The Spirit of Varuna

Yesterday evening saw me ensconsed on the couch of the Varuna loungeroom, quilt on my knee and fire in the grate. Peter (the) Bishop, Gabrielle Stroud and I spent one of the best hours of my writing life discussing our projects, the universe and everything.

Picture of Varuna - the Writer's House
Ensconsed at Varuna

Peter observed that when writing a project, we are  in conversation with an eclectic assortment of people. These people are a non-corporeal yet tangible presence who influence and inspire our writing. They are not our intended readers nor our inner critic; they are sometimes no longer living or based only in memory. Yet they are those who are invoked by and crucial for the developing story.

Those present to my work-in-progress Evangel include girls from my (heavily religious) high school, my long-gone and much-loved grandfather, and Margot, a friend who struggled with mental illness and met a tragic end. I am haunted, not by memories but by deeply embossed impressions of injustice, trauma, courage, and beauty.

As Gabi says (attributing it to Noni Hazelhurst), we need a touchpoint to evoke the emotion of a scene. My touchpoints for Evangel are tender. It’s hard  to  delve in, press, and explore. Yet, the fascination to converse with the unburied souls around this project keeps me showing up to the page each day.

Peter’s insight and encouragement gives me the audacity necessary to just. keep. writing. The extraordinary mentorship and companionship of Peter, Gabi Stroud, Gabi Wang, Meg Mundell, and Avril Carruthers has carried the spirit of Eleanor Dark to me over these past two incredible weeks. Thank you, all. I can’t wait to read your Varuna projects when they hit the shelves.

Limitless Varuna sky

And I am once again astounded, humbled and filled with gratitude by where following this passion for writing takes me.

Top Five for Crime

The lovely Liss at Northern Rivers Writers Centre did a quick interview with me for the August edition of their Northerly Magazine. Here’s a snippet, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on adding to the list.

Oh, but first, a little taste of paradise…

picture of Byron Bay Writers Festival 2012
Byron Bay Writers Festival 2012

What are your top 5 tips for Crime writers?

1. Read widely and think deeply to understand the different sub-genres within crime and thriller literature.

2. Know where your story meets or subverts reader expectations.

3. Practice writing in short, medium, and long form.

4. Connect with crime and thriller communities, like Sisters in Crime, and with writing centres like NRWC.

5. Put your work out to carefully selected critiquing buddies and beta readers to develop confidence and strengthen your writing.

Research for Crime Fiction

You know when you have a little idea sitting in the back of your brain that just won’t go away? And it builds up so much detail and energy that it demands to be shared? And then, when you finally say it out loud (or by email), suddenly there’s this rapid dominoes effect and the idea is actually happening, a real thing, out in the world?!

I had one of those last year. I dreamed up a workshop for writers to explore ideas and information to create cracking crime stories. To my surprise and utter delight, the workshop was a hit.

This year, I had another idea to take the workshop in a new direction. I approached the Queensland Police Museum to see if they would host it. After all, what better place to learn about juicy resources for crime writers!

picture of a display from Queensland Police Museum
QPM: crime story ideas

I have just spoken to the curator of the Queensland Police Museum, the awesome Lisa Jones, to organise final details for next Saturday. Lisa has confirmed that for the ‘hands on’ part of my workshop, in addition to our tour of the museum, we will also have a BACKSTAGE PASS to all the good stuff behind the scenes at QPM.

From an overview of crime fiction subgenres and how they set your research agenda, through finding useful resources, to letting your muse loose in a room full of artefacts – there’s nothing like devoting a whole day to thinking, writing, touching, breathing ideas for your stories.

If you’d like to come along and join the fun, you can book online here, or call Queensland Writers Centre on 07 3842 9922.

  • Research for Crime Fiction workshop
  • Saturday 16 June 2012, 10:30am to 4:30pm
  • Info: Any crime fiction author will tell you the secret to compelling crime is in the details. Learn how to access primary and secondary research resources to find great ideas for your crime writing, and to flesh them into gripping stories. Meg Vann will show you how to best locate and engage crime experts for advice, and at what point in your project to consult them. You will explore creative writing techniques and structures to prompts and strengthen your use of research, and develop a research action plan for your own crime story premise.

