fbook icon 60Never Write When You’re Hungry

 

Breakfast 3 Cropped

Image: DOB

After a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a writer, finished reading my latest manuscript, she said, ‘There’s a lot of food in your books, isn’t there?’ It’s not surprising, considering that food is one of my obsessions – eating it, cooking it, poring over cookbooks, planning dinner parties, even dreaming about meals. So I suppose it’s natural that delicious food should feature abundantly in my manuscripts.

Part of the problem is that I tend to write when I’m hungry – or more exactly, I become so engrossed in the writing process that I forget to eat. (Yes, I do know it’s not good for my health.) Most mornings I wake up, go straight to the laptop and write for a couple of hours, oblivious to the gurgling of a reproachful stomach. The missed breakfasts manifest themselves in my writing.

You can see the results in MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM and A PLACE OF HER OWN. Every morning my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, goes to the local café, and not just for a piece of raisin toast or a healthy bowl of muesli. Mostly she consumes big, hearty meals, incorporating all my favourites elements – sourdough toast, savoury muffins, corn fritters, crispy bacon, perfectly poached eggs and the sauce to beat all sauces – hollandaise. That sauce even permeates its way into a conversation between Angie and her rather prosaic landlord about the colour that she intends to paint the walls of the Old Manse. Naples yellow hue, she tells him, an artist’s colour (after all, she is an artist) and then she adds by way of explanation: ‘…the colour of hollandaise sauce’. 'You mean the stuff they put on my eggs Benedict,' he replies, 'that wouldn't be so bad.'

‘Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry’, the diet experts warn us. ‘You’ll end up buying chocolate bars and potato crisps’. It’s true, isn’t it? When your stomach’s full, you can summon up the willpower to proceed through the confectionery aisle with nary a sideways glance. But just watch how the snack food piles up in your trolley when you’re hungry. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes, I notice that a sentence I've just written contains a whole list of food items, almost as though I'm composing a menu, and then I know it’s time to stop and have something to eat. When I return to the laptop, I set about abridging that list. If I’m fully sated, I might even delete it altogether.

And what of the reader? Can reading about food make you hungry? Of course, it can. And not just reading cookbooks either. I recall my childhood encounters with Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. Although the food in those books could never be described as ‘gourmet’, it certainly hit the spot with a hungry eight-year-old. Invariably, after reading a description of a mouth-watering picnic, I would head straight for the kitchen to raid my mother’s biscuit tin, filled as it always was with home-made melting moments, or date and walnut slice, or jam kisses, or peanut cookies, or ANZAC biscuits, fragrant with golden syrup, or …

Actually, excuse me for a moment, while I just disappear into the kitchen … 

Deborah O’Brien

July, 2012

 


fbook icon 60The Case of the Missing Monotremes* 

 

20120618-PWK-065Some years ago, when we bought our little country cottage, we discovered at least two platypuses visiting our stretch of the creek. As a house-warming present, my husband bought me a stone platypus he’d found in the local nursery. In turn, I gave him a duck-billed doorstop. Soon I had acquired a vast collection of platypuses, indoor and out: stuffed toys, glass, silver, pewter, ceramic and china ornaments, a thimble, a bottle stopper, Christmas decorations, fridge magnets, coasters, mugs, plates, prints – you name it, we had it. Some of them were my own purchases; others were gifts from visiting family and friends. A ten-year-old house guest was so fascinated by the collection that she actually counted them and came up with a total of thirty-eight. And that was just inside! Then she gave every single one its own name.

Now let me tell you a story about the platypuses in my garden. One night we arrived late at our cottage after a long drive from the city. As I walked along the path leading to the front door, I had a feeling something was different. My husband shone his torch around, but everything seemed to be okay. It wasn’t until the next morning when I was hosing the garden that I noticed the resin platypus which normally resides in the bird bath, was no longer there. Curious. Then I looked for the doorstop platypus. You guessed it. He was gone too. So was a large monotreme made of stone, measuring at least twice the size of the real animal. (I had discovered him at the local markets. He was so heavy I could barely lift him. In the end I had to phone my husband to come and lug him back to the car.) A couple of smaller platypuses had gone missing as well. Then I checked my other garden ornaments – a wooden birdhouse, several birdbaths, a stone wombat, a weather vane, a selection of ceramic pots. Not to mention a French-style metal table and chairs. Everything was in its place, except for the platypuses. Curiouser and curiouser.DOB Country 21

After considering the items which had been taken, and those left behind, together with the fact that the incident had taken place during the school holidays, we came to the conclusion that the culprits were children. But how could a child have carried that big platypus home? It would have taken at least three children to haul him any distance, and surely someone would have seen them doing it.

