Friday, April 27, 2018

The more exotic research...

Last week I wrote about researching in the outback for my books, but I've been lucky enough travel further afield and to incorporate some of those settings into the single title books I've written for Penguin Australia.

This became especially helpful when I began writing dual timeline novels that incorporated a historical thread from WW2 alongside a contemporary story in an Australian rural setting.

I have been fascinated by Cornwall ever since we visited there in 1998, but also through reading Rosamunde Pilcher's novels, especially The Shell Seekers, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (both of which I read long before Poldark hit the screens and wowed us all). So I was very happy to revisit this gorgeous part of the UK.

In my book The Secret Years, my heroine Lucy travels to Cornwall to find out more about her family and discovers a surprisingly aristocratic link. As we stayed in the grounds of a grand old house, I had plenty of inspiration.

Apart from the obvious beauty of the UK and Europe, I think I'm also fascinated by the huge differences between North Queensland, where I live, and these northern hemisphere "old worlds". It's not just the stately old homes and leafless trees (the whole seasonal shift that we almost skip completely here in the tropics) that enchant me, but also the very visible evidence of history.

In The Secret Years, a very romantic scene occurs in a boatshed very like this one here, and of course that magical Cornwall coastline gets a mention.

Also on that same trip, I spent  two wonderful weeks in Spain, primarily in San Sebastian, a city we'd also fallen in love with on a much earlier trip. This time we returned with friends, which always makes a holiday even more fun. The men on the trip were foodies, wanting to know all about making Iberian hams and about all kinds of smoking - that's smoking in cooking.( And, of course, they had to experiment with their own ham making when we got home, complete with Spanish caps.)

I was happy enough to share their eating adventures, of course, and to visit Spanish farms in the Basque country that specialised in making sheep's cheese or in raising pigs that graze in orchards filled with fallen chestnuts. But while these visits were very interesting, I also loved just strolling on the promenade - you can walk from one end of this beautiful La Concha Bay to the other, and, of course, the residents make the most of this beautiful walkway.

I decided that the Spanish must have terrible TV, because everyone seems to be out in the evenings, strolling in the moonlight, chatting on street corners, gathering in pintxos bars for delicious snacks (Basque version of tapas),  enjoying music (Spanish guitars, naturally)... It was especially great to see the elderly being included in these outings, either walking arm in arm with a younger family member, or being pushed in a wheelchair.

And I loved exploring the narrow streets, the old churches and markets where I could indulge in loads of people watching.

These experiences found their way into early chapters in The Grazier's Wife, but I didn't make it to Singapore to research the historical strand in that book. I had to rely on books and the internet to write about Kitty's time as a nurse in Singapore during WW2, but it's amazing how helpful these wonderful resources can be.

When it came time to write The Country Wedding, I wasn't planning to visit Shanghai where Lily and Rose are caught up in the turmoil of the late 1930s. I thought I'd manage once again with conventional research. I read Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans which is set in Shanghai and I scoured the internet looking for just the right history books. I even had a secondhand dealer from a local bookshop trying to help me to track down Peking Sun, Shanghai Moon, a memoir by .Diana Hutchins Angulo

And then my husband developed a notion that I really should visit Shanghai. Just a quick trip. While I kept my head down on my book, he did all the negotiating with a travel agent and before I knew it, we were heading for China and what a wonderful experience it was.

 Shanghai is probably China's most westernised city. but it's also a city of huge contrasts . This was the view from our hotel across the Huangpu River to the incredibly impressive modern skyscrapers, and yet, we only had to walk around the corner and we were plunged into old Shanghai. (You can still see those skyscrapers in the background.)

Here, streets are still swept with straw brooms and the footpaths are crowded with stalls, and cooking paraphernalia and washing hangs from windows on poles. Busy, busy, busy, but clean and colourful and endlessly fascinating. Needless to say, the museum in Shanghai is incredible and too amazing to do justice to here.

We  also lined up a tour of The French Concession, as I knew this was the area where most of the Europeans lived in the 1920s and 30s and most definitely where my character Lily's parents would have lived. In those pre war years, Shanghai was incredibly exciting. (By the way, the Chinese refer to the 1939-45 war as The War with Japan. My guide hadn't heard of WW2 and had no idea that Australia or PNG had ever been involved.) 

Anyway, back then, Shanghai attracted artists writers and musicians from all over the world and was often referred to as the Paris of the East. Jews and White Russians were also flooding into Shanghai to escape the Fascists and Bolsheviks in Europe. Here are pics from the French Concession and you can see that it is very different yet again.


Our guide was excellent - knowledgeable, energetic and enthusiastic and very happy (make that excited) to be helping an author.  Under her guidance, we had some excellent street food (dumplings) and she also took us to a coffee shop (unusual in China) that also housed a fabulous collection of secondhand books. And it was there that I found - !! 

Yep, I was ecstatic. The perfect discovery to round off an incredible trip.

