Researching The Gift of Life: Watching a Heart Transplant to Finding the Silent Story

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Research is my happy place. I do extensive research for every book I write and it’s where I learn not just technical information but also start to find my character development, settings and plot points too. I get to travel within Australian and overseas for location research, which is a great gift. I interview people, spend hours on the internet, watch loads of YouTube videos and, inevitably, buy a lot of reference books. It is the phase where anything is still possible, ideas are still forming and excitement takes me back again and again for more.

My forthcoming novel, The Gift of Life, is based around organ donation, specifically, heart transplants. I love anatomy (I studied it for two semesters) and Biology was also my strongest subject at school and I then did another semester of it at uni. As a result, I loved brushing up on all my anatomy and physiology and researching the many causes and treatments of heart failure, some of which lead to the need for an organ donation. I even ended up at the cardiologist myself, as I have a long history of arrhythmias and, as I found out in my research, these can lead to heart failure! (Fortunately for me, the type I have appear to be uncomplicated.) My husband, too, also ended up at the cardiologist, then my mum went… It seemed like every time I turned around, ‘hearts’ were the theme of the day.  One thing I learned through all this research was that we are all vulnerable to heart issues, which can come with a long list of complications, which can also lead to a need for a transplant. I really had no idea how common it was.

The amount of personal testimony I came across (both from the point of view of a heart transplant recipient and also from the family of those who had consented to the donation of their loved one’s organs) is significantly higher coming from the USA than it is Australia. This was both tricky–because the USA medical and legal systems are very different to ours–and also an opportunity to hear different experiences and voices from those who’ve gone through the process.

There is a wealth of videos on YouTube and I even came across one that showed a heart transplant operation. That one was a little tough to stomach, to be honest!

I interviewed two Australian heart transplant recipients, which was a fabulous opportunity to hear their stories firsthand. They were both very different people–he a middle-aged man with a wife, children and career–and she a young woman in her twenties with a long life ahead if only she could get the chance. Their experience of the process was vastly different too. The organ transplant process is a gamble at every stage: the illness, the waiting period, the operation, the recovery, the chances of rejection and ongoing complications.

In the end, I had way more information than I could use in the book, which is normal. The Gift of Life starts two years after Gabby McPhee had her heart transplant; therefore much of what I learned about the difficult, emotional waiting stage (and the ongoing physical rehabilitation and care through that period) had to be cut and left out; however, it’s all there in my mind, forming the basis to the background of Gabby’s psyche.

I also became really interested in the more silent half of the story–the experiences of the family members who make the decision to donate. These stories are harder to find, and understandably so, as their experience is rooted in trauma, shock and grief. But as a writer, that ‘silent space’ is the most interesting to me. The possibility of a new, untold story is the one I want to follow. The wealth of information I found on the other side (the recipient’s stories) served to highlight a gap in the narrative that, when voiced through the character of Krystal Arthur, fleshed out the full circle of life.

I loved researching this book. It was utterly fascinating from beginning to end.

 

Book Research Gratitude

Research is the bedrock of my novels. It is the place where I find inspiration, joy, meaning, characters and story. I am never happier than when I am in the free-flowing state of inquiry, following my curiosity and passion as it emerges, taking a right-angled turn here, or a big swooping deep dive there.

Many people help me along the way and never want anything in return (though I do always gift them something in gratitude); people who are passionate about what they do are more often than not, I have found, utterly delighted to share their knowledge.

I’ve collected a raft of people of late who have helped me with my future stories. So let me take a moment to thank them and perhaps you will find some inspiration here, or if you are able, you might be able to support their wonderful business.

Firstly, I visited Noosa’s only coffee farm, Noosa Black, in Kin Kin and was treated to a lovely luncheon on the deck overlooking Traecy and Peter Hinner’s plantation. They were so generous with their time, knowledge and passion. Their single origin coffee is sold through local IGA supermarkets on the Sunshine Coast and through their online store. The really beautiful thing about Noosa Black is how community powered the business is. Traecy and Peter’s vision from the start was ‘local’, and everything they’ve done, from planting the trees to roasting the beans has been driven by local labour, and then it is sold locally too, so the food miles are short! It is a vision that means all the dollars associated with the farm circulate within a small geography, which is really very cool.

