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Saturday, December 29, 2012

On the subject of food - Entertaining 80s style

It has been four days since Christmas Day and it seems like I am still cleaning up. Not that I grudge it. I adore Christmas and the opportunity to share the day with my family. This year was extra special because my eldest son announced his engagement on Christmas day...the best Christmas present we could have asked for.

With no extras living at home these days, it falls to DH and myself to work our way through the left overs. Turkey? Ham or...Turkey and Ham? There is cake, mince pies, shortbread biscuits. We could withstand a siege and none of this is doing my future "mother of the bridegroom" figure any good whatsoever.  

Christmas lunch is (generally) at our house. The baton was handed on from my mother many years ago. Everyone pitches in to help with the food...#2 son made the soup, my mother the trimmings for the pudding, #1 son contributed a side dish and my brother and family provide the "nibbles". The result is we all roll away from the table, which I love decorating. The silverware comes out and my best crockery and glasses.

The Christmas lunch table with Alison's nice things 
When it comes to  Christmas Day, I am reminded of a documentary on the Queen (of England). In preparation for the imminent visit of Someone Important, her Maj was throwing a little "Welcome to England" dinner. As she strolled the dining room where battalions of footmen in white gloves were painstakingly laying a table that resembled the landing deck of an aircraft carrier for a multi course dinner party, Her Maj remarked casually, "When one entertains, one does like to get one's nice things out." I feel like that about Christmas Day. It is the one day of the year when my "nice things" come out. Mercifully I do not have to contemplate a 10 course dinner for 50 people or I really would be still washing up.

The Queen's "nice things"

I inherited my dinner set off my grandmother. It came with 24 dinner plates. Obviously my grandmother used to entertain on a scale commensurate with Her Maj. Her many weddings contributed to my stock of "nice things".  A set of 12 fish knives and forks for example. Who uses fish knives and forks these days?

When I was a young bride (back in the 1980s), we entertained often and formally. Weddings in those days generally entailed a good haul of Cristal D'Arque glassware (none of it matching) and Strachan "silverware".  An obligatory fondue set was also de rigeur as a wedding present and I recall a couple of dinner parties which were entirely fondue...starting with the cheese entree, the meat main course and the chocolate dessert. The fondue set (mission brown pottery) still lives in a cupboard in the hope it will one day see a resurgence in fashion. And yes, the fish knives and forks would get the occasional airing.

The Women's Weekly produced two wonderful "Dinner Party" cook books (available on eBay for under $5). Not only were the dishes "doable" but they were set out in whole menus. As we all had the same set of books, our dinner parties had a certain sameness about them (Frozen Grapes featured at quite a few dinner parties).

We spent days in preparation for our dinner parties. Trips to the market were obligatory to  ensure we had just the right ingredients and cheeses (for afters). Dress was formal (in some cases with my former flat mates - black tie).  Guests were carefully selected for compatibility and interest. Seating plans were meticulously calculated and rigidly adhered to. No one seemed to be allergic to anything and the word "low fat" was not even considered ... gluten and butter and cream reigned supreme. A typical "menu" for 4 people from Dinner Party Cookbook #1:

  • Smoked Trout Pate
  • Steaks with Brandy Cream Sauce
  • Vegetable Platter (with buttered lemon sauce)
  • Minted Cucumber Salad
  • Cherry Rum Cake (topped with cream)

No one seems to give "dinner parties" any more. Are we all too busy? I rather miss those elegant, interesting evenings, planning the perfect menu, the trips to the market, the days of preparation, laying the perfect table and the endless cleaning up afterwards (well maybe I don't miss that bit).

Entertaining these days is so much more casual. We still have friends "over for tea" but the menu tends to be more quick and easy - pastas, curries and roasts, eaten off my every day crockery. In fact I love nothing more than a crowd of people around my table... a lasagna and a huge salad in the middle of the table. Everyone eating, talking and happy.

But at least I have Christmas and an opportunity to "get my nice things out"...

Do you have any memories of entertaining in days gone by?

Friday, December 21, 2012

A brush with history - MR. EVELYN'S ROMAN CHRISTMAS

In honour of the season, one of Ms. Stuart's historical stories from the seventeenth century - Diarist John Evelyn and a Roman Christmas.

While Samuel Pepys is well known to you for his diaries, the diarist  John Evelyn may be less familiar.  

John Evelyn's Diaries
Evelyn was born in 1620 and died in 1707. His diaries cover the great events of the period, such as the death of Cromwell, the Restoration, the Great Fire, the Monmouth Rebellion. It is no surprise that he and Pepys were great friends and references to Pepys frequently occur in his diaries.

Like Pepys his career took off following the Restoration and he was a founder member of the Royal Society.  During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, beginning 28 October 1664, Evelyn served as one of four Commissioners for taking Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen and for the Care and Treatment of Prisoners of WarHe had a great interest in horticulture and was a prolific writer on gardens and matters arboreal. His interest in urban design led him to submit plans for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire and interestingly he wrote the first known treatise on urban pollution:  Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated).

John Evelyn as a young man
As a young man, John Evelyn found himself embroiled in the English Civil War (1642-1648). He served for a short time in the Royalist Army but finding warfare not to his taste, he went abroad to avoid any further involvement. In Italy he studied anatomy and in 1644 visited the English College in Rome where priests were trained for service in England.  

