How lucky am I? Here’s the cover for my new book, isn’t she gorgeous? So much more delicious in the flesh, too. Lots of gold and really sumptuous. In shops 1 November 2016. I had a lot of fun with this one, so I hope you enjoy it!
It’s a very special book to me. I wrote it while caretaking a remote bush property in northern NSW, and this beautiful wilderness setting features in the novel. It’s about a woman who returns to her childhood home to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death… but in the process unearths far more than she bargained for.
Lyrebird Hill is also published by Bolinda as an audio book, and is narrated by the brilliant Eloise Oxer. If you’d like a quick listen, go here.
To see the beautiful trailer, go here.
My romantic mystery novel Thornwood House is set in rural Queensland, and tells the story of a woman who inherits a rambling homestead where her obsession with an old photo draws her into a dangerous web of dark deeds and murder.
It was sooo much fun to write, and a real thrill to finally see in bookshops last year! In March 2014 it was released by Bolinda as an audiobook – which means you can knit, garden, walk the dog, drive the kids to school, clean your taxidermy workshop, or just sit and contemplate the trees … while escaping into Thornwood House.
If you fancy hearing a snippet read by the talented Eloise Oxer, click here
The story is set in south-eastern Queensland in a small fictional community called ‘Magpie Creek’, which is based on the real township of Boonah. The main story is contemporary – a woman inherits an old homestead, falls in love with a photo and starts digging into the past. Her search uncovers all sorts of mayhem, and endangers not only herself but the people she loves.
The contemporary story is woven through with two other plotlines – the viewpoint of a young woman in the 1940s, and a girl’s diary from the 1990s.
My favourite part of the research process for Thornwood House was immersing myself in the setting. I lived in rural Queensland for a couple of years, and in that time had many opportunities to travel around and soak up the local scenery and get a feel for the people and their fascinating pasts.
I spent a lot of time reading up on local history, in particular what life was like in the Fassifern region of Queensland during the 1940s, and how a small country town was impacted by the war. I pored over old newspapers and maps, unearthed photographs, delved into my own family history, and explored the landmarks that would appear in my story, such as Boonah’s historic Lutheran graveyard.
There’s an old original settlers’ hut in the story, which is based on a forgotten shack my friend & I found along a backwoods road near Queen Mary Falls. The shack was sitting in a paddock pretty much as it appears in the book – ironbark roofing shingles, buckled plank walls, a single room with a tiny glassless window, a ramshackle verandah, dozens of cobwebs… and wonderfully spooky inside! I can’t think about that old shack without seeing my characters come to life inside it.
While living in Queensland I became fascinated by the history of the Ugarapul people in the Fassifern region. Although most of this research didn’t make it into the finished book, it sparked my curiosity about local indigenous cultures and inspired me to learn more. My next project will take me into traditional bush herbal medicines, which has given me a whole new respect for all the humble little flowers and ferns I see every day.
I also read heaps of war correspondence, as well as wartime memoirs and diary entries. I was delighted when Mum presented me with a bundle of airgraph letters that had been sent to my grandmother during the Second World War. History becomes all the more real when you can see and touch and smell tangible evidence of it.
While waiting for the edits to come through from my publisher, I’m making headway on my second book – another rural gothic tale full of romance and mystery. It’s set in the present day, and again has threads that loop backwards in time to the turbulent past – this time to the year 1898 via some old letters, and a 1995 diary.
The first thing I do when beginning a new project is to gather my tools. My notebook, a list of research questions, photos I’ve collected, all the bits of envelope and paper scraps that hold my precious random notes, and of course my lucky novel-writing pencil. Then I make a thermos of tea and wander off to a quiet spot in the bush to start brainstorming.
Ideas pop in from everywhere – I suppose I’ve trained myself to view life as an endless source of possible story material. Inspiration comes from every source imaginable – newspapers & magazines, dreams, people in the past I’d like to get revenge on, snippets overheard on the train; books, films, my long-suffering family! My sister Sarah often warns people, ‘Don’t tell her anything unless you want it to end up in a story!’
Sometimes I have story ideas simmering on the backburners for years. By the time I get to this brainstorming stage, I’ve usually got a plotline happening – but it’s very flimsy, and often involves something outlandish about werewolves or vampires. I’ve always been fascinated by the creatures of the night, even as a kid reading comic books such as Tales from the Crypt – which probably explains the gothic flavour of my novels.
Only, rather than exploring the occult, my gothic leanings emerge in the form of spooky old houses and dark family secrets, which have always intrigued me – ever since I was a teenager obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. I also love playing with archetypes – which I suppose is where the werewolves come into it! I can’t resist writing about characters who are not quite who or what they seem. . .
I was collecting firewood when I found a dead southern boobook owl under a tree. I carefully examined the body, but found no sign of trauma from domestic animals or vehicles etc., so concluded that it must have been killed by a paralysis tick.
I was very sad because I adore boobooks. I love the strength and beauty of raptors, but also the mystery and magic they symbolise. I decided that I would bury this little owl in a careful way so that I’d be able to harvest its bones, and perhaps make some drawings of them, or just keep them as a curio.
