Dames of Crime: Ursula Torday

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Dames of Crime blog, so I thought it was time I shone a light on another great woman of mystery – Ursula Torday.

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of writer of mysteries, gothic and historical romance fiction Ursula Torday (1912-1997) because she only wrote three novels under that name. She did write many under pseudonyms, including Paula Allardyce (29 novels), Charity Blackstock (27 novels), Lee Blackstock (2 novels) and Charlotte Keppel (6 novels).

The only child born to a Scottish mother, and a father who was a Hungarian anthropologist, Torday had polio as a child which afflicted her gait throughout her life. She was educated in London at Oxford University and published her first three romance novels in the 1930s under her true name then stopped writing aged 26. She did not publish again until 1954. Over the next three years she published six books and continued to be prolific until the ’80s.

Torday’s dual interests of romance and mysteries meant that emotions and passion were important in her novels and often given precedence over death and motive in her mysteries. Sardonic humour, passion, hate, fear and loathing reverberate through her loathsome mystery characters to create tension and brooding romance.

Torday was said to be her own woman – cultured, sophisticated, opinionated, with wide interests and a zest for life. During World War II she worked as a probation officer for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau then ran a refugee scheme for Jewish children following the war. Her war time work inspired two novels written under the pseudonym Charity Blackstock (The Briar Patch, 1960 and The Children, 1966). Later she worked as a typist at the National Central Library in London which inspired body in the library mystery Dewey Death written under the same name. Dewey Death was set in the Inter-Libraries Despatch Association and includes themes of adultery, drug trafficking, romance and murder. Torday also worked for Naim Attallah’s publishing house (Quartet Books, The Women’s Press) for a period and sat at a desk opposite Quentin Crisp exchanging tips on the latest nail varnishes.

The Woman in the Woods, a mystery-suspense written as Charity Blackstock, in which two schoolboys stumble across a skeleton in the woods and soon the whole village is caught up in the death was nominated to win the 1959 Edgar Award for best novel.

Mystery novels

  • After the Lady (1954) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Doctor’s Daughter (1955) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • A Game of Hazard (1955) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Adam and Evelina (1956) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Man of Wrath (1956) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Lady and the Pirate (1957) aka Vixen’s Revenge (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Southarn Folly (1957) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Beloved Enemy (1958) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • My Dear Miss Emma (1958) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Death My Lover (1959) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • A Marriage Has Been Arranged (1959) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Johnny Danger (1960) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Gentle Highwayman (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Adam’s Rib (1963) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Respectable Miss Tarkington-Smith (1964) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Dewey Death (1956) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Miss Fenny (1957) aka The Woman in the Woods (as Charity Blackstock) 
  • All Men Are Murderers (1958)  aka The Shadow of Murder (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1958) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Bitter Conquest (1959) (as by Charity Blackstock)
  • The Briar Patch (1960) aka Young Lucifer (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Exorcism (1961) aka A House Possessed (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Gallant (1962) (as by Charity Blackstock)
  • Mr. Christopoulos (1963) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Factor’s Wife (1964)  aka The English Wife (as Charity Blackstock)
  • When the Sun Goes Down (1965)  aka Monkey On a Chain (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Children (1966) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Knock at Midnight (1966) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Party in Dolly Creek (1967)  aka The Widow (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Wednesday’s Children (1967) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Melon in the Cornfield (1969)   aka The Lemmings (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Encounter (1971) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • I Met Murder on the Way (1977) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Shadow of Murder (1964) (as Charity Blackstock/Lee Blackstock)
  • Madam, You Must Die (1974) aka Loving Sands, Deadly Sands (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • When I Say Goodbye, I’m Clary Brown (1976) aka My Name Is Clary Brown (as Charlotte Keppel)

