Writing Character Arcs (or Falling in Love with your Characters)

‘But does Winnie actually want a husband and children, or is she happily single?’ my mentor Brooke asked as we discussed my book, Letting Go. ‘What does she want from life?’

‘Ahhhhh,’ was my rather inarticulate response.

I didn’t know. It suited my purposes for this particular character to be childless, but I hadn’t considered why she was childless. I hadn’t considered lots of things about her. Winnie didn’t even have a last name.

‘I think you need to write character arcs for your six main protagonists,’ Brooke told me.

I duly wrote down ‘character arcs’ in my notebook, and underlined it twice for good measure.

Later on when I started searching ‘how to write a character arc’ I learned it was a way of mapping the journey or growth of a character throughout the story.

“A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It’s a term that writers use to describe their protagonist’s journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person.” https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/

In this particular book, I have six primary characters. I knew some of them intimately, but others I realised, I was using as little more than plot devices. If I was treating them so appallingly, why would readers care about them? I needed to show all six of my main characters some love by spending some time with them and getting to know them better.

So even before you attempt a character arc, you should complete a character profile. This is where you describe your character’s physical, social and emotional details – pretty much as if you were filling out an online dating profile.

“Hi! My name is Winnie. I’m 35 and work as a paralegal. I could have gone to law school to become a lawyer but have a chip on my shoulder about my family so I decided to go travelling for a decade instead. I wear my clothes like a uniform so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear each day and carry an empty Keep Cup around and pretend to drink coffee so I don’t have to have conversations with people. I don’t actually like coffee. I don’t think I like people either. I am single and don’t have kids. But my author hasn’t told me yet whether I am happy or sad about this, so… yeah. She’s a bit disappointing really.”

There are a lot of free character profiling tools online that you can download. One I found was thirteen pages long and had over 120 individual questions you needed to answer for your character. Topics include the character’s bucket list items at different ages throughout their life and what they do in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep. It’s comprehensive and you can find it here but with six characters it was a tad more thorough than I required.

So I made my own.

As I went through my first draft, I began pulling out small details and quotes to add to each character’s profile/arc. Sometimes it was an observation by another character, sometimes it was backstory – but eventually, I began building up a detailed summary of each character and I could see how deeply I understood some of them – and where others were a complete mystery.

Unlike my other novels which have been inspired by the true stories of real people, the characters that populate Letting Go are wholly figments of my imagination. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I have a world of people living inside me, people who are unlike anyone I know in real life, but who are begging to have their story told. If I was anything other than a writer, that could be a significant problem.

Naturally, Brooke was correct and once I completed my profile/arcs for my six characters, I could see the gaps in my story. I was then able to go back and stitch up the holes – sometimes it required a whole scene, sometimes it was just a matter of adding a small detail.

I don’t believe you need to know everything about a character you are writing before you start, or even after you finish. No one is ever fully known to another – sometimes we don’t fully know ourselves. But if you’re going to spend months or years writing about a character, you should be a bit informed about them. This isn’t a blind date.

 

You’re very welcome to use my Character Arc and Profiling Tool – if you think I have forgotten anything important, drop me a line.

Addicted to flashbacks

It has become apparent that I have (amongst other terrible habits) an over-dependence on the use of flashbacks. It’s so pronounced in fact that a chapter I have just rewritten was about 75% flashback. Ouch.

I went searching for confirmation that I was not alone, that other, better writers had terrible habits too, and it hadn’t ruined their lives. I found this fabulous paragraph on Medium, in an article by Clare Barry called ‘Everyone’s a copyrighter, right?

“Virginia Woolf had a beautiful habit of swapping the narrative perspective mid paragraph. Jane Austen used double negatives. Charles Dickens was the king of run-on sentences — and E.E. Cummings didn’t give a flying cockatoo what you thought about capitalisation. That man capitalised whatever word he damned-well pleased. Or didn’t. Don’t get me started on Hemingway, whose grammar was a mix of playful creativity and 46% malt whisky.”

I’m not so much a whisky girl, as someone who boils the kettle in the ensuite so I don’t have to venture into the kitchen and risk running into family members who might want to engage with me. It means my book is relying on instant coffee but it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted writing time first thing in the morning.

My dependence on flashback is because I am writing a highly structured book that follows six characters throughout a month. As you move through the book, each character has a day, but as in real life, sometimes interesting things happened yesterday, or three days ago.

