The Importance of an Artist Date

It’s twenty years since I first read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – a book that I believe led directly to my becoming a writer. My process wasn’t a fast one, but the book awakened an unspoken ambition that had lived within me since childhood: the creation of worlds in the imagination, and making up stories for other people to read.

There are two key points about doing The Artist’s Way. (Yes, it’s not just a book that you read; it is a 12-week course in which you uncover the artist within you, layer by layer, chapter by chapter, week by week, and start to bloom into the artist you were meant to be.)

The first of these key points is a thing called Morning Pages – a stream of consciousness writing of three handwritten A4 pages every single morning when you wake up, before the world intrudes.

The second is a weekly Artist Date – a treat that you give the artist child hiding within your jaded adult self. This usually takes the form of going somewhere special on your own, to soak up or explore something wondrous and adventurous. It needs to be something that lifts your spirits, fills the creative well inside you, and inspires you to continue your art with renewed passion.

I’ve been doing morning pages for twenty years now, and they are still as valuable as ever, even though I made the switch to doing them on my laptop five years ago. But the Artist Dates? I’m not sure when I realised they had dropped off my radar. Sometimes, when I am on leave, I spend a day doing something different, all by myself, and I remember again how much fun it is to take myself on an Artist Date. But I only ever seem to do that once every three months or so.

Yesterday, however, I went on an exceptional Artist Date.

Three days ago I googled the Museum of Modern Art because a Facebook friend in America had written about it. I was surprised when Google showed me another Museum of Modern Art – one in my hometown in Australia, and a place about which I had never even heard. If not for the similarity of the name with the American one, I might never have found it, and that would have been such a pity.

The Heide Museum of Modern Art is in north-eastern Melbourne, almost an hour’s drive from where I live. It is set in 16 acres of beautiful parkland which used to be a dairy farm a hundred years ago, in an area called Heidelberg. In the 1930s it was bought by John and Sunday Reed, who borrowed and shortened the suburb’s name to call their home Heide.

They had two cows which John milked every morning. Sunday planted a kitchen garden in which she grew everything they needed to eat, and they threw open their modest farmhouse (see below) to many, many artist friends.

Before long, it became an artist colony: the Heide Circle. Those who stayed there helped with either the milking or the gardening, in exchange for a space in which to grow their art.

In time, the farmhouse became too small for all the art, so the Reeds commissioned another building on the same property – one in which they would be able to live, and which could later be turned into a second gallery. They moved into it in the 1960s, and called it Heide II – see the picture on the left. Their old cottage was now affectionately known as Heide I.

Twenty years later, by the time John’s health began to fail, they turned Heide II into the gallery it was meant to be, and moved themselves back into Heide I.

Heide II officially opened as a gallery in November 1981. John died a few weeks later, and Sunday followed ten days after him, unable to bear life without John.

The legacy they left is enormous.

There is now a third, larger and more modern, gallery called – what else? – Heide III. See photo at right.

The whole complex is known as the Heide Museum of Modern Art, and all three buildings are in constant use as gallery space. In addition to the three galleries, there is a café, a gift shop, and the entire garden is a sculpture park.

 

The park is used for other things too, and it was one of these activities that drew me to it. On Thursday mornings they have Tai Chi in the park, under the trees. When I googled it on Tuesday, and saw that I could join the class, I decided to make a day of it.

What a wonderful day it was too!

Our Tai Chi class was held beneath the huge tree on the left of the picture alongside, watched over by several sculpted cows, reflecting the property’s original purpose as a dairy farm.

After the class, I wandered about the grounds, looking at other sculptures, as well as the two kitchen gardens planted by Sunday, which today provide everything that is required to equip the café with its excellent lunch menu.

As the heat of the day set in, I found myself closest to Heide II, so I started my indoor exploration there. To be honest, I was far more fascinated by the actual building than the exhibition in it. I walked through, imagining the Reeds living in this cool white space – their bedroom, study, cosy conversation pit, and a sunken lounge downstairs with enormous glass walls revealing more sculpture courtyards shaded by ancient trees.

