Welcome to my blog,
VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
With just over a month to the release of my romantic thriller, Lying In Wait, I thought I’d write a few blogs about Australia's venomous snakes, as they feature prominently in the story.
In each of my next four posts I’ll either be sharing interesting facts I learned about snakes in researching the book, or personal encounters I’ve had with snakes since living in South Australia - one of which (described below) became the inspiration for the story itself.
All writers draw on personal experience when creating their stories whether they do it consciously or not. Sometimes it's a setting that inspires us, other times a person we meet. Sometimes it's a question we ponder - the classic 'what-if?' In the case of Lying In Wait it was a feeling – one I’d never experienced before.
Our family had recently purchased a 50 acre farm outside of Port Lincoln, South Australia (our home to this day) fulfilling a dream I'd always had of living in the country.
Not long after we moved in I discovered a highly venomous brown snake had taken up residence in our chook run ('chicken coop' for US readers). I'd kept snakes as a hobby back in the States so seeing him there every day when I gathered the eggs never bothered me. It was my husband who pointed out that, while the snake might not be a problem for me, it could be for our five-year-old son who often ran around the lawn with no shoes on.
One morning as I was gathering eggs I saw the snake sunning itself in the yard. I recalled my husband's fears and decided he was right, the snake had to go. But I couldn't bring myself to kill it. Having handled countless snakes growing up, I simply pinned its head, grabbed it firmly behind the neck and picked it up, my intention being to relocate it a safe distance away from our house.
As I stood debating where I might take it, I heard a small voice behind me say, 'Is Mummy going to die now?' I turned to find my husband and son standing at the gate watching me fearfully. My son, who'd been told never to touch a snake, simply assumed, that because I had, my death would follow.
Standing there holding that four-foot brown, hearing my son speak those words, I had a profound experience. I'd known of course this wasn't one of the harmless garter snakes I’d kept in my youth but in that moment the reality hit me with fresh force.
To my astonishment, rather than fear, I felt a sense of exhilaration. I won’t go into too much detail here, as part of this is explained in the story and I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
In the days that followed, I found myself recalling the experience often and wondering what sort of person might become addicted to such a sensation. As I pondered the question, a character began to form in my mind, along with incidents from her past that helped to shape her personality.
From this I could see a possible scenario that would prove particularlly challenging to such a person, and gradually she drew to her others with the potential for creating further conflict.
In the end that character became Andrea Vaughn, heroine of Lying In Wait. In reading the story you may likely glimpse shadows of the real life experience that created her.
All right, so I’m not self-actualized. Reader feedback means something to me. I love checking out my Goodreads reviews and gain inspiration from reader comments.
When someone tells me they loved my book, that they couldn’t put it down, that it made them cry, or it’s one of the favourites, it does more than just make my day. It gives my whole creative system a shot in the arm. Writing becomes not just work, but a joy again. The words pour out.
They tell me it shouldn’t be this way. That we writers should be intrinsically motivated. ‘Write for the process not the pay-off.’
I won’t go so far as to call that B.S. There may well be authors out there who just write for themselves and never show a word of their work to anyone. But for me it’s simply not enough. More than that – it just doesn’t make sense.
Yes, I love writing for its own sake. And even if I had no hope of being published again I would probably still do it. In the same way I would talk to myself if there was no one else around to listen.
But art is about communication. The artist has something inside them, infuses that something into their work, and then sends it out. The person who views the painting, reads the words, or hears the music feels something in response. If there’s no-one on the receiving end, what’s the point?
As a violinist I used to spend 4-6 hours a day practicing scales, exercises and pieces. Yes, it was satisfying in itself, but only because I knew it was bringing me one step closer to my ultimate goal: to walk out on stage and perform for an audience. To give my music to someone else.
The biggest thrill I could get as a musician was moving my listener to tears. The same holds true for me with writing. And I think this explains why so many emerging authors are often depressed. They keep asking themselves, when will someone see my work? When will I have the chance to fulfil the purpose behind all my efforts?
