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The Five Objects Formula

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When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?

More on the Melbourne Writers Festival

The Melbourne Writers Festival recently completed its 30th annual festival, but this year was my first time attending it. I wrote a few of my observations in a previous blog-post, but since I couldn’t do justice to all I had seen and heard in a single post, I saved some of it for this post.

It would have been impossible to attend everything, so I had to select those sessions I really felt strongly about, sometimes foregoing other sessions that looked just as interesting. There was such a wide variety, and in so many venues, that any festival goer was spoilt for choice.

One session which made a deep impression on me was part of a theme entitled Words and War, which was done in conjunction with the Shrine of Remembrance. The education auditorium is a recent addition to this beautiful building which honours the memories of those who have fallen in war. The setting is a striking one, its forecourt paved with simulated trenches, its walls decorated with paper poppies and its roof a red transparent symbolic poppy through which one can see the main Shrine itself.

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The session I attended – Lest We Remember – was a discussion between Liz Byrski and Clare Wright, hosted by Christina Toomie, and was about those who are marginalised in the writing of history.

Liz Byrski has written 12 non-fiction and 8 fiction books, but her latest, In Love and War: Nursing Heroes is about the experiences of a particular group of nurses and patients. During the Second World War, East Grinstead was an English village close to the airfields used by RAF and American fighter pilots, many of whom suffered horrific burn injuries, so it was the ideal place to build a special hospital for the treatment of burns. This hospital ran along different rules from normal hospitals because of the importance of rehabilitating the badly scarred men, and making them feel as normal as possible. Because of this, the nurses were actively encouraged to fraternise with their patients.

The patients, when interviewed decades later, had only good memories of their time spent there, and of the wonderful nurses. However, many of the nurses had a different version of events. At first, Liz couldn’t find any of the nurses because no proper records had been kept. When she did manage to track some of them down, many wanted to remain anonymous and had never even told their families about the part they had played in the war years. Proof that the history of war is generally told by the men, not the women. Liz trod a difficult path in trying to present both sides of a delicate situation.

Clare Wright is a television writer and producer who, in time for the one hundred years commemoration of the First World War, had embarked on a special series of programmes about Australian soldiers, as remembered by the generations that followed them. She found similar problems to Liz during her research, because every family wants to remember their ancestor as a hero and she found that not all soldiers are the heroes that their families have believed for a hundred years.

How does one present the story of a soldier who might have been shot for cowardice, or who died from what, in the record books, is called SIW: Self Inflicted Wounds? SIW can mean anything from a bullet shot at close range through one’s hand, in order to be exempt from further fighting, to more definite and final suicide. (Fans of television’s Downton Abbey will recognise that some of these issues were raised in that excellent series.)

Later that day I attended a session called Older and Bolder, hosted by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. All attendees (mostly older women like myself) were treated to a glass of wine before the event. Chaired by Renata Singer of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, the panel comprised international author Simonetta Agnello Hornby from Italy, actress and author Sarah Winman from the UK, and Shobhaa De from India, all of whom gave their theories on how various societies treat aging women.

Society, it seems, embraces aging men with distinguished grey hair and life experience, but tries to pretend that aging women with grey hair and wrinkled skin are invisible. This is not helped by Hollywood and fashion trends, but women who are aging need to embrace their aging process because the alternative – dying young – isn’t desirable for any of us.

This was an inspiring, empowering session, and perhaps the best example came from a woman who stood up during the Q&A to tell us that she was 48, and had a started playing in an all-girl band a year before, at the age of 47. If anyone had told her when she was 46 that she would do such a thing, she wouldn’t have believed it. She urged everyone in the room to follow their dreams and take ownership of whatever they want to do.

One evening during the following week I listened to two astrophysicists – Brian Schmidt and Katie Mack – talk about the universe. I must confess that this made me feel rather small and insignificant since I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, but my sister enjoyed the session. Not really my thing, but it was interesting to hear something a little different even if it was, pardon the pun, way above my head.

The final session I attended was about adapting a particular series of books into a television series. The Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery books, set in 1920s Melbourne, are written by local author Kerry Greenwood, who agreed to the television rights after meeting Deborah Cox, one of the producers and the chief writer of the adaptations.

