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!

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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.

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 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.