The Multi-Talented Lyrebird

LyrebirdA lot of fencing has been happening at Pilyara lately. Thanks to a state government grant, we are fencing stock out of the timbered gullies that lead down to our creek. This is designed to protect wildlife and vegetation, as we live in a beautiful, mountainous area of high conservation value. All this hard work is already paying off – for the first time in years we’ve spotted a pair of Superb Lyrebirds in a fenced off gully, quite close to the house. What a thrill!

Lyre_bird 1

John Gould’s early 1800s painting of a superb lyrebird specimen at the British Museum

Lyrebirds are famous for their amazing ability to mimic any bird song. They also mimic human sounds such as mill whistles, cross-cut saws, chainsaws, car engines, alarms, gun shots, camera shutters, dogs barking, babies crying and mobile phones. The male is renowned for the beauty of his long, lyre-shaped tail feathers and hypnotising courtship display. However our resident pair of lyrebirds bring more than beauty and music to Pilyara. They provide a far more practical service – as fire wardens in what is predicted to be a summer of deadly heat.

Recent studies show that lyrebirds reduce the chance of bush-fires in areas where they forage. They rake the forest floor in their search for worms and insects, burying leaf litter, speeding up decomposition, and reducing the amount of fuel available for bush-fires. They also inhibit the growth of ferns, grasses and other plants which would otherwise burn. The Latrobe University research was conducted in burnt and un-burnt sites of Black Saturday‘s two most devastating blazes. It showed lyrebirds reduced forest litter by a massive 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period.

Lyrebird 3‘Our modelling suggests the reduction in litter fuel loads brought about by lyrebird foraging has the potential to result in markedly subdued fire behaviour…The loss of lyrebirds from forests could result in higher fuel loads and an increased likelihood of wildfires threatening human life,” said the report, published in the CSIRO’s journal Wildlife Research. ‘They forage like chickens, they’ve got big feet with really long toes so they’ve basically got rakes for feet. They rake through the litter looking for worms and little bugs, stuff to eat. They’re digging through that humus and litter layer looking for little invertebrates and whatever they can find.’

‘Through that process they reduce the litter fuel load by, on average, 25 per cent, or about 1.6 tonnes per hectare. And we put those figures into a fire behaviour model and found that that level of fuel reduction is enough [that] in low fire-danger weather conditions it excludes fire, fire’s not possible under low to moderate conditions. But even in more extreme conditions the fire behaviour will be more moderate, [with] lower rates of spread, lower flame height, so a less intense fire.

Our conclusion is that lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage and the ecological significance of that is that un-burnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive post-fire.’

On Black Saturday in 2009, the wind change that saved us, devastated Marysville and took many lives. Summer is always a tense time here at Pilyara. It’s lovely to know that we have at least two new fire wardens watching over us. :)  Play the video below for a taste of lyrebird song. (You have to skip the ad first) The great David Attenborough looks like he’s wandering around one of our gullies, and he misses the Whip Bird call.


Thoughts On Dialogue

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith.

This month, we analyse a passage of dialogue from The Red King, by Victor Kelleher, to see what makes effective dialogue. Here is the passage itself:

‘Petie was sitting on a low wooden stool in the centre of the clearing, the mist and the smoke from the camp fire curling about him. There was no sign of the animals. His thin body was hunched over a flat piece of rock which he was using as a table; and his long fingers, heavy with rings, were busily drawing gold coins from a leather pouch which she had often seen hanging at her Master’s belt.

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’

He swung towards her, gold coins spilling from his cupped hands, a mischievous smile forming on his lips. ‘Do I deserve no payment for saving you from the fever?’ he asked. ‘Not even a few paltry coins?’

‘It’s not just the coins!’ she shouted, and pointed to the collar encircling her neck. ‘This didn’t belong to you! It wasn’t yours to use like this!’

‘But it was also part of your master’s property,’ he countered. ‘The collar and the gold together. Why should I keep one and give up the other?’

‘I’ve already told you,’ she protested. ‘He made me free. Free! You had no right … no right …!’

‘No right?’ he interrupted. ‘Without me you would be dead. And there’s little freedom in the grave, Timkin, I assure you of that.’

‘I’d rather be in the grave than wearing this again!’ she replied hotly.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.’



DialogueOne of the first things I noticed about this passage of dialogue is the power transfer. At the start, the power balance is fairly equal between the two characters, with a slight leaning toward Timkin, who has taken the moral high ground.

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’

By the end of the piece, Petie has taken power by adopting a menacing tone of voice.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.