So where had those platypuses gone? In my imagination I pictured them gracing someone else’s garden. And whenever I went for a stroll, I peered over front fences, looking for my animals. Then I realised that no thief in their right mind, even a childish one, would display them openly. And no parent worth his or her salt would fail to ask questions about a collection of stone platypuses that had suddenly appeared in their garden.

It took me a long time to recover from the loss of my monotremes. In fact, I remained outraged for weeks. So much so that I even considered penning a letter to the local newspaper, warning about petty crimes being the predictor of future criminality and advocating zero tolerance in these so-called ‘minor’ matters. Although I drafted the letter on my laptop, for some reason I never actually sent it.

DOB Country 22Over the next few months I set about replacing the absent animals. But even when a replacement looked like the original, it lacked the sentimental value. For a long time I felt sad. Not just because my platypuses were gone, but because I was heartsick at the thought of children blithely stealing someone else’s property.

When spring arrived, my husband decided to do some tidying in the wild part of the garden where we grow native shrubs – wattles, bottlebrush and banksias, among others.

‘I’ve found your platypuses!’ he shouted. ‘Come out and have a look.’

As he’s a person renowned for kidding others, I thought he was just winding me up and so I ignored him and continued working at my laptop.

‘It’s true,’ he called out. ‘They’re all here. Under a bush.’

I dragged myself away from the manuscript I was working on, put on my shoes and went outside. There, under a banksia bush and half hidden in a layer of leaf mulch, was a circle of platypuses. They hadn’t been stolen after all! They’d been living at ‘Platypus Glen’ the entire time. Whether children had moved them there, or they had somehow migrated by magic, I didn’t know. But whatever had happened, they looked quite content in their hiding place. So content they might have been having a tea party. The big, heavy platypus was there too. Only a few metres from his former home.DOB Country 23

Since I had already replaced each and every one of them with new versions, I decided to leave the ‘Originals’ where they were, enjoying each other’s company in the shade of the banksia. A circle of friends. It’s odd really. Because platypuses are known as solitary creatures. But not my monotremes – they like a party! 

*Monotremes are egg-laying mammals. There are only two kinds of monotreme in the world – the echidna (spiny anteater) and the platypus, and both are native to Australia. You can see pictures we’ve taken of these fascinating creatures in the slideshows.


DOB MCE 20

Deborah O'Brien

June 2012

 


fbook icon 60The World of the Book

DOB Styled 2

After I gave my mother one of my manuscripts to read, I couldn’t wait for her reaction. A few days later she phoned me.

  ‘Did you like it?’ I asked anxiously.

  ‘I loved it,’ she replied.

  What a relief.

  Then she added, ‘But there’s something that’s been worrying me about your story.’

  Oh dear. Was there a huge plot hole I hadn’t spotted? Or had I used too many swear words?

  ‘It’s about Amanda,’ Mum continued.

  Amanda was my female protagonist, the lynchpin of the narrative. If there were problems with her, then it would mean a major rewrite. I started to feel sick.

  ‘It’s the shirt that she wears to meet Justin,’ said my mum.

  I wasn’t sure where this was heading. Had I made a continuity blunder by changing the colour of the shirt during the course of the scene? No problem. That was a mistake which could easily be fixed.

  ‘What about the shirt?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, she’s going to a reunion with a man she hasn’t seen in more than thirty years. And it’s a long car trip. Won’t that linen shirt be badly creased by the time she gets there?’

  I started to laugh, though not in a raucous way because I didn’t want to offend my mother. Then, as gently as I could, I said, ‘Mum, Amanda is a character in a book. She’s not real. And neither is the shirt. I made them both up.’

  Afterwards, I realised my mother’s comment was one of the greatest compliments a writer could ever receive. Mum had entered so completely into the world I’d created that she reacted to Amanda as if she were a real person. And I really shouldn’t have laughed because, as a writer, I often become immersed in the story to the extent that it feels more real than my real life.

  Have you ever been to a movie and identified so much with a character that when you walked out of the cinema, you felt you actually were the person from the film – just for a few moments? When I’m writing a character, he or she can linger in my pysche after the laptop has been shut down for the day. Sometimes characters will keep me awake at night as they jostle for attention inside my head. And occasionally they will insinuate themselves into my dreams, having found an unlocked door into my subconscious. But don’t worry. On a rational level, I do know my characters are inventions. After all, I told my mother that very thing.

