My Work in Progress (Novel) Receives Highly Commended

ASA logo

I have had a few nail biting moments in recent weeks while waiting to hear from the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). I entered the first 10 pages of my manuscript into the ASA’s Emerging Writers’ and Illustrators’ Mentorship Program. Twelve mentorships (25 hours of mentorship with an author) were granted and up to five writers received a highly commended placement. These can be in any genre – fiction, non-fiction, children’s, young adult, poetry and graphic novels.

YES… I obtained a highly commended placement for my work currently called, ‘Who Was Natalie?’ As a result, I will receive a two hour mentorship and admission into two ASA Professional Development Programs. I can’t wait to work with an author and get their feedback and guidance on my work in progress. I look forward to attending some courses and building my knowledge. However, the best thing that I have taken from entering this competition is the acknowledgement that my writing is probably okay and there is hope for this story that I really want to tell.

And now the hard part begins. I have been given a boost of confidence and the drive to tackle the second draft of my novel (instead of dumping it into the bottom drawer with the other novel). Firstly, I will work on the structure of the novel and the plot to ensure my story has enough conflict and interest. I have five weeks holidays from teaching and am going to get stuck into this immediately. Then will come draft 3 and 4 and …

A huge congratulations to all the other recipients who must also feel like they’ve received an early Christmas present! I would also like to thank a couple of fellow writers. I didn’t quite feel ready to enter this competition but I sent my first draft to Karen Morrow and thank her for all her encouragement and input. Also, Brett Young, a local writer, who got straight to the point and offered some great writing advice. Writing in isolation for over a year on this project made it incredibly daunting to show it to anyone. I am so pleased the judges also saw something in my writing.

Eventually, when I get to put my work forward to publishers with the tag of ‘highly commended’ I hope it will urge them to take a closer look. I think about those judges lining up 219 works and selecting mine from that pile. I keep re-reading the last line of the ASA letter: ‘Congratulations on being commended in such a competitive program.’ It makes me want to write, write, write and get this story out there. My head is teeming with ideas and my heart full of desire to tell you Natalie’s story.

Here is the link to the ASA and you can also read the assessor’s report.

https://www.asauthors.org/australian-society-of-authors

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…

A few years ago when my siblings and I were cleaning out my parents’ family home of fifty five years I came across an item that I had never seen before. As a child, we had explored every nook and cranny of that big old Federation home in Sydney. We left no cupboard unexplored, no drawer unscrutinised. So when climbing a ladder to reach the very top shelf in the linen cupboard, I was pleasantly surprised.

There’s just something intriguing about wooden boxes. They’re a place to keep precious or treasured items. I stood on my perch, rubbed my hands across its grainy surface reading the words. California Chocolates. I guessed they were from California until I ventured more closely and saw that they were available at exclusive retail stores across Sydney. Written in clear block letters was, MADE IN AUSTRALIA.

That’s good, I thought to myself as I climbed down and ventured to open the box. I was greeted with that stale, musty aroma, similar to that of old books. Oh how I love that smell! Inside were bundles of yellowed sheets that were the perfect size for the box. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that they were the receipts for my parents’ mortgage, beginning in 1958. Every single receipt was arranged into groups, gathered with an elastic band, oldest to newest, until the house was paid off five years later, with the help of leasing out rooms to various tenants. In between the layers of receipts was a typed letter from the solicitor discharging the mortgage. Looking at the date in 1962, I realise that fourteen months after the mortgage was paid out, they had their first of four children.

California plus receipts (2)

So the California Chocolate box is now in my possession. My siblings could see how enamoured I was at discovering this piece of my family history and knew that I would treasure it. (I also thought that it would be a terrific motivator to make me pay off my own mortgage!) After a year of renovating my new home, I finally unpacked the chocolate box, opened it up, breathed in its contents and placed it on one of my shelves. Not long afterwards, we had our older neighbours over for a drink. I chatted away to June who told me all about her mother’s antiques. I brought up about how I like boxes and I found an old wooden chocolate box at my parents’ house.

June matter-of-factly said, “Oh yes, that would’ve been a California Chocolate Box. Everyone was given a California Chocolate Box for a wedding gift and you would keep your mortgage receipts in it.”

I was dumbfounded. What an amazing little piece of Australian social history I may have come across. And from that point onwards I knew that I would have to include that chocolate box in my novel. And so off I went and did some research.

