Archive for the 'Writing' Category



Does a blog count?

When Bomber Command: Failed to Return was in its final stages of preparation before printing, Steve Darlow, the publisher, asked all the contributing authors to write a short bio for the front flap. “This is your chance to crow unabashed about your work to date”, he wrote.

With precisely no published work to date, for me this was going to be a challenge. My first attempt was pretty lame. But then Steve wondered, what about my blog? Surely that’s a significant piece of work?

That was an interesting point. A blog by definition is something quite personal, where literally anything that I want can be published for all to read without requiring the rigorous editing and reviewing that goes into a traditional book. There are thousands, if not millions, of blogs out there, all of varying quality and accuracy. I hadn’t considered my own to be worthy of much ‘crowing’, and I suppose it’s telling of my mindset at the time that I was excited about Bomber Command: Failed to Return being my first piece of ‘proper’ in-print writing. But then I thought about it. The button I will click on to send this post spinning into cyberspace is marked ‘Publish’. And once I have clicked that button, my words can be read by anyone with an internet connection – just like a book can be read by anyone who happens to pick it up. I’ve tried to note sources as I go along and, though no-one else ever sees my posts before they go live I make sure I edit them for spelling or grammar before I hit ‘Publish’. So why can’t a blog be published work?

I’ve decided that it can indeed count as ‘work to date’, and so my bio on the front flap of Bomber Command: Failed to Return includes the web address for this blog. With the decline of the printed word on paper in society (one just needs to see the long and growing list of failed ‘traditional’ bookshops in Australia to see this), the telling of history needs to evolve. This is not at all incompatible with the idea of a traditional book. I still want to eventually write a real book, made of real paper and ink, on the tale of the crew of B for Baker and where they fit into the overall Bomber Command story. But in the meantime, this blog can help spread the word.

James Daly, an English historian specialising in the military history of Portsmouth, wrote on his Daly History blog: “Just like the internet has broken down doors for music artists, it’s done the same for historians”. Blogs give a vehicle for making history accessible, on sometimes a very local level. The stories get told – which is, of course, the most important thing – to people who want to read them.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

Writing

My ultimate aim with this research is to write a significant piece of work – a book – to tell the story of the crew of B for Baker, who they were, where they came from and what part they played in the overall context of the bomber offensive. Much of this blog has been about the actual research that I’ve completed in this project. But I haven’t looked much at that important second bit – the writing thing. And that’s probably the bit that I need most practice in. What follows, then, is a basic framework for how I approach writing a short piece. It will need to be developed when I get around to writing the book that I’d like to end up with, because that will probably end up significantly longer than anything I’ve written before, but it’s a place to start from. This is, in broad terms, the process I use.

My writing evolves through a number of distinct phases. First comes the research part, where I find sources, take notes and build up a picture in my mind of what actually happened. Only when I think I have enough information to have the bare bones of a story in my head do I actually start to write.

My first draft is usually not a particularly eloquent or efficient piece of writing. My aim initially is to simply get everything down on paper (or, more correctly, on my computer screen). Usually I’m writing a historical story so I work more or less chronologically. At this stage I’m not worried too much by structure, length or style. I’m simply using my notes and research and putting everything relevant into a document. This process will quickly reveal any gaps in my research, and it is here that I will go back to my sources to try and fill those gaps. My aim is simply to tell the story – it doesn’t yet matter how long the story is, or how easy it is to read. It just needs to have every part in it. The resulting ‘first draft’ can sometimes be very, very long – for Bomber Command: Failed to Return it was almost 50% longer than my allocated word limit. I like to reference as I go along (usually by footnotes). This means that at all subsequent stages I know exactly where all of my evidence comes from and can easily go back to the primary sources to fact-check if required later on. The references are not normally formatted correctly yet – the important thing is that I know precisely where to find what I’m looking for if needed,

The second draft is where the structure gets fixed up. This is where I shift passages around into a more logical, flowing sequence – even if the language used at this point is far from flowing. A clear introduction, body and conclusion develops (evidently Year 12 English taught me something!). I’m still not too worried about length or efficiency of phrase.

The third phase of my writing is where I start getting creative. The emphasis to this point has been in getting the story right. From here, however, I’ve got the story itself organised. How the story is told is what concerns me next. If writing to a tight word limit, this is where the culling begins. Irrelevant bits get cut and long-winded passages get shortened. Awkward passages get re-written into more efficient language. Parts get condensed or lengthened if further emphasis is required.

By this stage, the main work is just about done. Phase four – the edit – can now begin. I give the piece the once-over myself, checking spelling, grammar, formatting and references. Then I call in outside help – and it’s amazing what another pair of eyes will spot. My sister and mother provided their ‘red pen’ services for Bomber Command: Failed to Return. The revised draft gets revised again, and again, and sometimes again. At this point it’s not unusual to go back to phase three to re-jig phrases or keep culling if I’m really pushing a word limit. Spelling and grammar are given a last check and references are checked for consistency and formatted correctly.

Then, at last, the piece is ready to be submitted.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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