Category Archives: research

Writing retreat

Because I am tortured by the compulsion to not only write stories, but also document every little thing I see and do, here is a blog post about my recent writing retreat experience (condensed version!).

DAY 1
So, I’m off now to my writing retreat (read: isolated cabin out in the bush with no wi-fi or washing machine, but affordable). I’m going to work on my manuscript that terrifies me. Don’t worry, I’ll be OK …

 

 

I picture part of my novel set in a place where I lived in my youth. I should have realised that coming back here — where I haven’t been for years, except for funerals — would be confronting. A strange, hopeful yet empty feeling gripped me as I drove the flat, dusty roads. Like returning ‘home’, but knowing that no family or friends are waiting anymore. Every road, every turn, holds a memory: there’s the parking bay where we had to stop when my daughter was little and she got car sick; there’s the spot where I blew up my Camira because I didn’t put water in the radiator; that’s the turn-off to the house where we used to live …

Enough nostalgia! Crying to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ is ridiculous!

Writing retreat not so hellish after all.

Through the window of my little cottage:
6pm
Treated-wood porch — boards of clay-yellow and dust-grey. The screws in pairs look like eyes, the scratches below them like mouths. A fly is dying, kicking, spinning, spinning. A green-and-brown ceramic duck leans over the edge of the porch, into the dry air as if it were water. Above, from the awning, a gum leaf twists, dangling from a thread of spider’s web.
7pm
Long shadows are becoming one, covering the earth. Light filters through trees; breeze ruffles leaves gently. The landscape is almost colourless — Tom Roberts faded greens and yellows. Clumps of dry grass grow out of clay. Cracks in the earth. A stony, bitumen driveway leads to the road. The fences are in need of repair. The white letterbox leans sideways towards the give-way sign. Trucks gear down and rumble past on the main road. Sunlight glints off chrome.

Across the road, the cow-milking shed is more rust than tin. The tank behind the shed resembles a space-ship or a giant silver breast with a nipple on top. Cattle graze in the long grass of the paddock. They look like brown rocks in a sea of wheat-coloured foam.

The light takes on a golden hue. The distant sky is white. At the horizon, dark trees stand still, cow-coloured, tinged with blue.

Birds call.

7.30
Hints of pink. The cows are coming home. Headlights are flicking on. A kookaburra laughs.
8pm
The solar lights rimming the porch of my little cottage are lighting up. The trees are dark silhouettes against the sky. The clock on the wall ticks. Trucks zoom along the main road, lit up like Christmas trees — white, orange and red.

DAY 2
I am sharing my writing retreat with mice. In the dead of the night, in a cabin out in the bush, it’s hard to tell the difference between the sound of mice and that guy from Wolf Creek.

Luckily I bought some cheery reading for when I can’t sleep.

Routine:
5–6 Get up (no alarm set)
Write
9 Walk around property ½ hour
9.30 Breakfast
10–2 Write
2 Lunch
2.30–5.30 Write
5.30 Walk around property ½ hour
6 Wine and music time
? Write
? Dinner
? Write
10–11 Bed, reading

Wine and potato chips for dinner?
Why not?
No shower since Monday morning?
Oh well, maybe tomoz.

 
 
Cottage, olive groves, weird wool-less sheep

DAY 3
Mice were quieter last night, but I woke with a sore, throbbing right arm and pins and needles in my hand.

Me: I can’t feel my fingers!
Brain: I’m not surprised — after sitting and writing for so long at a very un-ergonomic table and chair. You need to adjust your posture, take regular breaks and do some stretches.
Me: I think it’s a stroke!
Brain: Can you poke out your tongue straight? Somebody told me that’s how to tell if it’s a stroke.
Me: [Rushing to bathroom, poking out tongue in mirror] Heart attack?
Brain: It’s not a heart attack.
Me: Some other illness …
Brain: Stop being silly.
Me: I think I can drive to the town, make it to a doctor in time.
Brain: No. We’re not leaving until we have a first draft.
Me: Maybe just to a chemist. Get some aspirin to thin the blood. And some bandages, just in case.
Brain: Sit down and get back to work.
Me: I can’t. I can’t breathe.
Brain: Breathe. If you’re good, we might go for a drive to the river later.
Me: You mean leave the cabin? [deep breathing into hands]

One of the weird wool-less ewes had a lamb this morning.

DAY 4
It wasn’t mice, but flies that kept me away last night. I’m not one to take fly-spray lightly, but the buzzing bastards annoyed me so much that I got up and sprayed them. And then stressed about the dangers of inhaling the chemicals from the spray in the air.

