Monday, 9 July 2018

It's a tough job, but someone has to eat the raclette

I love it.
And Saturday was a day filled with wonderful research.

I'm over halfway through writing the third book in my mystery series, The Girl, the Dog and the Writer. This one is set in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Beautiful, beautiful Switzerland!

I wrote a blog earlier in the year about starting this book.
I talked about reading travel blogs and books, eating chocolate and cheese, and dining at the local Viennese cafe because it was the closest thing to a Swiss restaurant I could find.
You can read about it here.

But the other day, I realised, that I have the best source of all right at hand. 
I have Swiss friends.
Real live Swiss friends.

I was feeling a little detached from the food in my story.
I like to feel a connection with everything about which I write.

Feeling connected to the raspberry gelato and the pizza and Vivi's delicious macarons in the first book, The Girl, the Dog and the Writer in Rome, was a breeze.

Embracing croissants and baguettes and Camembert and olives while writing the second book, The Girl, the Dog and the Writer in Provence, was a pleasure. (It will be out in October, by the way - YAY!)

And dabbling in Swiss chocolate (Toblerone and Lindt) and holey cheese and schnitzels and sausages for this third book, The Girl, the Dog and the Writer in Lucerne has been just dandy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I took to the chocolate like a duck to water.
It's a gift!

But melted cheese dishes - fondue and raclette - are also an important part of the Swiss diet and I didn't feel like I had the experience to write about it with authenticity.

Enter my Swiss friends, Adelheid and Wolfgang. (Not their real names for privacy reasons.)

'Adelheid,' I said, 'could I please borrow some Swiss recipe books.'
'Ja! Ja!' she answered.
Actually, she said, 'Sure. No worries.' Because it's Wolfgang who's Swiss, not Adelheid. Adelheid is  Australian, but she has lived in Switzerland and has embraced the culture for Wolfgang's sake - and, I suspect, because she likes the chocolate and the melty cheese delights.

However I digress.

'Ja! Ja!' said Adelheid, with her Germanic-Swiss-Aussie accent.
'Danke! Danke!' I replied, getting into the swing of things. (Immersion is great for writing novels.)
But then, I realised that the Swiss cookbooks would be written in German or Italian or French or some mystical Swiss combination of all three.
'I'm such a hanswurst!' I cried. 'I won't be able to read the recipes.'
'Never fear!' cried Adelheid and Wolfgang in unison. 'We will cook for you so that you can embrace the melted cheese that forms the basis of Swiss cheese and, indeed,  the Swiss culture.'

And so they did.

And so came about Swiss Saturday.

I got up early and stoked the fire because the day was chilly, the wind icy. It felt like a good sign. Sedgwick was putting on the closest thing possible to Swiss alpine weather.

I donned an apron, chopped apples, threw around some cinnamon and sugar and sultanas, rolled some pastry and baked some apple strudel.

My first attempt at apple strudel so
I was feeling quite chuffed.
I picked out my best potatoes and arranged my small goods in a pretty pattern.

I hid chocolate in strange and pleasing nooks around the house for Adelheid and Wolfgang's children. *

And then the Swiss folk arrived.

We started by doing the really Swiss thing of eating chocolate and gherkins (not together!) and going for a hike around the Alps. Of course, we compromised a little and hiked for an hour or two around the hills, but the wind blew with a negative windchill factor and our noses turned blue so it wasn't too far from the real Swiss deal. I'm sad to say that we forgot to yodel. 

Then, returning to the house, we got down to brass tacks. Or, as the Swiss might say, returning to the chalet, we got down to melted cheese.
We ate Raclette for lunch.

Raclette is peasant food that, traditionally, consists of melted Raclette cheese on boiled potatoes. In the good old days,  a shepherd would have carried his large wheel of Raclette under his arm as he wandered from one mountain pasture to the next with his flock. Sounds a bit arm-pitty but perhaps it added to the flavour. 

