Thursday, March 24, 2011


I think I may have mentioned I belong to a critique group, but I think this is the first time I have mentioned its name: The Mad Scribblers' Tea Party - Mad Scribblers for short. We formed a little over two years ago and recently we grew from four to five members.

Last Tuesday evening we had our monthly meeting. We spent the evening nibbling away at our shared supper and reading out extracts of our work. As always we discussed our work, then took copies home to scrawl all over in red pen.

It is an immensely helpful group that is enabling us to become better writers. I can't imagine my writing life without their support. Between the five of us there is always someone to point out when the plot doesn't quite make sense, a new favourite word has been adopted or the MC's eyes keep changing colour. This week they helped me to realise that my MC had changed her mind too quickly. Last month it was my hours of research sounding like a travelogue. Ouch!

An eclectic group, we are a mixture of ages and genders who write across a broad spectrum of genres. There is T who is writing a middle grade story of goblins and fairies with a unique and fresh take. C writes predominantly Sci Fi with an imagination that knows no boundaries. R writes YA or Adult fantasy, or Victorian historicals with elegant prose and K is working on an intriguing paranormal with local content. Then of course there is myself, who is firmly entrenched in the historical.

So if you are a writer and you don't belong to a small critique group, then I highly recommend you form one. I wouldn't be without mine.

Monday, March 21, 2011


"Gold shining like the stars of Orion on a dark, frosty night." Those were the words of Gabriel Read as he struck gold on the 20th May 1861, close to the banks of the Tuapeka River, near the small township of Lawrence.

In a continuance of the events I described in my last post Dunedin - A City Built On Gold, I travelled, yesterday, to Lawrence. Hubby and the two youngest joined me for the day and what a treat it turned out to be.

First stop was Hart's Black Horse Brewery at Wetherstons - just a couple of kilometres out of Lawrence. Once the 'Fun Capital of the Gold Fields' it now lies in ruins, although moves are afoot to turn it into a tourist site.

The area is well known for its wonderful show of daffodils in spring and many people make a special drive to Wetherstons to view them. I was intrigued to learn how the brewery helped to plant 10 to 15 acres of daffodil bulbs in 1895. They were imported from the Netherlands at great cost: some bulbs costing as much as 100 pounds. A staggering sum when you consider the average weekly wage at that time was a mere 5 pound. 

After a cup of billy tea and freshly made girdle scones we took a wander up the main street of Lawrence. There were stalls of handmade crafts, historical displays and a festive atmosphere. For a small town there are many eateries, some with wonderful names: The Lemon Tree Cafe, The Wild Walnut Cafe, and others. I found myself wanting to spend a week and sample them all. 

While we were there I spotted a truly awesome sight. A stage coach pulled by five beautiful Morgan horses. The part of me that loves history, both Central Otago's and the Wild West of America, was sent into raptures. 

After eating our packed lunches we visited the site of a Chinese settlement, established in 1867 because of intolerance that banned them from living and doing business in Lawrence. 

The Chinese gold miners arrived in 1866 and formed part of the second wave of miners. They found enough gold to live on and to send money back home. In 1869 1200 Chinese were living in Otago - only two of them were women! 

The settlement had stores, a hotel - still standing - boarding houses, physicians, a butchery, gambling facilities and opium dens. The last resident of the camp died in 1945.

Apart from the hotel and stables, the camp is a field of grass. Archeologists have been working for several years and have  found the remains of many buildings. Until they decide what is to be done with the site it has been covered with polyurethane and turf to keep it safe. For the special weekend they uncovered two sites. It was exciting to see a real archeological dig.


This is the site of a cabin. The lady is sitting on what was the veranda and the road crosses in front where the big rock sits.

Before we left the Chinese Camp there was an ear-splitting display of fire crackers, then a traditional Dragon Dance. Unfortunately I have no photo to share of this, but it was colourful and very enjoyable.