Inspiration and consolation

Thanks to everyone who has submitted a shero for the page. Today I’ve added Mary Wollstonecraft and Murasaki Shikibu. Check ’em out!

I’ve heard from a few people that when they read something anti-women, they load up the Sheroes page to inspire and console themselves. I know I do – since starting this page just last week, I’ve learned about a range of incredible women. And I’ve realised that is it not just courage and intellect these sheroes demonstrate – often, it is a deft and devastating humour as well.

Huzzah for awesome women being awesome!

Keep your Sheroes suggestions coming – just use the contact form on the Sheroes page, or catch me on Facebook or Twitter.


Have you noticed a greater-than-average serve of women-baiting and women-hating in the media of late? My Facebook and Twitter feeds are clogged with examples.

Peanuts Cartoon image: Lucy Van Pelt boxing Linus

And in the face of it, there are so many amazing women demonstrating grace, strength and intellect.

So I’ve decided to start collecting and celebrating them. You’ll find a new page at mamaguilt now: Sheroes. Please let me know a woman who is rocking your world, and why. We want to see pictures, read links, and understand why this woman is inspiring you, so please use the contact form on the Sheroes page to let me know – I’ll share it, and acknowledge your contribution.

Sheroes: rocking my world since Lucy Van Pelt.

And my Nana.

‘Provocation’ and gratitude.

I have wanted to write since before I could read. And for six years now, I have been writing regularly. I’ve studied creative writing at uni and my local writers centre, joined a wonderful writing group, and convened another. I’ve written two long-form manuscripts, won some development grants, and had the opportunity to show my work to agents and publishers. I have enjoyed guidance and encouragement from so many generous and talented writers, as well as endless support from family and friends. But I have never been published.

Until now.

My story ‘Provocation’ was published last week in The Review of Australian Fiction. That is my name there in Volume 1, next to amazing authors like Kim Wilkins and Christos Tsiolkas and PM Newton. Pinch me!

‘Provocation’ is a psychological thriller. A young woman recovering from anorexia is covertly stalked by an inappropriately devoted security guard at her dream job. This middle-aged man has access to her every move, and an array of rationalisations to justify his increasing surveillance. Her uniquely disordered thinking becomes her best defence. But the stress triggers deepening psychosis, leading to an endgame where meaning and motive are as murky as the depths of a river in flood.

‘Provocation’ grew from a couple of ideas that kept haunting me. If you haven’t read ‘Provocation’ and think you might be interested, I would encourage you to head on over and do so before reading on here – there are no actual spoilers, but themes explored in this post may influence the way you experience the story…

Firstly, the story is dedicated in loving memory of a real-life young woman who was killed by covert violence. Her stalker had been court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, and he put two and two together, loitering around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there alone, literally gasping for relief.

Her death was not recorded as murder. As far as I can find out, no charges were laid,  and no action taken. (I’ve blogged about this incident, and the cathartic power of the crime narrative, in my Reading Girlhood post over at Sisters of the Pen).

The other major idea arose after the 2011 Brisbane floods. During the clean-up, I learned the library and gallery at South Bank are connected by subterranean loading docks that formed a massive underground whirlpool when the river broke its banks. The security cameras kept rolling as industrial bins were swept away like tin cans, ramming into those huge portable walls used in galleries. Fish, furniture, trash and rubble were carried from the basement of one building and deposited in far reaches of the next. I made several unauthorised tours of those docks, and there are some spooky places and machines down there, let me tell you!

Library in FloodQueensland State Library during 2011 floods
*image courtesy QPS

‘Provocation’ has no flood event, but is set in a building that was recently inundated. Those giant, interconnecting docks play an important role both as labyrinth and metaphor.

Inspired by these ideas, I formed a story premise, deciding to challenge and extend my craft – after two manuscripts in first person point of view, I wanted to write in third person with multiple viewpoint characters. I also wanted to experiment with tense, changing from past to present for the climax. And I needed a break from long-form fiction and humorous crime, so was drawn to the thriller novelette: ten thousand words to develop and deliver a lyrical story? Heaven!

As I tell my students, writing is a valid and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself. I don’t write with the expectation of being published. But it feels great to have developed a career as far as this significant milestone.

I love writing so much, in so many ways. I am profoundly grateful to all the people who have supported me to get this far, and just so thankful that I get to write.

