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, ÄŚeskĂ˝ 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 MusĂ©e 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 …

Finis!

Dear readers, it’s done! I have written a book!

After an authorial frenzy this week that saw me produce almost 14,000 words I finally had the exquisite pleasure of inscribing ‘Finis’ at the end of my manuscript.

I can’t quite believe it. Of course, I am conscious of the fact that I’ve been bashing the keyboard for the past eleven weeks. It’s more the finality that’s bewildering me. I’ve been living and breathing my characters so intensely that it seems impossible that they’re no longer going to be my daily companions.

I’ve read about this phenomenon. Other writers have apparently felt the same thing – a sense of bereavement and grief at having to let go of your characters once you’ve typed the final full stop. But it wasn’t something that I’d really prepared myself for. I find myself wanting to go back and stay in their world.

Not that the work is over by any means. I know that before me lie months of editing, polishing, refining and preparing my work for presentation to prospective agents and publishers, so I’ll still be immersing myself in the story. But I won’t be creating it any more.

I think, perhaps, that I’m still too close to the process to be able to write about it coherently. It has been so all-encompassing and I’ve maintained such rigid discipline that I haven’t had room for much reflection – other than that in which I’ve indulged through this weekly blog. I think it’s going to take some time for it all to sink in.

Gratuitous knight pic – just because …

And what is my verdict on my creation? Sincerely endeavouring to set aside maternal partiality, I think it’s good. As previously stated, I never set out to write the great Australian novel. Under New Management is not literature, but I do believe it’s entertaining, and quirky, and quite funny in spots. Now I just have to convince a publisher to feel the same way.

There is now only one more week until I fly for home. Before take-off, however, HWB and I will be scooting up to Paris for a final fling. At this moment of completion, I feel compelled to record my heartfelt gratitude to HWB. Not only has he always believed in me as a writer, he’s been a fount of unfailing support on this extraordinary journey, and he’s borne valiantly with my authorial abstraction over the last two weeks. A while back we made a pact that when I sign my publishing deal we will take a trip on the Orient Express. I hope it’s not too long in coming 🙂

My gang of enthusiastic family and friends also deserve a jolly good thanking – Jean, Rachel, Hannah, Julie, Fontella, Bronny, Stephanie, Imke, Heather, Amanda, Tracy, Mariella, Anna, Raphael, Sue, Natalia, Mirela, Jeanne, Moz, Gabi, Claude, Judy, Donna, Marie. Your belief in my endeavour and your regular supply of kind and encouraging words has lifted me up throughout.

Tonight the good city of Carcassonne is putting on a fireworks show for me. The locals think it’s got something to do with Bastille Day, but I know better …

Celebrations!

I did it! I cracked the 80,000 word barrier! I reached the summit!

Woo hoo!

Only to find, like so many early explorers, that when I crested the peak there loomed ahead of me a further summit, a mist shrouded, rock-strewn crag that means I can’t yet put down my carabiners and ice-picks. I have my 80,000 words, but the novel is not quite finished. I estimate that I may need to squeeze out about another 10,000 to wrap things up, so I’m girding up my loins and aiming for full completion by the end of this coming week.

That said, 80,000 words has been the primary objective over the past two months, and I deemed that hitting this target was sufficient cause for significant celebration. This was also the week when HWB and I marked our wedding anniversary, so it was time to break out the Veuve Clicquot.

Wednesday was another day of sweltering heat in France – there is no sign of la canicule letting up any time soon – but we were off to an oasis. Carcassonne’s sublimely sumptuous Hotel de la CitĂ© was our destination for 24 hours of ultimate indulgence.

Location, location, location

The revels got off to a magnificent start when the uber-charming réceptioniste dazzled us with a surprise upgrade to a suite, complete with private terrace overlooking the Chateau Comtal and bastions of La Cité, and finished with panache as we were presented with two glasses of pink bubbles and a round of congratulatory applause from the assembled beaming staff at breakfast. These people really know how to look after their guests, and clearly deem that an anniversaire de mariage is something worthy of maximum honour.

But the crowning glory was the dinner that we had in La Barbacane, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.

Happy day!

Chef JĂ©rĂ´me Ryon is nothing short of a culinary wizard. His food is so gorgeous that you fear to disturb it with your fork. So dazzling is the beauty and artistry of his work, that I sat gazing in mute awe for a full five minutes when our waitress, Mathilde, reverently placed this salad in front of me.

Too beautiful to eat!

And my jaw dropped when it was followed by this astonishing caviar and quail egg creation.

I could rhapsodise about each salivatingly supurb offering but I won’t. HWB and I revelled in this once-in-a-lifetime meal, knowing how extremely fortunate we were to be able to have this experience. It’s not a style of dining to which I would ever wish to become accustomed, but golly it was good.

