Saturday, 30 July 2011

Buying Another Shovel is Not Digging A Hole.

Fellow on-line student and writer Steven Bluestone's words, posted in the ToDo Institute's Taking Action course forum earlier in the week, really hit home:

Buying another shovel is not digging a hole.

That one simple sentence says a lot. I am definitely a shovel purchaser, always off at the implement shop adding this or that to my collection.

In truth, perhaps I should have been a researcher. Or a research assistant? What is the correct term for someone who, given a thread of information, can go off and find all the bits and pieces to end up with both the warp and woof of an excellent piece of cloth? That's me, Alice, down the rabbit hole. I thrive on it.

I realise, as I write this, that it doesn't do to just blame myself for being inefficient and not getting the job done, which is sortof what I've been doing this past week (or quarter or half a year) while I've been enthralled with exploration and adventures into my topic. Why haven't I increased my word count this week? I asked, as if the number of words was the only measure of success at this juncture.

As I think back over my professional writing career -- the past two decades or so -- I know that everything I worked on as an author required some amount of research. Often, it required a lot. A few times, the learning and research was 90% of the job and the actual writing 10%. Though it seems strange now, that's the way it was. Sometimes, I was given piles of paper, schematics, competitive information and Powerpoint presentations by the client--while at othertimes, I was sent off to dig for the information, the diagrams, the statistics, the history, even the basics of the technology.

And, from all of that, I would craft a brochure, an annual report, a technical review, a training presentation, a glossy marketing piece, a white paper, a user manual or a whole campaign to reward the sales people who trained themselves and sold the largest number of the widgets that I was researching and writing about. I have some incredible experience in the high tech and telecommunications fields, come to think of it. Being a good researcher really helped.

Today, where I am in the novel (just under 79,000 words, headed towards 120,000 perhaps) suddenly feels much the same. I simply do not know all that I need to know and I now have to get the information. I began knowing nothing about this Crimean War thing beyond the intriguing overviews I'd read and the history that related to Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.  I'd heard of Raglan and Cardigan but didn't hardly realise they were more than types of sleeves on a sweater.

Now I know a great deal about this 'conflict', along with my more specific recent work on the 349-day-long Siege and the City of Sebastapol itself (today spelled Sevastapol) in the Ukraine, or the Crimean Peninsula. Think Black Sea. Constantinople. That one. At last, I know where the harbour, barracks, trenches, city centre and cemeteries lay and how they were approached, defended, attacked, reapaired and attacked again.

I still don't know where the hospitals were located but, judging from the number of dead, I'll bet they weren't far from the cemeteries with all the mass graves. There's are books on the way that will give me that information--e.g. it turns out that Tolstoy (yes, that one) was stationed there and wrote an account of the siege. Plus, I've located an online seller of antiquarian maps who has an original, detailed Russian map from the period. What a find that could be!

The pile of documents I've printed, the megabytes of electronic books in .pdf format and in my Kindle application, the tiled maps I've lovingly printed, trimmed and taped together and hung on the walls--are all a testament to that long history of having to research everything before I write it. It's useful to have a lot of shovels if you're going to write historical fiction.

So, at the same time I am reminding myself that buying another shovel is not the same as digging a hole, I'm also accepting that I chose to write historical fiction--not a fluffy romance with no historical, costume or societal detail added--and that this care to detail and attention to accuracy is what I've been honing for the past twenty years. Indeed, it's part and parcel of what will make the story a good one. If I fail to provide it, my readers will be disappointed. Or there won't be any.

So I do seem to need lots of shovels. Note to Self: It's ok to get more shovels so long as I don't forget that the ultimate objective is to dig a great big hold and fill it with a wonderfully "sweeping" and accurate piece of historical fiction that tells the story of my heroine and her adventures in life against the broad expanse of this piece of world history which began as nothing to me and has now come very much alive for me.

I accept it. Last week I spent a lot of time and some money at the hardware store, arming myself. Coffee. Check. Shovels. Check. This week I will dig a big hole and fill it with all the things I've learned. Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!


  1. This sounds wonderful Cynthia. It also sounds as though you are really enjoying the shovel buying. You have a great word count already, so it sounds as though you are well on the way to having dug that hole you want to dig.

    There are no time constraints to writing. Enjoy it as you are and I look forward to the day you say it's done. It sounds stunning.

  2. Lovely post. Good luck with the words.

    I have 41 unread books sat on the top two shelves of my bookshelf. These are my shovels. To some, 41 may not sound like many. But these are my 41 unread books being carried from home to home, from room to room, student life to home life and back again. But I do not resent, nor regret them at all. They're just my holes, waiting to be dug.

  3. Just popping over from the CWRS to say hello! The Crowdvine doesn't seem to be working there at the moment, so I thought I'd come to welcome you here.

    And I'm very glad I did! This is a fascinating post, and (as you know) I totally sympathize. Dip one toe into the subject of the Crimean War and you're fatally hooked. Very best of luck with it, and I look forward to reading the result.

    (Hospitals, by the way, would depend on date. September 1854 the British had a little one in the Orthodox Church in Balaklava, but by October there was a big one near the waterfront - and overspill in tents outside. By 1855 there were also huts for the overflow, and another hospital in a former schoolroom. April 1855 saw the opening of the 'Castle Hospital' by the remains of the Genoese fortress. They were actually quite a way from the main mass graves, which were out on the Uplands because of the difficulty of carrying so many corpses back from the battlefields. The most famous was the cemetery on Cathcart's Hill.)

    Sorry - sudden attack of Crimean War Bore. If you're like me, you'll find this hole you're digging may turn out to be a Black one, and your entire life is about to be sucked inside!

    Welcome to the Crimea!


  4. I went through a shovel-buying phase myself, for years when I published a few short stories here and there. I've now dug myself into an 80,000 word hole -- and need to find shovels again to dig myself out! The first draft is almost done, perhaps another 10,000 to go, but boy do I need help with revision.

    All the best with your book, Cynthia, and thanks for your comment on Jack Eiden's post!

  5. You come from Anaheim, live in Malaysia, and write about the Crimea. Are you en route to your next book? Your father's place of employment in Downey is now a mall plus studio complex. Thanks for the comment on Recovering