Why Eva Cox rocks

I scored a ticket to TedxBrisbane this year. Have you been to a TED? It’s a full-day event shaped to bring you in touch with social, cultural and technical innovators around the world – and especially in your own home town. Tickets are free, and won by a seemingly magical application-slash-lottery system. All meals are included – even good quality coffee.

The TEDx experience is immersive. You turn up at 8:30am to be ushered through a brilliant and precise schedule featuring 15 speakers. All speakers follow the same format, parading the diversity of ideas without any frills to dress them up. Then, sometime after the evening mixer, you staggerfloat away into the night, exhausted, drifting in a sparkling kaleidoscopic vision of humanity. Excuse the poetry; there’s just no plain way to express it.

Every part of this TEDx event was designed around principles of connection and hope, built on a strong foundation of social entrepreneurship (where resourcing initiative takes the place of charity). I met some fascinating attendees in the giant marquee on the GOMA lawn that beautiful Brissy Saturday. And the speakers were an eclectic and exciting mix. The emotional and intellectual standouts for me were:

  • Edward Harran blew my mind with his prescient insights into the K/no(w)mad generations.
  • Andrew Bartlett broke the standard format by choosing to spend his 18 TEDminutes in a heartrending and enlightening discussion with invited guest, Mr Hassan, an Afghan refugee.
  • A bible bashing eco-feminist who shall remain nameless pissed me off mightily with her patronising prostheltysing infommercial, which managed to strike a perfect balance between both ego- and guilt-tripping. (I felt bad having such a negative reaction to one of the few women on the program, but there you go.)
  • Jeff Waldman brought joy to my heart with his swing project – he hangs swings around the world, made from rope and wood or whatever he can find. Swings bring joy, Jeff says, and nobody is above a push.
But the best, the very best and mightiest of all was Eva Cox. Yes, folks, I was actually in the same room as Australia’s preeminent social change activist and feminist political visionary! Well, actually, I was in a room with her giant Skyped face on a screen. (Cheers, airline, for grounding my shero out-of-town on the big day).
eva cox
Eva Cox, rockin' her trademark turtleneck

Eva spoke elegantly and simply about what could be summed up as Stuff That Matters Most. Her take home message was “We need to start paying for what we care about, instead of caring about what we pay for”. As they put it in this terrific article over at JosephMark: how to prioritise social good rather than economic growth.

It was not only the content of Eva’s speech that made it special. There was also this one moment… One of those moments when time hung still, everyone in the room suspended in a shared epiphany.

Eva, at 73, was clearly new to the whole Skyptacular microphone/headset thang, so she was gesticulating and bumping the mic a fair bit, as newbs do. She was talking about Stuff That Matters Most in a disarmingly me-to-you way; no preaching, no talking down to us. Her face was projected onto a screen the size of a public pool. We sat in a banked auditorium that practically tipped each one of us into her digital lap. It was intimate somehow; despite the pixellations and delays, her address felt direct and oddly disintermediated.

She’d been talking for maybe 5 minutes, and was starting to warm up, to really relax and get comfortable. Eva alternated between looking straight at the camera – straight at us – with occasional downward glances, or sometimes raising her gaze thoughtfully to the ceiling. She followed the ‘no notes’ TED rule, speaking off-the-cuff, from her heart and mind and guts and dare I say it, balls.

Then Eva Cox said this: “People are much more difficult to look after than money, so why do we pay people who look after money so much more than we pay people who look after people?”

And for some reason, that struck a chord with us. A chord you could actually hear; one that began in the front row and rippled up the tiered seating like a Flamenco guitar riff. 500 of us in the main venue, plus 100s of TEDx folks in the adjoining auditoriums, all clapping and murmuring our approval.

Eva kept talking, eyes lowered, the Skype connection buffering her awareness of our response.

And our response kept growing, refusing to fade away as applause usually does. It grew into that wild, footstomping kind of applause, like an audience demanding an encore at the end of a stadium gig. Our murmurs turned to full-throated cheers, spiked with wolf whistles and ululations. Many of us found ourselves lifted to our feet in a standing ovation.

Then Eva Cox looked up.

