What’s a chalkie?

If a carpenter is a ‘chippy’ and an electrician is a ‘sparky’, what’s a ‘chalkie’? It’s a slang term for a teacher, and comes of course from the days when chalk and blackboards were the only teaching aids in a school classroom.

I’ve recently started doing some research and writing about a very special group of chalkies – conscripted Australian teachers in the Vietnam War era who were posted to the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG) as part of the Army’s contribution to the education of indigenous soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiment. The selected teachers became members of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and my later doctoral thesis was about the corp’s predecessors in the two world wars.

Between 1966 and 1972 (the year conscription was abolished), more than 300 young men (average age about 20) who’d been plucked from schools across the nation when their birthdate marble was pulled from the Australian government’s barrel, spent the second of their two-year ‘national service’ in Army bases in TPNG, teaching mainly English, Maths and Civics. I was one of them, and am enjoying the opportunity now to make sense of a relatively small but significant part of my life more than 40 years ago.

A small grant from the Australian Army History Research Unit is helping to support the research, and I have recruited a willing group of ex-chalkies as a ‘reference group’: Norm Hunter, Ian Ogston, Greg Farr, Greg Ivey and Terry Edwinsmith,  shown with me in the accompanying photo. Even before my project, a number of these enthusiasts had set up a great website to document some of the stories, and quite a few have already contributed bits of history from the period to that site.

Chalkies Ref Group

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the period we were in TPNG was almost immediately before the coming of self-government and shortly thereafter the declaration of independence. So it’s a challenge to place the chalkies’ contribution in that broader context and as part of the Australian Army’s support for TPNG in the years we were there. As an historian and a writer, I’ve always liked a challenge like that.

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Books from our backyard 2014

Both my books that were published in 2013 are in the Books from our backyard 2014 catalogue, developed and recently published by the Queensland Writers Centre. Books from our Backyard is a catalogue of books written by Queenslanders or Queensland residents and published in 2013. My two are:

Hustling Hinkler: The short tumultuous life of a trailblazing Australian aviator (Hachette Australia 2013). Available at good bookshops and online through Amazon, Dymocks etc.

Extending your Use-by Date: Why retirement age is only a number (Xoum 2013). Available in print and e-book from the publisher http://www.xoum.co.au and online though Amazon, iTunes etc.

My latest published piece is ‘Working late: Encore careers’, an essay published in Griffith Review literary magazine, No. 45. As a result of that article, I was interviewed on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife program on ABC Radio on 30 July, along with another contributor to that issue of Griffith Review, Gideon Haigh.

 

 

How much culture is enough?

I went to GOMA today – the Gallery of Modern Art, in Brisbane. It didn’t have one of its blockbuster displays, but every so often I find I need an input of Culture, perhaps to offset the outputting I do when I’m writing. And for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to finish the first draft of my next narrative non-fiction manuscript. Working title? Still a secret. No, that’s not the working title; what I mean is that I haven’t made up my mind and/or I want the title to be a surprise when (if) it hits the bookshops. Besides the (potential) publisher might want to change it. Watch this space.

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Anyhow, here are a couple of pics of me at GOMA, one with a moover and shaker (sorry, couldn’t resist that), made from empty beef tins, and one in front of a clever bit of work by Robert MacPherson that he dedicates to a group of fisherman known as the ‘Swamp Rats’. Note how some of the words on the signs slide down to the next line, as if he ran out of room.

Earlier in the week I attended the launch of Books From Our Backyard, an initiative of the Queensland Writers Centre, with state government funding, to try to list all the books published the previous year that were written by Queenslanders or by authors resident in  that State. Commercial, self-published, e-books, all get a go. I’m fortunate to have two listings in the glossy catalogue: Hustling Hinkler, and Extending Your Use-By Date. More movers and shakers there, including author Nick Earls, but no cows.