Other novels – gothic, historical, romance

  • The Ballad-Maker of Paris (1935) (as Ursula Torday)
  • No Peace for the Wicked (1937) (as Ursula Torday)
  • The Mirror of the Sun (1938) (as Ursula Torday)
  • The Rogue’s Lady (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Witches’ Sabbath (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Paradise Row (1964) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Octavia (1965) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Emily (1966) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Moonlighters (1966) aka Gentleman Rouge (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Six Passengers for the Sweet Bird (1967) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Waiting At the Church (1968) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Ghost of Archie Gilroy (1970) aka Shadowed Love (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Miss Jonas’s Boy (1972) aka Eilza as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Gentle Sex (1974) as Paula Allardyce)
  • Legacy of Pride (1975) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Carradine Affair (1976) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Miss Philadelphia Smith (1977) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Daughter (1970) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Jungle (1972) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Haunting Me (1978) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Miss Charley (1979) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • With Fondest Thoughts (1980) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Lonely Strangers (1972) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • People in Glass Houses (1975) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Ghost Town (1976) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Dream Towers (1981) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Woman in the Woods (1959) (as Charity Blackstock/Lee Blackstock)
  • The Villains (1980) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • I Could Be Good to You (1980) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • The Ghosts Of Fontenoy (1981) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • The Flag Captain (1982) (as Charlotte Keppel)

Comedy Review: Big Funny – Max Paton

Max Paton’s show was unfortunately cancelled at the comedy festival. I was so glad he rescheduled Big Funny at The Motley Bauhaus – it‘s a hoot.

Max is a guy with a lot of energy and delivers fast paced absurd hilarity with a delightful innocence. There are no put downs or character assassination in this show. Instead you get a unique perspective on the world that is pure fun. There are plenty of jokes, character dress ups, creative use of audio, and absurd skits to set your inner child free.

From Jim from the gym, to a duck with a screwdriver penis, and a trip to Bunnings akin to a quest for the mighty sword, it’s a wild ride of tomfoolery that was delightfully refreshing. Get yourself to The Motley Bauhaus and support this young comedian. Show only runs till 9th July, so be quick.

The Motley Bauhaus is a cosy venue with comfy seats and good beer. After the show I recommend dropping into The Olive Jar just around the corner in Rathdowne Street for an authentic Italian meal followed by their singing chef. The combination of a good laugh with Max followed by a good feed will be a night to remember.

Diary of a Varuna writer residency

Sunday 12th June Day 1: Road Trip

Old mate and I went for a walk in the rain before I dropped her off with friends, packed up Pearl and turned her nose up the Hume toward Katoomba . I listened to the beautifully crafted Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri on my four hour drive to my overnight stop at Holbrook – best known for its resident Oberon-class submarine, a curious addition for a town 250km from the ocean. Apparently the towns namesake was a decorated wartime submarine captain.

Monday 13th June Day 2 : Varuna

Words: 29; walk: 3.34 km

I left sleepy Holbrook at 8am and drove north stopping only for petrol. Art Malik finished reading the Beekeeper of Aleppo just as I approached Katoomba.

After being shortlisted for a Varuna Fellowship in 2020, I was fortunate to be invited to a weeks residency. At the time I couldn’t go for obvious reasons (COVID lockdowns) and thought I’d lost the opportunity until I was contacted again earlier this year and offered a spot in June. I arrived as excited as a puppy at a picnic.

I unpacked my gear into the Bear Room overlooking the comings and goings of a shed labelled ‘office’ and a stand of what appeared to be either ghost or lemon scented gums. I wanted to shake off the hours of driving so headed out for a short walk in the direction of Cascade Falls. Very soon there were a lot of ‘oh wows’ going through my head as I turned corner after corner of spectacular scenery.

In the evening we gathered in the library room for introductions. Six writers – poets, and authors of young adult fiction, speculative fiction, gothic and crime fiction. It felt almost decadent to talk about little except writing over curries – something that rarely happens in non-writer company. The creative vibe was inspiring and I confess, my mind did keep slipping to how great a setting the house would be for a work of crime fiction…maybe one day.

It’s fair to say my creativity has been patchy of late. The novel I am working has been in progress for longer than I care to admit. I estimated I had about 20,000 words to finish the first draft and set myself a target to write 1,000 words in the morning, then permit myself a walk before returning to the desk to write more. I wanted to get cracking and make the most of this week.

