A character by any other name

While my novel has been inspired by real-life people, it is ultimately fiction and so all my characters needed new names when I began to write.

A character’s name is so important, it is worn like an item of clothing that one cannot remove. It distinguishes you and discloses things about you, more than we realise. Choosing a name for my characters was an exercise in finding monikers which were historically accurate, and for some, a fun way to recognise family and friends.

My character Charles is loosely based on Walter Blair, a student who attended Claremont Training College at the same time as Doris and who sadly died in WW1. Although Walter died at the age of 21, there are a number of images of him that survive – his role in the College football and cricket teams meant there were plenty of team photos from his time at the College. This meant that I was able to use some of his physical characteristics when writing the character.

Walter needed a different name when he became a character in my book. Very little of Walter Blair’s life actually informed the character, and besides, Walter was the name I was using for my protagonist’s father. Charles was an easy decision as it was a common name of the time, and to choose his new surname I chose that of a friend whose first name was actually Blair, a moment of quick word association. This was how the character became Charles Morgan, a name that I felt was strong and somewhat refined, and could easily represent a man born into a family of well-bred lawyers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, while researching the second convoy of ships to leave Western Australia for the front, I discovered that there was a real-life Charles Morgan from Perth, who also was a Corporal, and who also served with the 11th Battalion, just the same as my fictional character. Real-life Charles Morgan was killed in action in France in July 1916. I also found Private Charles Morgan, a farmhand who served with the 10th Light Horse, the same Battalion as my character John.

I admit I am devastated, and disappointed with myself that I hadn’t thought to check sooner. It was a good name and will be difficult to think of my character by another, but out of respect for the real-life Charles Morgan’s who enlisted in WW1 from Perth, I now need to find a new one (or at least a new surname) for my character.

Immediately after my discovery about Charles, I had a moment of panic when I thought about my other main male character, John O’Meara. This character was loosely based on the real-life John Regan, and even though I kept the same first name, I chose another surname to represent his Irish heritage.

A quick search on the National Archives turned up dozens of John O’Meara’s who served in WW1 as well as the record of a John O’Meara who was a patient in a Queensland mental asylum. However none of them enlisted from West Australia, and so I am content to keep the name.

So now I am on the lookout for a new surname for my character – and I welcome any suggestions.

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Reference:

http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/1aif/1div/03bde/11th_battalion_aif.htm

Starting a New Blog – Mistakes I am Not Making This Time

Today marks the launch of my fourth blog: Fundraising Mums. Actually, if I’m being honest there was that other anonymous blog I started a couple of years ago and then freaked out and stopped publishing. It’s still out there in the virtual world, gathering dust and confusing people.

But Fundraising Mums is the first blog I have set up with an actual business plan. It is not just a place to collate memories like Relentless, nor a way to improve my clicks at WeekendNotes like Perth Food Reviews, and it is not all about me like shannonmeyerkort.com

Fundraising Mums was created because I identified an actual gap in the market and I wanted to fill it. I did my research, engaged professionals to help, I marketed, I sought advertisers, I spent three months working on it before I hit publish.

I am pretty happy with it today – but I cannot wait to see it in six month’s time when it really hits it stride.

Mistakes I made with Relentless

The biggest mistake I made with my first blog was not really thinking about the name I gave it. I was at a blogging workshop with the inspiring Amanda Kendle and even though I should have realised we would be expected to make (and name) a blog, I did not prepare. So gave it the first name I thought of: From Mum to Me.

Did you just wince? Or screw your face up? Because you don’t know what that means?

In my head it meant: I am starting this blog at a time when I am so heavily involved in being a mum to my (then) two daughters that I no longer remember who I am, or what else I am other than being a mum.’ The blog was meant to represent my journey from being ‘just a mum’ to being ‘me’.

But apparently that wasn’t immediately clear to others. You can read more about my ridiculous decision here.

After a year or so and the arrival of Baby Number Three suddenly it dawned on me that the blog should be named Relentless. Because that was what my life with three kids was like.

But it is not that easy to change the name of your blog – there is all this technical stuff with URLs and the like – not to mention the fact that you just confuse people.

Lesson 1: choose a name that not only suits your blog now, but will stay relevant as the blog grows and changes. You must LOVE it and it must make sense to others immediately.

