Tag Archives: research

Falling for lonely Lily

Back in March, during my stint insideadog, I posted a pic of the tiny cemetery that inspired the story that became a manuscript that will hopefully morph into a book one day.

I’ll post the same pic again here but first I’ll go with this shot, which shows the setting for much of the aforementioned story. I stayed in this cottage on a family holiday in late 2005, early 2006. The minute I walked inside my story-senses started tingling. Reading the guest book, standing in the dark listening to the omnipresent wind howl and soaking up the utter isolation of the place all added to my interest.

Lighthouse cottage, Cape du Couedic
Lighthouse cottage, Cape du Couedic

Now that I think about it, it was a little like falling in love. I didn’t think I had a story but I couldn’t stop thinking about the place. I was besotted.

And then we found the cemetery. History suggests there’s a teenage girl named Lily in the odd grave but no one seems to be able to explain why. Lots of research followed and plenty of questions to locals. Still no answers.

That’s music to an author’s ears. The story, her story, was up to me. And so it began.

Cape Borda cemetery
Cape Borda cemetery

On research and read-throughs

Yes, I’m back on the mainland, still savouring the memories of sea air and mallee scrub that spell Kangaroo Island to my senses.

My research and fact-checking mission was largely successful and it’s amazing what a few days without email, Internet and mobile phones can do to reinvigorate the brain. Now that I’m back at my desk I have oodles of things to catch up on but here are a few quick musings on my last few days:

  • Research can be great fun. Skimming through old newspapers is an adventure in itself – even the classified advertisements are fascinating when they’re more than a century old. An old schoolhouse that reeks of possum piss can harbour untold treasures – as can a conversation with a local.
  • Research can be a double-edged sword. Discover too much good stuff and you risk adding unnecessary details/material and/or losing focus on your main storyline. I don’t want to drown readers in details that might only appeal to me.
  • Ask enough people the same question and you’ll accumulate many different answers, rather than a single, definitive one.
  • Your nearest and dearest can be your toughest critics. My wife has begun a read-through of my manuscript and already uncovered one major timeline problem – something that should have occurred to me but hadn’t. She also highlighted passages that “need work”. While I don’t always enjoy getting this feedback I value it immensely. Better to find out now than hear it from my agent or publisher!
  • Watching someone read the manuscript is akin to a director sitting in an audience screening of his own film. I hang on whether people will laugh or gasp or cry at the right moments … It’s probably quite annoying having me around!

Hearing voices

One of the things that can make or break your story is getting the voices of the characters right. You’re ploughing through a book, enjoying the plot and then one of the characters uses language that just doesn’t fit (e.g. a five-year-old uses the word ‘loquacious’ or something equally unlikely). The whole story suddenly becomes less plausible. Things don’t ring true.

One wrong word or phrase can stick out like a disastrous casting decision in a movie. Months of research on your plot can go to waste if the voices grate.

So how do you get the voices right? One of the tricks is to listen. If you’re writing about children, talk to them first. Listen to how they blend, shorten, mispronounce or approximate words. My daughter recently told me a princess in one of her videos was named “Uriness”. It took me a bit of work to establish that the castle staff were actually calling the princess “Your Highness”.

You’ll also need to do your research. Because one of my narrators in Game as Ned has an autism spectrum disorder, I did a lot of reading on how this can affect thinking, speaking and relating to the world. Most importantly, I found books by authors with autism such as Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This helped me view the world through eyes that brought different perspectives to my own.

Another character in GAN, Mick, is an ocker raised on a farm and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam. I’d assumed I’d be safe for Mick to use typically Aussie ‘strine’ expressions such as “she’ll be right” and “no worries, mate” but these were queried by the publishers as potentially too recent for a character in a 1970s setting. So you need to fact check voices too. Phrases and slang have use-by dates.

For the record, my intrepid wife tracked down a linguistics professor who was able to carbon date and verify the phrases I wanted to use.

You also need a good sense of what make your characters tick. If you understand and feel the things that motivate them, you should start to sense how they’d communicate. Would they have oft-repeated favourite words or phrases? Their own idiosyncratic idiom?

And, when you have spent enough time with your characters you might actually start to hear them in your head. Rather than a sign of madness, this can be a breakthrough moment. Writing their voices is almost like dictation once you can hear them.

I began writing GAN as a teenager. After a journalism career postponed the project, it was more than a decade before I returned to my manuscript. As I read through my earlier work, everything felt wrong. It took me a while to realise that, just as I had aged, so had my characters. Their voices sounded too young. I had a lot of rewriting ahead of me. The story is, I believe, the better for it.

Incidentally, there’s nothing to say a five-year-old can’t use the word loquacious. But if it’s going to be plausible you’ll need to create a character who can persuasively and believably spit out all those syllables.