So, readers, please don’t stop giving your feedback. If you loved a book, or even if it let you down in some way, let the author know. I can honestly say I pay attention to all feedback and if more than one reader had the same issue with something in my book, I guarantee you I’ll give it some thought the next time around.
If you don’t feel comfortable posting a review on Goodreads or Amazon, send the author a FB message or contact them via their website. You might just be providing the incentive that helps that author write their next book.
I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life. In the last few years the battle has enlarged to include depression and insomnia. Only recently have I discovered that all three are part of a repeating negative cycle:
Lack of sleep contributes greatly to my depression. > When I’m depressed I don't have the energy to do the things I need to do. > This in turn leads to anxiety, a sense that I’m falling behind. > And that anxiety keeps me awake at night.
That is my repeating cycle. And I’ve found the best way to interrupt it is by targeting what’s causing my anxiety.
For me it’s all about convincing myself that the small steps I take toward my goals each day really do matter.
Because I can’t see a huge immediate result from doing them, it’s easy to think, ‘So what, if I skip my writing today?’ ‘So what, if I don’t go for my walk?’ ‘So what if I have that extra piece of cake?’ What can it hurt, it’s just one day.
But over time those little daily decisions matter. In fact, over time they’re what matter the most!
Creative people tend to be driven and highly-motivated. But that can work against you if you can’t shut it off. If you never give yourself credit for small accomplishments, you live in a constant state of guilt.
By recognizing that those small steps matter, I have eased my anxiety. Now when I go to bed at night, instead of stressing over all that still needs to be done, I can relax in the knowledge that I’m moving forward. I’m on track. Everyday, with each small step I am getting closer to my goals.
That freedom from anxiety allows me to sleep better, which eases my depression, which gives me more energy to make even more small steps and the spiral starts on an upward trend.
What tricks have you found to ease depression/anxiety?
I recently named this blog site My Writing Room so it occurred to me I might show what my actual work space looks like.
My real-life writing room is a spare bedroom at the front of our house. From the larger of its two windows (above) I have a view down our tree-lined driveway and – closer to hand – of the six birdbaths on a swatch of lawn beneath a weeping hakea tree.
From the other window I can see the ten-acre paddock where my donkeys used to roam (in the days when I ran a donkey sanctuary), 40-acres of freshly-ploughed cropland spreading down the hill beyond, and our nearest neighbor’s stone farmhouse nestled in gum trees at the bottom.
The main furnishings of my writing room are two desks, a standing work station, my plotting chair, a cabinet of curiosities and a 4-foot aquarium full of goldfish.
The larger desk (below) is where I write and revise my novels via laptop. On the shelves around it I have pictures and knick-knacks that remind me of the setting I’m writing about – usually New England.
The second desk (pictured at top) sits before the large window and is mainly where I spread out my research materials and marketing notes. (If I wrote at this desk I’d be too busy watching the birds all day!)
When I’m in the plotting stage of writing a novel, I do most of my writing by hand. For this I sit in an old recliner beside the aquarium. Watching the fish and hearing the soft burble of the air filter gets me in the perfect mellow state for plotting.
Years ago I read about an author (I can’t remember who or where) who said all writers should have a ‘shrine’ in their work room for displaying things that inspire them to write – photos of their favorite authors, dog-eared copies of their favorite books, postcards from intriguing settings, etc.
My writer’s shrine (above) consists of a table on which I keep some of the beautiful leather journals I’ve filled over the years, (nothing gets me fired up to write like stationery!) my current journal, shells I collected on writing retreats, and the candles I light when I sit down to write. (This table is pictured in my blog post dated 12 May 2015)
My cabinet of curiosities holds all sorts of wondrous and fascinating objects from polished stones, my kids’ old toys, bits of their artwork, animal carvings, match box cars, and the odd music box.
Filled with things that delight and inspire me, my writing room extends me a constant inducement to come in and write and is my favorite place to retreat from the world.
One of the best feelings I get as a writer is when the scene I’ve been struggling with for days or weeks suddenly falls together and I can see the way forward. It’s like the sun coming out at the end of a long dark winter.
So many things conspire to steal the joy from a writer’s life. Sometimes I find it good to just sit down and remind myself why I got into this gig in the first place.
