Tag Archive | research

Five Years Down the Road

Five years ago yesterday, I began constructing my own website. At the time, I had been thinking about this for more than half a year. As a novelist with one eBook self-published on Amazon in December 2011, the next logical step was to get my name “out there” by creating some sort of author platform.

Six months before, I had discussed this with my three trusty writing buddies. We all had full-time jobs and we were all writing novels or novellas, so none of us had much spare time available. I suggested that together we start some kind of blog to give us a little exposure on the World Wide Web. If each of us wrote a post once a month, then together the site would have a new post once a week. We decided that this was manageable.

Thus, Scribbling Scribes was born in February 2012.

Within the next few months I decided that I needed my own website as well. We had begun Scribbling Scribes on Weebly, and the process was simple, so that was the platform I chose for my website. I launched the eBook version of my novella on Amazon on June 8, 2012, and began building my website on Weebly the very next day. Less than two weeks later, my website went live, on June 21.

I had great fun constructing all the pages – my bio, my favourite books about writing, the blurbs of my two books (including links to their product pages on Amazon), other links to my Goodreads and Amazon author pages, and a gallery with some of the photos used as inspiration during the writing of those books. I also constructed a contact form so that visitors to my website could get in touch with me. And they have. I’ve had messages from far and wide, friends both new and old.

Before the launch of my third book a few months later, I started a blog on the same website, to keep readers informed of my writing progress.

Two years on, we moved Scribbling Scribes to WordPress, and within three months I had migrated my blog to WordPress as well, but I kept the archive on my website. I also started a second blog about working in the theatre industry, but since leaving that industry two years ago I don’t often post on it any more.

So how has my writing career progressed in the five years since I started my website? Feast and famine, it must be admitted. The fourth novel took ages to write and was finally uploaded as an eBook exactly a year ago today. My excuse is that I was distracted by moving house twice in South Africa, before the giant move from there to Australia, where it has taken me a while to find my feet.

My fifth novel is half-written; the second half slipped into the background of my life while I was trying to get a job, and it has stayed there while I juggle two of them, one of which is a writing job.

All in all, I’m happy with where I am in life at the moment, but I do wish things would move a bit faster because I seem to be growing older. (How did that happen?!) However, I refuse to stand still and wait. I am trying to wring as much as I can out of life in general.

When my new boss found out my age (he’s twenty years older than I am), he told me I was a spring chicken and had at least another thirty years of work ahead of me. I wonder if that means he intends to keep me employed there for all of them…

Those who follow this blog regularly will know that I regard every experience in life as research for future novels, so let’s just say that I’m doing an awful lot of research at the moment!

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Life as a Shopgirl and Pen-for-Hire

My circumstances have finally changed. In the last month I have gone from being unemployed and fairly desperate, to being partially employed in two places. Ah, the relief!

Since October last year I have been volunteering for an organisation which helps the needy. I work in their shop three afternoons a week, sorting, pricing and selling donated goods. I enjoy it and I have made some good friends while getting some much needed retail experience. Some of the volunteers have also worked in a nearby fresh food shop, and one of them told me to apply there, because the owners always seemed to need people. I did, and I was taken on for three days a week. I have now been gainfully employed there for two weeks, and yesterday I received my first payment. Yay!

So what’s it like being employed again after all this time? It feels fantastic. Rude jokes about Shopgirls and Checkout Chicks don’t touch me – it’s great to have a job!

In my last blog-post I wrote a little about my new internet writing experience. Having completed the first month’s contract, I can honestly say that it’s been fun too. Here’s how that all happened:

I applied to an internet writing site about six months ago. This is a site which supplies daily content to its various clients around the world. They have writers on their books from America, Canada, the UK and Australia. At the time, they didn’t have any vacancies for writers in Australia, but in January that changed. They asked me for a sample piece, which I wrote and sent to them. They liked it enough to put me on their waiting list until they had a contract. I was told that this typically takes three to four months.

I forgot about it in the Greater Job Search, but in April they offered me a contract for 10 short articles, to be delivered at intervals until the end of that month. Payment is always at the end of the following month, so I would only be paid for these at the end of May. I agreed.