Next I visited Heide III, and lost myself in the Albert & Barbara Tucker gallery, where I saw many paintings and photographs from Tucker’s life when he toured Europe in a home-made caravan in the 1950s. His letters back to John and Sunday were also on display, documenting his progress as a painter, along with his gradual, somewhat reluctant, return to his Australian roots after many years on the road.

On my way to Heide I, I passed John Reed’s old milking shed – see the photo on the right – which is next on the list for restoration.

Finally, I reached Heide I. Somehow I had sensed that this would be the place I would enjoy the most. This little house, now beautifully restored, encapsulated the history of the people who lived there and did so much for Australian art and artists.

It is a gallery, but it is also a museum, preserving something of the lives of its former inhabitants. It contains many poignant remnants of its colourful past.

For example, the small library – the window on the right of the photo below – is exactly as it used to be in the days when displaced Russian painter Danila Vassilieff used it as his painting space, and he later died in that room while on a visit.

Artist Sidney Nolan began his series of now-famous Ned Kelly paintings on the Reeds’ dining table. Artist Mary Perceval hand-painted 22 small tiles with different pictures of cats, and presented them to Sunday Reed to decorate her kitchen, because she knew how much Sunday loved cats. The tiles are still there above the fireplace in the kitchen.

Walking through the spaces where Sunday used to hold informal afternoon tea parties, looking at the photographs all over the walls, and admiring the beautiful cat tiles in the kitchen, I felt an affinity with this place that nurtured artists and provided them with both the space and the inspiration to do their best work. I do believe that some hint of their combined artistic presence still lingers there amongst the framed paintings, photographs, letters and sculptures.

It wasn’t until I sat in the café at 2:00 pm that I realised I was actually on a full-length Artist Date. And I never wanted it to end. I don’t paint and I don’t do sculpture, but I became completely wrapped up in the story of the Reeds and their artist companions, the photography and stories on display, the wonderful history of the place, including the actual buildings. So much so, that I now feel inspired to return to my own chosen art – that of writing. I have neglected this of late, but I vowed yesterday that I will make time to continue my passion for writing, and I will definitely finish that novel…

Watch this space!

New Year Memories & Resolutions

When I was a child, we had a New Year’s Eve tradition in our family. We were too young to stay awake till midnight to see the New Year in, but we did it another way. Just before bedtime, we would say goodbye to the Old Year by opening the back door as if to usher it out. We would wave madly at the invisible entity and say sad goodbyes to it before closing the door.

This was followed by a walk through the house to open the front door to usher in the New Year. We did this eagerly with shouts of welcome and anticipation of a great year to come. Once this little ceremony was done, we children went to bed happy and left the adults to welcome in the New Year in their own way at the appropriate time.

During my years of working in theatre, New Year’s Eve could be a mixed bag. A beautiful theatre where I worked in Cape Town did it really well. We had three venues which opened out onto an inviting, three-storey high, central foyer, and on New Year’s Eve the starting times for all three venues were adjusted so that the shows all finished at quarter to midnight.

As the audience members left each auditorium, they were handed glasses of champagne and found themselves walking into a party-filled central foyer with a band playing and lead singer getting them into the mood and ready for the countdown fifteen minutes later.

The beauty of this, for me, meant that my job was over for the night and I was able to enjoy the party with everyone else.

Not so in most other theatres in my career.

Most of them did New Year’s Eve with the starting times tweaked to ensure that the stroke of midnight would happen at the end, during the curtain call. As the stage manager, I had to judge this precise moment, which required split-second timing and caused me a certain amount of stress.

At the pre-arranged signal, I would cue the chosen main performer to address the audience and lead them into the countdown. Quite frankly, I hated these events because the perfect timing was frequently ruined by another performer who would decide that his watch was right and we were wrong. This usurper would leap into the fray, override our carefully-made plans, and start the countdown early. Of course, the audience joined in and suddenly our backstage and technical staff had less than ten seconds to race to get the balloons dropping, streamers thrown, music and lights co-ordinated.

