Look it Up!

We’re delighted to welcome a new guest poster this month – Sue Bursztynski.  Sue is an Australian author and has many published works, both fiction: WolfbornIt’s True! Your Cat Could Be A Spy, and non-fiction: Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, Potions to Pulsars: Women doing Science.

Sue blogs at The Great Raven where she reviews children’s and Young Adult books, as well as genre fiction. Sue was interviewed on radio last month and you can listen to the broadcast here.

We asked Sue if she’d be willing to share her approach to writing with us.


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I started my writing career with children’s non fiction, which used to be a great market and a lot of fun, then wandered into fiction.

Recently, after a year of no fiction sales, I decided to try writing non fiction again. It’s hard to sell non fiction books for children these days. I sold several in my day, but trade publishers aren’t buying them much any more, and education publishers are setting up stables of writers and turning down anyone else.

Meanwhile, there’s one very good market in my country, a magazine aimed at schoolchildren which has been around for a hundred years, and I have sold them articles in the past. This year I researched and wrote about John Glenn, who had just died when I emailed my inquiry. More about that anon.

I research for both my fiction and non fiction, but when I have a story idea, if I don’t start immediately, it never gets written, so I just write and look it up later. For my novel, Wolfborn, I did read whole books about the Middle Ages, but as it was a subject I already knew about, I just had to confirm.

A while ago, I was commissioned to write a short piece of YA historical fiction. When I decided it was to be about the Beatles’ visit to Melbourne in 1964, but had no particular ideas, I went to the State Library, which has a lot of microfilmed newspapers of the time. I found human interest stories and letters to the editor saying the Beatles would be gone in about two years, the ads and the TV guide and the films on at the time and a picture of Ringo being kissed by two girl fans and looking unhappy about it. And I found something in the newspapers that gave me an idea for my story. I found the story of Jimmy Nicol.

Jimmy Nicol was the drummer covering for Ringo during the tour, because Ringo was having surgery, but by the time they got to Melbourne, Ringo was ready to rejoin them. So Jimmy was bundled off back to England. One of the saddest photos I’ve ever seen was of him sitting at the airport alone, because the manager had dropped him off and returned to the boys. Oh, he was paid well for that gig, but still… sad. I hadn’t heard that story before. Now I had.

My heroine was a Beatles fan who played the drums herself and had a gig at the school dance, but was dumped when their regular drummer came back. She had wanted her new baby brother to be called Ringo, but after an unexpected meeting with Jimmy, just before he went to the airport,  changed her mind and asked for him to be called Jimmy.

Newspapers are a terrific resource for historical fiction set in the last hundred years or so. I read some Victorian era papers for a story about the bushranger Frank Gardiner, the only person ever to be exiled from Australia.

We have an amazing National Library here, with an on line resource called Trove. It has papers going back to 1803 and a magazine, the Australian Women’s Weekly, between 1933 and 1980. I’ve used all of the above in my research at one time or another.

Oddly enough, I couldn’t find a lot about John Glenn’s flight in the Australian newspapers of 1964. You’d think there would be plenty, wouldn’t you? Especially since the people of Perth turned on their lights for him as he flew over. But no. A few short articles and some photos among a lot of stories considered more important at the time, like the teacher strike in Victoria. Yeesh!

Back to the State Library reading room. Not much in the space books. One memoir. I also found a book called The Astronaut Wives Club, which was about the space program as seen by the wives. And, of course, bio sites on line and the NASA archives.

I can and will write about nearly anything, so if I don’t know about the subject, I just keep reading until I do, sometimes entire books. I don’t regret it. I love learning something new and you never know when you can use it again. I read several books for a commissioned article on forensics, because it was something I knew nothing about at the time. It was worth it. My article was published and paid for twice, plus I was later commissioned to write a book about Aussie criminals.

Now I’m browsing my A to Z blog posts on spies and spying to see if any of them can be rewritten for a children’s magazine.

Research is never wasted.