The Red KingKelleher underlines the menace in Petie’s tone by describing it. This has at least two functions. The first is to emphasise the power transfer. Emphasis is a vital part of good narrative. The second function is to draw a line under the dialogue sequence. The scene goes on but this bit of power transfer has been framed and divided from the next bit of the story by the description of Petie’s sinister tone of voice.

This is an excellent passage to show how dialogue should convey an underlying tension. The conflict here is obvious – one character has the other captive. Timkin is moving in the direction of her desire – freedom. Petie is maintaining his desire – to hold her prisoner – and upping the ante by making veiled threats. Readers expect dialogue to have this kind of purpose and direction. They expect to be led somewhere and Kelleher does this.


Tom Chiarella

But is tension always  necessary? Yes. Good dialogue is a combination of desire on the part of one character weighed against the tension inherent in the scene. You may think there isn’t always tension when people speak. A family conversation, for example, where people love each other. Does that sort of dialogue need tension? Of course! (For many of us, family causes more conflict than anything else.) It doesn’t have to be grand conflict. In his wonderful essay on writing dialogue Tom Chiarella puts it this way.

‘Tension is more like the energy between charged particles. It’s always there, even when two people agree. Think of two cars traveling a reasonable distance apart from one another along an interstate at sixty-five miles an hour. Safe distance.Same direction. Same speed. No tension, right? Wrong. We all know it only takes one little bump in the road, one touch of the brakes, a deer in the headlights for everything to be completely and suddenly redefined.’


Yes, dialogue always has to have tension. I would only qualify what you said, Jenny, by saying that BOTH characters have desire. They are clashing desires. This is what causes the tension. In Kelleher’s excerpt, you can see that each character states their position clearly and so they fight it out through dialogue. Other pertinent information is shown through the narrative bits that frame the dialogue. What you get is a layered piece of storytelling through dialogue.

Each line of dialogue simply responding to the previous one, bloated dialogue, is one of the most common mistakes of new writers. Speech in novels should be stylised. It should sidestep the obvious with off-centre responses, questions, silence or body language.

So ‘This is wonderful fruit cake. Sue.’
     ‘Thanks Jill.’
     ‘Can I have the recipe?’
     ‘Of course.’

Could become …

      ‘This is wonderful fruit cake, Sue.’
       Her sister never handed out compliments. What was going on?
      ‘Can I have the recipe?’
Sue shoved her chair back from the table. ‘I need a drink.’

Much more interesting!

Indeed! I switched off at the first passage between Sue and Jill, but at the second passage, I sat up straight and paid attention! Dialogue is meant to have that effect. Readers know they’re meant to sit up and pay attention when dialogue comes into it.

I do have one problem with the Kelleher excerpt, and that’s his use of dialogue tags. I strongly believe that said becomes invisible and is all that’s needed. The occasional whispered or shouted is okay, but not protested, countered or replied hotly. It just distracts me.

I’m not a fan of loads of dialogue in fiction. No response is often the best response, so sometimes it’s good to simply shut your characters up. Silence can show confusion, pain, determination, anger – any number of emotions. It allows the rest of the scene to carry the weight via action, sensory description, physical details, thoughts or even the rhythm of words themselves.

Dialogue 3Yes, dialogue gains in texture if the writer uses other ways of conveying what’s going on with the characters, or if they’re inventive with their character responses. It takes practice and confidence to know when to use words and when an action will do the job just as well or better.

Also, dialogue does not replace action. As a manuscript assessor, I read many, many manuscripts by writers who thought dialogue was always showing, not telling. So they wrote reams of dialogue in which this kind of thing happened:

Joe said, ‘Look who is coming down the street. It is Leonard, carrying a bazooka. He is talking to a woman. A police car is following them.’

Sam said, ‘I am filling the kettle and putting it on the stove. Do you want coffee? I have a bad feeling about that bazooka. I was in Nam as a kid of eighteen and weapons make me think of those days. That is why I became a Federal police officer.’

The purpose of this sort of dialogue is to inform the reader. It isn’t about an exchange between two characters with clashing goals. But dialogue shouldn’t be merely an info dump. Dialogue has a dramatic function that must be fulfilled at all times.

When a reader starts reading a story, they enter into a contract. This contract involves trust – the reader gives the story their trust that it will do its job properly and carry them away on a wave of enchantment. If a story breaks that contract, it loses the reader, who stops reading or switches off or gets distracted. Dialogue that lacks dramatic tension breaks that contract.


