Wednesday, November 4, 2020

5 Steps for Researching Story Ideas

Whenever I meet new people, and they find out that I am a writer, one of the first things they ask me is: "Where do you get your ideas from?"

I often don't know what to tell them. I mean, ideas are cheap, it's the execution of them that's the hard work, so I never really think about it.

Sometimes I get my ideas from weird dreams I have. I'll be honest with you, though, these never really amount to much because there isn't any substance to them.

I suppose most of my ideas, usually unconsciously, comes from spending many happy hours researching topics that pique my interest. I have been known to get lost in an infinite Wikipedia loop of fascinating information.

I am actually on the lookout for a new story idea as we speak. I have just completed writing book 3 of a series, and I am moving on to new stories for the first time in a long time. The Rachaya Series is about dragons, and I have probably spent around 10 years on and off researching these mythological creatures. The thought of moving on to a topic that I have not got as much in-depth knowledge of scares the bajeebuz out of me. So I have begun research on a whole new area.

But how do you do that without getting mired down in the unimportant?

Here are the basic 5 steps I follow whenever I am researching a new topic of interest:

1) Pick a topic that is of interest to you. What have you always wished you knew more about? What sorts of ideas are always click-bait for you?

2) Narrow down your field of interest into a simple, answerable question. The question I started with most recently was: "How did religion shape ancient civilizations and vice versa?"

3) Gather a whole heap of resources around you that can help you answer this question. I prefer to start with reference books such as encyclopedias before I head to the internet, but that's just personal preference.

4) Take detailed notes in an organised log-book (whether this is pen and paper or online).

5) Allow yourself to be taken along divergent threads of interest. I give myself boundaries with this; for me I only allow myself to diverge down paths that are relevant to the original topic of interest.

Following these steps should give you a whole heap of ideas to work from. In one week of research I have far too many ideas to pursue. One word of caution - never use this research as an info-dump in your story. It is for you and you alone to know.

How do you come up with your story ideas? Do you prefer more or less research before you begin planning and writing?

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Must Have Items When Writing On The Go

I am a writer who does not like to sit at a desk. I have always preferred to go to inspirational places (like that cafe that makes the coffee deliciously strong, or the park with the nice view, or my car before I head into work because it is there that I have my biggest sense of urgency). So what are the items I always have with me because I absolutely cannot do without them?

1. A pen and notebook. No explanation necessary.

2. A second pen in case the first does not work.

3. Either a highlighter or, better yet, those little flag sticky note things to mark the page I am working on. That way I can jump back and forth between scenes without losing my place.

4. Lyric-less music and okay enough headphones. You never know when the conversations at a cafe will break through your concentration. Music drowns it out and has the added bonus of being able to set a mood you want to capture with words. I personally can't write if music has lyrics, though, so I stick to instrumentals here.

5. Water. A dehydrated brain is a sluggish brain.

6. Any additional notes/maps/images I need for the particular scene I am working on. These are usually just scraps of paper with copies of my notes on them in case I lose them.

So there you have it. I'm pretty low-fi and I don't really need much  I rarely work on a laptop in public. I have a small one I can carry around with me if I absolutely have to, but I love the flexibility of writing with pen and paper. I think differently. I reserve working on a computer for when I need to rewrite and edit.

Was there anything on this list that surprised you? Anything else you would add?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The 5 Things That Surprised Me The Most About Becoming A Writer

It has been nearly a decade since I quit full time work so I could focus more of my energies into a career in writing. I have learned a lot along the way and thought I would share with you the 5 things that surprised me the most since becoming a writer:

1. No sense of time. Having a very different schedule to most other people who work a 9-5, I don't have the same sense of time passing that other people do. This makes me a bit of a terrible friend because I never realize how long it has been since I've seen people.

2. Comfortable being alone. It is necessary as a writer to spend a lot of time by yourself, and I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to being alone. I never really get lonely. I guess it's hard to with so many voices in my head.

3. Other people's perceptions. Many people like to wax lyrical about how lucky I am to have so much time to write, like I haven't made huge sacrifices in order to be able to do it; like this life just fell into my lap. Those expensive holidays I don't go on? Those beauty products I don't buy? Those clothes I have been wearing for a decade? They were all choices I made to be able to do this thing. Luck had nothing to do with it. Other people like to tell you it's time to 'go and get a real job'. You learn very quickly to ignore those people.
4. Kindness of strangers. Some of my biggest supporters are people I have never met in the flesh. Instagram in particular has a great writing community that spur me and others on. Without them I may well have thrown in the towel long ago.

5. The battle. It's a constant fight to have the time to create. People don't understand what you do and want to take that time away from you. They're not being malicious, they just can't relate. You must be fiercely protective of your writing time. Even after having a child I have refused to give up my scheduled writing hours. 

6. The addiction. Writing truly is an addictive activity and I get really antsy if it's been a while since I have written. I cannot imagine a life without being able to put my thoughts and imaginings down on paper. It's the writing life for me and I wouldn't have it any other way!

