Back in November 2015 when Clare B and I reviewed my writing targets, we agreed that one simple way of getting a book ready quickly would be to consolidate and then edit the collected Belshaw's World columns written for the Armidale Express over the period 2009-2012. On 22 December 2015 I reported on Facebook:
I completed the consolidation process in the early hours of this morning, giving me a first draft of 120,000 words. A fair bit of editing is required to consolidate, improve English, add explanatory material etc. Writing a weekly column under deadlines does not always make for good English, while some columns would be far too obscure for general reading.. Still, this type of editing is a process I quite enjoy.
The first is the history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England, over the last 50,000 years. This is broken into four parts: an introduction to set the scene and to help integrate the entire book; Aboriginal New England up to 1788; Colonial New England; and then New England in the Twentieth Century.
Those who have followed my blogs will know from the occasional references to this project that it seems to have stretched on and on. I accept that I lack discipline, but I keep finding new topics, new themes, that demand to be included. I also keep finding gaps in my knowledge that I wasn't aware of and which now need to be filled.
The final book will, I hope, be all the better for all this. Certainly it will be very different from the original work as envisaged. The first outline had a strong political focus with the 150+ year fight for self-government as the unifying theme in the last two sections of the book. That's still there, but the book has become much more a social and cultural history.
One particular difficulty is the way the present keeps intruding on the past, forcing me to ask new questions, to decide on new questions of balance. One example here is the concern with child sexual abuse, for many of the issues raised at the Royal Commission relate to the Hunter and Northern Rivers, but came to light after my cut-off date. A second example is the stolen generation. This had become a major issue by 2000 following the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, but has continued to run since.
The second major project is New England Travels: journeys through space and time. I announced this project at the end of May 2014 - New England Travels – journeys through space and time. I described the project in this way:
The working title is New England Travels – journeys through space and time. Part autobiographical memoir, part travel story, part history, my story meanders wherever it will take me. New England provides the unifying element, the frame if you like, but I am not restricted to that; the sands of Arabia, Lugard’s Nigeria, spying in Japan, boxing and boxing tents, life and death on the frontier, the rise and fall of dynasties and the strange by-ways of family life are already there, sketched on the canvas I have created; my choice now is to select.
I am not being too ambitious. For the moment, I have an income to earn, other things to write. My writing target is 300 words per day. So far I am sticking to it, although it’s very early days. For the present at least, I am finding the process liberating, an anodyne to other frustrations that bedevil me. I know that the draft will change greatly as I write. Even now it has changed several times as I strive to capture the right words, to achieve the balance I want.
It was this realisation that finally led to the decision to go for Belshaw's World as a way of getting something out the door. Then after I put that project on hold at the first draft stage, an intense work period intervened, so I just jogged along trying to do some blogging while also pushing forward with some research on the history. As part of this, I actually developed a somewhat better research approach, if still a tad inefficient.
My weekly history column provided the next building block. A number of people suggested to me that I should publish the columns. Even though I already had the words for a book, I didn't think that was sensible because the columns were only 500 words. I thought that the result would be too bitsy. I was truly a puzzled panda.
At this point things began to gell a little. I was doing research that could be used for both projects so long as I recorded the sources for the main history project. New England Travels emerged from the mists as a book of 90 to 100,000 words made up of a mix of short and longer pieces roughly grouped around themes combining existing and new material. Once I had a basic draft in place, then I could edit and rewrite to make it interesting to a general audience, not just those with an interest in New England history. Which brings me back to my opening graphic!
Its taken quite a while to get to this point and I am hesitant about attaching firm public deadlines to the project.
I am fortunate at this point that I have been given a window to write full time. Mind you, I am finding this quite challenging. Sitting there for extended periods with no direct human contact tends to send me quite stir crazy.
Still, I mustn't complain. I am making progress even if my regular blogging is down as a consequence.