Next, I got to travel to the beautiful Barossa Valley in South Australia and visit Trevallie Orchard’s fruit farm, with my expert guide Sheralee Menz, who knows the business and history of the farm from the ground up. The fruit orchard is a piece of living history, still growing heritage varieties of apples and with a magnificent fig tree over one hundred years old! To my greatest disappointment, I had a total camera fail and only got this one lovely shot of a fruit tree flowers (a pear, I think?). You can buy Trevallie’s beautiful fruit from their online store or in Farmland stores or at the truly magnificent Barossa Farmers Markets each Saturday morning in Angaston. (We had the BEST breakfast there!)

And most recently, I spent time at Padre coffee in Noosa, first with owner and coffee expert, Marinus Jansen, who shared so much information with me I truly couldn’t write fast enough. One of the most fabulous things about Padre is their ‘open door’ policy of information. They train people who want to be roasters and hold regular cupping sessions. Soon after my time with Marinus came to an end, I joined coffee roaster Vanessa Joachim for cupping, and then she invited me back the next day to watch a roasting session. And then barista, Kayla Byles, talked me through siphon brews, batch brews and V60s! Needless to say I was pretty high on coffee when I left!

Other than that, I have been chatting to some special people who are helping me with my next book; but I can’t quite tell you about them just yet. However, I want to say again how grateful I am that people are so willing to share their experiences and knowledge with me, which eventually comes out in my writing.

One of the things readers tell me frequently is how much they’ve loved learning about food in the books I write and behind it all are the people on the ground, with their hands in the dirt, literally and symbolically.

From me to you, thank you!!

 

 

The Bees Behind the Book

 

Autan

‘You could come and see my bees if you like. I’d be happy to show you around the hives.’

The beekeeper was standing at my local market stall, his pyramids of honey for sale around him. We’d been talking for about a minute and a half when he made his offer, one I think he actually regretted the moment it came out of his mouth. But all I could think was it’s a sign!

When I begin research on a book, I look for signs. Signs that I’m going the right way. Signs that the universe/muse/creative spirit (whatever you like to call it) is onboard with what I’m doing and will support the direction my work is going.

I’d previously been researching coffee for my third foodie fiction novel, but although I was really intellectually interested in the history of coffee, particularly, I knew I didn’t have enough fire in the belly to sustain it over the course of a couple of years to get a whole novel out. So I let it go and started looking for something else, and everywhere I went I saw bees. I started reading about them in books and online and watching loads of YouTube videos on bee handling. And then I met the beekeeper and he offered to take me to his hives, which was so random that I knew I was definitely on the right path.

I took the beekeeper’s number but later thought, hmm, as nice as that offer was, maybe I shouldn’t actually be heading out into the bush with a complete stranger!

But the universe wasn’t done with me yet. I continued my research and went to the Ginger Factory’s Super Bee Show here on the Sunshine Coast. Gayle Currie, head beekeeper, conducted the show and her knowledge and enthusiasm was addictive. We got talking over a number of weeks and then she too invited me to see her bees.

What I learned while researching and writing this book is that there is no ‘one’ way to handle and keep bees. Beekeepers all do things differently (much like horse people or dog people do, I suppose). And there’s a huge range of humane, ethical and holistic ways to do this (or not). Something I loved so much about Gayle was her very obvious and real love for her bees, her exceptional reverence and respect for them, and her very ‘feminine’ way of handling them. Those values and details carried through to Maria, my main character, who treats her bees as family.

Until I started researching bees, I didn’t even realise that we had an array of native bees in Australia. I always thought bees were great, but I had no idea just how outstanding they are and how much humans depend on them and how much we need to be urgently acting to save them right now. I do hope my book inspires others to love bees, just as I fell in love with them when researching.

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This post is currently featured as a guest post on ‘Love That Book’, a blog by Melissa Sargent.

Pic credit “Autan” from Flickr.

 

Writing Retreats — Which Type is Right for You?