I was pleased to see that my Perth-based friend Dawn Barker’s book, Let Her Go, has hit the bookshops, and no doubt will sell as well as her debut book last year, Fractured.  I picked up my copy of Let Her Go at Dymocks Bookshop Indooroopilly, a couple of suburbs away. Another writer friend, Charlotte Nash, will be at the Indooroopilly Library on 15 July to talk about her recently released book, Iron Junction.

My next piece of non-fiction (apart from my academic publications, which are constantly on the agenda) is an essay in the forthcoming issue of the literary magazine,Griffith Review, whose theme is ‘The way we work’. My article is called, ‘Working Late: creating encore careers’, which is a bit more laid back than the title of another article in the same issue, by Elizabeth Woods, ‘Fit in or f**k off’. Needless to say, there’s a range of fascinating and sometimes provocative articles. In my paper, I argue that as so-called Baby Boomers come to recognise their increasing longevity, and that that cognitive and physical decline for many is generally not as rapid as they feared, this large cohort of older people are increasingly looking for meaningful activities in the third age of life that will make use of their years of life and work experience. Which includes me.

That’s probably enough culture for now. Back to the manuscript.

Darryl Dymock

Hustling Hinkler (Hachette Australia) is available at or through good bookshops and online; Extending Your Use-by Date is available as an e-book or in a print edition from Xoum Publishing, Sydney.

 

 

 

Why are you writing?

I recently ran a workshop, ‘Harnessing your research for writing’, for the Queensland Writers Centre, and one of the most valuable sessions was when the 12 participants were asked to write a synopsis of the non-fiction book they were writing or planning to write. In 100-200 words, they tried to put down what the book is about, in words that would make a reader want to rush to open it, or a publisher offer a contract.

This turned out to be a challenging session for all of them. I watched them sweating over their keyboards and notebooks, grimacing, sitting back, crossing out, plunging on. At the end of the allotted time, I asked each of them to read out the first few sentences, and for the other to give feedback. It was a very constructive session, I thought, and its major value was in forcing all of them to consider what the purpose of the book was, what their intention was in writing it. Some of them were quite clear about where the book was heading, others were not so sure, and one or two decided they needed a major rethink.

It was a very interesting range of themes too, from memoir to self-help, and we plan to get together again in a couple of months to see how we’re all going.

If you’re writing a book, or planning to, you might consider the same exercise, writing a synopsis, as a way of focussing on its purpose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It could be a helpful way of keeping your writing on track.

One person who’s been on track with her writing is Charlotte Nash. I recently went to the launch of Charlotte’s second rural romance novel, Iron Junction. Set in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, the book tells the story of Dr Beth Harding, who leaves Sydney to take a locum job in the mining town of Iron Junction, and Will Walker, who’s foregone following his father into the cattle business to work in the mines.

Hi-vis vests & hardhats at the Iron Junction launch

Hi-vis vests & hardhats at the Iron Junction launch

Once again the book draws on Charlotte’s experience in the bush as a medical trainee and engineer. At the launch, a bunch of creative friends came in high-vis vests and hard hats, complete with Iron Junction logo. Charlotte added to the creativity by giving away chocolate bars and bottles of waterWith Charlotte Nash Iron Junction launch adorned with a label from the book’s cover. Sustenance for the mind and body. Water and reading are non-fattening, but I have my doubts about the chocolate …

Writing with passion and purpose

When people learn that I’m a (mainly) non-fiction writer, they sometimes say, ‘I don’t know how you write a book. I wouldn’t know where to start.’

When it comes to non-fiction, you should start with the primary purpose of the book. Why are you writing it?

If it’s a memoir, are you writing it for yourself or for others to read? If it’s a history, what are the main themes you want to stress, i.e. what are the points you want to get across through the story you are telling? If it’s a self-help book, what messages do you want the reader to go away with, or what actions do you want them to take? And so on.

In the introduction to Speechless (Melbourne University Press, 2012) James Button writes:

I wrote this book because I feel an important issue is at stake. Our politics seem thin and barren. Ordinary people are increasingly uncomprehending and disengaged. … But this view, however understandable and widely felt, does not do justice to the many people I met in Canberra who are trying to do good things … On the inside, the stories of politics and government are as fascinating and vital as ever.

