is about.I’ve had so many sales to kids who badger their parents for a copy.

If they don’t have enough money for the purchase, I hand over a business card so the student can ask the school librarian to get the trilogy into the school library.

If other writers come over…

I also take my copies of The Australian Writers’ MarketPlace and A Decent Proposal (by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth). Most signings I’m approached by a writer who wants to ask questions. These two books give them lots of ideas, such as where to find out about publishers and how to write a proposal when approaching them.

A final note

I really like helping people because I made a lot of mistakes at first and wish someone had helped me out. I don’t think of other writers as competition. We are all striving to get Australian writing respected world wide.

Cover for Richard Blackburn's 'The Regiment'

Cover for Richard's novel, 'The Regiment'


Richard is Zeus Publication’s bestselling author. He has written a historical fiction trilogy: The GatekeeperRudigor’s Revenge (both listed in the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge) and The Regiment. Richard lives in Queensland and travels extensively to do book signings.

Click here to visit Richard’s website.

If you’re in the area, Richard will be giving a talk as part of Caboolture Library’s ‘Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea’ fundraiser. For a gold-coin donation you can help yourself to a platter of home-made sweets and treats and hear from Richard Blackburn. Richard will speak about the ups, downs and interesting facts about writing historical fiction.
Caboolture Library Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea for Cancer Council Queensland will be held on Thursday May 27 from 10am–11am. 
To book or for more information, phone (07) 5433 2000.

How will you promote your book? Pt 3 of an interview with author, Chrissie Michaels

This is part 3 of my interview with author, Chrissie Michaels. Today she explains how she is promoting her new book, In Lonnie’s Shadow.

Chrissie, how do you market yourself to teachers and librarians?

Rachel at the Australian Education Union has just interviewed me for the teacher’s union newsletter and I recently did an interview with Judith at SLAV (School Library Association of Victoria) for their Bright Ideas blog.

Will there be teachers’ notes for In Lonnie’s Shadow?

There are teachers’ notes on Ford Street’s website and also on mine. I do plan to add more. I have put on an FAQ section on my site as there have been a few questions about which items from the dig are real or imagined. I should reinforce at this point that Lonnie is a work of historical fiction.

Do you or you publisher have any plans to sell your book overseas?

Paul Collins (publisher at Ford Street Publishing) has mentioned that it went to Bologna. We won’t know for a few months. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

How did you decide what content to put on your website?

I am a novice at this. I only set up the website over the summer holidays and haven’t got a domain name yet. Sophie Masson gave some good advice, which I took up about using the Google site. I wanted the focus to be on Lonnie and to make the book trailer more available. I also wanted it to be a focus for teachers. That’s why I am putting up some additional classroom activities. I have just included some work on the language in the novel, clarifying terms such as: duck shoving, on the wallaby etc. 

Who is the audience for your website?

I guess I have made it more for teachers at this point. I am a real novice at this at the moment. I haven’t even faced Facebook or Twitter yet!

Why did you do a book trailer? How did you decide what to do for it?

Paul Collins suggested we have a book trailer. This was over the last summer holidays. Hopefully it provides an entry point for some to read Lonnie.

My partner Michael produced the trailer. Between us we came up with the ideas for the script. It was a matter of what we could do and what we could work with. Michael is fabulous at using MovieMaker.

We had some photos of Little Lon from my research. They feature buildings that appear in the novel which is set in Little Lon in 1891. There is the Leitrim where Daisy lives and the Governor, one of Pearl’s haunts. The Royal Exhibition Buildings, the fountain and the Carlton gardens are central to the illegal horse race through the streets. The knife relates to Slasher Jack; the bottles (the bottle for medicine or poison and the Glass and Bottle gang); the fob watch (the cause of some of Lonnie’s unhappiness); these all appear in the novel. The trapdoor and the traditonal nursery rhyme ‘Around the rick’ are also key links. 

The background music to the clip was a birthday present from my brother who plays the classical guitar and composed the piece,which he called Lonnie’s Lick. He says he is available to compose music for any other clips. 