When the sheep (or perhaps goats) were hunkered down beside a sheltered rock-face for the night, the shepherd would light a fire, boil some potatoes and sit his wheel of Raclette cheese to melt by the naked flames. The potatoes boiled and on his plate, he'd scrape the melty surface of the Raclette on top and gobble it all up. In times of plenty, a few pickles might have been added as well. 

In the 21st century,  when one eats Raclette with Adelheid and Wolfgang, an electric grill sits in the middle of the table and everyone has their own little grilling tray to fill with slices of Raclette cheese. The Raclette has not been carried around, tucked beneath Wolfgang's arm for weeks on end. Rather, it has been purchased from a fancy delicatessen and sliced into precise squares in the comfort of one's kitchen. When one's personal tray of Raclette is melted beneath the grill, one scrapes it over one's boiled potatoes and fills the rest of the plate with pickle onions, gherkins, small-goods, capsicum and fresh pear. One might also aid one's digestion by sipping a little bit of dry white wine or kirschwasser. And to finish up, one eats apple strudel and ice-cream, and drink strong black coffee while discussing cheese fondue.

Notice the little cheese melting tray
and scraper to the right of the grill. 

A little more variety than the humble shepherd
was able to include in his evening meal.

It's tough, but a writer has to do her research.
And, being dedicated, I did mine with gusto.

By the time my research was done, I felt tight of belly and Swiss of heart.
I had finally embraced the concept of melted cheese as a staple food and could continue to write my Swiss novel with authenticity.

Thank you, Adelheid and Wolfgang and little Swiss children - for the culture, the cuisine and the fabulous company.
I feel richer for having included this meal in my life.

I also feel a little broader of girth.

* Let's face it, any place you find chocolate is pleasing, no matter how strange. 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

There's gold in them there hills ... or in them there plains.

On Friday night, the Great Dane and I went to a wine tasting night at Wedderburn.

'Where on earth is Wedderburn?' I hear you ask.

Good question.

It's north-west of Bendigo. 
About a thousand miles through desert and prickly pears and ghost towns and tumbleweed.

Just kidding. 

But it's a bit of a hike from where we live, so not the sort of place you just scoot over to, like you might just scoot down to the neighbour's dam to catch a yabby or two for dinner. 
From Bendigo, you have to drive for an hour.
And you do travel through some very dry, flat terrain and pass a paddock full of prickly pears - so I'm not getting totally carried away,  just because I know that I'm protected by the Poetic Licence Act of 2018.***

But it's worth the drive.
Wedderburn, although a tiny town with just 660 residents, has spades of charm.
Gold rush charm. 
Shops with verandas.
Wobbly old timber houses.
Red brick cottages.
A Methodist church that is only marginally bigger than an outhouse  but built so sturdily that it could withstand fire, flood, tornado and earthquake - all at once.
Main street, Wedderburn.
Picture-postcard pretty.
Furthermore, there are places to dine, places to sleep, a beautiful swimming pool, a shady green park and shops. Between the supermarket and the hardware store alone you can  purchase everything you need to wet your whistle, fill your belly, trim your toenails, mark your lambs and build and decorate a house. (Our good friends Jenni and Leigh own the supermarket and hardware store, so I have to give it a plug! And my claim to fame is that I painted the orange poles in Wedderburn Hardware - so make sure you take time to appreciate the fine brushwork if you do go in to buy your lamb-marking rings.)

ALL your  needs met in two great stores!

In short, Wedderburn is the duck's guts.
And, for me, it felt a little bit like home, being so very much like the little country town in NSW in which I grew up.

The wine tasting, however, hit a whole new high.
The Wedderburn Wine Tasting was the duck's guts with bells on.
Set in the Senior Citizen's Hall, there were four local wine producers, one beer brewing couple, one dog and approximately fifty tasters.
I met locals and ring-ins. 
And everyone was delightfully friendly. 
Especially the dog. He almost wore a hole in the floor with his tail-wagging.
It was incredible to step into a new venue and instantly feel such warmth.

