Getting closer now. The redraft of The Hills of Mare Imbrium is progressing and I have found some exciting cover designers.

Happy Halloween

Barren House

It was the Winter wind that woke her, not the hammering of her heart against her chest like a frightened bird clamouring to be free. Suzanne waited for the panic to pass as the sea-wind sobbed and moaned around the old house. Breathe Suzanne, breathe. It’s just the wind. Slow. In at the diaphragm, out through the mouth. Slow. Breathe in calm, breathe out fear.

The dreams were getting worse. No, not the dreams, that dream. The dream in which she fled down dark corridors while the canvas man chased her. She never saw his face, only ever the sound of his uneven boots thumping on the cold wooden floorboards. Ker thump – ka thump. Closer, always closer. She ran, and her fear ran with her pushing her through the viscous air thick like water, slow to part and cold, so cold.

The house breathed its tired life through the walls, creaking and rattling in the wind. Suzanne wrapped the doona tighter around her scrawny frame. Mamma was always telling her to get more meat on her bones.
Sleep did not come. She lay there until morning crept into the room, cold and slow like the sea at the end of the yard. Suzanne stretched and went in search of coffee, her bare feet cold on the rough wooden floor boards. The kitchen faced East, the poor side of the house.  The side for servants and tradesmen, not the glorious West view of Sydney for the last century rich.
Dark trees crowded the window. Suzanne felt rather than saw a commotion in the branches. A bird or something.
 
She hugged herself feeling the shivers through her frail slip. Look at this place. Mamma would be so proud. Suzanne had been so lucky to get the place on the cheap. An old house in an older suburb. So what if it had a graveyard next door? Waverley graveyard was famous. The suburb seemed nice, even if the neighbours didn’t speak to her yet. The house was a treasure, with its columns and the upper deck she hadn’t explored yet. A rich Jewish businessman had built it, and it had been all kinds of things in its day. A brothel, a drugstore, an orphanage for young girls. She couldn’t quite remember its name. Maybe Mamma would know.
The sun called her out as it warmed the garden. Outside, the morning helped to evaporate her anxiety. Doctor Arvenkian said gardening was good for her. He was encouraging when Suzanne said she had found the old house. She had felt so sure in his office, on the warm, soft couch. 
She wandered the yard, touching old trees, their bark blackened with the sooty mould of coastal air. In a decrepit tree near the wall she saw a rainbow lorikeet, its feathers a bright splash against the black branches. Poor thing, it was waiting for the Spring, for lush green to fill the old garden with new life.
Warmth rose beneath her bare feet. Her toes spread out on the worn flagstones reading a century of walks down the garden path. Happy families lived here and old contented lives. She stood arms akimbo looking at the ruin of the garden. Yes. She could be happy here. She would make the garden over, plan it now so green shoots would flood the yard in Spring. Suzanne pottered from bed to bed imagining a garden of life and colour.
The day burned and too soon the sea fell into darkness. Suzanne watched Sydney’s lights push back the velvet dark. Behind her the sea reflected nothing. She should eat something. Mamma would be cross, but Mamma wasn’t watching now, so she took herself to bed.
The wind was worse tonight. Shaking the eroded tin on the roof. Whistling around the bare frame of the house. It wormed its way into Suzanne’s bones leaving her cold and breathless in the dark.
Below the keening wind a persistent low dragging thump echoed, almost like someone walking across the floorboards.
Midnight came and still no sleep. She rose.  Outside the room, moonlight cast pools of shadow down the corridor. Just the dark, Suzanne, nothing to be afraid of. The thump came again from the end of the corridor. She peered into the shadows and they rewarded her with imagined terrors. Looming, ominous shapes, perhaps even the shape of a man in the alcove at the end.
Not that way then. To the other side the stairs hung pale in the moonlight. Upstairs, she should go upstairs. Dr Arvenkian said the stairs would help her overcome her fear, it wasn’t so far up the stairs. No! Not tonight. She chose the safety of the kitchen.
Shadows clothed the kitchen. The dark branches outside cast skeletal fingers across the floor. In the corner near the door, the shadows held the shape of a man. The thump came again. She fled back towards her room. The footsteps followed.
Get hold of yourself, it’s just shadows. She turned to face her fear. The canvas man stood in the corridor. He dragged heavy boots towards her.
I’m dreaming, she told herself. She turned to run. The canvas man thumped after her.  She ran to her room and his boots followed. The room held no salvation. She knew that when she looked back and saw him standing in the doorway, dull moonlight reflecting off the worn brass of his helmet. Suzanne fell backwards onto the bed. She shuddered as wrinkled canvas arms scooped her up in a delicate embrace.
He walked into the yard holding her face tight to his chest. Suzanne fluttered, weak against the iron of his arms. She smelled salt, and man, and under it all the bitter tang of things long dead. Moonlight broke through the scudding cloud casting pale light onto the grey waves crashing onto the rock. Suzanne fought to be free and looked down, so far down. She clung to the bony thing inside the canvas, desperate to be away from the cliff at the end of the yard.
A dull voice echoed from the helmet. “You are mine as I am yours. Together we will return to the sea.”
Suzanne forgot to scream as one lead-lined boot took the next step into vacant air.
#
Pete Jones parked the patrol car at the edge of the cliff and picked up the steaming cappuccino. Giordino’s made the best coffee. The long night of wrestling druggies around the Cross was over. Waverley was the final stop before he knocked off. Some random nutter had been walking around the ruins of the old house next to the graveyard. Concerned neighbours reported seeing an old woman in her nightie. She wasn’t here now.
He sat sipping the coffee as the sun rose through storm-wracked clouds.  The wind rose pouring salt-cold air over Officer Jones. He shrugged and drove away.  Behind him, high on the clifftop an old scrap of canvas fluttered in the breeze.

