What do I know?

28 05 2018

Like most new writers, when I first embarked on my writing career I read a lot of books about the art of writing. There was a lot of useful advice to be had in all those books, but the one maxim that had me stumped was the “Write what you know” one.

What did that mean? That I should only write from personal experience? For a long time this writing ‘rule’ stymied my desire to write as there was nothing in my personal experience that I could draw on to create a story that others would want to read. If I was to only write what I knew, was there no place for imagination in my story-telling?

And if “Write what you know” was such an important rule, how then did all those murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, spy novels, historical romances etc get written? Surely the majority of those authors weren’t writing from personal experience?

Perhaps – shock, horror – all those writers were ignoring this piece of writing advice! Huh, there’s a thought. And perhaps, like them, I too should ignore it. So I did. Instead of searching for a story based on my personal experience, I wrote the story I wanted to write. Once I had given myself permission to disregard the “Write what you know” maxim and just write, it was like I had turned on my creativity tap and the story ideas just flowed. So what that I knew nothing about travelling through time, or about being a queen in Tudor England, I wanted to write about Queen Elizabeth the First landing in modern-day Brisbane and by heck, that was the story I wrote!

crevasserescue003Me learning the intricacies of ascending a rope

Of course, I did know a bit about being a lesbian and falling in love, so there’s that. And a fair bit of The Ganden Gambit is drawn from personal experience. No, not the being chased by armed Chinese soldiers, or having tea with the new Dalai Lama (although I have met the current one – long may he live). The trekking bits. They’re all based on treks I have done in the Everest region. Except the part about falling down a crevasse – I’ve never done that, nor willingly climbed into one. Although, I do know (theoretically) how do a self-rescue if I did fall into a crevasse, but only if I was roped to someone else when it happened (See Mountaineering 101 for my story about this). And in my current WIP (technical writerly term meaning Wallowing In Pity – oops, sorry Work In Progress), I’m weaving my interest in birdwatching into the story. So it seems, after all, I am writing what I know. It’s just that I’m doing it almost subconsciously, using what I know to enrich my story ideas, rather than trying to construct a story around what I know.


Puzzling days

16 04 2018

Like, it’s not enough that I work four days a week, am a volunteer director on the Board of the Australia Tibet Council, and am trying to write my third novel, but I’ve decided 2018 should also be the Year of the Puzzle, in which I tackle an 18,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

Yes, you read that right. 18,000 pieces. Luckily, it’s not one single puzzle. Not even our huge back deck is big enough to accommodate something like that! Instead, the puzzle comprises of four individual puzzles, which when completed join up to form one gigantic puzzle.

Jigsaw 001

So, I’ve done the maths and if I’m to complete the entire thing in one year, I’ve got to finish a puzzle every three months. Each one has just over 4,600 pieces and takes up most of the dining room table. The biggest challenge is that each puzzle has several rows of gold border – yep, several hundred pieces all the same colour! Oh, and only two straight edges, since the other two sides will join up with another puzzle.

Jigsaw 008

So far, I’ve just about completed the first puzzle and am only 10 days over schedule (We went camping for 8 days just before Easter). I only have the border to go and already it’s done my head in. No matter which piece I picked up, it just didn’t seem to fit anywhere. At the rate I was going, it was going to take me another month just to finish that blasted border. So, I’ve done what any sane person would do (other than not take on the project in the first place) and bagged up all those little gold pieces for safe-keeping to be done right at the end, and have now started work on the second puzzle.

puzzle pic

Twitching in Tassie

13 11 2017

My partner, Smithy, and I have always been interested in birds, photographing any we encounter while camping and bushwalking, but since August 2016 we’ve become a bit more serious about it. Going to specific sites to look for particular birds, buying bigger lenses for our cameras, joining Facebook birdwatching pages…

So, when I began reading up to find out what sorts of birds we could expect to find on our planned trip to Tasmania in October, and discovered there were twelve bird species endemic to Tassie, well all of a sudden, I was a woman with a mission – to see and photograph as many of those 12 birds as was possible in the seven days we would be in the Apple Isle.

