Speaking Google’s search language

Speaking Google’s search language

Gwynn Scheltema

When I search Google with writer, the search engine returns 1.6 BILLION results. If I get more specific with creative writer, the search results are halved to just under 800 thousand. So it would seem that being more specific is one way to get better results. However, if I now enter Ontario creative writer, the opposite happens and the returned results climb to 1.7 billion—more than the original search.

If you know how to search in terms that Google understands, you can get quicker, more accurate results:

Quotation Marks

Using quotation marks is known as a string search. Quotes around a “string of words” tells Google to search titles and text for those specific terms appearing together, but not necessarily related to each other. The search is now reduced to less than 100 thousand.

 

Minus Sign

Often in a search a certain result that we don’t want shows up again and again, cluttering up the search. In our Ontario “creative writer” search, the first pagesof results were are all related to jobs and hiring. If we want to exclude all job related results, we add a minus sign in front of the word job:  –job  or –hire The search more than halves again to less than 40 thousand…

and all the results with job or hire are gone.

Specific sites

When I look at the results after applying my minus signs, I notice that most of the sites are .com or .ca. If I was specifically interested in results from educational institutions, I can tell Google that adding site:.edu  

You can even ask Google to search a specific URL the same way. Just leave out the http://www. part:

Search only titles/text

If I wanted to research articles that focus on a particular person, I might ask Google for results that feature that person’s name in the title: allintitle: “Gwynn Scheltema”. As well, you can search only the text, and exclude the titles, by using allintext:

 

 Search a date range

If you want results from a particular time period, enter the dates you want with two zeros in between such as 2010..2015

Search for terms near each other

One of the most frustrating things about searching with several terms is that many results appear somewhere on the page, but bear no relation to one another. However, you can ask Google to find terms near each other by using AROUND(1) between terms.

“Gwynn Scheltema” AROUND(3)  “editor” will find pages where the exact name Gwynn Scheltema appears within 3 words of the exact word “editor”.

Use an asterisk within quotes for unknown words
If you know part of a phrase only, such as lyrics or titles, use an asterisk to represent the unknown words: girl with * tattoo or  *before the lord of song*

Of course, these tips only scratch the surface, but mastering them will give you more relevant results in less time. And for busy writers, that’s worth something.

Digging up Archives Part 2

Digging up Archives Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Digging up Archives explored how to find archive repositories that might hold the material that is key to your research. But then what? What if the record exists on another continent? How do you know if the photos or maps they hold are the ones you need?

Since every archive is different in terms of size, staffing, regulations and collections, the first step is to find out what exactly what they hold. If they have a website, start there:

Catalogues and Databases

Do a topic search and find the relevant collections the repository holds. With luck the list of collections will have links to catalogues or databases similar to those in a library. Here you can search by subject, keyword, title, author, etc.  At Toronto University Archives I put in “Baffin Island.” The result showed 9 collections (3 of them digital). One that caught my eye was:

  • Al Purdy Papers: 28 tapes of Purdy reading his poetry (Cariboo horses; Pressed on sand). Typescripts and drafts of poems. Typescripts and mimeographs of articles and plays for television and radio.

Finding Aids:

Many catalogues and databases will then link you to finding aids. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) provides a description of the contents of a collection just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. Finding aids sometimes also give background information on the collection, like when and from where it was acquired as well as how the archival staff have ordered the materials in the collection, and their physical nature.

With luck, the finding aids will be viewable at the website, but if not, some archives have paper copies on site, or will provide copies on request.

The finding aid for the Al Purdy Papers was 5 pages long. Here’s a sample of page 1.

Digital Collections:

More and more, archives are digitizing materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) making them more easily accessible, but beware. Often digital documents represent only a fraction of the total repository. You will have to ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing non-digitized content.

Archival Staff

Which brings me to probably the most precious asset in any archive, the archival staff who curate the collections. After you have examined the catalogues, finding aids, and website of an archive, archival staff can point you toward resources you may have missed. Write down the titles, call numbers, or other identifications from the materials you have sourced before you call or email. If an archive does not have a website, contacting the staff will be your only option.