Tuesday 14th June Day 3

Words: 2,408; walk: 4.78km

The book shelves in the Bear Room were conveniently lined with my genre – crime, suspense and thrillers…bwha…ha…haaa…and the outlook was excellent for ‘keeping an eye on things’…again great inspiration for a crime writer because we are nosy parkers. Though, I did select a tomb on Jung to prop up my laptop to symbolically inspire my subconscious.

The sun streamed through the window, deliciously warming despite the frost on the ground outside. I knocked out 1,200 words (in which I had to kill off one character) and then headed out for a walk. The Round Walking Track to Katoomba Falls takes you through lush rainforest, intermittently revealing spectacular views across the valley to the far off cliffs of the Katoomba escarpment, the Three Sisters and Wishes Leap. What a magical and inspiring location – both the house and the natural surrounds. I was definitely in my happy place.

After a couple of years of struggling to get time to write, it was so satisfying to see those words climb. We gathered by the fire in the evening and had another lovely meal and stimulating conversations. I felt quite blessed.

Wednesday 15th June Day 4

Words: 2,123; walk: 6.81km

Another perfect day dawned. The sun was shining and the air crisp. Words didn’t flow quite so smoothly this morning but I kept my bum planted till I hit 1,000 then headed out on my walk. I ambled 7km along the cliff walk to Echo Point Lookout and the Three Sisters then on towards Leura Falls to Carrington Park, cutting back through the town of Katoomba to Varuna. Walking alone through the forests was great inspiration as large parts of my novel are set in the forests of East Gippsland.

Thursday 16th June Day 5

Words: 970; walk 6.85 km

I was fidgety in the morning so set off on my walk a bit early and returned to pick up where I had left off the previous day to visit the Leura Falls. Then I crossed a creek (nearly fell in) and clambered up a little used goat track up a steep wooded hill to the east side of Katoomba and wandered back to Varuna through streets lined with tiny houses. It was not such a productive day with the external world intruding on my thoughts, but I still got a little done.

We writer residents started sharing readings in the evenings after dinner. So wonderful to hear what my comrades are working on in their rooms overlooking the garden.

Friday 17th June Day 6

Words: 1,852; walk 8.42km

In the morning I continued to feel distracted which interrupted my flow, flitting from one thought to another, unable to settle into writing. I was so close to finishing the first draft, but the last two chapters were eluding me even though I knew more or less what would happen. So I abandoned my computer and headed out. It was no meander. I went deep into the forest, and myself, to gaze up at the rock formations I had looked down upon yesterday.

As I descended the Furber steps to the sound of lyre birds in the undergrowth and the sight of plant life clinging to rock faces that would make mountain climbers squirm, I contemplated the ending to the story I was working on. On the path to Echo Point along the Federal Pass track I brushed past some of the biggest tree ferns I have ever seen and touched the giant Turpentine Tree (Syncarpia glomulifera).

It is hard not to weep at such grand beauty – the big and the small of it – when you know as a race we are hell bent on destroying it. Of course what goes down must come up and the fire in my thighs may have contributed to my tears. I wrote notes for the last page of the first draft of my second book on my phone when I stopped for a breather on the way back up the 1,000 metre ascent . When I reached to Varuna in my sweat soaked clothes I sat down and wrote almost 2,000 words in two hours!

Saturday 18th June Day 7

Words 972; walk 7.52 km

I typed THE END on my first draft at 11.27 am and headed out. My intension was an easy shortish walk as my calves were feeling the stair climbs from the previous day, but the beauty of the forest draws you in. I crossed town to Carrington Park and walked the Leura Cascades Fern Bower circuit via the Amphitheatre track, a 4.5km loop with a 1,000 metre drop in elevation and spectacular waterfalls and gorgeous scenic views of the Jamison Valley – which of course you have to climb out of again. I returned via the Prince Henry cliff walk and arrived back at Varuna 2.5 hours later, happily exhausted.

It is the last night for one of our group members, so we celebrated after dinner by sharing readings late into the night from the material we had been working on, admired authors and poets. We had all relaxed into one anothers company and started to open up. I felt privileged to have gotten to know this group of talented creatives a little.

