Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.

Stocktake on Words – 2019

I do my writing in two shifts. I create new worlds and fictional characters during those dark, shadowy hours between 4 and 6.30am, and during the bright, daylight hours between 9am and 3pm I work on my blogs and other non-fiction endeavours.

I even work in different rooms on my different forms of writing – upstairs for fiction, downstairs for non-fiction. It’s as though my writing resides in two separate worlds, and I speak different languages depending on what is showing on the clock.

2019 started slowly for me. My novel set in pre-WW1 Perth had been sitting on the back-burner for a few months, and I couldn’t seem to get past a blockage that was preventing me from picking it up again.

Then a few things happened all at once. Inspiration struck, not once but twice and I felt compelled to start two new projects.

In February I made myself a deal, that if I wrote for 100 days between then and my birthday in August, I would buy myself a Little Street Library. Not only did I write for 100 days, but in the 7 months I managed to write a complete manuscript of 99,900 words, a novel called Behind Closed Doors that sprawls between the 1960s and 1980s. It was the first book I have managed to finished (and believe me, I’ve started a more than a couple), and it won me a place on the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre First Edition Retreat, as part of the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program.

While I was creating drama upstairs in the wee hours of the morning, during the day I began researching a new project, inspired by my youngest daughter’s recent diagnosis of dyslexia. I would plan my week, dividing my time between this new project, Fundraising Mums and a handful of other small writing projects. Where the start of 2019 had been like the proverbial dried up desert, suddenly I was drowning in ideas and lately there hasn’t been enough hours in the day to get it all done.

So how does 2019 stack up?

Income

The less said about the financial end of things the better. Luckily I don’t need my writing to finance my life, but I do find it essential to enrich it.

Articles and Readers

I had a moderate year writing a handful of articles (19) for WeekendNotes. My huge library of WeekendNotes articles, reaching back to 2010 together with old articles from Hub Garden (all of which still earns a tiny income) reached around 74,500 readers.

For my Fundraising Mums site I researched and published 49 articles and clocked up 126,000 readers from Australia and around the globe. I am proud of the work I did there this year.

I also wrote a dozen or so articles for this site and my parenting blog, Relentless… and yes, I do wonder sometimes if I am stretching myself too thin between all these blogs.

Non-fiction project

I finished 49 stories for my dyslexia project. It’s funny that for both my dyslexia project and Fundraising Mums – the two projects I have spent most of my time working on – I finished the year with 49 articles apiece… is there something about the magical number 50 that I cannot crack?

All up I estimate I wrote around 170,000 words this year. This is significantly less than the quarter million words I wrote in 2017, but the majority of my work has been for books not blogs, and I feel like the writing I have done this year has more heft, and more potential.

This leaves me feeling excited for 2020. I am about a third of the way through a re-draft of Behind Closed Doors, which I am working on steadily (but slowly) in the mornings before I head downstairs. Editing and redrafting is not nearly as much fun as writing.

I am also feeling very positive about my other project, and hope that 2020 brings with it some exciting news…

 

 

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

It’s a Small World

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

Growing up in the 1980s, a visit to It’s A Small World in West Perth was always the highlight of my school holidays. I can’t say how many times we visited the Lilliputian world of magic, but the thought of it still brings a smile to my face: a six-foot tall dolls house with over 50 intricately decorated rooms and working lights, the fairy tale scenes the moving trains, the giant concrete frog out the front that greeted you on approach and didn’t always seem to stick to the script.

My memories are of stairs going in all directions, Hogwarts-style, rooms with creaking floorboards crammed with tiny treasures, many behind glass or just tantalisingly out of reach. There were buttons everywhere, to turn on lights or music, to make things move. There seemed to be something new and different every time we visited.

Reaching the shop where you could buy so many of the tiny pieces of furniture and miniaturised groceries and food, was a mixed blessing. You might be lucky to walk out with some tiny new gift to take home, but it also meant your adventure was almost over.

It’s a Small World opened in 1978 and operated for more than two decades, before closing in 2000. During that time, owner Shirley Putnin, who made most of the miniatures herself, saw her diminutive utopia grow from a single room to eventually taking over the entire sprawling house, which is how I remember it.

Increasing rents drove her from West Perth, but Shirley’s retirement was short-lived, and soon after opened a shop called Miniature World in Kardinya, which apparently is still open. I hope to visit soon with my daughters.

What is your favourite memory of It’s a Small World?

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

One of the 56 rooms from the It’s A Small World dollhouse. Image used with permission, credit Kate Hedley, Fairfax Media

 

UWA Student Protests Stops Traffic

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

In my book, Cordelia and her friends start their degrees at the University of Western Australia in 1965. At the time, the Uni was more than half a century old, having grown from 184 students when it opened its doors in 1913 to 3,800 students in 1962.

