Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A multiplicity of books

I was at a meeting yesterday, well not really at a meeting as it was held in my home, but there was a meeting. It’s the school holidays and sometimes it’s simply easier to bring work home. And during the meeting I was ribbed for my “lack of recent blogging.” This was a bit rich given that I was in the meeting rather than blogging. The good news is that there is progress on the mining book. We’re trying to come up with a better title than “Coal Mining in the Rosewood Scrub,” but it works as an interim descriptive title. We have a proposed outline for the book, lists of people to interview, research to do. After every meeting we are emailed with lists of tasks by our militant/efficient sergeant.

The funny thing now is that people often ask me “How’s the book going?” and I have to ask them “Er, which book?” At this point, they in turn get all confused, because most of the people asking don’t know about my “secret” life as a children’s novelist. I say “secret” because it’s hard for me to imagine anything is secret that is the subject of a blog. But in a world where some people don’t read blogs, other people don’t really like computers and others are simply too busy, it’s quite easy to have such an open secret. On the other hand, the mining project got a write up (with a photo!) in the local newspaper, so it is relatively prominent.

It’s an interesting question (though not one I’m going to pursue now) – the relative penetration of electronic media versus traditional print media in a rural area. I tend to mix with people for whom the use of computers is part of life. My children and their classmates are normalised into the digital world, but their parents often are not. And some of the older generation are actively scared or dismissive of computers and the internet. Talking to the check-out lady at the local supermarket about my reusable produce bags, she was amazed that I had bought them on the internet, “wasn’t that unsafe?” Well, yes and no, but there were people behind me in the line who probably wouldn’t want me expounding on safe internet use while their ice-cream melted.

I also found out at this meeting that reports of me doing research while wearing my dressing gown and fluffy slippers are traumatising the readership. So I will abstain although I am glad that people are at least paying attention.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Editing for my supper

I am a compulsive editor. Sometimes I have to stop myself especially in situations where it would not be tactful or politically wise to point out errors. Point of enquiry: should one say anything to one’s child’s teacher if they have a spelling error on the blackboard? What about egregious misspellings or mis-pronunciation by a boss?

The hardest thing about the NLA’s online database of newspapers is that they are digital copies that have been scanned into the database. On the right hand side of the webpage is the image of the original printed page and on the left, is the digital “translation.” Users of the system can compare the two and edit the digital version. I have to fight every urge in my body not to simply sit and edit. For example, the scanning software routinely substitutes o’s for e’s or o’s for a’s or vice versa. Or puts in random letters when there are blobs of ink on the original.

I’ve had to make a policy decision so that my time is not entirely consumed by editing. I see on the NLA’s homepage that there are some hero editors whose edits number in the hundreds of thousands. I could become one of those or I could actually research my book and get closer to starting to write it. I’ve decided that I will edit anything that I use for my research – singing for my supper as it were and also out of gratitude that such an amazing resource is available. The rest I will do my best to close my eyes to.

Since it is Friday, I’ll leave you with a news report that tickled my fancy this morning. Stay safe this weekend and watch out for flying missiles of the domestic sort.

The Brisbane Courier
Saturday 8 September 1866

A DISTURBANCE arose in the Immigration
DepĂ´t yesterday evening amongst the immi-
grants by the ship Rockhampton, who came up
during the day. It was caused principally by
some of the married men, who objected to leave
the females' department at the hour appointed
by the regulations of the depot. At about 8
o'clock there was a sort of free fight, which
lasted until a detachment of police came in,
and during which missiles, such as teapots and
other kitchen utensils, were diligently used.
The police, after some trouble, succeeded in
securing two of the ringleaders, and marched
them off to the station. This appeared to have
a quieting effect upon the remainder, and com-
parative order was restored.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Newspapers in pyjamas

I sat down and read a newspaper the other morning from cover to cover. Given, it was only four pages, but I sat there in my pyjamas and fluffy slippers with my coffee at six o’clock on a rainy morning in the year 2009 reading the Brisbane Courier for the 3 September 1866.

