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: Wolfborn, It’s True! Your Cat Could Be A Spy, and non-fiction: Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, Potions to Pulsars: Women doing Science.
We asked Sue if she’d be willing to share her approach to writing with us.
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