My daughter and her boyfriend were most put out that their words weren’t used, as they spent at least an hour one afternoon rehearsing lines, as Lonnie and Pearl. My daughter does appear as Pearl though in the news clipping section of the clip!

How are you integrating your online promotions with your ‘real world’ promotions?

I don’t think I really live in the ‘real world’. That internal landscape keeps building fences. This is the first time I have been involved in any online promotions’ venture. There have been quite a few interviews for blogspots (such as yours) and we are all certainly grateful for the opportunity to talk about our books and writing. Networks are so important for writers. It can be quite isolating otherwise. But there has to be a balance. 

Are you a full-time writer? How do you structure the days that you write? 

I do have a part-time teaching job at the local secondary school, three days a week, which is quite time consuming.

Writing at home is relaxation time, done purely when I feel like doing it, which turns out to at least a few hours a day, mostly on my days off, and during weekends or holidays. I do have spells where I do more, especially when an idea is ripening or a deadline is due. 

How does your background inform your writing?

I’m an avid reader with a love of literature and history. I have a curious (and at times, a troubling) mind.  When I was 17 and in my first year at uni, where I was studying French, I was introduced to the French authors, Zola and Balzac. They still stay with me now. 

How would you describe your ‘brand’ as an author?

I think I will end up being tagged as a writer of historical fiction. If I could live my life again, I would have been an archaeologist or historian and I guess I would have ended up in the same place. (Then again I would like to be Doctor Who’s assistant and I have written a sc-fi novel for Scholastic Press…) 

I just consider myself a writer who is lucky enough to be published sometimes.

If you could travel back in time to the moment before you sent off your first manuscript, what advice would you give yourself?

Never send a handwritten manuscript. Accept any criticism as constructive advice. 

Always be polite – remember that the commissioning editor who refuses your manuscript today will probably move on to another publishing house and you may meet up again soon. 

In Lonnie’s Shadow
The discovered artefacts from an archaeological dig in Melbourne become the backdrop for this story about a group of teenagers in 1891 who are struggling to make their way in a world that seems to be conspiring against them whichever way they turn. Lonnie McGuinness knows only one thing for sure – there doesn’t seem to be any fairness in life for him or his mates. So he decides to take matters into his own hands. 
But when does a favour turn into a crime? 
And when should a secret no longer be kept?

Chrissie’s bio

Chrissie’s published work includes junior fiction, poetry and short stories, as well as a series of primary school texts. In Lonnie’s Shadow is her debut YA novel and is published by Ford Street Publishing.

She will appear at Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival, at 7 pm on Thursday 27 May 2010 at the Wheeler Centre, 176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. 

Click here to visit Chrissie’s website.

View the trailer for In Lonnie’s Shadow here. (Scroll down approx. 4 screen lengths to find it.)

How did you get published? Part 2 of an interview with author, Chrissie Michaels

In part 2 of my interview with author Chrissie Michaels, Chrissie explains how she does historical research and how she plans to promote In Lonnie’s Shadow to schools.

Do you ever encounter obstacles when writing for publication? 

Time is my greatest enemy. Where does the time go when you are on a computer? You look up and several hours have passed. I become obsessive and bossy to the extreme—‘Who took the Do Not Disturb sign?!’ When the computer crashes; the printer runs dry; the internet won’t work; there’s a paragraph to finish but I just can’t get it right; ‘Who’s taken the Macquarie?’… 

At this point I take a break—a walk on the beach, do some gardening, go on a short holiday…

Cover for In Lonnie's Shadow

Cover for In Lonnie's Shadow

How do you tackle historical research?

I really enjoy the thrill of discovery in historical research. In Lonnie’s Shadow is the second of my published historical novels, although it is my first novel for young adults pitched at the more mature reader.  The other novel is On Board the Boussole, the diary of Julienne Fulbert, written for the 12+ age group and based on the French explorer, Lapérouse’s tragic voyage in the 18th century. This is part of the Australian, My Story series by Scholastic Australia. 

