Category Archives: Writing

Quick tutorial: the semicolon

iStock_000018482964XSmallIt’s been a while since I posted a quick tutorial, but I was asked recently to explain when and how to use a semicolon. Some writers hate this innocuous little slip of a thing, mostly because they’re not sure what to do with it. Others seem to like the idea of it but use it indiscriminately, hoping they’ll get it right.

Here’s a quick and easy guide.

Holding things together

The semicolon can be used to join two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning and are independent clauses.

For example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates; she should have felt guilty.

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty are linked in meaning and are independent clauses—that is, each could stand as a separate sentence:

Charlene ate all the chocolates. She should have felt guilty.

Whether you join them with a semicolon or cast them as two separate sentences is a matter of choice and nuance. Joining them perhaps confers a greater sense of judgment on the greedy Charlene!

Note that independent clauses can also be linked with a coordinating conjunction—for example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty.

Charlene at all the chocolates so she should have felt guilty.

Each of these also gives a different nuance to the sentence.

But a comma should not be used to join two independent clauses. The following example, known as a ‘comma splice’, is incorrect:*

Charlene ate all the chocolates, she should have felt guilty.

Pushing things apart

The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a narrative list that contain internal commas.

Take, for example, this list of items:

  • three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams
  • six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa
  • a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles

If this list were to be used in narrative in the usual way—that is, by separating each item with a comma—the sentence would look clumsy and be confusing to read, so semicolons are used instead of commas between the items:

That greedy Charlene ate three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams; six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa; and a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles.

(OK, I confess: Charlene is me.)

I hope that helps!

*This ‘rule’ is often intentionally broken for creative purposes—for example, for rhythm, or to achieve a particular effect.

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Filed under Editing, Tips for writers, Writing

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

In praise of the ordinary…

This week’s research reading unearthed a quote from James Joyce that I reacted to strongly in positive and negative ways.

I dislike the opposition it sets up. Joyce apparently did not accord much respect to journalists, and it’s clear here that he had an elitist view of who and what ‘writers’ were and were not.

Also, it’s a lofty, arrogant piece of ‘advice’—perhaps no surprise that Joyce was giving it to a female writer, Djuna Barnes. It made me wonder about who Joyce’s cosy little of club of ‘writers’ might actually be. I suspect that it would not include too many women.

And yet, and yet…Joyce’s words express something I believe about fiction, although not in the absolute and exclusive way Joyce seems to have intended it. They acknowledge the unremarkable, the quotidian, the minutiae of life as fundamental subjects of fiction.

A writer must never write about the extraordinary. That is for the journalist.

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2016 speeches #3: Battye Library’s 60th anniversary

Here is the last of the 2016 speeches I’m posting here, this one given on the occasion of the Battye Library of Western Australian History’s 60th anniversary…

 

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The staff at the Battye Library saw a lot of me in the first half of 2016. I am writing a work of narrative non-fiction about the artist Kathleen O’Connor, and I spent about four months of this year here, in the reading room, working through collected papers.

One day someone asked me about what I was doing and seemed surprised that I do all my own research. While it’s true that somewhere in the world there do exist those rare and endangered writers who can afford to commission others to put in the hours, I’m not one of them. But what’s more important: even if I were, I would still have been practically living in the reading room this year.

I can’t even imagine how I would brief someone else to do my research. While researching, I am not only gathering what I set out to find; I am also discovering what I could not have imagined was there. I am slowly, incrementally, forming impressions that guide what else I might do. I am making choices. Asking myself questions. I am beginning to make connections between disparate things. For me, the threads of research and creation are sometimes so enmeshed that they can only be disentangled with the benefit of hindsight.

An example: One of the stories in my collection Inherited (UWA Publishing) begins with a young woman, Paige, who becomes obsessed with the watercolour paintings of an artist referred to in the story only as The Famous Politician’s Wife. Western Australian readers may recognise her as Margaret Forrest.

My interest in Forrest began when I edited the late Frank Crowley’s biography of her husband, John Forrest, many years ago. Noting that Margaret Forrest was an artist, I was intrigued by this creative woman of a very different time, and came to the Battye Library to find out more.

In the manuscript collection are original letters written by Forrest. The experience of handling those fragile letters in her handwriting was profound; it was a physical connection to the dead. Those letters, cross-written across the page to conserve paper, told me things about who she was, and helped to contextualise the world in which she lived.

In the stacks were biographical articles that contributed fragments to the pictures I was building in my head. And then I found a piece of ephemera: a catalogue for Forrest’s only exhibition, which reproduced many of her beautiful watercolours. One painting particularly enchanted me: there was something ethereal about it. I was unfamiliar with the botanical specimen, a Byblis gigantea, but after more research, I discovered that the mauve of the flower in Forrest’s painting meant that it was fading, close to dying. It was that small piece of information that, in a circuitous way, created the framing character of my story, Paige, who, like the flower, is fading from life.

Circuitous is the right adjective to describe what I do here. I try to think how I could have made the leaps of imagination that transformed an interest into that story some other way than by being here, hands-on, and I can’t.

All libraries, all archives, are important to creative writers. This year I have also worked in the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and libraries in London, Bath and Paris. I have relished these experiences; I have been inspired by them. But this library means more to me because its purpose is to preserve our heritage, and while I often make creative forays into places and histories unconnected to me, I will always be a writer fascinated by the stories and people of my place.

I have several more projects that I am itching to begin, so the library staff is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

Thank you, Battye Library, and Happy Anniversary.

 

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7 weeks in 20 photos…

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National Art Library, V&A Museum (London)

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George Orwell and Dylan Thomas drank there… (London)

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On top of the world… (Lerwick, Shetland)

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The lovely Jeena McNab, McNab’s Kippers (Lerwick, Shetland)

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and Jeena’s mother, former herring girl Rita McNab

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The youngest reader I’ve ever signed a book for… (Shetland Library, Lerwick)

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and the first ladder I’ve ever signed (Edinburgh Book Shop)

 

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You can find a story anywhere… (Lower Slaughter)

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The Madhatter Bookshop (Burford)

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Bath Records Office

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Toppings & Co., Bath

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The closest I get to a selfie… (Brighton)

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When you look up, there might be wings… (Tours, France)

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or a wingless horse… (Tours)

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or lions… (Pont-Aven)

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Unforgettable… (Chateau Chenonceaux, Loire Valley)

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Forest art, looking down… (Concarneau)

 

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Don’t forget to read the plaques… (Quai Voltaire, Paris)

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and listen to what the birds tell you… (Paris)

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And always, always remember to visit the books… (Paris)

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Filed under Elemental, Photo-reminders looking up/looking down, Writing

Northern-bound…

I will be setting off soon, bound for a northern autumn—some familiar places and some I’ve never been to. The trip will be a combination of book promotion (for Elemental in the UK) and book research (for a work of creative non-fiction coming out in 2018, and my fiction-in-progress which is still, well, in progress).

As well as visiting various bookshops in Scotland and England, I’ll be doing a couple of author talks. One is at the Shetland Library, Lerwick, on 14 September, where I spent some time researching in 2007. As you can see, I still have my library bag!

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The other is at the delightfully named Madhatter Bookshop, Burford, on 19 September. How could anyone resist a shop that sells books and hats?

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Details and links are on the Events page.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favourite photos of the autumnal north…

DSCN2384 around monmattan

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Filed under Elemental, Writing

Inspired by time and place…

A lot of research went into the writing of my second novel, Elemental—and research is something I love. I remember missing the first half of a teleconference because I was so engrossed in something I was researching on the net that I forgot the time! But possibly the most exciting part was visiting places in the UK where the novel is set: the Shetland Islands, fishing villages in the north-east of Scotland, Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.

Here are a few photographs from those visits, along with some brief extracts from the novel they inspired.

Fishing villages

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I was born in a village as far north-east as you can go on the Scottish mainland, closer to Norway than London. Roanhaven was only two miles from the town of Gadlehead, and I’m told they’re all the one place now. But back then, oh, we were a folk apart, we thought Gadlehead as much a stranger-place as Fraserburgh to the north, Collieston to the south, and all those inland villages where Ma would sell fish from the creel on her back.

Pink granite

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That wind!…Every year it took a little more of the houses in Tiller Street, wearing them away grain by grain. Not the frames, no, for the pink granite of Gadlehead will survive more generations than I’ll ever know, but the soft matter between that yields to the elements.

Seaboots

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Jockel Buchan, an old fisherman, strode through the shallows to reach me. Waded in, he did, almost to the knees of his great seaboots.

The Knab, Lerwick

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The Knab is spectacular. You can see forever from its wild summit. Rabbits scamper this way and that among the gorse and marigolds, and the cliff face is home to hundreds of puffins hunkering down among the small mauve flowers…

Puffins

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Aye, they are the strangest little things, birds that look as though they’ve been put together on the Lord’s day off by someone with a sense of humour—a hodgepodge thrown together with the bits left over from other birds…

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