In either case, if you are able to visit in person, set up an appointment time first. This will give the archival staff time to access the records you need, as they may be in another building or shelved in the basement stacks. Letting them know the background and scope of your project will help them better find appropriate materials.

If you can’t visit

Policies differ archive to archive, but here are possibilities for access if you can’t visit in person.

  • interlibrary loan – some archives lend printed materials or microfilm, but seldom primary or original documents like letters or diaries
  • scans or photocopies – be prepared for fees and limits
  • retain a research assistant – archives may recommend assistants or even provide paid research services
  • ask the archival staff – archivists routinely answer reference questions for researchers. Obviously it cannot be a great volume of material and you need to have specific questions.

 For many of us, the research part of the writing process is the most fun, and a visit in person to your chosen archive can be a highlight in that process. In Ruth’s previous blog, Holding history in my hands, she tells of her trip to the National Library and Archives to find her great-great-great-grandfather’s book. Published in 1790, it was a tell-all about The Hudson’s Bay Company, and a bestseller in its day. Ruth shares some of the protocols she encountered at the archives. It was a visit she will always remember.

 

Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

My Digital Idea Archive Project

My Digital Idea Archive Project

A reader left this comment on one of our recent blog posts: “Great blog! I’ll be saving this to my Digital Idea Archive.” What’s a Digital Idea Archive??? We contacted the reader, Leah Murray from BC, and asked her to explain….

Guest blogger: Leah Murray

Do you sometimes need a new idea to get creative and writing again? I do. But now I know what to do about it, thanks to my Digital Idea Archive Project.

I figured my project needed to be tackled in three parts:

  1. Find inspirational ideas I want to keep
  2. Stash ’em someplace safe for future reference
  3. Find ways to retrieve them after we’ve passed through the ancient mists of time (gulp).

Getting the archive set up was straightforward. Sure, it posed a few questions, but I found the solutions and in the end it was worth the effort.

 Find ideas I want to keep

Google’s computerized searches are well up to the work of finding inspiration. If Google could do it online, could I harness that for personal use?

Yes. There’s a handy thing called a Google Alert that will scour the web and bring back whatever it finds about your interests in the form of a daily emailed digest. It took me no time at all to set up Alerts for books, writing tips, photography, farming, small business, and other topics that interested me.


Emailed items turned out to be another piece to the puzzle:  if I can see the original text or image that triggered my idea, I can recreate my train of thought in a flash.  Getting ideas emailed to me or emailing myself and then archiving those emails appropriately seemed a good way to start. My Google Alerts became  part of that

My written work is often triggered by images, so Pinterest was the next stop. There I set up “boards” for books I wanted to read, writing craft, punnies, inspirational artwork/photos, places I want to go, and my perennial interest in self-help/DIY things. Like Google Alerts, Pinterest also sends me a weekly email based on my preferences.

My newest venture is Instagram, a mobile app a lot like Pinterest, but which I find good for sourcing and organizing videos and the people who produce them, like this video on what Instagram can do.

Idea archive part one, check.

Stash ’em someplace safe

I live in a tiny granny suite in the southwestern corner of BC, where space is at a premium. I can no longer keep physical archives, and I didn’t have enough empty file storage space on my existing computer. My archive still had to exist in a form that was

  • accessible with minimal effort,
  • human browsable, for when I’m leisurely searching files for a fresh idea or slant on a perennial topic, and
  • computer searchable, for when I’m working on a broad topic with lots of disparate notes from different times.

A quick poke through Staples and London Drugs websites unearthed the perfect solution: a hefty 2 terabyte Passport drive that plugs in to a USB port on my computer, and holds LOTS of files. All I needed was a sale and less than $100 to end my space challenge.

Most mail programs allow you to print your emails to pdf and put them in disk folders, but I’m lazy-fingered and find that inconvenient. Gmail for example: Right-click on any white space in the email you’re looking at, choose Print, and then use the Change button under Destination to select “Save as PDF”. Most recent versions of Windows and Mac OS have this built in – if yours doesn’t, an Adobe Reader download – – will install it for you.