Melbourne’s State Library has been an invaluable resource for both novels. The Argus newspaper was an important reference for me when researching Lonnie. I trawled the microfiche at the Library, referred to academic papers about the archaeological digs, checked out the ephemera section. I also visited Museum Victoria and studied their exhibition on Melbourne. Many artefacts from the digs are part of this display. In fact this was the source of my inspiration for Lonnie.

While writing Boussole, the rare books section of the library was invaluable for research on Lapérouse.  I corresponded closely with Reece Discombe, who rediscovered the site of the shipwrecks near Vanikoro in the 1960s. Reece gave me some of his photographs, sent me photocopied material and gifts, such as a book signed by the French admiral who oversaw the French navy’s dives to the wrecks (which I now treasure). Pierre at Albi sent me a wonderful limited edition print of the Boussole (ship) commissioned by the French government, as well as one for the National Maritime Museum in Sydney which I sent on to them. Jean from the Association Salomon sent me copies of his own novels on the subject. I also visited the Lapérouse Museum in La Perouse, NSW. 

Without a doubt, I get carried away doing research. Here’s an example of what I mean—when researching the cost of an apple for Lonnie, I came across a reference to the gangs who roamed around Melbourne at that time. It was like falling into a vat of scrumpy in the form of my gang leaders, George Swiggins and Billy Bottle, who must have been fermenting somewhere in the back of my mind. Believe me, they poured out that day, packing a punch and set for a bottling. At the time, I forgot about the apple…

Do you do book proposals for your work?

I always try to follow the submission guidelines that a publisher has. If this calls for a book proposal then I will do it. I try to present manuscripts as professionally as I can and always include a return envelope with the required postage, unless stated otherwise. 

Why do you write under a pen name?

Really just because I can… it fits into where I am at this point in my life. If you do write under a pen name you should inform Public Lending Rights; Educational Lending Rights and Copyright Agency Limited. Also I always put my ‘real’ name along with my other details on a manuscript’s cover page.

Do you have an agent?

Because we do still have a range of markets here in Australia I have been happy to do it alone. However, I’ve just sent some material to a US agent. I saw an advertisement in one of my network newsletters. But this is the first time I’ve done so. 

For your latest book, what aspects of publicity and promotion will Ford Street handle? What do you plan to do?

Paul Collins my publisher at Ford Street is supersonic. He has sent off stickers, bookmarks, set up interviews and provided contact points. He provided the opportunity for my involvement in the cultural exchange of Australian books to the Shanghai and Nanjing Libraries. The exhibition is called ‘Finding Gold’ and is associated with the current Shanghai World Expo. I am very excited to be one of the featured writers. 

I am one of 16 writers selected to launch their book during the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne. My timeslot is Thursday 27 May, 7–8pm. Estelle Tang is hosting these ‘15 Minutes of Fame’. There will be book sales and a book signing at the end. More details are available on the EWF website. Please come along if you can. A launch is a real celebration, like a birthday because our characters are like our own children (almost).

What do you plan to talk about to school groups?

I am happy to speak to school groups. Lonnie is for the more mature adolescent reader as it has some gritty and violent moments. Some of the characters are hard done by but they are resilient and determined and don’t give up. 

I have a Lonnie collection of my own to act as writing inspiration. My favourite is the phrenological head (chapter: ‘Skull’ from In Lonnie’s Shadow) which I picked up at a market over one summer holiday. I also have an old brown bottle with ‘not to be taken’ on it (‘Bottle for medicine or poison’). I’ve got some great old coins (‘Three coins and a token’). I have some great photos of the area around Little Lon as well.

There’s the book trailer to show and extracts to read, language to explore… 

There are also stories to tell. Just yesterday I had a phone call from a lady whose mother spent her early childhood in Cumberland Place (part of the setting in Lonnie). She told me how her mother wandered down to the nearby theatre and watched Pavlovna dance. I was so thrilled to hear from her and even more that she was really excited by my book. She is going to keep in contact by email and tell me some more stories. I can’t wait.

Tomorrow, Chrissie explains more about how she plans to promote In Lonnie’s Shadow.

