Tag Archive | Inspiration

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 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?

Summer Adjustments – and Bugs!

The seasons are changing here in Melbourne, and at last I’ve been able to shed the thermals and roll the heaters aside. Some mornings are still nippy, and every few days the temperature drops just to remind me that Spring is, after all, a transition between winter and summer, and we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve discovered a new joy in gardening. I have some herbs and lettuces growing in pots on my veranda, and the first crop of alfalfa sprouts on my kitchen counter is almost ready to add to my next salad. Winter bedding has been squashed into top cupboards and summer clothing pulled from storage tubs and aired. The ceiling fan has been dusted off, windows have been creaked open…

…and new bugs have found all the gaps in the screens to creep through and surprise me!

Some of my windows don’t open – warped wood, or too many coats of paint over the years have seen to that – but enough of them open to provide a cooling breeze. In addition to the view, another advantage of living on the top of a rise is that there is always a breeze.

In South Africa, the cottage I lived in for most of my last fifteen years there was cut into the bank of a hollow – not unlike a Hobbit house, although not as picturesque – and very few breezes ruffled my curtains. This was compounded by Durban’s consistently extreme humidity.

Here, my cottage is one of those old-fashioned Australian weatherboard bungalows built on stilts with slatted storage space underneath. Over the years, my landlord has dumped stuff under there, and even though weeds have grown up and obscured some of it, the wind blows through the slats (which may be one of the reasons why my floors are so cold in winter). Who knows what might be taking shelter in that crawl space for the rest of the year? No doubt time will tell.

My standard arrangement with all creepy crawlies is that they can have the outside, but the inside is my territory, because I pay rent for it and they don’t. However, despite being outside, my veranda (the only solid concrete and brick section of the foundation) is still part of my rented cottage, so snails and slugs will be severely dealt with if they come close to my lettuces. In the warmer weather, I have begun to claim this as my territory, with the acquisition of a few pieces of furniture, pot stands, more chimes and a large citronella candle to keep the bugs at bay.

Bugs must please keep away from my car as well because it’s mine. Three months ago I finally got myself a car and gave my brother-in-law his old car back. He found this one for me online and checked it out before I bought it. I love it so much because it’s small, zippy and not unlike the last car I had in South Africa. The only real difference? Instead of blue, it’s pink!

I love my life here in Australia. I sit on my veranda and dream about the lives of my characters in my (much interrupted) novel. Birds chirp, and bigger birds swoop down to chase my cat Valentine if he gets too close to their trees and nests. And rightly so – he’s in their territory out there.

His sister Galadriel doesn’t seem to want to go outside. She prefers the comforts of her home. Perhaps she knows the difference between her territory and that of others.

The other day my landlord cut the grass right up to the far fence because, he said, his wife doesn’t like snakes. He must’ve seen the look on my face because he grinned and said, “You don’t like them either?”

Too muted by terror, I shook my head. Living out in the country may have its drawbacks after all…

Three Hearts & an Angel

The frenzied activity of the last few months has finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. I’ve settled well into my cottage and now that the weather is warming up I have more energy because I don’t feel so cold all the time. I think my cottage is going to be lovely in summertime.

I’ve started a potted herb garden and bought some outdoor furniture for my veranda. The birds are chirping and making nests in the newly greening trees. If my cat gets too close the larger magpies swoop down to warn him away…

Above my bed I have hung some trinkets on the arms of the light fitting. All of these – in the true Marie Kondo sense – spark joy in me when I see them moving gently in the breeze.

A double heart made by my friends Mark and Tarryn, which they gave to all their wedding guests in South Africa back in 2012. It used to hang from the rafters in my Durban cottage. Mark and Tarryn moved to Australia long before I did, and they received their Australian citizenship this month. Their double heart is not only a reminder of the two of them, but a beacon of hope for that far off day when I too, will become a citizen.

