Requiescat in Pace, Carmen

On Thursday, HWB’s beloved mum and my dear mother-in-law, Carmen, passed away peacefully at home after a long battle with cancer. We are grieving.

Last pic: Carmen rocking her Duchess of Windsor look

A few years ago I took the opportunity to record some oral history with Carmen, and she spoke happily about her early years. I treasure this record, and what I write now comes from her own telling of her story.

Carmen was born to Aida and William Vassalo in Rabat, Malta, in 1934. She was the youngest of six siblings, and part of a large and lively extended family who embraced the Maltese passions of laughter, great food and fun times.

Though Carmen was only six when World War II broke out she vividly recalled blackouts, the wailing of sirens and midnight dashes to bomb shelters. As Malta’s ports were blockaded and convoy’s bombarded, food began to run out. Carmen remembered a time when her mother received special ration cards from her RAF squadron commander uncle and commandeered a karrotzin (horse and cart) and dodged bombs to retrieve food for her family from the other side of the island.

Carmen (right) and her sister Josephine

At seven, Carmen became a boarder at St Dorothy’s Convent in Mdina, as was the tradition for the girls in her family. Later, her sister Marie became a nun within the Dorothean order there. Carmen fondly recalled hiding illicit feasts in the dormitory with her friends when they heard the distinctive rattling of the nuns’ rosary beads as they approached to inspect their supposedly sleeping charges.

Carmen was sixteen, going on seventeen, when she met a dashing young man called Godfrey Dingli at a thé dansant at the Phonecia Hotel. Sporting a red dress with a white sailor collar, Carmen accepted Godfrey’s invitation to dance despite the fact that she was interested in another boy at the time. After the dance, Carmen proved elusive, but Godfrey was persistent. “I said no, and no, and no, but he kept phoning,” she said.

True love drives a man to desperate measures. Godfrey resorted to stalking Carmen and discovered that she attended Rabat Cathedral to confess her sins. “So then one fine day I approached the priest, asking him to convince her that I’m a good boy.  Truly!” Godfrey assured me.

It took Godfrey eight months before Carmen said yes to their first date. They went on swimming expeditions and to see films and when Carmen turned nineteen they married.

Family is central to Maltese life, and Carmen and Godfrey didn’t waste any time in creating one of their own. By the time Carmen was in her late twenties they had been blessed with five children – Mariella, Raphael, Peter, Martin (HWB) and Anna. Her husband and children were forever the abiding core of Carmen’s life.

Assembled Dinglis

And it was for the future of her children that Carmen endured the biggest challenge of her life – migrating to Australia. By the mid-seventies, the political climate in Malta had become fraught under the regime of socialist Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff. For many old families like the Dinglis and Vassalos associated with former British rule, life became difficult. The Dingli’s decided their children would have a brighter future and more opportunities in the antipodes.

Following a forty-day sea journey, the family settled in Melbourne and set about discovering their new home. Carmen started a business making knitted garments and later took up catering, a role where she could utilise her remarkable culinary skills and in which she remained busy and active right into her seventies. After some initial culture shock the children flourished, and Carmen became more and more proud of their achievements.

Travel was an lasting passion for both Carmen and Godfrey. They returned to Malta many times, and enjoyed extended holidays in Europe and South America. They also made one more big move – to Canberra – in their sixties to be closer to their grandchildren.

Carmen and Godfrey on the move in Malta

Carmen liked to laugh. A lot. And she loved cooking. But most of all she loved having a houseful of her children and grandchildren and cooking up massive feasts of Maltese delights. Her hospitality was boundless.

Happy times

Carmen was seventy when I met her and I fell in love with her (and the rest of the Dinglis) as well as with HWB. She made me so welcome and was unstintingly generous with her time, advice and cooking classes. Under her experienced eye I mastered the art of pastizzi and torta tal mamurat, though I have never yet quite succeeded in achieving the exquisite fluffiness she imparted to her choux pastry.

Carmen was deeply faithful and her spirituality illuminated her daily life. Not long after she was diagnosed with her final illness I had the opportunity to whisk her away for a silent retreat with the Benedictine nuns of The Abbey at Jamberoo. We grew very close during our shared days of quiet reflection and participation in the liturgy – a gift for which I shall always be grateful.