Trust me, there’s not much fun in trying to shout cues into a microphone and headset while performers are rushing about giving you sweaty hugs and getting in your way a whole minute before the appointed time.

Over the years I began to long for quiet New Year’s Eves…

Twenty years ago the turnover from 1999 to 2000 promised to be a huge affair, but by some stroke of (supposedly bad) luck, I ended up stage managing a rather odd production that year, and the organisers cancelled our performance to encourage people to head to a much bigger event in another venue.

I was so happy! I spent that New Year’s Eve with my mother in Pietermaritzburg, both of us in our dressing gowns, watching fireworks from her balcony, toasting each other – probably with tea! I think we were in our respective beds by half-past midnight. This gave us a lovely early start to the next day’s festivities. One of my best New Years ever!

Somewhere in my mid-forties I began writing, and I fell into the habit of awaking earlier each morning to enjoy some quiet writing time before the reality of the day could hit me. Since I moved to Australia and gave up working in theatre, I now go to bed even earlier, and this means that on New Year’s Eve I sometimes fall asleep before midnight. That’s fine with me. I enjoy the quiet of the early mornings and the earlier start to my day.

This year I’m starting my New Year with only one resolution, and that’s to make no resolutions at all. I’ve given up on trotting out the same old resolutions every year, and being stressed out or disappointed in myself when I don’t live up to them.

This year I plan on enjoying my life, my job, my writing, and my time with my precious family, all without any pressure to “do better” than in previous years. I hope you will all join me in being kind to yourselves, because this means we can be kinder to others too.

Of Koalas and Kangaroos

Bushfires have been raging in Australia, and the natural habitat of koalas in Queensland and New South Wales has been decimated. Here in Victoria, we have wept over heart-breaking pictures and stories of badly-burned koalas and other wildlife.

But we have also cheered the heroic stories of those firefighters and rescuers who have done their utmost to rescue and bring injured animals to shelters and hospitals.

The internet reverberated with the video of one brave woman – Toni Doherty – who ran into a fiery area in Long Flat, NSW, to bring out a badly-burned and disoriented koala. She cradled him carefully in her blouse, got him to the side of the road and poured her water bottle’s contents on his smouldering fur and singed paws and nose, before covering him with a blanket and driving him to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Thanks to her, this one was saved and has been named Ellenborough Lewis.

Many other animals have not been this lucky.

The above-mentioned koala hospital in Port Macquarie has been working around the clock for several weeks now, nursing injured and homeless koalas. They started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for water stations in the fire-damaged areas. While they have exceeded their expected goal, it falls way short of what is really needed to help the koalas and other wildlife to be nursed and rehabilitated back into the wild. The real problem is that there is no “wild” for the animals to return to because of the fire devastation. Even healthy koalas cannot be released for at least another year, to allow for the vegetation to re-grow and establish itself.

The Koala Hospital intends to use the extra funds raised to build a new habitat for a wild koala breeding programme. If anyone is able to, it will be this remarkable organisation.

In March 2016, my friend Jackie and I visited this koala hospital and witnessed some of the amazing work done there, mainly by volunteers. At the time, I wrote a blog-post about Port Macquarie in general, mentioning the koala hospital and its good work. You can read it here.

Unconnected with these bush fires, and way further south in a much less dramatic incident, I met a lost kangaroo two weeks ago.

In my garden.

I always claim that I live out in the country, but in fact it is fairly close to schools, shops and other amenities. My landlady has only seen a kangaroo on this property once in the thirty-five or so years that they have lived here, so although the kangaroos have a natural habitat at Lysterfield Lake Park (which is only half a kilometre from where I live), seeing them in the tarred-road suburbs is not as common as people outside of Australia might think.

Although my acquaintance with this particular kangaroo was brief, I named him Skippy. What else do you name a kangaroo? Especially if you saw episodes of that 1968 TV series as a child…

Here’s how it happened. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I was washing dishes when something attracted the edge of my gaze through the kitchen window. I looked up and couldn’t believe what I saw. There at the bottom of the garden, under one of the trees, was a kangaroo.