I read my first Phryne Fisher book during one of my previous visits to Melbourne, and four books later I have become a firm fan. I have never seen any of the television episodes, so I was eager to find out a little more about it. While I would have loved to hear Kerry Greenwood herself speak, she was not scheduled to be at the session. However, producer Deborah Cox was joined on stage by Ashleigh Cummings, the actress who plays Dot, and the two of them were not only entertaining, but provided plenty of information on why certain stories or books are adapted in ways that differ from the original.

As a fitting footnote to this last story, I visited the historic Melbourne home called Rippon Lea a few days ago, to see an exhibition of the costumes used in the television series. The house itself has on occasion been used as a location for some of the filming, as have parts of the extensive grounds. This beautiful estate is part of the National Trust of Australia, and is very much a working museum which often houses exhibitions of this kind. The ballroom in the grounds of the estate is also a popular wedding venue.

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Hiatus Before the Countdown

I find it hard to curb the rising sense of panic as I face my final week before the container arrives to take my worldly goods to Australia. A thousand questions bother my troubled mind hourly and I can scarcely think about anything else. The few hours each day in which I have to go to work are a relief because the show I am working on is complicated and highly technical, and thus requires my full concentration for those hours. The twenty-five minute drive each way provides a twice daily period of transition in which to wind down with the music in my car and ease the switchover between my two current worlds.

In three weeks I will be part of another world, and every now and then I allow myself a few minutes to dream of it. I find myself telling an old school friend about how beautiful Melbourne is, or I see a video my sister has shared on Facebook and my heart soars to think of the new life awaiting me.

But first I have to pace myself through these last few weeks.

The first minutes after I wake up each day are quiet, and it is this time that has always been my favourite writing time. In the past it was reserved for novels, short stories and competition entries, but in the last six months it has been for lists, schedules and deadlines. Like the calm before any storm, I have reached a period of hiatus – some would say paralysis – and I find that those moments of quiet have returned to me in the last few mornings.

On the surface, there’s not much more to do – throw the last few things into boxes, check that those boxes will fit in the small space allocated, label everything and cushion it all with bubble wrap, rugs and bags of clothing. Wave good bye as it pulls out of the driveway and forget about its torrid journey on the high seas until I unpack it in Melbourne in three months’ time.

Beyond that, my thoughts must turn to the two more weeks of limbo beyond container D-day, in which I will have to sell the last few pieces of furniture and my car, put my cats on a plane, squeeze the remainder of my clothing into a bulging, heavy suitcase and say good bye to my friends.

That last one will be the hardest part, I know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between my own situation and all the others who have not had it so lucky. From my own sister – who packed up everything she had ever known four years ago and moved to a land she had seen only in books, photographs and on television – to our ancestors who came from the northern hemisphere one hundred and thirty-five years ago to Africa on a crazy, doomed settler scheme.

Apart from our own family, I have also thought about the thousands of unfortunates who were packed into ships from those same northern parts during the earlier 1800s and sent far away to the penal colonies of Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land, never to see family or friends again. To say that they began life anew is to barely scratch the surface of what those people went through.

My thoughts have also turned in recent months to the victims of xenophobia right here on my own doorstep. Innocent men, women and their children from other parts of Africa who have already forged a new way of life far from their original homes, and who were suddenly subjected to the mob violence that Africa is famous for. They had their houses and shops looted, burned down and were lucky to escape with their lives and the clothes on their backs. Not all were that lucky. Where were our country’s law-enforcers during this? For the most part, it seems, they turned their backs or pitched up late.

On the whole, I am having an easy time of it!

First of all, I want to go to Australia. No one is forcing me. I am going because I am all that is left of my immediate family in this land – this land that is becoming increasingly difficult for everyone to live in. Having a pale skin has become undesirable both in the workplace and on farms in the last twenty years, but even more worrying than that, is the fact that no one – regardless of their skin colour – is safe in this culture of lawlessness that oozes down from the top like a toxic, leaking, syphilitic volcano.

Our so-called leaders have perfected the art of feathering their own nests with fire pools and luxury estates, squandering the funds that should have been used to help the poorer people of this land to get humble two-room houses, basic education and primary health care. Like a dynamo, twenty years of corruption has escalated into a whirlwind, a downward spiral, a snowball gathering momentum – call it what you will – and there seems to be no stopping it, ever.