 

© Sue Bursztynski, 2017

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Trust no one

Mel sighed and wiped the knife clean. She’d gone to the meet without guns, as agreed, only to find that he’d reneged on the deal. So, ‘twas lucky she’d not been totally naive. She was sighing, nevertheless, for his killing brought to an end months of one step forward, two steps back negotiations. Maybe if she’d allowed herself to be sacrificed, to be the dead body instead of him, her team would now have the upper hand and they’d be able to drive forward the peace plans. Sure, he’d been carrying a gun – even if he was a lousy shot – but they’d just say she’d planted the gun, despite knowing different. It was all a mess, just one bloody frustration after another.

Her shoulder burned where his bullet had nicked it, her quick reactions having saved her once again. It needed to be cleaned up, but she wanted to get home quickly to Matt. She’d promised she wouldn’t be gone long and he was only five, so time was still a tricky concept for him.

They really had to stop this nonsense before he grew up and was forced to change sides. She’d not be able to bear losing her only son.

 

©Debra Carey 2017

#secondthoughts – Harry Potter

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As I write this, I am surrounded by the news that June 26th 2017 marks an important 20th anniversary. If you’ve had your head under a stone, let me enlighten you – it was the 20th anniversary of the day J K Rowling (JKR) published the first in her hugely successful Harry Potter (HP) series. So, what better time to revisit my thoughts on this publishing phenomena?

Three years ago I wrote this, expressing my enthusiasm for all things HP.  And have my feelings changed? No, I can’t say that they have, certainly not as a reader. I found them pacy and perfectly plotted (yes, I’m afraid I’m an alliteration addict) and they tell a cracking yarn. I love the way the books were structured so that children could grow up with the story, year upon year. I also admired the way the story matures with them – both in terms of content and the time required to read them.

So, I had to ask myself – how can I look at the series in a different light, from a different viewpoint? As a writer seemed the obvious answer – and what writer wouldn’t want to learn from JKR’s mega-successful series?

Let’s start with the fact that JKR didn’t just write these stories, although simply writing them was a hugely impressive feat in itself …

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She also planned all seven books before she sat down – in that now famous coffee shop – and wrote the first one.

<Sigh> and as a pantser, it’s got to teach me the value of planning … and planning … and planning. The following extract from JKR’s notebooks isn’t overwhelming in itself, but let’s not forget, it is only one extract …

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JKR is famed for having multiple notebooks filled with background information for each and every character who appears in the books, no matter how small a part they play.

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I’ve read multiple interviews where it’s been stated that she could answer questions on how someone might have behaved in a situation that didn’t happen in the books, in order to move the story along correctly in one of the films. Daunting, huh?

And, of course, long ago I carefully saved all those pages of questionnaires whereby an author “interviews” their characters and so knows everything about them. I’m also hugely grateful to those people who prepared – and shared – them, but I am more than slightly boggled about completing them for even my major character, let alone every single one. But I solemnly swear that I am up to no good I will do so now … honest.

What else have I learned from JKR and HP? This is a big one for me … rather than worrying whether I can match the purple prose of my favourite literary authors, to write something people will enjoy reading. A good story, characters that readers will engage with and care about, oh and to make sure there are no factual inconsistencies to annoy and distract. Remember that there will be people who will behave as I did with HP – talking at length about the book, discussing the plot, and picking over the minute details of what this or that means in the grand scheme of things.

OK, so this pre-supposes that my book will get written, edited, published and read … but there’s no point writing if you don’t make that supposition, is there?

And, with that in mind, let’s talk about those fine qualities to be learned from JKR …

  • determination
  • belief
  • persistence

 

She had a story in her mind and she was determined to tell it. Equally, she was going to make it the very best it could be (need I mention the planning?) Yet she trusted her instincts and didn’t allow all that detailed plotting to have her shy away from making the changes that she believed were right, once it came to writing time. Of course, when she did make those plot changes – even substantial ones – she knew exactly what tweaks to be make to keep it all on track (and yes, we’re back to all that planning). As to persistence, let’s just say that JKR appears on that list of famous people who were all rejected multiple times before they found one … who believed.

But to end this revistation of HP, I’d like to return to my thoughts about the books as a reader, and to mention one final thing.  You see, I love, absolutely love, that their heroine is a girl. Yes, I did say that. I know the books are called Harry Potter and the … but, come on. Hermione is a heroine, if not the heroine. After all, where would Harry have been without her?  And that’s before we talk about her status as the best ever female role model. Come on – she’s brainy, an unashamed swot, and has unruly curly hair <sigh> She’s bloody perfect.

