Whose freedom is it?

It would be fair to say that reading the news and public commentary this week following leaks about the Religious Freedom Review has made me both sad and angry, so this blog is a bit of a rant.IMG_0159

I have more interest in watching weeds grow than I do in the institution of marriage, but when the equal marriage debate descended into an opportunity to express general bigotry toward LGBTI+ folk, I took notice. I watched with horror as the ‘no’ campaign honed in on young people, the most vulnerable segment of the queer population, and attacked them.

My horror transmogrified into perverse fascination when some segments of the faith community turned themselves into victims, claiming they would be discriminated against if queers were allowed to marry. I say ‘some segments’ intentionally here, as I have had the pleasure of coming to know many (heterosexual) religious people who voted yes and support the evolution of their faiths.

Why any self-respecting queer would want to be married by an establishment that rejects them aside, the territoriality of the institution of marriage by religions is bizarre. The concept of marriage was not invented by god or the churches. Wedding traditions date back to about the third century B.C. in China and at least 30,000 years in Australian DSC00301Aboriginal culture, well before they encountered Christianity.

I suspect a large number of people of faith are damn glad that marriage as a religious institution has evolved. Let’s face it in the Old Testament polygamy was sanctioned, becoming a wife meant becoming the property of your husband, and a woman who was raped could be forced to marry her attacker. Changes isn’t that bad.

I did attend Sunday school, but my interest in religion ended there. Each to their own. It never made sense to me to allow your life to be dictated to by an external deity and a text written around the 4th century. Somehow claiming ‘god says’ felt like abnegating responsibility for your own behavior. I strive to live my life through an ethical lens, which invests in me similar principles to many religions, but my lens is a secular one.

I was mortified when I read the media about the leaks from the Religious Freedoms Review. Religious groups already have exemptions from anti-discrimination laws that allow them to discriminate against queers – including refusing to hire gay teachers or enroll transgender children. The hype read as if the review recommended an increase inIMG_0709 sanctioned bullying and discrimination against LGBTI+ kids. This is deeply disturbing given the vulnerability of same-sex attracted (or questioning) youth who are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual young people. I feared that ‘religious freedom’ was being used as a smokescreen to justify extending discrimination and bigotry against minorities.

I went to the source this week and read some of the Religious Freedoms Review submissions available on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet website. It became apparent to me that allowing queers to marry remains a sore spot for those who were vehemently opposed to it. Most of the submissions that demanded additional protection of religious freedoms were actually bemoaning the fact that the ‘yes’ vote won in the postal survey. IMG_0305 (1)They grasp for an opportunity to be exempt from compliance with the new laws.

The Christian ‘problem’ with queers seems to stem primarily from Leviticus 18:22 that states “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But I can’t help noticing the selective way in which some choose to quote the bible. Leviticus also states we may possess slaves (25:44); people who work on the sabbath should be put to death (35:2); and that we should get the whole town together and stone to death anyone guilty of blasphemy (24:10-16). Why are faith groups not demanding all god’s laws be adhered to with the same vigor they apply to their objection to gays? And where have the ethics of religion gone in this debate? What happened to compassion, humility and treating others as you would like to be treated? Life and religion have to evolve.

It strikes me as an extraordinary example of moral hypocrisy to cry for more religious freedoms on the grounds of fear of discrimination, then demand that those very freedoms enshrine a right to discriminate against another group. Its particularly IMG_4025disturbing that the loudest voices should choose children as the target of their hostility.

Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that all institutions should act with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration.  Media reports suggest the Religious Freedom Review supports this convention.  Yet rejecting a child for who they are cannot be considered to be in their best interests, nor their classmates.  Such behavior would only teach the un-Christian traits of intolerance and hate.

In the shadow of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse it saddens me greatly that some of those institutions may have learnt very little. Abuse comes in many forms. All children deserve to be included, and treated with respect and dignity, including LGBTI+ kids.

Main Image: Rainbow Flag, San Francisco

Inset images in order: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague; John Frum Movement, Vanuatu; Blue Mosque, Istanbul; church statue, Vienna; Street Art, San Francisco

Back to basics: Food and bathrooms in fiction

If you’ve been following my blog you may have noticed my obsession with food. I grow it, cook it and love to eat good food. I’ve been thinking about the basics this week because I have noticed that I do notice when characters in fiction don’t appear to eat, wash or go to the toilet. Ever. And these very basic of human functions can portray so much in a story.

Eating is such a fundamental part of being human and necessary for survival. How and what we eat, and who we eat with, are an important part of life. Eating can be a ritual to bring people together in kinship (think Babette’s Feast or The Kids are Alright); it can expose the absence of significant others such as in Great Expectations; or used to enhance the disintegration of friendships like when the dinner burns in The Party by Sally Potter.

Who we eat with can define us as part of a social or cultural group, as it did in The IMG_0602Hundred Foot Journey and at Bilbo Baggins birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. What we eat and where we eat can represent class distinctions. Remember Jay Gatsby’s parties in The Great Gatsby or in Oliver Twist when Oliver tentatively says, “Please sir, I want some more.”

