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.
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.
We’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!
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.
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: