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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Tea and conversation in Mandurah

Cup of tea with teapot and vintage books on wooden table Blue background

If you’re in the Mandurah area, or are close enough for a lovely drive, the Mandurah Readers & Writers Festival is on next week, Wednesday 22 and Thursday 23 August. Guests include Michelle Johnston, Carrie Cox, Louise Allan, Dervla McTiernan and Laurie Steed.

I’m delighted to be sharing the opening session with the wonderful Liz Byrski (whose new novel, A Month of Sundays, has just been released). We’ll be talking about our books, our approach to writing, our inspirations—and anything else that chair Kathy Heys would like to ask us. There will be morning tea, too—always a bonus!

The session is free, but bookings are essential.

Meet Liz Byrski and Amanda Curtin
10–11.30am, Wednesday 22 August
Fishtrap Theatre, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre,
Ormsby Terrace, Mandurah
Bookings here

We’d love to see you!

 

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Kate’s Paris: Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette is a spectacular emporium in the heart of Paris’s Opéra district—palatial architecture that whispers of a bygone age, moderating the din of twenty-first century retail. It was October when I was there, on the trail of Kathleen O’Connor, but the store was already in the process of being decorated for Christmas, with a white tree rising through the central atrium.

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Kate’s connection with Galeries Lafayette was in the 1920s, when she diversified into the decorative arts. She produced designs for fabric, wallpaper and soft furnishings in a modernist style influenced by Art Deco—wild colours and avant-garde creations that suited Jazz Age Paris but were considered ‘startling’ and ‘bizarre’ in Australia.

Her clients included La Maîtrise, the design workshop of Galeries Lafayette headed by renowned designer Maurice Dufrêne.

You can see an example of Kate’s handpainted fabric on the National Gallery of Australia site here. I would not usually describe myself as a covetous person when it comes to clothes, but oh, how I covet that dress!

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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Kate’s Paris: rue de la Grande Chaumière

Rue de la Grande Chaumière is a quiet little street that runs between boulevard Montparnasse and rue Notre Dame des Champs in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Buildings on both sides of the street are mostly unremarkable—four, five or six storeys, lots of shuttered windows, a few planter boxes. Fairly plain, for Paris.

I was interested in numbers 9 and 16: artist Kathleen O’Connor lived at 9 before the First World War, and at 16 after her wartime return to Paris from London.

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At number 16, there were three street-level doors—a charming little cordonnerie (shoe repair shop), a wide green door to the apartments upstairs, a restaurant beside that—with line of motorcycles parked in front of them.

I looked up at the three levels of shuttered windows above. Kate had probably lived in a single studio room on the top floor—the cheapest. No running water, no heating, a gas ring if she was lucky, a communal toilet. There was a light on in one of those windows now, a red towel hanging over the wrought-iron window box. How many rooms of the kind Kate lived in had been joined to form a modern apartment?

At number 9, I found a little boutique art hotel, the Hotel à la Villa des Artistes. It looked quite modern but claims to have had Beckett, Fitzgerald, Foujita and Modigliani among its former guests. And this was Kate’s address, too, in mid-1913.

I was thrilled to see, opposite at number 14, that the Académie de la Grande Chaumière was still there, and still a working academy. Kate sometimes attended its evening sketch classes, and Lucien Simon and Claudio Castelucho were among her tutors.

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In 1913 she wrote from her room across the road:

In the midst of the Quarter, I am overlooking the school of Carlrossi [Colarossi, number 10] and the Grande Chaumière, and always there are passers-by. At the hours of the school one sees students hurrying in, armed with canvases, paint-boxes, etc., all sorts and constitutions of students of every nation.

As I watched, imagining Kate’s Paris, a van pulled up outside and began unloading boxes of—well, I couldn’t see of what. But they had to be watercolours, pastels, tubes of oil paints, brushes…Just had to be.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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Happy Bastille Day…

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Taken not on Bastille Day but on a snowy January day in one of the coldest Paris winters of recent times.

 

 

 

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Happy Anniversary, Little Jock

Ten years ago today, Little Jock came into the world—in fictional form, I mean; the real Little Jock was born about 170 years before that and left it, in horrifying circumstances, in 1882. There is no gravestone to mark his singular journey through life as a maybe-man—waif, thief, convict, shepherd, sandalwood carter, murder victim. But there are all kinds of memorials…

My first novel, The Sinkings, which in part imagines Little Jock’s life, was released on 1 July 2008.

UWA Publishing director Terri-ann White has gone on record as saying that having your book published will not change your life. I’ve told her more than once: I disagree. A big thank-you, Terri-ann and UWAP, for changing mine.

And Happy Anniversary, Little Jock.

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2, 2 and 2: David Whish-Wilson talks about The Coves

David Whish-Wilson
The Coves
(Fremantle Press)
NOVEL

David-Whish-Wilson-websiteDavid Whish-Wilson is well known as the writer of three richly imagined, superbly crafted crime novels that delve into the seedier threads of Perth’s past: Old Scores, Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone. He is also the author of Perth, a lyrical portrait of the city in all its brashness and beauty, corruption and innocence. He has been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award and WA Premier’s Book Award, and in 2014 won the Patricia Hackett Prize for best contribution to Westerly for a story I remember well as a master class on landscape and character, tension and silence.

To many Perth writers, David is a much valued teacher, mentor and supervisor, as coordinator of the creative writing program at Curtin University. But he has not always been an academic. At the age of eighteen, he left Australia to live in Europe, Africa and Asia, working variously as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug-trial guinea pig. Now, that’s what I call research. He returned to Australia a decade later and now lives in Fremantle.

