Tag Archives: writing process

Sea Monkeys, Sunny Boys & Skylab: Writing the 1970s

Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a childCoverfinalmedRES in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.

1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.

And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.

I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling SunnyBoyout “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.

That’s what I thought, in the beginning.

Hahahaha.

Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.

While I was writing, doubts started creeping in. Like … Hang on a minute – did we say canteen or kiosk back then? Yeah but specifically at the drive-in. Which I never actually went to, on account of not having a car.

And hang on, now that I think about it – I’ve got Frankie, my 12-year-old protagonist, saying On account of, but we’d never have said that back then. And hang on hang on! Did we even say hang on? Or was it hold on? Hang on is American! Or is it? Americanisms weren’t as common, then. When did they start creeping in? seamonkeys

Once I had disappeared down this rabbit hole, there was no going back. I realised that a lot of the language I’d given Frankie was wrong, anachronistic.

I guess so. Same as always. Tell me about it. Come help.

Cue gnashing of teeth, and asking of Twitter. Cue re-writing.

I suppose so. The same as always. Derr, Freddie. Come and help.

These are small things aren’t they? And contemporary young readers aren’t going to know the difference. So why did I bother?

Because having realised it was wrong, I couldn’t not bother. I couldn’t not try and get it at least as right as possible. Because not only does language matter fundamentally, but also because having realised this was wrong made me wonder what else might be. What other errors had I made unthinkingly because I ‘knew’ this period so well, because I had lived it, overlooking the obvious fact that memories are slippery little suckers and that mine are unavoidably stamped by all the years between then and now?

And because getting this seemingly small thing as right as possible had ripple effects for the writing. Getting the language right dropped me more firmly into Frankie’s skin. Looking out at the world from her eyes, I remembered other things, other 1979 things and feelings that were long buried. The era and the setting and the book itself became more realistic and more authentic in other, broader ways. The characters of both Frankie and her little brother Newt came to life on the page much more vividly. And they are what forms the heart of the story.

Getting the language right helped me get the characters right helped me get the emotional core of the story right. And there is nothing more important than that.

It wasn’t just the language, either. Once I was down the rabbit hole, looking around, I Gilliganrealised I’d mis-remembered some other things. Things about crystal radios and Gilligan’s Island and what night of the week I used to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on my radio-cassette player, my finger poised over the record button.

I did a lot of research, which then became a rabbit hole of its very own. I wanted to stuff everything into the story – Prince Charles’ visit to Esperance!; the International Year of the Child celebrations with their catchy Care for HypnocoinKids song (I still know all the words); sea monkeys and X-ray specs and Hypno-Coins, oh my! And surely there’s some way I can sneak the phrases Suffer in your jocks! and Ripper tune, Boris! in there somewhere, for no other reason than my abiding love for them.

XRaySpecs

Anyone who’s ever done research for a book will tell you this stage is part of the process. They’ll also tell you that a story needs to wear its research lightly, and thankfully, this was something I knew.

In the end, a lot of writing ends up on the cutting room floor. And that means a lot of research does too. It seeps into the fabric of the story, rather than sitting on the surface. In the end, there are no sea monkeys in this book. There are no Sunny Boys. But there’s a lot of Skylab. And also, I hope, a lot of heart. Which is something that doesn’t change across history. At least that’s what I’m counting on, that my 1979 kids will find a direct line to 2019 readers.

The next time I see a shooting star, I know exactly what to wish for.

Meg1979

Bonus pic of me in 1979, wearing my “Getafix” T-shirt. Mum drew a different character for each of us kids using Hobbytex pens. I wore the seams out of that shirt, and still have it to this day.

 

 

 

 

A Rhinoceros By Any Other Gender…

As many of you know, I have a new picture book coming out very soon.OUASR_CVR_HR-RGB

Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros will officially hit bookstores on 1 September. I’ve blogged previously about the inspiration for the book, and a little about the process of writing it. During that process, many things changed. Some were big – like the title. Others were small – a shift in phrasing that made a line sing, an ellipsis that opened up the ending.

And there was one that was both – tiny but enormous.

Here’s the last line as it appeared in one of the roughs:

Rough4

If you’ve read the book, you should be able to spot the difference. If you haven’t, then know this: across many, many drafts, and until quite late in the process, my small rhinoceros was male. And then at a certain point, I said huh?