Sunday 19th June Day 8

Scene inventory of chapters 1- 3; walk 6.42 km

I woke at dawn, made coffee and sat at my desk looking out over the winter garden with cool air filtering in the open window. There was frost on the ground but the sky was crystal blue. My calves and thighs were satisfyingly tired from all the walking, which is such an important part of my process. It was my last writing day and I started a scene inventory to begin analysing my draft and answering these questions:

  • are there any scenes missing?
  • any important scenes summarised rather than written in detail – think character development
  • left any plot elements out?
  • have I summarised any key moments which should be a scene?
  • have I put scenes in the wrong place?
  • Have I left some elements of scenes out?
  • Does the flow of the story work?
  • Are there any gaps?
  • Will readers follow the logic?

I stayed up high on my walk when I went out to give my legs a rest from stair climbing. I ambled along the back roads to Narrow Neck lookout and back via Cliff Drive and Prince Henry cliff walk. The five of us remaining at Varuna wandered into town and had a lovely meal at a pub in Katoomba.

Monday 20th June Day 9 – homeward bound

I awoke to a morning of mist and drizzle and realised how lucky I was to have a week of such fine weather in a mountain winter. I said my farewells and headed through the mountains and south back toward my way stop at Holbrook.

I discovered something new about Holbrook whilst I was at Varuna. A large submarine is not the towns only quirk. One of my companions was a speculative fiction writer and has been researching cryonics – the preserving of the human body and/or brain after death in liquid nitrogen for a future awakening when (if?) science works how to do it with memories and a sense of self intact. It turns out Australia’s first cryonics storage facility was recently built at Holbrook.

After arriving mid-afternoon I went for a walk along the main street and was struck by the unusual number of friendly older gentlemen getting around on mobility scooters. As with many country towns, Holbrook has a shrinking population and many empty shops on the main street, though her former glory can still be seen in the fading old buildings. The shops that remain have a distinctive 1950’s feel to them and there is a mustiness about the place. I did ask a couple of people about the cryonics centre and received pretty much the same response from all accompanied by a derisive smirk – that yes a cryonics facility had been built in the town but no one seemed to know where it was located.

What a wonderful week it has been with about 10,000 words written and 50km traversed through stunning landscapes. The writerly company and their words were exceptional, though what’s said a Varuna stays at Varuna. A heartfelt thanks to Varuna for the opportunity for a phenomenal, inspiring and nurturing week.

Tuesday 21st June – Arriving home a little changed

I left Holbrook early and drove straight through to Melbourne. The experience at Varuna has left me invigorated about my writing and determined to make an effort to carve out regular time for my creative writing life. I hope to get back there again sometime, but its nice to be home with my pal.

Photos: taken with iPhone SE (second generation)

Good weather for ducks and writing

I have long admired Cate Kennedy. I first met her when she went to Mexico as a volunteer with Australian Volunteers International in the 90s. I worked for the organisation and met all the volunteers both before they left and after they returned. Australian Volunteers were a unique breed – adventurous, generous and curious – driven to explore others, live as they lived, and share skills and knowledge.

Last weekend I experienced this generosity in Cate again when I attended a Writers Victoria workshop she facilitated called Avoiding Conflict Avoidance: Jump-Starting Stalled Stories.

A soggy Saturday was perfect weather for a writing workshop dedicated to investigating the avoidance and procrastination that can plague writers. I had an ‘ah ha’ moment quite early in the workshop when Cate pointed out that we procrastinate to avoid the feelings of a story and the creative process because both require conflict. Story telling revolves around a point of crisis, but as humans we tend not to like conflict and fear wading into the very material that makes the best stories.

We did a great personal writing exercise that was exposing and informative. Cate asked us to write one sentence about a secret or regret in our lives. The instructions for the exercise are below if you’d like to give it a go. Whenever we got stuck, we had to ask ourselves the question why? to facilitate continuation of the writing. The exercise drew me deeper and deeper into the topic and associated feelings and I will use it again in the future as it was a great way to tap into those deeply held emotions.

We explored the fears that stop us from doing the things we want most to do – to document our fascination with the carnival of human foley and make people uncomfortable, to feel emotions, to react and transform. Writing calls us to face our hidden preoccupations and expose ourselves by facing our inner demons and creating characters that have agency, face disruption, and doubt their own capacity.