So here they are, roughly in the order they occur – my happiest writing moments:
Getting an idea for a story that excites me; feeling that pull that sets the whole process in motion.
Developing the idea and seeing it will work, that there’s a story there worth telling.
Being surpised by a great twist in the plotting and/or writing process.
The moment when my characters start to come alive.
Writing a scene and knowing deep down it works, that I said what I wanted to say and it’s good.
Those rare days when the words just flow.
Those even rarer times when I write something totally beyond my abilities; when I read it back later and think, ‘did I write that?’
Breaking through a block or problem and seeing there is a way forward after all.
Finishing the first draft.
Getting confirmation from my crit partners who read it that I’m on to something good and the story is working.
Polishing the piece and making it shine.
Writing ‘The End’ on a final draft.
Getting positive feedback from my beta readers.
Getting positive feedback from my agent and editor.
Working with an editor who ‘gets’ my work and knows how to make it even better.
Getting my first look at my book’s proposed cover.
Opening the box from my publisher and seeing the finished product – holding my book in my hands for the very first time. (!)
A good review. (Yes, I’m one of those authors who reads all reviews. It’s such a thrill just getting reviews, I can’t resist.)
When a reader says my story moved them, that they read it in one sitting or couldn’t put it down.
When someone reads my book more than once.
Readers asking me when my next book is coming out.
Not all of these moments happen in every novel-writing journey. But when they do, they make all the negative stuff worthwhile.
In keeping with a creepy Halloween theme, I'm writing about one of my favorite hobbies.
I've long had a fascination for strange life forms, among them mushrooms, lichen and slime. (Whenever I tell people this I feel like Egon in Ghost Busters who confessed his hobby was 'spores, molds and fungus'.)
The substance in the photo above is Tapioca Slime, a type of slime mold. This stuff oozes up out of the ground almost every spring somewhere in my garden, sometimes in small patches, occasionally in huge clumps.
The first time I saw it I thought a head a cauliflower was somehow pushing directly up out of the soil. It was pure white with a curd-like surface, but when I touched it, I found it more liquid than solid, softer than whipped cream in fact.
Now here is the truly amazing thing and why this organism tops my list of fascinating life forms. For the first 24 hours after it emerges, slime has no cell walls and can move.
That's right, move. Not just spread by growing in a certain direction but actually ooze along the ground.
It does this by a process called protoplasmic streaming, (even the name is cool!) the same way amoebas get around. After 24 hours however a crust forms over the top of the mass putting an end to its travels.
Fascinations can be great things to write about. I always wanted to write a story drawing on my fascination for fungi but every time I dismissed the idea - who would want to read about that. Then Dean Koontz (a true kindred spirit) came out with his novel, The Taking, in which he did exactly that.
1. Trust your creative urges even when you can't see where they will lead you. You don't have to know why something resonates for you, the simple fact it does means there's something there to explore. At the very least you'll enjoy yourself.
And 2: It's not the idea, it's what you do with it.
What do the following have in common?
Black Jelly Roll
No, it's not a menu for a Halloween party. Believe it or not, these are all common names for mushrooms.
Part of my fascination with fungi (see blog post 9 Oct '15 - Writing Fascinations) is the wildly colorful names they've been given. I know Latin terms are more scientific but for sheer weirdness and chill-worthy imagery how can you go past:
Red Tree Brain
Who thinks up names like these? Someone with a terrific imagination. Can't you just see that Velvet Earth Tongue poking up out of the forest mulch? Or that Trembling Meulius cringing beneath the shadows of a Tortured Willow?
Names like Corpse Finder and Destroying Angel certainly conjure an impression of menace. And the thought of encountering Deadman's Fingers might make you think twice before walking in the woods.
Names are especially important for writers. What we choose to call our characters can convey an immediate sense of who they are. And specifically naming the things in our stories makes our scenes come alive in the minds of readers.
Dogwood or spruce instead of tree.
Deadly Nightshade instead of plant.
Cleftfoot Amanita instead of mushroom.