But my emails get sorted into archive folders under my in-box: I just drag and drop them from inbox to mail folder as I’m checking email each morning. I then use Office 365’s Outlook archiving features to put folder structure and emails onto my Passport drive.

All social media platforms have been known to lose links to information, so things I want to keep, I save to my own archive. In Pinterest I just click on the image, then the “Read It” button at the bottom right hand corner of the image, and copy-paste the article into a Word document and store it in an appropriate folder on my computer. LinkedIn lets me copy and paste entire conversations the same way.

Consistent folder names across the various storage, email, and social media platforms make retrieval much easier. Folder structures work best for me if they are named in the ways that I think, so I created my own. A couple of hours saw my folders labelled and matched on every platform.

I write a LOT about photography and digital imaging, and write poetry, essays, and fiction, so here’s how I organized things.

Occasionally I create a desktop or browser shortcut, aka a bookmark, if I think a topic is a passing fad rather than a long term trend. Bookmarks are easy to create both in Mac and Windows.

For stuff I’ll work on in the next month or two, I save browser bookmarks in folders (yes, you can make – and search – your own folders there too)! ( Chrome does it this way; Firefox this way, )

Idea archive part two, check.

 Retrieve ’em when you need ’em.

Getting things back from storage, of course, is key.

Emails (in individual folders OR across the entire inbox and all sub-folders) are searchable by subject line, content, keyword, date and sender and by some or all of the above in every mail program out there. You just have to learn how. Every email program is slightly different, and not everyone uses my beloved Outlook. For Gmail, I read the search instructions first, learned about search operators next, followed up with a couple of questions in the support chat forum, and I was away to the races.

I then started to learn how to use my File Manager search function to retrieve things. I was astonished to find that my computer has a collection of lovely internal searching systems tucked away in its version of “plain view” – here’s a Windows tutorial on how to find and use those effectively. Macs aren’t wildly different: you use Finder there instead of File Manager, but the principles are identical.

Et voila: one big idea archive, for zero physical space, a few dollars, and a bit of head-scratching.

Digital Idea Archive Challenge conquered!

Meet our guest blogger – Leah Murray

Leah Murray operates byteSMART Strategies from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

Following a career in the Canadian Forces, Leah opened her first technology support business in Oshawa, Ontario.  She closed that business in order to work with scientists in the Research & Development division of an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Toronto. Several years in rural Ontario developed her passion for small businesses, artisanal, agricultural and otherwise, and today she devotes her energy to helping these enterprises plan, transition and manage their technology.

Today, her raison d’etre is the bringing of technology into the service of the arts, and she writes about it!

Trotting After a Story

Trotting After a Story

Heather M. O’Connor

I’m writing this post from Quetico Provincial Park. Far from home. Far from the Internet. But very close to a subject near and dear to my heart—the Lac La Croix pony.

In the beginning

I first heard about this endangered Canadian breed about a year ago, after writing a blog post for Ontario Parks. The Lac La Croix pony was once bred by Ojibwe people living around the northwest corner of Lake Superior. Darcy Whitecrow, an Ojibwe elder and breeder, says the ponies used to “run in the forest like the deer.”

I was hooked.

Pre-Internet research
Quetico library
John B. Ridley Research Library

This little-known piece of Canadian and First Nations history was in danger of being lost. It’s not easy to dig up details on a pony that almost disappeared 40 years ago, especially when the topic is a First Nations pony from Northwestern Ontario. There aren’t a ton of resources. Those that exist are mostly uncatalogued.

My best hope was to visit Quetico Provincial Park. Ponies from the breeding program at Grey Raven Ranch visit the park once a year. I could see the ponies, compare notes with Darcy and his wife Kim, and research the ponies at the John B. Ridley Research Library, located right in the park! I could also collect oral histories from local residents and First Nation elders.

Just one problem. How would I pay for this trip?