We had done a few “warm up” sessions during the drive down to Tasmania – going for an evening stroll in Moree, bit of a bushwalk in Deniliquin and an excursion to a birding site just outside Ballarat, so had quite a few species under our belts by the time we arrived at our holiday accommodation at Seven Mile Beach, just outside Hobart. Without even leaving our apartment we were treated to Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos, Superb Fairywrens, Little Wattlebirds and – the first of the endemic species to be ticked off the list – Tasmanian Native-hens.

By the end of our second day – spent on Bruny Island – we had seen six more endemic species – Dusky Robin, Yellow-throated Honeyeater, Green Rosella, Blackheaded Honeyeater, Tasmanian Thornbill and Tasmanian Scrubwren. Over half of the endemic species seen in just two days! We were stoked. Sadly, the other five species proved to be not as easy to find. I did catch sight of Black Currawongs a couple of times from the car, so, although unphotographed, that counted. Eight down, four to go and three more days left…

A little more research sent us off to the Peter Murrell Conservation Reserve just south of Hobart, home apparently to the largest population of Forty-spotted Pardalotes – the one endemic species I had my heart set on seeing. It was a little unclear whether we were ever in the right place, as we seemed to be wandering around the grounds of a horse riding club (later reading assured us we weren’t trespassing) but we ventured on to be rewarded with the sight of a Yellow Wattlebird. It was hard to see clearly, sitting high in a tree in heavy shade, but we were able to glimpse the tell-tale yellow wattles dangling from its cheeks. Endemic No. 9!

Spirits buoyed, we spent the next hour tracking down and photographing an assortment of birds – more Green Rosellas, a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, a Dusky Woodswallow, and a little flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills, but no sign of any Forty-spotted Pardalotes.

It was getting hot. We had no water and were getting tired, but decided to give it another little while, following a new track for a short way. Not only were there no Forty-spotted Pardalotes around, there didn’t seem to be any birds about on this track. Disheartened, I was about to suggest we head back when a tiny bird flew into a small tree right in front of us. It was small. It had spots. It couldn’t be, could it? A Forty-spotted Pardalote hopping about before our very eyes? Click, click, click we went with our cameras, trying to get as many photos as possible to help with later identification.

It was only later, once I had uploaded my photos to my iPad for easier viewing, that I realised what we had seen was ‘just’ a Spotted Pardalote – a beautiful little bird in its own right, and one of my favourites, but not the sought-after Forty-spotted Pardalote. We left Tasmania two days later, not adding to our endemic species tally, but pretty chuffed with having seen nine of the twelve species.

Overall, during the whole trip we saw 70 different species of birds, 21 of which were Lifers ie birds we had never seen before.

The Tasmanian endemic species we saw:

Top: Blackheaded Honeyeater

L to R: Dusky Robin, Green Rosella, Tasmanian Native-hen, Tasmanian Scrubwren, Tasmanian Thornbill, Yellow-throated Honeyeater

Unphotographed: Black Currawong, Yellow Wattlebird

The three endemics we didn’t see: Forty-spotted Pardalote, Strong-billed Honeyeater, Scrubtit

Full list of species seen on our Overland to Tasmania 2017 trip:

Australian Magpie, Australian Pied Oystercatcher, Australian Shelduck (L), Azure kingfisher, Bar-tailed Godwit (L), Black Currawong (L), Black Swan, Blackheaded Honeyeater (L), Brown Falcon (L), Brown Tree-creeper, Brown Thornbill, Cape Barren Goose, Common Blackbird, Common Starling, Crested Tern (L), Crimson Rosella, Dusky Robin (L), Dusky Woodswallow (L), Eastern Rosella, Eastern Spinebill, Eastern Yellow Robin, Eurasian Coot (L), Galah, Golden Whistler, Green Rosella (L), Grey Fantail, Grey Shrike-thrush, Grey Teal (L), Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo (L), Kelp Gull, Laughing Kookaburra, Little Black Cormorant, Little Friarbird, Little Wattlebird, Magpie Lark, Native Black-tailed Hen, New Holland Honeyeater, Noisy Friarbird, Pacific Black Duck, Pacific Gull, Pale-headed Rosella, Pied Butcherbird, Red Wattlebird, Red-barred Finch, Red-rumped Parrot, Rufous Fantail, Sacred Kingfisher, Scarlet Robin, Silvereye, Silver Gull, Spotted Pardalote, Striated Thornbill, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Superb Fairywren, Swamp Harrier (L), Tasmanian Native Hen (L), Tasmanian Scrubwren (L), Tasmanian Thornbill (L) Tree Martin (L), White-browed Scrubwren, White-faced Heron, White-naped Honeyeater, White-throated Treecreeper, White-plumed Honeyeater, White-winged Triller (L), Yellow Wattlebird (L), Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Yellow-rumped Thornbill (L), Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Yellow-throated Honeyeater (L)