Cate Kennedy is the author of two short story collections, a novel, three poetry collections and a memoir. She was an engaging and knowledgeable facilitator and I highly recommend any courses led by her if you get an opportunity.

Cool rocks, where geology and literature collide

The poet Sappho, known for her word play and hyperbole, is said to have written about Selene and her longing for Endymion in the early 6th century. Selene is the goddess of the moon. She fell in love with the mortal shepherd, Endymion, and drove her moon chariot across the heavens to visit her love whilst he slept.

On 14th November 2016 I was on a surfing holiday at the most eastern point of Australia, Byron Bay, and witnessed the biggest super moon in almost 70 years rise over the ocean whilst dolphins and whales swum below the cliffs. This spectacular super moon is called a perigee, the name for when the moon’s orbit is closest to the Earth giving it the illusion of being enormous. I sat on the clifftop and was inspired. The poem I wrote is called Perigee and was the result of landscape, mythology and awe colliding with my pen.

My poem and one of the photos I took at Byron were selected for publication by Cool Rock Repository for their Luna Expo. Cool Rock is an online storage facility dedicated to literary and geological junctions.

Image: Sunrise and moon, Warrandyte

Meet The Creator…poet soup

Being creative nourishes the soul and gives expression to kaleidoscopic thoughts and feelings. When imaginative motivation wanes, creatives must seek small inspirations that will bring us back to our craft.

One of my habits is to leave books of poetry scattered around the house to scoop up at random and dive into. Poetry is playful and exploratory, it can spark ideas, deepen our understanding of language, make us better writers and help us understand the world around us.

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Besteller, MTC Cronin

I first encountered MTC Cronin in 2003 when I came across her collection beautiful, unfinished. Her work is intelligent and thoughtful, and steeped in paradox and surrealism. I like the way she writes in fragments leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill in, or fodder to cogitate on. Her work explores and plays with the idiosyncrasies of language and breaks many of its rules. And Cronin is prolific, having produced more than 20 books, some of which are in translation – so there are plenty to choose from.

what if everything broke
in our world
and we just had to sit there
on the ground
until we were dead

excerpt from The questions I would ask & the statements I would make, My Lovers Back: 79 Love Poems, MTC Cronin

Dr Seuss and my father’s love of the limerick ignited an early childish attraction to verse and by age ten I believed I would be a poet. Recently, I stumbled across an old note book from my childhood containing my early poetic endeavours. My personal favourite is a piece titled The Man Who Brushed His Teeth With Paint.

As I grew up, encounters with poets and lovers of poetry stoked the flames of my enthusiasm. An adult who read one of my childish versus gave me a book called Poetry A Modern Guide to its Understanding and Enjoyment containing a message ‘to use when you are very much older’. I still have it. As a teenager I sent one of my poems to Nan Witcomb and to my surprise she responded to my letter with a note saying ‘I wish I had written it.’ Poets can be generous souls.

Sit awhile with time wasted
There’s solitude in every journey
Picking up what might be
and taking it to another place
Fire suspended
Knife attracting history
to its sharp blade

V, from beautiful, unfinished, MTC Cronin

Darby Hudson stuck samples of his poetry on poles around my local town a while ago and I got great pleasure from hunting for them on my morning dog walks. Small acts of inspiration or encouragement stoke the embers for the work and solitude of writing.

In June I received a random message via my website in which the sender asked if I wanted them to send me a book. I recognised the name in the email address and had a fan moment. A short exchange followed, then in September a parcel arrived in the post with three books What We Have: Except When We Are Lost; Bestseller; and My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems. What a feast.

Bestseller (2001), Cronin’s fourth book explores the life of the poet, poetry as a form of writing, making meaning, and communication. In My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems (2002) Cronin pays tribute to the insecurities of love, its ambivalence and disquieting qualities in all their technicolour. What We Have: Except When We Are Lost (2020) is a collaboration with Melbourne poet, lyricist and librettist Maria Zajkowski. A small book, a Fat lady, poet soup.