Opportunity knocks
Quetico cabin
My cabin by the lake

That’s when I learned about Quetico’s artist-in-residence program, funded by the Quetico Foundation. Two weeks of writing time in a rustic lakeside cabin. Or, if I preferred, a tent-camping or back country experience. My only commitment? Offer a public reading or workshop.

Though the residency mainly attracts visual artists, it’s open to a broad spectrum of the arts. A spot is set aside each year for an emerging artist and a local artist.

The park staff encouraged me to apply. Several months later, I received good news. I would be their first writer. (Thanks, Quetico!)

Problem solved

Even with my accommodations covered, it would still be a costly trip. Airfare to Thunder Bay. A rental car. Food and gear.

The project had cultural and heritage value, and had already inspired a number of fiction projects. So I applied for a Marion Hebb Research Grant from the Access Copyright Foundation.

I got it. (Thank you, Access Copyright!) The grant covered three-quarters of my expenses.

Heather and a ponyCarpe diem

Now, here I am. Poring over the park’s rich archives. Talking to people with the pre-Internet history and equine expertise that I lack. Sharing breaths nose to nose with these beautiful and remarkably intelligent animals. Loving every moment.

Why? Because I asked.

Research grants and residencies are created to help us chase our stories. The opportunities are out there. What are you waiting for?


DID YOU KNOW?

Do you want to learn how to find residencies and grants, and write winning applications? Sign up for Get That Grant, Writescape’s popular hands-on grant-writing workshop. Coming to York Region in October. Stayed tuned for details.

Write Beyond the Boundaries

Write Beyond the Boundaries

Ruth E. Walker.

Earlier this month, I attended a cottage-country film festival in the Village of Haliburton, catching the last three of five films on offer. There were no red carpets, no star-studded galas.  And the sole  “paparazzo” was equipped with a nifty cell phone. Nonetheless, it was a life-changing moment for this writer. I gained a deeper understanding of three vital pieces of any creative enterprise.

Perspective

 

Perception

 

 

 

 

Persistence

But first some background

Doc(k) Day is a documentary film festival, organized by THOSE OTHER MOVIES Haliburton, a non-profit organization run by volunteers. It’s part of the Film Circuit, a division of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has brought some fabulous festival films to the Haliburton Highlands.

I love TIFF and attend one screening a year in Toronto with my friend Heidi. A film festival with Heidi is often an adventure, so much so that I blogged about it on my own website. There was a bit less excitement at Doc(k) Day, but no less a moving experience.

The three documentaries I managed to attend were excellent. Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, and created and narrated by Lawrence Gunther, What Lies Below is a remarkable film about the interconnectedness of the world’s waterways and how so many of us are blind to what is happening to an ecosystem we can’t see. All the more moving when you learn that documentarian Gunther has been blind since childhood.

Garry Beitel’s In Pursuit of Peace explores the world of peacekeeping in the 21st century and how Canadians are still filling that role despite our political shift to combatants instead of peacekeepers. It’s an excellent, and often daunting, glimpse into the challenges of conflict resolution in our fractured world. Nonetheless, I was left feeling optimistic.

Perspective.  Perception.  Persistence.

Cameraperson from Kirsten Johnson, renowned documentary filmmaker and cinematographer (Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11) was in a class unto its own. Breaking boundaries of documentary film-making, Johnson gives the audience access to a kind of filmic memoir. From her personal catalogue of outtakes, side projects and shot set-ups, she marries highly personal film sequences with scenes in post-Serbian-war Bosnia, a day-in-the-life of a Nigerian midwife, a Brooklyn boxing match and several other fascinating snippets of people, places and events.

At first, we never rest long in any one place, and it is a challenge to make connections between the disparate scenes. But eventually, the struggle lessens as the camera’s eye guides us to understanding. We return to familiar scenes and people, hear their words, learn their fears, comprehend their circumstances. And the energy of the whole begins to take shape.