  Yet, in the right side of my brain, the place where creative ideas originate and grow, it’s a different story altogether!

Deborah O'Brien

May 2012


 


fbook icon 60Frosty Tales

P6252262 

When I began planting my country garden, I had visions of French lavender hedges and geraniums in pots. By the end of summer that dream had become a reality. Then, one autumn morning, I discovered something very strange. Overnight the geraniums had turned brown and the lavender was drooping. Thinking that the plants needed watering, I gave them a generous soaking. For good measure, I trimmed off the worst of the drooping lavender stalks and removed the dead geranium flowers. 

The next morning, I checked my garden, expecting a recovery. Instead, the lavender looked worse than ever. The remaining flower heads had begun to wilt, as though they were grieving for their lost companions. And the geraniums were barely recognisable. As I touched the leaves, they turned to dust in my fingers. What had happened, I wondered, to cause such havoc?

You guessed it. The culprit was that stealthy morning visitor – the dreaded frost! As a coastal gardener, I'd never experienced one before.  Even now, when I know how destructive they can be, there are winter mornings when I find myself gazing out the living room window and marvelling at the white fields, glistening as if they’ve been dusted with crystallized sugar. But, believe me, the dark side of frost far outweighs its transitory visual delights.

So, how does a gardener fight back? You can monitor the weather forecasts and cover your plants in the afternoon or evening in anticipation of a frost. You can get up early and try to hose off the icy crystals – that is, if your hose isn’t frozen. You can accept the losses and plant suitable things next time. Or you can abandon the idea of a garden altogether and watch luxuriant weeds filling the space. (Wouldn’t you know it? Weeds are frost-hardy.)

What did I do? Something I should have done in the first place. I walked around town and checked out what was thriving in other people’s gardens. I even pinched some cuttings from a rock-rose in the garden of our old courthouse (ten cuttings; one survived to grow into a lush shrub from which I now plan to take more cuttings).

Then I visited the local nursery and sought expert advice. What I learned was this. Choose the right plants for your climate. Even then, protect them for the first few winters and allow your plants to acclimatise. Don’t remove frost-damaged tips until the frost danger has passed for the season – like a scab over a cut, they protect the ends of the stems. And don’t expect geraniums to survive the winter. Then again, they might surprise you in the spring with a burst of new growth.

Since then, I’ve accumulated plants that seem to do well in our harsh climate (hot, dry summers and bitter winters) – rock roses, of course, buddleia (summer lilacs) and real roses. Owing to the low humidity, my country roses don’t seem to have the fungal problems which afflict their city cousins.

Writers are fond of using the weather as a metaphor. Sometimes it works brilliantly; at other times it seems like a cheap trick. I have to confess I’ve incorporated a frost or two into my novel, MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM. Having read this article, you’ll know it isn’t merely a stylistic device I've thrown into the book to impress the reader. My feelings about the frost are real and visceral. So are those of my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, who hates frosts with a passion, even comparing them to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, creeping up to suck the life out of the little plants she holds so dear.

Angie’s right. The icy onslaught is likely to cause serious damage, and recovery can be a slow process. It may not happen this season, or even the next. And just when you start to bloom again, there may be setbacks. But slowly you will build frost-hardiness. And one day you may find that you have grown in ways you never imagined possible.

Deborah O'Brien

April, 2012

 My Blog fbook icon 60Cropped Media DOB

 

 

 

 


 

View all the articles by date from the most recent here.

View all the articles by theme here.

P.S. This is where you'll find all my film reviews listed together. 

 


 

LATEST BLOG ARTICLES 

Home in the Highlands: The Flying Carpet  July 2018

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/235-home-in-the-highlands-the-flying-carpet


Home in the Highlands: A Tale of Two Chandeliers  April 2018

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/blog/12-blog/233-home-in-the-highlands-a-tale-of-two-chandeliers


Home in the Highlands: The Secret Garden  April 2018

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/232-home-in-the-highlands-the-secret-garden


Home in the Highlands: Finding the Dream Home  March 2018

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/231-home-in-the-highlands-blog


Book Review: 'Lake Hill' by Margareta Osborn   June 2017

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/230-book-review-lake-hill-by-margareta-osborn


Film Review: 'Their Finest'   April 2017

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/229-film-review-their-finest


Film Review: 'Alone in Berlin   March 2017

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/228-film-review-alone-in-berlin


My Top Six Tips for Writing Historical Fiction   Feb 2017

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/12-blog/227-my-top-six-tips-for-aspiring-writers-of-historical-fiction