Some might argue that Fundraising Mums is a sexist title that excludes not only Dads but teachers, coaches, grandparents and anyone without kids. I totally get that and I will wear the criticism, but it struck me as being a catchy title that was inclusive of about 90% of potential readers.

Mistakes I made with Perth Food Reviews

There were a few mistakes I made with Perth Food Reviews.

The first was that I was trying to break into an extremely full market already brimming with some top-notch and well established bloggers. Perth simply did not need one more food blog, especially when it was blatantly clear that my primary intention was to send traffic to WeekendNotes.

I am proud of my restaurant and cafe reviews on WeekendNotes and I think they are really useful, but I was constantly being asked by friends ‘where can I go in xxx to find yyy type of food’ or ‘where is the best xxx in Perth?’.

WeekendNotes doesn’t have the ability to search on questions such as this, so my thought was to create a new blog where people could search for particular types of food (Asian versus pub grub), certain styles of restaurant (fine dining versus share plates) or on particular requirements (child friendly versus views).

It was all rather noble, but apart from the cent per view I would receive if people actually clicked through to the WeekendNotes article, there was nothing in it for me. So I lost interest.

Which is a pity because I put in a lot of time setting it up, but it hasn’t been updated in ages and with the rapid rate restaurants go out of business here in Perth and new ones spring up, it is probably already outdated.

Lesson 2: don’t start a new blog unless you are really invested in it. Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and be prepared to commit both time and energy in the long term.

I see Fundraising Mums as a long term project, and it utilises all my talents and interests from writing, reviewing, researching, storytelling and project managing. I have hundreds of story ideas – my problem is going to be finding the time to write them all. The other point of difference is that this will be the first of my blogs that I monetise and offer advertising for. I have always been reluctant to put adverts on my other sites thinking it will annoy readers, but when people come to FRM they will WANT to see adverts for innovative fundraising companies. Win win.

Mistakes I made with shannonmeyerkort.com

I’d like to say this is a perfect site considering this is the one you are currently reading, but I acknowledge it is a small group of you who visit (thank you) and the content – while hopefully relevant and interesting to writers – is highly specific and also very personal. Readers often want broader information with no obvious author.

They don’t want to hear my voice, because frankly, they don’t care.

And I respect that.

I am the first to admit that I tend to spend more time on blogs that are less personal. Why? Because I make the (perhaps incorrect) assumption that the information is more universal and therefore, perhaps more relevant to me and my situation.

Lesson 3: personal blogs will attract like-minded followers who will engage and support you, but chances are you will have far fewer readers than a blog which is more universal and objective. Decide on your tone and style as well as your content, as this will influence people as to whether they want to feel involved personally, or more remotely.

Fundraising for schools is relevant to me (next year all three of my children will be at school) but it isn’t personal. I can invest more of my time in FRM without necessarily investing more of myself and my family. There is already plenty of that here and on Relentless. FRM is more business-like and while I really enjoy sharing great products and ideas, it’s not all about me, and frankly, that’s a good thing.

What are the main lessons you have learned from starting your own blog? What mistake won’t you be repeating?

PS. I have actually released my first book on Amazon: The Brutal Truth About the Third Child. You can buy it here. It will actually be FREE for July 1 and 2.

But that’s a story for another day.

Loving Something Doesn’t Mean It Will Love You Back

I am in the final throes of a Graduate Diploma of Professional Writing at university, and I was very excited to finally do a unit dedicated to writing for children. I thought it would be a shoe-in. I am a mother of three little girls, I read picture books til my head spin. Every room in my house is graced with some form or another of stories for children.

How hard could it be?

My first assessment was to write a picture book. In four weeks.

I laughed out loud when I realised this: because if it was possible to write a picture book in just four weeks, then everyone would be doing it and we would all be millionaires. We certainly wouldn’t need to go to uni to learn how to do it.

I had what I thought was a brilliant, quirky made-up idea, wrote my 300 words, developed some great concepts for the illustrator and sent it in for marking.

When I saw my grade (16/30) I thought there had been a mistake. Was I really just three percent off failing? I never fail.

After speaking with the tutor and reading her well-reasoned comments, I had to admit – reluctantly, bitterly, sadly – that yes, it was a totally crap book and kids and parents would probably hate it. (NB She didn’t actually say people would hate it, those are my words).

That was if they actually understood it.