But what I loved most of all was that everyone seemed to have a  story to tell. A great story. Not a yawner in earshot!
And, of course, being a writer, I'm a sucker for a yarn.

For the wine growers, it wasn't just about the wine but the story of the wine and the vines and the family and, in one case, the dog.

The story behind Burnt Acres you can probably guess - the first harvest ... a primitive barbeque lit between the vines, ready for cooking the lunchtime sausage sangas ... a bit of a breeze ... AAAAH! 
There were tales of naive young couples in love with each other and the idea of producing their own wine, grape growing deals struck over casual dinners, and trips to the Trappist breweries of Belgium and the wineries of Provence.

I chatted with a lovely local who had just been to Finland. She'd met, for the very first time, a woman who had been her penfriend for more than thirty years. And it had felt like meeting a long lost sister. How wonderful!

But my favourite story was the one behind the group of eight middle-aged men. 
These guys were all dressed alike - in high-vis-yellow bucket hats  and T-shirts with a skull on the front. 
They called themselves The Darkside. 
And, yet, they looked like the sweetest group of men you'd ever see. 

Drawn to their warmth and jollity, and the idea that they might have been family rather than a club group, I went over to say hello. 
I mean, who wouldn't want to know the story behind a family who called themselves The Darkside? 
There'd be a novel in there, surely!

Turns out, The Darkside are a group of metal detector enthusiasts. (I didn't see that one coming!) They found each other through an online forum for people who  share a passion for running around the countryside with their metal detectors, looking for gold. Or, sometimes - as in the case of Wedderburn Detectors' Jamboree - they run around paddocks searching for  metal discs that have been buried by competition organisers. The one who finds the most discs is the winner. 


I love meeting enthusiasts and hearing them speak about their passion, whatever it may be - train modelling, chocolate making, rock climbing, poetry writing, poodle grooming ...
Passion is inspiring.

But these guys were extra special, because their passion had led them to become such a close and caring group of friends. So much so that, when one of their number became desperately ill, they all travelled to his bedside - from Geelong, Melbourne, regional Victoria and South Australia, to cheer him up. The patient made the grim joke that they'd come from the dark side and so the name was born - a scary tag for a warm and wonderful group of friends.

So there you have it!
Wedderburn Wine Tasting turned out to be a place as rich in tipples, friendship and great stories as the town used to be in gold.
If you find yourself looking for something to do next year on the Friday night of the Labour Day Weekend , head out to Wedderburn Senior Citizen's Hall.
There's gold in them there hills ... or, at least, in them there plains ... and in that there Senior Citizen's Hall!

The Great Dane and me with our friends Jenni
and Leigh - at the 2018 Wedderburn Wine Tasting.

*** Okay, so there is no Poetic Licence Act of 2018. I'm just saying that because I know I'm protected by the Bare-faced Lying in the Name  of a Good Story Act of 1987.

Monday, 5 March 2018

The coolest pool party ever

I was at a pool party recently - a pool party for grown up ladies.
We bobbed around in our bathers, sipping pale green drinks through long straws, nibbling cheese and bickies (the good kind, not Saos and Kraft Singles) from the edge of the pool.

We giggled and chattered and had contests to see who could glide the furthest on the inflatable flamingo.

We even talked about Barbie dolls!
It was wonderful.

I found myself thinking that this was every bit as good as the last pool party I went to, which was when I was about ten.
In fact, it was even better. 
Here I was, the ring-in - the one who didn't know everyone else - and I felt welcomed and relaxed. 
There was none of that awkward loneliness I remember from  childhood occasions. You know the moments I mean - when you suddenly realise you're the one wearing the plain Jane swimming club togs while everyone else has pretty pink and lemon bathers with rainbows or flowers floating across them... or when you realise that the present you gave the birthday girl isn't nearly cool enough or expensive enough. 
And don't get me started on those strange and awkward gatherings when I was the new kid in town.

