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What Road Trips Have Taught Me About Writing

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On all my holidays and road trips since 1982 I have written a daily travel diary, detailing each day’s events, names of places, what I saw, felt, did, bought, and so on. This has stood me in good stead when writing novels because with all those detailed memories plus whatever current info I can find about those places on Google, I can draw up a fairly accurate depiction of what life is like in that particular place today.

Hand in hand with the travel diary text, there are always photographs. Loads of them. Back in the days of using ordinary film, I was more careful about what I snapped. There was no instant viewing or opportunity for immediate retakes if you didn’t like the first picture, because of the delay in having the pictures printed – a process usually done once you reached home after the trip, and by then on an even more limited post-holiday budget.

When I hiked the Otter Trail back in 2003, I considered getting a digital camera to take with me, but when someone pointed out that, with no electricity for five days, I wouldn’t be able to recharge the battery nightly, I stuck to my trusty old Ricoh.

In 2011 I attended a writing seminar on adventure and travel writing, where one of the presenters advised us to invest in an ordinary digital camera and to take photographs of absolutely everything along the way. “You don’t have to print them all,” he told us, “and even if they’re not good enough to accompany an article in a travel magazine, they will always aid you in remembering places and incidents.”

Boy, was he right! I bought myself an entry-level digital Canon just before my first trip to Australia in 2012 and have used it to the nth degree ever since. The only downside is that the more photos I take, the more important it is to remember to recharge the camera’s battery before the next day’s excursion.

I’ve just returned to Melbourne after a two week road trip down the eastern side of Australia with one of my closest friends. Some days were so busy that we were too tired by the evening to write our daily notes, so this often didn’t happen until days later. Thanks to the photographs acting as reminders, not a single precious memory has been muddied or lost, from Arrawarra Beach to Mount Kosciuszko.

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Some days my photo count was over 140, particularly the day we saw the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge! Although only a handful of these found their way into Facebook, blog posts and tweets, they are all on my computer waiting to jog my memory when the time comes.

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I love being a writer because I can justify anything I do by calling it research. My recent road trip definitely holds fodder for a future novel. At the moment I have no idea what that next novel will be about – anything from a mob of  wild kangaroos to the story of Ned Kelly – but I’m certain it will be set somewhere in those 2400 kilometres we travelled through the south eastern part of Australia.

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I believe that being out of your comfort zone and travelling with an open mind are the two key ingredients for finding potentially limitless possibilities for the next novel.

If there is a common thread running through my novels, it is the fish-out-of-water theme. My novels are never autobiographical, but just like my fictional heroines, I enjoy being a single person in an unfamiliar place, ripe for experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.

Not knowing in advance what the next novel is about has never stopped me from gathering useless information for it. In common with other novelists, I have a system for filing away ideas, snippets of news, and notes about certain skills I will never personally achieve, but which my characters might well be masters of. Like a jigsaw puzzle where I can create my own pieces, the next novel will take shape when the time is right, and it will be made up of all sorts of previously unconnected pieces.

I firmly believe that part of any creative process is the melding together of various elements that would be unrelated in another context. The real trick is to find that elusive strand of gold that weaves it all together successfully and makes it shine for the reader.

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It Started with a Picture

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Like most of my novels, this one started with an image, a setting. In this case, it was a picture in a travel book. Even back in 2011 I knew that my next novel would be set in Australia, because that was where my sister had gone to live with her Australian husband. They left South Africa in the middle of 2011 to settle in Melbourne, and I knew that I would follow them within a few years. Which I have now done, but that’s another story, so let’s backtrack a bit.

When my only sibling and her husband announced that they were leaving, my brother-in-law knew exactly where they would go – to Melbourne which was where most of his family lived. He had been to visit them there a few years before, but my sister hadn’t. She had no idea what to expect, and for both of us Melbourne was simply a place on a map.