Growing up in our postage stamp yard in Valley Stream, Long Island (NY) all I ever wanted was to have my own tree house. (Right from the start I knew I was a country girl at heart.) Sadly the only tree we had on our property wouldn’t have supported a modest doll house.
When I was 13 we moved to Poughkeepsie (rural in those days) and our new half-acre yard had no fewer than 96 trees! But again none of them were big enough to build a house in so I had to content myself visiting a friend’s one down the road. (Talk about your tree house envy!)
Years later, married and with two kids of my own, our family moved onto our 50 acre farm in South Australia. The first thing I did – before painting the living room, picking out curtains, or choosing the furniture – was to build a tree house. (For the kids of course, I told everyone. But we both know the truth.)
It’s a humble creation with bunk beds, shelves, a firemen’s pole for easy exit, and a basket on a pulley for hoisting food and things up to the window. I like to think my kids have fond memories of the many sleep-outs they had with friends up in that sky fort.
Now that they’re grown and left home however, the tree house has become one of several places I love to write. (Though I don’t often use the firemen’s pole!)
There’s something magical about being up in a tree, looking out over sweeping green fields dotted with sheep and massive eucalypts.
In spring a willy wagtail flits through the window to feed her chicks in the nest on the shelf. And every now and then a gecko pops its head out from behind a board to say hello. But that’s okay – I don’t mind sharing.
What about you? Do you have a special place you love to retreat to? To write or read or simply re-group when life gets too hectic?
If you’re a ‘creative’, do you find certain settings more conducive to working in than others? Places where your child’s imagination runs wild? If so, I'd love to hear about them.
There are several films on my favorite list but the one that edges out all the others is Extreme Measures with Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman. For me this movie ticks all the boxes for a brilliant thriller that stays with you long after the closing credits.
It opens with a riveting hook – two naked men running out a door into a New York alley, clearly fleeing for their lives. Within ten feet one of them falls and the other stops to help him up, and with that simple gesture these two become heroic figures for me and I have to know what happens to them.
The next scene introduces the hero, Dr Guy Luthan (Grant), in the midst of a medical crisis in the ER of a nearby hospital. Luthan handles the situation with cool efficiency and even manages to inject some humor. But what makes him so sympathetic to me is the decision he’s faced with: two injured men – a gold shield cop and the addict who shot him – both need immediate life-saving surgery and, with only one OR available, Luthan has to choose who gets it.
When challenged later by a young nurse, Luthan tries to defend his decision. In his position of power he could easily quash his critic but instead concedes he may have made a moral rather than a medical choice. Efficiency, composure, humor, honesty. If ever there’s a lesson on how to create a likeable character, for me this is it.
The next patient to land on Luthan’s ER table is one of the naked men from the opening scene. With bizarre symptoms and test readings off the charts, he poses a total mystery for Luthan.
When the patient dies and the body disappears from the morgue, Luthan feels compelled to investigate. He uncovers the conspiracy of a fellow neurologist, Dr Mirack (Hackman) who is kidnapping homeless people for illegal experiments.
What elevates Mirack above your average evil scientist is his motivation: to help restore mobility in victims of spinal cord injury. A brilliant and devoted surgeon, he firmly believes he’s doing a good thing.
Luthan’s mission to uncover the truth takes him to a terrifying underground world and nearly costs him his life and career. Ultimately however he exposes Mirack and justice is served.
If the movie ended there it would still be great but it goes one step further. In the closing scene, Mirack’s wife approaches Luthan and hands him a package containing all her husband’s research notes.
Luthan, a gifted neurologist himself and with the same goals Mirack had, is left with another difficult choice – follow ‘proper’ medical protocols and wait years to attain his objective, or take Mirack’s path?
There’s lots more I could say of this movie but I think you can see why it’s my favorite.
I’ve been juggling for about five years now. I’m not that great at it but I enjoy it. I do get some curious looks however. I guess a woman my age isn’t the sort most people expect to see juggling.