Hand is better, but now shoulders are aching and throat is sore (what could they be symptoms of?).

Through the window of my little cottage:
7am.
The warm night has melted into a cooler morning. The light, of indistinguishable colour — white / blue / grey — brushes over the darkness. The gum trees are silhouettes. A rooster crows. Birds chirp, warble and twitter. The constant traffic hum from the main road becomes heavier.

Oh, wow, look! A rubbish truck! It’s emptying the bin on the roadside. So interesting.

Time to leave the cabin for a bit?

I am leaving the cabin today. Didn’t yesterday. But, yes, today I am leaving the cabin! Going for a drive to the river. Although I’m worried that I won’t be able to find my way back here (maybe take my laptop with me, just in case).

Leaving cabin.

Here I go …

(Later) Left the cabin. Tried to find my childhood home, but couldn’t. Found the river.

The river
Dead leaves, dry grass and strips of bark crackle-crunch under foot. At the edge of the embankment, willows hang next to dying gum trees, half-uprooted, leaning, reaching towards the brown water. An almost vertical drop of pale-yellow clay leads the way down to the river. It meanders around slimy rocks, and fallen trees, bark-shed, grey, their snarly roots exposed. Blue sky and woolly grey clouds shimmer on the surface. Birds call, insects flitter and the breeze annoys the long wheat-coloured grass. It feels like somebody is watching. Just the trees — watching and whispering to each other. I don’t like it down here.
 

DAY 5
It wasn’t mice or flies or dead hands or trees that kept me awake last night. It was a prick of a mosquito — buzz, buzz, buzz in my ear all night long.

I hear it’s raining in Melbourne. Don’t think it ever rains here. Looks like another warm one today.
 

Spoke too soon — it’s raining here now. The drought has broken; the dust is being stirred up anyway.

Ten minutes later … Rain’s stopped now. Back to work.

Later (night, dark) … OMFG — a storm. A big storm! Lightning, thunder, wind, rain. I’m in a Stephen King novel. Help! Mummy!!!
 

DAY 6
Despite mice, flies, hypochondria, mosquitos and wild storms, I finished my first draft.

My little cottage in the wilderness was the perfect place to work on this stage of my novel. I think Sidney (my protagonist) would be pleased with how I have used the surroundings to build her world.

Time to go back to the real world now. It might take me a while to adjust, having not spoken to anybody, aside from my sheep friends, in six days.

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Writing place

 

I’m thrilled to be one of ten writers invited to participate in an exciting new
Darebin City Council initiative called Writing this Place. The project aims to uncover ‘hidden gems’ in the architectural, natural and social spaces in Darebin, and to celebrate local writers.

In a night of fun and mayhem involving bingo and raffles at the very original retro Thornbury Bowls Club, the writers were matched randomly (although I suspect some cheating may have gone on with the wheel spinning for location) with ten iconic places in Darebin. I was the lucky one to spin the wildcard, allowing me to choose my own location. The Westgarth Cinema.

We now have one month to research, explore and immerse ourselves in our matched location. And, of course, write about it — contributing to a new narrative for the city, investigating notions of place and form. Quite a challenge!

Quite terrifying, actually.

I find the short-story form daunting, and stand by whoever said it’s easier to write a novel than a short story [Or was it a long letter is easier than a short letter?].

I think I achieved a strong sense of place in both my novels. But it’s not something I sat at my computer and planned. It just kind of happened. I think it evolved after, or at least alongside, character development. Character usually comes first for me. But it’s hard to remember. I call it ‘novel amnesia’ — the thing that happens after you’ve written a book and have no idea how you did it. It’s like childbirth — a defence mechanism kicks in, making you forget the pain so you’ll go back and do it again.

I’ve tried to document my process while Writing this Place so I could share it here.

So, how to ‘write place’?

1. Researching online
For starters, I searched for information online. I found a lot of details about my place, especially the architecture. Post WWI eclectic Free Classical style; articulated engaged piers; cantilevered awning; smooth banded rustication; deep, dentillated cornice. That all sounds clever, but would make most people’s eyes glaze over, except for architects.

You need to let go of most of the technical terms and think about what the place looks like to you. Put it into your own words; give it your unique perspective.

While researching, I stumbled across war stories from the city of Darebin, which gave me the germ of an idea for a historical piece.

2. Visiting location
I know some authors have written wonderful, believable books about places they’ve never visited, but I don’t think I could ever do that. I spent time hanging around — immersing myself in my place, asking the staff questions. I even caught a movie while I was at it (research!). [Lucky I didn’t get a pub as my location.]

