Category Archives: research

Researching an artist: a few favourite resources

Research played a major role in the creation of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, and I learned a lot in the process. I had to. Narrative non-fiction is a new genre for me, and I knew I would need to be working from a strong foundation.

I also had a subject whose long life was lived in many places, and whose career would have to be examined from different perspectives.

Here are some of the resources I found particularly valuable.

Specialist art libraries
During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to visit the library of the Art Gallery of Western Australia; the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery Library and the Courtauld Institute Library in London; and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The collections of these wonderful institutions include materials such as exhibition catalogues, collections of press cuttings, obscure recordings and publications, regional registers, dictionaries of artists—and probably many other things, but these are the ones I accessed.

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Online archives
What would researchers in Australia do without Trove, the National Library of Australia’s searchable digital collection of Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1955? Thanks to Trove, along with the propensity of local nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century newspapers to report in great detail on just about every event that happened in the colony, I was able to get a sense of Kate’s adolescent years in Perth and Fremantle. Gallica, the online library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was another source I used for locating press articles and reviews, although it is not a comprehensive collection of the national library’s resources.

Pay-for-view databases
I found it a sound investment to pay for a month’s subscription to ancestry.com in order to track genealogical resources relating to Kate and others. Similarly, a month’s subscription to an art auction database gave me access to several decades of auction sales, and to works of Kate’s I had not seen anywhere else.

‘Can you help?’
I placed a paragraph in this weekly column in the West Australian newspaper, asking for information from anyone who had known Kate or held her artwork. Although responses were few, each one of them was a gem—some wonderful anecdotes from a (then) young man who used to deliver art supplies to Kate; an artwork whose whereabouts I had not known of; a photograph of Kate that made me smile; contact from a family member; some details about the buying and selling of a much-loved painting.

Artworks
I’ve saved the best for last. I made a point of viewing as many of Kate’s artworks as I could locate during the course of researching her life, and the experience of seeing them up close was nothing short of thrilling. And I discovered something I had not known before: that the back of a painting—or at least of Kate’s paintings—has its own story to tell, in the form of inscriptions; old labels recording dates, prices, addresses, titles; exhibition history; sketches; even other works. The privilege of viewing these works in galleries, offices, store-rooms, vaults and private homes will stay with me as one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life.

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Research: 8 tips

iStock_000018482964XSmallResearch is an inspiring, challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, exhilarating part of the process of writing a book. I know that some writers find it a chore, but for me it’s where ideas grow, and I am very much at home in libraries and archives or in front of my own laptop, exploring, speculating, following threads. The hardest part for me is to stop, as there is always another thread…

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Begin with a plan—all the things you know you want to cover. But that’s only the start: you don’t yet know all the things you will want to know. And the more you know, the richer your work will be. Be flexible; refine your research plan as you go.

2. Keep a record of your sources: full referencing details, page numbers, links, dates of interviews and conversations. It will save you hours later.

3. Follow tangents: they are often where the magic lies.

4. Photograph everything, even when you’re transcribing or taking exhaustive notes. Photographs add another dimension, and can also serve as a backup.

5. Take your own pulse along the way: whatever makes your heart race is gold.

6. The net is a constantly changing beast. Repeating a search six months after your first might reveal new information. (Something I learned, to my joy, in researching Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.)

7. Organise your research materials. It doesn’t matter whether you use manila folders and boxes, digital files or software programs: you just need to be able to easily retrieve information later.

8. Know these truths: the research will always take longer than you think; it will never be enough; and yes, at some point, you will have to draw a line, and stop.

One more thing: I’ve heard it said that allowing yourself to be ‘distracted’ from the main topic you’re researching is self-indulgent and a waste of valuable time. But it was through reading widely while researching The Sinkings that I happened on something that turned out to be one of the inspirations for Elemental. I like to think that, when it comes to research, nothing is wasted.

Good luck with yours!

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Not the paperless office

I’m nearing the end of a project I’ve been working on for several years, and the tracks of my research have colonised the studio. This is only a fraction of it…

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There are other ways to store and gather. Possibly easier. Definitely more environmentally sound. And I use many of those, too. But I’ve come to realise that the core of my research is constructed from paper and post-it notes, photographs and photocopies, books and boxes and manila folders. Well-worn maps. Talismans.

It will be time, soon, to pack it all away, to make space for other things, to de-clutter (a word I don’t particularly like, because what is clutter if not history?).

But not yet.

For now, the proofing begins…

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Filed under research, Writing