Carmen and Father Keiran

The last few weeks have been very difficult for all of the family as we’ve striven to honour Carmen’s wish to remain and be cared for in her own home. Carmen’s passing has rightly absorbed our lives and, as you may understand, caused my recent radio silence on this blog. I hope to do better in coming weeks.

Carmen was keenly interested in my writing adventures, but sadly was too unwell to finish reading my draft manuscript. I know she’s up in heaven somewhere cheering me on and when it’s published she will be clapping, and beaming and saying Prosit! (congratulations).

Forever in our hearts and sorely, sorely missed …

And the verdict is …?

It’s been three weeks since I’ve written and there are several good reasons. Let’s just say I’ve run the full gamut of emotions – happy and excited but also terribly, terribly sad. I’m not going to get into the sad part in this blog today – it’s too raw and an unfinished story. So I’ll confine myself to the bubbly parts, especially the long-overdue feedback on my manuscript assessment!

Before HWB and I headed to Sydney for the big reveal we were invited to join our great friends Hannah and Nick for their work Christmas outing – a whale-watching cruise and BBQ. Yes, the summer BBQ season has officially launched!

Hangin’ with friends

Unfortunately I was prevented from joining the gang on the boat as I was doing an interview for a new job – still with World Vision but in a role which would present exciting new challenges (still waiting for news on that one …). But HWB went out and had a fabulous time communing with dozens of dolphins – his favourite creature of all time.

Despite blustery conditions, the following BBQ down by the wharf was lots of fun and the perfect location to take in views of our fabulous inlet.

HWB and the lads were in their element charring things on the grill.

Lads 🙂

The following day we hit the long road to Sydney. It’s a five hour drive from Narooma and I was quivering with anticipation, hope and fear all the way. On the morrow I would hear – from someone who really knows – whether or not there was a glimmer of publishing hope for Under New Management.

The verdict was delivered at Writing NSW by publisher and editor Linda Funnell. And …???

She really, really liked it. “Lively and engaging writing style…page turner … topical setting … appealing protagonist … strong opening … well-handled dialogue…”. In short she skipped straight to the bit about how to get the manuscript out to agents and publishers!

Linda 🙂

As we dug into the details, Linda helpfully delivered some pithy advice on a couple of areas for fine tuning and happily confirmed my instinct to stick with the susurrus. She also advised me to retain my controversial title. Some beta readers haven’t warmed to Under New Management. Sorry guys, it’s staying – for now anyway 🙂

I floated from our session filled to the brim with renewed enthusiasm and plans to dive straight into final editing. But first HWB and I planned to make the most of our time in the big city of lights.

Since HWB hails from Malta via Melbourne and I’m an Adelaidean, neither of us know Sydney very well and on previous visits we’ve generally stayed in the tourist hub of Circular Quay and The Rocks. This time we stuck a pin in the map halfway between Writing NSW and the city centre and found ourselves at the very lovely Verona Guest House in Glebe.

Verona Guest House

After exploring this gorgeous locale, Glebe is now my new favourite Sydney destination. It’s like a village within the city, buzzing with boutique eateries, adorned with Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pulsing with a friendly, community vibe. But its best gift was a dinner with dear friends of ours, Jeremy and Bettina, who joined us for a wonderful evening at Pizzeria Alfredo.

Happy times 🙂

The fun didn’t stop there! On Saturday afternoon we shopped till we dropped (we tend to go a bit crazy when we visit places with more than one shoe emporium – Narooma’s totally gorgeous, but a teeny bit short on boutiques) and then headed to our favourite Sydney restaurant for a nosh.

Quaffing 🙂

Malabar in Darlinghurst serves up divine south Indian cuisine, with each flavoursome, aromatic dish excelling the last. I’m not generally into posting food pics (except when dining in Michelin-starred restaurants in castles in Carcassone), but Malabar’s spinach chaat deserves recording for posterity. Who knew that chickpea-battered spinach leaves could taste so ambrosial?

Spinach chaat – yum!

We rounded off our city adventure with an evening at Happy Endings Comedy Club where we laughed ourselves silly for several hours – a pre-emptive exercise that buoyed us up for what was to become a difficult week ahead.

Bright lights- the iconic Kings Cross Coke sign

I now draw a veil over the last seven days. It was precious, and painful and poignant and not to be spoken of lightly.