Australian Tragic by Jack Marx

Australian tragic‘Here are stories from Australia’s dark heart: Of catastrophe and misfortune, intrigue and passion, betrayal and tragedy. Some you may think you know – others, you have never heard of – but will capture your imagination.’

This is a little gem of a book. Jack Marx, a Walkley Award winning journalist, has collected together true tales that reflect a fresh, un-sanitised version of Australian history. He says, ‘My original purpose … was to unearth stories that had not been widely distributed…and present them in the somewhat sensational style of the old penny dreadfuls …’

Jack Marx

Jack Marx

The result is a wonderfully dark, gripping and uncompromising read. Marx writes with an incisive wit and a larrikin charm. These are strange, sad and shocking stories, though beautifully told. Fresh versions of our past.

‘Anyone who has ever snored through lessons at an Australian school knows that the official history of our nation is boring as milk,’ says Marx. ‘Where American kids get to thrill to tales from the War of Independence, the Civil War, the various bloody encounters of the Wild West and enough assassinations to keep conspiracy theorists busy for a century yet, our poor little bastards are forced to dream up ingenious ways to stay awake during lectures on the Gold Rush, Federation and the ‘adventures’ of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth.’

No such problems here! I defy anybody to snore through the tempestuous tale of Jim Hall, the Sydney-born boxer who knocked out more opponents than Les Darcy ever would, but who never made the record books. Or to remain unmoved by the tale of Moloch, ‘ … a fiery Prince of Hell who takes pleasure in the sorrow of mothers.’ Then there’s the heart-wrenching tale of Bob Bungey, a talented Battle of Britain fly-boy, who ‘learned to cope with dreadful things – alone in the air, watching death come to friends, and enemies too, who never were machines, never would be less than human beings in the minds of those who killed them.‘ The twist at the end of this story left me staggered.

Australian Tragic 3Marx also gives us cryptic and unfamiliar spins on well-known figures such as Merle Oberon, Steve Irwin, Martin Bryant and Michael Hutchence. He leaves us variously intrigued, angry, shocked and saddened. In my case, I was even a little ashamed of my fascination with these stories; stories that had slipped through the cracks of Australia’s official history. Thank you Jack Marx, for giving me a wealth of material for future fiction. Now I want to read another of your books – Sorry, The Wretched Tale Of Little Stevie Wright. ‘Mind-blowingly good,’ says one Goodreads reviewer. I look forward to finding out for myself.

Celebrate Author’s Day!

author's day

The first of November is Author’s Day. This is actually an American tradition, but hey, if we can have Halloween? – we can have this one too. Author’s Day began In 1928, when Nellie McPherson, president of the Illinois Women’s Club had an idea to set aside a day to celebrate authors. McPherson was a teacher and throughout her life, an avid reader.  While she was recuperating in the hospital during World War I, she wrote a fan letter to fiction writer Irving Bacheller, telling him how much she enjoyed reading one of his stories. Upon receiving her letter, Bacheller sent her an autographed copy of another story. McPherson decided to show her appreciation by submitting a proposal for a National Author’s Day.  A resolution was passed in 1949 declaring November 1 as a day to honor writers.

NaNoWriMo 2Australians also need a day (or better yet, a week) set aside to celebrate our favourite books and authors. And if it coincides with the first week of NaNoWriMo (Australia’s National Novel Writing Month), so much the better. Here are some suggestions on how to celebrate authors in style.

1. Buy a book!
What better way to support an author you love, then by buying one of their books and supporting them as writers. Buy a book written by your favorite author that you haven’t read yet or buy a book you know you love and give it as a gift.
2. Say thank you! Contact your favorite author to let them know how much you like their book. Like everyone else, authors like to know their work has meaning and that people enjoy their books.
author's day 23. Do a book review! Make a blog post or youtube video reviewing your favorite book. Create some hubbub around your favorite author and get their name out there for other people who might not have heard of them yet.
4. Join NaNoWriMo and write a book! Become an author yourself. Start the National Novel Writing Month challenge. They have a motivational website to help inspire you to write that novel you’ve been putting off. See details at NaNoWriMo.
To me, Authors Day also means a time to thank YOU for being the best readers in the world! You’re the ones who make our work possible — so thank you!BB14

The Vulnerable Writer

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith. This week we’re talking about the importance of vulnerability.