In poetry, evening and twilight balance perfectly.
Mystery balances with any word you choose to weigh it against.
Poetry, however, puts the whole world out of whack.
When you read it you drift up or down
while everything else goes in the opposite direction.

excerpt from The Imbalance, The Law of Poetry, MTC Cronin

I highly recommend any of MTC Cronin’s work for those who enjoy poetry that plays with language and makes you think.

pile of dictionaries, pruning implements and an orange

Online course review: Cut, Shape, Polish by the Australian Writers Centre

If you have a completed manuscript ready to edit and you’re not quite sure where or how to start, I have a solution for you. The Australian Writers Centre online Cut, Shape, Polish course is one of the most useful writing courses I have completed to date, and there have been quite a few.

Cut, Shape, Polish is a practical step by step course that will provide you with a framework, tools and templates to complete a comprehensive edit of your manuscript. The course has five modules with audio tutorials and downloadable handouts.

It starts from the macro. Get your plot and structure right to ensure a satisfying outcome, identify themes and the questions your story is asking. Learn how to map your story structure with easy to use templates so that you can dissect it for plot holes, inconsistencies and gaps and make sure tensions rise and fall in the right places.

Module two dives into character to ensure your characters develop and drive the story. Learn how to check if your characters will be engaging and believable for readers, and if their dialogue is convincing and moves the story along. Identify and resolve issues with tone, voice and motivation so that your characters are convincing and keep readers engaged throughout the story arc.

Module three covers theme, setting and descriptions. Check if you are getting your point across through layering a cohesive thread through your work. Identify and resolve issues with world building and setting, build in motifs and symbols where they can improve your story. Bring to life the story your unconscious wanted you to tell.

You will move your focus from the macro to the micro in module four and study the sentence level. Make sure your point of view is working for the story. Interrogate the balance of show versus tell, info dumps and exposition, make sure your tense is consistent and consider sentence structure and style.

The last module hones in on openings and endings of sentences, chapters, the story and the overall story arc. Catch your cliches, find the words you repeat over and over, and over. Consider the value of Beta readers, taking feedback like an adult and whether you would benefit from the services of a professional editor.

The best time to start this course is after you have completed a first draft and left it to rest for a few months. This will give you twelve months of course access to work through your edits alongside the lessons. There is a lot in the course, so you’ll probably want to complete it more than once.

200 days of solitude

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday marked the 200th day of lockdowns in Melbourne since the beginning of the pandemic. The solitude of lockdown has a rhythm, and despite the shrinking of our worlds to 5km life goes on. It is surprising how much still happens.

I wake at 5am to a dark silence interrupted only by the occasional sound of snoring from the great yellow hound languishing on my bed. 

I suppose I will have to make the coffee again, I think. Sometimes I say it out loud and wonder how I might teach the dog to do the task. Though, I suspect even if Harper knew how, I would still be the morning barista as I would lose patience with her indolence before she with mine.

I make coffee and breakfast. Chicken and vegetables for the dog, muesli, yoghurt and an orange or tangelo plucked from my tree the day prior for me. I climb back into bed with my hoard (the dog will have to get up for hers). 

My plan is always to write, but often I become lost in news stories about COVID, vaccines, politics and the destruction of the planet, or find myself falling blindly down some social media rabbit hole. My morbid fascination with all this unpleasantness so early in the morning confounds me. Though perhaps it is not so surprising considering some of my reading as reflected in my book reviews. My father keeps suggesting Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin to cure my macabre tastes in literature.

It is hard to know whether my staccato concentration is a consequence of social media or COVID brain, but I often become frustrated by it and apply additional effort to focus my concentration, congratulating myself for putting pen to paper and bleeding ink across the page (or screen), even if it is only 200 words. This blog generates a rigid moment of writing discipline each week that I am grateful for having imposed on myself, as even in my laziest writing periods this weekly ritual keeps me engaged.

Mornings are the most precious part of my day. They seem to me always to be filled with hope. 

I leave the house with the dog just before dawn. The first kilometre of our morning sojourn traverses a quiet road running up a north-south ridge. To my left I catch glimpses of the sky burning shades of yellow, orange, pink and red from the sun rising behind the mountains to the east. I spy the occasional ringtail possum crouching in a tree as if enjoying the event. To my right, the  blinking lights of Melbourne gradually fade as the sky brightens. I am transported along this enchanted path by the morning chorus as it shifts and swells and rolls with the growing illumination. I am absorbed and in awe of the beauty around me.