I threw off the dishwashing gloves and raced for my phone to snap a blurry picture through the net curtain. Not a second too soon, because a noise from people walking their dog on the road below startled Skippy, and he took off before I could lift the net curtain for a better view. A hopping grey-brown streak across the garden, and he was out of sight. I swallowed my disappointment, then suddenly realised that he had headed in the direction of the busier part of our suburb, towards a main road with traffic.

Mindful of the fact that adult kangaroos can pack enough punch (or kick) to knock out a grown man, and this one was at least my height, I carefully left my cottage through the front door, taking only my phone (on silent) in case another photo opportunity presented itself.

I walked up the road, ears alert for any sounds of screeching brakes in case Skippy decided to cross the road, but all was silent. On my way back to my cottage I took the long route, between my cottage and my landlord’s bigger house, towards my veranda. As I came around the corner of my house, I heard a disturbance in the bushes at the bottom of the garden, and Skippy hopped out from under the oak tree, towards the neighbour’s fence, not far from where I had first seen him. I froze, not wanting to startle him. In my excitement, I completely forgot to take another photo until he reached the fence and tried to climb through it.

To my horror, his long legs kept getting tangled in the wire and he couldn’t escape the property. After a few attempts he hopped behind another tree, and just as I thought it might be safe for me to move, he stuck his head out and looked at me. A Lucy/Mr Tumnus moment, straight out of the Narnia saga!

We eyed each other for a few seconds before he hopped away to the top corner of the property to hide in the bushes around the lemon tree.

Thus freed from my statue position, I raced indoors and called Wildlife Victoria. They responded immediately, asked for my photos and address, and a short while later a van pulled up and two fabulous rescuers arrived to return Skippy to his habitat.

Skippy led them a merry dance before the afternoon was over, showing his remarkable jumping skills as he leaped back and forth over fences. At one point, he hopped very close to me – no more than three metres away, and the thundering of his strong back legs as he thumped along the ground was nothing short of awesome.

Eventually the tireless rescuers were able to head him off in the general direction of the more rural area, towards his cousins who live around Lysterfield Lake Park. We haven’t seen him since, but now that I know where they hang out, I will definitely take a wander along the trail paths on the far side of the lake, hoping to take a peek at Skippy and his mob in their natural habitat.

 

Living Your Dream & Not Someone Else’s

Almost fourteen years ago, I bought a small plot of land just outside Underberg, in the Southern Drakensberg, South Africa. My dream was to one day build a small cottage there. No rush. In time the cottage would serve as a getaway place for weekends, or I could rent it out to holidaymakers, and much later it could become my retirement home.

In the meantime I drew vague sketches of what my groundplan would look like; how many rooms; the most economical way to have all the plumbing in one place; how to ensure that the fireplace in the centre would warm the rooms around it as well as the lounge, and so on.

Two years on, when my mother became ill, I questioned the wisdom of this whole “dream cottage” thing. Was it a good idea to retire to a mountainous place far away from the best hospitals and medical care as I got older? My mother had moved out of her big city to retire to a place on the coast, and when she got ill, this was exacerbated by the long distances that she and my stepfather had to travel to their designated hospital for treatment. I remained undecided about my little dream cottage. For the moment, I held onto the land, still uncertain.

My mother died not long after. I still hadn’t made any real plans to start building my cottage, but now my sister and I became caught up in the process of letting out what had been our mother’s flat in the city. It wasn’t an easy job keeping track of the rates, levies, rental, tenants and lease agreements, and I had no time to think about the problems of another property, especially not one that I had once fantasized about hiring out as a holiday cottage.

Another two years passed, and I still had my half-drawn images of what my cottage would look like, and what it should have in it, when my sister and her husband announced that they were moving to Australia. Followers of this blog will know that I followed them a few years later. I tried to sell my piece of land, but no-one was buying at the time. I still have it. Somewhere I also still have the drawings, but I don’t think about them very often anymore.