This afternoon as I sat quietly back at home I was filled with a deep gratitude for the great joys of life – family, love, inspiration, adventure, friends, nature. I found that it’s not possible to be entirely sad when a king parrot is chirping madly on your deck demanding that his seed dish be replenished.

Now, as the sun sets behind the spotted gums, I’ve come to a place of tranquility. I know that whatever the week ahead brings HWB and I will be ready to meet it, hand in hand …

Sticking With The Susurrus!

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with the advice I received at my writers’ workshop, especially in regard to pruning my manuscript of some of my more lavish linguistic flourishes.

The problem is that when I come across an offending word I just can’t find anything that fits as well or expresses quite what I wanted to say. There are so many nuances in words and I love them all. By the time I’d worked through my first five pages I’d come across incendiary, bastions, pantheon, conducive and pandemonium and couldn’t bring myself to delete any of them.

At the same time I’ve been reading my way through some of the recently published works in my genre by Australian women writers, endeavoring to discover the magic ingredients that make up a publishable book. A red hot seller at the moment is Sophie Green‘s The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle.

It was a pleasurable read but that’s not what made me leap from my chair and flourish the book around the room while hooting with glee. It was because the very day after the workshop I came across something rather remarkable. Sophie had deployed the word susurration. Not just susurrus, but susurration!!!

If it’s good enough for Sophie it’s good enough for me. I’m sorry Rachel and Dianne, but my susurrus is going straight back into the manuscript and it’s staying there, along with all the other mellifluous, delicious, exquisitely expressive words with which my manuscript is littered.

Several of my beta readers told me that they enjoyed my use of language and upon reflection I believe this is part of my distinctive voice. I don’t think that readers need to be patronised and fed words suitable for a reading ago of ten. I’m sticking to my guns. Well, at least until I get feedback from my manuscript assessment …

I’ve taken the plunge and sent off the submission – the first 4000 words of my book along with a synopsis and writer’s biography. My finger quailed over the send key for quite some time before I dispatched it on its way. This is the real deal. My baby is going to be scrutinised and assessed by someone who really knows the business and I’ll be quaking in my shoes until I hear her verdict.

Happily, over this October long weekend, I’ve had some high quality distraction in the form of a visit from one of HWB’s old school mates from Melbourne. Chris was great company and HWB and I love entertaining.

Best of all, Chris is an experienced boatie and he arrived just in time to guide us through the exciting process of launching our boat, Splashback. While we bought her before we headed to France there wasn’t time then to do the fine tuning to get her seaworthy, so this weekend was her maiden voyage.

About to launch!

It was a gorgeous day, and it was wonderful to get out on the waters of the magnificent Wagonga Inlet. Skipper HWB was a very happy camper.

On our cruise we came across two white-bellied sea eagles soaring above us, a seal waving a lazy fin in the shallows, and squadrons of pelicans cruising the shore. Chris affirmed what we already know – we live in paradise.

Cruising

I’m looking forward to many future cruises and fun times, especially when we have our influx of summer visitors. As daylight savings has now officially commenced it’s not long before we’ll be getting in to swimming, sand and sun mode. Bring it on!

Amping Up …

After a sad week I’ve set aside the tissue box and pulled myself up by my bootstraps, thanks in no small part to the rush of sympathy and consolation offered so generously by family and friends. There will always be a small, grey, fur-shaped hole in my heart, but I know that in time the pain will subside and I’ll just be left with happy memories of Bentley and our time together.

My restoration was given a massive boost yesterday when I plunged back into literary waters and attended my very first writer’s workshop. For a couple of year’s I’ve been a member of Writing NSW, a centre where would-be authors can come together for inspiration, professional development and solidarity, but living in Narooma I’ve had little chance to partake of the array of writerly support on offer.

As I finish pruning and polishing my manuscript, I know that I’m going to have to get to grips with the realities of publishing and the gurus all say that finding and fraternising with a tribe of like-minded compatriots is of significant benefit. So I signed myself up for a one-day course on Writing Women’s Fiction.

Writer’s haven

Writing NSW is housed in a lovely old home in the grounds of what was formerly Sydney’s largest lunatic asylum, the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that there is a certain irony in this location – many might suggest that aspiring writers are mad, or at least seriously deluded, when they decide to take on the arduous and challenging journey towards publication.

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane

Far from feeling deluded, the moment I passed through the doors I was enfolded in an atmosphere of camaraderie and possibility and realised I was in for a treat.