In the meantime, take a look at the trailer for the book, along with Chrissie’s article about using book trailers in the classroom.

How did you get published? Interview with YA author, Chrissie Michaels

Today, I’m talking with author Chrissie Michaels. Chrissie’s new historical fiction novel for young adults, In Lonnie’s Shadow, is published by Ford Street Publishing. 

Chrissie, can you tell me how you first came to be published? 

I started writing short stories as a hobby. I took a manuscript along to a workshop run by Bruce Pascoe who at the time was publishing a literary journal, called Australian Short Stories. Someone at the school I worked at knew him and organised his visit as part of a community arts project. This was in 1988, I remember, because my daughter was only a few weeks old and it was the first time I had actually ventured out after the birth. She came along too!

author, Chrissie Michaels

Chrissie Michaels, author of In Lonnie's Shadow

After this a few of us got together and started a local writers’ group. Being with other writers can spur you on. From there I began entering competitions. Often when you are a prize-winner your work is published in an anthology. Luckily, I managed to win a few prizes, so saw some work go into print. Our writers’ group then started publishing some anthologies of their own and doing readings. 

A few years later I decided to do a professional writing course. It was there I started to write a novel. I recall telling one of my tutors that I was a short story writer, not a novelist. I just didn’t feel that I had a novel in me. She said, ‘Nonsense.’ I started kicking and screaming (figuratively, not literally) but she persevered. Within the year I had finished my first children’s novel and it was accepted for publication by Scholastic. I ended up teaching short story and a few other subjects at TAFE, so eventually my hobby became my work.

In the end the story you send in has to stand alone.

You’ve entered competitions and had lots of short pieces published. Was this part of a deliberate strategy to develop your career as a writer?

It was all ad hoc in a way. I was lucky that in my early stages when I sent off work it seemed to be published. So I thought it was easy. Well, I have learnt a thing or too since then! I still think I write for the pleasure and the challenge, although I’ve never been shy about sending off manuscripts. And I still enter competitions, especially the local ones as they are so supportive of the community and it’s always an affirmation when someone likes a story or poem enough to award a prize or commendation. I am in the process now of judging the Kathryn Purnell Poetry Prize for the Society of Women Writers (Vic); this has been a very enjoyable task.

I like to sponsor eager students as well. Last year one of my Year 10 students who really was struggling with his writing skills, did five drafts of a story. This was a mammoth effort on his part and when he took out the first prize for his age group I can’t tell you how delighted I was for him. Seeing him so happy and proud at the presentation ceremony was a fantastic feeling. 

You’ve written for three quite different audiences: children, teachers and adults. Do you go through phases where you’re just writing for one audience?

I guess the fact I teach as well as write for children means I am a pretty child-centric sort of person. It’s true I always have a few projects going on together. At the moment I have a couple of adult novels in various draft stages that I visit every now and then. I have written some adult poetry recently. There are a few picture book texts and a chapter book for younger readers that are currently with publishers. I also am in negotiations with an educational publisher for a workbook, which is at the trial chapter stage.

When I have a deadline to meet then I am usually ruthless about how I utilise the time. Everything else stops until it is completed. When I was revising Lonnie for Paul Collins at Ford Street, I would do long stints at a time. It is a matter of going into the necessary sphere for writing or editing, depending on the task at hand.

I always have ideas swirling around in my head. It’s just finding the time to write them down…

Is there a particular audience you prefer writing for?

Depends on my mood and the idea which comes to mind, although I do seem to write more for children. When I started In Lonnie’s Shadow I wasn’t sure whether I would write it for the adult general market or for young adults. The characters ended up defining the pathway, most particularly Lonnie and Pearl. Even so the novel does seem to fit into the crossover market. 

Did your background as a teacher help when you approached education publishers for writing work? 

For the teacher texts, yes, definitely. Some educational publishers are happy to put you on their file if you send in a sample of your writing and your style fits their purpose. It’s definitely worth checking out their websites and submission guidelines.

What are the differences between writing for the education market and trade?