As is my inclination when I need to research something, I headed into my nearest bookshop to look for books on Australia and, more specifically, on Melbourne. The book I found was a travel book, beautifully illustrated with loads of photographs of many places – Federation Square, Flinders Street station, the trams gliding through leafy streets, the Puffing Billy train that chugs through the mountainous area known as the Dandenongs, and an array of popular eating places, some of which were in a street called Lygon Street.

I realised that Melbourne was a beautiful city, filled with artistic, historical, sporting, culinary and cultural delights, and not some one-horse town in the middle of the vast red desert that made up the Australian outback in my mind. I bought the book and presented it to my sister.

The more she read it, the more she discovered and passed on to me interesting bits about her soon-to-be city. Before she left to live there, I bought myself a copy of the same book, so that we could both be on the same page, as it were, when she wanted to tell me about a place she had been to. It helped me to be able to picture her in a place that was accessible to me, even if only by book.

Lygon Street covers a relatively small area in Carlton, just north of the city centre, near the Melbourne Museum, but it’s tightly packed with Italian restaurants, Gelateria, fashion boutiques and gorgeous cake shops, interspersed with parks, trees and small lanes. The restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl, with their tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavements, their hosts declaiming about their mouth-wateringly delicious food to all passers-by.

My sister found it to be an exciting, unique place on her first visit and, during one of our Skype sessions, told me on which page of our books to find a photo of it. She promised that we would go there when I came out to Australia on holiday. I stared long and hard at the picture in the book, at its neon signs illuminating the leafy green trees spreading above the tables, and the inevitable happened: I began to imagine characters other than us hanging out there.

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I took my first trip to Melbourne when my sister had been there almost six months, but long before that I had created images in my head of how Lygon Street would look in reality, and how one of my main characters, Bobby, would run a bar set in a basement below one of the many vibrant restaurants there, and he would live… oh, I don’t know – in a house somewhere in the same area.

The reality, when I visited it with my sister, was quite different. There were no basements leading down from the street level, but most of the buildings were double storey. There were also plenty of small lanes between buildings, leading to other lanes and what had once been alleys, I suppose, but had been prettified. Best of all was a lane leading past a restaurant to an inner courtyard in which we found a modern clock tower and what looked like a set of upstairs apartments.

This was good. This meant that people actually lived in between all these restaurants. But it wasn’t quite what I had been hoping for. I liked the clock tower, though…

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Further in, we found a few gates and garages behind the clock tower, as well as homes above some of the shops. There was a whole world of quaint, attractively painted shops and small businesses rubbing shoulders with private dwellings, and this was just what I needed for Bobby. In my mind I appropriated the restaurant in the lane leading to the clock tower for Bobby’s piano bar, and I gave him an apartment above, overlooking Lygon Street itself.

The bar was small, but I needed the apartment to be large enough for Bobby to have a spare room that contained old family junk, so I obligingly created an Italian restaurant in front of the bar and a very large and well organised stockroom behind it, with the apartment stretched luxuriously over the whole lot. I also gave Bobby a hired garage a few lanes away for him to house his car which he doesn’t often use, but does need for one very important trip about halfway through the novel.

I’ve been back to Lygon Street many times, and on each visit I check to see that I’m still on track in my imaginary version of it. I usually take more photos too, which is probably silly, but I do like to be able to cross reference things.

It’s been a long road, writing this novel. There have been too many interruptions, too much upheaval in my life, but the novel is finally reaching the end of its winding road. All it needs now is a final read, a cover, some formatting for Amazon, and then it’ll be ready to go out in the world and carve its own path.

Watch this space…

Tea-Drinking Writer, Interrupted…

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What many people don’t understand about some of us old-fashioned writers is that writing can be a long process. Just like that fat lady who waits until the end of the opera before singing her most heart-rending aria, a novel isn’t ready until the writing of it is over.

