Ma Vie en France…

At the end of my first week home alone in Carcassonne I feel like I’ve lived here for ages. I’m a creature of habit, and I like having an established routine, especially now since I have set myself a major task that can only be completed if I plod steadily and consistently forwards each day. So, I thought this week I’d share with you the shape of my days and weeks here.

Each morning I’m woken by the bells of Église Saint-Vincent, the 15th century gothic church which is literally outside my window. The bells, which begin tolling at 7 am. and wrap up for the night at 11 p.m., are setting the pace of my day. On Sundays there is a perfect riot of bells for several hours – they are pealing now as I write.

Because I’m full of the excitement and wonder of being here I leap forth from my bed with gusto and go for an early morning walk. There are several lovely routes to chose from and my favourite so far is the waterside walk along the River Aude which flows between La Cité  and the Bastide. Spring has well and truly sprung here and we’ve had some lovely days. I’m fascinated by the small trilling songbirds here, so different from the avian chorus I’m used to at home. On Wednesday I spotted a grey heron scouting for fish.

Riverside ramble

On my way home I stop in Place Carnot at Chez Felix, an institution which has been dishing up café to the locals for 70 years or so. I had the thrill of being greeted by name and having my double espresso predicted and brought to me without ordering on Friday. I smiled smugly at some tourists at the next table.

Next stop is Les Délices de Je, my local boulangerie, where they are also now able to predict my standard request for une baguette. The smell of freshly baked baguettes is mouthwatering. I think I’m really, really going to miss this daily indulgence when I return home.

Baguette heaven

On Mondays and Thursdays I’m going to pilates at Zen Yoga Studio which is just around the corner from the apartment. Philippe, the instructor, speaks no English so getting myself enrolled there and following instructions has been a considerable challenge for my rudimentary French skills. I’m across inspirer and expirer, jambe, bras, nez, bouche and périnée and picking up more words each class.

Zen

Then, of course it’s down to business. Rain, hail, or shine I am determined to produce 2000 words per day and – this week at least – I’ve nailed it. The grand total is now standing at 20,041 – or a quarter of the way there! The magical view from my window continues to inspire and my desk also now features a bunch of flowers from the Saturday market. I don’t know the name of this week’s selection, but the heady yellow blooms were paired with eucalyptus leaves and I’ve been transported, a little, back to Narooma.

Weekly floral delights

Saturdays are my day off so yesterday, after a happy foraging expedition to the market, I took myself for a three-hour hike to see a bit more of the countryside. From La Cité I headed east through rolling hills covered with vineyards and small farms with herds of goats, gazing horses and one belligerent donkey who clearly objected to my gazing over his fence.

Ahhhhh…

A stiff climb was rewarded with panoramic views across La Cité, the Bastide and the Aude plain towards the Montagne Noire in the far distance. I sat on the hilltop for some time, dreaming dreams and recharging my batteries. In coming weeks I plan to intersperse local walking adventures on Saturdays with forays to nearby towns. I have my eye on Narbonne for next week …

Sunday is blog day and will also feature as bath indulgence day. On the corner of my street is a delicious shop selling soaps, creams and bath salts, all organic and made locally. I’m treating myself to a weekly bath bomb – tonight’s is orange scented 🙂 I think that as I wallow in the fragrant oils I can be just a little bit proud of what I’ve achieved so far.

On my hike yesterday I was fascinated by the array of wildflowers growing along the roadsides and in the furrows between the vines. The poppies in particular caught my attention – a poignant reminder of blood-bathed fields of war – evoking a response in a way that the plastic reproductions in Australia never have. Wild jasmine, hedge roses, diminutive daisies, purple pimpernels – it was just lovely. And as I examined some baby grapes I reflected that they will ripen and come to fruition around the same time as I finish my book.

On my way home I came across a cluster of superbly fat and fluffy dandelion seed flowers. I made a literary wish of course, and watched the seeds scattering on the wind, but I know that it is going to be sheer grit and determination (along with a smattering of inspiration) that is going to get this book written.

10,041 Words and Counting …

A week and a half into the core writing zone of my journey I’m pleased to be able to report that I’ve hit the 10,000 word marker. It was a mixed week, with massive output on a couple of days, some moderate achievements on a couple of others and one complete wipe-out day when I did a big fat zero (don’t ask!).

You may recall my firmly-stated resolution to produce a standard 1500 words per day, but perhaps unsurprisingly this hasn’t quite translated into reality. I put this down to still being in somewhat of a ‘settling in’ phase, a second and most unwelcome bout of flu, and the competing allure of going out adventuring with HWB while he has been here with me. A jaunt to the medieval walled citadel, La Cité, was obligatory and it’s been impossible to resist several petites exploratory and coffee drinking forays. I’m feeling like a local in la Place Carnot.