Our leader laughs and chuckles openly when confronted by watchdogs who try to make him accountable for his abhorrent actions, and his has become the most loathed face on our television screens. Never mind who is winning or losing on Game of Thrones, our own reality is more bizarre and terrifying than any concocted by Hollywood. As the corruption increases, so too does the threat of measures to silence those who try to fight him. It’s like the old days, only worse…

Many South Africans have had enough and are searching their family trees or their skills for other places to go. The exodus that began slowly steps up a few notches every year – rather like our inflation rate, our unemployment rate and our crime rate.

In fact, that infamous crime rate was the initial spur that nudged the first part of my extended family to move to Australia. Having a gun shoved into his face, and having that gun fail to fire when the trigger was pulled was all the impetus that first family member needed to start thinking about returning to the land of his birth, in order that his own children might grow up in a safer country. In due course, his parents and his siblings followed him, including the one who is married to my sister.

Which brings me to my main reason for going there. Our parents have passed on, and I have no partner or children, so most of the living components of my life are centred in Australia or New Zealand. I just want to be part of my family again.

Three weeks and counting…

Thoughts on My Own Historical Fiction

I’ve dabbled in historical fiction over the years, but never too seriously. While I enjoy reading it, I have only written one novella in that genre: From Daisy with Love which is set in Durban during the First World War. Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a writing seminar on historical fiction, and now my way forward looks set to expand along a slightly different path.

Back in 2004, my first attempt at writing my own family’s history derailed itself when I ran out of actual facts. My ancestors had arrived in Africa in 1880 from Manchester as part of a somewhat dodgy settler scheme. I found plenty of information in local archives about the Willowfountain Settler Scheme itself, but not much of it mentioned my family. Apart from one or two anecdotes and some letters of complaint that my great-great-grandfather wrote to the Land and Immigration Board, there was nothing else. In the back of my mind I had my father’s own stories about his childhood, his parents and his aged grandparents who lived up the road in a big house, but that was all.

What had happened to change the family’s fortunes between 1880 and 1928 when my father was born? I had no idea, but my mind raced to fill in the possible details. Before I knew it, I had rewritten the family history as a fictional account of what might have been.

I later added this historical piece to a contemporary novel I was writing, and tried unsuccessfully to merge the two stories. It didn’t exactly work out and my attempts to flog it to various publishers and agents was… well, embarrassing really. I eventually abandoned it and moved on to other writing projects which have been more successful.

From time to time I’ve dredged out the old story and tried again, thinking that perhaps it has some merit, but I never get very far with it. I’ve realised over time that it is the contemporary part of the story that is the weakest portion, so I’ve been thinking about re-writing just the historical part into another novella. Last weekend was the inspiration I needed to jump in with both feet and go for it.

Our keynote speaker, historian Charles van Onselen, told us how he had researched his latest non-fiction book about a larger-than-life Irish wanderer. The similarities which that character shared with my own ancestors hit me as Charles unfolded the story. A background spent in Manchester, a voyage to Africa, the small community the man created around him from contacts back in the Old Country who had also left their home in that era of Victorian colonial expansion. There was even a brief sojourn in Australia, which is where I am headed at the end of next month. The coincidences seemed too serendipitous to be ignored. This was a sign for me to get back to re-writing my historical novella.

The great thing about fiction is that, unlike historians, we can rearrange the facts to make it more interesting, especially since this isn’t a work of great historical significance. The even greater thing about historical fiction is that it doesn’t date, because it is already dated – by choice.

Sometimes when I’m writing a contemporary work, and trying to make things difficult for my characters to contact someone, it all becomes too easy with a mobile phone, e-mail, the internet or Skype. Contemporary novels have a new set of parameters every few months, as the technology of the world changes around us so fast. If you’re anything like me, novels take time to write and it’s a terrible blow after you’ve struggled through a particular plot point and worked it all out, only to have some technological boffin invent a shortcut that takes away the credibility of my plot’s tension just weeks after my novel is published!

It’s annoying to say the least, that there is a GPS on every phone – how is a person supposed to get lost in a modern book? If you haven’t seen someone you love in a while and are wondering what they currently look like, all you have to do is click on Facebook and browse their latest photos, or follow them on Twitter and look at their Instagram pics.