My beloved mentor, Brooke Dunnell, recently pointed out that a chapter I had written started with a single sentence in the present day (a Sunday) then promptly jumped back to Wednesday, then Thursday then Friday before returning briefly to Sunday a few lines before the chapter ended.

When I colour-coded the chapter to see how bad the damage was, it looked like a United Colours of Benetton advert from the 1990s.

Letting Go over-reliance on flashbacks Ch 9

There are some generally accepted rules when writing flashbacks, the first being ‘don’t use too many’, but I’ve already established I’m a rule breaker (sometimes I even have UHT milk in my early morning bathroom instant coffee!).

But another important rule is that you need a trigger to start the flashback, as well as to bring your reader back to the present time. In real life when you suddenly stop to think about something that has happened in the past, it has usually been triggered by one of the senses – you see something or smell something that takes you back. The same should happen to your characters. Simply starting the sentence:

On Wednesday, when Winnie shared the waitress’ suspicions, Katharine had laughed…

is lazy. This admittedly is one of my current sentences, but it’s still early days of my flashback recovery, so I need to take things slowly.

Another rule is the flashback needs to advance the story – you can’t just drift backwards to discuss the weather or show off your beautiful literary turn of phrase; if you’re going to use a flashback, it needs to progress the plot. A good comparison is when someone starts describing their dream to you – they’re often wildly disconnected and boring as hell to the listener – you do NOT want your flashback to read like this. It must have a point that you couldn’t have made in the present time.

That being said, I realised that if I could re-write my flashback sections into the present time, I probably should. I couldn’t change the timing on all my flashbacks, but there were certain things – like a phone conversation – that could be moved.

The other good advice I received from Brooke, was to delay the first flashback for as long as possible. This means the reader can be established in the present day, before whisking them back to the past.

This is the colour-coding of the chapter after some work. I still have flashbacks, but they start much later in the chapter and there is significantly less of them.

Flashback chapter after some work

Working through this one chapter has made me much more cognisant of my addiction to this literary technique, and I suspect I have a fair bit of work ahead of me to reduce my overall reliance on them. But I have no doubt that one day my book will be much more than a mix of flashbacks and instant coffee.

Why You Should Keep a Record of Rejection

In 2010, with a toddler, a newborn baby in my arms and the knowledge that we would be trying for a third baby in the not-too-distant future, I went to a career counsellor.

Prior to having my children, and I’d spent close to a decade working at various universities in three states. My last job had been as the manager of a clinical trials group, and I had been told that I was always welcome to return to my job – as long as I was prepared to come back full time under the same conditions.

I wasn’t.

At this stage I had three degrees, none of which were particularly practical, and an ad hoc career path that could be broadly defined as ‘researcher’. I’d worked part time for 18 months after my first daughter was born, but, along with the rest of the company, was let go when the GFC sent the small start-up crashing to the wall.

The career counselling process was comprehensive and over three months and multiple sessions, we whittled our way through what I was qualified for versus what I actually enjoyed doing, my values and priorities and a range of psychometric tests that matched me to a range of careers, many of which I’d never even heard of.

The end result: writer or event planner.

I love planning a party and in another life probably would have made a fabulous event planner, but with three small children, working on other people’s events on weekends and in the evenings didn’t sit well with me.

Besides, I had wanted to be a writer since I was in primary school. I just hadn’t considered it to be something you could make a career out of [spoiler alert: I still haven’t made it].

One of the first things I did was sign up for a website which advertised itself as sharing advertising income with its writers. You would be paid every time person a read your articles, and in a sense this was true. I just hadn’t realised it would average around a cent for each reader. Still, not one to be deterred by common sense, over the next nine years I penned around 650 articles earning me a little over $10,000. I’ll save you the effort – that averages $15.38 an article or approximately $1,111 a year.

The other thing I did was start a spreadsheet of all my writing submissions.

In the first heady months of ‘being a writer’ I made a few ill-judged tenders, sending poorly written, totally unedited pieces out into the world.

The first entry in my spreadsheet is Text Publishing. Under ‘Article Details’ it says ‘selection of unedited baby emails [short stories]’. In the ‘Outcome’ column it says ‘Rejected (mail)’.

That, dear reader, is the optimism only complete ignorance and entitlement brings.