Going native …

As I type, I’m home alone and HWB is somewhere in the air between Toulouse and Frankfurt. He is going off to pursue his own artistic and business dreams in Germany, Italy and Malta, leaving me to focus 100% on my writing for the next seven weeks. But before we parted company we had a quick weekend getaway to Toulouse.

Streets of Toulouse

La Ville Rose is the fourth largest city in France and is only a quick 40 minute train ride from Carcassonne. It is famous for its pink brick buildings which glow gorgeously in the sunset and for its local dish of cassoulet (confit of duck, pork sausage and harricot beans in a kind of stew arrangement). Cassoulet is famous throughout the Languedoc region, but Toulouse is its capital so we went in search of the real thing and found it in a fantastic restaurant called La Cave au Cassoulet. As indicated by the name, it is located in an underground cellar, and along with the véritable cassoulet we indulged in pâté de foie gras, tarte tatin and a tasty local Château Laffitte Teston. It was all très délicieux, but not quite as fabulous as Hannah’s farewell French feast 🙂

Yum!

This morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of crepes under the plane trees in Place St-Georges (the former town execution venue) before exploring the
Musée des Augustins. This fine art museum specialises in sculpture and paintings from the middle ages and is set in the stunning cloisters, church, halls, sacristy and dortoirs of a 14th century monastery.


Musée des Augustins

Aside from being the home of pink bricks, le cassoulet and a regional reputation for excellence in les beaux-arts, Toulouse has also had a long history as a centre of violet growing. The little purple flower is the emblem of the city, and one of my personal favourite flowers of all time. Imagine my delight when we discovered the charming Maison de la Violette, a showcase of all things violet housed in a barge on the Canal du Midi. I resisted the temptations of violet tea and candied violet sweets, and reluctantly pulled myself away from some lovely violet-flowered tea pots, but I couldn’t resist buying a little bottle of violet eau de parfum. I intend to squirt myself with it if/when I find that writing inspiration has momentarily fled.

The scent of writing success …

Tomorrow I shall roll up my sleeves and set to writing with reinvigorated fervour. And just to spice things up, I’ve decided to set myself a new challenge. When HWB returns from Malta at the beginning of July we will be celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. We have decided to mark the occasion in style with a bang-up dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in La Cité called Le Barbacan which we confidently expect to be a once-in-a-life-time meal. How much more celebratory would it feel, I thought, if it was also the Completion of the Book triumph dinner? And as an added bonus I would also then have two weeks of fancy-free holiday time with HWB before we return home to Australia.

This revised target means that I have to shave two weeks of writing time off my projections and increase my minimum production to 2000 words per day. Challenging – yes. Achievable – also yes. I haven’t yet found myself in the writing ‘zone’ where output becomes effortless, but it’s been fun and I think the tale is shaping well. And I’m sure that now I am alone and free from husbandly divertisements the words will flow abundantly.

I leave you today with a pic of a stunning rose from the cloister of the
Musée des Augustins which is the exact colour of my wedding dress 🙂

Encore, la vie en rose

Et maintenant ça commence …

Bonjour Carcassonne! HWB and I arrived here on Wednesday after a week travelling by train from Prague with pit stops in Munich and Lyon. Our enjoyment was slightly hampered by HWB succumbing to my Egyptian flu (proper flu, not mere man flu!) but we had a great time despite this setback. I could rave on about the delights of weißes Bier and pretzels at the Hofbräuhaus  and the wonders of the Roman amphitheatre in Fourvière, but as previously established this is not a travel blog, so I will spare you the rant.

Wednesday was May Day and as we set out from Lyon train station we came across dozens of vendors selling small bunches of lily of the valley.
Apparently, it is a tradition on this day to offer a sprig of muguet to loved ones as a token of luck and prosperity for the year ahead, so of course HWB felt impelled to present me with a small posy. It is sitting now on my desk along with my other items of inspiration (more later).


Bouquet de maguet – a May Day tradition

Carcassonne, and our apartment, are everything we could have imagined. The view from my writing desk is every bit as stupendous as anticipated. Today it is very clear and I can see the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in the distance as well as the nearer and even more breathtaking prospect of La Cité (the walled citadel). It’s been freezing cold and we’ve both been sniffing, shivering and sneezing so we haven’t yet explored this wonder – a delight to be anticipated. I understand there will be jousting tournaments in July …

Oh yeah …

We have made a few exploratory forays around the Bastide Saint-Louis, the old town which is our home, and the most fabulous feature so far is the farmer’s market held in the Place Carnot each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It is here that I have most tested my rudimentary French which seems to be sufficient for commerce if not yet for conversation.

