On Writing Companions

IMG_3661All writers I know have companion animals.  And if you were to ask writers why this is so important to them, the responses will range from being inspired by the beautiful muse that rocks up when you look your cat or dog in the eyes, or the comfort, and the quiet unconditional love they give as they sleep by your side.

While life as a writer is filled with magic, frustration, and all kinds of wonderful, it can also be a very lonely place.  Often sitting at the keyboard for hours at a time, alone, lost in our worlds of story telling.

Our pets may sit at our feet, or near our side and some even dance across the keyboard just to remind us to have a break, a cuddle or both.  Felines are particularly good at this, and really, they only want to help.  They somehow know when we are getting close to the end of the chapter: truly they aren’t annoying us as much as we think, they are simply showing us, if we stop and pause, even if only to remove said cat from keyboard, the words we might be struggling for in the final sentence suddenly begin to flow.

But besides all our animal companion shenanigans, there is the quiet comfort when we are entrenched in our stories, when we forget to eat, forget to sleep, forget to shower or even get dressed, oh how I love the fetid nightie.  The quiet comfort when we hold our head in our hands and grumble and swear and beat ourselves up for being useless for not finding the words, for not finding the sentence that sings, but despite all that our pets love us just the way we are.

Our animal companions wait patiently, lovingly, and unconditionally.  They forgive our outbursts of rage and frustration even when we ignore them for hours and forget to feed them too!  It’s about now though you can guarantee they will watch your every move with a keen eye, and as soon as we move, their quiet pitter-patter besides us reminds us as writers that we are never, ever really alone.

On having a research assistant

Over the summer (in Australia, summer is just finishing) I wrote a book. It took me only three months to write, and a little bit of time to edit. It was the easiest book I ever wrote, and it’s called Ember Island. I’ll post more information as I have it. But this post is a shout-out to the person who made it all possible: my research assistant, Heather. Tirelessly, day or night, she responded to my endless texts and emails asking for tiny details that she had to chase down from all over the place. She had to cold-call experts, spend hours in dusty libraries, sort out details of all kinds of random aspects across time and location. Just today, as I was finishing off the structural edit to go to the publisher, I sent her my last query. Would it be possible that a 10 year old girl in the late nineteenth century would have heard of the early medieval Irish poem “Pangur Ban”? Within 15 minutes, I had my answer. And therein lies Heather’s true worth: she told me the truth (it wasn’t possible) and when I told her I was going to ignore her and put it in anyway (for we never let the truth get in the way of the story), she just sent me a smiley face.

ImageWriters don’t write in a vacuum. There is a large machinery of support all around them. From family and friends, to agents and publishers, to helpful people at stationery stores and the reader who sends you fan mail at precisely the moment you feel you should give up this writing caper and retrain as a podiatrist. I am grateful for all of those who support me to write my books, but especially to the lovely Heather, whose wisdom and intelligence and vast store of historical knowledge made my summer so easy.

On sneak previews

I’m editing Isabella’s Gift/Lighthouse Bay/Not sure yet what it will be called in various territories, but it will be out in Australia and the US in September. Here’s a sneak preview from a scene, set in 1901 in a lighthouse on the Queensland coast.

The kettle boils and Matthew wordlessly makes the tea. Isabella sits and waits, wishing for something she cannot articulate. She had been feeling fine and light, just half an hour ago. Now the dark network of memories is closing around her again, just as the dark clouds outside are pressing out all the light.

But the tea helps. Hot and sweet.

“Tell me about your sister,” he says gently. “Are you close?

Isabella smiles, thinking of Victoria: as dark as she is fair. “We were terribly close as children. We grew up on the north Cornish coast. Father was a jeweller. Oh, he was quite mad. He’d work late late in the night, with his hair all stuck up…” She gestured to her own hair. “He had the strangest clients: barons and so on from European towns I’d never even heard of. He was terribly popular. All his jewels were made with cold connections. Every clasp bent and wrapped into shape by hand. His hands were so strong he could crush a tea tin with his fingertips. After Mama died, he let us run wild. We’d spend all day down at the beach collecting shells and stones, then come home and make brooches and bracelets.” Isabella drops her eyes, thinking of Arthur. Once in her life, she’d mistakenly thought that Arthur and she would have so much in common. But Arthur never took joy in making jewels, not the way Papa did. Everything Arthur did was without passion. Bloodless.

