Writers ask writers: writing in the digital age

Today the Writers Ask Writers group is celebrating twice over. First, a new book from one of our members is being launched today—a very special publication, and one that I have had the great pleasure of reading in successive drafts almost from its genesis.

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Annabel Smith’s The Ark was, as she describes it, ‘born digital’—a novel conceived, written and designed to be read as an interactive digital experience and that takes on the imaginative and ambitious task of inventing systems of communication for a dystopian future. It is also a character-driven novel—the hallmark of all of Annabel’s work—and a study of human behaviour under the extreme pressures of isolation, manipulation and fear. I’m delighted to be featuring Annabel as my next 2, 2 and 2 guest.

The topic of today’s blog, writing in the digital age, is in honour of The Ark on this auspicious occasion, and in celebration of Annabel’s stellar achievement in not only writing a brilliant work of speculative fiction but in mastering, through research and collaboration, the various technologies required to bring it into the world in the way she has.

Congratulations, Annabel!

YvetteWalker01We’re also celebrating the addition of a new Writers Ask Writers member: Yvette Walker, whose stunning debut novel, Letters to the End of Love, was shortlisted for the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and has recently been shortlisted for the WA Emerging Writers Award in the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Yvette also works at one of our fabulous local indie bookstores, Collins Booksellers Cottesloe. A big welcome to Yvette!

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When I try to imagine what my writing life would be like without the internet for research, the view becomes cloudy. I don’t think I can imagine that.

Online research complements all the other kinds of research I do, and sometimes makes the impossible possible. My studio is full of images and maps I have found online, and I have archive boxes of information I could never have laid my hands on in a non-digital world.

Among the most valuable resources for me as a writer of historical fiction are the newspapers of the time and place I am writing about. When researching colonial Western Australia for The Sinkings, reading newspapers of the 1860s–1880s meant driving in to the Battye Library in Perth, searching subjects via card and microfiche indexes, lacing up microfilm readers and laboriously trawling up and down the columns of blurry broadsheets, continually having to adjust the focus manually. Oh, and also taking extensive notes, because obtaining photocopies of any page I wanted required taking the film to another machine (after queueing for a long time), lacing it up, trying to align the part I wanted to copy, calling for help from busy librarians because invariably I’d get it wrong or the machine wouldn’t be working, and, finally, staring in dismay at an illegible photocopy and realising I’d have to start the process again.

A few years into my research for Elemental, the National Library of Australia’s Trove resource came online. All Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954 are available via the Trove website, and the database is fully searchable. You can print pages, and there’s even a transcript (electronically translated, and sometimes inaccurate, even comical, in its optical rendering) of the article shown on the screen—in case you don’t want to scroll up and down the columns of the newspaper page.

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The first time I tried Trove, I was almost speechless. Many times since I’ve blessed those far-sighted library and IT visionaries who brought us this truly amazing online source, this well-named trove of history delivered, in a few keystrokes, to our homes and offices.

Digital age? When it comes to research, I’m sold. How about you?

You can read what my writer friends have to say about writing in the digital age via these links:

Annabel Smith
Sara Foster
Natasha Lester
Emma Chapman
Dawn Barker
Yvette Walker

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20 Comments

Filed under Writers ask writers

20 responses to “Writers ask writers: writing in the digital age

  1. Like you, Amanda, I’m deeply grateful for the advent of internet resources, and Trove in particular. Your reminder of all the time-consuming frustrations of handling microfiche machines etc. makes me wince as I recall my own long fiddlesome hours of pre-internet research. But of course there are some kinds of delving that can’t be done digitally, and I still enjoy the atmosphere of the Battye and other such special collections.

    • Oh, I agree, Ian. Nothing can compare to the sensation of actually handling archival material, for example. When I found letters handwritten by Little Jock in the 1860s I felt a connection I hadn’t imagined.
      I wonder whether you and I were often in the Battye at the same time, at neighbouring microfilm readers!

  2. I agree with you about the astonishing access to research provided online, Amanda. I recently discovered the Wayback Machine (google it), that provides access to archived pages from websites that have been blocked or taken down – germane to my current research into commercial surrogacy in Thailand.

    For creating a sense of place, though, I still thinking nothing beats field work.

  3. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: Writing in the Digital Age |

  4. This is an ongoing topic of interest to me, in pretty much everything I do writing-wise. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Annabel’s project. I recently read Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel and she reminded me of the coming of the digital age, what it was like when the internet first arrived, how miraculous it seemed to me studying at uni when I had all kinds of pop culture now at my fingertips, and she speaks of the Wayback Machine (as does Angela above). One problem I do have though is being overwhelmed with the amount of information to hand online (when researching) and trying to narrow things down. When I majored in history at uni I would spend a lot of time going through microfiche in the library and it seemed an easier filtering process in some ways.

  5. Kathleen Mueller

    Yay for Trove and the internet. I am in China atm where it is not so accessible.
    Another wonderful aspect of the internet is Fan Fiction. I attended a fascinating talk about this area I’d previously dismissed. Well worth knowing about for many reasons.

  6. Pingback: Natasha Lester Author of If I Should Lose You and What is Left Over, After | On Being an Author in the Digital Age - Natasha Lester Author of If I Should Lose You and What is Left Over, After

  7. Pingback: Sara Foster - Writers Ask Writers: Writing in the Digital Age

  8. Reblogged this on Perth Words… and commented:
    Amanda always has something interesting to share.

  9. Trove is wonderful, isn’t it. I could never get the hang of microfiche! I’ll be on Trove later searching fundraising and charity events among the wealthy in Sydney in the 1920s. I never know what will turn up!

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