Heading back into Lawrence we discovered where the stagecoach was leaving from. And the absolute highlight of my day (and my year!) was taking a ride.  As we bounced and jostled along the road I was back in time, wearing a long gown, and stuffed into a corset. It was so easy to imagine what a dirt road and greater speed would do for the ride: the smallest bump would be magnified and I'd be rattled to an inch of my life. The coaches are much narrower than you think and it felt quite cramped with four passengers, yet I know that six was the more common amount. The windows were paneless, but there were canvas blinds rolled up ready for use. So a wet or windy day would see you cut off from all views. The noise of the brake was much louder than I expected. A graunching, grating sound that at first had me wondering if the wheels were about to fall off. Now I am itching to write a scene where the heroine makes a journey on a stagecoach. 

Couldn't resist another photo!

Still smiling from the ride of a life time, we headed for Gabriel's Gully itself. There was a huge tent with many historic displays. There were book sales of historic books, which I had to be dragged from and genealogical displays for the different families in the area. 

From Oamaru were a contingent of penny farthing riders all decked out in Victorian apparel.  My parting photo is of one of their displays. A circular tent decked out in true Victorian style. A chamber pot discreetly (not) sat by the entrance and inside were two cots. Not in the photo is a little table by the centre pole, covered in white lace and holding camping essentials such as white gloves.  The epitome of Victoriana!

Note the white cloth under the candlesticks and shaving gear.
   We finished the day by eating a huge ice cream from the Lawrence corner dairy, while watching the final outing of the stagecoach. A truly awesome day.  

Saturday, March 19, 2011


This week is Otago Anniversary Weekend. Otago being the name of the Province I live in.  This year we are celebrating 150 years since Gabriel Read, newly arrived from the Australian goldfields, discovered gold at what is now named Gabriel's Gully, on 20th May 1861.

At that time Dunedin was a small, predominantly Scottish settlement. The gold rush that resulted from Gabriel's discovery turned Dunedin into a thriving, prosperous city. Miners flocked to Otago from all parts of the world and Dunedin was their first port of call.

Along with the miners came merchants, publicans, bankers, police and servants. And Dunedin became the wealthiest city in New Zealand.

Today I visited a re-enactment of a sailing ship arriving at Otago Harbour, bringing a shipload of people dressed in 1860s attire. When they dismbarked they were welcomed by the Town Crier and a lone Piper.

Then they made there way by foot or wagon to the city centre - the Octagon


The hub of the city, the Octagon, was closed to traffic and a shanty town had been erected. There were miners, merchants selling their wares out of tents, ladies enjoying cups of teas, a salvationist minster preaching fire and brimstone, a drunken heckler, Chinese immigrants playing mah-jong, musicians, and ladies of the night.

History came alive and for me it was like all my birthdays had come at once! Here's some more photos, I hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


We have three wonderful silver birches on our fence line and today as I hopped in the car I noticed the leaves had started to turn. In a week or so I expect the whole valley to be painted red, gold and bronze. I love the change of seasons, and my favourite is always the one we're just moving into!

The decent from autumn to winter is an awesome time. The days get shorter, the air is damp and filled with the aroma of mulching leaves and wood smoke. I get to wear my merino socks and gloves and drown myself in my woollen coat. The soup pot can come out of hiding and I can cross the 'watering plants' chore off my list.

And the best place to do all the reading a writer must do?  In front of the fire of course.

One of our cats has started storing up food for winter. Yesterday whilst sitting in the kitchen, with the door wide open, Captain delivered a very live mouse at my feet. And yes I leapt onto a chair!  The little rodent scuttled behind a dresser and hasn't been seen since. I only hope he has made it outside again.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


I've had this book on my shelf for several years and finally gave it a whirl. It's an engrossing children's story where the magical world of fairytales meets history.

London 1649: King Charles has been beheaded and Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads are in charge. Puritanism is the national religion and life is a sombre affair with no celebrations or frivolity. But then Coriander discovers a world of fairies and magic with a special pair of silver shoes.

Amid mysterious disappearances, evil ravens, a handsome prince and wicked step-mothers, Coriander must find her mother's shadow and defeat the wicked Queen. Finally, as England embraces a new King, Coriander's journey comes to a spell binding conclusion.