We can portray things about a character’s motivations, attitudes and personality through their relationship to food. We make judgements about people based on their table manners. Who could forget the mammoth Mr Creosote vomiting all over the restaurant from over eating in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, or the role of food as a vehicle to portray character transformation in The Poisonwood Bible?

Food often symbolizes sensuality in fiction. It’s a great instrument for romance, passion and desire such as in Like Water for Chocolate; Chocolat; The Lunch Box; and the masturbation with a peach scene in Call Me By Your Name.

IMG_0547Then there’s food to symbolize things that seem wrong, like the madcap chaos of the tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where all the rules of etiquette are broken but they teach Alice about the world around her. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the White Witch spawns magical evil when she tempts Edmond with Turkish delight and he becomes so intoxicated by it he turns on his siblings.

We can use food to illustrate how a character compensates for emotional, physical or social problems like the painfully thin, gothic, antisocial Lisbeth Slander who compulsively smokes, drinks coffee and eats Billys Pan Pizzas in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Bathroom scenes are less common than those with food, but can also serve as a vehicle for storytelling. The bathroom is contemplative, intimate and exposing. We drop our guard when we drop out pants and we become vulnerable.

Shower scenes can be character defining, meaningful, sensual, funny or frightening. In Carrie, the main character with eyes closed and neck exposed washes herself seductively then discovers with shock (because she hasn’t been told about it) what menstruation means.  Her cries for help to her friends are met with mockery and shouts of “Plug it up!” In Arthur, the main characters wealthy man-child persona is highlighted in a scene when he takes a bubble bath, cocktail in hand and wearing a top hat and asks the butler to keep him company. The butler perches on the edge of the bath and tells him like a parental figure that bathing is a lonely business.  American Beauty opens with Kevin Spacey masturbating in the shower to symbolize the woeful treadmill of his suburban life. And who could forget the iconic shower-murder scene in Psycho – my that scream!

We all read in the toilet (don’t we?) but how much toilet is there in fiction? Alfred IMG_2646Hitchcock was the first who dared to be risqué in 1960 when he shocked audiences by showing a toilet being flushed (Psycho again). Pulp Fiction makes good use of the lavatory for scene setting, usually as a juxtaposition to frame extreme situations like murder.

Humor on the porcelain throne is most common in kids’ books (Pirate Pete’s Potty) and with blokes (like in Dumb and Dumber and Crocodile Dundee) and the use of poop to make a comment about character can be memorable. We knew something wasn’t right with Kevin when we’re told his mother still had to change his nappies when he was six and that he used his shit as a weapon against her in We Must Talk about Kevin. It’s harder to find examples of women on the loo. One of the most well-known is when Nicole Kidman pees in the opening scene of Eyes Wide Shut as a mechanism to demonstrate to the audience the ease and longevity of her relationship with the character played by Tom Cruise.

We all eat, wash (at least some times), shit and piss, so it’s curious there isn’t more of it in fiction – I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that.

What are some of your most memorable scenes in fiction involving eating or bathrooms?

Do you incorporate eating or bathrooms in your writing?

Main image: After the party

Inset images in order: Turkish tea at smoko, Istanbul; Turkish delight, Istanbul;

Outdoor dunny, Australia

Quince tree flower up close

Mixing words, water and leaves

Kicking goals

This week has been a mixed bag. The implementation of my 1,000 word a day writing target is working pretty well as a motivator. I’ve been getting up at 6am and hitting the computer till the Scrivener bell goes off to tell me I’ve met my goal for the day – and what a lovely sound that is! Having a word count target (as long as it’s realistic) gives you permission to go and play when the bell rings.

Working with frustration

The structural edit is causing enough confusion at times to make me want to throw the towel in. That set off a different kind of bell – the one that told me to go back to basics. I made significant changes to the opening of my novel which has had a ripple effect throughout the story so I have had to revisit my outline to help get my story and characters clear in my head again. When I am happy with the revised outline I will use Scrivener to chop and change scenes IMG_1019around in much the same way I would pieces of paper or cards then fill out the gaps I create. This is one of the features of Scrivener I really like.

Giving myself permission to take a break

The front garden has been weeded and the vegetable patch is almost ready for the summer seedlings to be planted out. I have even spent some time just gazing at my favorite tree in bloom – the quince has the most beautiful, delicate pink and white flowers at this time of year.

It became evident early on that destructo dog liked water – any water – puddles, the river, the water bowl – all fair game for play. Soon after the puppy arrived, I had to fence off the pond to protect the water life when her first act was to leap onto the reeds in the pond and pee! The other day I wondered why the living room floor was covered in water then turned around and there she was sitting innocently on the sofa with a now empty water bucket IMG_1031in her mouth. I had a dog pool in the shed (the kelpie wasn’t interested in it) which I set up on the deck this week on a warm sunny day and expect I will get hours of entertainment from it.  Destructo dog thought it was Christmas.