I found out that the temperature was mild (18°C/64.7°F) and the day forecast to be cloudy. I read that the Queensland Club was forthwith going to be destroying any goats found loose on their property. I discovered that several companies offered berths to settlers heading to Ipswich from Brisbane. In fact, between two different services, you could sail to Ipswich every day of the week except for Sunday. I found out what houses were for rent and that you could purchase a confectionary store and bakery in Ipswich for a mere £500 including all stock, equipment, cart and horses. I read that there was a busy trade in land allotments and that C. Heussler and Co. offered land-orders for purchase in small or large lots. I read of mortgagee sales, insurance schemes, lending libraries and goods of every description for sale. Of the meetings of the Brisbane Philharmonic Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society (Queensland Auxillary), the Queensland Turf Club, the School of Arts, the Oxford Music Society and the Choral Union. I saw architects, stationers, doctors, hotels and commission agents advertising for business.

I read that 2000 Chileans had landed in Cuba to aid their troops in revolt and that the “harvest in California is the largest ever known” while new mines had been discovered in Nevada. This news arrived via the Anglo-Indian telegraphs and beat the SS Kaikoura with its delivery of mail and news from England. I read of shipping arrivals and departures and goods received and loaded to whose accounts.

In brief, I read about the everyday life of a thriving city 143 years ago. It was fascinating and exactly what I need to write about the Jaeckel’s arrival in Brisbane and travel to Ipswich.

The wonder of it all is that this is available online from the National Library of Australia. Take a look. You can even assist by correcting the text of scanned newspapers for the years 1803 to 1954. And you don’t even need to get out of your pyjamas.

Friday, 19 June 2009

A sense of place

I’ve been intermittently watching a series on television called “Around the World in Eighty Gardens.” In it, the charming and eccentric (and English of course) Monty Don travels around the world looking at gardens. The series has been panned by some critics for not being about the plants, or rather about gardening. This misses the point that it is a show about garden design.

One of Don’s overarching themes is the idea of gardens having a sense of place. He adores gardens that draw from a local vernacular and abhors gardens that simply replicate ideas from other places in the world. He feels very strongly that a garden should arise out of a local culture and understanding of place rather than be about themes and ideas fashionable on the international circuit. As a result, he has visited some fascinating gardens: some delightful, some outrageous (to my perspective) but the best ones firmly grounded in their own history and culture.

While in Australia, he visited a garden in the Southern Highlands of NSW that pretended to be an English garden. High hedges of English plants were structured to block out vistas of gum trees and dry grass. Inside the hedges was a lush, but formally controlled English garden. While it was beautiful in a formal sort of way, it is entirely alien to our continent. Other gardens he visited here were much more attuned to our dry, difficult land through embracing native plants, grasses, rocks, and strong lines.

The series has really resonated with me for two reasons. One is that our garden is a work-in-progress and I love thinking of new ideas for it. The other is that this second book is about how people develop a sense of place. I’m interested in what helps such a sense grow and what can undermine it. Given that most people in this area were farmers, some of the ideas that Don talks about are relevant.

This book is about the Jaeckel’s new life in Australia and the inevitable steps forward and backward to feeling like they are Queenslanders. I want the third book to be about how migrants can have a strong sense of place and ownership and for this to be disputed. By the third book, World War One is in progress and the Germans of Marburg are being made to feel very German and very alien, rather than welcomed and valued migrants.

As always, everything is grist to the mill of my imagination. Or is it simply self-justification for why I’m sitting down and watching television?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Writing oneself into a corner

A few months ago I unwisely made the comment that the thing I like about writing is that I control the characters’ lives in a way that I don’t really have control over my own life. I say unwisely, because I have written myself into a corner. Not an inescapable corner, but nonetheless, one that I will need to wriggle to get out of. On the one hand, it is an odd situation. On the other, it gives the plot interest.

I blithely married off two of my passengers, forgetting, or rather not paying attention to, the fact that one is a free settler while the other is a bonded passenger. The bonded passenger is required to pay off their passage by a set period of labour once the colony is reached. The free settler can do whatever they want when the colony is reached.

It brings up some interesting issues. There’s a new relationship that will be complicated whatever option is chosen. One option is separation until the bonded period is over while the bonded passenger works out their time with an employer who might or might not be in the same area as the free settler. Another would be for the free settler to buy out the bond or to employ the bonded passenger. Employing your new partner, or even worse, purchasing their labour, is not always the best basis for starting marriage. I’m mulling over options.