On Christmas Eve 1644 he writes: 
            “...I went not to bed, by reason I was desirous to see the many extraordinary ceremonyes performed then in their Churches, as midnight  Masses and Sermons; so I did nothing all this night except go for church to church with admiration at the multitude of sceanes; and pageantry which the Friers had with all the industry and craft set out to catch the devout women and superstitious sort of people with, who never part with them without droping some money in a vessell set on purpose: But especially observable was the pupetry in the Church of the Minerva, representing the nativity etc.: Thence I went and heard a sermon at the Appolinaire by which time it was morning.
            On Christmas Day, his holyness saying Masse, the Artillery at St. Angelo went off; and all this day was exposed the Cradle of our Lord...”

His diaries contain many references to Christmas over the years, but of them all this is an unusual insight into a celebration of Christmas unknown in England at the time.
In honour of Mr. Evelyn, a seventeenth century Christmas recipe...SUGARPLUMS


Take your apricocks or pearplums, & let them boile one walme in as much clarified sugar as will cover them, so let them lie infused in an earthen pan three days, then take out your fruits, & boile your syrupe againe, when you have thus used them three times then put half a pound of drie sugar into your syrupe, & so let it boile till it comes to a very thick syrup, wherein let your fruits boile leysurelie 3 or 4 walmes, then take them foorth of the syrup, then plant them on a lettice of rods or wyer, & so put them into yor stewe, & every second day turne them & when they be through dry you may box them & keep them all the year; before you set them to drying you must wash them in a litlle warme water, when they are half drie you must dust a little sugar upon them throw a fine Lawne.
-- Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, 1604 (from 
Gode Cookery website)


Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Writers often refer to their books as "book babies". Throughout the long gestation from the germ of an idea to the book in the hand, we nurture and dream about our story. The characters come to life, we put them in danger, we rescue them and in our mind's eye we journey with them.

I have written before about "The Mind's Eye" and the challenge of finding just the right title and just the right cover (On TITLES AND COVERS)...the name and the face of your new book baby. It took SECRETS IN TIME a little while to find the right title and I have been waiting with baited breath for the cover. Would it be dashing cavaliers or hospital corridors...?

I am blessed with a publisher who likes to make sure her authors are happy with the covers and the discussion between us about what constitutes a good cover was fascinating.  I remember Stephanie Laurens saying that a great cover reaches out and grabs the reader from the other side of Walmart. In the digital age, a great cover has to stand out as nothing more than a thumbnail. This means the soft focus covers would just blur into insignificance and so I have a wonderful, romantic gold confection for what is, probably, my first 100% unashamedly romantic story.

SECRETS IN TIME will be out on April 1, 2013. For more information about how I came to write this story, see my recent Next Big Thing post which is available HERE.

And from 21-31 December, Lyrical Press has GATHER THE BONES on sale for 75% of the retail price.  Click HERE to go directly to the site.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Thank  you, Ms. James. The success of your Fifty Shades series has set a new standard in publishing for we struggling writers to aspire to. Now it seems that every publisher wants “hot”, “hotter” or “hottest”. Fantastic news for those who are comfortable writing in that genre and I cheerfully wave and smile at my wonderful writer friends who write in that genre (and much better books than Fifty Shades!). Go for it girls…now is your time.

However not all of us are comfortable either writing or reading about endless ways to get the jiggly bits to connect. Page after page of complex choreography and new and exciting ways to describe the aforesaid jiggly bits.  The human body is a beautiful creation but personally, I find it much more alluring with clothes on, just as I find the slow build to a deserving coming together of two people so much more interesting than jumping each others’ bones the first minute they meet.  It’s what goes on with that big muscle between the ears that fascinates me as a writer (and a reader).

Let me just say I don’t write 'inspirational' stories. My characters do make it into the bedroom and I don’t close the door (or at least not all the way). As one reviewer said of my book,  BY THE SWORD “… is not the rip off your clothes and run through the sprinklers naked kind…” but for the characters it is a hard won and deserved consummation of a deep and abiding love for each other. As that same reviewer said “…It is slow and builds…All this adds to the reality…”

Have we forgotten how wonderful sexual tension can be? That gradual move from initial attraction, the increased heart rate as the object of desire enters the room, the brush of a finger... In the Keira Knightly film of “Pride and Prejudice”, Darcy assists Elizabeth into a carriage, as he turns and walks away the camera moves to his hand…the hand that has just touched hers and you see his fingers curl and flex. That’s all-- a simple gesture,  that would be missed by a casual onlooker, gives such an insight into his feelings. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!

The other day I introduced my 16 year old niece to one of my all time favourite films, WITNESS with Harrison Ford. This is a flawed film in some ways but when it comes to 'sexual tension', the following scene does it for me every time. You can cut the tension between them with a knife. Their clothes stay on at all times…they almost come together…


At the risk of spoilers.  Witness is not a romance, it’s primarily a thriller with a love story. There is no HEA for for them as a couple (but certainly the promise of a HEA for her). He says at one point “If we had made love last night either I would have to stay or you would have to leave” .  He can never belong to her world (of the Amish) just as she could never belong to his (tough Philadelphia street cop) but oh, for those few short days they are together, the air crackles and as the film builds to a crescendo they do come together in what has to be the most passionate kiss of all film making time as their yearning for each other reaches a climax...and how they yearn...