At least, it did for me. Judging by the audience reception, the film moved many others to new perspectives. But we had to slow down our process. We needed to allow our perception to make room for different, for strange, for fresh. And we had to be persistent in giving the film time to take us there.

A writer can learn from film

Here is where the writer in me was doing an internal dance for joy. What if I took that same approach with the book I plan to start writing this summer? Slow down the process. Make room for different ways to explore and take in the research. Allow “strange and fresh” room to take hold of my imagination. Be persistent in this slow-cooking process of inspiration. Let the shape of the thing that I will eventually write find its own way into my mind.

I’m used to chasing after my ideas. To following my characters on their journeys. To setting out with a question as my launch pad. Instead, I’m going to let the question come to me. Maybe it won’t even be a question. Maybe it will be something I’ll perceive for the first time. Some new perspective on an old idea. Or a persistent voice whispering in my ear.

Disparate scenes from the past might mingle with today. Like Kirsten Johnson, maybe I’ll find a new way of storytelling. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know if a film has ever spoken to you as a writer the way Cameraperson did for me.

DID YOU KNOW

Our website holds an archive of all our blog posts. You’ll find useful tips, interesting insights and practical advice from the Writescape Team and a few guest bloggers. And don’t forget to visit our retreats and workshops section to discover what’s coming up with Writescape. You’re always welcome to Escape to write with Writescape.

The Formula for Funny

The Formula for Funny

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy

Picture it: 1999, an eager freelance writer sells an article to a national magazine about women having clothing custom tailored. She is euphoric when the editor asks for a sidebar piece on women having bras custom fitted. “Of course,” the writer says. “No problem.”vintage-1823596_640

I was that writer, and I was soon to learn an important—and funny—lesson about the writing life.

Now folks, this was before the Internet and search engines were running full steam. We still dialed 411 for information or thumbed through cumbersome phone books with Yellow Pages sections. And remember, for a national magazine, a writer has to do national research. Finding resources in Toronto was no problem back then, but the rest of the country…well, the challenge was set.

A funny thing happened on the way to research

purchasing-1673734_640Through one of my bespoke clothing connections, I found out about a store in Montreal that did custom fitting of bras. So, I called and asked for the store manager, whose name was Savine. I expected someone with a francophone accent, but in fact, Savine sounded like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. So, read her comments with a Russian accent, okay?

Here’s how the conversation went:

ME:    Savine, I’m researching an article on women having bras custom fitted.

SAVINE:      OH, you are going to write about women having the bras custom fitted. That is wonderful, because YOU KNOW, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra!

(NOTE: I have to interject here what went through my mind at that moment, which was—where did she get that statistic? And did people from StatsCan go around the country measuring women’s boobs and comparing them to their bra sizes? But I digress.)

ME:         Savine, are you telling me that 80 percent of women in Canada are wearing the wrong size bra?

SAVINE:        YES, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra. YOU, for example. YOU wearing the wrong size bra.

I looked down at my chest and was amazed that she was likely right.

So why am I telling you this story? Because I think, or at least I hope, you laughed at Savine’s comment. This little story contains the TWO things something must have to be considered funny: a basis in reality and surprise.

Surprise!

human-773712_640Although that’s a simplistic formula, it’s also true. Think about anything you have found funny in the past, and note the presence of both of these elements. The basis of reality in my Savine story is the fact that few women know how to choose the right size bra, and most of us have histories of buying too-small or too-large garments that remain at the bottom of our lingerie drawers for years. The surprise is when Savine makes that call on my bra over the phone.

When I teach humour writing, I tell my students that you can’t make up stuff that’s funnier than real life. Some comics make a living by simply pointing out reality. Take George Carlin’s rant about being asked if he was ready to get “on” the plane, when he preferred to get “in” it … Or Stephen Wright’s claim that he has an extensive seashell collection he keeps on beaches around the world. Canadian-born actress, writer and comedian Catherine O’Hara of Second City and “Schitt’s Creek” fame says she believes her success comes from being truthful.