The workshop was led by Dianne Blacklock, a highly successful Australian women’s fiction writer with an impressive ten books under her belt. I liked her at once – she was funny, frank and full of fascinating insights into what makes women’s fiction work and I scribbled furiously trying to capture her words of wisdom.

Dianne with her latest offering

We ranged through the hot trends in today’s publishing market, explored character development and plot formation, contemplated the mysteries of dialogue and examined the do’s and don’ts of opening lines and rousing finales. It was wonderful to hear how the other workshop participants have tackled these challenges and to share stories from the trenches about the many different approaches writers take to navigating the creative process.

I particularly enjoyed the session on writing sex scenes. Without going into detail, writing the sex scene in my book was one of my most difficult moments. I really wrestled with it. I knew I didn’t want to mention throbbing members and nipples like bullets, but I also knew I had to create something compelling, exciting and magical. Dianne captured this dilemma and its potential resolution in one pithy slide (my notes below). I hope I have met the criteria with my ‘close the door’ solution.

I was less comfortable with Dianne’s continued exhortations to resist the urge to reach for flowery and complicated language and instead stick to plain, familiar words. That fact that I’ve used the word exhortations in the previous sentence is probably is a case in point …

My ruthless editor friend, Rachel, said much the same thing to me many a time during the drafting of my book, and saved her most scathing criticism for my use of the word susurrus. I love that word! And for describing the sound of waves lapping the shore I am firmly of the view that it can’t be matched. However, I am now sadly convinced that it will have to go, along with many other gorgeous embellishments in my current draft. I love the word susurrus, but I love the idea of being published even more, so I am going to have to take a cold hard look at my manuscript and deflower it mercilessly.

Another point that Dianne stressed was the classic ‘less is more’. What she was talking about was the clinical removal of extraneous scenes/characters/dialogue/descriptions/sentences that don’t add either to character development or the plot. Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, described this in a literary maxim that is now so famous it’s known as Chekhov’s Gun.

Wise but daunting words

We’ve all heard of ‘less is more’, but applying the knife to your lovingly crafted creation is not so easy. That said, I’m girding my loins, sharpening my scalpel and planning for major surgery next weekend.

By the end of the day I was inspired, excited and galvanised. And I’m particularly grateful for Dianne’s generosity in agreeing to take a look at the opening of my book and to offer me some feedback. Thanks Dianne!

Me and Dianne

Dianne says that getting published is a combination of luck, discipline and talent. I think I’ve proved my cred in the discipline department, and if my beta readers are to be believed then I may be permitted to claim a small modicum of talent. Here’s hoping the luck runs my way as I approach the knee-trembling reality of sending my manuscript out into the real world …

Vale Bentley …

I’m heartbroken. Today HWB and I had to say goodbye to our beautiful Bentley.

Last photo …

He was never quite himself after his illness while we were in France and last week things took a sinister turn for the worse. Between bouts of weeping, I’m grateful for the few weeks we had together and the chance to share some final purrs and cuddles.

Bentley Hunter Bunter Bunny Baby (to give him his full array of names) was a very special cat, and that’s not just my partiality speaking.

Fifteen years ago I had been through a series of love disasters and I’d resolved to institute a Man Ban and instead get myself a little feline companion. Bentley, under his pedigree alias of Barcoo Rusky was then midway through his career as a show kitten. When he retired from the circuit as the Australian British Shorthair Kitten of the Year he was ready to come home with me.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, I had met HWB and while still maintaining my Man Ban I had agreed to go out with him for dinner. When HWB called for a second date I told him I had a prior commitment – to collect my new cat – and HWB asked if he could join me on the expedition. I didn’t know it then, but HWB is a dog man and had never been at all fond of cats, so this was a significant mark of his early regard. Happily for me I ended up with both cat and man 🙂

Bentley stole our hearts from the moment he came home.

Honey

A couple of years later I was posted to New York for work, and such was our devotion to Bentley that we decided to take him with us. Thus began Bentley’s career as an international cat of mystery. He took to New York apartment life with aplomb and used to sit up on a window sill and survey the pulsing city with great interest.

On one particularly memorable occasion I had my boss, Charles, round to dinner. Charles was not a cat fancier, in fact he had disclosed to me his active dislike of feline creatures. Bentley, sometimes shy in company, took one look at him and leapt on to his knee. Charles was converted and for years afterwards always asked after Bentley whenever we spoke.