Because my small rhinoceros was male for no good reason. For no reason at all except that I had unconsciously defaulted to that without a moment’s thought. Continue reading

The (Not-So) Accidental Aurealis

Last week two things happened:

i) This shiny trophy arrived in the post! A Single Stone won the Best Children’s Fiction category of the 2015 Aurealis Awards. This was a mighty fine thing and I’m very grateful to everyone involved.

Aurealis ASingleStone_HiRes

Podcast

ii) I was featured in The Australian Writers Centre’s “So You Want to be a Writer” podcast series, which was also a mighty fine thing and a lot of fun to do.

These two things are directly connected. It was the exposure generated by the award that put me on the AWC’s radar as a potential interviewee.

But they’re indirectly connected, too. During the interview, I became aware of a pattern in my responses. When the interviewer, Allison Tait, asked me how I became a children’s writer, I replied that it was sort of accidental. When she asked how it was that I started writing poetry, I replied that it was sort of accidental. We ended up joking about this; we even came up with a potentially excellent future book title: The Accidental Everything. 

(Which I immediately claimed, so back right off, writers!)

And then I started thinking about the Aurealis Award, and how I’d said in my acceptance speech that I hadn’t set out to write speculative fiction, that it had just sort of happened.

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Ten Years and Still Counting

Last week, I posted a little something about where I was ten years ago versus where I am now.

It’s a post I almost didn’t write because I was worried it would seem braggy. CHECK OUT ALL MY SWAG! AND THIS IS JUST IN ONE WEEK! NEXT WEEK I’LL SPLIT THE PUBLISHING ATOM!

It wasn’t meant to be like that. It was intended as a kind of self-talk, a rejoinder to the messy stuff that goes on in my head, which seems to focus almost entirely on how I could be writing faster or better or differently or just plain more, and never mentions – hardly even seems to notice – the good stuff.

When I shared last week’s post, I prefaced it with the comment: “A few things have changed.”

And that’s true. But here’s something that’s even truer: most things haven’t.

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Can You Put Me in a Book?

Kids often ask this when I go into schools.

It may be because I tell them that ideas are everywhere, that I’m gathering bits and pieces Handsupall the time, that just this morning I quietly filed away a funny thing their teacher said, or a cool-looking tree just outside their classroom, or the way their glasses make them look like a superhero in disguise.

It may be because I tell them I’m always collecting character names, that when they tell me theirs it sometimes starts things firing in my brain: Humphrey for a villain? Or a duck? A villainous duck! Charis for a small girl on an important mission across a magical land. Noah and Abby and Ella and Ruby just for the solid, satisfying ring of them.

Eyes light up. Will you put me in a book? they ask. You could write about our class!

And the answer is always no, because I can never plan to write about things or people in that way.

But the answer is also always yes, because things sneak into my work when I’m not looking, and the kids and the classes and the schools I’ve been to over the years are there when I think about it, when I look back on the work after it’s finished.

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Shifty Shades of Grey

A while ago, I joked about having jumped on the dystopian bandwagon. But the truth is that post is a little disingenuous, because I don’t think A Single Stone is really a dystopian narrative. The furthest I would go is to describe it as “speculative fiction with dystopian elements”.

Oh, what’s the difference? Why split hairs?

In the first place, because if ever there is a hair to be split, I will pierce it with a fine-gauge needle. It’s just what I do.

And in the second, because the difference is important.

A true dystopia is exactly as it sounds, an anti-utopia, a “not-good place” to coin a literal translation. And I can categorically say that no world I ever write will be either utopian or dystopian. Because those terms imply a certainty about what’s good and bad, and those definitive, clear-cut divisions aren’t at all interesting to me.

What’s interesting to me are the shifty shades of grey, the ambiguities. I am categorically not interested in categorical statements, worlds, or characters; I want the stories that crawl out of the spaces in between, a world whose value system balances on their edge.

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A Wrinkle in Writing

I’ve been thinking lately about creativity. About the complicated relationship between humility, confidence, and arrogance. About the precarious balance between the conviction that we might actually know what we’re doing and the gnawing fear that we don’t – a balance which is required to produce anything worthwhile. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.

I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome.

And I’ve been ironing. Usually a school uniform, in the morning, at the last possible moment.

Continue reading