She looked into her computer screen at home and saw us: auditoriums full of folks she didn’t know, thousands of miles away, all moved beyond measure at her stunningly simple observations about such complex and difficult issues. Borne of her truths, the sentient connection between us all was palpable, and Eva sensed it, and it stopped her in her tracks. She paused, looked surprised, looked away, looked back at us. Cleared her throat. Smiled a shy smile, fumbled for the thread of her thoughts, looked down again, still smiling to herself. Then she shot us a glance, clear-eyed and determined, and quickly picked up where she left off, carrying on with her amazing TEDx presentation.

That day, I saw Eva Cox take on a new and tricky situation, fly by the seat of her pants, speak her regular startling truths, and stay open to the fact that one person in one moment can harness the energy required for significant social  change. She is a living legend and a force to be reckoned with, yet I have seen Eva Cox blush.

And that’s why Eva Cox rocks.

Deadly Sex

Yesterday, Sisters in Crime (Brisbane Chapter) met to discuss a topic dear to our hearts and loins: sex in crime fiction.

I’m sure State Library patrons were wondering what the hell was going on behind the QWC acoustic curtain! As the Sisters shared sexcerpts from our works-in-progress, there were moments of graphic or inventive terminology (acroposthion, anyone?), as well as plenty of laughter, from shy giggles to howls of hilarity.

Some SinC writers prefer their fictional sex explicit, while others enjoy the tension more than the consummation. Some like it romantic, others deviant, or both! Most like it female-driven. We all agreed it was important that sex scenes worked as hard as any other scene to develop conflict (i.e. plot) and character – in most crime fiction,  a sex scene that existed purely to titillate would fall flat (apart from in some crime/erotica*).

We discussed the challenges in writing about sex:

  • finding fresh and non-objectifying ways to evoke sex scenes,
  • meeting readers’ generic expectations about the level of detail,
  • knowing when to resolve/consummate the build-up of URST** (especially tricky for writers of series titles – who else lost interest when Stephanie Plum finally got it on with Ranger?).

Of course, the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards got a mention: everyone agreed the 2010 winner was well-chosen for this line: ‘Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.’


We also reflected on how difficult it was for us to share our sexcerpts. The women around the table were all mature, confident and experienced. And SinC is a supportive environment of skilled and encouraging critique buddies. Yet most of us felt a level of embarrassment when reading our sex scenes.

The meeting was a wonderful and empowering forum for better Deadly Sex.  I’d be really interested to know what crime writers you think write sex scenes well – please let me know in a comment, so I can check them out!


* which I hereby dub “Crimrot”. Not because it’s rotten – I’m all for it! But people who know me know I just have a thing for inventing portmanteau words.

**Unresolved Sexual Tension

Byron Bay, here I come!

I am heading down to Byron Bay to chair the Nuts and Bolts Workshop tomorrow, Thursday 4 August.  A full day event,  I’ll be working with amazing people such as Lis Bastian from Varuna House, Stephanie Smith from HarperVoyager, Simon Groth from if:book Australia, and wonderful authors Kim Falconer and Fiona McIntosh. They’ll be dishing the inside story on writing and publishing. Can’t wait!byron bay writers festival logoInterested in coming along? Tickets available here. It’s going to be awwwwwesome!

Crime Writers Go Tribal

One day, I will make it to Harrogate for the Annual Crime Writing Festival, “Europe’s largest gathering of crime writers” (according to The Guardian). Which is happening RIGHT NOW, by the way.

Yep, I’m sitting here in my Brisbane loungeroom while mere continents away, PD James is being honoured with a veteran award, the Crime Novel of the Year is being announced, and thousands of crime writers and readers are generally festivalling like mad.

It’s just not right! I should be there!

The freak nature/nurture confluence that moulded this dedicated crime fic tragic instilled in me, from a tender age, a deep compulsion to know everything there is to know about my home genre. And there’s only so much of that goal I can achieve from my wi-fied microsuede bullet-proof couch.

But look! It’s Sisters in Crime to the rescue!

Logo for SheKilda Again 2011

Australian and international crime writers will gather in Melbourne for SheKilda Again on 7-9 October. 

The Plot: To celebrate women’s crime writing on the page and screen and bring a collective critical eye to the field.

The Motive: To mark the 20th anniversary of Sisters in Crime Australia Inc by a 500-strong gathering that brings together women writers, true crime practitioners and those who enjoy women’s crime writing.

Oh happy, happy days. My tribe is gathering, and I am SO there.