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Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how writers get things done. In this instalment, we take a peek into the writing routine of award-winning author Melanie Joosten. Her latest novel, Like Fire-Hearted Suns, is out now. 

Left: Melanie Joosten. Right: A study.

Images: Supplied

Your latest novel is historical fiction. What inspired you to write about the suffragettes?

I knew that British women had really fought for the right to vote. Their conviction and persistence were fascinating to me. In the beginning, I didn’t realise the physical brutality they faced. I had seen an image of a prisoner being forcibly fed but I hadn’t properly thought about how this must have felt, and what it really meant—that their own government despised them so much it was prepared to inflict unspeakable cruelty rather than engage with what the women were arguing for.

Our language, outlooks and conceptions of feminism and womanhood have changed immensely over the century, but there is an element of continuity in our experience of bodily pain. Writing into that was my way into the book.

What kind of research did you do to write this book?

I had the idea for the book while on parental leave for my second child, when I found I didn’t have the headspace to write, but I could read. I became very well acquainted with online second-hand booksellers to find books on women’s suffrage. I was also fortunate that it was the centenary of the UK legislation that gave (some) women the vote, so publishers brought out books such as Diane Atkinson’s brilliant Rise Up, Women! While reading I went through the footnotes and references with a fine-tooth comb to find the primary sources and how to access them.

I went to the written documents of the suffragettes themselves.

It was not a hidden story—historians have done exhaustive work documenting who the suffragettes were, how they achieved their goals and the intensity of resistance from those who did not want to give up power. I went to the written documents of the suffragettes themselves. The well-organised suffrage societies published weekly newspapers throughout their campaign, and many of the women had written their recollections as memoirs in the aftermath.

Left: Rise Up, Women! (2018). Source: Bloomsbury. Right: Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst with police (1914). Source:

I also made a research trip to London to explore the British Library archives, the National Archives (where many government and prison records are stored) and The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics and Political Science, an archive holding deposits of many suffrage societies and the personal papers of suffragettes. I found much more information than I could ever use—menus of the food served each day in prison, autograph diaries shared by imprisoned suffragettes with endearing messages written to each other in comical verse, detailed minutes from suffrage meetings and budgets for merchandise. There were testimonies from suffragettes who had been beaten up by police at protests and extraordinary first-hand accounts of the forcible feeding. There were also audio recordings of interviews that Brian Harrison had done in the eighties with some of the surviving women and their descendants who recalled the lives and passions of their mothers and aunts.

In wanting to read how the suffragettes were depicting their own experience in fiction at the time, I also discovered the brilliant bookshop and publisher Persephone Books. They reissue books from mostly women authors that have been out of print or left out of the male-dominated canon of the twentieth century, and their shop was absolute heaven.

What does your workspace look like?

I love my desk!  It’s piled high with books that I’m currently referencing and has a couple of shelves up high for the overflow. I share the double desk with my partner, who is also a writer. We had a second living area in our house that we turned into a study/work-from-home office, and it’s the first time I’ve had a desk that’s not in a bedroom or lounge. We painted the wall a dark blue and have started covering it with small pieces of art, which helps to mentally set the space off from the rest of the house. This is necessary because it doesn’t have a door that can be closed against distractions.

Over the years, as the distractions have increased (kids, dog, life…), I have come to rely on wearing noise-cancelling headphones to help me focus more readily. I only really write at my desk, though sometimes if I’m on a first draft I’ll sit in an armchair and write hard and fast.

A study. There is a desk with a PC screen and laptop. The wall is blue and features artwork.

Melanie Joosten’s home office. Image: Supplied.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

A bit of both. All my writing is done on my laptop. But I often take notes by hand when I’m reading related books, or when copying quotations that I might use. When I’m in the planning stages I also jot down thoughts about what I’m hoping to achieve or trying to show. I am a great believer in lists and give each important item in my notebook a checkbox—I know that it’s been transferred into the manuscript or been attended to once it has been ticked off, even if it was a thought from three years earlier.