This type of work has been a new experience for me. It’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s helped me to flex my long-dormant writing brain, which is always a good feeling. Basically, I have to find news from certain suburbs where their client has branches, write a set number of words about it, including at least one of their specified keywords. I spend a lot of time scouring the internet looking for what sometimes seems impossible, and then construct a short piece about it. Each one takes me about two days to find the news, and half a day to write the piece. When it’s done I start on the next.

After I had sent off the first few, they offered me an extra four because another of their Australian writers had a temporary problem. I took it on, probably against my better judgement because (as we all know) I am not a fast writer.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, but the good news is that I managed to deliver my full fourteen articles on time, and now I have another fourteen articles to deliver in May. And money at the end of it.

My poor novel is still a work-in-progress, but now that the Job Search is out of my head, I am open to ideas again. My notebook goes everywhere with me, because researching life is also researching for my writing.

At this stage I’m not sure what the future holds for me in Australia, but it’s certainly looking a whole lot better than it did just a month ago. I’m writing, I’m earning, and I’m happy!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 5: Timeline

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I do a timeline for every novel I write. I don’t always do it before I start writing, but when I start to get muddled about where in the first week my characters are, I sit down and work my way through the text, pinpointing which day is which, and adjusting my outline to reflect the timeline. Once that’s done, I find it easier to move forward.

And backward. Into my timeline goes all the relevant historical info that I might use to inform the novel’s backstory as well. Because I tend to be something of a stickler for details, I need to know that every part of my story rings true (at least in my little world), and part of this means that I cannot afford to be sloppy about what one character might have told another, out of context, about some historical event. If it’s likely to be mentioned anywhere in the novel, its dates are found and inserted into the relevant year, month or week.

It may sound rather limiting to have a rigid structure like a timeline, but writing within certain parameters can also help with plot tension. Also, each novel I write has a slightly different format, and once my timeline rings true, the writing can flow better. I don’t want to end up 30,000 words down the line with somebody’s father having told a character in great detail about something he witnessed, only to discover that the father hadn’t been born at the time of the incident.

My historical novella From Daisy with Love was set against the First World War, and was partly inspired by my grandmother’s work as a letter-writer during that war. I also had my grandfather’s war diaries of the same time period, which were useful in that they provided a very real timeline, both for the action he witnessed and for the action he complained of missing.

The Daisy timeline started with the birthdates of both my grandparents, was supplemented by personal events – the death of Daisy’s parents, the marriage of her sister – and world events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru, the start of the war and the battle of Delville Wood in which so many South African soldiers died.

Although it seems that linear tales are told in my contemporary novels The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest, there was more to this process than simply making sure that each day of the week tied up with the action I had planned for the characters. Certainly the timeline for one of these turned out to be more involved than the aforementioned historical novella because it included even more historical backstory than a world war.

The timeline for The Epidaurus Inheritance eventually ran to seventeen pages – I kid you not! – and was extremely complicated. It started with six pages of notes about the various events in Greek and Turkish history which would be mentioned or touched on in parts of the book. Four pages of detailed timeline followed, covering post-classical Greece from 336 BC when Alexander the Great took over from his father who was assassinated, including Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles in 1801, as well as Schliemann’s various excavations of Troy and Mycenae, and ending with the exile of Greece’s King Constantine in 1967.

Here’s where the interesting stuff starts, but the timeline still hasn’t reached the start of the novel yet: the next three pages take me from the birth of my two main characters in 1973 and 1978, through their individual backstories up to the start of the novel in June 2010, when these two characters finally meet during the play festival at Epidaurus.

Only the last four pages of this timeline show the progression of the actual novel itself: a week by week breakdown of the four weeks of action in the novel, noting what happens on each day during those four weeks leading to the novel’s climax and resolution, and the final aftermath two weeks later.

I know it sounds like an epic in itself, but I did promise you an anatomy of a timeline and this is probably the most detailed one I wrote. In fact, I reused parts of it again while compiling the timeline for my later novel The Trojan Legacy, where I used bits of that timeline which I hadn’t used before.

The Trojan Legacy timeline is only twelve pages long. The first six pages consist of relevant bits condensed down from the first ten pages of the Epidaurus timeline. (I have a fascination for this time period and I will more than likely delve into this mine of information in future novels too.)