The second heart was made by another friend, Shelley, for everyone in the cast and crew of the KickstArt theatre production of the musical Annie in 2014. This small ceramic heart brings to my heart a reminder of the fortitude of my friend Tina. She designed the most beautiful lighting for this show, after surviving a violent encounter which could easily have ended her life. She was determined to let nothing prevent her from creating beauty in the world, every single day, against all odds.

The third heart is one I purchased here in Australia at one of my favourite shops – Ishka. It is hand carved and comes from Indonesia. For me, it’s a reminder of the many hand-carved wooden objects I had to leave behind in Africa due to Australia’s stringent rules and regulations, and it is also a symbol of hope and love as I move forward with my new life here.

The last object – delicately packed for its journey from South Africa by my friend Penny – is a small glass angel given to me by one of my parents’ oldest friends; the same lady who came to break the news to me of my father’s death back in 1985. She gave me this angel about twelve years ago when she visited my mother and stepfather just before Christmas one year.

I’ve never hung it on a Christmas tree because it’s far too delicate. Instead, and because angels are not just for Christmas, it used to hang all year inside a glass-fronted dresser which I no longer have. Now, it will hang permanently above my bed, moving gently in the light breeze which passes through my bedroom. A reminder that sometimes we need to spread our wings in order to fly more freely than we once did.

Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

Light at the End of A Very Long Tunnel

Six weeks ago, the veggie shop where I used to work closed down. The following day I called my boss at my other casual job in the hardware store to tell her that I was available for more shifts. She responded immediately with more shifts to keep the proverbial wolf from my door.

Three weeks later, inspired by this, I broached the subject of part time employment, letting her know that I was definitely interested in something more permanent, should such a position ever become available. Once again she responded positively, offering me a 30-hour per week contract. I signed that contract the next day, and my new position started the following week.

So for two weeks I’ve been doing what I’ve been trying to do for the past year and a half: working most of the week at a job I enjoy, and for a steady, assured income. That hypothetical express train I wrote of last month – the one that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way – is speeding up and delivering the goods.

At last there’s light breaking through at the end of this long, long tunnel!

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends…

For a short month, February has been rather busy. The first ten days played out as normal, with me still gainfully employed at the fruit and veggie shop. On the eleventh day, however, it all took an interesting turn. I arrived at the shop one Sunday morning to be told that the store was closing, and that day was its last.

In retrospect, I had seen it coming but tried to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. My boss had dropped broad hints for a few months that the shop might not last far into the New Year. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I didn’t expect it all to go belly-up in one single day without any notice.

So where does this leave me? Well fortunately my casual job at the hardware store is going well. For the moment. My boss there has been extremely helpful in giving me extra shifts, which I love, but I know it won’t continue in this way much beyond Easter. As the weather cools towards winter, the DIY industry cools down too, for the cold months, before perking up again in springtime.

Which brings me to Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops. Once more I am launching myself into that daunting battlefield known as the job market, steeling my nerves to be cut down by cold-as-steel rejection letters, even as I leap forward to grasp at the slim chance of landing the perfect job

As much as I love my job in the hardware store, I need another part-time job to enable me to finally break out of my dependence on my long-suffering family and be on my own again. With this comes another problem: my novel-writing has ground to an abrupt halt while I concentrate my writing energies on writing and rewriting my cover letters and tweaking my resume.

I’m not drowning yet, but it is a definite setback in my plans to live my life fully in Australia. Three years ago I was packing and planning my move over here, uncertain of my future. Three years later I’m still adrift in a sea of uncertainty, treading water, and getting older while not really moving forward.

I’ve been in Australia for two years and eight months now, but it’s only in the past eight months that I seem to have moved forward. And now, just when things are gathering pace, this is a giant leap backwards.

Sometimes, I can’t help but compare my current situation (or lack thereof) with the one I left behind in South Africa. It’s a terrible thing to be without work for two years, and a truly marvellous thing to have been gainfully employed for the past eight months. Eight months ago I was beginning to despair of getting a job – any kind of job – and wondered if I would ever be able to gather some resources and move into my own place without constantly draining resources that were not mine.