Charm offensive

Bentley had the softest fur in the world. British shorthairs have a special double layer of fluff and he was a perambulating bunny rug. Being used to top class salon treatment from his show-kitten days he loved being brushed and having his nails done. He was a tart for tickles and an irresistible cuddler.

Magical fur

After some initial shyness in his early years, Bentley became a very sociable puss and would parade about eliciting adoration from visitors, giving them coquettish looks from his huge golden eyes. Cat lovers swooned.

And like most cats, Bentley was endlessly curious and would always be sticking his nose and paws into anything new happening in the home. He was particularly fond of craft activities, especially if ribbons and crackly paper were involved.

Bentley was a pernickety eater, and most fastidious in his tastes. But it was in the matter of beverages that he developed a particular preference. He had a perfectly adequate water bowl, but he insisted on drinking the water from the fish bowl. Bentley and the fish always lived in symbiotic harmony.

Drinking the fishy water

Pets are one of the most wonderful things in the world. They make you laugh, they comfort you when you are sick, they are steadfast companions, they offer unconditional love. And when they die it breaks your heart.

Many times Bentley sat purring on my knee while I typed away at this blog. Today my lap feels achingly empty. Farewell, little Bentley …

Inspired by LMM …

I’ve been pegging away at mundane tasks preparing my book for the next phase of its journey, but it’s not the stuff of which blogs are made. What, I pondered, could I write about that would be a little more interesting than the nuts and bolts of editing? Then it occurred to me that this week is somewhat of an anniversary. Two years ago it marked the beginning of a very special journey.

All writers draw their inspiration from the reading they’ve done throughout their lives. For me, a formative influence was the work of LM Montgomery (LMM), author of Anne of Green Gables and a dozen other perennial favourites. Fans of the Anne books are a somewhat special breed, as I first discovered when my primary school bestie, Rachel, revealed her own Anne passion.

Rachel and I bonded over our shared devotion to these books, frequently reading and re-reading them, and I was agog for each Christmas, birthday and Easter when my Nana would give me the next book in the series.

When we turned sixteen, Rachel and I solemnised the moment with a scared vow and promise. If we lived to be fifty years old (which then seemed extreme decrepit old age) we would go on a pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island in Canada, worship at the shrine of our literary idol and visit all of the scenes immortalised in the books.

Plotting …

We began planning immediately but preparations really cranked up as our half centuries approached. We decided that we would have to be suitably attired and we out-did each other in creating, sourcing and sharing Anne-themed hats, scarves, shirts, bags and gloves. We pored endlessly over our itinerary, ensuring that we could cram in as many Anne experiences as possible during out visit.

Finally the long-awaited moment arrived and we landed on the isle of our imaginings, donned our regalia and set off on our adventure.

Fully equipped!

The first port of call, of course, had to be the resting place of our beloved author. We reverently laid two single white rose buds upon LMM’s tomb and paused in a moment in thankfulness for the many years of reading pleasure she had bequeathed to us.

Then it was off to Green Gables itself. Only a true Anne devotee can imagine the quivering excitement with which we approached this long-awaited moment. The reality didn’t disappoint.

Green Gables!

The home that is modern day ‘Green Gables’ is of course an imagined reconstruction, but it was perfect in every point, down to the brown gloria dress with puffed sleeves hanging in Anne’s bedroom, a purple amethyst brooch on Marilla’s dressing table and the red geramium adorning the kitchen windowsill (all finer points which would only be appreciated by the true Anne aficionado).

We reveled in every detail, tiptoeing through the haunted wood, and renewing our vow of eternal friendship over the babbling brook that ran alongside Lovers Lane, much to the amusement of passing visitors who showed their Anne credentials by being instantly aware of what we were up to.

On day two we ventured off to Silver Bush (the original home of LMM’s aunt and the setting of the Pat books) where we had the enormous pleasure of going for a ride past the Lake of Shining Waters and down to the shore in Matthew’s buggy. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get any better than this.

Next followed a visit to LMM’s birthplace, a pit-stop for raspberry cordial at the Blue Moon tea house, a diversion to check out the schoolhouse where LMM taught as a young woman and finally a pause to officially record our pilgrimage in period clothing. Rachel and I are firmly convinced we were born in the wrong era.