The other day I sat on the veranda of my rented cottage in Australia and remembered my dreams of a cottage in the mountains. I realised that, despite all that has happened, I am actually living my dream. I live in a cottage on a big piece of land in a rural area, at the top of a small rise below a bigger mountain range. I can hear roosters crowing in the morning, and I drive past a sheep farm and a riding stable on my way to work every day. Sometimes on the way home from work I see foxes and other wildlife crouching beneath the trees, and if I stop at the local store to buy something for supper, there is usually at least one farm vehicle in the car park with a bale or two of hay on the back of it, or a horse-box behind.

I don’t own my cottage, and I’m not going to be able to retire for a long while yet, but I am actually living out my fantasy of living in a rural cottage in the mountains.

I’m living the dream. And – more important – it’s MY dream, not anyone else’s. Sometimes I’m not even sure why or how I got to this actual spot, but it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Here I am, and I’m happy.

 

Embracing Australia on Screen

Now that I’ve settled into a more permanent routine here, I’m starting to relax and develop my yearning for various Australian things I couldn’t afford before. Despite my promise to myself that I would no longer hoard stuff, I’m managing to gather quite a lot of things in my little cottage. I’ve always been a buyer of books and DVDs, and while I have eased off on the books to a certain extent, I’m being quite extravagant in my collecting of movies and TV series.

I’ve always enjoyed quirky, off-beat films, be they art films, foreign films or just those more generally found at film festivals. Going back in time to when I was a drama student, my greatest escape each week was to buy a student-price ticket to an afternoon movie and sit in an almost empty movie house, enjoying what was on the screen.

A film society on campus had once-a-week screenings of classics old and new. In fact, the first time I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock was in the old science lecture hall. The film was a grainy 16mm version and the sound was so bad that none of us knew what was going on, but we loved it all the more for the deeper mystery it presented.

This genuine love of Australian films began long before I ever knew I would one day live here. Over time, film festivals in the various theatres in which I worked in South Africa afforded me the chance to see wonderful Australian offerings, such as the harrowing Belinda (known in the US as Midnight Dancer), Toni Collette’s heart-wrenching performance in Japanese Story, the very first screening in South Africa of Moulin Rouge, and a poignant but uplifting film called Look Both Ways. This last was directed by the late Sarah Watt and starred her husband, William McInnes, a well-known Australian actor who still lives locally in Melbourne and writes books, alongside his successful acting career.

Apart from the Aussie movies that made it to the big time in the wider world, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding and Australia, I was able – thanks to Amazon – to discover some lesser known gems from this part of the world. I splashed out and ordered Cosi, Gettin’ Square, You Can’t Stop the Murders and even the chilling The Boys. Well worth the prohibitive cost of postage to South Africa!

Director Peter Weir – in addition to the aforementioned Picnic at Hanging Rock – also wowed me with such classics as Gallipoli, Mosquito Coast and Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, while Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet had me shrieking with delight at his brilliance long before I ever saw Strictly Ballroom, and before he presented the ground-breaking Moulin Rouge to a larger world audience.

Since I arrived in Australia to live, I’ve watched and loved even richer Australian screen magic. Both the quirky The Dressmaker and Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner moved me to tears, while Ladies in Black sent me on a nostalgia trip back to the 1950s.

I’ve also been lucky enough to pick up other Australian classics such as Lantana, Jindabyne, Storm Boy and Paperback Hero, which I call a classic because it features a very young and not-yet-famous Hugh Jackman.

Another young and not-yet-famous favourite actor, Russell Crowe, features in The Sum of Us. Not all movies set in Australia are made exclusively here, but many Australian actors, such as Heath Ledger and Geoffrey Rush, can be found in a number of movies, including the story of Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly.

I’ve re-visited the phenomenally successful 1978 television series Against the Wind, based on the true stories of convict labourers from the early 1800s. More recently, Every Cloud Productions took Kerry Greenwood’s successful Phryne Fisher novels and produced three excellent seasons called Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. A full-length feature film has been made and will be released early in 2020. I can’t wait to see it (and buy it).