Would I ever be able to afford exorbitant Melbourne rentals, buy my own car, save some money for my old age? Even little pleasures like splashing out on tea and cake with a friend seemed extravagant, always mentally counting the South African rands that were fast dwindling away at ten times the rate they would have done back in Durban. Steady income goes a long way towards alleviating those worries, and that’s what I’m working towards now.

Eight months ago I made a start, and it’s been chugging along nicely. I have some Australian dollars in the bank at last. But now it seems as if I have some very steep hills to climb, because I’m not yet where I want to be. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens this to being on a fast-moving train. While walking along inside a train, stumbling over objects and stepping back to let others pass, we feel as if we are barely moving. And yet, when we look out the window and see how far we’ve come, with new scenery racing by at breakneck speed, we realise that we are, in fact, covering ground extremely fast.

I hope it’s not just my advancing years which are thundering by at that speed…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

While this may seem like an odd topic in a series about writing a novel, I feel very strongly about the music I listen to while writing. I’m not musical myself, and can’t play any instrument, but I do love to listen. Especially when I’m writing.

When writing, it’s important that I listen to music without vocals, so that other people’s lyrics don’t interfere with the words in my own head. The human voice is a beautiful instrument in itself, and it seems a pity to exclude it from the stuff I listen to, so I’ll always include vocal music if the lyrics are in a language I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m no good at languages other than English, so there is a wide range of music available to me.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music, so naturally this is the best for my writing. I have a few favourite CDs (who am I kidding – I have loads of favourites!) and piano music is my first choice every time. I grew up listening to piano music because both my father and my sister played, and my mother could sometimes be cajoled into playing as well. She was a far better player than she thought she was.

My father’s baby grand sat in the lounge in the centre of our house, so when someone played, it was audible everywhere. With the bay windows open, you could hear it across the garden too. My father’s music of choice was mainly jazz, and many of his favourites have become my favourites now. My sister’s playing was more classical – Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt – because she studied music and her playing was noticeably finer and easy to listen to.

While much of my CD collection today consists of classical piano, a close second is classical guitar. Back in my high school years, television started in South Africa and for the first time I was exposed to the beauty of this gorgeous instrument. I saw programmes on Julian Bream and, closer to home, Tessa Ziegler and Dave Hewitt. I bought a classical guitar and tried to learn to play like them, but oh, how hard it was! Much better to listen and appreciate those who truly could play.

Around that time, my father used to make movies, and he had many movie soundtracks in his record collection. I remember buying the double LP of the music from Star Wars, and being quite surprised that it was so heavily classical. That now famous score by John Williams was even more epic than the movie, and I realised for the first time just how perfectly a full orchestral soundtrack can add to the feel of a film. Much later, I saw how I too could add to the book in my head by underscoring it with richer, more classical music.

Long before I started writing, back in the days when I lived in Johannesburg, I had three radios in my flat, all tuned to Classic FM. As I walked from one room to another, the music followed me so I never missed a note. When I enjoyed a piece I had never heard before, I listened to the announcer afterwards, wrote down the names of the composer and the music, and looked for it on CD the next time I was in Musica or Look & Listen. Thus I built up my collection.

Once I left Johannesburg, I couldn’t hear that radio station any more (long before the days of live-streaming, of course!) so my CD collection was my comfort in a city where the local radio stations didn’t play music I enjoyed. My home was small so one device playing a CD in the main room could be heard all over the cottage.

Listening to classical music has always relaxed me, reminding me of those lazy Sunday afternoons as a child, piano music forever in the background. When I began to write, I found that music formed a natural, harmonious background. My first attempt at writing was a novel based on my family’s history, so maybe the musical connection to the family piano was relevant on that level too.