There were so many other things that surprised me about this life choice of mine, but those were the ones that stood out to me the most. What about you? What has surprised you about writing and/or your chosen passion? 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Opinion Piece: Is Negative Culture the Real Reason Teachers Are Leaving the Profession?

I have been reading a lot about graduate teachers lately and how they're leaving the teaching profession in droves. As someone who quit full time teaching after only two years despite getting outstanding student results, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation.

Image caption: Me the summer before I started teaching.

I thought I would start off by recounting my first weeks and months at my first school as a teacher. I was 22 and applied for a teaching position through the government-mandated channels. That is to say, I applied, interviewed and got the job legitimately. I had not known anyone at the school. No friend or family member gave me a leg up. 

I spent my summer preparing curriculum for my new classes, buying professional clothing and brushing up on some content that I was rusty on. Then, summer over, I walked into my school...and felt like I had marched head first into a brick wall. The hostility directed towards me was visceral. No one would talk to me, they wouldn't let me sit with them at lunchtime, they wouldn't even point me in the right direction when I was lost. And that curriculum I was told to prepare, that I had spent my summer working on? It was the wrong curriculum. I had been told the wrong thing.

What had I done wrong? Why was everyone so mean to me? After several weeks of this, one teacher took pity on me and whispered to me to hang in there, that I was impressing everyone with my hard work and easy manner with the students.  

"Their opinion of you is changing."

"What do you mean?" I whispered back, heart in my throat. I was finally getting some answers.
You see, at the end of the previous school year the principal had decided not to renew the contract of one of the school's staff members. He decided to get some fresh blood in, a graduate who would not only be cheaper in a world of tight budgets, but would breathe some fresh air into the school. He chose me. The teachers were angered by this and wanted to see me fail, to prove to the boss that you cannot replace experience. 

So they set out to make my life a living hell. Me, at 22 years old. They were old enough to be my parents, were supposed to care about the future of the younger generation. I am shaking as I write this, over 10 years on.

Image caption: Me about 3 months before I quit. I can't believe how exhausted and unhappy I look. I lost so much weight that I couldn't afford to lose from the stress.

I get really angry when people tell me I should return to teaching, but at a more academic school. "Your problem is that you had terrible students,"  I have been told countless times. Wrong. I loved my students. Being in the classroom with them was the only time I was happy in the job. It was the comments under the breath in the staff room, the snide remarks should I dare say anything in a meeting, the downright aggressive behaviour of many of the teachers, that destroyed the profession for me. 

I now teach in a private setting where I am valued as the expert that I am. Until the birth of my son I was in charge of the hiring and firing of teachers. I hired a range of age groups, personalities and experience levels. As long as you had passion and cared about my students, you were fine by me. But I would be damned if I would let any of my teachers treat someone the way I was treated when I first started, back when I was little more than a child myself. 
Image caption: Ten years later, happier than I've ever been.

You want to retain good quality teachers in your school? Take a good hard look at the culture in your work environment and you may just find it's not the workload that is losing you staff. I can only speak from my own experiences, of course, but those experiences were so grim that it would take a lot to convince me to go back to school.

Weekly Research Fact #5

The wall and gates of a city were a status symbol, telling the world how good your leader was. But they were obviously important for the defence of a city as well. For example, in 272BC renowned warrior king Pyrrhus of Epirus was making a name for himself through the use of war elephants. But when he tried to sneak one through the gates of Argos the elephant got stuck, foiling Pyrrhus' plans for a surprise attack. This cost Pyrrhus his life - an old lady, alerted to the attack, threw a roof tile from a window, hitting Pyrrhus on the head and killing him. But then again, this was the guy that has the saying "Pyrrhic victory"  named after him because of his habit of winning great victories at an unacceptable loss of life.

From Wikipedia:  A Pyrrhic victory (/ˈpɪrɪk/PIRR-ik) is a victory  that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Weekly Research Fact #4

Weekly research fact #4: Pharaohs would remove the names of previous rulers from statues and place their own name over the top so they would be remembered instead, all so they would live on forever in the after life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

My First 3 Steps When Creating a New Character

Image: Researching a Faerie king

I have a real issue with character development when I first start writing a new story. I get so excited about my new idea that I tend to dive into writing without getting to know any if the main players very well beforehand. This always results in the story fizzling out very quickly, ending up in the scrap heap. It's only when I spend time with the characters first that they then take the time to tell me their whole story.

So what do I do to get to know each character?

Step 1. First I like to work out what event from their past has set them on their current path, whether they know it or not. I write scenes from their perspective (even if they are never the perspective character in the story). It might be a scene at school where their teacher is a total monster to them, a scene where they experience rejection from a love interest, a scene where they receive positive feedback from something they have done. All of these things shape who we are as people, and they will shape your characters as well.

