On digging up the past

I have had the most wonderful day, doing some research for my next book in the John Oxley Library here in Brisbane (see right). Just about all my other books, under both names, have been set in other (more exotic) places. But this one is about a shipwreck off the Queensland coast, so I’ve been poking around in Sunshine Coast history (I can’t tell you how exciting it was when I realised there were PADDLESTEAMERS!!!) and, because a few scenes are set in Brisbane, my home town, in 1901, I have been challenged for the first time with researching local history.

Yes, local history for local people. It sounds so mundane, but it’s not. On the one hand, it’s heaps easier than researching, say, the history of the tsars (for my Kim Wilkins’s novel The Veil of Gold. If I want to know what Brisbane looked like in 1901, I just stand in the Queen Street Mall and look up. But in other ways it has its challenges. Brisbane’s history has not been widely written about or represented, so sometimes my imagination ends up in a blank cul de sac. I know there’s a window in here somewhere, but did it face north or south. So, today I went up to the John Oxley library, because it is a repository for Brisbane historical stuff and things. I have a key scene, an important social function, set in the Bellevue Hotel, which was built in the nineteenth century but demolished in 1979. I had a little bit of an idea what the outside looked like, but no idea about what view there was from the verandahs, or what the fittings and furnishings looked like. The wonderful librarian gave me a box of photos and a folder of newspaper clippings, and away I went. I found a photo of a woman in 1903 sitting on the verandah (see above) with a clear view of Old Parliament House and the gardens, and a list of auctioned antique items such as cedar folding card tables and dressers with wing mirrors. I found a long description of the entrance and courtyard of the Hotel from 1898 and building notes and ownership logs. The scene, which had been floating around in a brownish space (I knew there must be chandeliers, but didn’t realise they’d be gaslight), began to take shape.

I still have so much research to do, but the book is nudging 90 000 words so it’s about three quarters done. I’m on the home stretch with a little help from a library. Aren’t they the best places on earth (and check out the view from the reading room; not bad, eh)?

On nostalgia

Nostalgia was named and identified as a medical condition in the 17th century by a doctor who saw a lot of Swiss soldiers grow ill and melancholy from being so long away from their childhood regions (he called it “Swiss illness”). Now it’s generally understood to mean a longing for the past, a longing to be back somewhere that is idealised and has passed away forever.

I have been feeling nostalgic this week, out of nowhere: it’s not something I often feel. But this week marked the passing away of something very simple and very significant. My daughter finished kindergarten on Wednesday, and so Thursday and Friday this week were our last mummy-daughter days before she goes to school next year. Yes, we have holidays now for six weeks, but her brother will be here too. Those special precious times where it was just my baby and me are over forever. I saved all my running-about-town chores for Thursdays and Fridays, because she loved so much coming shopping with me, and going to Medicare, and the physiotherapist, and so on. She loved just being one of the girls with me. This is not to say we can’t have those fun times with my son about: of course we can. But it’s a different dynamic. This really was the last week of her babyhood. She’s five now. Old enough to draw pictures like the one above of us, in matching purple dress, that she gave me after we had a fight this evening (she stole a forbidden biscuit then smooshed it into the ground rather than putting it back in the biscuit box).

The strange thing about this week, though, is that it has aroused all these feelings and memories in me from my own childhood. I remember being in Astrid’s position. I loved to go to the bank on the bus with my mum, on those special days when it was just her and me while my older brother was at school. I can remember so clearly the string bag she had for her shopping, how she would ask the bus driver for “one and a half” fares, i remember being so excited if she let me pull the bell ringer before our stop. These memories are flowing back to me in rolling waves and filing me with beautiful, achey nostalgia. I’m gorging on it even though it’s making me sick.

I don’t know how my little girl will remember her early childhood, but I hope that one day she will remember walking to the postbox with me and remember it fondly. Because I will remember it fondly. Her soft little hand in mine, her happy chatter, her rosy cheeks and tiny teeth. I will never forget it.

On the beach

I’ve just got back from a research trip to the Sunshine Coast, where my new book (working title “Isabella’s Gift” but watch this space) is set. Unfortunately, I spent a great deal of the trip flat on my back with my leg on a pillow. A couple of weeks ago I sprained my ankle on one of my mountain walks, and if that wasn’t bad enough, last week I had an unexpected and violent reaction to the sports tape the physio used to strap me up. My ankle and foot blew up to twice their size, and were all scabrous and red and vile and blistery. It looked like a Frankenstein foot. No, really. I would put a picture here, only people would never come back to the blog again. So instead here is a picture of me looking grumpy with my lot, on Marcus Beach at Noosa. It’s very hard to look this grumpy in paradise. I took the photo at 6am. Look at the sky! Can you believe how beautiful dawn looks in Queensland?

Anyway, I had better get on with finishing this book, hadn’t I. With my left leg out of action, I really have no excuse. I’m working in bed now, and this will have to be my office until I’m up and about again.