I am a great believer in lists and give each important item in my notebook a checkbox.

I also cannot live without my Book Darts when reading. They are little metal bookmarks that fold around the page so you can mark a particular passage or line without underlining. When I finish reading a book I go through and take off each dart when I have copied the line or thought into my notebook—it’s a good way of revisiting the book (which is necessary for me because I feel like I often forget every word as soon as I close the cover.)

What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?

Scrivener all the way! I have found it particularly useful for writing research-heavy books because I can have archival resources such as scans of letters and photographs filed alongside my reading notes and plans for the novel. I use a split screen to write the first draft while referencing my notes, and I have a panel of post-it notes open where I can write comments (such as my critical thoughts on the scene and things to check) and footnotes (so I can go back to the original source when necessary.) I also use Aeon, which is a timeline program that integrates with Scrivener. It’s possible to have timelines both for the historical context of the book and the scenes of the book—and link these to your scenes written in Scrivener.

In particular, I find Scrivener very useful for thinking about structure. I tend to write episodically rather than chronologically. I write the scenes in a very haphazard order and then move them around to achieve the effect I need. It’s much simpler to do that kind of structural planning and editing in Scrivener than in Word or Google Docs.

Describe your writing practice?

I used to be a night owl getting into the flow late in the day but now, with having to fit writing around kids and my job, I get up before 6am to write for an hour or so most mornings. I also have one day a week devoted to writing, which is where I try and get the ‘big thinks’ done, leaving the mornings for more achievable tasks.

I tend to plan the structure and the scenes as far as a jumping-off point and what I’m trying to achieve in what will follow (the feeling or point of tension rather than plot). I write a long first draft, with some rewriting, that is really just an opportunity to think and let the work throw up some unforeseen possibilities and connections. I then spend months editing and whittling it all down until it feels like a complete manuscript. Then I pretty much start again because in all the structural editing the line-by-line writing has become stale.

What’s your editing process like?

I spend more time editing than writing. It’s mainly about making sure the scene is achieving what I intend it to. I share it with a couple of readers once I’m happy with it, but that can be quite late in the process. It’s hard to hold an entire book in my head, particularly with such limited time to work on it, and I find I can get quite frustrated and make quick responses to feedback that solves an immediate problem but creates a bigger one somewhere else. So I try not to have too much input until I’m sure of what it is I’m trying to do.

How do you navigate your various kinds of work/study?

I work in a job I love—it was a very conscious choice, around the time my first novel was published, to pursue a tandem separate career (in social work, then law reform and restorative justice). Not only is it good (and necessary!) to have a proper income, but I find it helpful to have the small wins and the energy from collaborative work that comes from a different type of job. It is hard to find time to write though—I just couldn’t see a way to sustain a career as an author considering how little I get paid for a manuscript. And the hustle that might be necessary to become a capital-A Author? I just don’t have it in me.

To fit writing around kids and my job, I get up before 6am to write.

I now write for the personal satisfaction and intellectual delight that writing gives me—that’s my main motivation. I often describe my writing as my hobby, in the sense of a ruling passion rather than a time-filling activity. Treating it as a hobby rather than a job allows me to concentrate on the craft rather than the commerce.

This is your third novel. When you look back to the writing process of Berlin Syndrome to your process now, has anything changed?

Not much has changed. I still do quite a bit of planning and thinking before I start writing, and then ignore most of it. I still write by choosing whatever scene tells me it needs to be written right now, rather than in a linear fashion. I have become better at trusting the process and not being too worried about settling questions of point-of-view and voice before I start—each work tends to find its own rhythm and tone.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a novel based on the life of the writer Rebecca West. I wanted it to be short and sharp but that’s proving difficult since she wrote epic books, lived until she was ninety and had opinions about absolutely everything. She would hate the idea of someone using her life as fodder for their fiction—yet I am in so deep the only way out is to write the damn thing.

Like Fire-Hearted Suns is out now via Ultimo Press.