Inevitably, now that I’ve been here for more than four years, my viewing has extended beyond fiction, into the wonderful world of documentaries about Australia. I recently found a three-part series called Outback, about life in the vast and beautiful Kimberley area.

Just a few weeks ago, I discovered all three seasons of the BBC’s Coast Australia. I’m not ashamed to admit that I binge-watched all of them, and I’m looking forward to re-watching them as I learn more about this vast country of contrasts and magnificent scenery.

I think it might be time to take another road trip, too…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 15: The Slow Bit in the Middle

How many times have you read a novel that seems to drag in the middle? If you’re like me, plenty of times. As readers, we reach a point where we ask ourselves if it’s worth pushing through with reading the book, in the hope of finding a bit more excitement in the second half of the story.

Trust me, this problem is even worse when you’re writing a novel that drags in the middle and it looks like it’s never going to go anywhere. Except that, as writers, we can do something to fix it before any reader has to worry about it.

I’ve been working on this novel for almost three years now and I still haven’t been able to move beyond the midpoint. The problems started because I decided to do NaNoWriMo in 2016. I had finished writing my synopsis, worked out my character and setting sketches, plotted my outline (my chapter breakdown), and was ready to begin writing on the first day of November that year.

About two weeks into the writing of this novel, I realised that one of my plot devices – having a secret passage under the house – might be a little too similar to a previous novel. I didn’t want to lose momentum so I did a quick bit of research and since this novel was set in England, I came up with the marvelous idea of having a priest hole hidden within the house, instead of a secret tunnel.

That was my First Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have a new bit to research, I need to stop writing and research it properly before moving on. But I was in a hurry…

The direction of my story changed slightly, but I didn’t have time to work it through properly. I had a deadline of about 1700 words a day and couldn’t afford the time to stop and do more work on fixing the plot holes before carrying on with the writing.

This was my Second Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have a problem, I need to stop and sort it out before moving on. But I was still in a hurry…

By the end of the third week I had realised that my novel was going to be much longer than the required 50,000 words for the competition, so I just carried on spewing words at the project, knowing I would edit it down once the competition was over.

That was my Third Big Mistake! I should have known that when I have become too wordy, I need to stop and edit it down so it doesn’t become an even bigger problem later, before moving on. I was sure I could do it when I was no longer in a hurry…

Sometimes we just don’t learn, do we? I ruined my first draft for the sake of a competition. Who was I competing against? Myself, and the desire to write 50,000 words in one month. I managed to write just over 51,000 words. Where did it get me? Nowhere. Three years later the manuscript is only 56,000 words long. It has taken me three years to add another 5,000 words to an already wordy, unwieldy, rambling text that can’t seem to decide if it wants a secret passage or a priest hole to hide in. Or both.

For nearly three years I have been taking stabs at bits of it, and getting nowhere fast. The action has moved from Blenheim Palace to Buckinghamshire, and back again. I have been trying to rework the text from an outdated synopsis, a slightly more updated chapter outline that accurately reflects only the first half of the plot and goes haywire in the second half, a timeline that has been tweaked to the point where I have had to completely rewrite it, a story plan checklist where nothing is getting checked off in the right places, and a beat sheet where the beats are all out of sync and I have no idea where the climax is going to be because the third quarter of the novel is different in every single one of these.

I feel like a pantser, but I know that I am a full-blooded plotter and can only work on the text when the plot finally makes sense.

So the other week I decided it was time for some old-fashioned cut-and-paste. Not on the computer, but in the original way. I printed out copies of my synopsis, chapter outline, story plan checklist and beat sheet. I then cut each of them into their various scene segments that make up the third quarter of the novel. I spread these across my whiteboard and arranged them in the right order with the help of some fridge magnets.

Then I began joining the bits that matched, and finding the correct connectors between each scene – the inner conflicts of each character, which leads to their goals evolving into new motivations, and so on. It took me two days of working in this way to make sense of the third quarter of the plot, and to transfer that finished section into one massive document, back on my computer.