Writing retreats are, hands down, awesome–so much so, I’d go as far to say they are one of the most important things you can do as a writer.

Just you, the trees, and your book

Just you, the trees, and your book

I’ve been on a number of writing retreats. In fact, the first one I went on, I organised myself by choosing a location, setting a timetable and a structured outcome process (I’m a former teacher; I can’t help it), and inviting people along. Despite an accommodation challenge, it was fantastic. Since then, I’ve come to value retreats in many varied and extended ways and I’ll be writing several posts on this topic this year. So let’s start with finding the right type of retreat for you.

( If you want to join me on retreat, I’ll be offering a tutor-led retreat on the Sunshine Coast hinterland in 2015)

The DIY retreat

This is what I did for my first retreat. It’s a bit like a school camp except that everyone there is a nerd, just like you. So you can actually revel in your artsy, geeky glory instead of feeling left out. (Or, hey, maybe that’s just me.) The DIY retreat goes something like this:

  • a bunch of writers agree to go and spend time together in a location suitable for their needs and desired outcomes
  • you might share accommodation, food, books, notes, and resources
  • you might choose to delegate everyone a job, such as presentation to the group on some aspect of the craft of writing
  • you might all like to submit a portion of writing for the group to review prior to the retreat and at the allocated time in your schedule, you have a group critique session. (Most people really dig this part so it’s worthwhile doing.)
  • you might even approach an author to come and visit you on retreat (or stay with you), pay for their time to teach you some skills and/or give you feedback on your writing.

Who is this for? Writers on a budget; aspiring writers who want to get their feet wet on retreats; those who want to hang out with other writers; writers who want to tailor their own retreat (e.g. handpick an author to come to their retreat).

IMG_3586The Solo Word Count retreat

This is the retreat you take yourself on to GET THINGS DONE. There is only one goal on this retreat: WORDS. Fantastic if you are on a deadline (either self-imposed or contractually obligated), or perhaps when you’re just bursting with a story and dying to get it down but life keeps getting in the way.

The last retreat I took was of this type and I nailed 10,000 words in two-and-a-half days. For me, that’s fabulous. And if I did three retreats a year like that, that would be a third of a first draft of a novel done in just over a week in total. Bam! Words, words, words. A novel can’t exist without words, after all.

Who is this for? Anyone feeling a timeline pressure. (Or extreme introverts who relish days on end in silence with nothing but their own thoughts.)

The Solo Planning and/or Editing retreat

This is similar to the Solo Word Count retreat, except that your goals are different. Rather than a tunnel-vision goal of moving forwards only (word count), the planning and editing phases of writing are a lot more lateral. Spiralling, even. Narrowing in, then pulling outwards again. Reading, then editing. Writing notes, then typing words. Drawing diagrams, and then throwing them away. It takes time and space to do these things well and a retreat is a great way to really get to know your novel.

Who is this for? Writers at the beginning of their project; writers working on subsequent drafts; writers on a deadline to move through the editing phase.

The Lifestyle writing retreat

This could be organised by you, a group of you, or an external party.

I’d say the focus of this type of retreat is sharing communal space with other writers to enjoy spontaneous connection and indulgence of your love and passion for writing. There’ll be plenty of time to write on your own in a nook somewhere, or sitting at the big ol’ dining table with other writers. There might be shared dinners out, time for a massage, or doing some yoga between sessions.

Who is this for? Anyone who’s feeling a bit stuck, disconnected or who has lost the passion and motivation for their project. It’s a big kick start to your creative juices.

The Research retreat

Oh, this is fun. New locations, road trips, plane trips, boat trips, train trips… you get the point. Photography. Note taking. Maps. Historical societies. Interviews with relevant subjects. On-site visits to businesses, farms or families. Collecting knick knacks, feathers, stones or food.

The goal of this retreat is to get as much hard data and/or whimsical feeling for many of elements of your project to take back home with you so you can continue to write your story with new vision.

Who is this for? Writers who are building scenes and stories about places, time, people, careers, history etc. outside of their own world view of the world. Writers who want to kick start a project. Writers who have stalled in a project and need to infuse it with new life.