I took copious notes at my place. I also took photos. [Sometimes I record sounds when researching locations.]

My notes weren’t just about visuals. Sensory details drawing on all the senses bring stories to life.

When writing, think about:
Sight
Sound
Smell
Touch
Taste

3. Finding character and story
As well as WW2, I was interested in the Greek-language films that brought Northcote’s large Greek population together in the 60s and 70s. But I also wanted to incorporate present day into my narrative.

Hmm … Maybe three short story-vignettes?

Two of the three vignettes spoke louder to me, and I started weaving them into a single connected story. Finding characters and story was important for me — without them, place is just exposition.

4. Framing
I liked the idea of using frames to write about a place that showed pictures. Framing devices as well as literal door and window frames.

I try to capture subjects visually in my writing the same way a camera would. This seemed even more pertinent for this project.

Start with a close-up frame on an object or person in your story and then ‘pan’ out to a mid and/or wide shot. For example: go from a feature of a face, a brooch on a dress, and then out to the surroundings. Or start with a wide frame and then zoom in. The façade of a building, to the window, to a smaller detail on the signage. [I don’t think about this in the first draft, but when rewriting I check that I haven’t jumped around too much with the ‘framing’.]

5. Metaphor, simile and symbol
These literary devices can make your place more interesting.

Think about the green light in The Great Gatsby and the moors in Wuthering Heights.

I was interested in exploring contrasts like the dark and light spaces in a cinema. Past and present, love and loss, war and peace, life and death.

Memory is like a camera, recording the bright flashbulb moments. But what about the dark or blank spaces in between? This idea kept popping up in my thoughts.

6. Finding historical details
To get the historical details right, I visited my local library (Northcote), and the State Library Victoria for advice and information. Old newspapers and maps help build up a snapshot of a time. I was also in the wars a lot (sorry!) — searching the National Archives and War Memorial websites.

The Darebin Heritage website was another useful resource.

7. Seeking Feedback
Feedback is a very important part of the process. I can’t say I’m a big fan of it. All is happy and perfect in story land — until you ask for it. I have learnt / am still learning that seeking feedback too early on can fill you with doubt and derail your idea. Given enough time (and rewrites) you will come to a deep understanding of your story — and that’s when it’s time to ask for feedback. However, I didn’t have the luxury of time on this project. And, yes, conflicting feedback (from a few trusted readers) on my first draft did throw me off track for a while.

One point I took on board was that I had tried to include too much in my piece. I left in my [short, OK, short!] reference to the Greek films, but took out the stuff about Walter Burley Griffin and the lost building plans.

 [Also not included in my piece, but just so you know: INXS filmed the music video for ‘Listen Like Thieves’ at the Westgarth, and in 1940 double-decker buses replaced the cable trams on High Street.]

8. Other stuff
I like to use the light in my writing, and how it can alter the appearance of things. In fact I found the word ‘light’ ten times in my first (1000 word) draft! Light (harsh or soft?) can be a way of signalling to your reader that something needs to be examined.

Music inspires me. I listened to music from WW2 time while writing this piece. I wanted to include a song from the 40s in the past section, and ‘Unchained Melody’ in the present, but I restrained myself from going overboard on the sentimentality.

9. Above all
When writing about place, ask yourself:
What is the feeling here?
What is the universal truth that embodies this place?

For my place — a purpose-built picture theatre from the 1920s — it was nostalgia.

Beer, Berettas and bonsai: Researching novels

Research for my first novel, Please Don’t Leave Me Here, involved sifting through 1990s newspapers on microfiche at the State Library, frequenting coffee shops in Degraves Street and drinking beer at featured pubs.

My second novel, Dead in the Water, required a lot more research. I stayed at the place where it’s set — Raymond Island, a tiny island in the Gippsland salt-water lakes system, with a population of about 540. There are plenty of koalas, but no shops or other businesses. If you run out of bread or milk [OK, wine], you have to catch the cable ferry across to Paynesville on the mainland for supplies. After the last ferry crossing between 11pm and midnight, there’s no way on or off. The perfect place to set a crime story!

Dead in the Water deals with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so I spoke with a police psychologist and officers suffering PTSD. I also made friends with forensic scientists who told me more than I needed to know about dead bodies in water, DNA and gun shot wounds.

The hardest research was learning to shoot a gun. I wanted to write a shooting scene and, being a ‘method writer’, didn’t think I could do it without knowing how it really felt. So, I booked into a course at a pistol club.