From a gender-perspective, is it a shame that JKR had to hide behind her initials as an author and that Hermione had to hide behind Harry? Well, yes … but that’s a different story for a different day. If I’m going to pick one fight with JKR, it’s that in the recent epilogue, Hermione doesn’t become Minister for Magic but only “something senior” in the Ministry for Magical Law Enforcement, whilst Harry heads up the Auror’s department. Hermione went back to study for (and no doubt ace) her NEWTs, whilst Harry never did. What message are you giving there JKR …?

 

© 2017 Debra Carey

Perpetual Motion

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Hi. Call me Merle – it means ‘blackbird’, if it matters. I realise that this is not a common name. It gets worse. I wasn’t born here. My beginnings were in the south of France, a rural idyll where my family band I spent all our time out-of-doors, come rain or shine.

I suppose you could describe me as an immigrant, but I didn’t really ever want to come here. I’ve tried to fit in, I really have – no I promised I wouldn’t cry. I think the hardest part is that I haven’t been able to fulfill myself.  Everyone has a purpose and I have been tantalisingly close to completing mine several times, but I have been denied. Instead I have been passed from hand to hand as a gift, as a prize.

My troubles, and my travels, began when I was packed in a cardboard box with five of my sisters.  For days I did not see the late of day, but heard the occasional chink as we were jostled in our box.  The lid was opened suddenly and I saw a much greyer sky than I was used to.  I was added to a display, and watched as bottles and cases were bought until finally, many months later, my turn came and I was part of a mixed case, sold to clear the way for new stock.

Again the journey, much shorter this time; again the display, here a wine-rack rather than the shop-window; again seeing my friends go before me.  At last, I thought my time had come – I was taken from the rack.  But no.  Instead of being placed on the table in the dining room, I was put on the table in the hall.  This was at least something new, but what next?  I journeyed again, this time peeking out of a bag perfectly fitted for me. I was handed to someone else, amidst much hugging – and then I was forgotten by the door.

Here I stayed for a few days before being passed on again, this time with less ceremony.  Over the next year I was to change hands 27 times.  I was donated to four different fêtes over the summer.  I listened to discussions by three different bookgroups.  I was a house-warming present eight times.  I have been so jostled around I am probably completely undrinkable.

In all my travels, the closest I came to absolute despair was the time when I was with some man who I had seen once or twice before.  I hadn’t realised it, but he had clearly noticed me.  Whilst most others simply reached for the nearest bottle and I had been unlucky, this pig carefully marked my label in an unobtrusive but unmistakable way.  He talked to himself as he did it saying that he wondered if I would ever come back.  Then, with cold calculation, he passed me on.  I never saw him again.

What is wrong with you people?  Can Merlot somehow have gone out of fashion?

 

© David Jesson, 2017

(500 words)

Project Gutenburg

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Squib, and his friends

Tom felt the tears prick at his eyes, and instantly suppressed them.  It was his 10th birthday, and ten-year-olds don’t cry ever, certainly not in front of their parents, and definitely not ever in front of their older brothers.  It was typical of Jonno that he had handed over the immaculately wrapped gift with a sort of nonchalant carelessness.  Once you would have noted him looking to Tophe, the eldest, for approval in the manner of the handing over a gift, but recently he had become more self-assured and had begun his own career from out of the shadow of the ever-successful older brother.

The gift was a little larger than a piece of A4 in area, and a little thicker than a decent chocolate bar in depth.  The paper was so sharply creased at the corners, so neatly folded, so elegantly and understatedly beribboned, that the parcel was almost a work of art as it was.  It almost felt like a crime to unwrap the present inside and Tom knew that as soon as he pulled on the corner of the ribbon that the whole wrapping would fall apart – no tape or glue had been used at all.  With all eyes on him, Tom felt a little like Charlie Bucket about to peek and find whether there was a gold ticket or not.   With a sudden movement that made everyone else jump he whipped off the ribbon and let the paper fall to the floor.  Inside he found a sketch in charcoal, a rare piece allowed to go free from his brother’s portfolio, in a neat, bog-oak frame that Jonno had undoubtedly made himself.

