Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Work In Progress

Today I completed the first draft of my work in progress.

There's still a long way to go, including several more drafts and a good deal of further research, but for the moment I'm enjoying the euphoria of having typed, "The End".

A celebration is in order.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mining Country

On our way back from Opotiki we stopped for the night in the Karangahake Gorge, an old gold-mining area that has some nice walks.

It's a lovely, peaceful setting, with the hills gradually being reclaimed by the forest, and the mining ruins weathered with age.

We left the main track alongside the Ohinemuri River, and followed the course of the Waitawheta. It's a stunningly beautiful walk along paths carved into the hillside, with a fresh view around each bend. In places the path goes through a tunnel, with holes (the "windows" that give this section of the walk its name) cut into the rock overlooking the stream.

This lovely place was very different a century ago, when mining was at its height. The little village of Karangahake was a town then, where the Waitawheta flows into the Ohinemuri, with shops, hotels and dance halls; it was busy, bustling, and above all noisy. These paths weren't cut for walkers, but for the miners and their machinery.

Gold mining here was not the alluvial mining that conjures overly romanticised visions of gold panners by rushing streams, searching for that elusive glitter amongst the pebbles and sand. These steep hills were threaded with tunnels—the slope on the right of this picture had more than a dozen levels of them one above the other, carved deep into the hillside.

Ore was brought from the tunnels in wagons that ran along rails down to Karangahake for processing, and the walking paths have such an easy gradient because they were built for those wagons. Those rock windows with their lovely views were cut for the miners to heave waste rock down into the Waitawheta River below.

Karangahake did not give up its gold readily. It meant crushing the ore in stamper batteries powered by coal-fed engines, pounding it into a fine powder, then using cyanide to extract the gold. Those batteries roared and thundered, shaking the ground, and the air must have left a foul taste with each breath. Some workers died of phthisis from the ever-present dust.

In Settling the Account I send a character into this Blakean vision; a fifteen-year-old farm boy who's spent his life roaming around the bush and the paddocks, never far from the sea, used to a wide horizon and to a palette of green and blue. I'd always known coming here must have been a shock to him, but until this visit I'd never quite appreciated just how terrifying such a place would have been. I now picture him standing at the entry to one of those deep tunnels, perhaps for some time too terrified to move. Stepping into that black, yawning mouth was one of the bravest things he ever did.

I strongly suspect he never did tell his mother just how dreadful it was. He wouldn't have wanted to upset her.

The history of one of the Karangahake mines, with some old photographs, here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ruatane in Real Life: My Old Home Town

The wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty stretched to the edge of Amy’s sight, and straight in front of her ocean met sky all along the horizon, broken only by White Island with its constant puff of smoke.

- Sentence of Marriage, Chapter 1

Many small bays and harbours are held within that wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty. I slipped in one more, and called it Ruatane.

Ruatane is my own invention, but it's inspired by the real-life small town of Opotiki. Earlier this month I paid a visit to my old home town.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

1908 - travelling on the Main Trunk Line

Building the North Island's Main Trunk Railway Line was an enormous task for New Zealand. It took more than twenty years to complete the 680 kilometre line from Wellington to Auckland, through some challenging landscapes. The line was officially opened in November 1908, but the first train to travel its length was several months earlier. On 7 August 1908 a group of parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward, boarded the train in Wellington. The track wasn't quite finished, but those politicians really wanted to get to Auckland. The engineer in charge was offered £1,000 (a lot of money in 1908) to get the line finished in time for this August journey. The train and its passengers survived a section of temporary, unballasted track, and the politicians got to Auckland after a journey of 20 hours.

And why were they so keen to get to Auckland? The attraction was Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, a massive naval deployment and a major news story of its day. The politicians made it to Auckland in time for the Fleet's arrival on 9 August.

These days one can fly between the two cities in less than an hour, or drive the distance in around nine hours, but in the early years of the 20th century this 20-hour journey (reduced to a mere 18 hours in 1909) was a huge improvement over the long sea journey or going by stage coach.