Seven Ways to Improve Your Word Choices

“It’s like a black fly in your chardonnay” mused Alanis Morissette in her 1996 song “Isn’t it ironic?” thereby launching a hundred English Lit classes on the subject of irony.

Listening to this song while driving to work the other day, I was struck by the precision of word choice that juxtaposes the perfection of a glistening glass of white wine with the disgust inducing sight of a disease-ridden black fly. Words matter. They are the writer’s toolbox of emotional hooks. They catch readers and hold them. Put enough of the right words in your story and readers will not be able to put it down.

In a perfect world, we would choose each word to impart its exact meaning. Our sentence structure would provide each word in perfect order, and our prose would impart coherent thought on every line. Sadly, we don’t always live up to these lofty expectations. Fear not gentle writer, help is at hand. Here are seven ways to improve your word choices in any story:

1. Read

The more you read, the wider your exposure to new words and new ways of using words will be. I love the dictionary feature on my old Kindle. There is a small joy to discovering the meanings behind a new word and marvelling at how the writer used it to evoke a feeling. When the Kindle dictionary fails me, I turn to Dictionary.com

2. Make friends with the thesaurus

Much as we would all like to be a flowing font of unique text, sometime we need a little help. The thesaurus in your word processor is a good start, but there are better options. Roget’s Thesaurus is one of the staples for any writer. A good online alternative is Thesaurus.com

3.  The comfort of the familiar

Writers are creatures of habit. We all have favourite words that we overuse. This can lead to boring text if we use that same words within a short distance of each other. My weaknesses are look/see and variations of this. Try to identify your own.
I use two approaches to removing overused words, either reach for the thesaurus, or rewrite the sentence.

4.  Repeating phrases

Allied to overused words is the irksome habit of reusing the same phrase within a short distance of the original. The writer’s mind is adept at optimising the creative process. Why expend the effort on creating a new phrase when you already have a ready-made phrase to reuse?
Rewording these phrases is an easy fix once you master the art of identifying them.

5. Vaguely generic

Know some stuff about a lot of things. Words craft the reality we create. Be brave and avoid empty words that cheat our readers out of a clear picture of our story. Clear writing is where you get to stamp your authority as a writer on the story. The reader remembers original phrases long after they finish reading.

6. Bigger is not better

Broadening your vocabulary gives you access to a splendid array of less common words. Resist the temptation to show off your awesome wordsmithing skills with your big vocabulary. Sometimes a spade is just a spade, and not a rust-bound digging implement of woe. Choosing the right words means choosing the ones that tell your story and only that.

7. Time changes everything

Your word choices are a reflection of who you are as a writer.  They reflect not only the culture you come from, but also the time. Take that glass of chardonnay. Back in the Nineties, chardonnay was the go-to wine for every occasion. Come forward a decade or two and it has given way to other varietals, and the word choice no longer has the impact it had back then.
Once you understand your cultural bias, you can choose whether to use it or not. This makes all the difference if you want to deliberately affecting the voice of another time or place.

Scrivener

People that know me know that I’m a big fan of Scrivener. They also know I’m an IT nerd at heart, so any software that allows me to structure all of my writing in one place is bound to catch my attention. 

Seems I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Bettina Deda interviewed five fiction and non-fiction writers for tips and recommendations on how to get the best out of this amazing tool.

