RIVER of BONES: Villains, Xenophobia and Germans

River_of_Bones2I threw it out to the original readers of Elyora earlier this week: did they have something they’d like to ask in regards to any aspect of the novella. What I had intended as a quick Q & A has evolved into a series of blog posts. This first one deals with the topics of villains, xenophobia and anti-German. The questions came compliments of Sean Wright and Robert G Cook.

SEAN: Australians are very hard on migrants. We always seem to require newcomers to prove themselves. I wanted to ask where you got the idea for the villain of the piece?

The search for the ‘embodiment’ of Elyora’s true antagonist was long and tedious. She was the last of the characters to have an identity honed, which made for interesting writing in the lead up to uncovering her (and perhaps why other antagonist ‘forces’ share the evil mantle with the actual antagonist in the novella). I had all the pieces—a river, monstrous women, singing, male entrapment—but could not get them to fit in a logical fashion. I trusted if I just kept writing actual monster that would hold it all together, would arrive. Eventually.

In the original dream, the women in the river were more akin to sirens or mermaids, yet I couldn’t quite get my head around my ‘villain’ being either (in their most traditional form or any permutation I could spin). I’m not well versed with monsters or mystical creatures so I went to my writing friends asking if they knew of a malevolent being I could put in a river. Bunyips and other Australian bred monsters didn’t fit any better than sirens and mermaids, and like me, my writing friends also drew blanks.

I spent lots of time in Far North Queensland and one of our favourite swimming holes was  the (aptly named) Boulders just out of Babinda. It is a beautiful, eerie and violent place—the ambiance underpinned by the legend of Oolana, the number of recent deaths there and the turbulent waters that hammer through the valley during the wet season. It was echoes of Oolana’s legend that inspired me put Ethan’s wife in the river. In the earliest drafts she didn’t even have a name nor a reason for having died there. She was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost of what was to follow.

I found Eleanor simply by giving up looking for her. I was researching something else in mid-June when I stumbled across a reference to a wiederganger. The name roughly translates to ‘again walker’ and they are part ghost, part zombie and part vampire and date back to the middle ages in Northern German folklore. They are born from a need for revenge and best of all—they use telepathy to lure victims graveside. There, the wiederganger feeds on them.

Immediately all the pieces came together. I made Ethan Lazarus’s wife German—a woman he met and feel in love with while on an architectural tour of Europe. I had them elope to Gretna Green (a nod to my Great-Grandparents) and then forced back to Australia by the impending War (Ethan recalled to run the family property). The singing was easily woven in…Eleanor became an up-and-coming opera singer. The strains of the Andrews sisters were echoes from the war years. And the German background gave me xenophobic angles to play with.

What I like most about Eleanor as the villain, is she is a product of her environment – both as a monster of her native Germany and a predator of those who originally preyed on her in Elyora. We get to know and empathise with her as a woman out of place in life, before we are confronted with her as a monster after death.

ROB: I’m interested in the xenophobic aspects of the townspeople’s behaviour towards Eleanor, the anti-German feeling of the war years and how that spilled over into people’s attitudes and actions towards people who couldn’t reasonably be held to account for stuff that had happened half a world away. Was knowledge of that something that informed the story or something that grew out of it, and either way, how did you go about researching it?

The anti-German angle grew out of finding the wiederganger. It defined and honed the entire second half of the novella and gave weight to what I intended to simply be a ‘scary story’. The narrative evolved to be about intolerance and irrational hatred, as much as it was a story about bad shit happening in a creepy town.

Australia has a rich and trouble multicultural history—and having studied both Australian and modern history I’d seen the same anti [insert your bias here] sentiments repeated throughout history in terms of ‘others’. Australia’s influx of migrants Post WW II saw lots of nastiness unleashed in small towns where migrants ended up. The best example I can think of is the treatment of migrants who worked on the Snowy Rivers Hydro scheme. We watched a fictional mini series in Australian studies in Year 11. In it, a German woman was raped by a gang of men who believe their crime is justified because of the victim’s nationality.