Place Carnot – farmers’ market

The market is jam-packed with mouth watering goodies and we have launched ourselves on the local cuisine with gusto! I’ve never seen so many varieties of heirloom tomatoes (in fabulously wonky shapes), asparagus with the girth of a broom handle, mountains of artisnal baguettes, vats of olives prepared to old family recipes, honey scented with the herbs of the garrigue, a plethora of mouthwatering sausages and hams and strawberries that actually taste like strawberries. And don’t even start me on the cheeses! We came home with a satisfyingly bulging bag of treasures and some irises just for pure spring pleasure.

Yum!

And so, being unpacked, well-stocked and acclimatised, the long-anticipated moment arrived. It was time for the writing to begin (insert slowly intensifying drum-roll here).

My first act was to create the requisite ambience and set up my desk with all of my aides to creativity. In addition to my Inner Critic, mocked-up novel, lapis lazuli egg, Thoreau mousepad and writers’ notebook I’ve added two new items garnered on my travels.

The first is a small statue of the Egyptian god Thoth. This ibis-headed deity was the god of writing, magic and wisdom and he is often portrayed with stylus and papyrus in hand. Very sensibly, writing in ancient Egypt was considered a sacred profession and there was a Prayer to Thoth that writers intoned to call down his inspiration. It opens thus: “Come to me, Thoth, O noble Ibis. O god who longs for Khmunu, O dispatch-writer of the Ennead, the great one of Unu. Come to me that you may give advice and make me skillful in your office.” I don’t anticipate intoning the prayer of Thoth, but I like his poised pen and beaky face and the reminder he brings of the higher purpose I’m striving to achieve here.

Thoth!

My second treasure was found in an obscure manuscript shop in the back streets of Vieux Lyon. It is a hand-tinted 1880 engraving of a falcon and it leapt out the stack and insisted on coming with me. I’m still devoted to my eagles, but my protagonist Tessa Falkner has got a bit of a falcon thing going on, so it’s really for her.

My falcon

And now for the question hanging on everyone’s lips. Have I written?

Indeed I have! I am proud to report that the word count currently stands at 3919 – or almost 5% of my projected output for an 80,000 word novel. When the moment came to put fingers to keyboard I suffered no existential crisis. My lost voice was found and the words bubbled forth in a happy and abundant flow. I’m not writing deathless prose, but I’m quietly content with what I have achieved so far. It’s only the first step in what remains a quite long journey, but I my intent and focus are strong and I’m eager for more.


And she’s off!

In closing today, I’d like to add a sound track to today’s blog. Since arriving in France I’ve had Édith Piaf’s immortal song swirling in an endless loop in my head. I’ve sung it, whistled it, hummed it:

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose

I’m deeply thankful, profoundly conscious of how lucky I am, and brimming with hope and possibility. La vie en rose indeed …

A Silent Visit …

Ah, the celestial city of Prague. Castles, cathedrals and culture galore and I have been bereft of words to express my delight. Literally. What began as severe hay-fever or a bad cold in my last two days in Cairo developed rapidly into raging laryngitis and I’ve been unable to speak above a sibilant whisper for the past four days.

As I’ve said in the past, however, you can’t keep a good Boomer down, and being struck dumb hasn’t dampened my adventurous spirit. HWB and I have had an absolutely fantastic time, albeit somewhat mutely on my side.

Happy campers 🙂

As I write, I’m sitting on a train watching the verdant Czech countryside pass by my window en route to Munich. I’m looking forward to some German fun times, but I have to say the cumulative effect of two weeks of intensive exploring is starting to fuzz my brain. I’ve been to more than 13 major historical sites in 14 days and I think I’m beginning to reach maximum capacity (never did I think I’d say such words, but there we are). Carcassonne is now not only figuring as my writing dream destination, but also as a place where I can mercifully unload and abandon the suitcase and not have to leap forth for a marathon culture quest every day.

That said, I wouldn’t have missed a moment of the last week which has featured some truly remarkable moments. Apart from navigating the hordes of tourists at Prague Castle, St Vitus’ Cathedral and Charles Bridge we’ve really enjoyed wandering around the magical old town. I’m an organised sort of traveller, but HWB is more of an aficionado of the spontaneous ‘let’s follow our nose’ school of thought, and it was his inspiration to stick our nose into an absinthe bar.

The ‘green fairy’ has a long history, much of it apocryphal and associated with bohemian writers/artists (Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemmingway) having a raging old hallucinogenic time of it supping absinthe in the belle epoch. Being banned in Australia and having such dangerous and literary associations means that absinthe has always had a certain allure and mystique for me. It felt both daring and titillating to place our orders and watch the flaming brew being prepared by our host Marek.

Let me assure you, dear readers, that modern absinthe is perfectly safe and absolutely non-psychoactive. Distilled or macerated, this anise-flavoured bevvy is produced and sold widely in France, Switzerland, Spain and the Czech Republic and, when consumed in a classical bar decorated with inspired murals in Prague, it makes for a great night out.