I’ve said this before: I will never be the kind of writer who churns out a new book every few weeks or months. I am a mature writer who likes to drink tea while she works, or wine when she has something to celebrate. Both of these beverages require slow brewing, slow maturation, and slow sipping.

How can I put this another way? I’m not a person who believes in rushing anything. If I ever reach the point in my life where I can write and produce one novel a year, I’ll be extremely proud of myself. I have quite a way to go before I can achieve that, but I’m working towards it, despite the interruption of having moved from one country to another.

The last six to eight months have brought major disruptions into my life. For someone who is determined to continue writing against all the odds, I’m not succeeding at the moment, but I won’t give up trying.

In fact, the last five years haven’t been easy, since my sister and her husband made the decision to leave South Africa and move to Australia. From the moment of their announcement I knew I would do everything possible to follow them. If my family home-base was moving to the other side of the world, then so was I.

What I didn’t realise back then was just how difficult that would be; how disjointed and drawn-out the process was to become, how lonely and insecure I would feel left behind in an increasingly violent and potentially dangerous country, run by a corrupt, inept government.

As always, I turned to my writing to get me through the storms. When my sister left, my sense of urgency to get my unpublished books “out there” into the world increased. Up until then, my experiment at being a novelist had been – like the tea and wine – a long, slow process.

My first novel had taken me four years to write. The second took me less than two. Both of these (despite being complete) are never likely to be published unless they are extensively re-plotted and re-written, but they were a necessary part of the journey that honed my writing skills.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a theory that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written at least a million words. I think I reached my million about halfway through my honours creative writing module in 2009. The project I worked on for that course not only stretched me as a writer, but took me to places inside myself that I hadn’t bargained on finding.

After the project was finished, I turned my back on my first two novels, consigned them to a comfy virtual trunk on my hard drive, and began working on what I refer to as my Greek novel. The Epidaurus Inheritance took the whole of 2010 to write, and then it spent the next year with Penguin SA. In 2010 I tweaked my 2009 creative writing project, turned it into an historical novella and entered it into a novella competition, where it achieved third prize.

At the end of 2011, my Greek novel received a glowingly positive reaction from Penguin, but was ultimately rejected. By now I was tired of trying to convince South African publishers to take a chance on a romantic mystery that I knew was never going to be the next great political epic they all wanted, so I took the decision to self-publish it on Amazon as an e-book.

In the meantime, I had begun writing another romantic mystery in the same vein, but with an Italian setting. In mid-2012 I uploaded my historical novella – From Daisy with Love – onto Amazon, and a few months later I followed it with my now completed full-length Italian novel – Benicio’s Bequest.

Three books on Amazon within one year! The urge to continue writing never stopped, but unfortunately the available writing time diminished.

My current work-in-progress, which I call my Australian novel (I’ve yet to find the right title), was inspired by my first visit to Australia in early 2012. I wrote two chapters in Melbourne and then shelved it until later that year when I punched out the first draft in less than three months.

Although this draft was completed in January 2013, the re-working of it continued through the next two years. Despite feedback from beta-readers in the second half of 2014, I have yet to complete it. The fat lady had to postpone her big aria, because in January 2015 I received the green light to move to Australia.

This happy, welcome news nevertheless involved a lot of domestic upheaval! Amidst the sorting and packing, I drank the tea and gave away most of the wine, but unfortunately I’ve done no work on the novel apart from a three day session with one of my beta-readers a few days after I received the news. For the next five months everything else took a number and waited in line.

I’ve now been in Australia for two months, and to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on getting back into a writing routine. Somehow, amidst the months of packing my life into boxes, the endless lists and the closing of certain doors, making the big move to Australia has shortened my attention span somewhat.

So many things are still up in the air, so I haven’t quite settled here yet, but I know that’s to be expected. People have warned me that I won’t feel completely established until I have been here for at least six months, sorted out my employment options and found a place of my own.