One of the creative writing forms I teach is memoir, sometimes called life writing. The commonest issue writers of memoir face is vulnerability. They fear exposing themselves to the reader. It’s common for these writers to fictionalise their life story, or use the third person, in order to shield themselves. A writer once asked me if her memoir was still a memoir if she wrote in the third person. I said no, which angered her. I dealt with her wrongly, thus driving her deeper into her own self-protectiveness. What I should have done was tell her the story of my own struggle to overcome my fear of self-exposure. So, although I have lost that opportunity, I will tell the story here.

Back in 2004, I developed an eye condition that made it hard for me to do everyday things like read the newspaper and walk safely down a flight of stairs. One of the curious things about my eye condition is that I sometimes see objects that aren’t there: flowers, feathers, scraps of paper that might be folded notes. I want to write a story about a woman who sees things that aren’t there―it’s such an odd and magical experience.

Vulnerability 1It’s normal when you lose some part of your body or one of the senses that you enter a mourning period. During this period you give up hoping for the return of the lost sense or lost limb, and you adjust to a new way of relating to the world and yourself. I examined the way I was living my life and realised I was stuck in a rut. I had to think about what I really wanted from life and how I should go about getting it. In a really meaningful way, my eye condition was the best thing that could have happened to me. It catapulted me into a situation where I was forced to change the way I conducted my life. Some of these changes came about through conscious decision. Some were involuntary, and these have been the most potent agents of change.

Vulnerability 2As I came out of my mourning period, I was seized by a need to write about my relationship with my mother. It had been difficult; my mother had a mental illness and suffered from psychotic episodes. For years I had avoided writing about her, either directly or in disguised forms. My protagonists are notably lacking a mother. Again and again I write about women who either have a father only, or no parents at all. So the idea of writing about myself and my mother was a struggle. The first part of the struggle was learning how to write memoir when I only knew how to write fiction and journalism. That was tough enough. But still tougher was my struggle to write about her and myself in a true and honest way, stripped of justifications and defensiveness, self-aggrandisement and blame. I had to be vulnerable and that was frightening.

This fear took the form of a prohibition – thou shalt not write about they mother! Behind that hung another prohibition – thou shalt not write about thyself! Every time I sat down to write a short memoir about her, I would stare at a blank document page for about half an hour, type a little, erase it, type again, erase it, and finally close the document and do something else.

wife swapThen I figured a way around the prohibition. I was addicted to a reality TV show called Wife Swap USA, in which two couples swapped partners. There was always a crazy mother in there. The show could more accurately have been called Mad Mothers USA. I used to watch this show and see my own mother in these mad women. So I wrote an essay about it. First I analysed an episode, then I took a reality TV camera into my home when I was sixteen and let it roam around, recording what went on there. By starting with the show and moving into memoir, I had sneaked up on my mother―and it was liberating! Even better (because we writers need proof that we’ve done a good job) Griffith REVIEW published it. Before long, I didn’t have to sneak up on her anymore. I could write about her directly, and a few years after that, my book-length memoir, The Lost Woman, was published.

The Lost WomanI had got over the fear of exposing myself, of being vulnerable in front of strangers. But something curious had happened. I’m a fiction writer and had struggled to get close to my characters. Since I struggled with that, so did my readers. Insuperable barriers separated me from my characters, and my characters from my readers. But once I had overcome my fear of being vulnerable, I found myself no longer fearing to expose my characters. By overcoming my fear, I had made myself, quite by chance, a better storyteller and a better writer.

That’s a fabulous story, Sydney, and I can highly recommend The Lost Woman. ‘An extraordinary memoir from a ferociously talented writer, The Lost Woman will mesmerise readers with its power and humanity.’

vulnerability 3Not being a writer of memoir, I don’t have quite the same problem. Also, I’m the sort of person who can’t help wearing my heart on my sleeve. This causes complications in the real world, but is a gift to a novelist. Because as you say, it isn’t just memoirists who are afraid to expose themselves. Writers of fiction can be equally tempted to protect their innermost selves, writing half-truths, and shying away from things that matter the most to them.They fear being shamed, or embarrassed, or judged.

How much of yourself are you prepared to put on the page? If you truly want to write great fiction, you have to be willing to go deep. It takes courage to do this. Otherwise, what matters most passionately to you will remain hidden from your readers. The words will lack soul. This is difficult, because we’re all programmed not to expose ourselves. We have psychological defence tools to protect ourselves from pain and raw emotions. Some writers even protect their characters, and are afraid to make them vulnerable. But if we write like this, we will pussyfoot around the heart of our story and have no real impact on the reader. Ernest Hemingway understood this when he said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.’

What are you scared to write? Maybe that’s exactly what you should be doing. When I think of my favourite books, they all pack a raw, emotional punch.