Education markets are fairly prescriptive. They usually have a project in mind and you will be required to write to a tight set of guidelines. This may be for a series of readers that are targeted to a certain age group and are language specific. Textbooks very much require a teaching perspective as well as a direct knowledge of the related curriculum. 

The trade market is a hard nut to crack. The avenues for unsolicited material are becoming fewer and fewer, the slush piles seem higher and higher. I believe in being persistent. I keep checking publishing websites to see if and when they are open for submissions. It is important to present as professional a manuscript as you can to them. I’ve found most publishers respond genuinely to your submission. But it can take a long time before you receive a response.

Did having a publication record help you when you approached Ford Street Publishing about your novel?

I must say first of all that everyone at Ford Street Publishing has been fantastically supportive. I sent Lonnie in cold. At first, they returned the manuscript but gave me a detailed response. What they said made great sense and I could tell that they had clearly spent time reading the story. When they suggested I revise certain parts and they may give it a second look I quickly set to work. This is what I meant when I said earlier about the genuineness of some publishers. I wasn’t sure if they would consider it a second time, but they did and what’s more they accepted it. 

I guess it helped in the initial stage that I could send in an author CV with some writing credits. But in the end the story you send in has to stand alone. 

Tomorrow, Chrissie explains how she does historical research and how she plans to promote In Lonnie’s Shadow to schools.

How do you promote your books? Pt 2 of an interview with author, Richard Blackburn

This is the second part of my interview with author, Richard Blackburn. Richard has written an historical fiction trilogy for young adults.

Richard, do you sell or promote your books outside of bookstores?

Most definitely! I average a book signing a week and sell around twenty books each signing, and this is really helpful, especially now the three books of the trilogy have are available. But I’ve had a lot of success as a guest speaker for National Seniors Groups, Probus Clubs, etc. The audience is often about 80 people and they are interesting and educated people who often want to get published themselves. So I talk of my experience and how they can start out for themselves.

Author, Richard Blackburn

Historical fiction author, Richard Blackburn

I give talks at high schools. My first two books have been accepted for the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge so I have a good ‘in’ there. I’ve given talks at council libraries readers’ and writers’ groups and sold copies there.

For the Canadian/US market I have to rely on the internet. Lachesis has its own marketing section but I’m not happy to leave it at that. I’m sending emails to every library, high school and reading group I can find an email address for. I’ve applied for a grant to attend a two-month residential in USA to follow up on this work – and it is work. California alone has over 9,000 high schools.

I’ve just had a website created for me and I’m going to link it to the blog site I’m trying to get going. That’s where I hope to sell more books. It will also be a place I can advertise the time and location of my signings. I send notices to all newspapers already and it helps. It’s great to have people come up and say that they’ve read about me and want to hear more – a great advantage.

For school groups, what do you talk about?

I introduce myself and my book. I have a funny story about how my father was a story teller and I followed that way. They all love a laugh.

I talk about growing up on the site of an ancient castle, long demolished, but with some evidence still in the contours of the land. Then I talk of the writing process and how lucky we are to have the English language to use. Over the millennia we’ve pinched a huge number of words from Latin, Norse, French, German and many other languages so we have a word for every degree of emotion.

At my talks I have a few coins from the 12th century, I have a chain mail vest and helmet. I tell them my wife won’t let me have a sword because I’m very accident prone and she’s sure our insurance wouldn’t cover me being trusted with a dangerous weapon. So I set the scene for my books.

Also I have a 1m x 0.5m poster of my books’ cover art – it’s really eye-catching. After the talk, I let them try the armour on. In that way the students remember it and it usually gets into their school magazine.

Do you market yourself to teachers or librarians?

I find schools a hard market. I’ve emailed every public school in Australia and every time a book is accepted for the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge I contact every school library in NSW. I’ve had talks to many teachers at my book signings and, even though I have my blue card, little has come of it.

Libraries are different. Again I’ve emailed every one of them. This has had good results. I’ve followed up by checking the entries for my books in the catalogues of all libraries. Caloundra library had one book of the trilogy in the Adult section and two in the Young Adult section. They were happy to fix it up. Even the national library had the third book categorised for preschool readers. It’s best not to assume anyone will get it right for you – check it for yourself.