330px-Bullet_coming_from_S&W

You can hear gunshots from the car park. Inside, people are lying on mats, shooting rifles at targets on the range. I go the wrong way and end up in the bistro instead of the training room. You can relax and enjoy a drink in the lounge or licensed bar after shooting the crap out of stuff. There are taxidermied animals around the room and deer heads on the wall.

The training room is full of mostly young men. Anybody — who doesn’t have a police record — can do the handgun-shooting course. So how dangerous can it be? Our instructors enter the room — one has an arm in a sling; the other has a leg missing below the knee.

They teach us about the safety equipment required on the shooting range. Special earmuffs, because guns are louder than a jet engine and can cause permanent hearing damage. Safety glasses, because pieces of shrapnel can fly back and hit you in the eye. And be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, because handgun ammunition contains some very hazardous materials like lead styphnate, which can cause heavy metal poisoning. That’s if you have any hands left: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide of a semiautomatic pistol (the slide is the thing on top that flies back from the recoil of the shot, forcing the empty round from the chamber out through the ejection port). Not because it might break your thumb, but because it could slice it right off. Excellent. I start to think maybe I don’t need that gun-shooting scene in my book after all.

shooting range

Relaxed on the shooting range. “Never cross your thumbs behind the slide …”

Out on the range, each shooter is allocated a shooting bay. Always make sure the gun is pointing in a safe direction, and the only safe direction is DOWNRANGE! (they shout a lot on the range). Be especially careful of turning around to talk to the person next to you because … [Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction — ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’? You get the picture]. There is a yellow safety line along the back of the bays, and a red line along the front. NEVER REACH ACROSS THE RED LINE! At this stage, my legs have started to shake and my mouth is very dry.

They said we’d have plenty of time to get the ‘feel’ of the guns before shooting at the targets. But I’m still getting to know my gun, and so not ready when the Range Officer commands ‘EYES AND EARS!’, a reminder to get your safety equipment on. Trying very hard to suppress a panic attack, I put on my earmuffs and safety glasses. ‘MOVE FORWARD. LOAD. FIRE!’

I have a go at shooting semiautomatic pistols of increasing calibre, my mantra the whole time: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide. Then I try some revolvers, including a Magnum (or was it a Beretta? — same name as a cop show from the 1980s), which has quite a kickback.

The cylinder on one of my revolvers seems to be stuck. I keep trying to pull the trigger, but it won’t work, so I hold up my hand. The Range Commander comes over to check what’s wrong. Lucky I asked for help because one of the rounds is stuck in a chamber and, had I kept trying to shoot, it could have caught fire and exploded in my hands. That’s enough for me. I donate my remaining ammo to the guy in the next bay who is enjoying himself far more than I am. I come away with my eyes, ears and thumbs intact, and enough details to write the gun-shooting scene.

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In my work in progress (working title: You Used to Love Me), my protagonist’s hobby is bonsai. I’m looking forward to a relaxing short course, researching the gentle art of bonsai. Careful with the trimming tools?

Novel research trip

Day 1: On The Road

First location. Really!

Ryan's Hotel, Traralgon

Ryan’s Hotel, Traralgon

I’m thinking more exotic locations for my third novel. New York? Paris? Maybe Detective Aidan could go visit his relatives in Italy …

Bairnsdale Court House

Second location: Bairnsdale Court House

Raymond Island ferry

Raymond Island ferry

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I was half-expecting to find Detective Aidan sitting on the porch with a beer in his hand. No — just a koala.

 

Day 2: The Old Middle-aged Man Woman And The Sea Lakes

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Should have bought my swimmers! Almost forgot: It’s not a holiday.

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Lakes Entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3: The Shining?

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Whenever you hear me typing …

 Day 4: The Road

Finally found a location round the back of the island for the shooting scene.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

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Tea Tree Lane beach

 

 

 

 

 

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The sea was angry that day, my friends.

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Look who’s here. Hooray! Another writer. Amy Jasper.

Day 4: Please Don’t Leave Me Here (had to get that one in)

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Bye-bye, my annoying little friend (lay off the potato chips for a while).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And farewell to my imaginary story-friends who will forever live in this place.

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Research trip: packing

I’m packing for my book research trip (not ‘a holiday’ as my kids keep saying) to the Gippsland Lakes. Not a big deal for a normal person. But it is for me — somebody who hasn’t done anything alone for twelve years and who seldom ventures beyond Richmond … Woohoo!

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Laptop, manuscript, books, wine, coffee. Have I forgotten anything?