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? Interview with author, Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Author, Rosanne Dingli

Today, I’m talking to author Rosanne Dingli. Rosanne’s first novel, Death in Malta, and her newest thriller, According to Luke, are both published by BeWrite Books, a global publisher with offices in England and Canada.

Rosanne is also the author of two collections of short stories and a poetry book. She has worked as a journalist, feature writer, editor, manuscript assessor, slush pile reader, editor-in-chief, literary editor and book reviewer.

Rosanne is based in Perth, Western Australia.

Rosanne, you’ve obviously been involved in the publishing industry for some time. Can you tell me how you first came to be published?
It’s a very long story that can be summarised in this way – praise for my letters home after emigrating to Australia got me thinking. In 1985 I read a book by Elaine Fantle Shimberg (which I still have) about being a homebound writer, and also the introduction to the Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.

The two pieces gave me the first impetus. I wrote a lot of poetry and short fiction, and was successfully published in a number of journals and anthologies in a reasonably short time.

After that, it was easy to move on to freelancing for magazines and newspapers, so I established myself as a professional, which got me a teaching position at TAFE, and soon after, a lecturing job at ECU.

I take one or two ideas to the breakfast table on a Sunday, and by about 11.00am we have a fully plotted novel!

Did you have a deliberate strategy to develop your career as a writer? How did you go about achieving this? Were the short stories and poetry part of this strategy?
It was deliberate, but if you can call it a strategy … I don’t know!  It was a bit haphazard and random, but well directed in the main, and because it showed a modicum of success, I stayed encouraged. I am easily motivated by success, and because I got some, I kept going. Winning literary competitions can be quite motivating.

Do you ever encounter obstacles in terms of craft when writing for publication?
They were always obstacles that could be overcome with a measure of purpose, discipline, and a sense of humour. I always did work seriously and professionally, but never took myself too seriously – after all, this is a fickle industry, and one must keep at it in order to succeed. I have gone through phases of dejection, and I have given up about 20 times. It’s par for the course.

How did you go about plotting your puzzle thriller?
Plotting is a family affair! I take one or two ideas to the breakfast table on a Sunday, and by about 11.00am we have a fully plotted novel! All the family have something to contribute, and it can be fun and quite boisterous. I take it with a pinch of salt, but never discount even the most outrageous suggestion.

After a month of this, the scribbled plot is written out, and I start seeking jump-words to set me off. I am most inspired by actual words. Invariably, the vital ‘twist’ that really makes the story comes as I am actually writing. It is always a revelation, even to myself.

How do you find switching between different forms of writing, such as short stories, novels and poetry? Does working in one form help with working in another?
I have not written any poetry since 1993. I find I do get the mental rhythms that I used to work on, but I am a novelist now, and need bigger things to work on. Besides, poetry does little to promote me within the market I want for myself.

I used to find short stories very easy to write, and did write an enormous number of them, mostly based on atmospheric places in Europe, food, art and music. They can be fun, but do limit the writer in terms of background, because of the length restriction.

I rarely write short fiction now, but am trying to republish the out-of-print collections I have as eBooks.

Do you do research for your fiction? How do you tackle it?
Sometimes I feel I do more research than writing! I research a lot on the internet and our personal home library. We have fiction and non-fiction, lots of art and European literature, and guide books to all the destinations we have visited.

I immerse myself in the atmosphere when we travel, and take in important things about how the locals live. This filters back into my writing. It is an invisible thing that makes a reader feel I know what I am writing about, I hope!

I read very widely within my genre, and also non-fiction books about art and interiors, and map and reference books without which it would be impossible to write what I write. For my latest book, I even used the New Testament!

The vital ‘twist’ that really makes the story comes as I am writing. It’s always a revelation.

How do you research settings?
Nothing beats being there. Luckily, my husband and I have travelled quite widely, even with the children, and I make sure that each opportunity finds itself included in a book.

I am blessed with a good memory, so I remember things like street names, cafes, museums, churches,  and so forth. I have often stood somewhere – such as a bridge in Venice, a wharf in Malta, a square in Belgium or a narrow street in Amsterdam, for example, and imagined some character of mine standing there in my place.

I take that feeling home, and without even thinking about it too much, it finds its way into my work.

If a piece is accepted for publication, do you often have to rewrite or rework material?
Re-working is very often part and parcel of what writers do. This is less about the quality of the work, or the actual language, but more a matter of tone or voice. It must be compatible with the periodical or publishing house.

Professional writers do not take it personally: they come to a point of agreement with the editor, and the published work is better as a result.

I have often stood somewhere — a bridge in Venice, a wharf in Malta, a square in Belgium or a narrow street in Amsterdam — and imagined some character of mine standing there in my place.