The director made a decision before the release of the film to delete the next  scene and we, the viewers, are left to our imaginations as to what follows the kiss… AND IT WORKS. It doesn’t matter that we don’t see the 'rumpy pumpy', what has carried us through the story is the growing attraction between these two characters and it is entirely satisfying.

So where are these stories in today's post Fifty Shades world?  
Surely not every reader wants hot and spicy?
Or am I wrong? Am I swimming against a tide or will the tide turn and the reading (and publishing) world will bore of the choreography of jiggly bits and return to stories that stir the imagination rather than any other part of the anatomy?

My personal feelings on the subject.... ;-)
Readers of the world...UNITE (without touching!)...and tell me what you think about the current trend to hot and spicy?

Maybe I will leave the final word to Ellen de Generes... "They do what with a spatula...?"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NANO fail? Not really...

At the start of Nanowrimo I announced I would be partaking in the "Chocolate Frog Challenge" - one chocolate frog would perish for every 5000 words written.

At the end of Nano three frogs lived to tell the tale of an apparent Nano fail... Or is it?

The surviving frogs...

On Day 1 of Nano, I sat down with a premise, a couple of characters, a bit of a world build and an opening chapter. I could have frozen there and then but I stuffed the internal editor into a box with a brick on the lid and let the creativity go. A whole new world began to unfold for me as new characters jumped on to the page and  Singapore in 1910, almost unrecognisable from the modern, bustling city state, began to emerge.

Harriet World
It was inevitable that I had to pause now and then for research. As the characters came alive, I needed to know the city they were moving around. A fruitless search for a contemporaneous street map of Singapore ensued and I had to make do with a modern map and bits and pieces of older maps...and my own memory. I lived in Singapore for three years in the early "noughties" and as I dug through my notes and photographs, it was almost as if I had been subliminally challenging this un-yet-thought-about story. The result is a "Harriet World" on my cupboard door.

Then there was Scrivener...if I have not extolled the virtues of the love of my life, then that is probably a post for another day. I wrote directly into Scrivener, scene by scene, using a different colour label for the POV of my protagonists so I now have a lovely long colourful list of scenes. I set up character cards for each character as they entered stage left, grouping them in folders according to where they fitted. I have a folder labelled "Corpses".

Likewise the research - every little tit bit of research got squirrelled away in the Research and Locations folders and the best thing of all is that if there should be more Harriet books, I can save the information as a template and move it from book to book, adding to it as I go. I LOVE Scrivener.

I stalled at 37,000 words with maybe 5 or 6 scenes left to go before "The End". Why? I hit the last week of November and it was like hitting a brick wall. What is it with the last week of November? It's as if everyone wants to cram everything in to it, in the anticipation of December being busy. I had work, I had late meetings, I had daytime meetings, I had social events...I had no time to write...and so the 30 November rolled around leaving Harriet Rough Draft #1 unfinished so tantalisingly close to the denouement (but thanks to the magic of Scrivener there are cards with the concepts for the last few scenes scribbled on them so I wouldn't forget what came next).

Nano fail? Absolutely not! It was never really about writing 50,000 words or finishing a book - I already knew I could do that. What I have proved to myself...

  • I have most of the rough draft for a book I thought I would never have the courage to write;
  • I proved I could write a mystery while remaining a "pantser";
  • I have established a world that is just screaming for some more stories to be written;
  • I proved I COULD write the rough draft to a story in just 30 days!
What's more, I have characters I love, a setting that is just speaking to me and a fierce desire to finish Harriet #1 and move on to Harriet #2....

So thank you Nanowrimo, I will probably be back next year.

The author in Harriet mode...the Pith helmet arrived at the start of Nano

 PS The remaining frogs were put out of their misery on the completion of Nanowrimo


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Paws for Reflection - Guest Post Nicole Hurley-Moore

In this month's "Paws for Reflection" I have author Nicole Hurley-Moore as my guest poster.

As a bit of a fan of time travel stories (watch this space for news on my next release SECRETS IN TIME), I am currently reading Nicole's UNTIL THE STARS BURN COLD and loving it but back to writers and our inseperable muses. In the interests of equality...a dog story. Over to you, Nicole...

We have a dog, his name is Hercules and he’s about twelve years old. I say about, because we aren’t exactly sure of his birth date. My husband rescued him. Hercules had been mistreated and his original ‘owner’ had threatened to get rid of him (and not in a I’m taking him to an animal shelter way.) I don’t know what breed is, I’m guessing he’s a Border Collie cross. So, Hercules became a part of the family as soon as he walked through the door and the children have grown up alongside him. He is very loyal, quiet and sedate. But my youngest daughter has wanted a ‘little dog’ for a very long time. For years we have said no, and that one dog is enough. But finally, last year we gave in.


So when we bought this... see above... fuzzy, white pooch for our daughter, little did we know that we were not introducing an angelic marshmallow into our home, but a demonic hell queen from the seventh strata of the netherworld. Queen Hayley has usurped power and we are now living in servitude. All who oppose her will are gutted, beheaded and shredded before their eyes... well, at least that’s what happened to her squeaky toys. Destroyer of high heels, slayer of socks and demolisher of all in her path... all hail the queen!

Okay, well maybe she’s not demonic, but just very naughty... and really, really cute.

When I’m not pandering to Hayley, I write historical and paranormal romances. Misrule’s Mistress will be released this Christmas (20th December). It’s a medieval story which is centred around the twelve days of Christmas, ending with the Feast of Misrule.

