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Monday, 11 April 2011

Where do the ideas come from? part 2

There are probably three main aspects for me when a book is emerging, brewing or developing.

The first is having a temporary obsession that leads me to burrow after information.  Robyn Williams once described me as a "fact-fossicker", a term that I have proudly claimed as my own. Recently, I even fossicked the origins of that quintessentially Australian term, working through the marvellous source of historical newspapers that is to be found at TROVE. As one of the Trove volunteers (there must be thousands of us), I play a part by correcting the OCR renditions of digital images of articles, and adding tags to help other searches.

As of today, I have tagged 133 articles as <early use of language>, with a further tag to indicate which Australian word or term I was targeting: you will find bushranger, sheoak, damper, bandicoot, cobber, bodgie, widgie, dinky di, on the wallaby, bonzer, gibber, death adder (a corruption of the Biblical 'deaf adder', and not the other way around), swag, squatter, bludger, billy and kookaburra all marked—but it all began with 'fossick'.  (You can see all of these, by the way, just by searching in Trove for the phrase "early use of language", like that, inside double quotation marks.)

One of my lucky finds.
Right now, I have no direct plans to use any of my finds about early Australian language, though it will be handy if/when I get into the Cornish Boy (mentioned elsewhere), and I have placed the information in the public domain so that others can also gain from it, but at any stage, something I find might start off from some of that.  That's how temporary obsessions get to have life breathed into them, but the original plan was just to keep an eye out for early uses while digging for other stuff.

You can never tell which bits will prove to be not just amusing, like the "rat guillotine" above, so the only sensible solution is to store it in some machine-searchable way.

I'm also a member of Project Wombat, a group of people who like to solve "stumpers", difficult questions.  Burrowing for information is deep in my genes.  My (currently stalled) plan to do a book an misplaced genius and mad inventions just emerged from having the sort of ratbag mind that enjoyed digging up oddities. Even though there are no immediate plans for that one, I keep spotting and noting ideas that might improve it.

The second aspect is storing useful information in such a way that I can track it back to source, later.  I mainly use spreadsheets, which all take the same formatting, but I'll come back to the wild and woolly ways I use spreadsheets some other time. Suffice it to say that the people who wrote Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3 would never have expected the antics I get up to.

Still, it's people finding new ways to use technology that pushes it forward. Mr. Bell never expected people to hook up the descendants of Babbage's Difference Engine with his telephone wires, any more than Time Berners-Lee could have anticipated that I will be doing an electronic check-in for my flight next week, using the internet—or that I would have booked my hotel online.

The third involves building up logically—and keeping all the bits.

Being logical first: I was "taught writing" by English teachers who manifestly were not practitioners, but they all loved to drum into us the stuff that had been drummed into them at university, about the motivation of characters and the flow of the action.  Coming from talking marionettes, these wooden words meant little, but I can see now that in their inarticulate way, they were on the money. A story only works if there is a clear logic to it.  This applies to both fiction and non-fiction.

This morning, I have taken time off from the story of a part-eater called Bitz who keeps losing weight, and in the end, her friends Kilimanjaro (a troll) and Papagena (a calculator imp) solve her problem. She has been using all the bits and parts in her pantry to make things, and so Bitz has forgotten to eat. I use logic there at all points: these little stories have 17 parts, and I write the first eight or so, based on notes, then I write the conclusion (one or two parts) and then join the ends by filling in the blanks. Right now, I have five blank frames to go, and notes enough to fill about nine or ten, so some pruning will be needed.

These short stories are, in a Dodgsonian sense, high-grade nonsense, but there is a total sense to the structure and to the names: all imps take their names from operatic heroines (and Papagena may be Brunhilde before this sees the light of day—and an editor may tell me it's all too fluffy and to drop all the high-art stuff). That's how I work.

In the end, a number of the notes scribbled around the story frame will end up not being used. Word-plays will miss the cut, plot-lines will be dropped, but when I take the draft and paste it into the final collection, the left-overs will be saved.

I have a bad habit of scribbling notes on scrap paper, the backs of bills or envelopes, and then later, dropping those into the recycling.  As a rule, it may be six months before I recall that there was something in my logic structure that needs revision. So anything that isn't in a spreadsheet is in a notebook, with dates to show what was when.

This makes me sound amazingly organised, but that is only because I am extremely disorganised, but savvy enough to see that this is so.

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