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?

Father’s Day: My Thoughts

My father died when I was twenty-three. For years afterwards I hated the annual roll-around of Father’s Day. I put my head down, closed my ears and ignored it, apart from extending an ultra-gentle hand to my mother on those days, as I did on all his birthdays and the anniversaries of his death for the next twenty-three years that she outlived him.

When I first began to write, I wrote a fictional version of the story of my father’s ancestors and why they left England to live on a farm in Africa. The day I physically posted that heavy manuscript off to a local writing competition, I felt elation and relief in my car on the way back to work. Suddenly my joy gave way to tears, because I could imagine how proud my father would have been if only he had been alive to know what I had done, but he had been dead for twenty-two years by then – almost half of my lifetime.

A few days later my mother asked if she could read my novel. I was hesitant at first, but almost immediately I knew that I wanted to give her the opportunity that my father would never have – to read a book I had written. I printed out a copy for her, and I’m so glad I gave it to her to read, because little did I know that just over a year later she would be dead too. She never got to read any of my later novels, but she did read most of my early short stories. Five days before she died I sent off my second novel to another competition, and the following day I got the call to rush to her bedside because the end was near.

Neither of those novels ever went any further, but the year following my mother’s death I enrolled in the creative writing module of the honours course at my local university, and began a completely new work as my course writing project.

This later became From Daisy with Love, the novella that told the love story of my father’s parents and how they made it through the First World War. My father’s mother was orphaned young, and so was my own mother. Parents don’t feature much in my novels, especially not my parents. Most of my novels have a female protagonist who has been orphaned a long time before the novel begins. It seems that I want heroines who stand on their own and are able to travel far and wide in search of love and adventure.

But perhaps there’s another reason I seldom write about my parents or use them as models for the parents of any of my fictional characters.

This morning I read an excellent blog post by Vaughn Roycroft on Writer Unboxed. It was a Father’s Day tribute to his father, and both the post and many of the comments opened my eyes to several things. It’s a beautiful post and I strongly urge you to read it because he puts things way better than I can explain.

Part of me doesn’t want to share my parents with the world. They are now in my private memory and the memories of the people who knew them, and surely that’s no business of anyone else’s?

I never met my mother’s mother, I don’t remember much of my father’s parents, and the only grandparent I do remember died when I was ten. He was great fun, but like my parents, my mother’s father is now part of my private memory. I don’t want anything to interfere with the memories I have of any of those whom I knew.

However, the ones I never knew can become fair game in my writing because I don’t know what they were really like, so I can only imagine them anyway. Daisy and her boyfriend have become more real to me since I created an imagined life for them as youngsters during the First World War. I met my grandfather with new eyes when I read his war diaries and turned a page to see the words written in his small, neat handwriting, announcing that he was in the German South West African desert and it was his 21st birthday, only there was no one to help him celebrate it properly because all those he loved were far away.

I was forty-two when I read that – twice the age he was when he wrote it. To say that it fired up my imagination would be an understatement indeed.

And yet, perhaps all my loved ones are there in my writing, as Roycroft’s Writer Unboxed post points out. It all has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Zander speaks of his late parents with great fondness, and he has become a father figure to a younger cousin who rides a motorbike and occasionally stays over in Zander’s Athens apartment when he is too drunk to drive home safely.

There is a kindly old rascal of an uncle in Benicio’s Bequest who more than resembles my own rascally old grandfather who used to drive a steam train and get into all sorts of trouble and nonsense in his youth. The two brothers in that same novel are five years apart in age, and the story involves the younger one. Likewise, there are two brothers in Oxford Baggage, my current WIP, also born five years apart, and that story is also about the younger one.

My own father was the younger of two brothers, born five years apart. They were very different and they didn’t always get on, but a shared history between siblings can go a long way to smoothing that out.

My father was seven years older than my mother, as are the two main characters in Oxford Baggage. My parents married in the 1950s which is the era in which I have set this new work. I can’t help wondering how much more of them I’m going to find in my novel when I’ve finished writing it.

My modern-day protagonists in The Trojan Legacy are also six or seven years apart in age, and I wrote a glorious Christmas day celebration for them which included her parents and grandparents. Sadly I edited it out in the final draft because even though I loved the scene, it added nothing to the story and slowed down the pace going into the last quarter of the book. Such is the life of a writer…

To all readers out there who might no longer have parents with them, and who have mixed feelings about the celebration of days like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, I hope you are able to use these days to reflect positively on the lives of the generations before us, and the vast legacy of memories left to us.

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 13: Making the Reader Care

I’ve always enjoyed reading. From as far back as I can remember, reading was my escape. An escape from being an asthmatic child who coughed too much to run with the energetic children in my neighbourhood. An escape from classroom bullies. An escape from a world that sometimes wasn’t as much fun as the world depicted in the books I read.