There’s just no mystery for us mystery writers any more…

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate technology in my real world, but not in my world of fiction where things keep getting too easy and too instant for my characters. Just thirty years ago people had to work a lot harder to find a call-box or look up something in an archive or library that might have had the added frustration of being closed when they finally got there. Let’s face it – we writers need to make our characters suffer a little, so that you – the readers – can sit on the edges of your seats, willing them to succeed. Historical fiction gives us the chance to go just a little way back in time to where it all cost the characters much more in terms of effort.

I’m not sure how my historical novella will pan out yet, but this time I will definitely turn it into something readable. Of that I am sure. I just need the time to do it, and I should have plenty of that once I reach Australia.

For those of you who follow me on Scribbling Scribes, my piece about King’s Grant Country Retreat – the beautiful venue we used for the above-mentioned seminar – will be up on that blog next Wednesday, but in the meantime you can enjoy the photos below or take a look at their website here. How could one fail to be inspired in such a beautiful place?

So What Was 2014 All About?

It’s that time of the year when everyone looks back on the previous year and weighs up what rocked and what sucked. If 2013 was the year I moved house twice because of the ants, then what will 2014 be known as? Probably the year that I made two trips to Australia. And let me tell you, that was a lot more fun than moving house twice!

I was lucky to fit in both trips to Australia last year – one in January and one in October – and both of those rocked. The first trip included a whirlwind visit to New Zealand as well. I spent time with my sister and her family and had two fantastic holidays. You can read all about my day in Hobbiton and one of my scary plane trips.

In between those two trips were several things that sucked, but I’m sure you don’t want to read the horrible bits, so I’ve left them out. For the positive bits, read on!

In January 2014 I joined 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day and began knitting, to the detriment of my finger joints. This wonderful blanket drive is ongoing, has spread internationally and to date has gathered over 6000 blankets for the poor and homeless. My first blanket took me nearly five months to knit and left my fingers swollen and sore.

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My second blanket is being made on a hand loom and is progressing well, minus the painful joints. I’m hoping to have it ready to hand over soon.

In March last year I finished the seventh draft of my latest novel, and gave it to five beta readers to work their way through it. Early in April I had a car accident, and between that and a really nasty thing that happened to one of my best friends, things went downhill. I felt not only worn out but blocked creatively, so I looked around for a new project.

In May I enrolled in an online course to learn a little more about different ways of writing online and increasing one’s online presence. It’s all very well to write in a vacuum but if no one knows you’re there, how are you supposed to find readers – for your blog or for your novels? After much thought, I migrated my quiet little writing blog from Weebly (which still hosts my website) to WordPress.

As the blogging world opened up to me, I discovered several things:

  • It’s really hard to keep blogging about only writing;
  • It’s much more fun to write about almost everything else;
  • Writing about other things (even knitting a blanket) is less dry and boring;
  • People seem to be fascinated by my life in theatre;
  • Some readers would far rather read about my life in theatre than the books I’ve written, or how I write them.

So I started my second blog, called Beginning, Middle and Entertainment. It’s about theatre, of course.

Well, technically, it’s my third blog because my writing blog is actually my second blog. For the last few years I have been contributing monthly to the Scribbling Scribes blog, and some of those posts I mentioned earlier are from there – also on WordPress. We’re all writers but we don’t always write about writing. Also, there’s a group of us so there is variety. That’s a good thing, we think, and variety seems to have paid off on my own blog too.

My move to WordPress wasn’t easy, but it certainly wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning. The more I find out, the more I realise how little I know. I’ve just enrolled in the latest WordPress Blogging 101 course so I’m all set and ready to learn lots more.

By the way, about that latest novel – I’m hoping to get it back from my sixth beta reader soon, then I’ll do one more edit and hopefully get it up on Amazon within the next month or so. I promise to keep you posted…

The Magic of Stories About Christmas

One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when a favourite aunt (who always gave us wonderful presents) gave my sister and I each a copy of Clement Moore’s famous poem The Night Before Christmas in the form of a book, beautifully illustrated by Florence Sarah Winship. These books were presents that we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve (all other presents had to wait till the next morning). They subsequently became part of every Christmas Eve thereafter, because before long we both knew the poem by heart and could recite bits of it at random.