I should explain that I have a fascination for natural history, and possess a very modest little collection of bones, skulls, shells, crystal geodes, heart-shaped rocks, birds’ nests, seed pods, pressed native flowers etc. . .and I knew the little boobook’s bones would be an intriguing addition.
So I half-filled a large box with layers of earth, compost, ash. Gently I folded the boobook between sheets of newspaper and laid it on top of the layers. I poured in more ash, compost, and soil. Then I covered the box with a piece of wood, and waited.
But my triumph over death was not without its sorrows. The night following my discovery of the dead boobook beneath the tree, I heard a mournful sound across the valley – it was the boobook’s mate. It called all night, but of course there could be no reply. And then for the next 3 days, the poor little mate sat on the crossbeam over my verandah and cried for its lost friend. It was the saddest sound I’ve ever heard.
On the fourth day, when my heart could hardly bear to hear it any more, the grieving owl swooped off its perch and flew in a huge circle over my house, crying its haunting ‘Booo-book, Booo-book’. I stood and watched it glide over the valley in a great arc and finally vanish into the distant trees.
When I was a little girl I dreamt of travelling to the wilds of Africa and becoming an animal doctor. I even started learning phrases in Swahili. Of course, at that stage I lived with my grandparents in a small seaside town, many miles from the wilds of anywhere – but that never stopped me from dreaming!
My Granny Lillian who lived down the road was an avid reader and she had a great library of books crammed into her tiny house. There wasn’t much access to children’s books in those days, they were all handed down from Mum or Grandma and very precious indeed! So Granny read to me from her collection of Reader’s Digest – adventure stories, war stories, romantic stories, and stories about animal doctors in the wilds of Africa.
I became obsessed with the people and places that emerged from these mysterious dusty old books – daydreaming and making up my own little stories, and spending hours re-enacting them with my one-legged doll. It was always such a magical moment for me when Granny took one of her big old hard covers from the bookshelf, dusted it off, and turned to the first page.
Even after the passage of decades, I’ve never lost the excitement of opening the pages of a newly acquired book. And if I’d known back then that it was even possible for an ordinary person to become a writer of stories, I’d never have bothered doing anything else! Continue reading
One of my most interesting assignments was for an antique dealer who wanted reproductions of a series of fifteenth century mosaic tables. I set up a studio in Madrid and became a regular at the Prado Museum where the tables were housed. Every day I took notes and made my sketches, then trudged home at night to pick up my brushes and oil paints. Sadly there are no surviving pics as my premises were ransacked and all photographic evidence absconded with!
Other commissioned works included shop window displays, classical reproductions for restaurants in Italy (I’ve never eaten so well in my life!) and copies of modern masters such as Dali and Kandinsky for private art collections.
Many of my reproductions were in oil paint, but often I worked in chalk pastel on a specially prepared canvas. Pastels are very intense and have wonderful vibrant colour. I made my own too, from a traditional old secret recipe using ground pigments and beeswax.
The image above shows the beginning of my reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Tondo Doni”, a circular Madonna and child painting that is as beloved now as it was back in Michelangelo’s day. My version was rendered in chalk pastels on a canvas that was specially prepared with fine-ground pumice stone so the pastels grab the surface. Michelangelo’s version was painted in 1507 and is held in the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. My version was rendered in 1987, and sold to a private collector.
Back in Australia I continued my commercial ventures – designing CD covers, more shop windows, the interior of an ice-cream parlour (again I was very well fed!), as well as business logos, commissioned paintings, and illustration work. I also began to establish myself as a visual artist, getting a few solo and group exhibitions under my belt and winning several prizes and grants. However, more and more I began to feel that something was missing…
In the mid-90s I finally took the plunge and started a project that would completely transform my life. I’d always been a voracious reader, and had for many years entertained a private longing to write, but unlike painting it was not something that came easily to me. . .
I’m currently caretaking a 100-acre bushland reserve. This involves weeding the bush, herding any stray stock and feral animals off the property (with the assistance of my intrepid offsider, Poppy L. Birdsworth, Kelpie Esquire); mending fences, stabilising erosion-prone areas, as well as collecting a broad variety of tree and wildflower seed for regeneration.
It takes an hour to travel 4.5 km along my rugged goat trail – through paddocks, over granite hillsides and creek beds, up erosion gullies, between groves of ironbark and yellow box and red gum. My tiny city hatchback crawls at snail-pace along this rough old bush track!
Parts of the track are badly washed out. In some areas I’m forced to venture cross-country, leaping out of the car to run ahead and check for half-buried boulders. I’ve spent many a trip crowbarring rocks out of my path or sawing off dead tree limbs, or filling erosion ditches with timber salvaged from the tip!
Once, during a flood, part of the road turned into a creek. I was stranded… but with the use of a couple of well-placed old carpet rolls I somehow managed to drive across, dodging turtles and manoeuvring through the reeds and mud. I credit my survival to having watched the Leyland Brothers religiously in the seventies!