I revelled in the questions the anti-German attitude raised about the ‘monsters’ who live among us: the ones we create, the ones we aid and abet, the ones we push down inside ourselves. In Elyora the hate is fever pitch, it is irrational… but so is the manifestation of grief and trying to understand horrors perpetuated on loved ones. Alain de Botton says bad behaviour is a reflection of suffering and not malice. This is as relevant for Eleanor as it is for people such as Stanley Blessing, Dorothy Briggs and Matthew Gideon. It doesn’t make their behaviour easier to swallow, but it does shine a light into the dark recesses of their motivations.

Small towns have the capacity (like small offices, small organisations, small tea rooms) to magnify intolerance because ‘otherness’ is harder to hide. There is a fear of what others bring and might take. Where I lived in the Riverina my otherness wasn’t just from being out of town: I was caught between mill workers and the older landholders. Add to that the fact I was female (should be seen and not heard, be married, breed and do as I was told) and worked for the most hated woman in town. I well and truly felt the icy blast of small town prejudice. It is easy to alienate someone who is ‘foreign’. In Eleanor’s case, she becomes (in the minds of the locals) the embodiment of the town’s worst fears. She is a soft target. She is an easy target. And she’s an obvious target.

When I was defending the horror genre recently to my MIL (who is of the opinion it is trash and why would anyone want to read/write it) I used the theme of intolerance in River of Bones as an example of what horror does best—putting up a mirror to and exploring the things we are afraid of, or would prefer to not talk about.


Thank you to everyone who has continued to Tweet, Facebook, downloaded and talk to others about River of Bones. As this goes to press the novella is #9 on the free US charts under the horror sub-genre of the occult and steady at #10 in the UK free horror charts.

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RIVER OF BONES: Life is a Highway

Road trips are a way of life in Australia, so much so Triple J and ABC Open ran the Road Trip Relay last year (if you needed proof of the institutional position of the road trip in Aussie culture!)

My childhood and adolescence are liberally peppered with road trips. No one lived closed to us when we moved out of Melbourne so we were always on the road. At 14 my parents sold up everything and we spent three months traveling up the east coast pulling a 32-foot caravan. Aged 22, I left Cairns to join my boyfriend of the time and travel the wheat harvest trail from Roma in Central West Queensland all the way down to Padthaway in South Australia (I saw lots of the country side at 25km an hour from the passenger seat of a combine harvester). The road trip is something I’m well acquainted with, and for which I have a deep abiding love of (wind in your hair, stereo cranked up, wide open road ahead), but River of Bones didn’t begin as a story about a road trip. It evolved into one.

WRONG WAY, TURN BACK

From the morning I took down my dream I knew the main characters in Elyora were a band. This gave them a reason to be on the highway. Originally I had them pegged as a young, sassy Melbourne outfit making their way north to Sydney. And then I travelled the Hume highway.

Most. Soulless. Road. Ever.

So it was a double take on where they were going and who they actually were.

BRISBANE 475KM

My in-laws are scattered across the New England Tablelands in NSW. The New England highway is the direct route there and cuts straight through the townships of Tenterfield, Glenn Innes, Armidale and a multitude of tiny little places with their own stories lingering by the side of the road. (Deep Water for instance has the great falling down Eclipse Theatre, the exterior a faded, peeling blue).

When the Hume Highway failed to inspire I knew the New England was a perfect fit. There are a plethora of little roads coming off it, unlike the Hume which is all big off ramps. Not to mention I knew the New England highway well and could immediately envisage Faunabate traveling down it.

2013-05-21 12.50.11Armidale was a starting point. It has a Uni, a social melting pot perfect for an emerging indie band but it was too close to where I wanted the band to turn off the highway (all spawned by Jo wanting to devour a meat pie at the Glenn Innes bakery to stick it to vegan Benny in her passive aggressive assault on him, which was cut in subsequent drafts but the location markers remained!)

I took the starting point further west to Tamworth and decided that Hal and Jo would be from one of the tiny towns along there (Jo from Nundle and Hal from Woolomin). In doing so I realised the band was more than just a creative outlet for Jo. It was her escape pass from the country. And I had underpinnings of what was to play out later in the narrative – the irony of claustrophobia in a vast landscape.

IMG_2240The additional benefit of Hal and Jo as country kids was the impact of their reaction to Elyora. They are both well versed with rural economic degradation and isolation, of being in parts of the country where there is no phone service, so their entry into Elyora is not simply city meets country culture shock, but a deep sense of something being intrinsically wrong there.