Good food

The warm weather we’ve had makes me think of summer salads, so we made tabbouleh with the large quantity of flat leaf parsley about to bolt in the garden. We ate it with a delicious pomegranate dressing, baba ganoush and some lamb – yummo! Here are the recipes…

Tabbouleh

  • 1 cup Bourghal (course is better, but I used fine this time)
  • Large bunch of flat leaf parsley chopped (I had about 4-5 cups when it was chopped up)
  • Handful of mint leaves chopped
  • Coriander leaves (I don’t always include this, but had some left over so threw it in. Remove the leaves and keep whole)
  • 3 tomatoes chopped
  • 2 cucumbers chopped

Pour two cups of boiling water over the bourghal, cover and leave to sit and absorb the water. Pull off and roughly chop as much parsley has you can add a handful of chopped mint leaves and coriander if you have any. Mix the leaves in a bowl with the chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. When the bourghal is ready break up with a fork, drain off any excess water and mix through the salad.

Pomegranate dressing for tabbouleh (this is delicious)

  • 1/2 clove garlic crush with good quality salt
  • Lemon juice
  • Pomegranate molasse’s
  • Maple syrup to sweeten
  • Pinch of allspice
  • Olive oil

Chop the garlic then crush it using the back of a fork and some good quality sea salt. Mix some lemon juice and pomegranate molasses together to taste and add a bit of maple syrup to sweeten it. Mix in a pinch of allspice and double the mixture with olive oil. Shake it up and dress the salad.

Baba ganoush

  • 1 medium sized eggplant
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 tbs tahini
  • 3-4 tbs lemon juice
  • Salt

Burn the outside of the eggplant over the gas ring on the stove to give it that nice smoky flavor then pop it in a baking tray in the oven on about 200C (fan) till it collapses. When it’s cooled scrape out the flesh and pop it in a blender. Crush a clove of garlic with a bit of salt and add it, the tahini and lemon juice to the blender. Blend and adjust to taste if needed.

We cooked up some lamb cutlets on a skillet and served them with the tabbouleh and a generous spoon of baba ganoush. There is enough tabbouleh to last about three days so only dress what you are going to eat now and have it again for lunch and dinner the next day with some grilled chicken or snags.

How are your writing and cooking going?

Main image: Quince flower

Inset images: Destructo dog (Harper) checking out the new pool

Library Way street name sign, New York

Reading for writing

Do you read for your writing?

I’ve  invested quite a bit of time in the last year into reading books and listening to podcasts about writing to expand my thinking about technique and style and see what I could glean to improve my own skills.

I try to work on my novel every day even if there is only have a small window of time. Writing this blog itself is an experiment in developing my own voice, a way to track my progress and share random ideas about writing and other interests. As I made a promise to myself (and more publicly on this site) that I would post to this blog once a week it has become a great vehicle to make sure I think about writing (and write) every week, even if I don’t feel like it. It was the only writing I did when I was on holidays, but it was writing! I also hope the blog will contribute to firing my motivation to keep working until I complete my book.

There is selection of the reading about writing I have been doing on my Books on Writing page and links to the podcasts I listen to.  There is also a page dedicated to crime fiction related links on my crime page.  I update these resource pages when I find a new reference that inspires me.

What books on writing would you recommend?

I have noticed that how I read fiction changes the more I write and my own creative skills develop. Though not generally a fast reader, I do read as much fiction as possible and try to analyse it to help improve my own practice. When I do read at speed I know I have been gripped by a story and try to understand what it is that I love about it. These days books that do not hold my interest are discarded (often after skipping to the last chapter just to find out what happened).

Most of the books I read are in the genre in which I am writing (mystery) but I do try to read more widely as I think reviewing work outside of your genre also expands your skills, thinking and approach to how you write.

I am currently about 100 pages from the end of Belinda Bauer’s Snap which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and could barely tear myself away from it to write this blog post. Yesterday I caught the bus to the city just so I could sit for an hour each way and read it uninterrupted.

Snap is without a doubt one of the best novels I have read in a while from any genre and reading it has excited me.  I feel there is so much to learn between its pages about writing as well as being a ripping read. The characters all have their own unique, if at times unsavoury, but believable quirks and I cannot  help but be fascinated by what motivates each of them.  The sentence structure and use of words are beautiful and drive me forward as much as the plot, and the short chapters have me simultaneously hungry to read one but disappointed as it feels like the book will end too soon.

I am doing a major structural edit of my own novel at the moment which at times has my mind spinning, but reading Bauer’s book has injected a new enthusiasm to get stuck into my own work with gusto…as soon as I finish reading Snap.

What fiction you have read has inspired your writing?

 

Image: Library Way, New York

Large fake red and yellow sunflower in garden bed

The forest or the trees

She was overcome by a wild madness that drove her to tear at the ground and hack at the foliage that threatened to devour the universe. The movement transformed her hands into something resembling the walking dead. A ton of dirt lodged under her fingernails, rested like dandruff in her hair and left long black stains on her face and clothes.

Don’t you love spring? The weeds took advantage of my absence and made a concerted effort at a takeover. Little did they realize that I would return with a plan for them as well as a plan to get my writing mojo back. There are seedlings in the greenhouse showing great eagerness to move into the vegetable patch now that the earth is warming up so I have been spending afternoons evicting the weeds.

Like writing, gardening benefits from a plan of attack. I like to mentally carve up the garden into sections and tackle the weeds in a logical order. This approach means I can see my progress and draw a sense of satisfaction as I complete each section. I try to hold the big picture in mind, but focus on the small chunks. I approach writing in much the same way. The big picture is the overarching story and plot points I need to hit, and I chunk it down into chapters and scenes.