Yes sirree. This pool party for ladies was great.
I hadn't felt  the urge to hide behind a tree or pretend to be sick so my mum would have to come and pick me up. I didn't even linger  in the kitchen, away from the crowd, breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest time taken to fill a glass with water.
This was lovely.
I embraced the occasion and the company.
Being a mature, confident adult attending a pool party  was really cool.

As the evening wore on, the stars appeared in the sky and the light banter turned into more sophisticated conversation.
We discussed education and travel and life choices and architecture.
Conversation, of course, always reaches the calibre of the cheese and bickies.
It was all very stimulating and informative.

But then it happened.
That moment where I felt like a ten-year-old dufus once more.

'You know Le Corbusier?' said my lovely friend.
Uh oh! She was looking straight at me.
And my mind drew a blank.
Was Le Corbusier a brand of shoe?
A holiday location on the French Riviera?
A pelvic floor exercise?
A child-rearing philosophy?


And yet, my lovely friend, the one I liked so much and wanted to like me, seemed to think I would know. 
I didn't want her to think I was dumb.
Perhaps she wouldn't like me so much if she thought I was ignorant.
Could I bluff it?

My mouth turned as  dry as an un-buttered Sao.
My left eyelid twitched.
My mouth hung open like  Venus flytrap waiting for a large, juicy dragonfly.

I considered retreating to the kitchen for a glass of water. 
Slow-poured water. 
Guinness World Record slow-poured water.

And then I remembered!
I was not an insecure ten-year-old. 
I was a mature woman. 
I'd driven my own car to the party, for goodness sake!
I didn't even have a curfew.

And I was not surrounded by insecure ten-year-olds. 
My fellow party goers were delightful, kind, intelligent women.
My hostess, the one in the know about Le Corbusier (whatever it may be), was the kindest of them all.

I smiled, looked my friend in the eye and told the naked truth. 'No. I don't have a clue about Le Corbusier.'

Turns out he was a Swiss architect who had a bit of a thing for concrete. 
Who knew?
Not me.
Not the other ladies, either, by the way.
But here's the thing.
Nobody cared. Not even my friend who was in the know. We all learned something new about architecture and modern design and the conversation flowed naturally on.
(I must point out here that I was kind of hoping that Le Corbusier was a brand of shoe. Something really glitzy and outrageously expensive that I could Google, eyes agog, when I got home.)

Being an adult is grand, isn't it?
The mature, affirming friendships. 
The realisation that there's a whole heap of stuff that used to seem really big that just doesn't matter.
The freedom to wear your daggy old cossies without fear of poorly concealed sniggers.
The delight of being able to say, 'I don't know!' or, 'I don't get it!' or, 'I've never done that!' without feeling like a social outcast.
And of course, the fact that your pool party can involve cocktails and the really good cheese.

So, because I'm now so mature and secure, I'm willing to share a list of some other stuff I don't know or haven't done or simply don't care about: 
  • I don't know know how to change a car tyre.
  • I can't roast a chicken. 
  • I've never read a James Joyce novel. I tried once, for two or three pages, and didn't understand it.
  • I know very little about music . I don't even listen to it very often nowadays. I love silence. 
  • I don't get poetry.
  • Documentaries bore me to tears. I want to be informed, I really do, but I just can't make the distance. 
  • I don't want to go to Bali.
  • I've never been to a rock concert. Truly. Never ever!
  • I don't care about fancy bathers. I love boring, staid, one-piece cossies in navy or black. The bigger the better.

Please feel free to educate me or to inspire me to behave otherwise.

And, in the meantime, thank you for accepting me just the way I am.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The banal best of 2018 ... so far

Oh my goodness! 
It's almost the end of February.
A sixth of the year has already passed. That's almost 17%... or 16.66666667% if you're a maths whizz ... or a dork.

I find myself wondering where the first two months of the year have gone.
And then I wonder if I've used the time wisely, or have I squandered it?
What have I achieved?

But as I reflect upon The Year So Far, mostly I find myself thinking of all the good things that have already come my way. 