The ‘it’s all done for you’ retreat

These are retreats offered by writers, editors, associations and so on. They generally pick the location, provide tutors/instructors/mentoring sessions etc. You pay a fee that covers the accommodation and the retreat program. Some will include food in the price, others leave that out. There’ll generally be workshop sessions as well as individual and/or group feedback on a selection of your writing.

Who is this for?  Anyone who’d like to spend time with the already established authors and mentors who are running the retreat. Anyone who is time poor and would rather not deal with the logistics of organising a retreat. Anyone who wants to feel safety in numbers.

*** Do any of these types of retreats sound appealing to you? ***

If you want to join me on retreat, I’ll be offering a tutor-led retreat on the Sunshine Coast hinterland in 2015, so email me at josephinemoon [at] live.com.au to let me know you’re interested.

I’m also open to visiting you on your own self-organised retreat. You can email me to chat about that too 🙂

The Creative Life Balancing Act

Bubbalicious 'helping' me

Bubbalicious ‘helping’ me

This is my library research assistant, the adorable Bubbalicious.

It’s often said that writing is a child-friendly career. True. But I’m not sure children are a writer-friendly addition 🙂

This is an interesting year for me as I work to find a new way of writing. A new timetable. A new head space. A totally new process. Listening to my body in a whole new way.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that I might need some help. But my Hubbalicious has been consistently working towards finding ways to support my career (and meet my next book deadline) while we maintain our wish to be hands-on, full-time parents. One thing we’ve realised is that I do need sustained, uninterrupted writing time. And that might mean I have to leave the house for a weekend every couple of months to get that. As well, I need at least three or four hours straight in a day to really get into my work.

So today is a new day. After much resistance (maternal angst, guilt, working-mother research assistant2_anxiety), I have embraced the addition of my lovely friend, Katrina, who lives locally and who has known Little Man his whole life. (And is also the greatest aunty to our dogs and cats when we’re away.) Everyone in this family loves Katrina. And today she’ll be joining us three days a week, for four hours a day, at home to help look after our Little Man and allow me some space to work. And I’m okay with that. Finally.

Really. Right now, I’m in my office while the sound of Katrina’s voice and squeaking toys from the other end of the house lets me know my bubba man is okay. Not just okay; he’s having fun. And that’s okay because I just need to remind myself to breathe and know there’ll be more times a plenty when I get to have my little research assistant back again.

Provence in Summer!

I’m going to France! Provence, to be specific. I’ll be going in the European summer, specifically so I can visit the flowering fields and distilleries of essential oils, all in the name of research for my next book. Squee! I’m pretty excited.

Lavender fields are one of my favourite places to hang out

Lavender fields are one of my favourite places to hang out

I do have a long history of lying down in lavender fields. Here’s a pic my sister snapped in a Tasmanian lavender farm back in 2004, when I was thinner, younger, and apparently wearing some sort of red striped PJs!

Provence

Provence

My lovely dad is chaperoning me to Provence and we’re planning our itinerary now. If you have any suggestion for fields, farms, flowers and distilleries (or better fashion sense), I’d love to hear them.

It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it

I love research. And when it’s about food, even better.

Living the writer’s dream for me is about delving into subjects I’m interested in and absorbing a mass of information and, preferably, sensory experience. And it really doesn’t get any better than researching one of the greatest things on earth: chocolate.

chilli ganache

Chocolate features heavily in my next book and this weekend just gone my lovely (and exceptionally talented) sister and I headed into Brisbane for an afternoon of making chocolates and ganaches by hand. I have to say, though, that they worked us extremely hard. Amanda and I thought we might have a fun afternoon indulging in chocolate. Not so much. More like five hours on our feet, with no breaks, no chairs and (gasp!!!) no coffee!!! I felt like a galley slave.

But I am really glad I went. I learnt many a savvy chocolate making skill for my main

Litres of Belgium chocolate

Belgium chocolate ganaches

character to use in her story. And during the two-and-a-half hour drive home I came up with my top line novel plot.

Not a bad day’s work. Not bad at all.