Have you ever done a book proposal for one of your books? If so, was it helpful for yourself or your publisher?
Book proposals are generally required for non-fiction rather than fiction. But yes, I have made a book proposal once: I was editor of a local history for the Bi-Centennial of the Shire of Narrogin here in WA. It’s a long time ago, but I do remember the care and attention that went into such a proposal. It was hard work.

The discipline and attention to detail required for a proposal teaches you a lot about what goes into a published work of any kind.

Do you have an agent?
Whether you have an agent or not is less a matter of choice than people think. I have approached a number of agents in Australia, the US and in the UK. I got a moderate level of interest at the initial stages, but I found that none wanted to represent the manuscript I had at the time. Agents must feel they can sell what you have, so I got no offers. I did get several invitations to approach with another future manuscript though.

I’ll post the second part of my interview with Rosanne later this week. In it, Rosanne talks about working with her publisher, the writing community in Western Australia, and how she promotes herself as an author.

In the meantime, click here to check out Rosanne’s blog.

How did you get published? Interview with novelist and travel writer, Cameron Rogers

Today, I’m talking to author Cameron Rogers. Cam has had two novels and two YA novels published. Currently he’s travelling and writing travel articles for newspapers such as The Age in Melbourne. Cam’s unusual background includes being a motion capture model for computer games and a ‘crime management officer’ for the Queensland Police.

Cam, can you tell me how you first came to be published?
The short story is this: in the mid Nineties I’d been writing and trying to sell stories to magazines for a while, so when Gary Crew asked to see some of my stuff I had a catalogue I could show him. He liked what he read, suggested I write something for Lothian’s After Dark series, and it went from there.

I learned years later that, apparently, Gary took to me because I was a Goth but, strangely, wasn’t a wanker. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that. That first publication got Penguin interested, which led to The Music of Razors, Nicholas and the Chronoporter and my current one, Fateless.  I’m hoping that’ll be out within twelve months.

Cameron Rogers near Reykjavik, Iceland

Cameron Rogers, near Reykjavik, Iceland

How did you approach Lothian and Penguin Australia when you started out? Was there a particular method that’s worked for you?
I’m not someone who networks easily. The idea of schmoozing, of meeting new people with some selfish ulterior motive, squicks me out. Then I realized that ‘networking’ was just code for ‘having friends’. We help each other out, it’s all good, and when we’re not doing that – which is most of the time – we’re just doing what friends do.

I keep an eye out for the lateral, the beautiful, the unexpected.

Do you ever encounter obstacles (in terms of craft) when writing for publication?
Only when writing stuff for kids.  They don’t need to be patronized, they’re fine with being challenged, but the parents and librarians who buy the books often don’t seem to think so. So it can be a balancing act.

Nicholas and the Chronoporter almost didn’t see print because part of the plot involved the main character dealing with the death of his mother, for example, and then being presented with the chance to save her at great cost to everyone else. That right there almost killed it.

How do you tackle research for your fiction writing?
I do, and I’ve learned it’s possible to research to a fault.  There’s a real craft to knowing when enough is enough when it comes to info-mining. Too little and the book feels flat or doesn’t ring true, too much and it either paralyses you with choice or you disappear down the rabbit hole of researching the details of your research, ad infinitum.

I fell into that trap working on my latest book, Fateless. A section of the book has to do with the ‘Pals battalions’ raised by Kitchener in WWI.  I was so engrossed by the idea of fathers and sons and brothers and cousins – the male population of entire families sometimes – being recruited and banded together and then shipped off to the front lines, that I felt I’d lost the right to use their stories if I didn’t do it justice. I lost a year on that, only to realize that if I supplied just enough detail the reader would get it; that less really can be more, and that maintaining a good signal-to-noise ratio is absolutely critical.

I have two credos when it comes to travel: Say Yes, and Embrace Random.

It doesn’t matter how fascinating you think the subject is, if too much research makes it to the final page you run the very real risk of fatiguing, and losing, the reader.

Apart from visiting the place you’re writing about, how do you research your travel articles?
I probably do about as much research on a destination as any other traveler. I have two credos when it comes to travel: Say Yes, and Embrace Random. Those two things, I’ve found, have generated more interesting material and experiences than any amount of reading-up and planning.

Everywhere I go I take a Moleskine notebook and a camera. I keep an eye out for the lateral, the beautiful, the unexpected. I note down odd things that are said, little details that snag the attention, and photograph anything that suggests itself: sights, sounds, smells, textures, observations, snatches of conversation. Then at the end of the day I write about it, for myself, using the notes and photos as aids.

I realized that ‘networking’ was just code for ‘having friends.

At some point later I read back over all that material, isolate the articles that seem the most interesting, and then I rework those for publication. It’s really about capturing the immediacy of the experience. At the end of the day all anyone has is the experience of something, and for me the soul and purpose of good travel writing is to convey your experience to someone who can’t be there. That requires an eye for the hidden, the unexpected, the taken-for-granted, the poetic, the lateral. The tiny thing that makes the moment.

