Gradually I am developing a work routine here in Singapore. After moving from Sydney I travelled to Canberra, Melbourne and Hobart visiting relations before flying to Singapore. For five weeks I had been living out of a suitcase and in temporary accommodation. It is so good to finally have a place called home.
I work from the study in our apartment. My desk was made by my father who made furniture as a hobby. It is made out of my father’s favourite wood, Black Bean. This tree grows in Queensland and northern New South Wales.
This desk is where I will be doing most of the research and analysis for my book. It is from here that I will search and analyse the diaries of World War I using Python programs that I have written, spreadsheets and other tools. It is from this desk that I will trawl the internet for other resources and references.
My book will be the result of a union of three skills – writing, research and technical. The three monitors on my desk are wonderful work tools. They enable me to work efficiently and think through research and technical issues.
Yesterday was a data day. On these days I think of the diaries as data to be explored. I am looking for keywords, links and patterns in the words and people who are mentioned in the diary. For this work I draw on the research techniques developed by a new discipline called digital humanities. Digital humanities courses are not widely available at Australian universities, though fortunately that state of affairs is improving. Everything I have learned about digital humanities has come from the online world. Digital humanists are the most generous and inclusive researchers that I have come across. They share so much via Twitter and blogs which enables people without access to a university course to learn a lot. I have a digital humanities blog for beginners, Stumbling Through the Future where you can find out more about this type of research.
When I am having a data day I use several applications in one session and refer to many websites. Yesterday I was using OpenRefine to ‘clean’ data. This is the unglamorous, time-consuming and frustrating side of digital humanities that you don’t read about. Humanities data, like the World War I diaries I am working with, is messy. Each soldier formatted their writing differently on the frontline. They did not adopt a uniform way of dating their diaries, writing the name of their next of kin etc. To analyse my findings in spreadsheets I have to pummel the words into columns with similar words from other diaries. Yesterday I had to import the results from my python program to OpenRefine, then move all the surnames into one ‘Surname’ column. This is tricky in Excel as some soldiers had one first name, others had two and some rare ones had three. Some first names were recorded as initials and one surname had the ‘de’ prefix as a separate word. I found that OpenRefine is an excellent tool for dealing with this kind of problem.
After sorting the data in OpenRefine I then exported the table into Excel and compared it to another table of names. I worked back and forth between several Excel spreadsheets, OpenRefine, websites to assist me with using OpenRefine, Windows Explorer to find files on my computer, Word to record my data manipulation etc. You can see how I make use of all those screens.
Research days also require intense use of my computer but reading and writing days are very different. I find that I write best when I am using my laptop away from my desk. In one of my early posts I wrote about how I find my bed to be a productive writing place. However, I am having trouble with that here. In our previous homes our bedroom had carpet but here our bed rests on a wooden floor. Our casters are too mobile so when I lean my head on the wall the bed slips from under me. I need to do something about that! The other productive writing place is a couch but at the moment we don’t have any lounge furniture because we have ordered a lounge suite and it hasn’t arrived yet.
From years of experience I have finally learned that there are two periods in the day where I write best. Rather inconveniently I find that I write best from about five o’clock in the afternoon until around midnight. The other time I write best is from the time I wake up until about one or two o’clock. I am fortunate that the rest of the family is great with making dinner but of course I have to do my part too so sometimes I’m making dinner with writing ideas rolling around my head.
The afternoon is a writing wasteland for me. Too many times I have battled through writing in the afternoon only to find at four o’clock that I have only written one lousy paragraph in about three hours. I can research, write programs and manipulate data during this time, but I cannot write in the afternoon.
Working at home is a lonely affair and too quickly my body adheres to the chair. Exercise is very important for writers but easy to forget. This is why I am finding Singapore is a great place to write.
On writing days I work intensely in the morning then go out for lunch, enjoying the cheap, but excellent food the city has to offer. I walk through the garden of our complex, out the back gate and along the canal to the train station. I hear birds tweeting, the sound of the wind and I might hear the bell of a bicycle passing by me. I cross the little pedestrian bridge, walk through the grassy area and am at the train station before I have seen one car. I then wait a maximum of three minutes for a train to take me where I want to go. I only have to take one train stop in either direction to visit a shopping centre with good food. For a bit of variety I can take a bus from the train station and in a few minutes arrive in another shopping area.
As we have just moved here we have a lot of those tasks that you have to do when moving to a new home. I have often spent a good chunk of the afternoon doing these things which can be a bit frustrating when I have so much work I want to get done.
However, I am gradually getting more and more time to work on my book. It has taken time to sort out the study but now our technology works in the way we want it to work, I can find easily access stationery when needed and we only have small piles of things needing to be put away.
It is the unexpected things that are so delightful when moving to a new place. I had finished writing this and went out to take some photos and do some shopping. On the way home there were three people gathered together on the path next to the grassy patch near the train station. They were looking with excitement at something. There on the rail was a beautiful small kingfisher. I quietly dropped my shopping and got my mobile phone out but it flew to the top of a nearby lamp. The picture is not good but I just had to share it with you. The four of us shared the moment and then walked along talking about it.
This kind of unpredictable connection between people and the environment is not part of my Singapore Workflow, but it is an important part of the bigger picture – life itself.