Treading Carefully

Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ 

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

Out of my comfort zone

I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.

These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.

Stolen land, stolen history

The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.

It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.

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Telling Tall Tales … and Tiny Ones

Launching a Substack storyletter — progress and plans

I decided towards the end of last year that I was going to launch a fiction newsletter on the Substack platform. Tall and Tiny Tales went live on 1 February.

Substack seems to be rather the flavour of the month, although evaluations differ, and some, if I may say so, miss the point entirely. Substack isn’t really a community like Medium. It’s primarily a publishing platform. Your potential readership isn’t other Substackers: it’s anyone who likes to read your genre online. (Truly: forget about other Substackers. Stats on them are irrelevant.) The snag is: you have to do all the publicity for your publication yourself. No friendly algorithms are going to carry your word to the masses.

Part of my ad campaign for Tall and Tiny Tales | author image

Anyhow, rather than giving other would-be Substackers a whole lot of ‘sage advice’ here — which would be a bit presumptuous seeing as how I’m a total noob — I thought I’d just tell you what I’m doing, why, and how it’s going. You decide yourself whether you would do it this way.

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‘Just Say a Few Words’

Reflecting on public foot-in-mouth experiences.

When I was young and silly, I had an absolute terror of making a fool of myself in public. Like most of us, I got over this by doing it repeatedly.

Mostly, I didn’t jump — I was pushed.

Piss-poor in Wigan

Six months into my first job as an editor, my friend and colleague Stefan saddled me with giving a talk on ‘Trading with Germany’ to the worthy members of the Wigan & District Chamber of Commerce.

He’d given one a few months previously and they’d asked him back, but he was coming down with a cold. As he was German, this required languishing at home for a week, being pampered by his lovely Dutch girlfriend.

I had neither a cold nor a lovely Dutch girlfriend, and I was the company’s other ‘German expert’.

‘It’s easy, Steve, you just stand there and talk a bit, then answer questions. They’re very friendly.’

Yeah, right.

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Good Morning, Port Fairy!

Photographic ramble around a small seaside town

Sea foam and ripples | author photo

My wife and I are regular visitors to Port Fairy, Victoria. As a daughter of a Western District farming family, Susan has connections aplenty there. No less than three of her cousins have holiday homes in the town, including the little bluestone (basalt) cottage on Sackville Street, in the heart of town, that we often stay in.

The cottage, the town and the coast feature often in my fiction, as they do in my life.

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Imposter!

Dealing with feelings of inadequacy

It’s just 10 hours before my new storyletter Tall and Tiny Tales goes live with its first episode and podcast.

I think I’ve done my groundwork well: it’s a good concept well-executed, with some strong material … I think. My attempts at promotion have been moderately successful: I have over 60 subscribers on board. That’s not a bad start!

But what if it’s crap?

Will I see my subscribers desert in droves?

Who am I to think that I can reinvent myself as a fiction writer anyway?

Am I making a fool of myself?

Similar thoughts are often at the back of my mind when I try to do something that I haven’t done before.

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Learning by Doing

Baby steps in self-promotion

Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to me. I am, after all, British by birth, and my natural inclination is to mumble disparagingly about my accomplishments.

‘I … err … write the odd short story from time to time … Nothing much, and you probably wouldn’t be interested … but if one day you don’t have anything better to do, then maybe … ?’

This is a recipe for not getting read until I am dead. In my obituary I will be hailed as a literary genius and riches will be showered on my bemused heirs. Heirs, I might add, who never showed the faintest interest in a darned thing I wrote …

Meanwhile, in the real world: I’m not a literary genius, but I am a half-decent teller of short stories (laying British modesty aside), and it is something that I enjoy doing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy it more, though, if someone actually reads my stuff. If they’re not my wife or my mum and I haven’t had to employ emotional blackmail – bonus points!

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A Morning at the Beach

… is a workout for the senses

A morning at the surf beach is a satisfyingly complete sensory experience. It quickens the pulse and floods the nervous system with endorphins, the brain with dopamine, leaving the conscious mind in a happy daze, sinuses and skin refreshed and ears abuzz.

What it says | author photo

So why do we go there so infrequently? When we first moved here, nearly 20 years ago, we went often. Over the years … well, life has got in the way, with its clutter and preoccupations. This seems a good morning for decluttering!

Our morning begins with the short drive across the peninsula to Ocean Grove. As we approach the last of the low ridges upon which the seaside town sprawls — ancient sand dunes — we are rewarded with a first glimpse of the sea.

What awaits us? Long, regular lines of rollers, or broken surf? A greyish, surly sea under a leaden sky, or a mirror of cerulean with barely a ripple overlaid on the long swell?

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Getting the Word Out

If you’re an indie author like me, you’ll already have made the discovery that ‘Write it and they will come’ does not work. It will never work.

It doesn’t matter how good your writing is: how gripping your plots, relatable your characters, polished your prose. Your writing will languish unread, unless you find ways to get readers to clap eyes on it.

Fortunately I like a challenge, and I like learning new stuff, so this doesn’t bother me much. In the past year, I’ve had more than a few ‘Eureka!’ flashes of inspiration which quickly turned to ‘Meh …’ realisations. I pick myself up, dust myself off and try something else.

… but also I keep doing what I’m doing – constantly refining and trying to do it better. Building an audience requires dedication and commitment. It ain’t gonna happen over night.

Who needs video games to keep them entertained? This stuff is FUN!

For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the potential of Substack. If you’re not familiar with it, Substack is a platform for creating newsletters and building a subscriber list.

I like to write stories in episodes, so the newsletter model really appeals to me. There’s the discipline of publishing to a set schedule, and the promise of building a base of readers who really want to connect with me.

Finally, I’ve decided that the time is right to launch Tall and Tiny Tales. Each Tuesday, starting 1 February 2022, I will publish one short story or serial episode. There will also be occasional podcasts and other goodies.

Right now, it’s entirely free to subscribe. Further down the line I’ll consider the possibility of adding premium content for paying subscribers.

Please go take a look – and if you like what you see, you could always sign up. Did I mention, it’s free?

And don’t forget to tell your friends 😉

Featured image by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Otway Solitude

Photographic essay on a secret world

Paradise Falls, Otways

The Otways are a low coastal mountain range in southwestern Victoria.

This bald statement belies the unique interest and charm of the landscape. The Otways tumble into Bass Strait – where the famous Great Ocean Road clings to the jagged edge of the Australian continent.

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Old Dogs, New Tricks

Adventures with adult learners

The trouble with being a full-time coursebook writer is that you’re always preparing lessons for others to teach.

With the drawn-out publishing process, there’s about a year’s development from concept to finished work. Even then, the book has to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be approved by the relevant education authorities, before final printing and distribution. By the time you’re actually getting royalties, (usually the only form of feedback you’ll ever get) the work itself may be a distant memory.

It’s all a little … abstract.

That’s why I enjoy opportunities to teach. For me, they’re recreation, not work. They’re also a way of keeping myself grounded.

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