As time went on and I wrote other novels, I tried to find music appropriate to the themes of each book. I discovered the Putumayo series when writing my novel set in Greece. Hours and hours were spent listening to Putumayo’s Greece: A Musical Odyssey. I had no idea what they were singing about, but I loved hearing it, and it helped my own words to flow.

Similarly, when I wrote my novel set in Italy, I had plenty to choose from, including loads of opera, plus the wonderful vocal instruments of Andrea Bocelli and Amaury Vassili.

My most recent novel is set in two different times and places. The contemporary thread is set in modern-day Australia, where both the main characters play the piano in a small jazz bar.

Piano music again – gosh, imagine that!

The historical thread was a little more complicated. This is set in 1960s South Africa, mostly up in the mountains of the Drakensberg. Originally this section was set in Peru, and while I had some beautiful music from South America, I found it impossible to write convincingly about a place I hadn’t been to, so I moved the location to Africa.

There is no shortage of African music in my collection, but the two characters in that part of the novel have a poignant story that is dogged by separation and loss, so the music in my head had to match. The sad classical music I chose was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. This is a long-time favourite and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own no less than seven different copies of that haunting second movement.

My current WIP is set in post-war Britain in 1955, so once again I get to hear my father’s big band jazz favourites from that era. However, there is an older storyline as well, and I’m still searching through my collection to find something that best suits the words in my head.

Writers and readers out there, do you enjoy listening to music as you write or read? If so, what puts you in the right mood?

Foxy Thinking or Why Five-Year Plans Don’t Work

More than a decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Clem Sunter speak about scenario planning, and the book he co-wrote with Chantell Ilbury, called The Mind of a Fox: Scenario Planning in Action.

The occasion was a memorable day in itself – speech day and prize giving at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, with guest speaker Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, Mandela’s plane to Pietermaritzburg was delayed by bad weather and diverted to Durban, which meant that his entourage had an extra hour of road travel between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

In itself a fortuitous example of scenario planning, the school had arranged a back-up speaker in case of delays. The tall grey-haired man in the front row was introduced as Clem Sunter and he occupied our minds for the next 45 minutes.

Foxes, he explained, have many dens and are adaptable in their habits, which is why they are called wily, and they know how to survive no matter what Fate throws at them.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are not very streetwise. They live in the same nest all their lives, hibernate in winter, and hide from danger by rolling into a ball to expose their spikes in the hope that the danger will leave them alone. They talk big and make five year plans that go awry when a fox moves into their territory and disrupts their comfortable lives, making them afraid to leave their comfy holes.

Foxes often eat hedgehogs despite the spikes. The wily fox will find a way around the spikes.

The fox thinks on his feet, is intuitive and uses his imagination to show him the way. In life, we cannot predict the future. All we can do is try to be as informed as possible so that we can make the right decisions when problems arise along the way. Life is a series of small steps taken one at a time – often with little knowledge of what lies ahead – so it is a waste of time trying to plan every step in advance.

We know the route we will drive to work each day, but we cannot wait for all the traffic lights to be green before we leave home. If there are delays or road-works we will deal with each as we reach them. If we know our territory we can choose another road and get to the same place without too much trauma.

It is this choosing of an alternate option that uses our fox-brains and allows us to plan alternate scenarios.

Sunter explained to the school the relative simplicity of scenario planning, as if approaching a crossroads. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are your options? Which one do you choose? The better informed we are, the better decisions we can make.

Out in the wild, a fox does the same things. If he’s hungry and goes in search of food, he may find a hedgehog.

What are the rules? The hedgehog will roll into a ball and expose his spikes.

What are the uncertainties? The fox may go hungry, or he may trick the hedgehog into exposing his softer flesh. Or he may get a mouth full of spikes.

What are his options? Try the hedgehog or move on in another direction and find a bird or rabbit instead. Crossroads after crossroads, the fox will make the relevant decisions based on each situation and keep moving.

I’ve always loved hedgehogs and thought they were cute. I still do. I have a healthy respect for foxes, though, and have looked at their habits with fresh eyes since that Speech Day at Hilton College.