It’s all starting to make sense now, and with a few more tweaks I’ll be satisfied enough to set it aside and do the same with the last quarter of the novel. I’m not as worried about this final quarter, because in most of my novels the characters move away from my outline and bring their own inspiration to the climax and finale – but only if the third quarter works properly and at a good pace. I will deal with the actual finale when I get there. In the meantime I have a lot of writing to do…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 14: Theme

For some reason I’ve always been drawn to stories about what the past brings us. I love reading books set in two or more time-frames, where the present-day protagonist uncovers the secrets or mysteries of a previous generation. Favourite writers on my bookshelf include Kate Morton, Hannah Richell and Kate Quinn. I love to lose myself in the writings of these wonderful story-spinners.

It’s no accident that I have chosen to write my own novels along similar themes. The protagonist in my first (unpublished and semi-autobiographical) novel wanted to discover what made her ancestors leave England in 1880 to embark on an ill-fated settler scheme in Africa. (Of course, I still don’t know why my own ancestors did this, and maybe this is why that novel will never be completely finished. Or published.)

When I started to become a writer, I read every book on writing I could get my hands on. I later subscribed to blogs and saved writer websites as favourites, eager to amass as much knowledge about writing as possible. Along the way, I have become confused about theme. Some writers say that theme is the first thing you should consciously decide upon, and others say it should be left until a later draft, when you as the writer discover exactly what it is you are trying to say with that particular work.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is the way that works best for me, but there is always an initial historical theme through all my books.

My novella From Daisy with Love delved into the First World War diaries of my grandfather and the scrapbooks, letters, autograph books and drawings of my grandmother. What was in them is also somewhere in me, and I don’t just mean the shared DNA.

In my novel The Epidaurus Inheritance my protagonist wants to know the history of an ancient, ornate knife she inherited from her Greek father. She gets more than she bargained for when she realises that she’s not the only one tracing her knife, and some are prepared to kill whoever stands in their way of obtaining it.

In fact, my overriding theme could be “be careful what you wish for” except that some of my characters come into possession of something they didn’t wish for, an object that has nothing to do with them or their family history. In Benicio’s Bequest an art teacher on holiday in Italy encounters a stranger who leaves her a parcel to deliver to an address in Venice. She doesn’t find the parcel in her handbag until several hours after she has witnessed the bloody murder of this stranger, Benicio. The object that Benicio sends to his brother, through her, leads them both on a trail of stolen art, excellent forgery and – of course – several bodies along the way.

In The Trojan Legacy my modern-day protagonist immigrates to Australia with her parents, but finds it hard to adjust to her new life. Sorting through the boxes of things her mother couldn’t bear to leave behind, she uncovers references her grandmother made to an Australian friend. The girl sets out to find this person or their descendants. She also gets more than she wished for, but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t already read the book.

I have gone into most of my life’s endeavours in an eager but open-minded state, and have worked things out along the way. Sometimes it takes me longer than others, but I like to think that I get there in the end.

And so it is with theme. Now that I’ve written several novels, I can see that my main theme is about what we or those close to us inherit, but each novel has its own unique version of that inheritance or legacy. Variations on a theme, to use a musical term.

For example, The Epidaurus Inheritance also touches on the economic crisis in Greece, and the need for ancient Greek artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles to be returned to their country of origin. Benicio’s Bequest touches on the ties that bind members of the same family, and how the shared DNA doesn’t always point brothers in the same direction. The Trojan Legacy teaches its two modern-day protagonists that sometimes what is eventually uncovered needs to be laid to rest, assigned to the past where it belongs, so that new life can move on.

As for my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage, the inheritance theme is present once more, as is a side theme on the difference between two brothers, but there are deeper loyalties and issues about the choices we make, especially in times of war. I’ll let you know how that changes as it goes along…

Readers out there, what draws you to pick up a particular book? Is there a common thread that runs through them? And writers, how do you find your theme?