Each city had their own famous chocolatiers. Melbourne had Hillier’s and Newman’s. Sydney had Alexander’s and California. Adelaide had Ritz then Haigh’s. The California boxes themselves were made of redwood and considered to be fashionable. The cream-filled contents were guaranteed to be packed perfectly so that you could send a parcel of California Chocolates anywhere and they would arrive safely. The perfect gift for Christmas, weddings, births anniversaries etc, contained an exclusive variety and flavour of chocolate that was unique to California and of course to Sydney.

In 1922, Fred Rice returned from the United States with a bundle of secret recipes and a store of Californian redwood boxes. Not long afterwards another man bought the business but sent it broke within a few years. Mr Doctor bought the company in 1940 and it stayed in the family until 1977. His son and wife expanded the business until production costs made it less viable to continue making chocolates by hand. So instead of switching to automation the small empire consisting of the Alexandria factory and all eight stores passed into history. Many buyers and sentimentalists gathered to watch the auction.

Very little of this research ends up in my book but instead creates the backbone to a crucial point in my main character’s life. In the book, we see how she has worked extremely hard to pay off the Australian dream. Housing was in shortage in the 1940s and 50s.Natalie and her husband took on borders and tenants to help pay off their own mortgage. It was not easy having other people live in your house when you were newly married. They took turns cooking in the kitchen. They shared one small bathroom.

I see Natalie, as I can envisage my parents. Firstly, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden box. Then relishing every single one of those sweet delights. I can imagine how they felt placing the last receipt into that box and putting it somewhere safe. My mother tucked it away into the deepest and highest shelf in the linen cupboard. There it sat for over fifty years. A symbol of achievement. A representation of freedom. A tiny piece of Australian history.

Research: The Trocadero Sydney 1930s and 1940s

The Trocadero 1930s and 1940s

I am currently spending many hours researching for a historical fiction novel that I am writing. It is set in Sydney and spans the decades, starting in the 1930s. My father often reminisced about dancing in the 1950s at The Trocadero or as the locals called it, The Troc. It was referred to as a dance palace and restaurant, not a dance hall or club. The classy ‘Palais de Dance’ on George Street (now the site of the Hoyts Cinema) was the place to go to for a good night out. I really wanted this iconic piece of Sydney’s history to feature in my novel.

Troc 40s

My main character loves to dance and listen to music. She is a seamstress and makes beautiful clothing, when she can afford the fabric. So I needed to find out if The Trocadero opened before the fifties and if so what it was like during the forties and WW2. I discovered that it was built during the hard-hitting times of the 1930s. It’s astounding to think that in the midst of The Great Depression, at a cost of £150,000, a man named Jim Bendrodt opened its grand Art Deco doors on 3rd April, 1936. I can only imagine what it would have been like to wait for friends outside its unmistakable 1930’s facade. Walking into the foyer with its marble floors and polished granite walls would have instantly cast you into the world of modern grandeur. Large relief murals of famous dancers and fleur- de-lis carpet. Colours of scarlet and gold, all typical of the Art Deco style.

My research also revealed that The Trocadero was alive and well in the wartime years of the 1940s, catering to those in search of a good night as well as all the American servicemen who came to protect our shores. This was the era of swing and jazz. In the forties, this was the place to do the jitterbug, made so popular by those handsome yanks. It was where patrons could pay a small entry fee for hours of entertainment. Big names such as Artie Shaw appeared in 1943 with his American Navy Band. This was the time of the Big Bands and here you would swing to its very own, the All Girl Trocadero Band led by Frank Coughlin. (Take a look at the Australian Women’s History Forum blog post that describes one of the band members, Hilda Tansey: http://womenshistory.net.au/2006/02/15/hilda-tansey/)

In my novel, I have my main character ‘swinging’ with a man she just meets who later becomes her husband. She walks into The Trocadero with her two girlfriends, and is literally swept off her feet by Billy:

She listens to the music. One hand finds her lower back, the other flicks her out. The rhythms tell her what to do, how to move. Nellie follows his eyes, he angles in towards her and she leans in too. A little skip on the spot and the two of them clap in time, spin again before facing each other, clasping hands. Her hips swing and her fluted skirt swirls above her knees. His smile broadens. They gravitate towards the centre of the dance floor. Around she goes, hips in tempo with the music. He releases her hand completely and she twirls through the space around them. There are cheers from the gathering crowds. For those harmonious moments there is no war and Nellie feels like a star.

 ***

After all that swinging, jiving and jitterbugging it was time for a refreshment. There wasn’t  any alcohol served at The Trocadero until the sixties. Instead there was a milk bar and two refreshment bars selling non-alcoholic beverages and specialty sundaes!

The Trocadero’s history is an interesting and colourful one and I hope to take you there again, to  the fifties and sixties. But that’s another blog post. In the meantime, back to the forties and writing that novel.