I KNOW WHERE ELYORA IS

This is what Dave casually said to me on our trip to Gloucester in January and there was an immediate shiver down my back.

Although I see Elyora Road and all the buildings along that decrepit strip of tarmac as clearly as any of the other almost dead country towns I’ve been to… I’ve never believed it’s real. That’s just crazy talk.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know where Elyora is,” he repeated.

“It’s not a real place.”

“I know. But I know where it would be. Want to go there?”

Did I really want to turn off the New England highway in search of a proposed version of Elyora? Surely one learns lessons from their writing? Surely. Especially when one has also watched The Cars That Ate Paris.

Curiosity killed the cat…IMG_2339We stopped in Ben Lomond on the way back to Brisbane, when I’d got my head around tempting fate. I felt more than a faint tremor of filthy anticipation in the pit of my stomach as we drove down Ben Lomond road. The only thing that stopped me from freaking totally was the fact I videoed the whole thing, you know, in case I ever needed a book trailer.

ALMOST BUT…

No town is every going to look exactly like Elyora… it is a mash up of elements from all the tiny country towns I’ve ever been to, but there was one house there that gave me the absolute willies.

IMG_2341The town also has three churches. One of them totally cordoned off so you could only peep at it from the road.

IMG_2356One with weeping angels in the graveyard.

IMG_2361I’m glad we visited without incident but now, every time we drive past I get the icky feeling on the back of my neck that perhaps Elyora does lie down the Ben Lomond Road. Lord forbid I ever hear stray strains of The Andrews Sisters as we drive past.

2013-01-06 13.05.30AND ACROSS THE DITCH

It wasn’t just the aspects of rural NSW that shaped the characters and narrative in River of Bones. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how finding the perfect monster fed and expanded additional locations central to the novella.

We’ve all been to ‘one of those towns’… where the twang of banjos claw at the back of our brains. Where is your Elyora?


Thank you to everyone who has Tweeted, Facebooked, downloaded and talked to others about River of Bones. As this goes to press the novella is #6 on the free US charts under the horror sub-genre of the occult and #9 in the UK free horror charts.

RIVER OF BONES: Dream a Little Dream

River_of_Bones2RIVER OF BONES, my supernatural thriller, is free for the rest of the week. You can pick up your copy at Amazon UK or Amazon USA (best for Aussie readers). To coincide with the giveaway I’ve lined up a series of blog posts to take the reader behind the creepy exterior.

IT BEGINS…

…in 2011, in a chalet in the middle of nowhere–a place four hours west of Brisbane called the Bunya Mountains. Amid the towering ancient Bunya Pines, and cold, howling winds, I tried to reconnect with my writing via Natalie Goldberg’s WILD MIND. While my Mr Ds were off exploring I’d spend an hour reading and work my way through the writing prompt for the day, scribbling with mad abandon in a tattered red exercise book.

In the earliest pages are two dreams: the first about an overburdened lint filter (looking back it’s the perfect metaphor for how I was feeling at the time!); the second, an epic dream in technicolour, twisted and distorted as all good dreams are. I remember waking from it knowing there was more than a kernel of a story idea.

TO DREAM, TO WRITE

21st of August, 2011

Last night I dreamed about a place–with dilapidated houses. The fist one had a grand driveway and stone pillars which would have once held an impressive gate. When you looked up the hill there was nothing. You expected to see a grand old house–in good repair or falling apart–but there was nothing of the sort. At the top a neat chalet with the lights on.

Further on there were tumble down houses, over grown yards. One house was three storeys high at one end, two at the other, white weatherboard, ugly, ostentatious in the fact someone felt the need to build a third level to an extremely ordinary and ugly house.

There were men living in the town and a ramshackle service station–the old sort with a shed like store and two pumps out the front. In the drive way there was a hippie stand of food, festive flights festooning the drab surrounding giving it all a surreal look.

Walking up to the hippie food stand there were large goodie-balls rolled in coconut. I wanted to buy one but the stall holder told me they were specifically for the IT people who were coming (a hang over from finishing Snow Crash yesterday?)