Leonardo da Vinci was an avid juggler. He believed it balanced both the body and the mind. Being ambidextrous, he may have had a slight advantage over me. Still, I have my reasons for sticking with it. And some of them actually have to do with writing:
Juggling is one of the few things I do (along with practicing the violin) that doesn’t involve words. Juggling is a classic example of the type of ‘wordless recreation’ Dorothea Brand talks about in her book, Becoming A Writer: ‘If you want to stimulate yourself in writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways.’
The soothing repetitive rhythm of juggling is like movement meditation. It frees my subconscious to explore plot ideas and ponder creative solutions to story problems.
Other wordless activities include knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, solitaire, even housework. The trick is not to let your wordless activity become a way to avoid writing.
Juggling, especially learning a new pattern, gets me in touch with my ‘beginners mind’ – something Natalie Goldberg discusses in her book, Writing Down the Bones. ‘Beginners mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write.’
Juggling reminds me that success isn’t all (or even mostly!) about talent. No matter how bad I am at something to start with, I will always improve if I work at it.
After sitting at a desk for much of the day, juggling is a welcome bit of exercise and especially helps loosen my shoulders.
Juggling in front of others gives me practice dealing with performance anxiety and, in an indirect way, improves my presentation skills as an author.
Other reasons I juggle:
It’s fun. It makes me feel like a kid.
It’s something I can share with my son.
I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills.
I feel great satisfaction mastering a difficult pattern.
Juggling warms me up when I’m cold.
Juggling relaxes me.
Bottom line: it just plain feels good.
If you want to see why I love juggling so much, check out this video of my all time juggling hero, Chris Bliss. www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNssOKZr9dc
My husband and I have been in America since early July, staying with family on Cape Cod, MA and visiting friends throughout New England. With our return to Australia less than one week away I find myself growing nostalgic, especially with the changing season.
Growing up in the U.S. northeast, autumn was always my favorite time of year. The weather makes me feel so alive – cool crisp breezes, warm sun, the sky an electric shade of cobalt and filled with plumes of fair-weather clouds.
But there’s something else. Something in the air I can’t define. I think if I were blind I’d still know when autumn came in New England. Even without seeing the pumpkins on every doorsteps, the mums in every garden, the leaves flitting down like so many frenzied monarch butterflies.
As I set out for my walk this morning I found myself inhaling deeply, eager to breath in the rich blend of damp earth and fallen leaves overlaid with a hint of wood smoke. There probably isn’t an apple tree for miles but I swear I could smell one!
And is it also my imagination or do the leaves sound different than they did all summer? It’s possible I suppose since they’re losing moisture, becoming more brittle as they change color. I’ve already noticed the rain sounds different here than in Australia, a fact I can only put down to the leaves of deciduous trees being softer and more delicate than those of eucalypts.
Autumn is bittersweet, my Dad used to say and as I savor my final days in New England I have to agree. Summer is ending but with a grande finale of color and sensation equal to any Fourth of July fireworks.
A part of me wishes I could stay to see Christmas in the snow. To linger in this place where my parents were born and are now laid to rest. But I have children in another place and it’s time to go.
Till next time New England…
I remember years ago discovering knitting. I’d barely finished my first scarf before deciding I wanted to make a sweater with a sunset on the back. How cool, I thought, to have all those subtle gradations of color rising up the back of my cardigan.
Because I hadn’t a clue how to do it, I went into my local yarn shop and asked an expert. ‘You can’t,’ was her answer. ‘You’d need a different color yarn for every row and what would you do with all those odd-colored balls leftover? Plus you’d end up with a thousand lose threads at the back of the work which you’d either have to thread in or leave hanging loose.’ She scowled at the thought. ‘Very unprofessional looking.’
With my creative bubble well and truly burst, I went home with some boring monotone yarn and a pattern that would show me the ‘proper’ way to knit a sweater.
Years later a man named Kaffe Fasset discovered knitting. Because he was an artist he approached the process from a totally different angle – he used yarn to create his garments the way he used paints to create his paintings. He was as ignorant about the ‘right’ way to knit as I had been. The difference was he didn’t ask an expert for help.