HWB enjoys an absinthe with Vincent and friend

Only a few days into our adventure HWB had already reached his cathedral saturation point, but even he had to admit that the Ossuary Chapel of Sedlec in Kutna Hora was a bit special.

Built on the site of a former medieval cemetery, the entrepreneurial and respectful new owners of the site, a bunch of 14th century Cistercian monks, decided to honour the bones of some of the 60,000 ex-residents by using them to decorate their unique place of worship. One particularly inspired and half-blind monk dedicated himself to building four intricate and massive pyramids of bones in the hopes that this pious work would move God to restore his sight. I love my beautiful home town of Narooma, but I have to admit it has its limitations – you won’t find one of these chapels round the corner and it’s amazing to be able to revel in such historical wonders.

We wound up our week with an overnight flit to the truly exquisite
Český Krumlov, three hours south of Prague. A UNESCO world heritage listed baroque town, it’s nestled in two oxbow loops of the Vlatva River, and is a cobblestoned, towered, frescoed wonder.

Picture perfect

Our itinerary in Munich is likely to be somewhat more modern. HWB is in charge so don’t expect reports on any more castle visits. I don’t have a very clear idea of his intentions, but there has been mention of something called Frühlingsfest which I believe is a smaller but no less rollicking cousin of the Oktoberfest. I might have to go shopping for a dirndl.

Following in the absinthe-flavoured footsteps of Oscar Wilde is about as literary as I’ve been this week, but I’m now intensely aware that my writing apotheosis is only days away. Very soon I will sit at my Carcassonne window, my fingers quivering over the keyboard and the moment of truth will have arrived. As I’ve been gazing on onion-domed churches and munching goulash and trdelnik I’ve been conscious every now and again of a mild and quickly suppressed panic at the thought of my impending date with destiny. I guess in next week’s blog we’ll discover if I have found my voice …

Channelling Agatha Christie …

Conundrum. When planning to travel down the Nile what does one read? OK, clearly this is not a conundrum. It’s a no brainer. Of course I have had to reach for some classic Agatha Christie featuring the inimitable Hercule Poirot.

Compulsory Nile reading

I’d like to stress that I’m not a die-hard Agatha fan, but I do admire her originality, her plot construction techniques, and the way in which she broke new ground with the detective genre back in the day. Plus, she delivers a frolicking good read which requires only minimal brain power – perfect for holiday cruising.

Reading on the River …

My selection has also provided food for much additional fun in terms of book location scouting/spotting and in finding entertaining opportunities to follow in the footsteps of the intrepid Agatha in her Egyptian travels. When she was traversing the Nile in the 1930s Agatha was aboard the SS Sudan – a classic river boat which we happened upon moored in Luxor on Wednesday.

SS Sudan

Those of you who have perused Death on the Nile will know that the cast of characters first gather together in Luxor where they toddle out to inspect the wonders of the Temple before boarding the fatal vessel on its journey to Aswan. And the wonders of Luxor are certainly extraordinary as I discovered this week. In fact, all of the sites of antiquity in this country are extraordinary and there is no way I can do justice to them. This is not a travel blog, so I’ll spare you the billion or so photos I’ve taken and just share with you a few of my favourite moments:

My Nile cruise eventually brought me to Aswan where the main action of Death on the Nile takes place. It is also the home of the extraordinary Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha based herself for a year in 1937 while her archaeologist husband delved for antiquities on Elephantine Island and she penned her masterwork on the terrace of her suite.

Old Cataract Hotel

The hotel pays homage to Christie as one of its most famous guests – there is the Agatha Christie Suite (where you can stay for a mere $7000 a night), the hotel is dotted with pics of the author and you can dine at her table in the extraordinary dining room:

Now that’s what I call a dining room!

Best of all, you can see the modest mahogany desk at which she wrote, ogle her wicker rocking chair and take in the view from which she drew inspiration. I think you’ll agree this is pretty astounding – but no more so than than the view I am anticipating from my Carcassonne apartment 🙂

Room with a view …

As I toasted Agatha with a sun-downer gin and tonic my writing aspirations soared to a new level. These 10 days of Egyptian wonders have completely obliterated my work world from my head (sorry WV colleagues, but that’s how it is :-)) and my whole being is focused on this mad mission I’ve set myself.

Sun-downer – replete with inspiration

Before I take the final and fateful plunge, however, I’m going to overload my inspiration tanks with further adventures in Prague where I will rendezvous with HWB. Farewell pyramids, hello castles!

Marharba!

Apparently, when Evelyn Waugh visited the Mena House hotel in 1929, he had this to say. “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.” That pretty much sums up my feeling over breakfast upon my arrival in Cairo yesterday morning.