With its lyrical prose and cleverly executed suspense, this story had me entranced from the first page to the last word. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I thought it was about time I gave you an update on my Catlin's novel, just in case you thought I'd given up or left the country.

A scene from chapter two:
 Cargill monument in Custom House Sq. Dunedin
To be honest it is going slow: chapter three almost finished. Quite a bit of research has been going on too. As I get further in to the story my MC, Amelia, is becoming more life-like. Yesterday she stood up for herself and showed her iron will. I was suitably impressed! Theodore, however, is still a bit of an enigma.  Glimpses of him emerge and then he hides again, which makes him a mysterious sort of man. It suits him well.

One minor character who has leapt off the page is in fact a real historic character. I don't know much about her, just that she and her husband ran the Crown Hotel in the 1880s in Dunedin and that she was a wonderful cook and a well liked hostess. I've never written a 'real' character before and I'm thoroughly enjoying embellishing what I know and making her a fully rounded person. She has been just what Amelia needed to get her through the first 'crisis' of the story.

On the home front, life just seems to get busier. Teenagers are such social folk and my life tends to revolve around taxi duty, cooking and washing. They are a really helpful bunch and attend to their chores regularly, but I still wish I could divide myself in 2, 3, or maybe 4!!  JT could sit at her desk all day and all the other Sue clones could deal to the mundane. Oh well, dreams are free.

Friday, March 4, 2011


This is the second book in Sharon Penman's trilogy about Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Holding together a vastly spread kingdom, Henry raises his Chancellor and trusted friend to Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Beckett puts on the cloak of the most powerful religious leader in England and turns his back on Henry. Despite knowing Beckett's infamous departure from this life, the tension builds as the disagreements between these two powerful men unfold.

What I particularly enjoyed in this and her previous book 'When Christ and His Servants Slept', is the addition of a fictional character - Ranulf. Torn between his loyalty to the English Crown and his Welsh family his plight highlights the political climate of the era.

Sharon Penman adds flesh and blood to these shady historical figures and the Middle Ages emerge in full three dimensional colour. Her historical content is faultless and is paired with superb writing craft. Every word counts and she can convey so much in so few words. And best of all her characters leap off the page, full of life and breath and complex personalities.

This is an entry for the  2011 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Dunedin Wharf from Bell Hill 1862

I haven't written too much of my Catlins novel yet, but I have done a ton of research. In the process I have learnt some interesting things about my home town. One book in particular has opened my eyes to events that were completely unknown to me.

When searching the shelves at the Dunedin Public Library I came across a booklet: "The Maid Servants Scandal," by Olive Trotter. I thought: history and scandal, I need that! Once back home I skimmed the first page intending to give it my full attention later that week, but it grabbed me for the next hour.

Here's the first two paragraphs:

"Ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-cared for, one was starved to death; others were driven to desperate courses ... Who can fail to realize the misery of these poor girls, thrust into a filthy crowded building, then subjected to slow starvation? Who can wonder that they welcome any alternative that removes them from the wretched den?"

These dramatic words appeared in the Otago Daily times of 23 March 1863. They referred to the hundreds of girls who were given temporary lodging in the Dunedin Female Immigration Barracks, until they found positions as domestic servants.

After the gold rushes of the 1860s Dunedin merchants built impressive mansions with their newly acquired wealth. And mansions need domestic servants. From late 1862 ship loads of single girls arrived from Britain. 1,220 girls arrived in the first ten months.

Until such time as they were employed they needed to be housed. The Female immigration Barracks were located on what is now Police Street. The unglazed building was cold, lacked cooking, laundry and bathroom facilities and the bunks had no mattresses or blankets. There was a public pump twenty yards away on the main street and the toilet was on a steep slippery clay bank at the harbour's edge.

In the first months they were without chaperone and left to forage for food themselves - an almost impossible task for women on their own in that time. Later, a matron was employed to care for them and they were provided with bread, butter and tea twice a day.

I was fascinated and a little shocked by what I had unearthed, but I have to say a little germ of an idea has sprung to life in a dark corner of my muse. A Scottish girl sets sail for Dunedin, an orphan perhaps. She arrives to atrocious conditions ... and what if ... ?