Keep in mind, too, that everything is funnier in threes. Think of the jokes you know, and you’ll realize that many punch lines come after two set-up lines. An example is Lily Tomlin’s leap from pointing out that olive oil comes from olives and corn oil comes from corn, to asking where baby oil comes from.

The Power of Cliché

I always say that all writing helps other writing. For example, did you know that ad writers and humour writers use some of the same techniques? A major challenge for ad writers is to get people’s attention with an ad headline. One common technique they and humour-writers share is reforming clichés. People EXPECT the cliché to be the same, but by changing it or reforming it in some way, the phrase can become funny.radiator-mascot-171428_640

Consider the double entendre. A sign on a radiator repair shop reads: “A good place to take a leak.”

colorful-1836348_640Or think about taking a cliché literally. A major big-box store did an ad for picture frames with the headline “Hang around the house.”

lee-jung-min-decoration-1090766_640There are also funny take-offs on clichés. I once wrote humorous fortune cookies for a women entrepreneur group. One fortune I came up with was “Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll be toothless by retirement.”

Recipes for funny

It may seem strange to think of comedy writers using formulas, but we do from time to time, to get those creative juices flowing. Do some research and you’ll discover more techniques for injecting humour into your writing. Check out Writers Digest‘s website for several articles on humour writing. I also recommend any of Emmy award-winning Gene Perret’s books But remember that above all, a basis in reality and the element of surprise are necessary to make something funny.

Now I have to go, because my bra is pinching at the sides.

Read more from Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at www.thewritingfairy.com

Did you know

Dorothea and Ruth Walker designed Write to Win, a full-day immersion in the art and skill of entering writing contests. And yes, humour often plays a part in their tag-team teaching style but they are deadly serious about helping writers get to First Place. Look for this workshop spring 2017.

Check out Writescape’s catalogue for all our workshops and programs.

Expert advice

Expert advice

Heather M. O’Connor

When Richard Scrimger came to Turning Leaves a couple of years ago, he told us, “Writers are liars and thieves.”

He meant, of course, that the best stories are partly made up, and partly built on stolen bits of real life. Readers want to believe your lies. You can tell the most outrageous whoppers, from a theme park with cloned dinosaurs to a school for wizards. As long as the stolen bits ring true.

Steal what you know, research what you don’t

Take my novel Betting Game, for instance. It’s the story of an elite soccer player who gets mixed up with illegal gambling.

I could lie and steal with panache about soccer. I play. My kids play. I watch the sport on TV. But illegal gambling? That was a central part of my novel’s plot and characters, and I didn’t know a thing about it. Nada. Zip. How could I make my story believable?

Who ya gonna call?

I needed a subject matter expert. Someone in the biz. But not the gambling biz. A “reliable narrator” if you know what I mean. Someone in law enforcement. It took time to track down an expert, but what he told me was invaluable.

Looking for an expert of your own? Here are the steps to follow.

Go surfing

Begin your search online. I started by studying news stories. Who was quoted on the topic? Who went to court?

Your expert may speak at industry events and conferences. Check continuing education classes and LinkedIn, too.

network of peopleTap your network

Have you asked your friends and family if they know an expert? I was stunned to learn that one of my teammates was once a CSI investigator in New York City. (She now teaches forensic science and invited me to a crime scene class. Coolest writer field trip ever!)

Don’t forget your local librarians—they’re walking encyclopedias.

Do a little diggingman-1483479_1920

Once you locate subject matter experts, don’t waste their time. Pick your own brains before you pick theirs.

Prepare a list of open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Try to think up a couple of questions they may never have answered.

Email your questions and a short synopsis of your story a day or two before the interview. This gives the person time to mull over answers and think of interesting anecdotes.

Don’t be shy

Relax. Chatting with a subject matter expert is easier than it looks.

People like talking about their jobs. Though they find their work fascinating, their friends and family may not. You provide a rare treat—an enthusiastic audience.

office-336368_1920Take note!

I prefer to interview in person or by phone. People have more to say when they don’t need to write it all down. You also have a chance to ask follow-up questions when you’re talking live. Email interviews are very limiting. They’re best for confirming facts.