It looks as if the first few chapters of book two will be spent working out colonial bureaucracy – an universal theme that should appeal to, or at least resonate with, modern readers.

Monday, 15 June 2009

German Station

A lot of Germans arriving in Brisbane in the early 1800s would have travelled from the port to the German mission at what is now Nundah before moving to their eventual homes. I assumed, and several people told me, that this was the norm for German migrants. Like all things historical though, it has to be examined. And yes, I am writing fiction, but I would like it to be reasonably accurate in the historical facts.

One of my first questions was what was German Station like and would the Jaeckels have gone there?

German Station was set up as a mission station by German Lutheran missionaries in 1838. It was originally called Zion Hill (now the area of Walkers Way in Toombul) and was on a hilltop about eight kilometres north of what is now the Brisbane CBD. The missionaries were attempting to convert the local Turrbul aborigines to Christianity. In their zeal, the Reverends Carl Wilhelm Schmidt and Christoph Eipper managed to establish the first free white settlement in Queensland with 19 adults and 11 children.

Sadly for them, the mission wasn’t a huge success and the government of the day asked for it to be closed in 1846. Apparently their evangelical targets kept moving around and were hard to locate. In 1839 the penal colony closed down and the settlers lost government backup. However, they were self-sufficient farmers by that stage and were able to continue until 1846 with the formal closure of the mission.

Schmidt went to England on the closure of the mission and joined the London Missionary Society. He then worked in Samoa until his death in 1864. Eipper joined an exploratory trip to the Wide Bay area to find a new location for the mission before moving to Braidwood in NSW where he remained until his death in 1894. I don’t know what happened to the other missionaries, perhaps they simply stayed on, having established homes and farms. Or perhaps they moved up to Wide Bay.

Zion Hill rapidly became German Station and then became Nundah in approximately 1882. A railway station was built in 1882 and called “German” (apparently so that it wasn’t called German Station Station) but the name of the station was changed within six weeks to Nundah. The post office followed suit but the name of the state school was not changed until 1896. For many years any mention of the area referred to “Nundah (formerly German Station).”

Lots of German migrants went to German Station on arrival because they could be sure of German speakers, hospitality and advice. Even after the mission closed, there were many German settlers in the area, those who hadn’t wanted to venture too far from a relative comfort zone.

So the answer to my question is that the Jaeckels might have gone there, but that it wasn’t a necessary step. The actual mission had closed down by the time the Jaeckels would have arrived (1866) but there were German-speaking support services available. Some German migrants started out there, others didn’t. If people were confident free settlers who wanted to immediately take up land, they could pick a direction and set out.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Starting with questions, finishing with…?

Having sent off the first book with trepidation, I’ve started work on the second. When I say started work, I don’t mean writing. Like any task there’s a vast amount of preparation to be done before the actual act of writing (and a lot of work afterwards, but that’s another story).

I was inspired to go back and look at the questions that I had thought of right at the beginning of the first book. This was way back in March 2007. It seems a long time ago. Now I’m sitting here on our first sub-zero Celsius morning in years, trying to type clearly. It’s harder than you think.

When I started out, I wanted to know things about what my protagonists would have known in advance about Queensland, what they brought with them, what the journey was like, and the all important one, if they were tempted to give up, what their options were. I also wanted to know how they selected a claim, what they would have seen on arrival and on the way to Ipswich, what they would have seen when they got to their claim and what everyday life was like.

The first set of questions were immensely relevant to the first book. The second set of questions were bumped to this second book. I had originally planned to get the Jaeckels all the way to their new home in one book. This was when I thought I was writing a nice single clean stand-alone book. When it messily morphed in my head into a trilogy, I decided just to get them to Brisbane and make the second book about the whole process of settling into Queensland. In addition to the original questions, I now want to know:

* What the German mission in Nundah (or German Station) was like and if they went there?
* What were Brisbane/Ipswich/Frederick like in 1866?
* What paperwork would they have had to do to get land?
* Would they have travelled on their own or with others?
* Was their movement entirely free of restriction once they were in Queensland?
* If a bonded passenger had joined their group, how would things work with their government contract, ie, would the Jaeckels have to take up the contract on this person to keep them with the family?