I like a bit of technology and use the app Scrivener. The nerd in me became very excited to discover the target feature of the app this week and I have set it up so I have a target word count for each writing day. As the Scrivener marketing ballyhoo says it helps you see the forest or the trees which brings me back to gardening.

The plan is to get on top of the weeds before they all go to seed. I do not throw out discarded weeds (or words) as they can be reused.  I compost the weeds and use the composted material to build up the soil in the following season. My greatest challenge is that when destructo dog sees me weeding she wants to help but is not discerning about what she digs up.  Can you teach a dog to identify plants?

As much as possible I take inspiration for cooking from what is growing in the garden. I still have mint and an abundance of citrus and there are chilies from last season in the pantry. There’s also a plethora of cheap fennel about as it is in season. I have mentioned my crush on the chef Yotam Ottolenghi before and I often go to his recipes.  This week I made his saffron chicken and herb salad one night which is delicious and I have included the recipe below.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s saffron chicken and herb salad (serves 6)

Ingredients:

  • 1 orange
  • 50g honey
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 
about 300ml water
  • 1kg skinless chicken breast
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
  • 15g picked coriander leaves
  • 15g picked basil leaves, torn
  • 15 picked mint leaves, torn
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
1 red chili, thinly sliced
  • 
1 garlic clove, crushed
  • salt and black pepper

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan forced).

Trim and discard 1cm off the top and tail of the orange and cut it into 12 wedges. Keep the skin on but remove any pips.

Place the wedges in a small saucepan with the honey, saffron, vinegar and just enough water to cover the orange wedges. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about an hour. Add water during the cooking if the liquid gets very low.

At the end you should have the soft orange and about 3 tablespoons of thick syrup left. Use a food processor to blitz the orange and syrup into a smooth, runny paste. Add a little water if needed.

Mix the chicken breast with half the olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper, and place on a very hot, ridged griddle pan. Sear for about 2 minutes on each side to get clear char marks all over. Transfer to a roasting tin and place in the oven for 15–20 minutes, or until just cooked.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, but still warm, tear it with your hands or two forks into rough and quite large pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl, pour over half the orange paste and stir well. Add the remaining ingredients to the salad, including the rest of the olive oil, and toss gently. Add salt and pepper to taste and more olive oil and lemon juice if needed.

 

Image: Spring in the main street

 

 

 

Pinnochio floating face down in water at the Guggeheim New York

Post-holiday writing re-boot

I gave myself a leave-pass on holidays and did very little work on my novel.  Time I would spend writing was taken up with lie-ins, reading, surfing, eating, long walks on the beach and lazing about with friends. Now I am back at home and the break from reality is over.  Getting back into writing after time off does require some intentional effort.  After all your imagination was on holidays as well if you weren’t exercising it.

What happens when you try to get back to writing again after time away from it?  Do you stare awkwardly at the computer unable to access your imagination through the fog in your head? When you do manage to put down words are they crap? Do your characters seem distant? Do you wonder what happened to your flow?  Is there is a temptation to give up?

I am almost half way through the twelve months I took off work to focus on writing and all those unfinished projects in the garden. Despite being a disciplined and organized person, I do not feel that I have accomplished as much as I expected to when I started my break.  The main reason is that (as usual) my plans were too ambitious for my timeframes when life and day-to-day responsibilities are factored in. At times there is a temptation to focus on what is not done and abandon all plans. Why not just kick back and enjoy the rest of the time off? It’s a sophisticated form of procrastination. Nothing is stopping me getting started again except myself. So, this week has been dedicated to some writer wrangling. At its core is re-creating a routine, discipline and patience. Here are my five tips to get your writing mojo back after a break.

Set aside some uninterrupted time to write on as many days as possible each week IMG_0992(even 15 minutes): During your writing time remove distractions like social media. Do not allow yourself to indulge in your favorite procrastination activities like attending to the washing or the weeds that need to be pulled in the garden – whatever it is that draws you away from your computer (or pen).  I am at my best in the morning so I set the alarm for 6am, get up, make coffee and stand at my computer until at least 8am. When I was doing my day job my uninterrupted time was the hour on the bus on the way to work. I would put ear buds in to discourage others from interacting with me and write on my iPad. During that time read over some completed material, reacquaint yourself with your characters and give yourself permission to write crap.  Expect it to take some time for your writing to return to your expectations.

Schedule in space for procrastination and life commitments: There are things that you have to do and things other than writing that you want to do.  Attend to them when you are not at your best for writing.  For me this is toward the end of the day. I try to book appointments, check social media, read or weed in the afternoon.

IMG_0980(1)Exercise: In my view this is one of the most effective activities to jolt you back into a routine.  Aerobic exercise facilitates information processing, thinking and memory functions, stimulates the growth of new connections and is protective against getting down on yourself or anxious if you are finding getting back into a routine difficult. If you exercise out in nature there is the added benefit of the environment providing stimulation for your imagination and you can use your movement time to think about writing.  You’d be surprised how often activity will provide inspiration and boost your flow.  Destructo dog is now six months old so I’ve started to teach her to come running with me which is great fun for both of us and afterward she makes an excellent writing companion.