The next page is character Frank Lyzbarta’s timeline. Most of this is the story that Bobby tells Regina and the others in his bar in the early pages of the book, but it also includes the information that Bobby discovers later in Frank’s prison diary. The next two pages are Marcus and Ellen’s timeline, from their births in 1930 and 1934 respectively, their backstory up till their meeting in 1962, and onwards from that time for the next few months, which is the total of their story in the book.

The next page covers the bridge between those two characters and the two modern-day characters. The final two pages cover the time from the births of Bobby and Regina in 1981 and 1987, to their meeting at the start of the novel, and their involvement in piecing together the story of their grandparents throughout the novel, as well as the continuation of their own story together.

Over the years I seem to have become more adept at filtering out of those giant timelines the stuff I don’t need. The timeline for Benicio’s Bequest is only five pages and most of it centres on the daily activities of the four week period of the novel’s action, but the first page has several important notes about incidents in Florence before the start of the novel (long before the births of its two main characters). Not all of this was used, but I found it useful to know and keep in mind while I was writing.

In my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage my timeline is nowhere near complete at three and a half pages, but I can guarantee it will grow more before the novel is finished. It spans three distinct eras: 1955 which is the era in which the main story takes place; the first half of the twentieth century which is glimpsed through flashbacks and references to World War 2, as well as discoveries about the childhood lives of the characters before that war; and the third era concerns important historical happenings that the main characters will uncover about the Tudor and Elizabethan era in England.

Even now, with the first draft of the novel only halfway through at 50 000 words, I am still finding new bits of information that I want to include, and these all involve more research, more fodder for my timeline, and thus endless new possibilities for my novel.

Research and the Art of Procrastination

I’m between novels at the moment. The last is written but still being read before new edits, and the next hasn’t yet been thought up. For the last two months I have dabbled with the idea of dredging up my two long-lost trunk novels and rewriting one of them, but my interest has waned somewhat. Why is this? Possibly because all the research I did for them at the time when I first wrote them has already been done. Boredom has set in and if I’m bored, I don’t want to pass that on to my readers.

For me, there’s something tremendously exciting about doing research for a new novel, and in many ways it may rival my enthusiasm for Setting. I’ve always said that a good story is a triangulation between three things – Characters, Plot and Setting – and that all three are equally necessary because two out of three will not do the job.

A strong triangle forms a good base, but if you want it to be a worthwhile structure, it needs a fourth element: Research. This addition doesn’t turn it into a square, but provides the extra dimension that makes a flat triangle stand up in 3D.

But what happens when you don’t yet have the first three elements of that golden 3D triangle? Where do you start the next project when you are totally, blissfully clueless and purposeless? Why, with research of course!

One way I like to research is to watch movies. This is my favourite form of procrastination and allows me to soak up the atmosphere of the time, whether in terms of place, period, clothing, music or language – it doesn’t matter which, all is grist for my mill.

Another way to research is to turn to my own bookshelves. Back in high school I received a book prize – A Newspaper History of South Africa by Vic Alhadeff. Recently I dug it out for inspiration. Among the many landmark historical incidents that make up South Africa’s chequered history, it is the smaller, bizarre stories that have always appealed to me, and right now I am enjoying exploring these in the hopes that something may spur me on to write a novel based on – oh, I don’t know – the phenomenon of Dr James Barry; the infamous Foster Gang; the shooting of the racehorse Sea Cottage; or the poisonous crimes of Daisy de Melker.

Dr James Barry was a female surgeon who lived her life as a man. She practised medicine in the British army in both India and the Cape Colony in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, during that infamous period of British colonial expansion. The Foster Gang perpetrated their crimes in Johannesburg around the time when South Africa was divided about whether to support England or Germany in the First World War. Sea Cottage was shot on the Durban beachfront by a petty criminal paid by a syndicate of gamblers in June 1966. And Daisy de Melker poisoned two husbands (allegedly) and her son (definitely) in Johannesburg between 1923 and 1932.

I’m researching all of these at once. Who knows – a connection between them may pop up somewhere before I have to admit that I might just be suffering from writer’s bombardment. That’s the opposite of writer’s block, by the way – so many stories, so little time to tell them.

What to do next, what to do…