I usually record my interviews, as long as there’s no objection. Most smartphones have an app for that. I also take detailed notes.

Say thank you

Remember to thank your expert for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise. Send a thank you note. If their help was significant, include them in the acknowledgements, and consider sending them a copy of your book.

Holding History in My Hands

Holding History in My Hands

My great-great-great-grandfather, Edward R. Umfreville, wrote a book about The Hudson’s Bay Company. An exposé by an 18th-century whistleblower, my ancestor’s book was a bestseller.

And what is even more amazing is that The Present State of the Hudson’s Bay, published 1790 in London, England, is still in libraries.

1024px-Library_and_Archives_CanadaWell…in certain libraries. I’m delighted to say it is housed in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a short walk in Ottawa from the Parliament Buildings and the Supreme Court of Canada. But LAC is not much like your neighbourhood library.

Not your ordinary library

Our national library and archives provides “services to members of the public who wish to consult the documents of its collection or order photocopies and reproductions.” Researchers don’t even need to visit. Indeed, almost all of their material is accessible online—I’ve read Umfreville’s book several times that way. But I was going to Ottawa on a trip and I wanted to actually see the darn thing.

I called the library and the helpful voice of Natalie confirmed the book was there but cautioned that I was outside request timelines of 7 days. Nonetheless, she helped me put in my order request and wished me luck.

Planning to visit the Library and Archives Canada?

Here are the protocol basics:

  • Pre-register online for a user number; you need it to clear Security
  • Step into the impressive first floor foyer — all marble and a great high ceiling and lots of windows pouring in light everywherenlc011725-v6
  • Stop at Security to show your ID, sign in, lock up stuff in little lockers, and put all pens and pencils and notebooks into clear plastic bags to carry with you. (I was allowed to also carry my purse and cell phone separately and not in plastic bags.)
  • Take the elevators up one floor to visit Reception in a glass-walled room off the main hallway to have the user card checked
  • Up one more floor to the glass-walled Special Collections admin room (it had a velvet rope queue area outside the entry and a sign: Wait to be called in before entering.)

It was here that I got the bad news. My 4-day request to have the book brought in from storage hadn’t been in time. (darn deadlines—ever the writer’s bane.)

At heart, all libraries are the same

But here is where Library and Archives Canada is exactly like a community library. The woman in admin suggested I go to the Special Collections room and ask the staff there. “You never know,” she said. (How many times have we writers benefited from the suggestions and guidance of library staff?)

Special Collections is a huge room, brightly lit by a full wall of windows and fairly sparsely furnished. Two or three office desks were spaced apart against the window wall and three or four very long worktables sat apart in the middle. A man was sorting through a box of index-type cards at the far end. He wore white cotton gloves. Gulp, I thought; no way will they let me even breathe on Umfreville’s book.

The two staff—a pair of lovely women—searched the shelves in the room. If my book was there, it would be with my name attached. Nope. No Walker treasures waiting. I was ready to give up when one of the women asked me, “Is this a rare book?”

Librarians are a writer’s friend

“Yes,” I replied. “I assume so. It’s over 225 years old.”

20160624_103339“Ah, it probably is held off site,” she said. “Let me look back here and see if it’s arrived.”  As she opened a side door, I caught a glimpse of locked wire cages with shelves of boxes and file boxes behind the wire.

They came out smiling, one of them holding a book-sized sturdy cardboard container. On the spine of the container: Umfreville The Present State of The Hudson’s Bay. And inside, wrapped in protective beige paper, an original copy of my great-great-great-grandfather’s book.

Time travel is possible

Thank you Natalie. Your kindness when I called just four days before arriving meant that I didn’t have to travel back to Ottawa to hold history—my history—in my hands. And it is because of the determined staff in Special Collections that I could turn those pages (without gloves!) to gain insights I’d missed in the online version.20160624_104156

Watch for a later post on what THAT experience felt like and what it meant for the book I’ll be writing in the months ahead.