How does this relate to me personally? Should all delicate hedgehogs start observing foxes and learning from their habits? Perhaps we have already started.

In my first year of working I mapped out my first five year plan. Six months later it blew up when I took unpaid leave to travel around Europe with the love of my life. My priorities changed, so did my goalposts. When I returned from Europe I discovered that I hated my job. It wasn’t turning into what I had planned for my life. I was frustrated by the narrow thinking and the small minds that burrowed in the dark, finding fault with everyone else. Things they did were old-fashioned and petty, but that’s how they had done it for years. Everything they stood for seemed outdated or directionless.

I left that job and attempted training in a completely different field: pharmaceuticals. That lasted three days before I admitted I was wasting both my time and theirs. They appreciated my honesty and wished me well as I left. Faced with uncertainties, I weighed up my options. Within days I had begged a friend for a ticket to a theatre opening night, knowing that two production managers for two separate theatre companies would be there, and my plan was to quiz them both about prospective jobs. One was there, the other wasn’t, so I got talking to the one who was. He invited me to a meeting in his office a few days later, and I was hired.

My plan was to stick around for six months and see how it panned out. If I didn’t like it, I would find something else and move on. Already I was thinking like a fox and yet I would not hear of Clem Sunter for another twenty years. As it turned out, I really enjoyed that job. I found the less predictable atmosphere to be more creative, and I had much more fun there than in the first theatre.

I was never particularly good with numbers, could never balance my cheque book in my early years of working, and had found the management structure of my first job bewildering to say the least. My second job had one man at the top who made all the decisions, and a handful of us down below who carried them out, and things worked out reasonably well because we were all versatile and adapted easily to the constant changes.

Thinking back now, that second boss was a fox too, because he didn’t dwell on things that didn’t work. A forward-thinking entrepreneur who seized the moment, cut his losses, and was an excellent judge of his place in the market. I worked for him for three years, and only left because my father died and I returned home to stay with my mother for a few months.

For years afterwards, as I worked in other theatres around South Africa, something in me always wanted to do an MBA. During the 80s and 90s it became the “thing to do,” the thing you could swank about having done because it showed you were of above average intelligence. But for me, it was because I wanted to be able to analyse how and why businesses worked as they did. I wanted to find my own niche and make money doing a different kind of business. Something creative, in the craft line, but I wanted to go into it with my eyes open.

Eventually, after nearly 20 years in the workplace, I enrolled in the first level of an MBA programme. I found it fascinating. Various management models, types of structures, and so on – all very interesting. I finally saw clearly for the first time why my cheque book had never balanced! If only I had known it would be so simple…

In my second year of study, when we got to Business Research Methods, I began to see why theatre is such an unpredictable industry. You cannot take a sample and infer it on the whole. Yes, you can have all your ducks in a row, the best groundwork covered and all the research done to the nth degree, but it still won’t explain why audiences rush to see that particular show or stay away in droves from another that has all the same winning ingredients. I realised that theatre was different. Arts in general are different. Writing books is different too.

I am different and five year plans don’t work for me. If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting in Australia right now, loving the unpredictability of my life, and looking forward to the endless possibilities available. I’d be quaking in my boots somewhere, wondering what happened, why it all went wrong, and probably waiting for someone to rescue me.

Instead I am optimistic about my future and ready for anything. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are my options? What will I choose? Even I don’t know yet, but I will work it out as I advance, and advance I will. The words of Australia’s national anthem Advance Australia Fair are ringing in my ears, ripe with opportunity.

Within a week of hearing Clem Sunter speak, I found and bought his book because his speech had left such a deep impression on me. In fact, that book is one of only two business books I brought to Australia with me. The other is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which was a gift from my best friend’s mother, before I began my MBA studies.

Why these two books, over all the others that I let go? Simple. They haven’t dated. They remain relevant. They are the best operational and strategic guidelines for life, and they make no false claims about hedgehogs following fantasy five year plans!

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?