I'm afraid I didn't travel far afield to research my new book The Summer of Secrets, but there was still plenty I needed to discover to round out the historical background for my character, Izzie. I'll come back later to tell you all about her.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Researching my settings...

Wherever possible, I try to set my books in places I've visited. I'm not a country girl born and bred, so, although for a long time, my stories have been mostly set on Queensland cattle properties, the inspiration has come from visiting these places, rather than living there. However, I suspect a love of the bush and the countryside is in my DNA. Most of my ancestors in the UK worked in farms, one way or another, as crofters or servants or ploughmen or general labourers. Yes, I come from good peasant stock. And my parents moved from an inner Brisbane suburb to rural acreage for their retirement years.
As well, a memorable experience occurred when I was sixteen and I visited my cousin's sheep station at Tooraweenah in NSW.

What an adventure that was, riding horses up into the hills with my sister, feeding baby lambs with formula in bottles... I guess it was my first true adventure away from our parents, which no doubt added to the impact.

Then later, with my husband and our kids, I had many happy holidays camping at Burdekin Downs (a cattle property near Charters Towers) and canoeing on the mighty Burdekin River. The homestead there was huge and sprawling with beautiful gardens rolling down to the river, and has inspired most of the homesteads in my books. My husband and I also attended a ball there, held in the grounds. The guests camped in tents and emerged in their finery at dusk. I remember I made a special red silk dress for the occasion.  A wooden platform was set up for dancing and the band rolled their car when they were driving the rough track in, so that one of the singers sang that night with his arm in a sling.

I recalled that ball for scenes in Outback Baby, one of my earliest M&Bs, and then later in Moonlight Plains. More recently, when I was writing Home Before Sundown, I visited the beautiful and fascinating Cobbold Gorge and the station owner was very happy to answer all my research questions.

Another valuable research experience was visiting my husband's cousin and her family at their property, Clissold, near Roma. While here, I also visited the Roma sales yards and watched, with fascination, as the cattle were sold at auction (yes, with all that noise and men in akubras leaning over pens of cattle). Later, at dusk, the new steers were shipped to the property and the next day, I "helped" in the stockyards (as in worked the gates) while the cattle were ear-tagged and vaccinated and branded. Variations of this experience have found their way into several of my books, including A Parisian Proposition, which, despite its title, is mostly set in the outback and has reappeared recently in The Cattleman's Journey.

When it comes to writing about Christmas, however, I find myself deserting Australia and turning to England every time. I confess that for me, who has still never seen snow, a romantic Christmas fantasy must always involve cold weather and snow and firesides and everything that's different from a hot Australian Christmas.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Londona few weeks before Christmas. No snow, but lots of pretty lights and shop windows.

These found their way into A Very Special Holiday Gift, which will be republished later this year, I believe, as One Winter Sunrise.

OK, that's probably enough for now. Another time, I'll write about some of the exotic settings I've researched for more recent books.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My reading for this past month...

I started this month by reading The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach, a book that was previously published as These Foolish Things and was later transformed into the wildly successful movie. I was interested to see how similar the book was to the film and to note the differences.

First up, I should say that I enjoyed the book just as much as I did the film, although I note that, on Goodreads, not everyone agrees with my reaction. The basic premise is the same for both book and movie – a conglomerate group of ageing British folk settling into a 'retirement hotel' in India. The setting is similar, although it moves from Bangalore in the book to Jaipur for the movie. And for the most part, the mix of characters remains much the same. There's a character who dies, a couple who split up, and another character with a secret – but these story lines are moved to different characters for the film, no doubt to suit particular star actors.
I won't burden you with too many details, but I'm glad I made this little case study and I thoroughly enjoyed the read and then watching the film again. It's all part of my self-motivated, ongoing education as an author.

Next I read another book for my book club. Mateships with Birds by Carrie Tiffany is an award winning novel (including the Stella Prize). It has a rural setting and is about relationships between men and women (as well as being about birds) and, for these reasons, I should have enjoyed it, but I'm afraid I didn't. 

I believe the author deliberately explored everything that is ugly and unattractive about relationships and sex. No doubt this was a direct, post-modern reaction to romance novels (I know we are criticised for making life too beautiful and happy) but it wasn't done cleverly enough to impress me. Most members of our book club agreed.

Over Easter I wondered into a secondhand book shop in Yungaburra and found MyDear, dear Betsy; A Treasury of Australian Letters .This gem, compiled by Warwick Hirst, is quite, quite fascinating, with letters from Captain Cook and Convicts right through to Lloyd Rees (talking about the insecurity of an artistic life) and other 20th century notables.

But the letter that really spoke to me was from Banjo Paterson to the author Ethel Turner. As a child I adored Ethel Turner, who wrote Seven Little Australians etc. I read most of her books, including Family at Misrule, Little Mother Meg and my second favourite was The Little Larrikin.