We all have stories

I learned to tell stories on a farm in South Africa. There was nothing better to the five-year-old Carleton than joining the barefoot village children on the earthen floor of a mud hut. Old Xhosa women would spin us marvellous tales of river serpents, brave warriors, and white-painted, clay-clad women who returned from the dead. My favourite was always the Tokoloshe, a mischievous, small, hairy man who would sneak into naughty children’s bedrooms to bite off their toes.
I absorbed the craft of stories from these Xhosa ladies; the pull of suspense, the impact of vivid imagery, and the all-important need to suspend disbelief. There was no book learning, but learning nonetheless, in the deep organic sense of stories told in voice and rhythm. Learning in the way of things told and remembered.
Story telling is tightly woven into our DNA. The oldest surviving literary work “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was inscribed on clay tablets more than 3,000 years ago in Babylonia. It is thought to have been based on five even older epic poems of which fragments have been found dating back to around 2100 BC.  The modern discovery of the epic is in itself a story, and so stories beget further stories.
There is scientific evidence to suggest that storytelling is an innate need in human beings. Back in the 1940’s Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an experiment in which they showed subjects a short film featuring geometric shapes moving around the screen. Subjects were asked to describe what they saw. Only one subject saw two-dimensional shapes, everyone else described a story based on what they had seen. For Heider this was the beginning of a psychosocial theory of narrative and attribution that would become his life’s work. The film clip itself is just over a minute and yet people can create detailed narratives around it. What do you see?

We all love to tell stories. We share anything from our personal stories, to news, to the juiciest fiction. Did you hear what happened at the office? Isn’t it terrible about Aunt Sarah? The sunset over the mountains was amazing. It is our way of sharing our common humanity, of ascribing deeper meaning to life.
Some of us tell our stories by speaking to our friends, some as internal dialogue, and some of us write them down. I’m part of the latter group and lately I’ve been experimenting with this blog. How are you telling your stories?

Laddie


The unassuming memorial lies quiet within the redbrick walls of the Pheasant Wood cemetery. Beyond the cemetery walls the woods draw a dark line through French countryside to Fromelles. The gravestone is plain. Below the details a single word is inscribed, “Laddie”. It says little, but so much to those who remember him.
Laddie was a small-town boy. He grew up in Peterborough, a dusty railway town somewhere in the vast openness that stretches between Adelaide and Broken Hill. He was tall and rangy as is the way with Chinner men. Formal photos of the family show an earnest young man standing proud behind his parents.
Letters from the time speak of a sound young man with deep religious convictions.  Perhaps it was these convictions that led him to the military and saw him graduate from Duntroon as a Lieutenant in June 1912. It is not known what the family thought of this—we Chinners are a peace-loving lot by nature. Laddie was the only Chinner to serve in living memory until my grandfather served in Darwin during the Second World War.
He found work as a bank clerk after he left school. We can only guess that this where he met Gladys. She was a bank teller. That he loved her is sure, they were engaged before his 32nd Battalion sailed from Adelaide on the 18th November, 1915. As a memento of their time apart Laddie presented her with a silver locket containing his photo. 
Laddie’s Battalion joined the 5th Australian Division in Egypt and moved to the Western Front. He was ordered to take his team to the protect the Allied left flank, where the German front line trench crossed the Rue de la Cordonnerie, just north of the German strong point of Delangre Farm.
On arrival, Laddie was ordered to take his team to the “Nursery”, a somewhat safer spot for new arrivals to become accustomed to the daily horrors of battle. Their first days were spent practicing trench digging in ground so sodden they had to create trenches with sandbags.
In July, there came a day when the Battalion hoped for a bombardment to soften the German position. The bombardment failed.  The Allies suffered 7,000 killed and wounded. 5,553 of them were Australian, making 19 July 1916 the worst day in Australian military history. Laddie was among them. He was preparing a bomb when a piece of shrapnel hit him on the wrist, causing him to drop the bomb. The result was described in cold medical terms as blunt-force trauma to the ribcage.
During the night and early morning German counterattacks began recapturing the lost trenches. General Richard Haking, the British commander of the operation, gave the order to retreat. The Allies were pushed back, leaving the dead and wounded where they lay. Laddie died during the night and lay with his fallen comrades. The Germans buried the dead in mass graves, great trenches heaped with the fallen and covered over. 
There they lay until the end of the war when teams ploughed the fields in search of remains. The found were buried at VC Corner Cemetery in Fromelles, but Laddie and over two hundred of his mates lay hidden in an untried corner of Pheasant Wood.
The patient dead waited until a retired Australian schoolteacher, Lambis Englezos, became curious in the nineties. The statistics did not add up. One hundred and sixty-three Australian soldiers were not accounted for in any war memorial. It would take Englezos years of painstaking investigation and persuasive arguments until in mid-2008 Glasgow University’s Archaeological Research Division confirmed there was indeed a mass grave in Pheasant Wood. 
In 2009, Oxford Archaeology carried out a full scale exhumation. The results were astonishing. Two hundred and fifty bodies and some six thousand artefacts most identifiable as Australian or British.  There were military buttons, buckles, even the occasional boot. Unusual in that British and Australian footwear was considered superior by the Germans and was often removed. Other objects were more personal – a fountain pen, a bible, a French phrase book.
Further confirmation had to wait until the Australian Army’s Unrecovered War Casualties–Army unit established a Fromelles Project Team to locate descendants of men killed at Fromelles who were willing to provide a sample of DNA to confirm the identity of the recovered soldiers.
Discussions ran hot in the family. Who was the closest descendant? Who was prepared to provide a sample for testing? We had to wait until early 2010 to learn that Laddie was indeed Lieutenant Eric Harding Chinner, my great-uncle. 
Laddie was buried with full honours in the specially commissioned Pheasant Wood Cemetery. He lies there now, no more a forgotten soldier. Gladys died at age ninety. She seldom spoke of her lost Laddie, but kept his locket until her death. 