Whether or not you agree with his viewpoint, Button’s words go to the heart of any writing: the author’s passion for the subject, passion for the story, passion for the message. What is it that you are passionate about that you want to convey in your book?

Once you have decided on the main purpose of your writing, you need to deal with how best to sequence the material you want to present. If you’re writing a history or biography, it might seem a no-brainer that the events will be in chronological order, but that isn’t always so. You still need to engage the reader, and some information may better serve as background to the main events.

For example, in Jon Krakauer’s book about a disastrous series of accidents and misjudgements on Mount Everest in 1996, Into thin air (Pan Books, 2011), he lets us know in the Preface that twelve people died – we don’t need to wait for the final chapter for that piece of tragic news. He is counting on the reader wanting to know how such appalling loss of life came about. In addition, the first three chapters leap back and forth in time: May 10, 1996; 1852; and March 29, 1996, respectively. In Chapters 2 and 3, Krakauer explains how past events had an impact on the happenings he describes in Chapter 1.

You will also need to decide how to structure your information, e.g. in chapters around key events, by theme, or by topic. If you compare cook books, you will see that culinary authors use a variety of criteria to decide what they will include and how they will group and sequence it. Stephanie Alexander’s classic, The cook’s companion (Penguin, 1997), features recipes based around foods in alphabetical order, beginning with ‘Anchovies’, and ending with ‘Zucchini and squash’, but the opening sections are about ‘Equipment’ and ‘Basics’. The sections in Annabel Langbein’s The free range cook (ABC Books, 2012) on the other hand, start with ‘From the oven’ and conclude with ‘From the orchard’. The authors and publishers not only have a particular purpose in mind for each of those books, but also a particular audience, which is the third issue you need to consider: for whom are you writing?

The answer to that question will help you decide on both the content and sequence for your book.

If you’re writing a self-help book about computers, for instance, what level of expertise do you expect the readers to have to be able to make use of what you tell them? In the early days of home computers, an American professor of adult education, Malcolm Knowles, complained that manufacturers’ manuals were geared towards teaching buyers how a computer works rather than about using it to perform the real-life tasks people bought them for. The point he made is still an important one for non-fiction authors: consider what the end-user is likely to want the information for.

Even in memoir writing, you need to consider what your intended readers might be most interested in. Putting in everything you consider important may be boring to those not so intimately connected with your life events and activities.

Nevertheless, as Simon Nasht says in The last explorer, a biography of Hubert Wilkins, the sum of a person’s life is not measured just by its accomplishments, but by how it is spent. The challenge for an author is to present that life, whether it is their own or someone else’s, with a sense of purpose in the writing, and with the information ordered in a way that makes sense to the reader, while at the same time not overburdening the book with trivia.

Finally, you may want to supplement your text with images, and once again you need to consider what will be helpful to the reader. Can you imagine a cookbook without photographs to help you see what you are aiming for? A map will make clear an explorer’s path, drawings can transform a how-to book, a graph can provide an instant comparison of a bunch of statistics, and carefully selected images can illuminate a biography or memoir.

I’ll be leading a one-day workshop at the Queensland Writers Centre in Brisbane on Saturday May 3 on the topic of ‘Harnessing your research for writing’, and we’ll be working our way through all those elements of a non-fiction book.

It doesn’t matter where the participants are up to in the writing process – whether it’s still an idea in their heads, or whether they’ve assembled some research and have begun writing. At the end of the day, they should go away with a plan of how to put it all together in a way that will be attractive to readers.

This should be the perfect opportunity to kick off the project they’ve always been intending to do. 

If you can’t make it to the workshop, I hope the ideas above might stimulate you to begin or continue your own non-fiction writing journey.

What’s your passion and how do you or will you write about it? Whatever sort of writer you are, I’d love to hear from you via the Comments button on this page.

PS My ‘self help’ book, Extending your use-by date, is now also available in print format, from the publisher: Xoum Publications.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s raining books!