It was a bitter pill to swallow. Just because I am a writer and a parent does not automatically mean I am cut out to be a picture book writer. And just because you want something doesn’t mean it will want you back (a lesson for more in life than just writing).

I also realised that my strength as a writer lies in telling stories that are based in fact. Yes, I am known to embroider the truth a little, to elaborate, exaggerate and mess around with little things like chronology, but everything I write – from stories about having three kids on Relentless, to reviews on WeekendNotes, to the fact-based short stories about my historical houses that won me awards – are all based on truth.

Why make things up when the truth is available?

So although my brush with failure is a smack in the face to my pride, it is also quite liberating. I realise it sounds like I am just giving up, but I am not. It has made me realise something about my abilities. Write what you know is a well known adage in the writing world and I knew I couldn’t afford to break the rule twice.

So for my second assessment, a junior fiction novel, I have based it on people and events from my own life. It is a veritable Frankenstein of truth, albeit repackaged with new names and a cutesy protagonist.

Stay tuned and I will let you know how I go.

I Want to Write for You, Not Talk To You

It’s the moment most writers wait for. Someone sidles up beside you and says ‘I read your latest blog/book/article’ and proceeds to share their own story.

But when your latest blog is on leaking pee when trampolining, or the humiliations of pubic hair shaving before a Caesar, generally those conversations don’t go so well.

Many moons ago an article I wrote called ‘Diary of a Caesar’ was published in Offspring Magazine. It was a blow-by-shameful-blow account of having c-section, peppered with all the blood and glory that happens to a lady’s business end during this time.

And then my uncle-in-law approached me, and started to discuss my article and some of its not-so-fine details.

It made me reconsider my limits when it comes to sharing personal information.

See, the thing about writing is that you don’t do it in front of an audience. It’s usually just you and a computer. You can sit and deliberate about what turn of phrase to use, or scroll through the thesaurus looking for a better word, but ultimately, when you hit ‘publish’ you’re still on your own.

You never get to see the facial expressions of people reading about your intimate secrets. You never get to hear them laugh at your jokes (and humiliations). You don’t get to see them nodding their head in agreement, or watch them as they share the article with their friends. You don’t hear them mutter obscenities if they don’t agree with what you’ve written. Any feedback you get is often delayed: silent words on a page or a number that clicks over.

Which is why, when an actual real-life human approaches you and starts to talk about enjoying your article it can be a special moment. Except lately, people only seem to be talking to me about my post about peeing when I was jumping on a trampoline with my four year old. Not my finest moment.

People assume that because you have shared an intimate moment online where millions of people can read it, also means you are willing to discuss it in person.

Here’s the thing: that’s not actually true. Comment by all means online, but let’s keep those comments virtual.

I often write painful, embarrassing, humiliating, intimate or just plain disgusting things online because I want to share, and let people know ‘yes, it happened to me too. You’re not alone.’ But I don’t necessarily want to rehash those painful, embarrassing, humiliating, intimate or just plain disgusting things in person.

Probably because they’re painful, embarrassing, humiliating, intimate or just plain disgusting.

So now I’m considering a coding system on my stories: green for ‘let’s talk about this one’ and red for ‘let’s never mention this again.’

 

For the record, this one is GREEN.

How to Unblock Bloggers Block

Feast or famine.

Flood or drought.

Inspiration or desperation.

Do these sound familiar to you? As writers, do you find that it’s all or nothing when it comes to your writing?

People who have been reading my other blog Relentless over the years can see that I tend to write in spurts, and can either publish a number of posts in a relatively short period of time, or my blog comes to resemble the literary equivalent of an abandoned Old West town, with spinifex rolling across the screen.

I recently attended some workshops at the Perth Writer’s Festival and found just being in a room of writers was enough to get my writing mojo back. I have been thinking about what inspires me as a blogger so here are my top tips for unblocking bloggers block. If you’re a novelist, click here for my top tips for unblocking writers block.

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During times of feast, prepare for the famine

When things are going well and the ideas are coming thick and fast, write them down. Keep a single book with all your writing ideas, even if you write in different genres. When times are good you probably won’t have enough hours in the day to act on everything, so leave them (with sufficient details and notes) so that when you are blocked you can go back and look at previous ideas.