The Moreton Bay Regional Council has a webpage for local authors and I’m on that. By attending their Arts promotional meetings I met some State Arts staff and I’m on their email list and have been invited to the launch of their annual arts program. This ‘getting in’ to the Arts world is important. That’s why I’m putting in for research grants, development grants and residential grants. If you don’t push yourself, no-one else will do it for you.

It sounds like you devote a lot of time and energy to promoting your books. Does this impact on your writing time?

Just now I don’t have time to write. I’m putting all my efforts into the Canadian/US market to whip up sales there. It is very important to me because I have written the film script to the first book. If I can get a lot of interest in it, that will be the time to approach Hollywood. So it’s not worth my while trying to write. My mind isn’t there.

Are you a full-time writer?

I tell everyone that, now I’ve retired, I’m a full time domestic servant (my wife works). But all the rest of my time is writing or related work.

How does your background inform your writing?

I find that experiencing a lot of different lifestyles has allowed me to talk with confidence about the things I write. I’ve worked in the Simpson Desert, in the New Guinea jungle. I’ve parachuted (and not that tandem stuff!) and scubadived – and still do. I’ve travelled and observed.

There are people who will look for flaws in your work. I find that having been adventurous myself gives me permission to write about someone else who is involved in fascinating adventures.

How would you describe your ‘brand’ as an author?

Lots of books today are yea thick. There are often parts where the story gets bogged down. Well, I was a hopeless student. I didn’t read books because there wasn’t one I’d really liked. I passed my HSC at age 30 odd and my degree in IT at 52! So I’m a slow learner. That makes me very keen to cut the fat from my writing. I want action and interest all the time. I’m delighted when people say they couldn’t put my book down. I want to give students like I was the sort of book I would have been really happy to have found.

Also I am fascinated by interesting facts about the past and love to share them in my work. A few readers have said they eagerly await the next footnote because it is about something really interesting.

If you could travel back in time to the moment before you sent off your first manuscript, what advice would you give yourself?

I’d edit the work with my present knowledge of what is needed with regard to craft. Then I’d really put every effort into getting an agent – using the Preditors & Editors website. If that was absolutely impossible, I’d keep on trying at the top end of the publishers’ heirarchy.

I’ve nothing against Zeus and Lachesis, but the large publishers have a huge advantage in the market. They can get your book into all the bookshops and they can afford much better advertising. So, yes. I’d really work hard on my manuscript then I’d not become impatient so easily.

Richard Blackburn, thank you.


Richard Blackburn is Zeus Publications’ bestselling author and has written a fantasy trilogy: The Gatekeeper, Rudigor’s Revenge (both listed in the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge) and The Regiment. He sells a version of The Gatekeeper overseas (The Guardian of the Gate). Richard lives in Queensland and travels extensively to do book signings.

Click here for Richard’s website.

How did you get published? Interview with historical fiction author Richard Blackburn

Today I’m talking with author Richard Blackburn. Richard’s historical fiction trilogy for young adults is published by Zeus Publications.

Richard, can you tell me how you came to be published?

When I was sure I wanted to publish my story, I was totally unaware of how the publishing industry operates. I didn’t understand the role of an agent so I didn’t try to get one. I did have a bit of help from articles I’d read on the subject. So I looked through bookshops to find names of publishers for my genre. I looked them up on the internet and guess what. Most of them wouldn’t accept work from an author direct. They would only deal with an agent. A couple of major publishers which would look at my manuscript required exclusivity – I couldn’t send it to any other publishers until they had made a decision. So I wasted a year sending my manuscript to two publishers who took six months each to reject it. I became impatient – I didn’t want to be published posthumously!