In the forest there was a water hole fed by a creek and in the water hole were mermaids who lured men it to swim with them. When they did they were caught forever to live in the tiny town. There was one woman and one child–a merchild. She was forced to give up her tail to raise her child on land.

(Realised my people travelling through are musos–in an old town that breaks down. My MC is the only other woman in the town–the male band members lured there. The town of Elyora is not even on the map. The woman with the child had the name Elyora–decided it made a funky, weird sounding name. The sort you’d find in the middle of nowhere–travelling between two towns).

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

I unearthed the old exercise book several weeks ago. I was amazed at how much of the dream I recorded and how much of the original dream made it into RIVER OF BONES/ELYORA (anyone who has read it, will pick up the crossovers immediately). What I had forgotten were the strings of festive lights, the hippies, the goodie balls and the IT folk. Though I’m certain the wait for the IT people to arrive is probably the foundation for the Government facility on the other side of the river. Ironically anything that may have had a hint of lightness/happiness was exorcised. Well, I did set out specifically to write horror!

I’d also somehow forgotten, in the search for the perfect monster, that I’d started off with mermaids and a female mermaid forced from the river to care for her baby on land. That shocked me (how fragile the memory is!) The boy child laid unconscious foundations for  Gus and the mother’s ‘enslavement’ (being forced from the river to raise the boy) the forerunner of what waited for Jo on the other side of her fever in the Elyora homestead. Funny how things lurk even if they’ve been jettisoned from the conscious part of the brain.

INDEBTED

It’s so rare for me to keep any kind of record of what I’m writing. I’m so grateful for the hand scrawled dream and the record of the earliest word counts on the original draft. Writing on the original draft ended on 1st September with 5953 words.

With the birthpunk novellas I’m mindful of keeping some kind of recollections of the journey. Whether they’ll inform anything in the future other than my own keepsake, remains to be seen.

Do you keep a record of what you are writing? What inspired/shaped it? Do dreams inspire or inform your writing?


Download your free copy of the Aurealis shortlisted RIVER OF BONES (Elyora) now at Amazon UK or Amazon USA. For those who read the novella in it’s first incarnation as ELYORA, the new opening expands the characters of Mrs Briggs and Stanley Blessing in a stand alone piece of flash fiction.

The Not-Sabbatical

or how I found (and lost) my way to what I thought was unoccupied space.

Around this time last year I loudly proclaimed to the world I was taking time off to write. What possessed me to do this, I don’t know. (Actually I do – I desperately wanted time to write, with no distractions, no pressure etc etc.) What I mean was, I still had four books in the pipeline to finish for eMergent and at least one of those still required editing.

I didn’t get dedicated time off to write. I did however write ELYORA in that time and it forced me to make time around my editing and publishing duties. It was an almost sabbatical with none of the real fun stuff.

FAST FORWARD 12 MONTHS

An entire year later I find myself back here at sabbatical, but this is the real deal. All the eMergent books are published and the ones scheduled for later this year will basically take care of themselves until October/November and then need only a little input from me.

I took on nothing new because I wanted time to write, but I was also aware that things on the home front were very uncertain. Throughout November Mr D was at home and unable to get back to school. I reasoned I could probably weave a writing sabbatical with any big changes that might involve him not returning to school. Anything beyond writing, that involved me being responsible to others, would be impossible.

And it has come to pass.

Last week we withdrew Mr D from formal schooling and began the process of enrolling him in distance education. While the curriculum will be provided and he will have a teacher, I will still be needed as support staff. It also means having him home weekdays.

THE SHINY TARNISHES

It’s not a prospect I’m relishing. I’m working hard to find the silver lining here, to let my mind create freedom not a lock down mentality. The fanciful notion of long days writing in a café and filling up on movies and TV, are gone. It doesn’t mean its time to give up all together though.

I already have three short stories in the pipeline and six interconnected novellas in my birthpunk world slated for completion this year. I have another seven novellas in a historical sci-fi world. There’s a stand-alone novella I’m keen to write based on the short story ‘Cocaine, My Sweetheart’. Plus there will be new ideas for shorts flitting in and out like dragonflies over a cool creek in the middle of summer.

I have always written better under adversity. And this is a new kind of deadline. A new kind of pressure. A new chance to rise to the occasion and find I not only can, but thrive.

