Are You Dead Certain?by Hazel Edwards
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2004
On Google.com I discovered I was dead, twice. I'm not. Until you're dead certain, cross-check sources. Even someone's webpage may have repeated errors. Check who said it and whether there's any proof.
As an author, I write fact and fiction. Odd that fact is called non-fiction because if you're writing a novel, it's vital to make sure of your facts. My Antarctica's Frozen Chosen novel is accurate about details of an expedition, weather and polar jobs, but my characters and plot are made-up and so the book is fiction. However, if I'd got details wrong about Antarctic bases, blizzards or icebergs, readers would drop the rest of the story.
Being a professional "stickybeak," asking questions, meeting people with unusual skills and learning odd facts; this is the fun bit of being an author
I use three main ways of researching my books:
- Participant Observation (part-obs)
- Interviewing "experts" or people who've done unusual things.
- Personal experience
Part-obs is short for participant-observation.
Participant-observation is the best excuse for doing exciting new things so you can write realistically afterwards. Because you're "new" to the area or the experience, you pay more attention. Include all the smells, tastes, sounds, textures, sights and emotions.
An Antarctic Division expedition to Casey station as the 2001 recipient of the Humanities berth was my most extreme participation. I hadn't planned on being beset in the ice with 34 male expeditioners for weeks, nor of having a helicopter crash onboard. When things go wrong for a writer, it becomes research. Antarctic iceberg research was cool!
Local settings can be as effective as exotic locations like Antarctica. You just need to observe the smells, tastes, sights, sounds and textures, as if you were a newcomer.
Recently I visited rural Tongala for a 215 cast, Goulburn Valley premiere performance of my "Voice of the Forest" eco-play. Dust-stormed out, they performed inside the hall instead of under the trees. Driving into the town I could smell the dust, just like you can smell Australia and the eucalyptus on returning from Antarctica.
Local kids know about milking cows, dust storms, carting water and joining the junior fire brigade.
Write about that!
Even suburban Melbourne schools or a country town is "exotic" to outsiders who live in different climates or families.
How do you think, mainly?
- In words?
- Figures or numbers?
The difference between participant-observer research and just living through normal life is that you know you're going to write about it afterwards, so you pay more attention, observe others' reactions and even take photographs or audio to collect atmospheric reminders.
In Antarctica, there are no toilets on the ice. All have to pee at "the yellow pole," for minimal pollution. Human waste is bagged and return frozen to Australia. Female expeditioners are issued with a F.U.D. (female urinary device). Challenging. Unless I'd tried to use one, I wouldn't have known how to write about the experience. Participant this time, not just observer.
Wearing thick Antarctic gear such as ventiles, glare goggles and chained boots, is also challenging. In an emergency, you have to dress in less than three minutes.
As a male, my expeditioner character Kyle from my novel Antarctica's Frozen Chosen doesn't use the FUD, but he does climb over the side of the polar ship, train as SAR (search and rescue) and helps during an helicopter crash, all things I'd experienced.
My novel is not autobiographical, but I wouldn't have been able to create the below zero feelings, or the beauty of cracking through the ice-edge into Antarctica proper, unless I'd been there and done that.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
"Where do you get your ideas from?" is the FAQ (frequently asked question) authors hear. Along with my 17 pens in my large handbag, I keep an ideas notebook, an instant camera and a micro-recorder.
Sometimes I eavesdrop on conversations (that's called research if you're an author) or interview people who want to talk to me. If you genuinely listen, most people wish to talk about their jobs, hobbies or their problems.
Ask questions like:
- What gives you the most satisfaction about your job/sport/hobby?
- What would you most like to change?
- Describe what you'd do in a typical day?
- How does this machine work?
In selecting people to interview, I think about:
- Who would know what I need to know?
- How can I find them?
- Would they be prepared to share their skills with me?
Other times I might need to know technical details about how a piece of machinery works. For my Stalker novel I needed to visit a magistrate's court to find out legal procedures. I also had an electronic surveillance expert explain hypothetically how I could be stalked, also for my novel Stalker.
"Genis" or family history genealogists from the State Trustees helped me research Fake ID and explained how they track down beneficiaries of millions which haven't been claimed. Thrilling stuff. They're great sleuths.
I always use a naïve reader and an expert to check my draft manuscript. Often it is the same expert I used in earlier research. Recently a "boffin" and the "Chippie" pointed out mistakes about ele seals and poachers which I've fixed.
I prepare at least ten questions, and audio record answers. I make sure the questions are "open" so the person can say more than just "yes" or "no" which ends an interview immediately.
Since my family play hockey, I have Luke Wearn (Luke-Warm) the cyber sleuth in Fake I.D. play hockey, because I didn't have to research the sports terms.
Recently I've been disturbed by the speed with which real events are overtaking my Antarctic Frozen Chosen eco-thriller. Why is my fiction prediction becoming nightly news? Perhaps it's the fiction writer's tendency to research, look at the possible conflicts and then say What if? It's a reasoned guess based on possibilities.
The fiction writer's role is to entertain, but also to provide a different perspective. Novel publication isn't as fast as a T.V. news flash, but maybe readers will think about the characters' motivations longer.
I'm dead certain about that!
**Hazel Edwards is the Melbourne-based author of 150 books for adults and children including the classic, There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake. Antarctic Writer on Ice is in its fourth reprint, and is available on audio and in Braille, a YA eco-thriller Antarctica's Frozen Chosen (Lothian 2003) and an Antarctic play in Right or Wrong (Phoenix Education) are some of the writing based on her Antarctic Division polar resupply Voyage 5 to Casey Station in 2001. Her most recent releases are Hand Me Down Hippo (Penguin, 2004), illustrated by Mini Goss and My Dad's Gone to Antarctica(Lothian, 2004). You can visit her website at http://www.hazeledwards.com. Married with two adult children, Hazel's hobbies are swimming, belly dancing and asking questions.