Thanks so much Alison for inviting me to drop by.

Nicole  x

Find out more about Nicole at: 

Nicole's debut novel UNTIL THE STARS RUN COLD is available at Amazon

Forbidden love. In ancient Persia, Jinn is cursed into a ring as punishment for daring to love the wrong woman. Empires crumble, centuries pass and Jinn is still a captive of the ring. That is until present day antiques dealer, Mia Templeton accidentally releases him.

** I apologise for the sideways picture of Hayley! Nothing I could do would make the picture sit straight but it was such a lovely picture that I put it up...Hayley the Sideways Dog

Monday, November 26, 2012

How did we become an angry society? A personal confrontation...

Over the weekend two incidents occurred that have affected me to the point that I spent a sleepless night pondering where we have come to in our society. 

I read with horror the story of the two young French girls on a Melbourne bus who were subjected to a tirade of vile, racist abuse by a man pushing a pram. It went worldwide You can read about it here. Not a proud moment for my hometown. This was awful but it was something that happened to "someone else".

I am going to out myself here. I am "practicing" member of a small Anglican church in the western suburbs of Melbourne. When we first moved here, thirty years ago, it was sleepy hollow but alas it has now been discovered and it only takes a warm day and the hordes flock to our foreshore to either dine in the cafes or enjoy picnics in the parks. It is so bad that at 6.30pm on Saturday night as we were heading out of town, there was a jam of vehicles trying to access the waterfront.  Weekends are becoming a nightmare for us as we live close to the waterfront and if I move my car I inevitably return to find my car space taken as parking becomes a premium.

Our little church is right on the foreshore and we are currently in the throes of a property development which has entailed the building of a private road behind the church and the construction of car parks that are clearly labelled "Private Property No Parking". Yesterday afternoon, our vicar wandered out of the vicarage and saw a bloke parking his car in our car spaces. He politely pointed out the signs and he was then subjected to a torrent of vile abuse, to the point where he thought he was in danger of physical attack. Now our vicar is not easily intimidated but when he arrived at the social event we were having in the garden, he was clearly shaken. 

The second incident occurred later that afternoon. Our church runs an Emergency Relief lunch program on Mondays and Fridays. While we build a new parish centre, the program is currently run out of another local church hall. We are blessed with the generosity of the local traders including Woolworths who donated a double refrigerator to us for the use of the program. Another trader donates all its left over cupcakes on a Sunday afternoon for use at the Monday lunch. We have a roster of parishioners who pick the cakes up and deliver them to the fridge. In fairness to what follows,  the fridge isn't labelled - although it will be from now on!  

It just so happened it was the turn of my husband and I yesterday. We collected 4 boxes of cakes and arrived at the other church to find a children's party going on in the church hall. When we opened the refrigerator we found it occupied with beers and drinks. 

An elderly gentleman came in to the kitchen and told us they were the property of the party. We explained the fridge belonged to the Emergency Relief and we needed to refrigerate the cakes. He was on the point of removing the drinks (we could have worked around them)when a younger man came into the kitchen.
"We are not moving anything," he told us. "We've paid $200 for this venue and we were told we could use the fridge."
"But it's not the church"s fridge," my husband said. 
"I dont F^&** care whose fridge it is, we were told we could use it and we're not F@#$#% moving anything. We've paid to use the fridge." 

He was a big man, taller than my husband who is six feet and bulletproof. The older man then took the younger man's side but you could see in his eyes that he was not comfortable with the arguments being put so forcefully by his companion. Things were escalating as my husband tried to explain we could put our cakes in and then move the fridge around to accommodate their drinks. The young man was having none of it. He felt he had paid to use the fridge and he didn't F%^&*&* care, they were not moving anything out of it.

The situation was diffused by my suggestion that we the cakes on the bench with the promise they would be put in the fridge at the conclusion of the party. It was like watching a balloon deflate but it will be interesting to see if the cakes are in the fridge and indeed (given the tempting nature of them) if any are left! Needless to say we were both rattled by the reaction we had received. Two such incidents in one day?

I'm not going to racially stereotype the gentlemen involved in both incidents, particularly as the monster on the bus is clearly a "skippy" (a dated but derogatory term for an Australian of white anglo saxon origin). It's about an angry society and I don't understand when did we become such an angry society? Is it to do with entitlement?
  • I drive a car. I am entitled to expect to find a car park. You have a car park therefore I am entitled to park in it.
  • I paid $200 for this hall hire. This hall has a fridge. I don't care if the fridge doesn't belong to the hall, I am entitled to use it .
I'm not a sociologist and I'm sure there are many, many erudite articles that have been written on the subject (particularly following incidents such as Cronulla) but this was personal and it is only when things affect one personally does the reality come home. Lack of respect? Belief in entitlement? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tipped off the Hamster Wheel - Defining who we are

This week marks the second anniversary of a seminal date in my personal history...the day I became "differently employed". I prefer the term "differently employed" to "retrenched". For the first few weeks I wandered the house marvelling at day time television, revelling in not having to face the morning commute but underlying it all was a terrible sense of having somehow failed.