Mena House Hotel – not your average breakfast location!

I decided that there was nothing for it but to jump right into the cultural experience and so I fed on a feast of good, if unusual, things compared to my standard matutinal menu of crumpets and Vegemite. Hello hibiscus juice, eggplant mush thingy (really yum!) and pita pockets with hummus.

After goggling at the Great Pyramid of Cheops for a while I was so sated, stunned and jet lagged, that I had to go have a little lie down, first in a most salubrious bed chamber, and then by an even more salubrious palm-lined swimming pool. Oh yes, indeed I was surely on holidays and certainly no longer in Narooma!

I think I need to be quite clear here. My business in Egypt is not to wallow in decadent and pampered luxury, although I’m afraid that will be somewhat of a necessary concomitant of my planned itinerary. My mission is to explore and revel in antiquities and ancient wonders and today I launched the assault with the first stop being – of course – the pyramids.

Oh yeah!

About a million writers have tried to describe the immense and brain-shrivelling awe of these structures, so I’m not even going to try. I will instead share with you a few interesting factoids: there are more than 2.7 million two-tonne blocks of limestone in the Great Pyramid; it was built for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, and was completed around 2560 BCE (yep, that means it’s coming up for its 5000th birthday pretty soon!); the ratio of its circumference to its original height is equal to the value of pi: 3.14 – a mathematical calculation that was not rediscovered for more than another millennium (it’s facts like this last one that have spawned theories that the pyramids were built by technologically advanced aliens…). And, of course, the pyramids are the last of the seven great wonders of the world still extant.

They are certainly wonderful. And popular. And right on the edge of the throbbing outer suburbs of Cairo. So despite the miraculous absence of hordes of people in the pic above, there were in fact plenty of other keen Egyptophiles swarming all over the site, and queuing up to experience the thrill of penetrating the structure and navigating the ascending passages to one of the tomb chambers. How could I resist such a lure?

Cheops – entry point…

I did not. Armed with my special ticket I approached the entrance to the tunnel with reverence. Finally I would be able to feel something of the frisson of a Carter or a Mariette, boldly going where no one had been for millennia in search of lost secrets buried with the remains of long-dead pharaohs. I could pause reverently in the sacred chamber and imagine the scent of incense and the beating of funereal drums …

What I found was an Occupational Health and Safety hazard situation of epic proportions, with literally hundreds of beetroot faced tourists trying to edge past each other in both directions of an oven hot, near-vertical, crawl-space sized tunnel with no ventilation. After a few minutes attempting to breathe calmly and slowly while waiting for the crush to abate sufficiently to take another step upwards, something switched in my head. Dear readers, I fled. Without reaching the burial chamber. Thus perish some of our fondest dreams …

Monumental…

But, as previously advertised, I’m the most incorrigible of optimists – you can’t keep a good Boomer down. And if the interior of Cheops didn’t match my clearly delusional fantasies, the exteriors and context of all of the pyramids could not fail to satisfy in every possible way. I’ve stated that the pyramids nestle snugly alongside the homes and shops of Giza, but if you narrow your field of focus and squint a bit it is possible to imagine a time when these great landmarks were a beacon for camel caravans arriving from the Western Desert.

The Western Desert

Which brings me to camels. Back in the 70s my mother and father visited Egypt, and I have a prized photo of my dad (fetchingly outfitted in a baby blue safari suit) mounted upon a camel with a pyramid in the background. What, I thought, could be more romantic than sitting aloft in a Berber saddle as your ship of the desert sways among the dunes? Then again, what could be less romantic than feeling like you would be committing and perpetuating serious animal cruelty in contracting any arrangement with the hawkers of transportation flesh in locations like this? No, I decided, despite their sartorial attractions, there would be no camel ride for me.

Not for mounting …

Given half a chance though I would have jumped at the opportunity to go for a run up the Nile in a solar boat. These were funereal barges which were used to transport the massive sarcophagi of pharaohs to their final resting places, and back in 1954 a fully-intact solar boat was unearthed from its own tomb in the shadow of the Chephren Pryamid. This fully-functional, 44 metre-long, 5000 year old-boat is now housed in its own special museum. Awesome!

Sun boat – 4500 years old!!!

And finally, for today, a visit to Giza would not be complete without paying one’s respects to its most famous monument. Yes, the sphinx is indeed a lot smaller than you’d think from pictures, but it is every bit as potent, mysterious and compelling as the most fervent of my imaginings.

Sphinx satisfaction

Tomorrow we head for Luxor and the Valley of the Kings …

Bon voyage!

It hardly seems possible, but this time next week I will be posting my blog from Egypt. After so long a time nurturing this writing dream, it’s about to become reality. I’m excited and terrified, unsettled and eager.