The sketch was from life, and Tom remembered the day well.  He hadn’t realised that Jonno had been there.  Tophe, Captain of the first XI had been of course, together with a cadre of senior boys and PE teachers.  Tom had captained his first match, an unimportant one in many respects, but all in important in others.  An opportunity to shine in front of those who would be choosing who would make the transition to the teams that represented the school – and who would not.  For Tom, it had been the proudest day of his life.  He had played well, and led well, and had received a coveted thumbs-up from his brother.  He had bowled well, fielded superbly (including making an improbable catch) and had scored his first ‘six’.  It was this moment that Jonno had captured. The picture, despite being in so basic a medium had captured not only the essence but the dynamism of the moment.  The spectators in the stands could be seen to be jumping to their feet to applaud, despite being small because of their distance from the wicket where Tom stood like a colossus.

Jonno had even managed to make the neat block type of the title look elegant.  Tom knew that he would never be able to hate his nickname again, because he could never hide this picture away, and it would declare for all time “Squib, and his friends”.

 

© David Jesson, 2017

(516 words)

 

Uncle Wiggily’s Fortune

Pete’s wool suit was making him sweat profusely. Pulling out his handkerchief, he was startled when the lady beside him grasped it whilst murmuring “thank you”. Pete turned, but could identify nothing except for the sound of subdued sobbing as her veil was black and impenetrable. Raising his eyebrows at his cousin Frank, also squirming in his good suit, Pete got a shrug in return.

Reverend Potts soon brought the service to a close and the casket withdrew behind the curtain. There was much tie-loosening and mass removing of jackets outside before Pete noticed her again, now standing with Reverend Potts who was holding her gloved hand in both of his. “Who was she?” thought Pete, certain he wasn’t alone in wondering. Just then, the Reverend announced “Everyone, a moment please! Mrs Basson invites you all to partake of some refreshment at the Randolph Hotel.”

At the Randolph, Pete saw that all the cousins were there and some of their wives. Those of the aunts who were still alive were there too, mostly seated on the few available chairs, with their children settling them in and making sure they had what they wanted from the buffet. Pete and Frank were the only two without kin, probably one of the many reasons they’d always been close. But of Mrs Basson – the lady in the veil – there was no sign.

People got to chatting, as they do when family gathers, catching up on news. The lively hum of conversation was interrupted by the sound of someone tinging a glass. On a little stage to the side a be-suited man stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you all for coming here today. Mrs Basson is grateful for your kindness in showing your respects to her ex-husband, Walter Wiggily.” Ex-husband? The room buzzed with the sound of people’s reactions.

“Mrs Basson has invited me here to read you Mr Wiggily’s will.”  This news caused a smaller buzz, for Uncle Walter lived quietly and no-expected his will to contain much to write home about. There were no big surprises with personal bequests made to his surviving sisters, and small sums left to their children and grandchildren. The final item was the leaving of his cabin and his land to Pete and Frank. People nodded, this was right, for the boys had taken good care of their great Uncle Walter. Pressing his business card into the boys’ hands, he invited them to his office the following morning.

Once at the lawyer’s office, Pete and Frank were surprised to discover the man they knew as Uncle Wiggily owned way more than just the cabin and its grounds. Seems like he had a whole heap of land, much of it in Florida and all of it beach-front. Apparently that Mrs Basson had advised him during their brief marriage, her being a well-healed property tycoon herself.  Turns out their Uncle Wiggily was quite the dark horse.

 

© Debra Carey, 2017

[490 words]

#FF Prompt #Project Gutenberg

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The aim of Project Gutenberg is to help people access books that they might not otherwise be able to get hold of.  This can get a bit tricky because of copyright issues, but in some ways it becomes easier, because there are some fantastic books that are now out of copyright which would get lost forever if it weren’t for PG.

To celebrate the wonderful people at PG, we’re going to run prompts on a (fairly) regular basis. So head on over by clicking on the link: try not to get distracted by the 50,000 or so books on the site!  Take a look at the Recent Books section and pick one that you like the look of. The title of your chosen book forms the title and prompt for your story.

Word limit : 500 words (ish)

Deadline for your story : 7th July, 2 pm GMT


As always, either write a piece on your blog and pop a link to it in the comments below, or e-mail us with your piece and we’ll post it for you.