Research for Writers

journalThis time last year, just about the only writing I was doing was shopping lists and putting my baby’s check-up appointment times into the calendar. As a new mother, writing projects were the last thing I was thinking about. As the year progressed, my attitude towards writing ranged from apathy to frustration at not being able to follow through on my good intentions to write.

I recently attended a workshop with Hazel Edwards. After six hours of discussing various elements of writing and publishing, I asked Hazel what tips she has, having been through this herself, for writers who are mothers of young children. It’s all nice to talk about synopses and pitches to publishers, but how the heck do I get to that stage when I’m at home with a 15 month old?

I was expecting her to say something like, Writers write. You need to make it a priority, even with young children, and write every day and I hoped she might have some magical practical tips on how to do this and still get the family fed and the house cleaned. Her response surprised me, and was refreshingly encouraging.

Firstly, she said to take the pressure off myself. (Really? You’re not going to chastise me for my lack of productivity?) Secondly, and this is what I want to elaborate on, she said to use this time for research. This period of my life – staying home with a baby – won’t last forever, and though I may not be writing much at the moment, there are ways I can use this season to grow as a writer and develop my writing for the future.

As I have thought about the concept of using my life as research, I have come up with the following suggestions. I’ve written them from the point of view as a mother, but these are certainly not aimed solely at new parents and can be adapted for any writer. We all face challenging circumstances at some stage, some of which will prevent us from having the time or energy to write, be it sickness (ourselves or close friends/relatives), changes in work pressures, study that does not lend itself to your writing projects – whatever it is, I hope you find these suggestions helpful in preparing you for the next season of your life when you are able to dedicate more time to writing.

Keep a journal
You don’t need to write in it every day. And you don’t need to show it to anyone else. Journals serve a number of purposes. Firstly, they get you writing. It might not be the same style as your creative writing, but at least it’s getting you thinking of words and stringing together sentences more comprehensive than ‘Ooh, look! Doggy! Woof woof!’ Secondly, it’s a great record of memories, which can be used later to shape your stories. You are able to write more authentically into particular situations, based on your personal experience. It will also be invaluable if you one day choose to write a memoir. Thirdly, journaling is a good habit to get into with therapeutic benefits as you process the joys and challenges of life. (Journals also make great pieces of memorabilia to put in a museum when you become famous.)

Keep a writing journal
Different to your personal journal, this is a notebook where you can scribble anecdotes and ideas (and stick in shopping dockets or used envelopes or whatever else you write sudden bursts of inspiration on) based on your observations of the world around you. Take it with you when you go shopping or on public transport and observe people – this could be the seed for some great characters later on. You might see something strange or humorous that could trigger a storyline, or hear some thought-provoking dialogue. Building up a store of these journals will be well worth the effort later when you’re searching for ideas.

If writing in a journal is too much effort (‘Is there a pen in this house that actually works?’), use a dictaphone (or the recording feature on your phone). Keep it in an easily accessible location such as beside your bed or in your handbag/nappy bag. (Hmm, then again, it could get lost in there.) When you get an idea, you can ramble it off and refer to it later. Plus, it’s easy to use while rocking a baby to sleep. Bub doesn’t care about what you’re saying – she just likes to hear your voice. So rather than get frustrated as you hold her for hours, have your dictaphone handy and talk through your ideas for the next chapter of your novel, or record some dialogue to transcribe later.

As mentioned in previous Busybird blogs, writers need to be readers. So while bub has his nap, curl up with a good book. Or read while feeding. Hey, you’re spending hours a day sitting in your favourite comfy chair anyway, why not spend the time reading? Maybe not hardcovers, should it slip from your grip, but I discovered that I could hold a chunky paperback with one hand and got pretty good at page turns with a dexterous pinky. Reading can also provide a well-earned mental and physical break.

Take photos
A picture tells a thousand words, right? So take a few snaps, write about them later, and there’s a short story. (Sort of.) When you’re out and about, observe your surroundings and take some photos (and try to get some subjects other than your baby). If you want something a bit different to keep your creative juices flowing, use a ‘photo a day’ (or similar – Google it) list for themes/concepts to look out for. You don’t need to have a fancy camera, or be an expert photographer. Just use your phone to capture images that can trigger memories later. The photos you take today just might be the inspiration you need for a really powerful description of setting in the future.

If the circumstances of your life are preventing you from writing, don’t feel frustrated. You can still grow as a writer now. Capture the sights, sounds and emotions in your current experiences and file them away for future reference to inform your writing later.


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