Let's face it, we define ourselves by our occupations and for all my working life I have defined myself by the title "lawyer". The first time I had to reinvent myself occurred when we moved to Singapore for 3 years with my husband's work.  At the time we left I was in a part time job that I loved, I was qualified for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve with the possibility of command of one of the University Regiments but when I arrived in Singapore I found I was no longer a lawyer or an army officer, I was "just an expat wife". No one knew or cared what I did back in Australia. What mattered was what job my husband did, what apartment block we lived in, what sort of car we drove and which Club we belonged to. Holy 1950s, batman!  My husband had his work, my children went to school while I became a home maker. I do not devalue the importance of that role with a husband who was hardly on the island and two miserable teenagers but somewhere I lost myself.

Mercifully I found the ANZA Writers Group and they saved my life or at least my identity...I suddenly realised I could be a "writer" and that's how I occupied my time in Singapore. I even started a "freelance writing" business and for the first time put "writer" as my occupation on the re-entry card to Australia.

In our lives we think we make decisions but in reality if we look back over the span of our years we can see the "decisions" we agonised over and thought we had made, really weren't decisions at all, just  stones in the crazy paving of our lives.

(Over the years other "decisions" I thought had been made and set in contract had to be rethought. The one decision I think I did make and that had the most significant influence on my life was a left field decision in my final year at university to join the Army Reserve. Why, you ask? (as indeed did all my friends!).
1. You got paid...
2.  Broken heart...need to do something different with my life etc, etc.
3.  I liked uniforms)

Defined as a "Lawyer" (the one and only time I ever wore the "uniform")

Did I decide to study law? Not really...I fainted at the sight of blood (ruling out medicine  and suffered numerical dyslexia (my own term for being mathematically challenged...ruling out accounting). I had no desire to do either teaching or nursing (reference to blood above), the only other "career choices" available to a girl in the late 1970s. I came from a family of lawyers and my father (the only one who was NOT a lawyer) made the valid point that even if I never practised law, it was good to have a trade.

So when the time came to return to Melbourne at the end of our Singapore stint I announced my decision to anyone who would listen. "I am NOT, repeat, NOT going back to law." Two weeks after my return I was running a friend's legal practice. So much for  that decision. From there I moved into a full blown career...and I was stuck on the corporate hamster wheel, running ever faster, ramping up the stress and anxiety levels. To use another metaphor, I became a frog in a pot, the heat was being turned up gradually until in late 2009 I found myself in the dream job - a senior executive role that on the face of it brought together everything I had ever don. This, I swore would be my ultimate job, the job I could retire from.

It all came crashing down in a manner that is worthy of a 6 part television series. By the time it got to October 2010 I had seen 90% of my PD disappear in an organisational restructure and was told in no uncertain terms that I was no longer a member of the Executive. A full and fearless discussion was had with the new CEO in which I explained that this was  not the job I had signed on for. I was called into the CEO's office on a Friday afternoon - and yes, the box of tissues was on the table and the outplacement guy in the office next door. I got a "this isn't about you, it's about me" dissertation followed by the "don't come Monday" talk and do you know what, I sat there, looking at the plane trees beyond the window and thought "I must remember this will be useful in my writing".

I had been hurled sideways off the hamster wheel and I probably owe a small debt of gratitude to that CEO but I'm not going to tell him that! There is still a small well of bitterness and hurt about my treatment that is like a scab, I can keep scratching at it and it will start to bleed again...even after 2 years.

As I drove home that night in a veil of tears, I was halfway home when the reality hit me. I had been set free.
I wiped out the pain with several large glasses of Glenfiddich, followed by most of a bottle of red wine. My husband seemed oddly relieved (apparently he had been living with something called "the stress monster")  and assured me that financially we could manage quite well without my salary.

For six months it felt corporate uniform gathered dust in the closet, I lost weight, I got fit...I started to write properly. I paid lip service to my former identity by keeping up the outward appearance of a legal practice but my heart had gone out of it. I had put everything I had into that last job and I had nothing left.

This year I did not renew my legal practising certificate which was a monumental psychological barrier but I am back at work again...on my terms...with a small not for profit. I earn a fraction of my former salary but I love my job, I like the people I work with and most importantly I feel like I am actually doing some good. That is what my former CEO did not understand, working was never about the money, it was about making a difference.

So what is the point of this ramble? It is about the decisions you make in your life, or at least you think you make. We can't predict what our lives are going to do but what we must always do is make the very best of the opportunities it affords us. What if I hadn't joined the Army Reserve? Would I have met my husband? What if we hadn't gone to Singapore? Would I have had the confidence to continue my writing? What if I hadn't gone straight back into law... and what if I hadn't become "differently employed" on a fine November afternoon two years ago...?

I would never have had the courage to inscribe my last re-entry card into Australia with "WRITER".

Winning the 2012 Romance Through the Ages Contest - Anaheim

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Next Big Thing - I've been Tagged

I've been tagged in The Next Big Thing by fellow writer Anita Davison. Anita and I 'met' through our mutual passion for the seventeenth century and have shared our ups and downs over the last five or six years.  I’m just thrilled that her first “mainstream” novel Royalist Rebel  is coming out in January. I can’t wait.

According to the NBT instructions I am here to tell you all about my next book by answering these questions and then to tag five other authors about their Next Big Thing.

So here I go!