The grand finale, after a further day exploring the island and it’s many wonderful wooden lighthouses, was an evening taking in Anne and Gilbert, The Musical. This event was so fabulous that Rachel and I (wearing matching button covered shoes) were left in hysterical tears at the wonder of it all.

It’s a mark of our enduring passion that Rachel sent me an LMM book for my recent birthday. For thirty-five years I’ve been searching for The Golden Road – an obscure and little known LMM work – in our coveted Angus and Robertson edition to complete my collected works. I screamed, squealed and danced around the room when I opened the package. She couldn’t have found anything I’d love more.

I think if LMM and I could sit down and have a chat she’d be astonished to know that over one hundred years after she released her Anne to the world, a pair of fifty-year-old Aussie women dressed up in fake plaits and traveled half-way round the planet to pay homage to her work.

My literary aspirations are modest. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if in one hundred years another pair of starry-eyed readers made their way to Narooma because of something I had written …

PBPD …

I have given the matter considerable thought and come to the conclusion that I am suffering from a never-before-recorded ailment – Post-Bliss Procrastination Disorder.

The sufferer, adjusting to every-day living following an extended period of rich life-fulfillment, plunges into distractions and diversions and finds they are unable to apply themselves to the pursuit of their dreams.

The disorder is further compounded by friends throwing great parties which side-track one from the business of pegging away at comparatively mundane – but still important – steps along the path of dream-realisation.

My dear friend Hannah triggered a major surge in my PBPD a couple of weeks ago when she announced that she would be staging a special birthday party for her husband Nick. Never one to miss a chance of dressing-up, she declared that all guests must come attired as their favourite musician from the 1980s.

I was immediately consumed by a vision of myself as Adam Ant.

Ah, Adam …

For Millennial readers, Adam was a leading exponent of the New Romantic movement who had me squirming with excitement as a 14-year-old. I began to spend much of my spare time sourcing such necessary costume items as white face paint, a pirate belt, dangly feather hair plaits, a dagger and a frilly-cuffed shirt. Substantial reflection and ingenuity was also invested in working out how to transform a black cropped jacket into a semblance of a gold-braided Hussar’s uniform.

The result, if I say so myself, was pretty awesome!

Stand and deliver!

Like all Hannah’s parties, this one rocked. The birthday boy was magnificent as Freddie Mercury, while the hostess with the mostest rocked Michael Jackson circa Billy Jean. The party was also attended by a Tina Turner, a Bob Marley, a Cydni Lauper, a Stevie Wonder, and a Beastie Boy among many others.

For HWB there was only one possible option – it had to be Bob Dylan. HWB is a die-hard devotee of the Bard, so he also got slapped with the white face paint and eye-liner to replicate Dylan’s look during his 80s Rolling Thunder tour.

I had barely had time to remove my lip-gloss when the next distraction presented itself – a girls’ night out to see Fleetwood Mac in Sydney. This PBPD-exacerbator was perpetrated by my mate Julie, who rounded up nine feisty and fabulous women for an evening of unbridled fun.

I discovered that it is impossible to contemplate plot modifications and calibration of chapter lengths while sipping champagne in a stretch limousine and energetically singing Black Magic Woman.

PBPD is, of course, seriously inflamed by work, family commitments, house cleaning, reading, cooking and … just about anything that doesn’t involve sitting religiously at the computer and editing one’s manuscript.

I’ve yet to find the cure, but hope that once I leap the hurdle of my brother Simon’s 50th birthday party this evening I shall summon the necessary will-power to refocus on the bigger, literary picture…

Maintaining Momentum …

Finally after almost a month at home I am beginning to feel like I’ve returned to the real world. I no longer wake up anticipating my stroll to the boulangerie and my quotidien perusal of le journal at Chez Felix. I’ve reacquainted myself with the morning chorus from the kookaburras and the pleasures of toast and Vegemite.

Living in Narooma is a delight, even in the depths of winter. It’s not hard to be here when I can toddle five minutes down the road for a lunchtime promenade on a stunning, sun-drenched, pristine beach.

Thursday’s lunchtime stroll ..

I’m finding great satisfaction in the small things, like the orchids in the garden that always bloom for my birthday.

And in the company and conversation of my dear friends, who continue to enthuse about my writing and encourage me to press on with the next phase.