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Last week my Move Cube container with all my personal belongings arrived, so that’s another door I’ve been able to close. A friend of mine suggested in an e-mail a few weeks ago that I needed a break – a sabbatical, she called it – and I think that’s a good idea. My writing life has been interrupted because the writer in me has been interrupted, and the Me who became that writer is worrying about treading water and trying to find her feet. Instead I should be slowing my breathing and floating for a while. We all need a few deep breaths before jumping into a new life and expecting to fit right in.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a person who takes time to adapt, and that’s what I’m doing as I sip my slow-brewed tea (or wine), listen to some of my newly-discovered classical CDs, and savour the process of adjustment while waiting for that fat lady to hit the high notes…

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Three Out of Four

I have been in Melbourne for three weeks and so far things are going well. At first I felt exhausted, jet-lagged and slightly behind things in general. However, all that was required of me for the first four days was to follow the family wedding party around, something that was not only easy, but great fun as well. I soon relaxed into the happy atmosphere.

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Three weeks on, all the faraway relatives have departed and the local ones are back at work. I am settling into my new space, spending most of my days at my computer. I should be writing, but the sheer joy of being able to sit and browse the blogs I haven’t had time to read for so long, catch up with nonsense on Facebook and send out e-mails to friends about how things are going here, has pushed my writing into the background once more.

I know it’s not writer’s block; more like writer’s procrastination, and you’ve probably realised by now that I’m really good at that. I’ll get back to the writing soon, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day…

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Melbourne’s weather takes some getting used to. It’s a lot colder here than it was in Durban, where our winter temperatures seldom (if ever) dropped below 17°C. Here, things are very different. I had been warned that it would be cold, so I had crammed the second of my two suitcases full of thermal underwear. That was a great idea – until I tried to fit into the bigger suitcase every other piece of clothing that hadn’t gone into my Move Cube (my tiny container within a container).

Re-pack… and re-pack… and re-pack… So I arrived in Melbourne with a depleted supply of thermal underwear as well as a depleted supply of just about everything else, apart from enthusiasm.

Three nights ago was the coldest night in eighteen years, and the following morning the ground was covered with frost – in some places so thick that it almost looked like snow. Of course, that was the morning that we all had to get up early and drive for almost an hour to the far side of Melbourne to collect my beloved kitties from the quarantine facility where they have spent the last ten days.

Fortunately the cat area there was warm and snug, and my two cats had been well-fed and looked great. Their coats were thick and glossy, and their big eyes and purrs when they realised that the intruder in their kennel was me, was heart-warming to experience. They resigned themselves to another stint in their travelling boxes without too much protestation, and another hour’s drive brought them to their new home – our new home – in my sister and brother-in-law’s house.

Our original plan had been for the cats to have a slow transition – I would keep them inside my bedroom for a few days until they felt settled enough to venture into the rest of the house. A week or so later we planned to take them out into the garden for short visits, to get them used to what it all smells like out there, so that they might start to learn where their new home is in this new neighbourhood, new country, new world.

That was the plan, anyway. The practicalities dictated otherwise. To prevent further disruption in their lives, we decided to let them learn from the start the correct locations of both their food and their litter tray. Of course this threw the bedroom isolation idea out the window, so to speak.

Slinking low and with much hesitation, the cats ventured beyond the confines of the bedroom and explored at length. Curious by nature, they didn’t seem to be intimidated by any of their surroundings; just cautious. They both sniffed every inch of the inside of the house before settling down to eat, then wash, and later to use their toilet. And then sleep.

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Galadriel seems to have fallen completely in love with the two extra people in her life, and Valentine is endlessly fascinated by the dishwasher – we didn’t have one in Durban, so the gurgling of water and funny beeps at the end are new to him.

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So far they haven’t ventured outside, but with the current weather, they both seem happy to stay indoors – for the moment.

Looks like we’re all home and happy. The only thing left to arrive now is my Move Cube, which we expect in little over a month. One human and two cats all present and correct; one Move Cube to follow.

Three out of four is a good start!

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…