On the eve of departure, I’m stepping back from envisioning the delights ahead and finding that I’m dwelling instead upon all that I will undoubtedly miss while I’m off on this adventure. And as I write, one of them is sitting purring on my knee – our beautiful Bentley.

Bentley

Bentley is a thoroughly over-indulged British Shorthair, and has been with Martin and I from the very beginning of our time together (he even travelled to New York with us and appeared to thoroughly enjoy his Manhattan apartment lifestyle!). In the absence of children, he is our baby, and I’m going to miss him dreadfully. We are very lucky though that we have found a lovely young couple who will be house-sitting for us and who have promised to indulge Bentley in the manner to which he is accustomed.

I’ll miss my family of course, but I think I’m going to really pine for my dear friends. Last weekend and this one, a couple of them have really pulled out all stops in the farewell celebrations department.

Firstly, Julie threw a fabulous dinner party at her place and spoilt us with Croatian culinary delights followed by a riotous session of dancing and singing. Our rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody was a wonder to behold!

Catherine, Hannah and Julie rockin’ out

And last night Hannah hosted an all-French extravaganza at her place to help get us into a suitably Gallic mood. We had a huge amount of fun scouring our cookbooks and devising a mouth watering menu of French cuisine.

Many hours of chopping, boiling, blending, blanching and baking (not to mention dousing the boeuf in flaming brandy!) resulted in a mouth-watering feast of fine things. And when Hannah puts on a show we’re also talking about fully themed table decorations and frocking up in costume. So, for a French dinner, of course there was Le Menu:

Yum!

Fine food, good wine, lively conversation and shared friendship are some of life’s greatest pleasures and we were fully sated on all fronts last night. HWB and I are going to eagerly savour French fare in Carcassonne but we won’t be sharing it with such fine company.

Vive la France!

Later in the evening, Hannah and I had a good old chat and she told me once again of her unalterable conviction that I’m going to write a brilliant book which will not only be published but will be adapted into a blockbuster film. She asserts that she is going to buy a new pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes for the red carpet opening night event. Such faith in my endeavour both humbles and emboldens me and I know there are going to be many moments in the coming months when I shall yearn for her unfettered enthusiasm and support.

Hannah’s Tarte Tatin – lush!

There is of course such a thing as Skype, and I hope to keep in touch with my cheer squad online. But they say that writing is one of the loneliest of occupations, and I suspect I may find myself experiencing the pangs of isolation and too much solitude.

Actually, no. I’m an incurable optimist. I will have the pleasure of keeping in touch with those I care about at home, and I hope that I’ll make a bunch of new French friends with whom to share this fantastic adventure! Je suis prêt à partir …


En mode français

To Reveal or Not to Reveal…

Since I began this blog I have been quietly pondering an important question. Should I, or should I not,reveal to you the plot, characters, themes et al of my book?

Observant followers may have noted that I’ve dropped a few clues along the way. My story will be set partially in a town much like Narooma. My heroine, Tess Falkner may appear in an early scene in a radio studio. And the working title of the book is Under New Management.

Well, I have decided that I shall not bare my soul. While it is in draft form, the secrets of my story shall remain shrouded in mystery. I will not be sharing the substance of the tale – you will just have to wait for the triumphant moment of publication 🙂

That said, I thought this week I might explore a few of the core questions which exercise the nascent writer and in the process give you a bit of a sense of the type of novel I’m writing. First of all, let’s consider genre.

I want to put on record – loud and clear – that I have absolutely no intention of endeavouring to write literature. You will not hear me raving on about writing the great Australian novel. I won’t be striving to be nominated for any illustrious authorial awards. I will plumb no depths of angst and anguish. I have no desire to be considered a ‘serious writer’.

Nope, I’m going to write light-hearted fairyfloss – the sort of book with a colourful, quirky cover that is stacked in airport bookstores begging to be picked up and taken to palm-fringed locations and consumed along with brightly hued drinks with little umbrellas in them. Merely expressing a desire for my book to be in such a place absolutely precludes me from any pretensions to greatness. I brazenly state that I want to write popular fiction.

Within this category you have the thriller, mystery, action/adventure, historical, fantasy, science-fiction, crime, dystopia, horror, romance and women’s fiction genres. There will be no spies, aliens, guns, serving maids,
zombies, intergalactic wars, detectives or throbbing members in my book, so it follows that I will land somewhere in the women’s fiction realm. One definition describes these as books having plot lines characterised by female central characters who face challenges, difficulties, and crises. So far so good.

Within the women’s fiction field there are several sub-genres, one of which is the category of chick lit – a term that attracts considerable disparagement and nose-wrinklings from top-lofty literary types. Chick lit novels feature protagonists aged in their 20s and 30s, and are generally written in a humorous and lighthearted style. My Tess is going to be 33, and I’ve already revealed my intention to be light-hearted, so technically I fall into the chick lit pool. But my book is going to be about a lot more than the search for the perfect man/pair of stilettos and I’ve been feeling a bit squirmy about labelling my baby as chick lit.