Fab friends

I’m coming to realise that such encouragement and enthusiasm will be sorely needed if I’m to maintain momentum in the face of the daily grind. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but it’s much harder to leap joyfully upon my manuscript for a spot of pruning and polishing after a day at the employment coalface than it was sitting before my magical view in Carcassonne.

Now that the thrill of authorial inspiration has faded, I’m finding the hiatus between creativity and publication sadly deflating. There’s so much I can’t control about this process. It doesn’t matter how firmly I set my resolve or how disciplined I am about taking the next steps.

I’ve come to the bit where I’m in the hands of others – my beta readers, my hoped for agent. It now becomes about what outsiders think of my work and, like most writers, that scares the pants of me.

Maybe I’m completely delusional and all I have produced is drivel. Perhaps my perception of my literary baby as funny and engaging is the partisan fondness of a doting mother. Perchance my dreams of publishing glory are nothing more than a fantasy and all I’ve done is had a nice holiday where I’ve amused myself with my scribbling.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Before I departed for France I told myself that even if my book never saw the light of day I’d still have created a raft of unforgettable memories of my summer in the south of France, and indeed I’m fully satisfied and deeply grateful for that special experience.

But I persist in daydreaming about stacks of my novel perched enticingly for sale in airport bookshops, and the thrill I will have when I’m sitting on that panel at a writers’ festival whipping out my inscribed copy of The Burning Chambers before a bemused Kate Mosse.

Incurable optimist? Yes. Pragmatic realist? Also yes. I know I need to bare my soul and place my baby before impartial eyes, so I’ve taken the plunge and booked a manuscript assessment with Writing NSW in October. Someone with experience of the publishing industry – someone who really knows – is going scrutinise my work and tell me straight up whether I’m even in the ball park of possibility.

‘Till then I’ll peg away at my editing, maintaining the momentum towards that persistent dream.

Blanking the Blog!

Here’s an odd thing. After writing religiously for three months and still managing to bash out my blog each Sunday, I returned home and FORGOT MY BLOG!

There were some extenuating circumstances, but I was truly gobsmacked when a friend asked when my next episode would appear and I realised that Sunday had well and truly passed and the blog hadn’t so much as crossed my mind.

For the first few days at home I was just amazed at being back in Narooma and wrestling with returning to work. I had anticipated that I would have some re-entry challenges and I wasn’t wrong. Plugging back into email and skype and busting early morning and late night calls with colleagues around the world was a bit of a shock to the system after my fancy-free sabbatical.

But rediscovering Narooma was a joy and I managed to get out for a few lovely walks on the beach, revelling in the blue skies, roaring waves and cruising sea eagles.

Ahhh .. home

While I was in France I regularly pulled out this picture when explaining to people where I lived and was always smugly satisfied to see their gobsmacked faces at the awesome beauty of my home. It was heaven to be back.

Then on the weekend I buzzed up to Canberra for the wedding of my dear friend Amanda.

Beautiful bride

It was a gorgeous day and so wonderful to see Amanda blissed-out and glowing as she married her beloved Colin. I was only sad that HWB wasn’t there to share the joy since he was still disporting himself in Malta.

Week two was enlivened by a travel drama when HWB missed his flight connection in Dubai, and I went into emergency rescue mode, desperately rescheduling flights and hotels to get my husband home. And of course we had to celebrate our reunion, which culminated in a decision to stay up all night and watch the sun come up down at Handkerchief Beach.

Dawn of a new day

It was cold on the shore, but the beauty of the slowly emerging dawn colours behind Barranguba was breathtaking. The only downside was that sleep was the order of the day on Sunday – and I missed a second blog date.

I’ve been reflecting on this dereliction of my blogging duties and I guess I must have had a subconscious desire for a bit of a writing holiday after such concerted and sustained effort. Anyway, I’m back now and will continue to send out my Sunday missives until the end of the year or until I sign a publishing contract, whichever happens first.

Because I’m now in full-on pre-publishing mode. I have thrown myself into research on the complicated process of taking my manuscript from first draft to agent-ready perfection and it’s a bit daunting.

Stage one is to share my baby with a few carefully selected ‘beta readers’ (thanks Jean, Hannah, Julie, Bronny, Weed, Sue and Jeanne!). These valiant friends have agreed to take my book for a test drive and come back to me with frank and fearless feedback. I’m quivering at my computer as I await their responses. If they say it’s rubbish I’m going to have to take a good hard look at myself and my aspirations.