What worked before, might work again

Look through your stats and see what has been popular in the past. What have been your five most read posts? Try and figure out what was special about those pieces – what made them resonate with readers? Was it the content or the format? Was it funny or thought-provoking, controversial or sad. Find what your readers respond to and write more like that.

Sometimes the answers for future posts can be found in your readers’ comments. See what people have responded to, and find out if they have asked any questions about you or your post.

Similarly, why not write a follow-up post about one of your popular articles or a Part II, like this follow-up to The Brutal Truth About the Third Child which ended up winning a writing competition at Parent Express.

Change it up

If you have an idea for a post but for whatever reason it’s not working try changing perspective. Perhaps you always write from the first person, but this time it’s not flowing. Pretend to be your child, your dog or a stranger writing about the same thing.

If you can’t change perspective then play with the format – rather than a straight story from your own point of view, write a letter or make a list. ‘Top 10 reasons why…’ posts tend to be popular as well as any list article that claims to be the ‘best of’.

There is a degree is universalism in these types of posts, the title gives the impression that they are relevant to a wider community, and isn’t simply a story about you.  What would you rather read: ‘My horrible day at the shopping centre’ or ‘Ten reasons why taking your toddler to the shops is bound to end in tears?’

Figure out what brings readers to your blog

Most blogging platforms offer easy stats programs which will tell you what search terms people have used before ending up on your blog. For Relentless at the moment they tend to be terms like: ‘advice on having baby number 3’, ‘planning for baby number 3’, ‘should I have a third child’ and my favourite ‘how should I tell my husband we’re having baby number 3’ (while offering him a stiff drink, dear).

While it is interesting to find out what random terms brought people to your blog by mistake, it is also a great tool to see what your readership are actively searching for. Why not offer them what they are looking for.

Based on the search terms people use before they come across Relentless I could easily write a series of posts dedicated to specific questions about having three kids: “How to tell your husband you want three kids”, “What happens when you want three kids and he doesn’t” or “How to prepare for the third child”.

All really good ideas I don’t have time for right now, so I will write them in my ideas book (see point 1).

Be a thief in the night

There is no copyright on ideas, I was told once during a writing workshop. While I wouldn’t advocate merely pinching someone’s idea carte blanche (that’s boring), I certainly think that finding inspiration in other writers’ posts is fair game.

When you read something that makes you feel happy/sad/angry/motivated ask yourself WHY did this evoke such a reaction? Now figure out how you can take that reaction and write your own post. Have they left any part of this story untold? Is there another side of the story? Could you tell your own version?

Sometimes it might be the title of the post that strikes a chord: write it in your book, give it some times to marinate and then begin your own post. It might (and should) be an entirely different article than the one from which you got your inspiration, but now at least you’re over your bloggers block.

What other ideas do you have for overcoming bloggers block?

A Writer By Any Other Name

Sometimes all a writer has is their name. And sometimes they don’t even have that.

Words are intangible. When you speak them, they do not last. They can be misheard, or forgotten, or misquoted. They can be claimed by someone else.

When you write online as I do, it is easy for your words to be separated from your name.

Not long after I wrote The Brutal Truth About the Third Child, a post about the differences between my three different pregnancies, a friend sent me an email with the comment ‘here’s a really funny story about having three kids, I thought you might like it’.

I did like it. I wrote it.

She had been sent an email with the body of my post cut out of my blog, and she had simply forwarded it to me. I am sure that whoever did the initial cutting and pasting did not mean anything malicious by it, indeed, they must have enjoyed my writing enough to send it to friends. But they had removed my name from the piece, and therefore took the one thing that linked me to my words.

Watching the stats for that one post, as it went a bit viral and bounced around the net, I was stunned by the numbers of people who were clicking on my blog to read that post.

But I was equally stunned by the fact that the numbers were not changing significantly on the hundreds of other posts on my blog.

Didn’t they like me? Why weren’t they sticking around and following my blog?

It has taken me a while to realise that – with a few exceptions – readers don’t care about the writers. They care about words, they care about stories and how they make them feel, but they don’t really care about the person who put they words together.

I prove this to myself almost every day when someone sends me a link or shares a post, which I then click on and read, laugh or frown or weep, and then click away again. I might click ‘like’ or share the post, but rarely do I stay to poke around the blog. Why? My time is short, my attention span limited, and sometimes I can see that the post is not reflective of the rest of the blog.