What is the  title of your next book?
SECRETS IN TIME is coming out in April 2013 from Lyrical Press
I was hoping I would have a cover to brag about but my Publisher got the full brunt of Hurricane Sandie and has been without power for weeks on end.
It’s only a short book (about 45K words) compared to my previous books which have all nudged 100 thousand words. So it will be a quick read.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
This is my first unabashed romance. It originated from a writing exercise I did with my writing group in Singapore way back in 2001. I can’t remember what the task was but I was going through some snippets of writing a couple of years ago and came across it again. It caught my eye and I found myself drawn to turn it into a story.

What genre does your book fall under?
Time Travel! I have always LOVED time travel books and in this book I manage to combine my two passions – the English Civil War AND time travel!

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
That is such a hard question. Sometimes I have certain people in mind but most of the time I like to keep it fairly vague and allow the readers to impose their own images on my characters faces but if I’m pushed to it:

NATHANIEL – Gabriel Aubry (with dark auburn hair)

JESSICA – Aussie actor Jessica Marais

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

For love, a man will cross time itself.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Lyrical Press which published my last book, GATHER THE BONES, is bringing out SECRETS IN TIME as an ebook. However I will make it available in print shortly after its release.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It’s hard to say because I wrote it in bits and pieces. When I said I picked it up a couple of years ago, it was when my father was in his last illness (He had suffered from Alzheimers/Dementia for a number of years). In his last days I would come home from sitting with him and just write and this was the story I wrote. It was something I felt compelled to do, almost as if I needed to escape from the reality of what was happening in my world. After his death it took me a year to come back to it but once I settled into it, SECRETS flowed.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I loved Suzanna Kearsley’s book Mariana. It's once of the best time travel books I've read.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I think I’ve answered this question above. No one particular inspiration, just a combination of factors.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
It’s not just about romance, there are strong family ties that bind the characters too. What will a father do for a beloved son?

That's it from me. I am looking forward to sharing SECRETS IN TIME with you.

And here are some more lovely historical authors I've tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing!

In the meantime while you are waiting impatiently for SECRETS IN TIME, don't forget my latest release GATHER THE BONES is out and getting some great feedback. If you like mystery, history, romance and ghosts with a dash of Downton Abbey, this is the book for you!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Flanders Field - Remembering 11 November 1918

Excerpt from GATHER THE BONES by Alison Stuart (Lyrical Press 2012)

Passchandaele September 17, 1917.

Paul’s first thought as he felt the rain on his face, was one of despair. The cold, unrelenting wetness meant only one thing. He wasn’t dead. He opened his eyes and looked up into the dark sky and wondered what time it was. Midnight? Past midnight? He parted his lips and let the wetness relieve his raging thirst. It tasted of blood, everything tasted or smelt of blood and worse.

He dared not move. Movement would attract the unwanted attention of the snipers in the German trenches and, he thought grimly, start his wounds bleeding again. He would die here in this shell hole, already up to his knees in the fetid water beneath him. It would take days to die, a long, slow agonizing death. God knew in the last few years he had seen such deaths often enough.

He tentatively moved his right hand, just enough to seek out his holster. Finding it empty, he closed his eyes and grimaced in impotent despair as memory flooded back. He raised his aching head to look down into the dark, evil water below him. Nothing disturbed its surface except the spattering rain drops. It was as if the earth itself had swallowed Charlie and now tried to suck him down too.

The persistent rain sent icy splinters of cold through his soaked tunic into his bones. If the wounds didn’t kill him, exposure might speed the process. He lay for a long time in the cold and the dark summoning up the courage to move.

A shell burst close by, spattering him with mud and filthy water. Paul shut his eyes, his body responding instinctively, despite his protesting injuries, by curling up protectively. When the ground stopped vibrating, he wiped the mud from his eyes with his good hand and lay quite still, gathering his strength and mentally plotting the one hundred yards that stood between him and the British lines...(end excerpt)

In 2005 my husband and I visited the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. I have blogged in an earlier post, Tears on the Western Front,  about my search for my lost relative, Captain Richard Conway Lowe who died at Pozieres, and how moving I found the experience.

I think being a soldier, albeit a peacetime soldier, gave me an empathy with the men who endured the hell of the World War One trenches and when I came to write GATHER THE BONES, I wanted to try and impart a little of what they suffered. This is not a book about World War One itself. Paul's story is told in flashbacks (such as the one above). What I wanted to convey is the effect the war had on every individual whether they were a mother (Evelyn and Sarah), a wife (Helen), a daughter (Alice) and on the men who went to war (Paul, Charlie, Tony and Devlin).  I also wanted to compare this suffering with other conflicts (the Peninsula War) and show the experience as being universal. 

Reflecting on the Battle of Passchandaele - Tyne Cot Cemetery.Belgium
Outside Ypres is the small medical aid station where a young Canadian doctor, John McRae penned the immortal words of In Flanders Field, which in the extraordinary collection of World War One Poetry remains my personal choice. When a close friend was killed during the 2nd Battle of Ypres May 2 1915. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance. McCrae did not live to see peace. He died of meningitis in January 1918.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday 11th November 2012 marks, as it has done for nearly one hundred years, the day the guns fell silent.  

Every year since the 1920s, my own church in far off Melbourne, Australia holds a service of remembrance on the Sunday closest to 11 November, called the Lighting of the Lamp.  The flags of our local Scouts and Guides and our Naval Cadet Unit are laid up along with the flag of our Karen friends, refugees from their own war in Burma. The old liturgy of the 1660 Prayer Book is recited, the words becoming less and less familiar with the years but no less moving for the connection with those times so long past and the little light, that little beacon of hope and memory is passed from hand to hand around the darkened church before relighting the memorial lamp in the chapel for another year. 