IMG_0978Immerse yourself in some writing related activities: Go to a literary event or a writer’s group, and read. In the evenings I am reading The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid, a fiction work in the genre I am writing my own novel in, and How Fiction Works by James Wood a book about the main elements of fiction. I managed to catch a couple of events at the tail end of the Melbourne Writers Festival and have planned with a fellow writer friend to organize our own writing retreat for a week in November.

Be patient: It takes a bit of time to get back into the flow after a break.  Expect that, and don’t give yourself a hard time about it.  When you get distracted, keep returning to your routine, until it becomes your routine.  Just like it was before you took a break.

 

Main image: The Guggenheim Museum, New York

Inset images in order: Writing Supervisors; Destructo dog after a run; A Toast: Judith Lucy’s Dream Dinner Party, Melbourne Writers Festival.

beach at sunset at Byron Bay NSW

On the road again

Chaucer is credited with the original use of the idiom “All good things must come to an end.” A version of the saying appeared in his poem Troilus and Criseyde written in Middle English in the 1300s. It is a reminder that everything is temporary. And so it was after two weeks at an idyllic spot near Byron Bay we packed up the car and headed south toward home.

For our return journey we planned to hug the coast for a couple of days via Port ORG_DSC06094Macquarie and Newcastle then head inland and stop in the Southern Highlands and Beechworth. We began our return journey and I began a cold that left me feeling like I was wading through a quagmire of sludge. Perhaps it was a response to returning to the chilly southern state.

The drive from Byron Bay to Port Macquarie and Newcastle revealed the scale and magnificence of the Australian subtropical coastline. I love reading novels set near where I am when in holidays. We listened to My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin during the drive. The book was published in 1901 and tracks the life of a young headstrong Sybylla Melvyn in rural NSW in the 1890’s.  The novel vividly evokes the Australian landscape and is an extraordinary novel to have been written by a nineteen-year-old.

I must confess I wanted to slap the main character Sybylla. She is mercurial and contrary.  A girl who desires to pursue a big life, she’s ahead of her time and wants to have it all. She refuses to marry a man she loves as she believes it will prevent her having the professional life of a writer that she desires and curtail her independence, IMG_0957despite his protestations he will support her ambitions. In the end her own decisions leave her with very little of what she wanted. Personally, I think she should have stopped being so down on herself, married Harold and kept him to his word to support her to be a writer.

The subtropics gave way to more temperate forests and the temperature dropped we heard the news that Peter Corris had died, another sad loss to Australian crime fiction. We were supposed to stay at a place in the Southern Highlands on our third night.  The promise was a late 19th century sandstone cottage in beautiful established gardens complete with alfresco courtyard and mountain views.

I hadn’t heard from the accommodation host that day, which is unusual. Hosts commonly send a pre-check in message about access and house rules.  When we arrived, it seemed something wasn’t quite right.   There was a car parked half on, half off the driveway near the house as if it had been abandoned in a hurry.  There was no answer when we knocked at the front door so we walked around the place trying to work out where the accommodation was.  When we looked through the windows we saw half-finished renovations and laundry strewn across the furniture and the floor.  We started to get a creepy feeling about the whole deal and when I couldn’t get hold of our host we decided to stay on the road. IMG_0958

Fortunately the host at our next destination was happy for us to swap our nights around.  We drove 750km from Newcastle to Beechworth that day. As soon as we crossed from NSW to Victoria the temperature dropped and it started to rain. We stayed at Fanny Philips Cottage in the center of Beechworth.  Built in the 1860’s it had been modernized and felt like a welcoming, warm cocoon. We were almost tempted to stay holed up there for another day.

As we left Beechworth we listened to Gun Control by Peter Corris and immersed ourselves in the Sydney underworld of motorcycle gangs, corrupt police and illicit guns.IMG_0975For some reason I find these type of issues much more engaging and exciting than teenage angst and romance.

Destructo dog was  pleased to see us when we got home and has grown so much the coat that was just a little small when we left now looked like a waist coat.  She got a bit excited at one point and jumped up on me – paws on my shoulders and nose at face height. I hope she stops growing soon.  The garden needs some weeding, but the first signs of spring are here with the almond and nectarine blossoms out. That feeling of good things coming to an end had morphed into something else.  A delight at being home in our own comfy place.

 

Main image: Byron Bay sunset

Inset images in order: Newcastle foreshore; NSW highlands; TS Elliot quote;

Harper (aka destructo dog)

A surfer on a wave at sunset, Byron Bay, NSW

Beta readers

While our political leaders play out the story of Chicken Little in Canberra, I am fortunate enough toIMG_0892 be holed up with friends in a beautiful spot near Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales.  Our days are made up of surfing, eating, whale and dolphin watching, reading and writing. Oh, and there’s the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that occur at this most easterly point of Australia.

I have read three books this week, but done only a little writing. I have noticed how reading helps improve writing skills. Reading crime writers like Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler and Jane Harper among others is motivating but I have mixed feelings about reading fiction when I am also trying to write myself. A good book can become a vehicle for procrastination and a distraction from putting your own pen to page. There is also the risk that when you sit down to write you drift from your own voice and start to sound like the author of the book you are reading.