It’s not forever, but it is for now. And I need to make the best of it for both of us.

Day One

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. ~ Henry Ford

  • Slept in and tried to recoup some of the better feelings from Mothers Day, pushed aside by teaching and emotional meltdowns from small people when I got home. This included not getting up when I should have, putting my flowers in a proper vase, going out for breakfast an buying an ereader (welcome to the digital revolution – finally!)
  • Decided it was the first day of sabbatical around mid-afternoon and thought about writing something. That something became a blog post about the weekend’s workshop written just before midnight. The fiction stuff had to wait.
  • Changed all my profile pictures – like I was shrugging off the other and reclaiming a new version of me.
  • Went out for a walk (this along with wine and baths are my new sanity measures).

Today’s song – from Kate Miller-Heidke, Brisbane songstress extraordinaire.

Less than productive beginning, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The Art of Self-Editing and Critique

It was my pleasure to deliver the Australian Writers’ Marketplace Author IQ seminar “The Art of Self Editing and Critiquing” Sunday at the Queensland Writers Centre.

The week leading up to it had been tumultuous. The kind of life altering quake that lays in wait for epic deadlines. But I got there, with a lot of help from Dave and Mr D pulling it together to be on his best behaviour while I tried to quantify and explain things I do every day intuitively. It was an odd process. A process that involved Power Point for the first time since Uni. Need I say more?

IT’LL BE RIGHT ON THE NIGHTartofselfediting

…unless it’s day. And Mother’s Day at that!

Left home with plenty of time to arrive early, only to find the entire Cultural Centre precinct sealed off like a bomb had gone off. Yes, it was the Mothers’ Day Classic and trying to get within hurling distance of the State Library was impossible. I rather embarrassingly arrived five minutes before the seminar was to start after finally finding a car park six blocks away. First thing I said, as I huffed and puffed into the room was: You obviously all didn’t try to find a park around here. Yeah hello and welcome, gratefully I’m not here all week and they’re not serving veal!

All those already there were smart folk who were dropped off!

After some minor technical hitches and agreement we’d wait for all the other poor people caught up in the chaos beyond the quiet walls of the library, I caught my breath, tried to regain the nerve I had when I left home and hoped my voice would hold for three hours.

MAKING THE INSANELY BORING FUN

I had worried that banging on about ELYORA as a way to illustrate some of the points I was trying to make, would end up tedious. But it seemed to be a way to keep the dry, boring stuff entertaining and the number of people who said after the seminar they’d like to buy ELYORA–it sounded awesome–was a little overwhelming. It was also at the same point I remembered it’s actually published as RIVER of BONES!

I got to tell everyone how I wrote a sex scene as a word filler during the Rabbit Hole and then ended up with it as an important plot point in the narrative and couldn’t delete it. And how my Dad is desperate to read the novella. I think I may have managed to do it in such a way that I didn’t blush.

A SERIOUS BUSINESS

While there were plenty of entertaining stories, I wanted everyone to take home solid, practical skills. I wanted to inspired people, to embrace the editorial process as one of benefit, belief and growth. Definitely not something to be scared of, though a healthy dose of ‘daunting’ was okay.

As I said above, trying to bring form and order to what swirls in my head during an edit was a challenge. What I produced for the booklet and the seminar overall felt stilted and compartmentalised and really rigid. But you need a road map when you’re going somewhere unfamiliar. You can’t wing it on paper (though if you are a muppet you can travel by map!)

I went through how to move from writer to editor, explained the processes, the different steps and then broke it all down with tools, tips and insights. The first three sections were dedicated to editor and the last to beta reading (what I really wanted to shared with them!)

The hush through the room when I went through the section on beta reading had a reverent edge to it… or it was just that we’d got in trouble for being too loud?

THE BEST HIGH OF ALL

There were so many smiling faces at the end of yesterday. And the swell and excitement of emails addresses being swapped at the end of the seminar (when everyone was told to start their beta reading circles)—heartening.

I came home on top of the world, which was a good place to be when the world had been upside down for most of the week.