I could talk about the Eiffel Tower, for example, or I could talk about gangs of scruffy men on Parisian street corners selling cartons of stolen cigarettes and stashing their supply inside cast-iron art deco lampposts. The Eiffel Tower is common knowledge, shared culture, wallpaper, but you can smell those men. You wonder about them, who they are, their pasts, why they do what they do, how that slots with the life of the neighbourhood. It’s new, unseen … it’s engaging.

I’ll put up the second part of Cam’s interview on Friday. Cam talks about why he used a pen-name, the benefits of having an agent, and what promotions support writers get from publishers.

In the meantime, click here to visit Cam’s website/blog. He’s got some great photos of his travels.

A guide to finding writers’ resources on the web: A guest blog by Tahlia Newland

Today I’m featuring a guest blog courtesy of Tahlia Newland. Tahlia is the author of a new YA fantasy novel Lethal Inheritance.

A guide to finding writers’ resources on the web

By Tahlia Newland

Some people get frustrated with trying to find information on the web.  This is understandable because it is a web with limitless junctions and connections. It is easy to get lost or miss the very thing you are looking for.

From my own experience, I’ve found that there are a few things we can do to minimise frustration and help us find what we’re looking for.

Know what you are looking for
Do you want quick hints or a detailed essay? Do you need help with grammar, punctuation, editing, style, finding an agent or publishing? Are you interested in non fiction writing, speculative fiction or general fiction? Or do you just want general articles?

Frame searches carefully
Be specific. If you want quick general writing tips, use the keyword, ‘tips’. Type something like ‘top tips for writers’, or ‘10 tips for successful writing,’ into your search engine. If you want a quick overview of what’s important in editing, try ‘tips for editing writing’. The last word could be ‘essays’ or ‘novels’ but if you leave off the last word, your search engine will come up with points on editing music and film as well as writing.
If you want something more than a brief list of points, search for ‘how to edit writing’ or ‘how to edit a manuscript’.
If you want to write a novel, search for ‘how to write a good novel’, or be even more specific eg ‘how to write a good fantasy novel’.
When I needed them, the following searches came up with lots of excellent results:

  • ‘writing a synopsis’
  • ‘ writing a querie letter’, and
  • ‘how to write a querie letter’.

Guess the contents of a page before opening it

After you click ‘search’, your search engine will show a list of possibilities. Which do you choose? Yes, whatever is closest to what you’re looking for, but it’s not necessarily the first one on the list. And be careful; check the URL beneath the entry. If the name of the site has no relationship to writing, you may find that it’s just a one line reference in someone’s personal blog or a mostly unrelated forum.

Open links in new browser tabs
This is really important for ease of navigation. Right click on a link and select the ‘open in a new tab’ option. You can easily return to your search results by clicking on your previous tab.

Don’t be distracted
You’ve arrived at a page and it’s full of text, maybe some pictures, advertisements, links etc. They’re all very interesting, but don’t get distracted by them. Remember what you are looking for and find that on the page first.
When you do check the links, consider how relevant they are to your search. If you want to go off into something related that looks interesting, still keep in mind what you started out looking for. Otherwise you can end up wandering aimlessly through a maze of information.

Scan text rather than read it
You might read a page of text and get to the bottom only to find out that it’s not what you’re looking for. Learn to scan. Run your eyes quickly over the text looking for key words. You’ll get a feel for the content, enough to know whether you want to spend more time on it or search elsewhere.

Bookmark as you go
As soon as you find any info you think will be helpful, bookmark the site so you can easily go back to it. Alternatively copy and paste the info into a word document for later study (and copy the link to the site too).

Avoid getting overwhelmed
Be relaxed about your searching. Don’t get fixated. Get up and stretch every now and then.

And lastly, use the history button if you get lost!

Links to useful writers’ resources

These aren’t necessarily the best and there are masses more out there, so I encourage you to do your own searches. I have some links on my blogsite too.

Editing, style, grammar, good writing

About.com: grammar and composition.  I’ve returned to this website many times for clear and detailed info on the basics of writing.

There is a particularly good section on ‘cutting the clutter’

An associated site covers fiction writingThere are lots of tips, for example ‘writing dialogue’There are also tabs with info on getting started and getting published.

Revising and editing

This University of Queensland site has links to info on grammar, punctuation, structure, plot, feedback and so on.

Writing Novels

Fiction Factor contains lots of useful links.

Blogs

There are many blogs offering writing tips and related topics of various depth and you can find them in blogsite listings like Blog top sites, Blogflux, Blogarama, Blogcatalog, Bloggapedia, Bloggexplosion, Bloggernity, OnToplist and Australian Planet. There’s a world of writers like us out there and we have so much in common and so much to share. I have links to my present favourites on my blog