The Main Trunk Line was a major achievement, but it still left many provincial areas isolated, including the Bay of Plenty. Rail did not reach the central Bay of Plenty till 1928, and got no further east than Taneatua, near Whakatane. The proposed link through to Gisborne was never achieved. My fictional Ruatane never did get a rail link.

I'm currently at a section in my work-in-progress where a character has to travel from Ruatane to Wellington. It means taking the coastal steamer to Auckland (which means going north when his destination is south), then the train to Wellington. Even this long, somewhat convoluted journey is a great improvement on the trip he would have had to make before 1908.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tarawera Eruption - 125th Anniversary

On 10 June 1886 Mount Tarawera erupted, killing over 100 people. Ash darkened the sky, and earthquakes were felt over a wide area.

More on Tarawera can be found here.

The Pink and White Terraces, destroyed in the eruption, were a major tourist attraction of the day. Recently it's emerged that the Pink Terrace may still exist, deep under Lake Rotomahana. Just this morning I heard on the radio that the White Terrace, too, may have been found.

In my book Mud and Gold, Frank doesn't realise that it's the distant eruption causing the earthquakes giving Lizzie and him a broken night. Something rather closer to home is claiming his attention:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Passchendaele remembered

Recently I've been reading Glyn Harper's superb account of the New Zealand experience of Passchendaele. I've written here before about the Battle of Passchendaele and its horrific toll on New Zealanders.

This current reading came close to home—quite literally. At the back of the book is a list of names from the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery. To quote Harper: "The memorial bears the names of 1,179 New Zealanders who fell in the Passchendaele battles and whose bodies were never recovered."

I was going through this list, noting ages and what I could glean of personal circumstances, when the address of a next-of-kin sprang off the page. It's a short walk from our little apartment in town, in an area with many surviving Victorian houses, and a place I've walked past hundreds of times.

This house was built in the 1880s, and its exterior looks to have survived relatively unchanged. In October 1917 a telegram arrived for the widow who lived here. It told her that her son had been killed on the other side of the world. He was one of the 17,000 New Zealanders killed in the Great War.

I'll think of that young man, and of his grieving mother, every time I walk past her house.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chivalry of the Ovine Kind

We have a flock of six sheep: five ewes and one wether. They're quite tame; even the most skittish (Scaredy) doesn't mind our presence, especially when we're handing out treats, and several will eat from our hands. Their purpose in life is to eat, and they're easily moved about from orchard to paddock, wherever the grass is longest.

The wether is the oldest of them. We're not sure how old he is, but he already looked fairly elderly when he came to live here several years ago. He still eats heartily, and is quite active, although he moves stiffly (hence his name, Limpy). We've had him checked out, and there's nothing obviously wrong with him. It's probably something in the nature of arthritis.

A few evenings ago I went outside to gather rosemary, and saw the sheep behaving as if something was up. The ewes were tightly bunched, as sheep like to be when threatened, but Limpy was several sheep lengths in front of them, standing firm and ready to face off whatever the threat was.

It proved to be the very small dog that belongs to our nearest neighbours, and which gives the impression it would have trouble injuring a teddy bear. I doubt if the sheep were really frightened, and they were certainly in no real danger. But Limpy takes his responsibilities seriously. He may not know quite what to do with his harem, but he does know he must look after them.

It's the thought that counts.

Here they are enjoying fresh pasture:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Amazon at Last

After much delay, my e-books are available in the Kindle Store. They got off to a good start on Amazon UK, where they've been bouncing in and out of the Top 100 of the Historical Fiction category, have a recommendation thread in the forums, and a five-star review by a Top 1000 reviewer. Things are going more quietly so far on Amazon.com, where I've yet to have any reviews, but it's early days still.

My Amazon pages:


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beware of illicit book listings

Today a very nice person took the trouble to let me know that my free ebook, Sentence of Marriage, was being offered for sale under another person's name on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. I've contacted Customer Service at both sites, and have posted warnings to any prospective purchasers in the Reviews section, so this person shouldn't receive any financial reward for such nefarious activity.

My ebooks aren't yet available on Amazon. I very much wish they were, but the arrangement to distribute Smashwords books on Amazon has suffered repeated delays. I'm still waiting patiently. In the meantime, they're available at several retailers, including Barnes & Noble, as well as at the Smashwords site. And to reiterate: the first one is free.