One Christmas Eve we dressed up as fairies (or was it elves?) and recited it to our parents from each side of the fireplace, next to the Christmas tree. We had copied the poem out onto handmade scrolls which we rolled importantly from one verse to the next. Some of these we spoke together, others individually. Rounds of applause followed and although the presentation may have been a little rough, we were extremely proud of ourselves!

Years later while browsing in a bookshop, I found a newer copy of the poem, this time illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Of course I added it to my book collection. Sometimes during the pre-Christmas season I page through both versions in order to re-live a little of that magic from so long ago.

I must have been about twelve years old when a teacher read us the Reader’s Digest abridged version of Norah Lofts’ How Far to Bethlehem? We were in a Christian school, so the whole class knew the story of the Nativity, but it was the different way in which it was told that appealed to us the most.

My imagination was fired up by the thought that I was getting some insight into the lives of those mysterious humans from far away, the Three Wise Men. Who knows who they really were? Wherever they came from and wherever they went afterwards, for a few days their visit to that stable has made them part of the story that has been handed down, in one form or another, for over two thousand years. No matter which way you look at it, there’s a good story there…

This brings me to another favourite book which I found in the children’s section of a bookshop a few decades back. Having no children myself, my justification for buying it was so that I could read it to my sister’s children. I did. They’ve all long since grown up, but every year I take out that book and re-read it because I love it so much. It’s called The Witness, written by Robert Westall and beautifully illustrated by Sophy Williams.

The Witness appeals to me because I love cats. It’s a secular story of an Egyptian cat far from her home, who gives birth to two kittens one harsh winter’s night while sheltering in a stable. Afterwards, she sees another mother – a human – who has given birth to a baby boy in the same stable. As a cat, she also sees the glorious angels hovering above the family of humans. The angels are amused that the animals can see them when the humans can’t.

Some days later, after the kittens have grown a little, there is a visit from three rich men who bring costly gifts for the human baby. They have travelled through many lands and recognise that the cat is from the temples of Egypt. They also warn the humans about King Herod before they leave.

The baby’s father later tells his wife that he has had a dream in which he was told to take the cat back to her home, but he doesn’t know where she lives. His wife points out that the cat is Egyptian, so the little family prepares to make the long journey to Egypt with all three cats…

To me, the magic of good storytelling is to take a story that may be familiar, but to tell it from a different point of view and provide a good twist to what might be a well-known ending.

Wherever you are this holiday season, and whether or not you celebrate Christmas, may you have a peaceful time, and enjoy reading!

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Wonder-Filled Inspiration

As a teenager I dreamed of overseas travel, yearning to see not only the scenery, but the artworks and architecture of the world.

I was fourteen when television started in our country, and one of my most vivid memories is of watching Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. The series was almost ten years old by then, but it didn’t matter. Each episode fascinated me, and there was plenty of time to mull it over before the next because they were broadcast every alternate Sunday evening. During the weeks between, I searched the school library, looking up the artists and the buildings, hoping to see colour pictures, because our television was – of course – black-and-white!

Yes, if you’re wondering how I was able to appreciate such things on an ancient monochrome television (of if you’re baffled by why I took the trouble to page through actual dusty books to see tiny reproductions), let me assure you, it wasn’t a chore!

Six months after I graduated from university with my arts degree, I went to Europe with my boyfriend – a man I met soon after graduation, and with whom I shared a passion for theatre, art, literature, old churches, galleries, castles and in fact, anything of historical interest. We did the whole Grand Tour, just like the Victorians but in different clothing (and in slightly more modern transport). We also fought a lot, but the good memories outweigh the bad…

Anyway, back to the art. We walked around Michelangelo’s magnificent David, saw his Pieta from a distance across the crowd, and were able to get up close and personal with his Moses on that first trip. Together we stood beneath Juliet’s balcony in Verona, took a gondola ride through Venice and watched the glass blowers on the island of Murano. We picked our way across the stones of the Acropolis, gawped up at the Parthenon and saw a modern day performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Later, in the Louvre, we craned our necks to see the Mona Lisa and walked unimpeded around the Venus de Milo. We crammed a lot into six weeks!