A sense of achievement

9 04 2017

Ganden GambitMy second novel arrived from the printers this week. Boxes and boxes filled with copies of The Ganden Gambit. It was just as exciting to slice open a carton and pull out a book as it was for my first novel, Out of Time. Actually, I think it was even more exciting.

This time around, there was none of the trepidation of wondering if I had done the right thing by getting myself published. Just an enormous sense of satisfaction that all the hard work of the past three years has finally come to fruition.

While the writing of The Ganden Gambit was no easy thing, I had a lot more confidence in myself and my writing. There were none of the gnawing doubts that my writing wasn’t up to scratch, or whether I had a story people would want to read, or that I was displaying complete hubris in thinking I could be a writer at all that shadowed the writing of Out of Time.

It was scary putting that first novel out there. As a first-time author, I felt really vulnerable. What if no one buys it? What if everyone says it’s a dud? That the writing and the story are awful? Thankfully, none of that happened. People bought my book – even if I have more unsold copies than I’d like – and wrote positive reviews. Sure, there were things I could have done better in the story, but overall, people liked it. And whatever shortcomings Out of Time had has informed my writing and made The Ganden Gambit better.

So, it is with a real sense of achievement that I sit amongst boxes and boxes filled with copies of The Ganden Gambit and say, Yeah, I’m a writer…All I have to do now, is sell them all!

If you’d like to buy a copy of The Ganden Gambit, please head to My Bookstore.

A journey to the edge of the world

21 11 2016

As evocative as the legendary cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are, I was also drawn to travel along the Silk Road for its famed steppes and deserts. To journey through the very same steppes across which swept the Mongols, Huns and Turks as they galloped westward. To travel through the Kyzyl Kum and Karakum deserts – “red sands” and “black sands” respectively – and imagine the swaying trains of laden camels carrying the riches of the Silk Road from East to West. To cross the famed Oxus, or Amu Darya, the lifeblood of Central Asia that traversed Alexander the Great’s Central Asian empire before emptying into the Aral Sea.

According to the original itinerary of the Silk Road trip Smithy and I had signed up for, we were meant to cross the border into Turkmenistan from Khiva. A small bureaucratic hiccup – a 3-day celebration of the 25th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence during which no border crossings were permitted – found us heading to Nukus instead.

There’s not much to do in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, in the remote west of Uzbekistan. You could go to the world-famous Nukus Museum of Art, or take a 400km round trip to Moynaq and back to see (or rather, not see) the Aral Sea.

A three-hour trip through desert and scrub brought us to Moynaq, a once-bustling fishing town on the shore of the Aral Sea, it is now a town stranded on the edge of nowhere, surrounded by sand where once there was glittering water. Rusting hulks lay on the sand, sad relics of a vanished industry, and shells crunching underfoot are a vivid reminder that I am walking on a seabed. The surrealism is only compounded by the sight of several Bactrian camels wandering past a few hundred metres away.

With no fishing industry to sustain them, the majority of Moynaq’s people ironically work in the surrounding region’s cotton industry – the very industry that was responsible for the environmental disaster that is the Aral Sea today.


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A habit I will never kick

3 04 2015

Those of you who know me, or have been following my blog, will know that I like to read. A lot. And I mean, a LOT. I’ve always got a book or two on the go. And I can never resist borrowing just a few more books from the library even when I already have a big stack waiting for my attention.