It's worth being suspicious if something about a book seems not quite right; in this case, the fact that the author's name on the Amazon listing doesn't match the name (mine) inside the book. An observant reader noticed this when sampling the book. It illustrates the power of readers - I discovered this thanks to readers, not any sort of authority.

While I'm indignant that someone has tried to take ownership of my work in this way, I'm hugely grateful to the person who started a thread about this in the Amazon UK forums, the person who contacted me, and all the people who've responded so positively. I'm left feeling far more warm and fuzzy about the actions of so many good people than annoyed by the actions of one ratbag.

Update: Amazon UK has taken down the illicit book (I'm sure it helped that at least one person who'd bought this version contacted Customer Service for a refund when she realised the situation). It's still on Amazon.com, but is showing as unavailable for purchase.

Further update: It's now been taken down from both Amazon sites. Hurrah for helpful and observant readers!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Charlotte Brontë's New Zealand connection

I've known for a long time that a friend of Charlotte Brontë's settled in New Zealand, and I recalled a rather non-committal quote from one of her letters: "It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book". It sounds like the sort of thing someone might say when obliged to read a friend's book not necessarily to the reader's taste. I came across this quote again recently, and decided to look for more details of Mary Taylor's connection with Charlotte Brontë, and of Mary's life in New Zealand.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail

Ever since making the acquaintance of Mrs Croft in Persuasion, I've been intrigued by the idea of a woman living in such a thoroughly male environment as a naval ship, at a time when the spheres of men and women were far more strictly defined than today. So I was drawn to this account by New Zealand historian Joan Druett of captains' wives on sailing ships in the 19th century. It covers a period a little later than Mrs Croft's, and these were commercial vessels rather than naval, but conditions must have been similar in many ways.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Zealand's oldest bookstore in strife

Just a day after Borders filed for bankruptcy in the US, New Zealand book retailer Whitcoulls has gone into voluntary administration. There's no common ownership between the two companies, but the problems they face are similar.

Whitcoulls is one of New Zealand's oldest companies. It began in Christchurch as Whitcombe & Tombs, one of the first companies to be registered under the Companies Act of 1882. In 1973 it was renamed Whitcoulls, after a merger with another company.

As a child, growing up in a country town with little in the way of books for sale, a visit to Whitcombe and Tombs (and yes, this was so long ago that the company still had its old name) in Auckland or Wellington was a huge treat. For purely sentimental reasons, I'd be sad to see those stores close down; all the more so since Whitcoulls now has my e-books on their website. But survival in the age of Amazon, particularly with the high price of books in New Zealand, will be a real challenge.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The A & P Show

The Agricultural and Pastoral Show has been an annual event in many parts of New Zealand for over 150 years. In some places they're now quite heavily commercialised, and marketed as a tourist attraction to city folk, but some are much closer to their origins.

Warkworth is a small town north of Auckland, named for Warkworth in Northumberland. Their show is one that's kept much of the flavour of the old A & P Shows, as we found when we went there in late January.

There were stalls with farming machinery; a wider range of food than my characters would have recognised; and a few rides for the children. But the competitions for jams and preserves would have been familiar to Amy and Lizzie, and children were enjoying old-fashioned games like sack races. And a large area of the grounds was devoted to what was the most important part of the original A & P shows: the livestock.

Those 19th century farmers would have been taken aback by one group of livestock; alpacas might have looked like sheep in fancy dress to them:

But the Show had a good turn-out of cattle, and judges who gave expert advice on breeding lines and care of stock. And owners who are no doubt as proud as the Victorians were:

More on A & P Shows, and an account of an early one from my own Mud and Gold, here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rediscovering the Pink Terrace

The Pink and White Terraces, beautiful silica formations that were a great New Zealand tourist attraction in the 19th century, were destroyed in the 1886 Tarawera Eruption.

At least we thought they were. The Pink Terrace has been discovered, or at least part of it has, on the floor of Lake Rotomahana.

At 60 metres deep, the terrace isn't easily accessible. But it's nice to know it's still there.