Bonding Over Books

The Venue

The setting sun streams in through the Gothic sized windows that overlook a vineyard.  This massive space with its high vaulted ceilings, exposed beams and rustic iron chandeliers, looks and feels a bit like a medieval church.  Our religion this evening is reading and the faithful are gathered to hear the sermon of Hannah Kent, author of ‘Burial Rites’, a haunting historic tale set in Iceland.  What better setting to hear about her new book; ‘The Good People’, this time taking us to nineteenth century Ireland, a country steeped in superstitions that explain everything from minor ailments to disappearance.

Along with around 200 other members of the congregation, on arrival I am handed a glass of wine and steered to my name tag at one of the long, linen covered tables that begin at the entrance and disappear into the distance towards the microphone.  We are at the Centennial Vineyards in the picturesque Southern highlands of N.S.W, and this is one of many literary events organised throughout the year by the Bookshop, Bowral.

To my right are 3 women in their thirties, one of whom is a local hairdresser who loves reading.  Evidently, the other two are her clients.  They bonded over books while she was cutting their hair and decided to form a book club.  I am reminded of while the act of reading is a solitary pursuit, talking about what we have read in common creates a special kind of intimacy.

Hannah Kent

The noise drops as tonight’s Guru takes the stage.  How has this beautiful, articulate thirty-one year old already become a best-selling author?  She tells us that it all began when, as a child, she acquired a box of forty Enid Blyton books at a garage sale.  From then she entered a world of fantasy that she has never really left.  Her parents encouraged story-telling and creativity and fortunately this gave her the confidence to stave off the disparaging remarks of the faithless who doubted her ability to support herself through writing.  Presumably a PHD in creative writing from Flinders University also helped.

So what took her to the fairy glens of Ireland where her second book is set.  Hannah randomly stumbled upon an English newspaper article published in 1826 about a woman accused of murder.  However what particularly caught her attention was the basis of the woman’s defence.  She could not be guilty of murder because the victim was a ‘changeling’.  For those of us unclear on the exact meaning of this term, Hannah explains that “a changeling is a fairy among us”.  So this random newspaper report combined with “an interest in the nature of darkness” began a frenzy of research into rituals, herbs and fairy stories from Ireland.  She was on a mission “to shed the modern mind,” which ended up being so effective that Hannah can no longer look at a herb without remembering what it cures.  She cites the case of Foxglove which can kill or heal, putting it in the realm of “the inexplicable, not good or bad.  Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell”.  In Ireland people lived in constant fear that any of them at any time could be taken and replaced by a changeling.  Placating the fairies filled their lives and has filled a whole room of reference cards in an Irish Library. She reminds us of the expression “off with the fairies” to which the whole room murmurs in recognition.  And to the skeptics who scoff at fairies, she says, “Even the greatest cynic gets goose bumps, when they find themselves alone in a dark forest.”

In terms of why, in general Hannah Kent writes, she says that she is compelled to explore the human experience, the way we are shaped by the external and how what we see in the lives of others creates empathy.  As reader and a writer, I say amen to that!

Travel Tip 3: Enrich Your Travel Experience through Literature.


“Humming birds brought rainbows to the earth, say the Nahuatl, brought colour.  Colour rustles everywhere, which way to look first, everything is unfamiliar, tourist become traveller in the slow upheaval of connection.”

These words are from a book called Touching Ecuador by W. H. New.  I bought it from a second hand bookshop in the old city of Quenca, in the Andes when I was vainly looking for Ecuadorian literature translated into English.  It was the closest thing I could find.  It is actually a poetry book written by a Canadian about Ecuador but it achieved the same end and gave me further insight into where I was attempting to be a traveller rather than a tourist.


Next stop Nova Scotia where I read ‘No Great Mischief ‘ by Alistair Macleod, a beautifully crafted family saga set on Cape Breton Island over three generations.  Although I was visiting in summer, I  could feel the winter ice through the pages and the strength of the familiy ties forged through hardship and isolation.

“In the late afternoon the sun still shone, and there was no wind but it began to get very cold, the kind of deceptive cold that can fool those who confuse the shining of the winter sun with warmth….They took two storm lanterns, my mother carried one and my brother Colin, the other, while my father grasped the ice pole …it was dusk out there on the ice and they lit their lanterns.  Then their lanterns began to waver and dance wildly…They’ve gone under, said Grandpa.”


Last stop New York where I started ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara.  It was like going into the personal lives of people I passed on the street and looking behind the doors of their tiny over-priced NY apartments:

“The apartment had only one closet but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting accross the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts, even though it was October, smoking.”

What literature has helped you climb into your travel destinations?


Travel Tip 2 Getting to the Airport, Checking-in and Boarding


There is no drive more stressful than the one to catch a plane that waits for no man, woman or child.  Then having successfully negotiated the traffic, you arrive to find massive queues to check in, more queues to get through customs, then they want you to take off your shoes and reveal that sock you didn’t get around to darning, and wait, there is something suspicious looking in your very carefully packed hand luggage which now has to be emptied onto the table.  Your life goes from order to chaos in an instant and before you know it you have abandoned that plan for a lesurely drink at the bar and your name echoes through the long white corridors as you run faster and longer than you have since primary school, to the boarding gate rumaging for that boarding pass only to be met by frowns of disapproval for being late.