In my previous blog, I mentioned that I’d strategically placed books by three fellow authors when Channel 7 News was filming an interview in my home office. Within a couple of weeks of publishing that blog, I discovered the exciting news that all three of them have new books in the pipeline. I also have a small item to add about one of my books.

Charlotte Nash

First cab off the rank is Charlotte Nash, with Iron Junction, her rural romance follow-up to the best-selling Ryders Ridge.

This time the setting is on the other side of the continent, in isolated mining country in Western Australia. According to the Hachette website: ‘Overwhelmed by her family’s expectations, Dr Beth Harding leaves Sydney behind and takes a locum job in the mining town of Iron Junction. With tensions in the mine running high, and feeling like an outsider, Beth is soon convinced the move was a huge mistake. That is, until she meets Will, who could make the difference between her leaving or staying.’ You’ll have to buy the book to find out if she stays or goes…

Ryders Ridge will be launched in Brisbane on 11th April, and I plan to be there.

Dawn Barker

Just two months later, Dawn Barker’s new book, Let Her Go, will be released. This is also a second book, after the very successful Fractured. Dawn has used her experience as a psychiatrist in both these books, and Let Her Go is described as ‘a gripping, emotionally charged story of family, secrets and the complications of love. Part thriller, part mystery, it will stay with you long after you close the pages wondering: What would you have done?’

Watch for Let Her Go in bookshops in June/July.

Poppy Gee

To complete the trio, I bumped into Poppy Gee, author of the popular Bay of Fires, at the Launceston airport, where she was en route as an invited speaker at the inaugural Festival of Golden Words at Beaconsfield in northern Tasmania. Poppy told me that she’s finished her second novel, and that it’s currently with a publisher, so WATCH THIS SPACE.

Extending Your Use-by Date

Finally, my news is not as exciting as another book publication (although I am working on another narrative non-fiction), but I’m pleased that Extending Your Use-by Date, which was published as an e-book in 2013, is now also available in print format. I know some people who will be pleased to have a hard copy in their hands. It’s available through the publisher, Xoum Publications, Sydney.

Keeping up appearances

I have a spate of local author events coming up in the next two months. If you’re in the area, you might like to check these out:

 Monday April 7: The rocky road to publication.

Elanora Library, Gold Coast 10am-11am gold-coast

Robina Library, Gold Coast 2pm-3pm

This is part of the ‘Gold Coast Writes’ program, and  I hope that tips and discussion in these free sessions from my experience in researching, writing and getting publishing contracts will help prospective authors on their own writing journeys. Bookings here.

 Saturday May 3: One-day workshop: Harnessing research for writing

Queensland Writers Centre, Brisbane, 10.30am- 4.30pm.

‘Whether you’re writing biography or historical non-fiction, family history or instructional guides, the most daunting task is how to structure and present your research and resources in a logical way to create a compelling read.’ QWC

This workshop comes from my own experience over many years and from queries from other prospective non-fiction (and fiction) writers about the challenge of shaping the information you’ve collected into a manageable and logical sequence that will make sense to readers. This will be a hands-on workshop where writers can go away at the end of the day with a plan that they can implement immediately, wherever they are up to in the development of their manuscript, from beginner to almost completed.

 22 May: Panel Discussion: Australian Novels as History

Toowong Library, 6pm-7.30pm

This is a free event for Australian Library Week, and I’m delighted to be able to support a local library. My writing is mainly historical non-fiction, but I’m sure there will be opportunity for a few viewpoints.

As you can see from all the above, while the publishing process can often take a long time, sometimes things come together! So when you step outside, you’d better put your umbrella up quickly, but upside down of course, so you won’t miss any of these great books 🙂

Andy Warhol owes me 13 minutes

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

You no doubt know of that saying, attributed to the late Andy Warhol, that each of us will be world famous for 15 minutes in our lifetimes. For a moment recently, I thought I had a chance. But it didn’t last 15 minutes. And it wasn’t world-wide. Not even quite national.