Last year, I signed up again for the Goodreads Reading Challenge, setting myself a target of 120 books to read in 2014. In the end, I managed 119 books, not counting the two I started but never finished. Not a bad effort, even if I do say so myself. Eleven of those books were over 300 pages in length. In fact, three of those were massive tomes: Nelson Mandela’s Long walk to freedom, 761pp, The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker, 802pp and the 2013 Man Booker Prize winning, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton at a whopping 828pp. Another four of those eleven books were over 400 pages each, so in some ways it could be argued that I in fact read the equivilent of a lot more than 119 of the average length books.

I get most of my books from the library. 96 of those books I read last year were library books. If I’d had to buy all those books, it would have cost me about $3000. So, thank goodness for libraries, hey! But, just as I cannot resist borrowing lots and lots of books from the library – think kid in a lollyshop – I also cannot resist buying books either, so I end up with an evergrowing pile of my own books that need reading too.

So each year, I take a month off the library and dedicate myself to reading my own books instead. I was all set to do that again this year, after having read down my stack of library books and being very strong in not borrowing any more far the past couple of weeks, when I came across the Twitter hashtag #autumnreadingstack that Sydney writer, Benjamin Law, posted asking people to share a photo of the books they planned on reading over autumn.

A list of books for a whole season? What a great idea! All right, I may have missed a month already, but why not spend two months working my way through some of my To Be Read pile? So, I raced around the house, gleefully selecting the books I intend reading over the next eight weeks and snapped a picture to share on Twitter.

Here’s what I chose:

Stack of books

My autumn reading stack

It’s quite an ambitious stack, I know. Nine books in two months. And two of them really, really long books too. But, I’ve already made a start on IQ84. It looks really daunting at 925 pages, but it’s easy to read and I’m almost a third of the way through it already. Whether I get to Mahabharata remains to be seen. It may well become my first book of the winter…

The hunger game

16 03 2015

I'm almost through another Fast day, looking forward to my second meal of the day. A meal where I get to feast on a whopping 250 calories. And the last food until breakfast tomorrow morning. As tou might have guessed, I'm doing the 5:2 Diet where for two days a week you consume no more than 500 calories a day, and the other five days, you just eat normally.

It's the perfect diet because it's not really a diet at all. Apart from those two reduced calorie days, there's no constant calorie counting, no stinting yourself of your favourite foods, no feeling guilty when you fall off the wagon, because there is no wagon. All you have to do is get through one fast day and then you can eat whatever you want until the next fast day. Couldn't be easier, hey?

Of course, the Fast days are a challenge. After all, 500 calories a day really is not a lot of food. And even though we've been doing this for about six months now, Smithy and I do still struggle sometimes to get through our Fast days. There are days when no amount of chomping carrots, drinking water and quaffing black tea will assuage the hunger pangs. Days when dinner time cannot come quickly enough.

Mostly though, we manage the hunger pretty well. We've learnt it's easier to have two 250 calorie meals instead of three 167 calorie meals. We've also found the longer we can wait until that first meal, the easier the rest of the day is to get through. We're also compiling a handy little list of zero calorie foods. Stuff we can eat to ease the hunger pangs for an hour or so without eating into our meagre calorie allowance. Technically, these foods aren't really zero calories, but are considered such as your body burns up more calories digesting them than what the food contains. So, we've given ourselves permission to snack on carrots and celery stalks to stave off the tummy rumbles.

The things we enjoy about our Fast days? Not having to think about what to cook for dinner two nights a week. That's always a bonus in my book. The sense of pride in meeting the challenge, having the will power to stick to the 500 calories. And of course, the best bit of all is that tomorrow I can eat anything I want.

Though, since I'm doing this to lose weight – as well as all the other benefits – I do try not to go too wild on my non-fast days and keep to a sensible regime. But it's really liberating to know that I can have that blueberry muffin or chai latte if I want.

Is it working? So far, yes. The weight's coming off very very slowly, but it is coming off. I have an upper and lower weight range and that upper range is what is gradually dropping. So while I tend to put back on a lot of what I lose on the fast days, it's a little less each time. So now when I jump on the scales after 4 days of living it up my weight hovers around the 62.4-62.7kg mark instead of the 63.5-63.9kg mark of just two months ago. And now that the weather is beginning to cool down a bit and I can get a bit more active, I expect I'll see even more weight come off.

The biggest thing I've learned so far? That going hungry for a day isn't the end of the world.


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