I have noticed that as I develop my fiction writing skills the way I read also changes. Grammatical errors and typos leap off the page when I come across them in published works and I am much more attuned to whether I like an author’s voice and style, why and what it is that keeps me turning the pages (or not).

UMWZE7464Sadly, the enhanced attention to detail doesn’t prevent me from missing errors when proof reading my own work. A couple of friends staying with us asked if they could read some of my book. I had edited and edited, and edited the first three chapters, which I entered into the Richell Prize and The Next Chapter in July, so sent them those parts to read. Their feedback was positive and one of my friends did a great job picking up some grammatical errors I had missed.  It did make me realize just how invisible your own writing becomes when you have been absorbed in it for months and months.

The exercise also got me thinking about Beta readers . Who should they be and what type of guidance should you provide to support them to undertake their task in a way that will help you make your story better.

It makes sense that your beta readers include people who have an interest in the genre you write in, or be someone that might buy the type of book you are writing. They must be prepared to provide uncensored constructive criticism and praise (and be people from whom you are prepared to take it!) and they must commit to complete the task in the time you want to get it done. IMG_0856

I started to compile a list of questions that I could provide to prompt beta readers when the time comes:

Story questions:

  1. Did the story create a clear image? A world that seems alive?
  2. Did the story seem to be propelled forward and hold your interest from the start? If not, why not?
  3. Did you get whose story it was at the beginning?
  4. Was there enough tension to hold your interest all the way through? Do you think the stakes should be raised? In which parts?
  5. Was the ending believable and satisfying?
  6. Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
  7. Which parts resonated with you and/or connected with you emotionally?
  8. Are there parts that should be condensed or deleted?
  9. Are there parts that should be elaborated on or enhanced?
  10. Did you find any parts confusing? What confused you?
  11. Highlight in green any scenes/paragraphs/lines you really liked.
  12. Highlight in blue any scenes you found particularly amusing.
  13. Highlight in red any parts did you disliked. What didn’t you like?

Setting questions:

  1. Was it clear where and when it takes place? If not, why?
  2. Were the setting descriptions vivid and real to you? Did the setting interest you?
  3. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition at any point? Not enough?

Character questions:

  1. Did you relate to the main character? Did you connect to how they felt about what was happening to them?
  2. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could or should be made more interesting or more likeable?
  3. Did you experience any confusion about who’s who in the characters? Why?
  4. Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Would you get rid of any of them?
  5. Which characters did you really connect to?
  6. Do any characters need more development?
  7. Did the dialogue seem natural? Did it keep you engaged? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded unnatural? Why?
  8. Did you think there was too much dialogue in parts? Where?

Style/Grammar:

  1. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
  2. Did you notice any over-use of words?
  3. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
  4. Was the point of view consistent?
  5. Is anything unclear? Clumsy? Any cliches? Does the writing flow?
  6. Did you notice any inconsistencies in places, time sequences, character information, or other details?

Are there any questions you would add to, or delete from this list?

Main image: Sunset @ Byron Bay, NSW

Inset in order: Chicken Little @ The Farm, Ewingsdale, NSW; Dolphins @ Byron Bay;  Lighthouse sunrise, Byron Bay. 

Centennial Hotel at sunset Gulgong, NSW

Road trip fugitives

This week’s blog is a diversion from my usual food garden blog as I am in Byron Bay, 1,600 kilometers away. As with all stories, some thought needs to go into where to start, which subplots, characters and details to include and which to leave out. This story will not focus on food, though food does make an appearance. It’s about a road trip that made us fugitives. Make a cuppa, it’s a long one.

There was a minor disaster in the week leading up to departure. The four-year-old car that would transport us and our surfboards to Byron Bay had developed a strange noise. It sounded like a sewing machine. On presentation at the dealership the mechanics informed my partner (PP) that we could not drive the vehicle to NSW as it needed a new engine. Yes, the car was still under warranty. No, they did not have a loan vehicle available.

Twenty-four hours of creative thinking about alternative transport options resulted in PP representing at the dealership with additional determination. After 90 minutes the DSC05699service manager, let’s call him Kevin, presented PP with the keys for a loan car and our trip plans returned to normal.

Sunday mid-morning we hit the road. It was a bit of a slow start as we stopped in St Andrews for a quick lunch at A Boy Named Sue who make the kind if pizza your taste buds remember. Bellies full, we headed over the mountains through Kinglake. The rest of the state has moved on but some residents of this community still appear to live in temporary accommodation after being burnt out in the 2009 bushfires that devastated the area. Native trees killed by the intensity of the fire stand sentinel above the new growth that struggles to reestablish in the denuded soils.

Fire was to be a recurring theme on our trip. Every day we passed through areas that were in various states of recovery, and one forest near Casino in NSW that was still smoldering. It elicited a sense of both fascination and fear.

Audiobooks are perfect for road trips and we had a Raymond Chandler binge on the way. Chandler wrote hardboiled crime like a poet and was a master of simile. The first one we listened to was The Long Goodbye. Here are a couple of my favorite lines:

“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”
“The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.”