Away from the stories of pestilence, conflict and climate change it is easy to find great pleasure and meaning in the small things of life. An emerging flower augers the coming spring, the pure joy on my dog’s face as she wallows in the muddy waters of the Yarra and explores the bushland, the sight of Tawny Frogmouths roosting high up in a eucalypt. The ninety minute walk is a fortifying elixir and the most precious part of my day.

Emerging again…

Adversity is often cited as a spur for creativity – Shakespeare wrote some of his best known plays during, and in the aftermath of the plague. Hardship may get the creative juices flowing but it doesn’t mean its easy.

The arts and cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID. Crowd events are the first to be cancelled and the last to be re-opened when the virus gets loose in the community. Hundreds of thousands of gigs and events have been cancelled over the last 18 months, each one evaporating the livelihoods of artists and resulting in the loss of millions to the sector.

Ever adaptive and experienced at living on the edge, the arts sector was one of the first to adjust to the new world order using technology to revolutionise the way they work, eking out some kind of living and keeping the rest of us entertained and stimulated during our closed in locked down lives.

A number of events I’d planned to attend in recent weeks had to be cancelled. Some pivoted to an online format, including the Emerging Writers Festival.

I purchased tickets to the National Writers Conference and attended via zoom last Saturday whilst I re-caulked my shower. Yes, you did read that correctly. I find it easier to concentrate on online events if doing a manual activity that doesn’t require much thought. During work hours I often get out the mindful coloring book. On the weekend domestic maintenance tasks are ideal.

There were some great sessions including writers waxing lyrical about their writing practice, editors reflecting on their unsung role in making a writers work sing, debut authors discussing their differing paths to publication, world building and character development. The festival also has a YouTube channel with loads of free writerly content that you can watch at any time or check out the festival program for links.

Meanwhile I’ll go and enjoy a freshly sealed shower…

Online course reviews

Writing courses can be a great way to learn new techniques, think more deeply about your writing, and motivate you to keep putting ink on the page. Here I review a couple I have completed recently.

Kill Your Darlings: Mastering Emotional Honesty with Lee Kofman

One of the main pieces of feedback I’ve had from editors has been ‘put more emotions and/or drama into your work’. I took this online course to focus a bit of energy on that feedback.

Dr Lee Kofman, who delivers the online course, is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author of five books and editor of two anthologies. Kofman unpacks the complex and hard task of writing with emotional honesty and helps you discover the rewards of making your writing more prolific and productive.

In the introduction to this course, Kofman suggests a writer should be ‘like a firefighter whose job it is, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, to run straight into them.’ Intellectually safe writing is easier to do, but does not engage readers as effectively – if you want to touch their hearts you have to take risks.

The exercises in this course challenge you to tap into personally emotive events to develop and challenge your writing. It covers concepts such as moral outrage, internal contradictions, sentimentality, nostalgia, emotional complexity and creating emotionally rich complex characters.

Example texts identified in the course include fiction works like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You; and memoir including Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter.

KYD courses are good value, well structured short courses with a mix of audio/audiovisual, text, and exercises. Once you purchase a course it is available to you in perpetuity. The learning platform is easy to navigate, so if you are a bit of a luddite you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Australian Writers Centre: Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder with Candice Fox

I’m a big Candice Fox fan and she’s written about fourteen crime fiction novels so she knows a bit about the genre. I love her bold characters and unpredictable, and sometimes outrageous, but still believable plots.

There is a lot of content in this course. The course has eight modules estimated to take eight hours of study time. However, if you go through all the available resources provided you can go a lot deeper and further than the estimated time to complete.

Candice’s great character writing comes to the fore in the course as she explores the psychology of crime, what makes people kill and what happens after they do. Topics covered include premeditation; types of murder crimes; writing crime scenes; looking for suspects and the killer; making the arrest; trials and prison life.

AWC produces quality content using a mix of audio, audio-visual, and practical exercises. Each course is accessible for 12 months from the date of purchase and AWC has regular specials that make them more affordable.

For other online course reviews see here and here and here.