“Taming Scrivener”: An Interview with Preconference Academy Instructor, Alison Stuart

The Historical Novel Society is excited to welcome Alison Stuart to instruct at our Preconference Academy. Her workshop is entitled “Taming Scrivener” and is generating a lot of interest among authors who want to expand their writing toolkit. Say “hello” to everyone, Alison!

AlisonStuart8561_copyphotoAS: Hello! I am so looking forward to coming to Maryland and meeting everyone at HNS. It is a bit of a hike from Melbourne, Australia (not Florida) but we Aussies are great travellers (we have to be – everywhere is a long way from Australia!). I think I should be able to put my hand on my heart and say I will be the delegate who has travelled farthest! Both my husband and I have spent time in Washington and I know he, in particular, is looking forward to visiting the Air and Space Museum for the gazillionth time.

So don’t be shy if you see me around on the weekend come up and say hi! I’m the one with the funny accent (don’t panic… I speak mid Pacific… so you should be able to understand me).

What time periods and subjects do you write about? Are there any main themes woven throughout your books?

AS: My father imbued me with his love of history and I have been fortunate to pursue that passion through to a major in history at university. The historical period that has been my absolute passion since childhood, is the English Civil War (1642-1660) – some conference goers may remember I did a session on my beloved Cavaliers and Roundheads at the last conference. However, I have also written books set in the Regency and World War One/1920s (very Downton Abbey!).

In a bold career move, I have recently taken a dramatic step in my writing and have not one but two series on the go:  An Australian set historical romance series set in the goldfields in the 1870s (coming out from Harlequin MIRA/Harper Collins in June) and the Harriet Gordon Mystery series set in colonial Singapore in 1910 (coming out from Berkley Publishing in August!).  Ironically, of all the books I have written, the ones that have required the most research and agonising over are the Australian historicals. Particularly ironic, given I am quite literally writing about my own backyard!

As for themes… If you look at all my books they share one theme in common. I write about war and the impact of war on individuals, whether they are my soldier heroes or the strong women left behind to keep hearth and home during times of strife. I even managed to write a soldier hero into The Postmistress (the first of my Australian historical romances)… an embittered Confederate officer who, like many, has come to Australia to start a new life.

For writers it often seems that everything in our “past lives” comes together to influence our writings. What did you do before you became a published author? How did it influence your writing?

AS: Whenever I said I wanted to be a writer, my father would counter with… ‘That’s nice, dear, but I do suggest you have a trade to fall back on’… so I studied law and have enjoyed a long, interesting and varied career as a lawyer in small private practices, not for profit organisations (including the Scout association), the military and the fire services.  (Men in uniform… do you detect a theme here?)

I served for nearly twenty years in the Australian Army Reserve (mostly as a lawyer), I married a fellow officer, and my father served as an officer in the British Army so I think I understand soldiers… and this may explain my soldier heroes.

Have I ever written a book about a lawyer? That would be, no!

When did you first start using Scrivener to write your novels? What was the one feature that most attracted you to the program?

AS: I played around with a number of different programs (Write It Now, Rough Draft etc.) and they were OK, but around the time I left the fire services, Scrivener was just hitting the news. The only problem was it was only Mac based and I was a rusted on Windows girl. However I decided to take a bit of a career break and invested in a Mac Notebook and bought Scrivener. I never looked back.  I have been using Scrivener for eight years now (and teaching beginners how to use Scrivener for at least five), and yet every time I use it I learn something new about it.

2017-12-08 18.30.15I had always admired those writers who kept their notes and research in a neat orderly binder whereas my attempt at organisation was a dog’s breakfast of notebooks and loose bits of paper. What attracted me to Scrivener was the realisation that this was not just a word processing package but a PROJECT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM – which appealed to my Capricorn sense of order.  Visualise the ‘Binder’ in Scrivener as being a physical ring binder with cardboard dividers behind which you store your manuscript, your characters, your research, your timeline, your notes etc, and you can see one of the most attractive features of the program is the helicopter view it gives you of your entire project. I am looking forward to sharing this particular ‘lightbulb’ moment with the participants!

I also love its portability – I can even work on Scrivener when I’m camping, on the road or even in a cabin in the woods.

Are you a plotter or a “pantser”? Can Scrivener be adapted to either method?

AS: I have always considered myself a pantser (or, as I prefer it, an organic writer). However the reality of having not one but two major contracts with similar timelines and contractual delivery dates can be marvellously motivating so I have adapted a format of plotting that works for me. This means I am more of a ‘plantser’ now – I still can’t meticulously plot and I do find my characters can still take over the story and lead it off into new and interesting directions, but fundamentally I do have a structure to work to now.

The wonderful thing about Scrivener is it absolutely doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantser – it is ideal for either kind of writer or those in between. The ability to adapt Scrivener to suit YOUR working style is one of it’s great advantages. So whether you like to plot on index cards or you just start with a beginning and go on, Scrivener works for you.  I hope there might be a little time at the end of our session (and we have a LOT to fit into the three hours!) to show you how I have adapted Scrivener not only to suit my particular form of ‘plantsing’ but how I work with a series.

Thank you, Alison! It was lovely to get to know a little more about you. Now, tell us what the workshop will be covering.

AS: “Taming Scrivener” will be covering:

  • Starting or importing a new Scrivener Project
  • How to navigate the Scrivener interface (the Binder, the Editor and the Inspector and all points in between)
  • Use of label colours, corkboard and project goals and other Scrivener wonders
  • How to organize your research
  • How to upload your file to a Word file for that final edit and polish.

Like I said, we only have 3 hours to cover a lot of territory. Depending on what you register for, some of you will be full participants, others only observing… so here are some ground rules…

  • For full participants. Please bring a computer with you, preloaded with the latest version of Scrivener. (Note from HNS: Scrivener is providing us with a 20%-off coupon code for HNS conference goers that we can distribute June 1.) You can download a fully functional trial version from the Literature and Latte site.  I will be teaching to the latest version of Scrivener which at the time of writing this post, is only available on Mac.  It is my fervent hope that by the time our workshop comes around, they will have released the updated version for Windows.  If you are a Windows user, don’t despair… while there will be some fundamental differences, the program is similar enough that you should be able to follow along, but unfortunately I won’t be able to stop the class for individual coaching.
  • We will be starting promptly so try to be early and set up ready to go!
  • Note… I will NOT be covering the version of Scrivener for iPad… that is a completely different (although complementary) version.
  • I will provide ALL participants with the link to download a .pdf (TAMING SCRIVENER) which will cover off on everything in the workshop so if you feel you have missed something, you can look it up. I will also make myself available for the remainder of the day in a quiet corner of the venue if you wish to ask me questions.

See y’all in June!

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