It started one weekday morning on the physiotherapist’s couch, where George attached what looked like two chewing gum patches to my knee. The patches were connected to wires running back into a machine that apparently would send electrical impulses to do miraculous things to my patella. As George was telling me about it, I felt my heart flutter, and for a moment I thought he might’ve turned the machine up too high and given me a full charge.

Then I realised it was my mobile phone, vibrating in the pocket of my shirt, with the sound turned off. I didn’t want to interrupt George because he was telling me something important – the overnight test cricket score. As soon as he left me to tend to another patient, I whipped out my phone and found a message to ring the media office at Griffith University, where I work part-time. Channel 7 wanted to do an interview, something to do with my e-book, Extending your use-by date.

A short time later, when I had left the physio’s, Georgia rang from Channel 7, Melbourne. They were doing a story on a 97-year-old Ballarat man who was still working as a mechanic, she said, and wanted to widen it with some comments from me about people working into older age. No problem, I said. That’s what my book is about. Would it be okay if we send a Brisbane-based TV crew to your place around midday? Georgia asked. Sure, I said. Do you have an office where we might film an interview? No worries, I said. Then I rushed home to clean up my office.

The room I use as an office is a small bedroom in our modest house, and fortunately I was able to toss a lot of loose material behind the sliding wardrobe doors. Clearing the desk took a little longer – I’m one of those people whose creativity is fuelled by having stacks of papers and books all around me. (At least, that’s what I tell my wife, who seems to find the explanation highly amusing.) A quick flick with a dusting rag and I was ready for the camera crew. Almost.

The next question was what to wear. I was in my summer at-home working gear of shorts and  T-shirt. Too informal for an interview about my research. I looked through my long-sleeved shirts. Fine stripes and close checks tend to flutter or strobe on camera, and vivid white might send viewers rushing for their sunglasses. Fortunately, I like blue shirts, which TV also likes.

Dressed in what I hoped was a ‘smart casual’ outfit, I waited for the Channel 7 team to arrive. It was hard to settle down to anything in particular, but I took the opportunity to strategically place some books written by fellow authors, in case the camera picked them up: Fractured by Dawn Barker, Ryders Ridge by Charlotte Nash, Bay of Fires by Poppy Gee. My own book, but not the one I was being interviewed about, Hustling Hinkler, was right next to my laptop on the desk.

After a phone call from ‘Daniel’ to tell me they were running late, leaving me to do not very much for a while longer, he and the camera crew turned up. Daniel was the producer/interviewer and he introduced me to the cameraman, the sound guy, and a trainee who had only started that day, and therefore got to carry the camera tripod. With me, that meant five people in my little office. It was lucky I started that diet the week before.

They were all very friendly and professional. The cameraman set up the angles, the sound man held his boom mike overhead, and the trainee held up a soft light to show my best features. I sat on a chair with my back to the desk, and Daniel asked me the questions from another chair parked in the doorway, which is about the only place it would fit.

I felt quite relaxed, Daniel seemed relaxed, the questions were good, and he seemed genuinely interested in the topic of people working into older age.  After the interview, which took about 10 minutes, the cameraman took some additional shots of me typing on my laptop, from different angles. (If he’d asked, I would have told him that the reason I type slowly is that it matches my brain speed.) Then they packed up and left, the trainee again carrying the camera mount.

That evening, towards the end of the one-hour Channel 7 news, there was a nice story about Eric Carthy, the 97-year-old Ballarat man still working as a mechanic at the family garage, with no plans to retire. The story was interspersed with brief clips of Dr Darryl Dymock from Griffith University talking about working into older age, and showing him typing carefully on his laptop. None of the judiciously placed books appeared on screen.

I reckon I was on air for about two minutes, which was good in the circumstances. The show was almost national, I think, although apparently the distant island of Tasmania may have missed out on that segment. I enjoyed the experience, and was very happy to be part of a great story. Eric Carthy is an inspiration.

But I reckon if that’s part of my 15 minutes of fame, I’m still due for 13 more.