As the student population grew, so did the need for off-campus residential halls. St George’s College was the first to open in 1931 and within the next two decades four more colleges had opened. Located directly across the road from the university, the string of residential colleges were often referred to as ‘College Row’ hosting inter-college events and competitions.

Separating the colleges from the main campus was busy Stirling Highway, a multi-lane road which still acts as one of the main thoroughfares between Fremantle, the western suburbs and the Perth CBD.

By the mid-60s, it was estimated the 750 students of College Row made as many as 4,000 crossings every day, and while there were traffic lights, they were for cars only, and not designed to assist pedestrians.

In 1967, a 19 year old student was hit and killed by a car on Stirling Highway as she attempted to cross back to her residence at St Catherine’s College. She was the second student to die in as many years and many others had been injured.

Students began to lobby the authorities for a safe underpass crossing, but no progress had been made when another student was almost killed two years later in 1969. Tired of waiting for formal lobbying to bring results, the students of UWA took a different approach and staged a sit-down protest on the afternoon of Friday 28th March, 1969. Hundreds of bodies created a major roadblock for peak-hour traffic and an even bigger headache for university officials and police. Apparently, some students even brought along shovels and tools and began digging their own tunnel to further hammer home their point.

The subsequent furore and widespread support from both the media and community led to an underpass beneath Stirling Highway being constructed and opened for use by September 1970.

The underpass was built too late to be of any help to the characters in my story, so they had to run the gauntlet of peak hour traffic when heading to the bus stop, but it was an interesting piece of history that deserved to be shared.

Have you ever used the UWA Underpass?

Image of the UWA underpass circa 1975 sourced from https://www.web.uwa.edu.au 

 

The Meckering Earthquake

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

The Meckering quake, on October 14th 1968 may not have been the largest earthquake to hit Western Australia, but it was certainly the most devastating. In less than a minute, the 6.9 quake had all but destroyed the small town of Meckering, damaging the hotel, hall, bank, three churches and 60 of the town’s 75 houses. Roads were split open, railway lines twisted like spaghetti and the steel water pipeline was compressed into itself.

A massive crack opened the earth, a terrifying rupture almost 40 kilometres long, parts of which are still visible today.

The Meckering Fault Line, 1968, aees.org.au

The earthquake was felt across the state, from Geraldton to Albany and neighbouring towns Northam and York suffered damage of their own. Perth, only 130km from the epicentre, experienced shaking and damage and many stories of the day have been shared on the Lost Perth Facebook group.

According to one contributor, on the day of the earthquake, the Junior French oral exams were taking place in the Arts Building at the University of Western Australia. The tea-room was full of staff and examiners taking a break between sessions when the quake hit, prompting cries of ‘tremblement de terre!’ and everyone dashing downstairs to safely.

It was an anecdote too perfect not to share, and so on the day of the Meckering Earthquake my main character Cordelia happens to be sitting in a quiet space in the Arts Building courtyard just as the French examiners come tumbling out of the doors, exclaiming in French.

meckeringPub-Hall_27 aees.org.au

Meckering Public Hall 1968, aees.org.au

The quake not only devastated the town physically, but socially, with 45 families leaving Meckering on the day, never to return. Many more were to follow.

One thing which surprised me when doing research for my book, is discovering that Western Australia is home to one of the largest fault lines in the world, the Darling Fault, an (oxymoronic) monster stretching 1,000 kilometres from Albany to Shark Bay.

Despite its size, the Darling Fault has not experienced a significant event in recorded history. However to the west of the Fault lies the South West Seismic Zone. This area boasts the majority of Australia’s seismic activity, with more than 6,000 recorded earthquakes in the past 50 years, including the horror of the Meckering quake.

In Perth, the impact of the Meckering quake was significant despite the distance. Houses and buildings across the city shook, the Kwinana Freeway cracked, and there was damage to the Physics Building at UWA. The Subiaco pub originally had a spire on top of the corner tower, but damage caused by the quake forced the owners to have the top removed.

Do you have memories of the 1968 Meckering quake?

Thanks to the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society for providing permission to use the images in this article.

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Meckering Anglican Church 1968, aees.org.au

 

 

The History of Daylight Saving in WA

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Researching this time frame has brought back many memories – how many do you share?

For anyone who believes daylight saving was invented in the 1980s just to torture children, you may be surprised to learn that the concept of turning the clocks forward to extend the hours of daylight into the evening was first introduced uniformly across Australia during the first World War (1917).

It was used again across the nation during WW2 (1942-1944) but from the 1970s onwards, states have had free reign to decide.