No, I'm not getting all gushy about love and liberty. 
Sorry. It's far more banal than that.
I'm talking about the little things. 
The everyday morsels that make my heart sing.

Here goes: 

The Best of 2018 Thus Far

Best Garden Find
Pot plants.
At the top of the list.
Who would have thought?
The start of 2018 saw me investing in several indoor plants and I have actually managed to make them grow! 
A lovely lady at the nursery gave me sound advice about soaking from below not watering from the top and my life has been transformed. 
So has my study.
And the bathroom.
And the kitchen benchtop...
So, I might have become a little bit obsessed in the wake of my newly found success, but indoor greenery is meant to be good for your oxygen levels or your serotonin levels, or something like that, so I'm continuing to poke my green thumbs all over the place..

Best Books
Books second because .... well, they're books!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman
I laughed and cried and stayed up late to read it. 
I thought about Eleanor long after I finished the last page, which is my measure of a brilliant book. 
I was reminded of The Rosie Project and A Little Life as I read it - a weird combination, I know, but there you go. 
(This description shows why I'm not a professional book reviewer!)

A Garden of Lilies - Improving Tales for Young Minds, by Prudence A Goodchild (who might have been assisted by Judith Rossell) 
Pure delight in a fancy cloth cover with gold writing. 
Marbled end-papers. 
Beautiful illustrations. 
A red ribbon.
This book of cautionary tales had me roaring with laughter and vowing to buy a copy for every friend as their birthday comes around this year, because who doesn't need a good laugh and bit of Victorian instruction?
Furthermore, I now know what a damson pitter looks like.
I even know what a damson is!

Best Home Decorating Find
Coffee coloured sheepskin
I know!
It's fluffy and it's a delicious coffee colour.
It feels like I'm planting my feet on a little bit of heaven when I get out of bed in the morning.
And I like to imagine sheep bathing in cappuccinos each day so that their wool reaches just the right hue for the rugs.
Olive gives it her vote of approval too.
Olive is not looking relaxed here as she
knows the sheepskin rug is supposed to be a
whippet-free zone.

Best Tradie Tips
Three months after moving into our new house, I'm still dealing with tradies. 
They're all very kind and extremely clever. 
They're also ridiculously late, arriving anything from one to six months after the specified date, and incredibly verbose.
I have become far more relaxed about the extended period of building after accepting the two golden rules for dealing with tradies:

1. Don't hold your breath. 
If you do, you'll pass out and die before they arrive. 
But take heart, they will eventually turn up and, when they do, the job will be completed to perfection.

2. Get ready for a yarn. 
The older the tradie, the longer the yarn. 
There's never enough time to meet the job's agreed deadline, but there's always enough time to spend an hour or two solving the problems of the world. 

Best Movies
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
You're sure to have heard of this already, if you haven't already watched it.
This is the best movie I've seen in years and, like the best of books, I thought about it long after it was over. It was full of despicable and complicated characters embroiled in despicable and complicated situations. 
Sounds ghastly, but soooo good and tempered with black humour at just the right moments. 

The Greatest Showman
This one was as light as Three Billboards was dark. 
I tapped my toes and smiled all the way through. I smiled for the whole drive home, too. 
I might need to download a song or two just so I can keep the cheery vibes going.

Best Food
Anything eaten on the veranda with family and friends, while looking out over the hills.
Except for kale.
And I wouldn't really like too much quinoa in my life.
And cheese is better than zucchini.

I guess I have come back to love and liberty. 
Friends and family.
The freedom of choice.

Life in 2018 is good.

What have been the lovelies in your life so far this year?

Sunday, 18 February 2018

What does the start of a book look like?


The start of a book is unimpressive.
And hard slog.