Our day of delight was made more special because we had also received happy news from Narooma. Bentley has been released from veterinary care and is back home and doing well. Our dear friends Terence and Di who are now house-sitting for us sent us this lovely pic of him snoozing in one his favourite sunny spots. Thanks to all of you who sent messages of care and support – I’m delighted to report that the prognosis is looking good 🙂

This week brought one more lovely surprise, in the form of a visit from my fabulous friend Stephanie. This wonderful woman and excellent artist has recently emigrated to the UK and took advantage of our proximity to hop across the channel. We’ve had a great time catching up on months worth of news and enjoying more modest samples of French cuisine.

We plan to round off her visit this afternoon by attending a medieval joust up at La Cité. It is part of the wonder of living here that we can just pop up the road and check out chevaliers in full regalia tilting in a tournée.

Preview pic – thanks Tourisme Carcassonne

When I posted my 80,000 word achievement on Facebook on Tuesday I received so many lovely congratulatory responses from friends around the world. Thank you all for your generous encouragement – I hope to reward you with a report from the ultimate pinnacle next week…

Hot, Hot, Hot!

It’s hot! Really, really hot! It’s so hot that friends in Australia are seeing stories on the news about how hot it is in France! The locals can talk about nothing but the extreme chaleur, unprecedented in their experience. The Carcassonaises are particularly frazzled because the only local swimming spot, Le Lac de la Cavayère, has been closed down due to an algal bloom outbreak, just has summer has arrived with a vengeance.

Le Lac de la Cavayère – no swimming!

Before the temperatures began to soar on Thursday, I continued my double regime of French class in the morning and writing in the afternoon and managed to push myself to 74,692 words before my attention was distracted by more exciting developments.

Old-fashioned roses – this week’s floral inspiration

My time as an authorial hermit was drawing to a close, and I was off to Marseilles to rendezvous with HWB. He flew in from Malta and I took the train. I’d love to say that we ran in slow motion towards each other and kissed passionately while he lifted me in his arms and twirled me round, but no. There was certainly some kissing, but it was way too hot to do any running or twirling. Despite the lack of rom-com action, it was a happy moment 🙂

Undaunted by the prospect of dissolving entirely in the heat, we gamely set out to explore Marseilles, the second largest city in France, and one which has a reputation as a gritty and edgy locale. We staggered through the sweltering streets and managed to take in the old port, Fort St Jean, the Cathédral de Major and the modern sea-front MuCEM before collapsing in a waterfront bar for a revitalising beer. Here, and everywhere we went in Marseilles, the vista was dominated by the famous hill-top Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which is surmounted by a massive, golden statue of La Bonne Mère, the protective patron of the city. We caused significant amusement with our matchy-matchy yellow ensembles 🙂

Notre Dame de la Garde

On Saturday, unable to face another day boiling in the city, we decided to get out of town and visit the small seaside oasis of Cassis, about thirty minutes by train east of Marseilles. This picture post-card spot is most famous as the best place to go on boat adventures to Les Calanques. Plenty of other people had the same idea, and the town was thronged with overheated visitors dying to get in the sea for a swim.

Unlike Marseilles, Cassis is largely unspoilt, not having fallen victim to rampant development and mega population influxes. Its little u-shaped harbour is full of traditional fishing boats, whose skippers still sell their catch each morning on the quay.

HWB and I are both water babies, so of course we headed straight for the boating options. Our choice was a tour of three of the calanques followed by a swim beneath a remote and craggy cliff.

Happy sailors

The Parc National des Calanques stretches along the coast between Marseilles and Cassis and is littered with calangues – narrow, rocky coves or inlets which are accessible only by boat or via long hikes through the Parc. The limestone rock has been hewn into massive coastal cliffs – the tallest in Europe – and twisted into turreted towers and canyons that offer mouth-watering prospects for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.

Calanque d’En-vau

Plunging into the Mediterranean for our cliff-side swim was heaven. Given that the mega-heat is anticipated to continue for the whole of the next two weeks I’m having my first regrets about Carcassonne’s inland location. More swimming on the CĂ´te d’Azur has significant appeal right now.

Yesterday, HWB and I rounded off our reunion jaunt with another boat ride out to Château d’If, a formidable island fortress just off the coast of Marseilles Harbour. Those who’ve dabbled in French literature may recognise the name. It was the location where Alexandre Dumas imprisoned Edmond Dantès, the hero of his classic novel, The Count of Monte Christo. The 16th century castle did operate as a prison from 1580 to 1871, and was a favourite spot for the government to banish many real life political enemies of the state.

Château d’If

I enjoyed this literary excursion, but was battling with some subliminal authorial guilt. Observant readers will have noted that my previously mentioned word count of 74,692 is somewhat shy of my projected target this week of 80,000. However, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the reunion I have flexed my rules and am aiming to reach my writing summit by COB Tuesday, the day before HWB and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. If I bash away solidly, I’m confident I’ll get there, but I will be without the inspirational view from my window. The shutters are down and the fan is on …