Thank you to everyone who contributed in such a wonderful way. You made not just my Mothers’ Day but my week. And thank you to Meg, Aimee and the rest of the staff at the QWC/AWM for having faith in me. Also to Adam who looked through my early notes and give me the nod, Dave who proof read for me; plus all the other people (Trent, Peter, Nicky, Rob et al) who said the right thing at the right time.

Photo: Rebekah Turner and I at the break.

What is Beta Reading?

If you are asking yourself: beta what? don’t worry. Four years ago I asked the same thing, when I first saw the term ‘beta reader’ being bantered around the blogosphere.

The term ‘beta’ comes from the software industry and refers to software released to the public for in situ testing. We’ve all helped to weed out glitches and bugs in our favourite apps and programs (I was among the excited Windows users who downloaded Scrivener beta in 2009!) Now apply the same understanding to the process of writing, editing and re-drafting.

Simply put, beta reading is the process of testing a work of fiction for its strengths and weakness, combining a framework of critical reading and thought, with mindful communication.

The process of beta reading can be viewed in a number of ways, which include:

  • an invitation
  • a testing ground
  • a dialogue
  • a single opinion
  • one of the most important steps a writer takes with their work

There is a reason I haven’t used the word “critique” or “constructive feedback”. I’ve found over the years, the mention of these two words incite immediate creative seizure. For most writers, the idea of sending a story out for ‘testing’ is far less confronting than the prospect of being ‘critiqued’.

WHAT IS A BETA READER?

A beta reader is someone invited to read a work of fiction with the aim to improve it in readiness for publication.

A beta reader is, in essence, a fiction test driver. They provide feedback to the author about what is and isn’t working with the story and offer suggestions to address the flaws/weaknesses. Beta reading is not a line edit. In fact, a good beta reader will not touch the actual document the work is in, unless it is to attach their comments to a specific section of the writing.

WHY BETA READ?

Why waste valuable writing time improving someone else’s fiction? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Doubly so, if you both happen to be working toward submitting work for the same competition or publication. Seems counter-intuitive.

The Best Professional Development You’ll Never Pay Money For

Beta reading is one of the best ways you can improve your writing. When you spend time deconstructing another writers’ work, you quickly get a keen sense of what makes a story ‘tick’ and the difference between powerful and indifferent writing. You get a feeling for where stories naturally start and end, pacing, characterization, dialogue and language in general.

In short, beta reading improves your writing and story telling skills.

Paying It Forward

Beta reading pays it forward. In addition to strengthening your writing network, beta reading ensures you’ll always have people willing to help you out with your work, if you spend a little time with theirs. The average beta read, takes between one and two hours.

Few writers can afford to engage a structural editor to help improve their work (a professional editor charges between $40 and $80 an hour—far out of the league of most writers!) Beta reading is the perfect stop-gap solution.

MOST COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT BETA READING

Whenever I ask people what they want to know about beta reading, it inevitably falls into one of two categories: when will they know that their work is ready to pass onto a beta reader and how do they find someone to beta read for them.

The big misconception about beta reading is that the process starts with someone else. In fact, the process starts with you. Think ahead. Offering your time and insights up is your best bet at having your own work beta read in return.

Newbies And Beta Reading

Should newbies beta read for each other? Absolutely!

Most writers are avid readers also, and you don’t need to be an experienced writer to be able to pick a story apart to know what is working and what isn’t. Remember, beta reading isn’t editing, it is testing the integrity of a story to “see if it holds together if I jump up and down on it here… and here.”

I started writing around the same time as most of my small tight-knit group of beta readers, and we’ve grown and developed over the years alongside each other. It’s helpful if someone has a little more experience they can pass on, but it’s not essential in the early days.

Look for people calling for a beta reader on Twitter of Facebook, or let others know you are available to help.

But I don’t know what to do?

With this in mind, the companion articles to this one will explore the ‘how to’s of beta reading in the coming months. They will provide information and insights to empower readers to know what to offer feedback on, and how to do it with confidence and grace. Also tips on getting the most out of your beta reading experience, as the author and the beta reader.

Until then, dip into a few of these online resources…

Australian author Donna Maree Hanson did a terrific series of interviews with published authors on beta reading. You can read the interviews here.

Make Your Comment Count is an article that applies some of the basic ideas of beta reading to online commenting.

This article was first published at the Friday Flash blog, November 29 2012