The Linesman’s Cottage is located just behind the Post Office and in front of the jail in historic Chiltern. A walk around town revealed some lovely old buildings including Lake View House which was home to Ethel Florence Richardson (pen name Henry Handel Richardson) and appeared in her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. Our arrival in town was a bit late so there was not a lot of action. A perfect excuse to curl up in the warm and read a book.

My choice of novel to read between the car audio tapes was Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley. It’s a slow reveal thriller with echoes of Dexter and one of those stories that drags me into it in a creepy way at a pace that keeps me going back for more.

DSC05660On Tuesday morning we noticed a couple of missed calls but no messages from Kevin. We thought nothing of it and packed up the car to head to Cowra, our second stop over.

I’d worried about the lack of winter rain at home, but crossing the border into NSW I found myself immersed in a real drought. Except for some green strips along the coast, the whole of state is dry. It is the kind of dry where the grass sizzles if you spit on it.

A little off the Hume Highway on the Murrumbidgee River past Gundagai, home of the dog on the tucker box, there’s tiny little town called Jugiong. There’s not much at Jugiong but the town punches above its weight on the food stakes at the Long Track Pantry where we stopped for lunch and bought a great pre-made curry for dinner. Food is one of the big changes I’ve noticed in country towns over the last twenty years or so. Where once your best bet was parma and chips at the local pub, now entrepreneurial folk with a food obsession are opening up eateries in a scattering of out of the way places across the country. And they can make a good strong coffee as well. To find them you have to know where to look or travel with someone who can sniff them out.

Back on the road again and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep entertained us on the way to Cowra. I was particularly taken with these descriptions:

“The gentle eyed, horse faced maid…”
“She bent over me again. Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house.”DSC05631

Cowra hosted a prisoner of war camp during the second world war. In 1944 more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners staged a mass breakout. 231 Japanese POWs and four Australians died during the ensuing conflict. In the early 70’s the Japanese Government and Cowra agreed to develop a Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre. The Garden covers 12 acres set on the side of a hill and is a beautiful spot to visit for a stroll or to lie in the sun and read a book.

The country side got drier and drier the further north we went. Miles and miles of farmland parched by the drought. Sheep and cattle sifted through the dirt looking forDSC05618 food or gathered around hay bales delivered by farmers to keep them alive. There’s a sadness that lingers over country held captive by drought and I don’t understand how anyone can see this and not at least entertain the possibility that climate change is real.

Our next stop was Gulgong in the Central Tablelands. It was home to Henry Lawson for a while in the 1870’s while his father fossicked for gold. Gulgong is a movie set waiting for a script. Large parts of the town are heritage listed and retain a 19th century character. DSC05642It’s home to a Pioneer Museum that covers a couple of acres. Some rooms look like they were set up by hoarders but it has an extensive array of domestic tools, utensils and typewriters as well as mining equipment and agricultural machinery. It’s definitely worth putting aside a couple of hours to visit if you are ever in Gulgong.

We received an odd email from one of Kevin’s colleagues. She wanted to know if we could arrange to meet. They had sold the car we were driving and wanted to swap it over. Having spent ten years working in the public service, not much surprises me. I can’t bear to watch political sitcoms like Utopia and the Hollowmen. They seem too real. So, we emailed back and let them know our movements. We’d be in Byron Bay in a couple of days and could meet them there.

After Gulgong we drove north-west to Coonabarbaran, the astronomy capital of Australia, and had lunch in a tiny cafe called Tastebuds. Tastebuds lived up to its name and served us pumpkin pies, crisp fresh salads and a vegan berry cheese cake. Another of those hidden gems. We grabbed some frozen vegetarian lasagna and salads to have for dinner.

DSC05673Not a day passed without moving through country touched by fire. Piligia National Park was in that fragile stage after fire when new soft green growth sprouts in clumps from eucalypts and the black exposed earth reveals rocks scattered through it like bones through a graveyard. There was also a lot of wildlife touched by man on the roads, usually in four-wheel drives.

From Narrabri we headed east toward Glen Innes through Mount Kaputar National Park, DSC05672much of which had been burnt recently. We stopped and walked into Sawn Rocks a forty-meter-high rock wall of pentagonal basalt pipes formed 21 million years ago when basalt lava flow from the Nandewar Volcano cooled.

Both the road kill and the active wildlife intensified along this quiet country road as the skies turned pink and illuminated the surrounding bush in a surreal glow. It was dark by the time we got to Glen Innes and discovered that somewhere on that lonely country road we had become fugitives.

Another one of Kevin’s colleagues had sent an email saying he’d heard we were about to DSC05734leave Melbourne to go to Byron Bay and he needed to inform us we could not take the car interstate. Too late. We checked the paper work the dealership gave PP when she signed out the car and there was nothing in it about this. We assumed there was some confusion or failed communication at the dealerships office.

We stayed in Susan’s Airbnb apartment above her toyshop that looks out across the main street at The Book Market building and the Town Hall. It was one of the only country DSC05733towns I had noticed flying the aboriginal flag in recognition of local aboriginal people, the Ngoorabul. Susan had lived in Glen Innes most of her life and it was obvious she loved her town. The apartment had a number of pictures from the 1900’s which we were able to compare to the present on our walk around the deserted streets to look at the preserved Federation buildings.