Fasset did exactly what that woman in the yarn shop told my I couldn’t. (His patterns use upwards of 90 different colors for a single garment!) In the process he discovered a way to knit in all the lose ends as he worked so he didn’t have to thread them in afterwards. Yes, he ended up with drawers full of odd-colored yarn but they simply added to his source materials for future projects.
What does this story have to do with writing? Here’s what I took away from the experience:
Never let an expert tell you something can’t be done until you’ve tried it yourself. (Unless we’re talking skydiving or mountain climbing.)
Never let another writer tell you there’s only one right way to write.
Never let anyone turn you off an idea for a story until you’ve thoroughly explored it. (And even then, have one more go – that idea came to you for a reason!)
Never let a ‘proper’ education get in the way of true learning.
I make this my first post for a reason: most of what I’ll be discussing in this blog are approaches to writing that have worked for me. They might not necessarily work best for others; I offer them simply as options to consider. So no matter how excited I get about an idea, please don’t think I’m suggesting it’s the only way to do it.
When I first came to Australia in 1976 I moved straight from Rochester, a major city in upstate New York, to Broken Hill, New South Wales – a mining town in the middle of the outback. (Talk about culture shock!)
The house we rented had no indoor toilet and one morning as I made my first trek out to the ‘dunny’ I came upon an amazing sight. There on the path was the biggest spider I had ever seen (a Huntsman with a leg-span as big as a dinner plate) grappling with the biggest wasp I’d ever seen. The battle was both ferocious and frightening and I stood transfixed. (Until our cat came along and ate them both.)
I’ve since learned that that wasp is a native parasitic species. Unlike others of its kind, it lives alone instead of in communal nests. After mating, the female finds a big juicy spider, paralyses it with her sting and carries it to a pre-dug burrow. She shoves the spider deep inside, lays a single egg on her victim and seals the hole.
Another species of parasitic wasp builds a kind of maternity ward – a series of tiny mud chambers joined in a row which I often find stuck to an outside wall of our house. Once when I cut one open, I found a different spider sealed in each chamber, each with its own wasp egg attached. (Goo!)
It struck me years later that this species could well have been the inspiration for the creature in Aliens. At the very least the existence of such real life ‘monsters’ lends believability to their fictional counterparts.
There really is nothing an author could create in a story that is stranger than the life that already exists on this planet.
My second defining moment wasn't nearly as pleasant as the first but in its way has inspired me every bit as much.
I never did well in elementary school. From kindergarten through 6th grade the only reason I passed was because of the threat of summer school.
My reports cards were filled with C's and D's (barely passing) with the exception of art and violin lessons. (I even failed general music classes.)
Every year my new teacher would provide my parents a fresh diagnosis of my problem. These labels included hyperactive, dyslexic, autistic, retarded and brain damaged.
Once I hit high school I began to improve. I could concentrate more and my grades went up. But the stigma of my early school years stayed with me and, unknown to me at the time, I was pigeon-holed accordingly.
Years later in my first year at college I took an educational psychology course. One day we were talking about streaming in schools - the practice of grouping students of like intelligence and ability into the same class.
One of the students in the course had come from the same school district I had and talked about how much it had helped him being grouped with the brightest kids in the 'A' stream in high school. My high school. The one in which I'd been in all the 'C' level classes - the slowest dumbest kids in the school. A fact I never knew till that moment.
The feelings I experienced in learning this became my second defining moment. I was so angered by the discovery, I actually had to leave the class. I went out into the hall and paced up and down, silently ranting to myself.
I remembered asking my mother when I entered junior high, what the C in 7C meant. She told me it was just a way they divided the students. She knew what the real reason was I'm sure, she just never told me. (Good on ya, Mom!)
Every time I think of that day in that psych class I'm filled with the same sense of anger and outrage. How dare they shove me into that box and declare that was all I could ever be!
Strangely, my two defining moments have ended up creating a balanced push and pull in my life. On the one hand I'm pulled toward creative endeavors and derive great satisfaction from moving people through music and writing.
But at the same time, a voice deep inside is constantly pushing me to do better. To succeed where they never thought I could. To prove every one of the bastards wrong!
I don't know if this is the best or healthiest motivation but it's definitely an effective one.