Recently on my way to South America, I arrived at LA airport the obligatory hour before take-off with only hand luggage and smugly thinking I had already checked in on-line only to discover that I hadn’t and had to queue.  The guy in front of me was way over the baggage limit and it took Copa Airlines the best part of an hour to argue a price.  Meanwhile my blood pressure was slowly rising to bursting point.  Raw fear that I would miss the plane that would bugger up my next connection that would bugger up the next etc.  Breath.  Check-in staff and perhaps laid back South Americans especially, don’t take too kindly to red faced gringos (even if I am Australian), shouting and crying.

And even if you have checked in successfully and are sitting at the boarding gate, calmly people watching, don’t not listen to all those announcements in a foreign language followed by the English announcements that sound nearly as foreign because one might be for you and there might be a reason that those people you have been watching start to be replaced by different people.  Your gate has been changed and boarding is now!  The new gate is not next door, it is right up the other end and you find yourself running again along long corridors, hearing your name being called and more frowns from staff diminishing any chance of an up-grade.  And when you finally are the last person to board and you find the seat that you booked months in advance, an old Chinese lady is sitting in it.  The flight attendant signals for you to go to the last seat at the back of the plane and you submit like a chastened child because, after all, you are late again.

Travel Tip 1. Packing Pitfalls

imageHoarders beware!  The same fear of throwing things out lurks around the suitcase at packing time.  It might help to understand that it comes from the fear of letting go of things in case we might need them in the future but this has to be weighed against the advantages of travelling light.  Rationalise.  What would I do if I needed this but didn’t have it?  If the answer is buy one, then consider not taking it.  Recently it took me 3 packs and repacks and a lot of ratonalising to pack for carry-on only, for a 7 week trip to North and South America where I might encounter anything form zero in the Andes to 35 degrees on the coast.  The secret is layers, only 2 pairs of shoes and a light waterproof jacket.  Just think.  Arrive only one hour before the flight instead of two, no baggage check-in queue, no waiting at carousels at the other end for a bag that may have been lost, breeze through customs, no assistance needed to carry luggage and you can keep your bag under your legs to avoid the temptation for anyone to steal it.


Tips from 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival

Image result for sydney writers festival 2016

Here are a few tips that I picked up while attending a range of workshops.

Some great exercises from Fiona Wright

  • Write two truths and a lie.
  • Finish the sentence: I remember…….
  • Take one memory and write about the place.
  • Describe an emotion without naming it.
  • Play with similes.

How to be a Successful Freelance Writer with Bianca Nogrady

  • Find a niche and exploit it by asking yourself about your interests, expertise and contacts. Why should your words be more important and more valuable than others?
  • Reflect on your past and research links with related publications.
  • Attend conferences to make contacts.
  • Pitch using as few words as you can say in 3 floors of an elevator.
  • Make it timely.

Creative Non-Fiction with Alicia Symmonds

  • Treading the line between subjectivity and theory.
  • Be open.
  • Take the hand break off.
  • Write every day for 3 hours.
  • Find a writing partner..
  • Take a notebook everywhere.
  • Record favourite lines from favourite authors.
  • Alternate writing with other activities.
  • Find the emotional high point and build towards it in each chapter and in the whole text.
  • Don’t plan too much.
  • Keep it malleable.

Sophie Laguna on Characters

Act the character on the page. Come in costume with an accent.

Stakes have to be high in order for pages to be turned.

Craft a symphony to be heard with individual characters, not stereotypes. We will forgive an awful lot just to be in the company of a character that we love.  If we love them we will try to understand them.  The centre of the character has to come from your experience.  As you get to know the character the plot unfolds.  Ask these questions about your character:

  • What is their name?
  • Where does your character live?
  • What do they love/hate about where they live?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What makes them feel good/bad about themselves?
  • What do they look/sound like?
  • What do they wear?
  • What are their daily rituals?
  • What are they good/bad at?
  • What makes them angry/afraid/happy/sad/laugh/cry?
  • What do they dream about/hope for?
  • What does she think about in a private moment?
  • How do others respond to them?
  • Describe your character in an event.
  • Write a dialogue between your character and another.

Plotting with Toni Jordon

Plot is the spine of the book. It is the choices we make about what happens and in what order.  The key is unpredictability.

Plotters can be divided into ‘pansters’, those who fly by the seat of their pants and plotters who are clear before they start writing. ‘Pansters can be divided into ‘knitters’ who take the plot one step at a time and ‘quilters’ who write scene by scene and piece it together at the end.  Either way, ‘pansing’ can be wasteful, evidenced by the number of words you end up not using.

All novels are plot and character driven and need an interesting protagonist. The protagonist must have 3 types of conflict:

  1. inner based on a fear of something
  2. interpersonal based on difference with someone
  3. physical based on nature

Conflict drives the plot forward by the writer putting something in the path of the protagonist that tests them.  Often the worst thing that the protagonist can imagine ends up being the best thing in some way.  Character is revealed by the circumstances thrown in their path.  Characterisation is the external person that others see while true character can only be revealed by circumstances.

Your protagonist exists in a world where everything is wonderful (5% of plots) or everything is shit (5%) or a combination of bitter-sweet (90%). Some common themes are battle between good and evil, find your strength, love conquers all, realising your faults, vested interests.

There are a series of points common to all plots.  The first is an inciting incident, a dynamic event that upsets the life of the protagonist.  The second point is a crisis (which in a film is half way through but not necessarily in a novel) that the protagonist has to solve.  Towards the end is the climax or emotional high point where the three levels of conflict come together.  Finally there is the ending which needs to be two-pronged or again bitter-sweet, something good and something bad.

Finally, sub plots have 4 roles: ironical, reinforcing, structural or to provide complications. If they can be removed without making a difference to your story then do so.

Happy writing!