A few years ago when I found Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series on DVD, I bought it immediately. Didn’t even check the price. I took it home and wallowed in the luxury of the entire thing once again – bit by bit, usually on a Sunday night, and with my own collection of art books and overseas photographs to hand. It’s a toss-up as to whether the most striking thing was the ability to rewind, pause, zoom and relive the best bits, or the fact that I could now see it all in glorious colour, and on a bigger, clearer screen!

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Much of the series I had forgotten in the intervening thirty years so I was able to feast on its delights anew, but I also realised just how much had remained in my subconscious during that first trip to Europe, guiding me through the Uffizi gallery and the Louvre, up the leaning tower of Pisa, and past Michelangelo’s timeless works.

Six years after that first trip, I took a second one and I’m not ashamed to say that I revisited many of the same places with my three travelling companions – even managed to drag two of them up Pisa’s leaning tower, back in the days when one could still go up it and stand in front of the huge bells on the top. Something about those incredible, old places fired me up and inspired in me all sorts of romantic and creative dreams. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of the roots of western civilisation. In retrospect it was just as well that I stored all the memories up inside me because I’ve never since been able to afford to go back.

After twenty years of not venturing beyond the borders of my own continent, my family’s circumstances changed a few years back. I’ve now been to Australia three times. On my first visit I feasted on Shakespeare under the Stars, drank in Melbourne’s unique architecture, mosaics, domes, arcades and bridges, and shed tears at the Shrine of Remembrance. In Federation Square I visited Melbourne’s monument to film: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and later sampled the culinary arts of Lygon Street.

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I gazed at bronze and marble sculptures all over the city, contemporary graffiti in the lanes and sand sculptures in Frankston.

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On my second visit to Melbourne two years later I listened to local pianists tinkering on the keys of brightly decorated pianos left out in the open for an initiative called “Play me, I’m Yours.” IMG_0999

I drifted around the Tyabb Packing House with its acres of antiques, wore down my shoe soles in the Melbourne Museum and both venues of the National Gallery of Victoria. In the larger of these, I found myself gazing in wonder at Impressionist paintings, as well as sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore. Two visits to this gallery weren’t enough to see everything so two days after arriving back in Melbourne on my third trip, I legged it down St Kilda Road in the pelting rain for another drool!

So what does this have to do with writing? Nothing on the surface, but it has everything to do with inspiration. I am well aware that not everyone shares my passion for European history or western civilisation (or whatever other name you choose to call it, particularly in my home country where anything western is now regarded as the work of colonial devils) but it has always been – and will always be – a part of my long-ago heritage, my current mental make-up, and my inspiration for the novels I write.

History evolves as fast as it’s created, but some things linger longer in our subconscious than others. Certain stories resonate or touch us more than others. My great triggers are the Trojan War, related tales by Homer and the Greek playwrights, ancient Rome, the bittersweet romance of Romeo and Juliet, Renaissance art, the First World War and absolutely anything to do with theatre.

The list is long and should provide me with plenty of ammunition to conjure up stories to write for the rest of my writing career, but for anyone out there whose triggers are gratuitous violence and destruction, chemistry or science, corporate banking or politics, the wonders of accounting, mathematical skills, motherhood, babies or courtroom drama – well, I think you’ve probably guessed by now how I feel about those. Everyone has their own favourite corridors in the library of life, so you won’t find too many of those subjects in my book bag.

If everyone loved the same things I do, I’d be a better-selling author by now because more readers would be as enthralled with my subject matter as I am. I’m old enough to know and accept that this will never be the case, and I don’t write the type of high adventure favoured by Dan Brown, John Grisham and James Patterson so my mysteries are more whimsical, more romantic and consequently a lot less popular.

For those loyal readers who worry that I might change my style and jump on bandwagons that include fifty shades of erotica, sci-fi or fantasy, police procedurals or vampires, fear not! I will always be here with my own peculiar brand of history-soaked, romantic mysteries.

Following hot on the heels of my three previous works (the stories of a South African set designer and a Greek inspector of antiquities; a World War I letter writer and the two soldiers in her life; an art teacher and an Italian sculptor) comes the story of a romance in Melbourne between a travel agent and a Lygon Street pianist.

Watch this space…