A sucker for research. Or how to find gold when looking for tin…

Yes, I know, research-addicted authors run the risk of getting so caught up in the search they forget to write the story! That fact is as obvious as a cruise-boat – you know the ad … ‘Cruise-boat? What cruise-boat?’

I have a way to get rid of ‘research-guilt’ – tell myself this diversion is essential to being immersed in the story. Plus, it’s fun honing skills of detection, lateral thinking and the ability to sniff out a mystery.

Oh, boy, the things you learn along the way! Take, for example, my research to write a fantasy novel for 10-12 year olds.

The main character is an Australian tintookie. If you were a kid in the sixties and seventies you might’ve seen a touring puppet show called The Tintookies. My tintookie protagonist isn’t one of those large, talking native-animal marionettes created by Australian puppeteer, Peter Scriven over fifty years ago. She’s another creation altogether.

A bit of back-story about ‘my’ tintookies: young Decibelle is descended from a clan of Guardians, small, human-like winged creatures who protected the wildforests of Britain. When they were forced to leave they hitched a ride on The Charlotte, a ship in the First Fleet in 1788. (Bet you didn’t know that bit of Australian history). When this clan slipped ashore unseen by humans onto the shores of Botany Bay they were met by the indigenous tintookies. The clan learned from the tintookies, exchanged knowledge and respect until they earned the name tintookies and shared the role of caring for the great South Land and its native plants and animals.

By the way, tintookie means ‘little people who live in the sandhills’. Scriven had found the word in a dictionary, probably A.W. Reed’s Aboriginal Words of Australia although not even researchers who study his work know where Reed got it from.

Another delightful part of research is when you connect with interesting, creative people – like David Tredinnick, author, researcher and Melbourne actor working in theatre, film, radio and television. You might know David as the character, Simon in Ch 10’s The Secret Life of Us.

David has another passion – the life of Peter Scriven, Australia’s most-respected master puppeteer. He also collects Scriven memorabilia which he hopes to use one day in a thesis or a book.

He was great to talk to on the phone – very helpful. And while it was another dead-end in researching the origins of tintookies, David encouraged my attempts to bring the word to life again.

Next step was to find the source at the source … The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. Again, when people find out you write for children, they go out of their way to help – in this case, Kazuko Obata, project research officer.

Kazuko is a linguist from Japan. She studies indigenous languages, has lived on a remote W.A. Aboriginal community and is the organiser of the Australian Languages Workshop.

She thought the word tintookie might be in an out-of-print book from the 1930s, A.M. Duncan-Kemp‘s Our Sandhill Country. The last remaining copy was in their archive library in Canberra. (And no, it can’t be borrowed, but I could read it there).

Not able to justify a trip to Canberra to check out some obscure book meant I was back on the internet – searching Amazon’s Out-of-Prints.

Miraculously, there it was in a second-hand bookshop in a tiny, mid-west American town. Our Sandhill Country, published by Halstead Printing Sydney in 1933. How did it get there? I stopped myself going off on that tantalising tangent, I had work to do. But nowhere in that thick book with its yellowing pages, striking black-and-white photographs of life on an outback cattle station, was the word ‘tintookie’.

What I did discover was the forgotten story of an amazing Australian, Alice Duncan-Kemp (1901-1988).

As a child she lived on a property in Queensland’s Channel country. It was largely staffed by local indigenous people. Her father, William Duncan was an unusual man for his times. His empathy towards this tribe who were usurped from the land was unheard of in the 1900s. He respected their custodianship of the sandhill country and ordered all whites to heed tribal orders to stay away from certain sacred areas.

He died when Alice was young and her mother took responsibility of running the property. Alice spent almost thirty years in the company of indigenous staff who immersed her in Aboriginal society and culture.

While her actual writing shows its age in the 21st century, she was an astute observer of tribal life, station life, and best of all, the natural environment of the Channel Country with its amazing seasons, plants and animals. She also learned the tribal language.

Duncan-Kemp wrote four more books. In the back of a copy of Where Strange Gods Call (1968) was an index of Aboriginal words and her interpretation – Tintookie: gnomes who run about the sandhills and flats at night.