“Do you not think it strange,” she asks, after a few silent sips, “that I haven’t missed my husband at all?”

“No. I presume you left him because he didn’t treat you well, and that you were prepared to miss him.”

“Sometimes I worry that there is something wrong with my heart.”

Matthew doesn’t answer. He seems comfortable simply to sit and wait for her to continue.

“Perhaps it is broken,” she says. “Not a broken heart in the usual sense, not a simple crack down the middle. But broken like a clock that has been taken down from the mantel, disassembled by a rough hand, then left in pieces on the floor. Broken so it cannot work right again.” She checks herself. She is talking too much about nonsense. If Arthur were here, he’d admonish her for drawing attention to herself with her wild ideas.

But Arthur isn’t here, he’s dead at the bottom of the sea.

“My husband is dead, Matthew,” she says softly.

“Then what have you run away from?”

“His family.”

He nods, seems about to say something, then thinks better of it. “You don’t have to tell me anything. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t.”

She tries to be bright. “Then you shall think me too mysterious. A secret-keeper. Perhaps even a liar.”

He holds her gaze in his a moment, another moment, time winding out. The sense of his masculine presence, the oil and sea smell of the place, the darkness of his eyes.

“I couldn’t think ill of you,” he says at last. “Put it out of your mind.”

Something flares into life inside her, something she has never felt properly before so at first it puzzles her. A warmth, down low. A tide of longing to press her whole length against his. This is desire. She desires Matthew, the lighthouse keeper. It surprises her, but not unhappily. She doesn’t know what to do, so she stays where she is. It’s unlikely he feels the same, and he would not think it proper for her to express her feelings. She finishes her tea. The rain has eased. It is time to go.

On the big wheel

*this blog post originally appeared at http://www.mamamia.com.au*

My daughter is excited about starting school. She has been counting sleeps, insisting on wearing her school uniform everywhere, and greeting everybody with, “Hello, I’m going to school soon!” When asked if she is worried or sad at all, she says no. But her behaviour shows otherwise. She throws monster tantrums almost hourly. She clings to me like a limpet: she’s even taken to lying on the bathmat waiting for me while I’m in the shower. And she’s insisting on endless games of big-sister-little-sister, a fun (read: excruciating) game where I have to talk in a baby voice and pretend to know nothing while she smiles patronisingly and puts me straight.

I know what’s wrong with her. She can feel the big wheel turning. And I know that, because it’s also what’s wrong with me. What else could make a grown woman with a PhD get teary when buying a Tinkerbell lunchbox from Coles?

The big wheel turns whether we like it or not, rolling us from one stage of life to another. For my daughter, it’s the transition from the private world to the public world. Even preschool, that cocoon where the teachers only have first names and little beds are laid out in the afternoon, is a private place. Starting school is their first step into the public world. They are no longer considered so little that they require shelter and gentle handling. We stop using words like “care” and “love” quite so much when kids go to school. “Numeracy” and “literacy” become more important terms.

For me, it’s the transition between being the mother of a baby and what comes next (I don’t know what comes next, but I guess I find out this year). I didn’t feel the wheel turn when my son started school four years ago, because I had a one-year-old to occupy me. I’ve known a few women who, faced with this transition, have another baby just so they can hold the wheel back a little longer. And that’s fine. But for me, this is the end of my childbearing years. No more babies for me. No more toddlers to vex and delight me. No more tiny sticky hands up my nose or new shiny teeth popping up in gums; no more lying down with a warm little body for a daytime nap while the public world—full of postmen and trucks and telephones—goes on outside.

This is it. Life has resumed. It has been nearly ten years since I first fell pregnant and I’m now outside the age where I have reliable eggs or, frankly, any energy left for babies. Like my daughter, I’m excited about where this turn of the wheel will take me. My career, which I’ve kept bubbling with part-time work and carefully spaced contracts, may blossom. Perhaps I’ll finally learn to meditate and achieve spiritual peace. But, like my daughter, I’m also full of unvoiced fears. Maybe I’ll fall into despondence, feeling the sting of the end of my biological usefulness. I really don’t know. On good days, I’m cautiously optimistic. On bad days, I want to drink gin until menopause is over.

So when my daughter chucks one of her wobblies, I try to go gently with her. When she clings, I hug her harder. And I’ll continue to play the part of little sister with gusto, as long as she needs me to. We all go into the unknown with hope in our hearts and doubts in our minds. Right now I understand her better than anyone.



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.