The Problem Of Coincidence

CoincidencesI’ve submitted my new manuscript, and am busy brainstorming new story ideas. Some have potential, and some don’t. One didn’t fly because it depended on a coincidence. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and coincidences seem to happen all the time in real life. Some people don’t believe anything occurs by chance. They put coincidence down to some sort of cosmic plan – synchronicity. Paths always cross for reasons that are more important than you think. I quite like this theory, it resonates with me.

However there’s one thing I’m absolutely convinced about – coincidences don’t work in fiction. They’re the quickest way to ruin the suspension of disbelief that all authors rely on in their readers. They’re a bit (dare I say it) like Doctor Who‘s magical sonic screwdriver – all a bit too convenient. For your information, if you’re not a mad Doctor Who fan, some functions of the sonic screwdriver are as follows:

  • sonic screwdriverTo pick locks
  • Burn and cut all kinds of substances
  • Amplify sound-waves and the power of an X-ray machine beyond its normal capacity
  • Disarm weapons and electronic
  • Intercept and conduct teleportation
  • Act as a microphone
  • Conduct medical scans
  • Remotely control the Tardis and other devices
  • Track alien life forms
  • Control the properties of atoms
  • Operate computers
  • Provide Geo-location
  • Get cash from an ATM
  • Light candles
  • Act as a mobile phone
  • Disclose and deactivate camouflage
  • Destroy Weeping Angels
  • Disarm robots
  • Scan and classify matter
  • Create an “acoustic corridor” for speaking with someone far away
  • Act as a defensive weapon
  • And last but not least, to tighten and loosen screws

CoincidencesYou see, I think that’s cheating. Along with allies or enemies appearing at just the right moment, un-foreshadowed random secrets and questionably handy skiIls possessed by the hero. Coincidences fall into the category of lazy writing – a sure sign of poor plotting. Readers roll their eyes. It’s alright to use them to get characters into trouble, but not out. Of course, it’s not a coincidence if it’s adequately foreshadowed. If a convenient character needs to appear, mention him earlier. If your hero can speak Latin, show him learning it, and for a plausible reason. This will keep the magic of pretence alive.

Congratulations to Carol Warner for winning the prize in last week’s draw. A copy of Turtle Reef and Billabong Bend will be heading your way soon! I’ll email you for your postal address.


Almost There + Book Giveaway

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout!

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new manuscript, which is due at Penguin on Thursday. This has been the hardest, but also the most satisfying book that I’ve written so far, with a broader focus than my previous novels. From Afghanistan’s last wilderness, to Australia’s great eastern escarpment, an epic tale of love, loss and redemption.Writing it has been an emotional roller coaster, and more than once I’ve found myself in tears.



So, you can imagine how pleased I’ll be to send it off, and turn my attention to things closer to home – like the beauty unfolding all around me. Spring is my favourite time of year, and I’ll finally have a chance to enjoy it! This post is dedicated to Pilyara, the beautiful property where I live, and the animals and plants that I share it with.

DSCF0626Pilyara has many forested areas, with spectacular grey gums, mountain ash, and messmate stringy bark trees towering overhead. Below grows a dense layer of smaller plants including correa, heath, dusty miller, and golden bush pea. Delicate ground orchids abound, and ferns fringe the creek, including tall tree ferns. An astounding range of birds are found here: honey-eaters, bower-birds, parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras, currawongs, whip-birds, willy-wagtails, magpies, herons, swallows, swifts, ducks, eagles and owls, just to name a few. We’ve even spotted a lyrebird once or twice.Native animals include wombats, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, kangaroos, possums, gliders,bush rats, antechinus,bats and platypus in the creek. We also have the odd goanna and snake.


Native Mint Bush

We received a grant from Victoria’s Healthy Waterways program, to finish fencing off the gullies and creek, and the work is almost complete. This will further enhance Pilyara as a habitat for native flora and fauna. Just talking about it makes me want to head off down to the creek! But no, first things first. Only a few more days work on the manuscript, and then the farrier comes to shoe the horses. (My present to myself for finishing!) Pilyara is only a few minutes ride from the Bunyip state forest, with its stunning scenery and heritage horse trails. Here are some photos taken today. Roll on Thursday!

I’m giving away a two-pack of my books. Leave a comment telling me your favourite native bird, or your favourite first line of a novel, to go in the draw. Let me know which two books you’d like. Closing date next Sunday 4th October. (Aust & NZ only) 





Kitchen Garden

Kitchen Garden




Sheba and Star