Ever the optimist, however, I’m working on the assumption that they might think it shows promise, and so I’m beginning to investigate manuscript assessment services, literary agents and publishers. I’ve secretly identified the agent that I hope shall be mine, and after forensically interrogating their author listing I took myself to the library to get my hands on as many examples of their recently published work in my genre as I could find. I want to be able to speak confidently about how well my work will complement their stable of writers – the book pile is huge.

I’ve also reformatted my manuscript, converting it to the required specifications – Times New Roman font, 12 point, double spaced, 3cm margins… These guys seem to be extraordinarily picky about such things, and I don’t want to end on the slush pile of rejection just because I failed to note their margin preferences.

And I can’t conclude without mentioning one last thing. It’s my birthday today 🙂 I revved myself up to make sure that 51 was the year of writing. Today my intention is firmly focused on making 52 the year of publishing…

The Last Baguette …

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in my hotel at Sydney airport. In just a couple of hours I’ll be on the final leg of my travels home to Narooma. And as I contemplate the wonders of the last three months I find I’m yearning for the chorus of bird-song, the susurrus of the sea and the purrs and nuzzlings of a small grey cat. What lies ahead has the allure that the Temple of Hatshepsut and Châteaux Comtal had for me back in April.

So quickly does memory dissipate, that what has passed already seems incredible to me. I’ve visted Giza, Thebes, Karnak, Dendera, Kom Ombo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Cairo, Prague, Kutna Hora, Český Krumlov, Munich, Lyon, Toulouse, Narbonne, Trèbes, Moissac, St Hillaire, Sainte-Marie de Villeneuve, Brousse-et-Villaret, Perpignan, Marseilles, Cassis, Limoux, Paris – and, of course, Carcassone. And I’ve written a book.

The whole adventure was so long in the planning that it seems very weird that it’s now over. Reality is about to set in.

Before I turn the final page on the trip, however, I should report that HWB and I managed to cram in a few more extraordinary experiences in our last week. As foreshadowed, Carcassonne put on quite a show to celebrate the completion of my book. What others might have noted as the 14 Juillet fireworks were truly spectacular. La Cité was illuminated, and at one stage appeared to be burning, much as it must have done in the famous seige of 1240. In fact, there was a bit of a contretemps when things got out of hand and an actual fire broke out in the Tower of the Inquisition. The pompiers managed to contain it but there will need to be some reconstruction work.

HWB and I enjoyed stellar views from our apartment where we held a small gathering with our new friends from Mexico, Lainey and Eric. It was a fitting send off.

On Wednesday we took a day trip to lovely Limoux, a small town about half an hour by train from Carcassonne. As previously recorded, Limoux lays claim to being the home of bubbly and we enjoyed a meal in the town square accompanied by a bouteille de blanquette.

Lovely Limoux

But the piece de resistance, of course, was our swansong sojourn in Paris. Ah, Paris!

Hello Paris!

The was my fourth visit to the city of love, but the first with HWB and we galloped around doing all the touristy things – Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Moulin Rouge – and an afternoon exploring the works of Monet and Van Gough at the Musée D’Orsay. I also managed to squeeze in a feed of escargots, though my aspiration to eat frog legs remains unsatisfied. I guess that just means that I’ll have to return to France one day.

Yum!

The grand finale of all grand finales was a night out at the famous Lido, where HWB and I goggled at the gorgeousness of long-legged, feather-fluttering young women doing the can-can. and the incredible illusions of a Marcel Marceau-type mime artist.

And so, my French sojourn concludes.

I’m packing up my putative French speaking skills and relinquishing the savour of chevre frais, but most of all I’m mourning the loss of my daily baguette. I will miss Monique’s beaming face each morning as she greeted me, and the taste of the best form of bread known to humankind. For all its splendours, Narooma doesn’t have a boulangerie.

The last baguette …

I’ve been writing of the journey being over, but perhaps it would be more correct to say that Phase One is complete because there’s a whole new world of exploration ahead. I was overwhelmed by the generous outpouring of congratulations I received from family, friends and colleagues around the world when I announced my final full stop, but I know that in fact the writing of the book may have been the easy bit. As I return to work, I am now contemplating the daunting reality of seeking an agent and publisher while keeping my eye on the ultimate goal of holding my printed book in my hand.

The journey continues …