I was intrigued when I heard that David had a new book coming out, and that it wasn’t in the crime fiction genre. Even more so when I read what it was about. (And all those intriguing vintage mugshots that he’d been posting on Facebook a few years ago suddenly made sense.) Here is the blurb for The Coves

San Francisco, 1849: a place gripped by gold fever, swarming with desperate men come to seek their fortune. Among them are former convicts, Australians quick to seize control in a town without masters, a town for the taking. Into this world steps an Australian boy in search of his mother. Just twelve years old, and all alone in a time of opportunism, loyalty and violent betrayal, Samuel Bellamy must learn to become one of the Sydney Coves if he is to survive.

‘A clever tale of criminal plots, family bonds, and the birth of a new world. Holds like a vice and never lets go. Every turn of the page builds the pressure.’—Rohan Wilson

‘A lyrical coming-of-age tale and an historical crime novel, lit by something fresh, honest and generous.’—Joan London

Over to David…

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2 things that inspired the book

Having written three crime novels in a row, I wanted to do something entirely different. I’ve never written from the perspective of a child protagonist, and the idea of opening up the spare Australian vernacular used in my crime novels to the more expansive diction of mid-nineteenth century language seemed like a liberating thing to do. When my then seven year-old son came to me and asked me to write a book about him, I told him that I couldn’t do that. When he then changed tack and suggested that I write a book about a boy ‘like him’, I said that I’d think about it, but the right project wasn’t on the horizon.

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It wasn’t long after that I came across mention of the Sydney Ducks—a gang of Australian criminals who ran organised crime in San Francisco from 1849 to 1855, and in some cases beyond. I did a bit of research, and many of them were ex-convicts, some of whom escaped to make their way to California. They were a colourful bunch of characters, but even so the idea didn’t stick. It wasn’t until I did some further reading and visited San Francisco that I realised there was more to the story. Many of the same men and women who populated gold-rush era San Francisco returned to Australia for the 1855 Victorian gold-rush, and then later the Otago gold-rush in New Zealand. Everywhere this chaotic, multicultural and sometimes violent band travelled, they unsettled the existing social order, demanding democratic reform (such as those that followed the Eureka Stockade incident in Australia) that matched the egalitarian and self-reliant ideals practised on the goldfields. It wasn’t until I started looking at the early Australian presence in San Francisco, when roughly one quarter of the city’s population was Australian, as less of a collection of wild men and women and more as a proving ground for some of the social ideas later associated with Australian identity that I was able to commence writing the novel.

2 places connected with the book

The novel moves between various locations in Australia and California, but the most important are the Swan River colony where my protagonist, Samuel Bellamy, was born, and San Francisco. At the time of Samuel’s birth, Perth was a struggling village. After his father’s murder and mother’s transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, Sam is adopted by the local Magistrate, growing up along the banks of the upper Swan River near Guildford. Sam’s memory of living among the Whadjuk Noongar and the sense of mystery described by his early memories of place linger with him and help shape his view of things throughout the novel.

San Francisco in 1849 is a new world for Sam and his Australian peers. Where in Australia the stern realities of British governance were ever-present, in post-revolutionary and newly American California the pace of change outstripped any capacity for the rule of law to moderate the behaviours of the Australian arrivals in particular. As men and women who’d often served prison terms and were used to deprivation and manual labour, they were well suited to life as prospectors but also as criminals in the rapidly growing city. The police force and judiciary were easily bribed, and elections were readily rigged. When local merchants looked like organising (as they eventually did) in a bid to ameliorate the depredations, it was easy enough to wait for a sea-breeze to come in and set a fire that burned the city down, while sparing the Australian quarter. Sam Bellamy arrives in the city to find the Sydney Coves gang is well established but always vulnerable to political change. He learns to work alongside them, although for Sam the city is not just marked by opportunity. It is also marked by the absence of his mother, who he’s travelled there to find. It is her absence that is the thread that leads him to retrieve treasured memories of their early life together on the Swan River. Hers is a spectral presence that imbues the land of his childhood with a symbolic importance and power.

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2 favourites elements of the book

The novel opens with a quote from a Hart Crane poem, ‘Cutty Sark’, which to me captures the tenor of the times and characters who populate the story.

Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke,
And rum was Plato in our heads…

I’ve chosen a few images of the period in which The Coves is set. When an English policeman (Isaiah W. Lees, who went on to become chief of police) was placed in charge of ridding the city of its Australian criminals in 1854, he soon realised that exiling them didn’t really work. The Australian criminals would merely leave town and return under a different name. To fix the problem, he instituted the use of daguerreotype images, now known as mugshots, of known criminals to circulate to various merchants. Lees’s use of mugshots is thought to be only the third time this practice was instituted worldwide, following Paris and New York. Sadly, many were lost in the great San Franciscan earthquake of 1906, although I was able to find some early examples in various archives.

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This circa 1850s ‘Sydney Duck’ mugshot of a resident of Sydney-town is of Rose Church, who ran a brothel, and was charged on this occasion with drugging a ‘gentleman’ and stealing his wallet. She was born in New Zealand and spoke with an Irish accent. Described in her arrest record as five-foot-two, with bad teeth and a burn on her forehead, Rose later died in San Quentin prison.

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‘Redhead Burns’—a young Australian thief

 

The Coves is released on 1 July 2018
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Follow David on his website and on Twitter

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