In the morning I dropped the keys back to Susan in the toy shop and had a chat. Her face revealed the pain of the community when she responded to a comment I made about how dry it was. “Dry’s terrible. Whole of the state declared in-drought, it’s killing people. Literally. Some been in drought two years. Nothing they can do except try to hang on for rain. The only green bit is the strip along the coast.”

My heart and mind went out to all the local communities we had driven through like Glen Innes that were trying to hold on for rain as I got back in the car and headed for the green strip along the coast. Home to open hearts, free lovin’ hippies and surfers.

We drove through Peter Allen’s home town of Tenterfield and towards the smoke DSC05738billowing into the sky from surrounding bushfires. We responded to Kevin’s colleague letting him know our plans, explaining our understanding of the terms of using the car and that we had complied with them. We sent a picture of the document the dealership had given PP about the terms and condition when she signed. As we drove we listened to Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Here’s a couple of quotes that made me smile:

“I’m a little disappointed. I rather expected someone with dirty fingernails…I’ve never met a private detective. A shifty business, one gathers. Keyhole peeping, raking up scandal, that sort of thing.”

“From 30 feet away, she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Byron Bay central is a beachside town on steroids these days but if you drive a little way toward the Cape Byron Lighthouse the mania melts away. NSW Parks has four houses dotted along the foreshore near The Pass. We are staying at Thomson Cottage a little oasis nestled in the Cape Byron State Conservation Area a few meters from the beach with views over The Pass.  The surf at the pass is made up of consistent easy rolling waves that you can catch a long ride on. It’s loads of fun.IMG_0779

The holiday idyll received a bit of a shock when Kevin’s colleague emailed back with a different document that stated that we could not drive dealership cars outside of metropolitan Melbourne and they could demand its immediate return at any time. Yet they loaned us the car without advising PP of any of this despite the holiday being the very reason we asked for it. Interestingly we also live outside of metropolitan Melbourne. I was suddenly deep in my own Utopian drama.

We sent Kevin an appropriately bureaucratic email in response, setting out in detail that the documents he’d sent had never been shown, or provided to PP, we would not have taken the car had we known this as it was the only reason we needed it. There was a hint without saying it that their conduct was unconscionable. Fortunately for us Kevin backed off after this interaction and said to get the car back as soon as we return to Melbourne.

Time for a surf.

Main image: Gulgong at sunset

Inset images in order: Recovery after fire; Drums in drought; Japanese Garden, Cowra; Black sheep; Henry Lawson, Gulgong; Swan rocks, Mount Kaputar National Park; Glen Innes, 1900; Glen Innes Town Hall, 2018; Unsee this; The Pass, Byron Bay.

More photos can be seen at my Instagram account.

picture of a basket of eggs with faces drawn on them

Characters and journeys

Between my attempts to get some writing done I have worked my way through the obligatory list of tasks that required completion this week before we pack up and head off on a road trip. Like changing the washer on that tap that’s been dripping for months. We will travel to Byron Bay for a few weeks to surf and enjoy some warmer weather. A journey within a journey. My laptop will accompany me so I can continue to work on my novel with some inspiration from the Australian landscape and the characters I meet along the way.

When I started writing I spent a bit of time developing the personalities of the characters for my novel. I wrote back stories for the main players that explained how they came to embody who they are at the start of the book. Most of this material will never be included but was necessary for me to understand them.

All of the characters are completely fictitious, except one. A colleague from my workplace inspired my protagonists sidekick. Before I started my long service leave I decided I’d better tell James and check how he felt about it. He was flattered, but a little cautious. What kind of person had I made him? I promised I would give him some material to read in due course and if he wasn’t happy about the idea I would make changes to the character to create more distance.

I emailed the first three chapters to James this week and waited to hear what he thought, holding my breath figuratively speaking. To my relief he said he loved the story and was happy with the persona he’d inspired (particularly the six-pack I gave him). James is my favourite person in the novel and he’s a great foil for my protagonist, Jude Lawson. He and his relationship with Jude are what injects humor into the story and I enjoy writing the banter they have.

The process of developing the personalities of all the characters in the novel included deciding on names, age, occupation and character traits. I wrote personal story lines to identify what drives each person and what their hidden agendas are. I wrote a back story to find the ghost of each character. I wrote about what has made them the person they are at the start of the story and how they know the other players. I explored what each character wants that they won’t admit to themselves as well as what they want in concrete terms and why it is important to them. I wrote about the conflict that exists to works against them reaching their goal. I tried to find any epiphanies they might have as events unfold and I told the story in summary from each main characters own point of view. It resulted in thousands of words that will never appear in the book but were necessary to find depth in the people. The process of getting to know them is similar to getting to know a real person and they continue to reveal more of themselves to me as I write.

Packing the car will be tricky as I have to make room for all our stuff and my imaginary friends. There’s nothing like travelling to test friendships. I hope they all travel light and and don’t argue about directions or ask ‘are we there yet’ too often.

Image: unformed characters…