I remember Ethel died when I was in Gr 4. Our teacher was Charles French, a WW1 veteran who’d been brought out of retirement because of a shortage of teachers. (He also owned the land that my high school at The Gap was later built on and was memorable because he was SO old.) When he asked us if anyone knew of a famous Australian who had died that day he was quite surprised that I knew (I’d heard it on the news) and had read her books. It was one of those moments from childhood you somehow never forget, when you realise you’ve made an impression. Mind you, he later sent me back to Gr 3 because I talked too much in class and I had to beg his forgiveness (sobbing) but that’s another story.

The above is just context for my appreciation of the letter that Banjo Paterson wrote to Ethel T about her book, which I think expresses sympathies we all understand  and just proves that feel good stories and happy endings will never go out of fashion.

Here's just a snippet of what Banjo had to say. 'For myself I candidly say I like the good old style of story – more beautiful women and finer men and more extraordinary things than one meets in real life – Stories where people don't have luck at the end annoy me.'

This month I've also reread the famous Australian classic, My Brother Jack by George Johnston. I'm mainly reading this as research to help my husband who, like Johnston, was a journalist and has written his memoirs, but is now exploring the possibility of turning them into a work of fiction. Johnston's classic is wonderful inspiration.

Right now I'm reading So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport, which is basically a study into achieving job satisfaction by working hard at your craft, loving what you do, and gaining control over your work.

And next up, I'll finally be rewarding myself with a book that I know will be luscious, moving and
beautiful. A regency romance – Marry in Scandal by Anne Gracie.

I hope you've had a great reading month. I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Monday, April 09, 2018

My love affair with autumn...

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel, to set budding more,
And still more later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has oe-r brimmed their clammy cells.

First verse from the poem by John Keats.

I have always loved autumn. I guess, being a Queenslander, I'm always relieved to finally arrive at cooler days after the long, hot summer. And John Keats's poem has always been a favourite since my school days. 
Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness... 

That opening line is so evocative, isn't it?

Here, in the Far North of Australia, our autumns aren't quite as Keats describes - we don't have apples or hazelnuts. But I live in the mountains, so we certainly have mists and we grow pumpkins and sweet potatoes (they count as gourds??)

  and we have a tree laden with  macadamias.

We do have afternoons where the sun still lingers, but now the days are shortening, I'm starting to think about making soups and about collecting fallen pine cones - they're such great firestarters.

And while your'e here, I thought I'd show you a scene of my favourite view (and tree), painted by a young cousin, Carmen Hannay. Check out Carmen's website Isn't she brilliant? Her work is diverse and gorgeous and she's just leaping from strength to strength.

My kids commissioned her to produce this painting for a significant birthday ( quite a few years back now) and I love it. Carmen really captured the whimsical feel of the landscape without ever having been here.

What's autumn like at your place? Do you have lots of gorgeous colour? Or what's your favourite season? I'd love to hear.

Friday, April 06, 2018

A favourite weekend breakfast...

I guess I'm lucky that Mr H is one of the band of happily retired guys who take an interest in cooking. This is especially handy when I'm sunk deep in writing and it is, no doubt, assisted by the fact that he also raises some of our meat, but I'll talk about that another time.

Today, I thought I'd share his favourite weekend breakfast. It's simple and delicious and probably not especially original, but it's so useful, I thought it was worth passing on. We call it an omelette, but it's certainly nothing like the delicate and fluffy French style omelettes you're served in a restaurant. I guess it's closer to a Spanish omelette, which we first encountered when we were on long service leave from our “real jobs” many (OK, let's be honest – twenty) years ago.
We still remember that wonderful concoction, eaten for breakfast in a pretty hillside town in the south of Spain – all sunshine and white walled houses with cats curled on doorsteps and distant views of the Mediterranean. That first omelette was served on a terrace and filled with thin slices of potato (probably fried) and accompanied by a glass of sherry. Yes, sherry for breakfast! When in Spain...

OK... I guess our omelettes are actually almost frittatas, but thinner, as we only use three eggs when it's just the two of us, although this can be expanded exponentially to feed as many as you like and spread into several pans. And they really are one of the easiest breakfasts to serve up to a horde.

 Basically, it's just a matter of using whatever vegetables are to hand. It can remain vegetarian, but is also yummy with a little chopped bacon or salami or cold sausage, or even smoked salmon.
Our staples are red onion and a chilli from the garden, plus whatever herbs are in season in the pots at our kitchen door. At the moment we have garlic chives and thyme. The chillies are fine even when they've started to dry and shrivel on the bush, by the way. They're not quite so hot, which is sometimes a good thing.

We often add capsicum or sliced tomato and Mr H loves to include capers and green olives, which really do add a special tang.

All this is gently fried. (Please excuse our elderly, battered frying pan. It still works! )

Then eggs are whisked and added. 

These are cooked gently in the frying pan until it begins to set and then popped under the griller with cheese on top to brown. Yummo!

This isn't a cooking blog, so I haven't set out a proper recipe, but I'm sure you get the idea. And after a substantial brekkie like this, (I should add that we don't need toast) we are set for the day!