For whatever reason, it seems it is the individual piece of writing that has life and is important, not the individual who wrote it. As someone who writes for a living, this has been a bitter pill to swallow. While there are beloved family and friends who will read whatever you write because you are you, they tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.

So this is why I feel that having your name attached to your writing is important. It might be an exercise in futility because of everything I just mentioned, but every now and then, someone will see your name and begin to associate your words with a person, and a relationship is forged.

So why is it then, that everyone keeps getting my name wrong?

The first time I was published in the newspaper, having won a short story competition, my name was written as Shannon Meyerkor.

Then, when I published an article about having a caesarean section in Offspring, a national parenting and lifestyle magazine, I was credited in the front of the magazine as Shannon Meyerkart.

Most recently, in a story in the Sunday Times where I was interviewed about my article about share food etiquette, the caption under the photo has me as Shannon Merykort.

I have to admit, I like Merykort the most so far. It makes me sound happy.

When I read stories to my children before bed, I make certain I always read out the name of the author and illustrator after I read the title. It is their link to the stories that make my children happy, and I want them to understand that a person somewhere, behind a computer, has put these words together: it is their livelihood, it is their talent, it is their gift.

My Failures As a Writer

If you peruse a writer’s website – like this one – one thing strikes you. It is all about achievement. Writer’s websites – like this one – will detail the things that have been published, the successful pitches, the commissioned pieces.

Very rarely do they talk about the failures.

When I first decided to not to return to my former career as a health researcher I spoke to a friend who was already a successful writer. She passed on some sage advice to me.

The first was that rejections are not face to face. I had commented that I wasn’t sure I could make it as a writer as I was relatively thin-skinned and the constant rejections could be wearing. She agreed that rejections always stung, but unlike the traditional workplace, you could experience your failures in private, sitting at the computer at home, or in front of the letter box as you tear open yet another rejection letter.

The second was that even the most experienced and published writers get rejected. And while it never got any easier in that moment you realised you were being told ‘no’ and not ‘yes’, over time it was easier to move on and submit the piece somewhere else.

As a new writer it can sometimes be dispiriting to regularly read about the success of others. By that I do not mean that I don’t want others to succeed, but it can be a misrepresentation to assume that between those successes there were not failures as well.

So in the interest of openness, I wish to talk about some of my failures. 

For example, a few months ago I attended a workshop run by the Perth food critic Rob Broadfield. It was advertised as an opportunity to learn about food writing but more tantalisingly it was also a chance to submit a piece of work with the possibility of being selected as a food writer for the next edition of the Perth Good Food Guide.

I thought to myself: I write food reviews all the time, hundreds of them. Award winning reviews! I’m a shoe-in, I thought confidently.  

Probably every person in the room, 150 of us, thought the same.

Two weeks later, and no congratulatory phone call had come. I was genuinely surprised to miss out.

One way of looking at this is that I am confident. What would be the point of putting myself out there if I did not have a firm belief in what I was doing. Another is that I am a bit cocky, and there is a world of difference between writing for a website where there is minimal editorial input, and a published guide which must stand alongside equivalent national and international books.

Another recent failure was a picture book which I submitted to a local publisher. Again, I thought that this was a certainty. In 2010 I wrote a short story which won first prize in a writing competition.

I rewrote it into a picture book, creating clues in the illustrations which could be followed to show an observant child that the climax of the story would be Christmas. Awesome! I even engaged the help of a professional editor and writer to help me get it to a point where I thought it would be of a publishable standard.

When the rejection letter arrived in the mail I was disappointed, but not as crushed as I feared I might be. I have edited it some more and today I will post it to another publisher. I keep telling myself J.K Rowling was rejected by 14 publishers before Harry Potter was finally picked up by Bloomsbury.

I have a lot more than two rejection stories. A lot more. I have a database where I keep a record of all my submissions: articles, picture books, competitions, job ads. Next to the vast majority of them I have written ‘unsuccessful’.

The things on this website – my piece in My Child, the dental practice articles, my shortlisted stories – are the things that have a ‘successful’ written next to them. At this point in my career, they may be in the minority, but all those ‘unsuccessfuls’ have the bonus of teaching me one very valuable lesson, a lesson which is essential if I want to continue on in this field:

It turns out I am more resilient than I thought.