Step 2. The next thing I do is work out my character's religious/moral beliefs. What a person believes on colours the way they view the world. Very, very religious people tend to wear blinkers when placed in situations that go against their faith, as do hardcore atheists. Not everyone is flexible in the face of new evidence.
Image source:

Step 3. The final step is to work out what motivates each character. Often this is a combination of the first two points. Experienced a childhood of neglect? You might be motivated by positive affirmations of others. Have unbreakable faith in your god/s? You might be brave in the face of bodily danger. Grow up with a parent with alcoholism? You may have a zero tolerance attitude to alcohol/a close bond with the bottle/an addictive personality that sees you constantly seeking your next high.

Once I know all of this about my characters I spend a lot of time talking with them, often out loud or in my head while I'm out walking or driving. I throw them into imaginery situations and see how they react. Then, of course, I write my story and reassess each character. If they have not behaved as I had expected I go back to work getting to know them even better to work out why. 

It's no wonder I cry so hard when I have to kill my darlings.

So tell me: what do you do to develop three dimensional, consistent characters? I'm always looking for new techniques to try.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Ash's Research Fact #3

Weekly research fact #3: Another way Anztecs used to make sacrifices was by piercing their ear and collecting their blood to take for the priest to burn. Alternatively they would pull straw through the holes and burn the straw. All of their sacrificing was to feed Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, who was waging an eternal war against darkness. If the darkness won the world would end, as it had ended six times before.

Lovely stuff.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Ash's Research Fact #2

Weekly research fact No. 2: Not all honey is created equal. Test the honey by placing it on the palm of your hand. If your hand goes tingly then either do or do not consume the honey, depending on your desired outcome 😂

A word of warning: an entire Roman legion was wiped out by local tribespeople after they had eaten rhododendron honey and were too incapacitated to fight back.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Ash's Research Fact #1

I'm going to be sharing weekly research facts on my Instagram page (@asholdfieldauthor) and I thought it would be nice to share them here too. I will be sharing more detailed notes for many of these facts for my Patreon patrons. Here is the first one:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I am back!

I am officially back writing after a bit of a break to spend some much-needed time with family. In fact, I have been back working for a few months now and I have not been idle.

I have finished writing The Rachaya Series (book 3 is in the hands of my beta readers as I type this). Heart of Dragons proved to be far more difficult to write than I had anticipated. Long story short, my writing was interrupted by a bit of illness and family stuff. This interruption turned out to be a really good thing. In fact, I would say it turned out to be the best thing possible for my book. During my time away from writing I realised that I had been forcing the story based on my original plan for it, rather than letting my characters speak for themselves. I handed over the reigns to Rachaya and friends. The story they wished to tell was far better than anything I could have come up with myself.

It's actually just hit me now how much I am going to miss those characters. My husband wants me to write further stories in the world of Escoria in the future. I don't want to force anything so we'll just see where The Muse takes me next.

I currently have a character in my head for my next story that just will not leave me alone. She is following me around all day, nagging at me incessantly to write down everything she wishes to tell me. Never one to ignore the voices in my head, I have been madly taking notes, developing characters, plotting story arcs and generally just having a grand-ole-time researching. Sometimes I think I became a writer just for the thrill I get when researching.

With my renewed energy and excitement I have also started up a Patreon page for those who wish to support my writing. You can check it out at: . I'm offering exclusive blog posts where I share updates on my writing, explain more about the writing process and share some of my findings from my research. For higher-tiered patrons I will also share first drafts of bits and pieces that I am writing.

That's it from me for now. Hopefully I will not be away from here for so long next time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

In The Company of Madness, by R.B.R. Verhagen

I was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on an advanced reading copy of “In the Company of Madness”, the debut novel by R.B.R. Verhagen. I had previously read Verhagen’s novella, “Murder at the Mountain Rush”, so knew I was in good hands. Verhagen excels at bringing (in my opinion) stale history to life and creating worlds that you can feel, taste and smell. I am very please to say I was not disappointed by “In the Company of Madness”.

“In the Company of Madness” follows a variety of characters who travelled to Australia when it was a convict colony. Author R.B.R. Verhagen has created a bleak world that is in stark contrast to the country we know and love today. Verhagen does not sugar coat the colonisation of Australia. He paints a world that is gritty and grim; a world where only the desperate would want to go. And the characters within this world are as weathered and broken as the country they inhabit. Verhagen has cleverly crafted the characters so you are sympathetic towards them and are heartbroken by their circumstances. They are just so real. There is a real humanity to this book that you do not get from history textbooks.

I read this book slowly, in snatches here and there, so I could spend time meditating on the words I had just read. Verhagen’s use of language is beautiful and subtle, and I can see he has matured in his writing since “Murder at the Mountain Rush”. Verhagen is a writer who is heading into his prime and is surely one to watch in the future.

Order your copy of “In The Company of Madness” by R.B.R. Verhagen here.

Find out more about R.B.R.Verhagen on the socials listed below:
Twitter: @rbrverhagen