On Sunday let us remember not only those who died in the wars of so long ago but our young men and women serving in our armed forces today. 

Grave of Captain Richard Conway Lowe, MC - age 22
We must never forget.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Melbourne Cup and Me

The first Tuesday of November, every year it is the same
Every Aussie heart is beating with excitement of the game
For they bet on dream or fancy or the forms they've followed up
From a dollar up to thousands on the famous Melbourne Cup

 So go the lyrics for Slim Dusty's song "The Melbourne Cup".

It is the first Tuesday in November and DH (that's Darling Husband) and I have just returned from our annual flutter. The bookies call it "Mug Punters Day", the day when everyone, young and old, across Australia throw their money at Race 7 at Flemington, participating in an office sweep or darkening the doors of a TAB to lay their only bet for the year. In Melbourne it is a public holiday and as we walked home from our trip to the TAB, groups were gathering on the foreshore with their picnics to enjoy Cup Day.

Archer...the first (and second) winner of the Melbourne Cup

 I actually have a personal connection to the Melbourne Cup being descended from the family that raced the first winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1860. Legend tells us that Etienne de Mestre walked Archer from the family property in Shoalhaven (New South Wales) to Melbourne. Sadly like most legends it is blatantly untrue - the furthest Archer walked was from his stable to the boat that brought him around the coast to Melbourne. Archer went on to win the first two cups.

I knew nothing about Archer or the Melbourne Cup when I arrived in Australia in July 1968 from Kenya, a small shy 9 and a half year old, transplanted from all that was familiar to me into the rough and tumble world of an Australian childhood. My parents had decided on Perth as our new home and I had been duly enrolled in St. Mary's Girls Grammar School, a respectable Anglican Church school for young ladies. Everything was new and strange but the oddest thing of all took place on the first Tuesday in November. At lunchtime there was a mass exodus to the back of the playground and the girls gathered around a transistor radio to listen to a horse race. I stood on the outer in mesmorised wonder as a group of ten and eleven year old girls cheered Rainlover (yes, I can still tell you who won the 1968 Melbourne Cup) to victory in what was to be my first Melbourne Cup. (see footnote)

Dressed for the Cup Eve Ball November 1982
The family moved to Melbourne and Cup Day became part of our culture. We would gather around the black and white TV to watch it run. For the next few years, university exams intruded on Cup Day and it was not until 1982 I attended my first ever Melbourne Cup.  DB (darling boyfriend at that stage) and I   attended a Cup Eve Ball and woke late the next morning feeling at a bit of a loss as to what to do. On the spur of the moment we packed into my housemate's car and headed off for a day at the races. No dressing up, no fancy hats, just three friends out for a good time.

I have been to the Cup several times since then. As officers of Her Maj. our respective Officers' Messes were given prime position on the finish line at the cup. Up would go the regulation gree 11x11 tents, the Army bands would play,  the officers mess staff would be conscripted and we dressed up in our finery to go to the races.  Fickle Melbourne weather always throws a curve ball and one year it was so cold and wet, I stayed in the trainers I had worn to walk from the car to the tent.  Sadly commercialisation overcame this odd hark back to military colonialism and the Officers Mess' lost their spots.

Almost Melbourne Cup Program 2000
As careers advanced along came the invites to the "Corporate Tent". I loved the corporate tents - a chance to dress up and watch the races in civilisation rather than scrumming with the drunken crowds. Horses? Who cared about horses? I was there for the champers... One of these invites resulted in a flaming row with DH who told me I had a choice between a new hat or "educating your children" (yes, dear, that is still recorded in my black book!). In a scene oddly reminscent of nascent colonialism we paid for the privilege of course. The executive wives found themselves seated with the wife of the "country manager", an opinionated American who held court between races with complaints about the pokiness of her house in Toorak and the difficulty in getting good staff. That was probably the last time I attended the Melbourne Cup.

In 2000 we moved to Singapore and as I may have reflected before, the importance of "tribe" becomes paramount when you are away from your native shore. That year, in the innocent days before the events of 9/11, the Australian High Commission hosted its annual "Almost Melbourne Cup Night", a charity night that raised money through "betting" on a 7 set race meeting run using wind up clockwork animals - penguins, elephants etc. It was the last time the "Almost Melbourne Cup" was run at the Australian High Commission. The following November, the world still reeled from 9/11 and the barricades had gone up outside the AHC, a building that was found to be on the "hit list".

ANZA Melbourne Cup 2002

In 2002, the Australian New Zealand Association organised a Melbourne Cup Lunch with live feed from Flemington. I bullied a few of my non Australian friends into glamming up and off we went to the Intercontinental Hotel. Actual betting was not allowed but the wily Australians got around this somehow with a sort of ballot system.

So the race that stops a nation will be run this afternoon. If DH or I are lucky we may recoup something of our massive outlay ($5 each way bets!). Melbourne Cup is a race for mugs but we love it, it's as Australian as kangaroos.

Footnote:  My mother reminded me that she had been invited to a school "Mothers' Club" Melbourne Cup luncheon on that day in 1968. The invitation read "bring a plate" - she took a plate...with nothing on it. When language fails...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

MORE GHOSTLY TALES...ESMERELDA OR Was it really the butler...?