I look back at that with a stomach-churning mix of shame and bewilderment, hoping they don’t keep a file of their worst submissions, a black-list of names they pull out every Christmas to add further merriment to their festivities.

I spruiked a subset of those stories a few more times to magazines and even the ASA Mentorship Program (oh the shame) before good sense finally caught up with me and I moved my personal ramblings to a blog called Relentless where they fared a little better.

The next entry in my spreadsheet looks totally different. This is because I actually submitted something that had been asked for: a short story for the West Australian on the theme of summer. In the ‘Outcome’ column, it is highlighted in red, and says ‘First Prize, published 22/1/2011. (Prize: Macbook Air). You can read it here.

Like most of my writing to that point (and since), it was rushed and over-enthusiastic. Self-editing wasn’t a concept I was familiar with, and I emailed it off so quickly I neglected to even give the story a name. But for whatever reason, the writing gods decided to smiled on me, and in January 2011 I saw my name in print for the first time, and won a spiffy new laptop to boot.

Despite the fact they spelled it wrong, seeing my name in black and white was a heady feeling. Addictive. Energising. Encouraging. I knew I had to keep going. I had many more stories I wanted to tell.

As I scroll through the spreadsheet now, almost a decade on, there are far less red ‘published’ entries than there are ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘no response’. My hit rate is around 1 in 6. That’s to be expected. Some of the rejections sting more than others. The silence can be hurtful, especially when something sits on someone’s desk for months on end, languishing in purgatory. I’d rather just know, so I can move forward, look for a new home for that piece of writing.

But the overwhelming feeling I get when I look through the spreadsheet is pride.

I don’t look at the lengthy column of ‘unsuccessful’ outcomes and think I’m a failure. Instead I look at the long list of stories I have written, of articles I have submitted and I feel proud that I have put myself and my writing out there.

I am creating worlds out of words, and while not all of them have found a permanent place in print, in the words of Wayne Gretzky, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

So in effect, I’ve decided my spreadsheet is not actually a record of my rejections, but a compilation of my creations.

 

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


― Nelson Mandela

 

Interviewing Experts for your Novel

‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’

I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’

‘Perfect.’

Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.

I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.

I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.

There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.

Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.

Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.

Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:

  1. Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
  2. Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
  3. Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
  4. Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
  5. As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
  6. If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
  7. Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
  8. Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
  9. Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.

What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?

 

author and Stephen Clarke

With chef Stephen Clarke

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

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.

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.

paper-1100254_1280

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

Snubbed by a Plumber

Things have been falling apart in our house lately. First the kitchen sink started leaking. Then the toilet started leaking. Then another toilet decided to stop flushing altogether, which instantly brings you back into the middle-ages and reaffirms your love affair with modern plumbing and disappearing bodily waste.

So over the past few weeks I have been establishing a first-name basis relationship with the local plumber. Let’s call him Bob.

Bob is an older fellow, knowledgeable far beyond the physics of plumbing. Over his three recent visits we have talked about my writing, the perils of working from home, and the frustrations of parenting.

Yesterday in between plunging the precariously full bowl of my upstairs toilet and a gentle lecture on P bends and air flow in pipes, he asked me how my writing was going.

‘Oh well, I am pretty busy with the kids at the moment…’

‘I am struggling with my novel because I am more used to writing short-form articles…’

‘The school holidays are almost here…’

‘It’s hard to get adequate paid work…’

Bob straightened up and pointed the plunger at me.

‘You know what it sounds like to me, if you don’t mind me saying…’ he started to say.

I leaned forward – would he have the solution to my problems?

‘It sounds like a discipline problem to me.’ And he flushed the toilet and everything went away.

I was floored, but only because it was the simple truth. I have no obstacles to my writing, except myself. I have the same number of hours in my day as everyone else, and I probably have significantly fewer constraints than many others.

On the weekend I went to a Writers’ Convention and my first session was Overcoming Obstacles to Writing by the amazing Annabel Smith. She too (in a more roundabout way and with significantly less raw sewage) came to the same conclusion.

And so I am breathing life back into this blog, not (only) as a way to procrastinate, but I find that any form of creative writing is like mental exercise for me, a way to start jogging before the marathon of the novel.

And even though Bob farewelled me with the comment ‘Well I hope I don’t have to see you again anytime soon’ (and I am sure he meant that in the nicest possible way), I am hoping that the next time our paths (or plungers) cross, I will have a much better response when he asks me how my writing is going – with no more excuses.