So, imagine my delight when I stumbled across a newly-minted genre called up lit (uplifting literature). This type of work is marked by optimism, everyday heroism, human connection, kindness and empathy and is apparently the hottest emerging trend in publishing. Bingo!

So, nestling comfortably into my identified genre I began to ponder another agonising question – whether to write in a first or third person point of view. The pundits have a lot to say on this topic. The first person point of view is considered more intimate and you can create a distinctive voice, but the format can be claustrophobic. You are limited to describing only what your protagonist sees/experiences directly which can throw up challenges for elements of action that occur ‘off stage’ so to speak. Third person narrative is regarded as being more immediate and flexible, you can move the camera around to tell the tale from many perspectives. But this mode can make it difficult to really get inside the head of your characters.

Writing effectively in first person is considered more difficult, and something generally to be avoided by the novice author. After considerable contemplation I’ve decided to flout the pundits. My story will be narrated from the point of view of my Tess. The challenge will be to make her so engaging, interesting and compelling that readers will want to hang out with her for 80,000 words or so.

My third quandary has been whether or not to fictionalise the location of my novel. There are certain elements of my plot that make Narooma the only possible location for the story. But Narooma is a very small town and I quake at the thought of accidentally creating a nasty fictional character that turns out to be the spitting image of a real Narooma resident who subsequently slaps me with a million-dollar defamation suit. In a fictional New York or Paris no-one is likely to recognise and point the finger at an individual. Not so in a small seaside town of only 8500 people.

I haven’t come to any concrete conclusion on this one yet, but I think I’m going to go with the real Narooma location in my first draft with an option of fictionalising it later on if I run into strife.

So, there we are. Under New Management will be an up lit novel, set in Narooma and written in the fist person from the perspective of my protagonist Tess Falkner. Game on!

Prompts, Prods and WooWoo …

With less than three weeks to go I have started packing for my grand adventure. As well as puzzling over how to cram three months worth of everything into a single 25 kg bag, I’ve been gathering my writing tools.

Inspiration is going to be essential, and before I hunch down over my keyboard I’m going to be getting bucketsfull. For the first two weeks of my jaunt I shall be ‘on holiday’, powering down my work brain and having adventures.

First of all I shall realise a dream I’ve been harbouring for 30 years. With my dear friend Amanda, I’ll be cruising up the River Nile, gazing in awe at the pyramids, imagining myself as a temple maiden of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Kings and taking tea on the balcony of the Cataract Hotel in Aswan where Agatha Christie was wont to weave her whodunnit plots. Amanda and I have some travel form, having previously jaunted together to Club Med in Noumea and the island paradise of Lankawi and I’m agog with anticipation for this next chapter.

Girls adventure, Lankawi

Once I’ve had my fill of Egyptian antiquities I’ll be flying to Prague to rendezvous with HWB. We will explore this most beautiful of cities, and nearby delights such as Cesky Krumlov and Hutna Kora, before locomoting our way through Munich and Lyon en route to Carcassonne. So, being a well-prepared traveller I’ve packed a couple of essential items in the form of travel guides (thanks heaps for these Mariella!).

As previously stated, once we get to Carcassonne it will be game on and I will need to draw on every possible tool available to support my ambitious daily writing targets. I have previously written about some of the tricks of the trade that writers employ, and I’ve adopted some of these and created several of my own devising. First of all, let me introduce you to my ‘Inner Critic’.

This dude won’t mess with me!

The idea is that inside every writer lurks a nasty, toxic spoil-sport who whispers disparaging remarks about work-in-progress in the authorial ear, crushing literary confidence and stymieing the flow of brilliance. By creating a physical representation of your Inner Critic and keeping it on your desk you can remind yourself to disregard these self-whisperings of doom and press on with the creative process. I had a lot of fun making this dude, and he will sit prominently in front of me in Carcassone. I shall blow raspberries at him if he starts playing his tricks.

Building on the ‘a writer writes always’ theme, I am packing equipment to ensure that I am never without the means of jotting down snatches of dialogue, scenes or other bit of inspiration that might fly into my head at odd moments. Journal – check. Coloured pens – check. Authors notebooks (thanks Rachel!) – check.