Looking back on my childhood, with the dubious blinkers provided by decades of distance, I thought daylight saving was a constant. I have strong memories of being sent to bed in what seemed like full sunlight, my roller blind always jamming a few inches above ground level, the bright orange sunset bleeding around the edges of my curtains. If you had pressed me, I would have said that we had daylight saving every summer of my childhood during the 1980s, so strong are the memories of fighting with my parents about the unfairness of being sent to bed while the sun was still up.

Naturally, I’d be wrong.

During the research for my book, which is set in Perth during the 1960s to 1980s, I discovered that Western Australia only had daylight saving for two years of my childhood: 1983-84 (when I was six) and 1991-92 (when I was fourteen). There was an enforced trial for three consecutive years from 2006-2009, but by then I had grown up and my bedtime was no longer dictated to me by my mother, but by my newborn daughter.

Perhaps the reason daylight saving is so strong in my memory, although in reality it only directly affected me twice, was because it was constantly being debated in the press and around kitchen tables across the state.

Western Australia has held no less than four referendums on the issue of daylight saving, in 1975, 1984, 1992 and 2009. (As a side note, the only other state referendums carried out by Western Australia were in 1933 which was about seceding from the Commonwealth of Australia, and two separate referendums in 2005 about retail trading hours1.)

The first three referendums were held following a single year trial of daylight saving, and each time the voters returned a vote of ‘no’. Unconvinced West Aussies didn’t want daylight saving, the government then enforced a three year trial from 2006-2009 followed by the fourth and final referendum, which returned the highest ‘no’ vote of all.

The final vote was 54.6% no, 45.3% yes. Interestingly, it showed many of the people living in the coastal and inner suburbs of Perth supported daylight saving, but this was overshadowed by the overwhelming rejection of daylight saving by people living in the eastern suburbs as well as rural and regional areas.

It was decided by the Premier at the time, that the issue would not be raised again for another twenty years2.

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Sunset over Elizabeth Quay, which actually didn’t exist when I was a child

But even if Western Australia does not participate in daylight saving itself, we are still affected by it every year the Eastern States takes part. Daylight saving in the East increases the time difference between Perth and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to three hours – sufficient to make it challenging for businesses, confusing when you need to call friends and family, and enough of a difference to wreck your sleep when you travel interstate.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that daylight saving formed a major part of my childhood, a brief straw polls among friends also showed many thought battling with parents about bedtime was a fixture growing up.

Turns out we were just being annoying kids, fighting with parents for the sake of it, and daylight saving had nothing to do with it.

 

Further reading: A recent National Geographic article looking at Daylight Saving in the US and its history around the globe.

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_in_Australia#State_and_territory_referendums
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20090521204833/http://www.thewest.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=77&ContentID=142031

Why writing a first draft is like having a baby

Writing the first draft of a novel is a bit like having a baby. Hidden from view, the most amazing creation is being formed inside of you, and then one day, a small slimy, mass emerges – and you instantly fall in love with it.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful pink, chubby, smiling baby? Even though your baby doesn’t quite look like that yet, you also know babies grow. You have faith in your baby, and can already imagine what it will look like in your head.

So you assume that everyone else will love your wrinkly, red newborn, which cries incessantly and smells strange – because that’s not what you see. You are already looking at your baby with the benefit of birth hormones and nitrous oxide. You know it is the most beautiful baby in the world and everyone will agree with you.

In short, you are deluded.

Writing a first draft, I have discovered, is a bit like that. Growing a book inside you is like being pregnant. So much is going on inside your head that it can begin to take over your entire life, you live and breathe it, think about it during the day, dream about it at night. But it’s all going on inside you – so no one can really understand what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of what is taking place.

Then one day you announce you have written a book. Plop.

Some friends will immediately ask to read it. They’re either ignorant of all of the slime and blood still covering your creation, or they just love books (or you) so much, they want to read it, even if it means having the literary equivalent of meconium dribbling onto their laps and never being able to get the smell of sour milk (and poorly formed, clichéd characters) out of their noses.

You can give your stinky newborn book to your best friend or sister or partner or mum to read, but beyond this circle, it’s best to at least wash and dress the baby book before passing it on to the next visitor. After all, you’d like your visitor to come back again and not slink away in embarrassment, wiping vomit from their shoulder, never to look you in the eye again.

And while you may be convinced your book will grow up to be as handsome as Orlando Bloom, this does not give you permission to thrust your infant novel, still in nappies, at the nearest publisher demanding they agree ‘how good (looking) it is.’

And so as writers we must allow our newborn books to grow, to develop. We must wait for them to move through the stages at their own pace, and never be impatient for them to run before they can walk, or indeed, before they can even crawl.

Personally, I am hoping it won’t take 18 years for my freshly delivered, still mewling newborn book to develop to the stage where it’s ready to take on its own life, but I am fascinated to see what happens from here, and how it will grow and change.

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