Cover for Richard Blackburn's 'The Regiment'

Cover for Richard Blackburn's 'The Regiment'


Then I was at a meeting of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland and heard a published author discuss the advantages of going to a smaller publisher, even if it meant making a monetary contribution to the cost of getting published. He’d been published three times by Zeus Publications and so I approached them. I was immediately accepted by their literary assessor and was eventually in print! In Australia my books are called The Gatekeeper, Rudigor’s Revenge and The Regiment; die Kompanie. Zeus pays royalties and contracts to have sufficient books for market demand for a three year period.

Once my first book had sold around 3,000 copies, I looked overseas. Again I was lucky. In the ‘Opportunities’ section of QWC’s magazine, Writing Queensland, was an ad for Lachesis Publications. I contacted them and was accepted. They are a ‘traditional’ publisher and pay royalties. I don’t pay anything – they get their profit by selling my book and that is a good outcome as far as I’m concerned. It is also important for things like getting the books into British libraries, many of which will not buy a book if the author has made any payment for getting it published. In Canada/ USA the first book is called The Guardian of the Gate and it is available there in paperback and e-book format.

Tell me about the process of completing your first published book.

I’d always been a story teller. My father had told stories on cold and windy nights when the family huddled around a fire in pre-TV days. I told stories to my children who grew up in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea where there was, again, no TV. My wife told me I should write down the stories and as you know, a man always does everything his wife tell him to. So about thirty years later, when I started to retell my yarns to my granddaughter, I decided to write them down. I was happy with them and thought up a few new ones but then I had an idea which I was very interested in. I thought this might be THE story for me. But I had been in the public service for so long I was sure all my creativity had been crushed, so I took a couple of courses with the Open Learning Institute of TAFE. I passed with flying colours so continued to write.

After completing a few chapters, I told my wife I wanted to pursue this project to publication. I had been warned me not to give my writing to family members because they would probably be biased. I’m lucky, though. My wife has never had any problem with criticizing me, so she has been a very useful beta reader. She doesn’t usually read this genre so she can be even more objective. I’ve also had great help from my daughters and their school friends, so that gave me a lot more feedback.

At this time I had a full time job and a family to look after. Time to write was sometimes a problem. The worst thing was that we only had one desktop computer with internet connection – and my wife is an internetoholic. I had to nip in from time to time to do any research, and I needed a lot of that. One piece of luck is that I found out two of my friends from work were members of historical reenactment groups. They were happy to read my manuscript and confirm that I’d made no historical blunders.

One trick I’ve found to be of great value is reading my work out loud. I wait until I have the back veranda to myself and start. The dog always looks confused. ‘Who’s he talking to now?’ But he soon walks away. If the words don’t flow well, reading them out loud will really accentuate that. If I have any problem reading my own work, my readers will have real trouble.

I also read my work over loads of times. If I find I’m having trouble writing, it is usually because there is a problem with what I’ve already written. Before I start, I write a brief biography of my main characters. Probably half a page each. Most of what I write will never be in the book – the school environment, bullying as a child, deprivation as a serf etc. But I really know my characters. So if I start writing something uncharacteristic, I’ll know in my subconscious. I’ll also know if my story is going away from its logical course, even though that was my planned course. This is a great gift I have. It saves me finding out later when correcting the problem would be a lot of work.

What did your publisher expect from you in terms of rewrites?

Zeus’ editor required very few alterations to my work. I’d edited it myself so many times, it was as good as my skills could take it.

Lachesis, Canada, was different. There was translating it into the Canadian idiom (not as bad as if it was the USA). And Lachesis is a stickler for correct English as far as modern publishing is concerned. I wasn’t allowed to use dialogue tag adverbs or said bookisms. I had to be very careful because I’d been guilty of head hopping. So there was a lot of editing but no re-writing.

Did you do a book proposal?

Here, again, I was lucky. I was advised to buy the book A Decent Proposal and it helped. I stuck religiously to the requirements listed on the website of the publisher I was targeting. For Lachesis this was very specific. It means every proposal I sent had to be written individually but luckily there have only been a very few of those. But A Decent Proposal explained what (and why) the publisher wanted and how to supply it. It took a bit longer to write the proposal but I’m sure it was worth it.

Tomorrow, Richard talks about how he promotes his books – about his popular book signings and talks to groups.