I am also an advocate of the inspirational quote. I once created a little handwritten book with hundreds of the best quotes I could find by luminaries ranging from Lao Tsu and Martin Luther King to Marcus Arelius and Omar Khyyam. The book opens with this one from Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it – boldness and genius, power and magic in it.” I’m on the job Goethe! But my very favourite is this one which I’ve had printed on my mouse-pad:

The quote book also features quite a few words of wisdom from one of the most inspiring authors I’ve ever read, a bloke called Dr Wayne Dyer. Some call him a ‘self-help’ author, but I believe he is a master of insight and a powerful teacher. He is of the ‘what you think you create’ school of thought, and a key message of his that leaps out for me is this one:

The idea here is that you need to train your heart and mind to believe that your success (whatever it may be) has already happened. You need to see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, live it. You cannot allow thoughts of failure to obtrude – if you think about failure that’s what you’ll get. I’ve laminated this piece of wisdom and it will also sit on my Carcassonne desk, next to my Inner Critic.

So, what I intend to create is a published novel imprinted by a major house, and acclaimed by authors whom I humbly hope to emulate. I had a most entertaining afternoon designing the cover of my book (with apologies to Harper Collins and Marion Keyes for my temerity in appropriating their endorsement):

Working title …

And finally, at the risk of scornful mocking, I’m going to reveal that I’m not above reaching into the woowoo draw in my efforts to leave no inspirational stone unturned. The colour blue has long been associated with imagination, intuition and inspiration and is the colour of the throat chakra (the home of self-expression) in the Vedic tradition. The power of blue in creativity has even been scientifically proven. So, I’m packing every item of blue clothing I own along with my collection of lapis lazuli adornments, the gem stone associated with truth-telling, insight, wisdom and written and spoken communication. Fully kitted out …

Lovely lapis

Back to Base …

With less than four weeks until I fly I have had the pleasure of returning to the nest, spending the past two weeks in my home town of Adelaide with my wonderful Ma.

The fabulous Jean

It’s been lovely to have quiet time with her watching PG Wodehouse DVDs, joining her Tai Chi class, nattering over meals and discussing books. As noted in an earlier post, Ma is an inveterate reader whose literary acumen I hold in highest esteem, so we’ve also had a chance for several fruitful sessions pondering various aspects of my plot.

It has also been nourishing to return to the womb of my childhood bedroom which is still adorned with a picture (somewhat faded) of me in the role of Joseph in our Grade 7 production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, and three longstitch needleworks of gum trees that I perpetrated in my early 20s.

Joseph – career highlight aged 12

The family home is little changed since I penned my first nascent stories there and I still know how to dodge the creaky floorboard in the hallway when creeping into my room late at night, though teen subterfuge is no longer a necessity.

The Whyte House

Being home has also recalled my father to the forefront of my mind. It’s hard to believe but he has now been dead for longer than I knew him in life. Garth Boomer was a bit of a legend in education circles, a brilliant thinker and writer, a raconteur par excellence, enthusiastic sportsman and the life and soul of any party. He died tragically early at the age of 53 when I was 25.

Dad and I in our Christmas shorts

While taking my morning constitutional along the Glenelg foreshore it occurred to me that maybe this writing escapade of mine has a bit of a Freudian element to it. Just after I return from Carcassonne I will be turning 52, and perhaps there is some part of me that wants to guarantee I get this book thing sorted out before the ominous and perilous age of 53. I do know that if I complete my mission and my book is published there will be an extra twinkly star in the sky and an echo of his voice saying “Well done BG!” (his nickname for me – Beautiful Girl).

Apart from childhood naval gazing, my fortnight has also afforded some wonderful opportunities to take in the delights of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. I’ve crammed in four events and enjoyed every one. An especially huge thank you is due to my mate Fontella who is a mad artsista (OK, I just made up a word) who has shared with me the ticketing bounty she has reaped in her role as social media maven for Writer’s Week.

Full Fonty!

As a co-aspirational author, Fonty and I have delved into such all-consuming topics as whether or not to fictionalise locations in our novels, the inspiration v. application principle in writing discipline, and the merits and appropriate timing of when to seek beta-readers for our works-in-progress. Sharing the authorial journey with her is a joy.

And of course I couldn’t come to Adelaide without spending quality time with the irrepressible Rachel, my oldest friend and feared green pen-wielding editor (I previously and erroneously referred to her using a red pen – apologies). We had a great night watching one of her former drama students in her first Fringe production and supping on Greek delights in Unley.

But the best night of my Adelaide sojourn was the one I spent with Rachel, her husband Jamie and daughter Maddy, wrestling with the all-important, life-changing question of what to name my lead character.

Over the past 12 months I’ve tried on various names for her but none of them have ‘clicked’. I’ve gotta love this gal if I’m going to spend three months in her head, and none of the monikers I’ve tested have really rung true. Rachel, Jamie, Maddy and I scoured the nameiverse (yep, another new word) and I believe we have hit the jackpot (huge thanks guys!). I am pleased to announce that my protagonist shall be called Tess (or sometimes Tessa) Falkner. I hope you’ll like her …