Right now, I'm planning the  third book in my series, The Girl the Dog and the Writer. 
I've been reading, scribbling, drawing , making lists, writing down  random ideas as they spring into my mind, gathering old notes,  visiting the library, looking at photos, drooling over recipes and travel blogs...
I've visited my chosen location via Google images, Dorling Kindersly and Google Maps street views.
I've nibbled on chocolates and cheeses and salamis and pickles and pastries - all setting related, of course!
I've made lists of names and places and activities.
The names, I find, are particularly useful. A great character name can unleash a flood of ideas. 

Anything that's vaguely related to my vague theme has been added to the pile.
Notice the double vague reference?
It's all rather vague at this early stage.
Nothing is too big or too small. 
Everything is useful ... or, at least, might be useful. 
Thoughts and notes can be tossed aside so there's no harm in being a bower bird until I know where the story is headed.

I've spent many hours staring out the window, musing over these newly found tidbits of information.
I've spent many hours wandering about the hills, sitting on boulders, chewing on grass, staring at clouds, muttering.
Muttering, muttering, muttering.
There is so much muttering.
And, occasionally, I've chuckled.
A favourite wandering, gazing and muttering site.

There's a lot of coffee that's been brewed and poured and forgotten.
A fair bit has been guzzled, too!
I've dashed, many times, night and day, back to my desk to scribble a fabulous new idea.
I've had several ridiculous dinner time discussions with my husband and son.

Oh dear!
This is sounding daft and messy and not at all the sort of thing that might lead to a proper book with a pretty cover that will sit on a shelf in a real live book shop.
And I must admit that, often, I worry that it won't!

But, now, after weeks of trawling and scrawling and muttering and musing, I feel like a story is beginning to take shape.

I think I know what The Big Thing at the centre of the book will be.
My main characters seem ready to be drawn into The Big Thing . 
Furthermore, they're whispering about the little things that might happen along the way.
They've even chosen their accommodation. It's pretty, with an interesting land lady.
I'm the travel agent who has to organise it all - how they'll get there, how long they'll stay, whether or not they take any overnight trips to other exciting places.

There are fresh characters popping up their hands, crying, 'Ooh! Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!'
Some are kind and quirky. 
Some are gruff but lovable. 
One's a scumbag, the kind of bloke who'd sell his own grandmother if the price was right. I do love finding a dastardly villain.

Other characters, who looked like starters, are slinking away, saying, 'Nah. Not interested. I'll sit this book out. Save me for another tale.'

I have decorated imaginary shops and cafes. I've mapped out imaginary walking routes. There's even a  catastrophic weather incident brewing.

It's all happening on my desk and in my mind.

So this week, I'm going to gather my notes and thoughts and lists and internal dialogues and whacky ideas and coffee-stained pictures together and try to shape them into something useful. 
I'll develop a plot that can, hopefully, deliver tears and laughter and nail-biting drama. 
I'll write a few random character descriptions and an arrival or two at key locations - just to make sure I like the people and places I'll be living with for the the next six to eight months. 
I'll organise a notice board with notes so that I can keep track of it all... until my characters misbehave and take me writing off in a different direction.

And then, I will write The Book.

I'll write the first sentence. 
And then the next. 
And then I'll rewrite them both - several times.

Bit by bit, word by word, sentence by sentence, I'll get the first chapter out. 

I'll grind into the second and third chapters. 
I'll rewrite them over and over again. 
And then three or four times more for good measure.

I'll probably shed a tear or two during these early chapters. Not because my story is moving, but because I'm feeling inadequate. 
At some point, I'll press my hand to my brow and wail that my writing life is finished.
I'll consider applying for a job at KFC, frying chips.
The tears and melodrama always kick in at this stage.

But days will turn into weeks, and then months, and the words will outnumber the tears and, at some stage, the writing - which can seem so very tricky at first - will actually begin to flow. 
I'll slip further and further from reality and live more deeply in the world I have created. 
My characters' lives will become mine and the magic of a new book will draw me in once again.

Blood, sweat and tears will have turned to joy.
Pure creative joy.

At least, that's the plan.
If you see me frying chips at your local KFC you'll know it hasn't worked.

All of these books started life this way.
Scary but true!