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Saturday, 7 July 2012

Leech-wrangling, a grand-daughter's mantis, and vacuumed trees.

Writing a book has its fun bits, mostly when I am planning the chapters. This is followed (for me, anyhow) by exhilarating bits like banging out the first draft. That is the equivalent of getting a block of marble and marking up the outlines on the block and doing a bit of rough-hewing.

Then the drudgery starts, polishing, tweaking, working through the logic and the sequences, double-checking the text, cleaning up sloppy wording, eliminating the bits that only got in because I was brimming over with bubbliness when I wrote that chapter—not to mention looking at the safety aspects that come into suggesting projects that involve sharp tools and live things that may bite sting or be plain antisocial.

If you write professionally, you can't afford to resent the needed time and trouble, because effort like that makes a book work. The same goes for the finicky double-checking of references, finding pictures, writing captions, proofing and the like.

Talking of proofing, I have a cunning trick, which is to convert the text into mp3 files using software that I bought quite cheaply, from TextAloud. You need to train the software to handle technical terms, and it has a few problems the words like lead and read which have more than one correct pronunciation. That's easy to deal with.  Once my file is created, I play them while reading the text. It's dull, but essential.

Equally, the changes recommended by editors, the cuts dictated by design needs, are essential parts of the process. (Secret hint: it's the great editors and excellent designers at the NLA that keep me loyal. With them at your back, getting a beautiful book is a doddle.)

Late in the piece, as the last of the less-fun bits pile in on me, I keep promising myself that next time, I will write fantasy, where I make the stuff up as I go along. No more fact-checking, no more emailing researchers to find out where they found that weird beetle next time, I tell myself.

Instead, I will write about a bunch of sheep who wear Viking hats so people will mistake them for mad cows and not eat them: no research needed there. The sheep are planning to "borrow" one of the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London: no research needed there, not if the sheep are time travellers who saw the Tower being built, so they know about a secret tunnel. Definitely no research needed there…

Not quite: you see, I had to set the date of the heist in a period before video-cameras, and chose 1951, on the second day of the Festival of Britain, a date was chosen because research told me the Beef-eaters would be tired that day, then one of the Tower ravens stowed away and joined the cast of characters, and that meant more research—and on it went.

Well, that could be my next book, but it might not be, because I'd miss out on a lot of fun. I used to be a science teacher, and my students always knew me as a fiddler who had some sort of gadget on the go: a home-made 4-metre gas discharge tube; a hovercraft powered by a superannuated vacuum cleaner; a kerosene-tin eucalyptus oil still; a water-powered mineral-sands concentrator; a slow-gain feedback loop using a tuning fork and an old telephone earpiece; or a culture of tiny crustaceans.

We all used to have fun with these things. The gadgets might get a brief mention in class, but to really get to take a close look and find out all about it, students needed to drop in at recess or lunch, or before school. A major part of my cunning plan was that many of the simpler ideas were portable—and they won hearts and minds.

Anybody who reads my books will probably realise that this leopard hasn't changed his spots, because the books offer simple gadgets anybody can make. And when people make and use them, they will learn. So I'm still out there, catching hearts and minds, but by itself, that wouldn't be enough reward. I need the adventure, the shared discovery and the amusing moments. I will offer one example of each.

You can't experiment with the sheep in Viking hats as you can with leeches. I was fortunate that my wife Chris is a brilliant leech magnet, so even on high, dry, Hawkesbury sandstone ridges, if we stood still for a minute, one or two lean and hungry leeches would appear, looping along like "inch-worms", hurrying to reach her shoe, aspiring to reach her ankle.

They never did. Leeches aren't very bright, and if you hold an open jar in their path, they will go right in. Then, when we get home and need to photograph them, my tame leech magnet comes along and puts her hand where it needs to be to draw them into the camera's range. I often put animals I was snapping on a dry platform in a large dish of water, but guess what? Leeches can swim. I learn, so I win!
After that, mantises were easy to find at home.
That's always the way, it seems!

The mantises were different. There had been none at home, but I found one when we visited our grandchildren, and being an opportunist, I grabbed it to photograph. And again being an opportunist, I shared my find with my grand-daughter, who was then 4. The upshot was that the mantis became her new pet and a couple of days later, we took some mantises from her garden to her kindy, and a whole class was made mantis-aware. I win, again!

The amusing item is different. I have to apologise to the lady who was walking her dog quietly along a bush track and came upon a ragged character who probably resembled Spike Milligan on a bad day, who was busily running a portable vacuum cleaner up and down a tree.

She probably ended up with a good tale to tell, but she fled before I could explain that I was merely validating a method I had read about for gathering very small animals, especially tardigrades, from a tree's bark. It was slightly embarrassing to me, and apparently quite alarming to her, but I got a great story to dine out on. So I guess I win again. Maybe she got a great story as well.

Pay attention please, you sheep in Viking hats: if you want my help to get you transferred onto the printed page, you must offer chances for me to have fun and to win. Otherwise, I think I'll go back to rummaging around in the undergrowth, looking for unexpected and curious life forms. I just know I can always have fun there!

The next entry will emerge from stuff I put together for a talk I gave at the State Library of New South Wales in their 'Scholarly Musings' series.  I am doing a lot of writing for younger readers at the moment, and I have been giving it quite a lot if thought. Talks like that, and the actual writing are the main reasons why I have been less active here.

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