Tag Archive | Melbourne

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!

Setting, Resonance and Backstory

I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.

In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.

If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.

But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.

Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.

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I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.

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My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.

The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.

What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.

My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.

These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.