In high school and university I became a more inquisitive reader, wanting to know more about things like travel and history, but still a lover of fiction. I analysed the set works of literature and the dramatic arts to get my degree. In my early years of being a drama stage manager, I was still fascinated by characters and their motivations as I worked alongside actors and directors in the rehearsal room, watching and listening to them unpicking the complications of the characters and the relationships they portrayed.

However, it’s only in recent years – since I became a writer – that I’ve started to analyse all of the above in terms of what makes a book interesting enough to keep reading it. As always, the answer inevitably comes from the books I love to read.

For example, I have just finished reading an incredibly exciting book by a successful best-selling author. This is her second novel. I really enjoyed her first, which I read about two years ago. However, I almost didn’t make it through this second novel, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

Before I start, I should mention that both are stand-alone novels, not connected to each other in any way – no sequels or prequels; each one is a single story on its own.

Her first novel was written in the first person, voiced by three characters, all of whom intrigued me enough that I felt compelled to follow and see where these three very different women led me. By the time it became evident – not far into the novel – that the main narrator was an unreliable narrator due to her alcohol addiction, I already liked her and wanted to see what she was up to. I cared. Despite her forgetfulness and the fact that she couldn’t be trusted, I still wanted to follow her to the end.

The second novel was written from several points of view – some in first person, some in third. Too many points of view, I felt. At first I couldn’t keep track of who was who, and by the time I’d sorted out and managed to tell the difference between some of the more confusingly similar characters, I was almost halfway through the book and I still didn’t really care about any of them. At the start of most chapters I had to page back through the book to remind myself who this particular person was. Reading a little bit each night before bedtime (which is the way I read most books), didn’t help with continuity.

The main difference between these two books was that, in the first book, I cared about the main character. I was also intrigued by the other two and wanted to know what happened to them.

In the second book, I didn’t care about the characters. I had no emotional investment in any of them. In fact, the only characters I even vaguely liked were an outsider policewoman (whom I had muddled with a second policewoman several times during the first half of the novel) and a young boy. Both of these characters were peripheral to the plot for the first half of the story. I felt sorry for the boy because his family had become dysfunctional after the death of his sister, and I had high hopes that the policewoman would solve the mystery surrounding the various deaths, but apart from that, I didn’t care enough to want to follow all the other unlikeable characters to see how they sorted out the mess the whole village was in.

The only reason I carried on reading the second book was because I had enjoyed the author’s first book so much. I knew that she was a really good writer, and that she was sure to deliver a fabulous denouement like she had done in her previous novel. I persevered only because I was willing to take the gamble that she would come through eventually.

I also knew that if I stopped reading the book halfway through, I was unlikely to ever go back and attempt to re-read it. Worse, I would probably never bother to read one of her novels again, and that would be a pity.

She did, of course, come through before the end. A suspenseful build-up during which I didn’t know who to trust (after all, I didn’t like any of the suspects, did I?), followed by a nail-biting climax, and capped with a nasty twist on the very last page. I’ll definitely be reading her next book!

But…

What if I hadn’t read her first book? What if she wasn’t famous for delivering the goods? What if she was an unknown writer like me?

This all got me thinking about the most important thing an author can do when writing a novel, particularly if that author is relatively unknown. We can all wax lyrical about constructing a good plot, deep characters, exotic settings and amazing mysteries, but if a reader doesn’t care enough, it all goes down the toilet.

Reading is an emotional experience. Readers want to make a connection; they want to reach out and touch something because it resonates with something deep inside them.

It takes a long time to write a novel, so surely some of that time needs to be spent in making the reader care about the characters?

Flowers for ANZAC Day

One hundred and four years ago, at dawn on the 25th of April in 1915, the combined forces of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. There followed one of the bloodiest conflicts of the First World War. The following year, it was decided that the anniversary of that landing date would forever be remembered in both countries.

This day has become known as ANZAC Day. Every year on this day, services are held in both countries, usually at dawn, or slightly later in the morning, and all businesses remain closed until the afternoon, out of respect.

A few months ago I wrote about how, last Remembrance Sunday, I had placed a lone poppy at the cenotaph which serves as a war memorial in my neighbourhood. Last week, on ANZAC Day, several floral tributes were laid at the base of this cenotaph. Beautiful wreaths from the local Fire Brigade and the Girl Guides, a posy of poppies in the name of two soldiers – probably placed there by family members – and one anonymous bunch of red roses, tied with a pink ribbon.

I was also pleased to see that someone had taken the time and trouble to straighten my single poppy into a more upright position. I wonder if it was the same person who rescued it after the January storm? Either way, my poppy is no longer alone…