The elegant nineteenth century mansion, Grosvenor (or Lanark as it was originally called) still graces Queens Road, Melbourne, although now a tizzed up shadow of its former glory, it forms nothing more than a facade to a large apartment complex.

Grosvenor - just after the Army moved out.
Built in 1887, Grosvenor was acquired by the Australian Army in 1942 for the princely sum of £25,000. Since that date it was used exclusively by the Army until it was finally sold in the late 1990s.

I was posted to Headquarters 4th Brigade, the last unit to occupy Grosvenor, in the mid 1990s, as the Brigade’s first legal officer. I was assigned a small, chilly office in what would have been the servant’s quarters. It was a room that resolutely refused to warm up, even on the chilliest day and I would often find my computer switched on after I was sure I had switched it off. The more experienced members of staff would just shrug their shoulders and blame it on “Esmerelda”.

There had been stories of Esmerelda in circulation for many years before I came to Grosvenor. She was reputed to have been a parlour maid with whom the master of the house had a dalliance. The story was that the butler killed her and concealed her body in the swamp which is now Albert Park Lake but her restless, unrequited spirit returned to the house. A LTCOL Thomas wrote a brief history of the house and although sceptical to the point of scathing about the existence of a ghost, did find a report in the Police Gazette of 1890-1910 of the body of a female child being found in the swamp on 19 June 1900. An autopsy revealed she had been suffocated but there did not appear to be any link to the house.

The Servants Wing from the carpark
One crusty old warrant officer who was posted to the house from the early 70s to 90s was convinced of supernatural occurrences in the cellar and the area behind the bar of the officers’ mess (the old butler’s pantry). He would frequently hear footsteps emanating from this area. One evening around dusk, he and an officer were leaving for the day. The building was deserted and locked up. As they got into the car he looked up and saw the shadow of a girl holding a candle holder in one of the upstairs rooms of the servant’s annexe. 

Esmerelda’s presence would be felt in other ways. From the bathroom next to the billiard room the staff were irritated by the persistent sound of a dripping tap. On investigation the taps were found to be firmly turned off. Before and after the building was carpeted, the sound of footsteps crunching on sand would be heard about the building.

The "Pink" Bathroom
Before my time there had been at least two sightings of Esmerelda, one in the dining room and one in the “pink bathroom” (attached to the commander’s office which would have been the master bedroom to the house). Both witnesses described a “white lady”. In the 1980s a soldier checking the pink bathroom was unable to open the door which was never locked. Once inside, he retreated hastily when the cups and saucers stored on a bench inside the bathroom began rattling and dancing.

Which brings me to my own time at Grosvenor. I had a young captain working for me who was not a person with a vivid imagination by any stretch. One evening he came up to our office, whitefaced, and told me he had been in the officers’ mess doing up his bootlaces. He became aware of someone entering the Mess and looked up thinking it was one of the other officers. He saw a “grey-white” image of a woman which abruptly disappeared.

(The following photograph is of "The Officer's Mess" where there were many sightings of Esmerelda. I took these photos using an a fairly simple standard film camera - remember those? - not long after the Army had moved out and in this photograph only there is a mysterious white "blob" in the middle of the floor. Just behind the "blob" is the bar area where the Butler's Pantry was situated. You can see the room is heavily curtained. A trick of the light or an "orb"? You be the judge.)

When I mentioned this story to the regular army members of the staff, they were livid. How come he had seen Esmerelda and they hadn’t? Out the stories came.
  • One warrant officer told me he had been alone in the building and gone for a shower. When he came out he distinctly heard the sound of voices talking. He prowled the building and found the offices locked and silent.
  • The Brigade RSM, a hard bitten English veteran, refused to spend a night in the building after hearing sounds of doors opening and closing and footsteps coming from the servant’s wing.
  • A civilian guest, with psychic abilities, claimed on entering the building that she felt a distinct presence in the building. Undeterred she stayed for the Mess Dinner

F   Finally my own son claims to have met Esmerelda. I called in one day with him in tow. In the car going home he said he had seen a grey white blob that had passed through him and felt very cold. Now I am less inclined to believe a 10 year old with a vivid imagination but, at the time, he hadn’t heard the stories of Esmerelda. 

The "Billiard Room" 

Like Netherby (see THE LAST RESIDENT OF NETHERBY), Grosvenor lay empty for many years before the developers moved in. Much of the building was demolished, notably the servants wing where she seemed to have been most active. I wonder if her lonely spirit now lives in the glammed up modernity of the apartment complex?

Grosvenor today...any self respecting ghost would stay away!

Post script: Since writing the article on Netherby, the Sergeant I mentioned in that article got back in touch with me.  When I told him I was planning on putting up the companion piece on Grosvenor, he wrote: "I played a great prank on the the receptionist at Grosvenor who I knew quite well from my posting to 4 Bde (I was there for a short time before coming to Netherby). Terrified the life out of her,rang 4 Bde she answered and I pretended to be Albert, with a growly groaning voice looking for Esmerelda, told her that she was probably upstairs in the pink bathroom and I needed to speak with her. It took her a long time to forgive me and she would not venture into that bathroom for anything. Funny though I never felt Esmeralda's presence at Grosvenor, perhaps it was because I wasn't there long enough as we had recently moved there from Kensington and everything was still quite disorganised."