The Karuwali were the tribal group who used the word a long time ago. According to pastoralists and government records, this group had ‘died out’. But research via the internet shows this was a tad premature. There are descendants who are alive today – not in their sand hill country, but living in Winton, north-western Queensland.

I know about following correct cultural procedures. In this case, not attempting to ‘tell an indigenous story’ – i.e. appropriating cultural knowledge. That’s why my character isn’t indigenous; she still has her heritage and her magic from the misty, Celtic northern hemisphere. She’s the new face for a fantasy character who suits this country down to the earth.

Researching the story has taken me on a journey of discovery – into Australian history, across environmental studies and eco-systems, into mythology and magic. And all that side-tracking didn’t stop me writing it.

I have another challenge now. Looks like my tintookie’s story isn’t finished yet – I’ll have to write it in two parts, not one.

You know what this means ... yes, more research!

15 thoughts on “A sucker for research. Or how to find gold when looking for tin…

  1. So true, Mark. And it’s funny where things lead. The descendants of the original traditional people who lived in the sandhill country (who according to other historical sources ‘died out’) are living in Winton, north-western Queensland. I was up in Winton several years ago and didn’t realise – I’ll have to go back there now and see if I can talk to them. I’m still writing my story about the tintookies, now it’s called Singing the Wires, and a US literary agent is interested, so here’s hoping. Harder to get interest from an agent in my own country!
    Thanks for writing! 🙂
    best wishes


  2. Hello Sheryl,

    It’s funny how “way leads on to way”. I was trying to find out about Duncan-Kemp and doing various internet searches. Your blog turned up and I read with interest about your search for “Sandhill Country”.

    My wife and I were in Canberra last week and while foraging in Beyond Q Bookshop, she came upon the very copy you were not allowed to borrow – the one from The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.

    It is indeed a scarce book and cost us $65, despite its weathered and ex-library state. Still, my wife is enjoying reading it. Small world.



  3. There’s certain allure to it, Seachanges. Btw, I love that photo on your blog of where you work – so cosy. (Shall add my writing space to my blog too.)


  4. I love doing research, it’s half the fun, finding out where and how your characters live. Mind you, I love research full stop, even if not used for writing anything… Yes, you do get distracted 🙂


  5. Hi Sheryl – I loved the idea of Decibelle the moment you told me about her. Just wanted to remind you of this so that when the book is published and goes gangbusters I will appear clever and perceptive!


  6. The best thing about writing about writing – in this format – is not only the ‘sharing’ factor, but also the historical signficance that it may one day be. (You know, like when you’re rooly rooly famous!) It’s a great thing you are sharing with us. xxx


  7. Yes, I could be called ‘quite the little investigator’, or ‘a picker of history’s scabs’, ‘a looker under rocks’, and ‘a prospector of facts and fool’s gold’. It’s the lure of the chase.
    Kath, I could swap you for some help with the ‘getting in and doing that first draft’ bit that I find so hard.


  8. Wow Sheryl,

    What a fascinating journey you’ve been on doing your research. I bet the story/stories you have written/are writing about Decibelle will be just as engrossing.:-)


  9. Wow, Sheryl, I knew you loved research but had no idea the lengths you went to get it done! You are quite the little investigator, aren’t you? I can imagine that’s probably what’s bogging you down with the Mountain also – so much history – you must be loving it.

    I think once again I find myself an oddity amongst writers. I’m not so excited by research. I’d rather get in and do the writing, and often have to slow myself down and make myself do more research first! I’ll have to learn a thing or two from you…


  10. Meryl, the Tintookie marionettes’ history is a fascinating part of Australian history – which is why David Treddinick is so intrigued with them. Most of the puppets were destroyed in a warehouse fire where Peter Scriven had them stored – only two or three remain (in very safe care now, of course).
    I hope my story, Decibelle will bring alive the quintessential Australian word, tintookie.


  11. Wow.. Sheryl. I know I’m going to love your book. Keep us updated.
    Showing my age… I remember seeing that stage show in my early teens, went it went around country WA. I was so spellbound by the Tintookie puppets, I can still remember the tingles I got and the profound feelings it brought up in me. I don’t remember the story, just the feelings and the fact that I loved it. I’ve often wondered about them since and wondered if that show is still on.


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