Kruger Encounter

We walk silently; in single file; the occasional crackle as one of us brushes the dry grass the only sound. The two rangers, in front, their rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders, scan the isolated clumps of thorn trees for any sign of game. It is the middle of the dry season and the entire landscape is palette of tawny shades.
“Lion,” mutters the lead and we all freeze; unease palpable on our faces. We’ve never encountered a lion like this before.
It is day two of the Bushman Trail, a ranger guided walk in a remote, wilderness area of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The Bushman Trail is one of two such wilderness walks based at the Southern end of the the park. Hikers meet at Berg en Dal camp and are transported to a remote bush camp that is the base for extensive day walks into the surrounding bushveld. Walking provides a rather different experience to the antiseptic safety of viewing game from a car that most visitors to the park experience; being immersed in the landscape exposes the sounds, smells and textures of the scrubby thorn country that we are walking through. The walks follow unmarked trails laid down by generations of animals, crossing everywhere from the dusty savannah valleys to the boulder strewn hills known locally as koppies.
Nikkol, our lead ranger is an imposing figure with the piercing gaze of someone who has spent a lifetime staring at wide open landscapes. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush and its animals that he shares in laconic style around the camp fire and at rest breaks. He has spent the last two evenings explaining that the lion roars that we hear at night are the sound of a mating pair and that he is hoping to show us. He knows that they are nearby as he has already shown us a recent buffalo kill; the giant frame stripped to little more than gleaming white bone.
We are not disappointed; as we freeze behind the rangers; two tawny shapes emerge from the sere landscape; a large male and female. We all crane forward to see; remaining motionless and hardly daring to breathe in case the pair notices us. It is pointless; lions are a supreme predator and we stick out like a neon sign outside a fast food joint. The lioness jumps up to investigate.
The two rangers suddenly have rifles in hand and there is a single click as they both chamber a round. The rifles carry a 458 soft slug capable of stopping a charging elephant, but they are of minimal comfort to us as the lioness fixes us with yellow eyes that leave no doubt as to her intent. Nikkol tersely tells us to climb up to a large rock ledge, but not to take our eyes off her. Turning away would indicate that we are fleeing; a signal that predators may interpret as the start of a chase. Climbing a rocky, bush covered slope backwards turns out to be quite easy when your motivation is a realisation that you are no longer at the top of the food chain.
A minute later we are all perched on top of a high boulder; anxiously scanning the nearby bush for signs of the lioness.  The male has not moved from where we first saw him, and is eyeing us incuriously. We all breathe a quiet sigh of relief as his mate reappears next to him, satisfied that she has driven the intruders away.
We sit quietly, watching these lords of the savannah and our patience is rewarded with a rare sight. The male begins to growl softly; the female flicks her tail and watches. The male, seeing the invitation, mounts her and they roar in unison. Their roars quickly rise to an earth-shattering crescendo before they break apart. The female rolls onto her back and sticks all four legs in the air, flicking the dry dust with her tail; for all the world like an oversize, contented house cat. In low whispers Nikkol explains that the pair will mate like this every 15 minutes for two to three days and if successful that this will be the start of a new pride of lions.
Mating lions are a rare sight, so later we return in the safety of the game viewing vehicle to take photos and watch until the sun goes down. Everyone gets ample opportunity to take photos and there are cries of “Eat your heart out National Geographic.”
Late in the afternoon, a second scrawny, battle scarred male appears. Nikkol explains that lions are very social animals; the two males are hunting mates who would have fought over mating rights with the female who probably wandered into the area.
“So, where was he while we were walking?” asks one of us.

‘Oh, somewhere nearby,” replies Nikkol.

Draw up to the digital fireplace

I never intended to start a blog, but storytelling is in my blood. I grew up in Africa which is everything you have heard and nothing you have imagined until you have been there. There is something about the embers of a fire as they hold off the darkness of the bush at night. It draws us close and invites us to share. People need to share, the mundane and the extraordinary, the heartfelt truths and impossible fictions, dreams and wonders, all of them true.