Rather than keeping on referring to the first book, I should tell you that it has a title: “Outwanderers” from the German word for migrants. My spellchecker does not like this word at all. I don’t have a title for book two yet. I suspect, like the first book, it will eventually acquire a name somewhere towards the end of the writing. It seems like some kind of slow process: osmosis or growing a plant from seed (or having a child). One day after much agonising, a name suddenly seems to fall into place. It’ll be interesting to see what happens second time round.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

First fire of the season

Today I tidied off the top of the wood heater. All summer it acts as a black metal shelving unit in our kitchen. Books, knickknacks, bits of paper, coins, dust all accumulate. Then it starts getting cold and I start looking at it and thinking about cleaning it up. It’s a big job. First there’s all that stuff. Then sweeping the dust and removing cobwebs followed by wiping down with a damp cloth. Well-read newspaper must be located, the kindling pile raided, wood heap replenished, matches found, the fire laid. Clearly mine is not a Zen household of order and calm.

Finally the first flames flicker behind the glass. I watch anxiously to see if the chimney is drawing. This year you can stand on the new back landing and look straight up at it outside. Last time the fire was lit, I had to go down a flight of stairs, through the laundry, out the back door and crane my neck to see the roof.

The measure of success of the preparation is how strong the smell of dust burning is when the fire is finally lit. That and the wonderful warmth thrown into the kitchen. Tonight we’ll test how it copes with heating the new part of the house or if we simply have to accept that as a cold zone.

Today was a good day: warmth and very little odour. We might not have order and calm, but we will be warm as temperatures dip low and winds rise.

Friday, 5 June 2009

A slice of farming

Yesterday I saw a pair of plump grey wallabies lolloping over the dam wall behind our house. It isn’t our dam, but it is in the gully behind our house. Birds paddle and dive in it, cows used to drink from it and almost every evening at dusk, the wallabies come out.

There have been flocks of glossy black crows cawing endlessly at first and last light.

Mr Blithe saw a bandicoot scampering across our scoured and rutted driveway. We’ve never seen them in this area before.

Nature is thriving and I suspect that one reason is that the hillside behind the dam is being cultivated for the first time in thirty years (plus all the rainfall). Our new neighbour (friendly but quiet) is growing a crop of zucchinis (also friendly and fairly quiet). When I get out of bed, he is out there and when I am heading for bed, I see the headlights of his ute sweeping across the hillside. We’re not used to seeing headlights out our windows.

When he planted the seeds the mice were thrilled. He spent weeks spraying the crop twice daily with chilli and mustard spray. Most of the plants seemed to have survived.

This week we could see yellow splotches of flowers across the hillside. Every day the zucchinis are handpicked into big red buckets. The crows and wallabies are feeding well too.

I’m reminded of the old sayings about the wallabies eating out the settlers and the descriptions of every field being enclosed by four-foot high paling fences to “stop the wallabies, bandicoots and cattle.” Now I am beginning to understand the necessity. I’m also developing an appreciation of the hard work that goes into growing organic vegetables. I do hope that the return is good. Next time you buy organic vegetables, think of the work (and yes the epic battle) it took the farmer to get them into your hands and try to smile at the price.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


Last night I submitted my manuscript to my first publisher. On their website, they say that it can take “from half an hour to half a day to reject a manuscript and a lot longer to accept one.” On their automated acknowledgement email they politely suggest you assume that you haven’t succeeded if you hear nothing after three months. I’m taking this to mean that if I hear in the next week, it won’t be good news, nor would it be if I never heard anything. [I’m really not sure of the grammar in that sentence but I’m too tired to work it out and the grammar check is letting it through, so…]

Perhaps I was being unduly superstitious, but I put in a huge effort to get the submission sent off yesterday. Mr Blithe was away in Canberra, I am deep in planning and preparing for Blithe Girl’s birthday party on Saturday, all of the family are either actively unwell or under the weather and I was running a sideline of interviews and questionnaires for work. It really wasn’t the best day to be working on my submission. But I have to get it done and yesterday was my self-imposed deadline. I managed to send it off in the tiny amount of time between putting one lot of children to bed, the return of another child from her evening activities and Mr Blithe’s return from the airport.

I felt like I had run a marathon. Several writers have suggested that first novels are rarely published and that every writer has one in their desk drawers. I didn’t want to leave mine lying there. Whatever happens, I’ve given it a go.