Tag Archives: research

Sea Monkeys, Sunny Boys & Skylab: Writing the 1970s

Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a childCoverfinalmedRES in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.

1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.

And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.

I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling SunnyBoyout “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.

That’s what I thought, in the beginning.


Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.

While I was writing, doubts started creeping in. Like … Hang on a minute – did we say canteen or kiosk back then? Yeah but specifically at the drive-in. Which I never actually went to, on account of not having a car.

And hang on, now that I think about it – I’ve got Frankie, my 12-year-old protagonist, saying On account of, but we’d never have said that back then. And hang on hang on! Did we even say hang on? Or was it hold on? Hang on is American! Or is it? Americanisms weren’t as common, then. When did they start creeping in? seamonkeys

Once I had disappeared down this rabbit hole, there was no going back. I realised that a lot of the language I’d given Frankie was wrong, anachronistic.

I guess so. Same as always. Tell me about it. Come help.

Cue gnashing of teeth, and asking of Twitter. Cue re-writing.

I suppose so. The same as always. Derr, Freddie. Come and help.

These are small things aren’t they? And contemporary young readers aren’t going to know the difference. So why did I bother?

Because having realised it was wrong, I couldn’t not bother. I couldn’t not try and get it at least as right as possible. Because not only does language matter fundamentally, but also because having realised this was wrong made me wonder what else might be. What other errors had I made unthinkingly because I ‘knew’ this period so well, because I had lived it, overlooking the obvious fact that memories are slippery little suckers and that mine are unavoidably stamped by all the years between then and now?

And because getting this seemingly small thing as right as possible had ripple effects for the writing. Getting the language right dropped me more firmly into Frankie’s skin. Looking out at the world from her eyes, I remembered other things, other 1979 things and feelings that were long buried. The era and the setting and the book itself became more realistic and more authentic in other, broader ways. The characters of both Frankie and her little brother Newt came to life on the page much more vividly. And they are what forms the heart of the story.

Getting the language right helped me get the characters right helped me get the emotional core of the story right. And there is nothing more important than that.

It wasn’t just the language, either. Once I was down the rabbit hole, looking around, I Gilliganrealised I’d mis-remembered some other things. Things about crystal radios and Gilligan’s Island and what night of the week I used to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on my radio-cassette player, my finger poised over the record button.

I did a lot of research, which then became a rabbit hole of its very own. I wanted to stuff everything into the story – Prince Charles’ visit to Esperance!; the International Year of the Child celebrations with their catchy Care for HypnocoinKids song (I still know all the words); sea monkeys and X-ray specs and Hypno-Coins, oh my! And surely there’s some way I can sneak the phrases Suffer in your jocks! and Ripper tune, Boris! in there somewhere, for no other reason than my abiding love for them.


Anyone who’s ever done research for a book will tell you this stage is part of the process. They’ll also tell you that a story needs to wear its research lightly, and thankfully, this was something I knew.

In the end, a lot of writing ends up on the cutting room floor. And that means a lot of research does too. It seeps into the fabric of the story, rather than sitting on the surface. In the end, there are no sea monkeys in this book. There are no Sunny Boys. But there’s a lot of Skylab. And also, I hope, a lot of heart. Which is something that doesn’t change across history. At least that’s what I’m counting on, that my 1979 kids will find a direct line to 2019 readers.

The next time I see a shooting star, I know exactly what to wish for.


Bonus pic of me in 1979, wearing my “Getafix” T-shirt. Mum drew a different character for each of us kids using Hobbytex pens. I wore the seams out of that shirt, and still have it to this day.






Hello, it’s me. Yes indeed, I am alive. I just haven’t posted here in a long time because I’ve been writing. Which is a good thing.

The thing that I have been writing is a middle-grade novel, which is also a good thing. And hopefully a good book. It is approximately two years overdue, which is a less good thing, and also why I have not been posting here.

Because when your long-suffering publisher is patiently waiting for you to deliver a long-overdue book, it feels odd to be spending time rambling in a bloggy way. However, I am back to bloggy-rambling because my publisher is no longer suffering, at least not at my hands. This is for two reasons:

i) Long-overdue book is now done!

ii) In the process of working on long-overdue book, I got an idea for another book and that book is about to be published! Continue reading

The Real Mica Mines

I recently received a question from a reader that stopped me in my tracks. When I was writing A Single Stone, she asked, did I know about children mining mica in India? She included a link to a newspaper article entitled, “India’s mica mines: The shameful truth behind mineral makeup’s shimmer” In reply, I said two things: Wow and I had no idea. In A Single Stone, young girls tunnel deep into mountains to harvest a mineral called mica. I chose to use this real-world mineral name for a few simple reasons:

  • Since childhood, I have thought of it as fool’s gold – bright and shiny but essentially valueless
  • It forms flakes and sheetsImage result for mica flakes
  • I liked the way the word sounded

It’s possible that some of these reasons are more compelling than others. Although I gave my mineral a real name, for the purposes of the narrative I invested it with some fictional properties. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t just invent something entirely fictional, as I did for some other elements in the story. Not having done so, there was now this unexpected real-world connection, about which I felt a little uneasy.

Continue reading


Okay, that was a little mean. So here’s a rough English translation:

What set Yutaka Sawada, a doctor’s son, on the path to circus life was his excitement and fascination at seeing the Yokoda Troupe perform in Asakusa. Abandoning the path towards becoming a doctor, he left home in pursuit of the Yokoda Troupe and found himself on a boat, crossing the ocean to perform in Russia.
It was 1902 and he was sixteen years old.

Continue reading

Domo Arigato, Mr Sawada

While I forge ahead on the verse novel, I’ve also been doing research for the adult novel I’m in the early stages of developing. One of my tasks has been to nut out details of the background for my main Japanese character, a circus performer touring Australia during WWII. It’s fiction, so I have a lot of license, but it’s historical, so I want to get the details as ‘right’ as possible so the story rings true.

So I’ve got this circus performer – an acrobat – and I’ve been asking myself what kind of background such a person would come from in 1940s Japan? I had this idea that my character would be from an educated family, someone who’s expected to go on to higher education and a ‘respectable’ profession but is so drawn by the lure of the circus that he turns his back on all that. I’ve been reading and reading and talking to people and following tiny snippets of information down neverending rabbit holes and the clear consensus seemed to be that this was not realistic, that those who ended up in the performing life were either born into it, sold into it, or stumbled into it out of poverty and necessity, that a well-bred son in this era would not-could not do such a thing.

Continue reading

What Do Ducks Eat?

So I’m writing these duck books. Because I love ducks. But it seems that with duck-love comes responsibility. It seems that if you love a duck, you must not feed it Belgian chocolates. My eagle-eyed editor reads my manuscript and informs me that chocolates are not good for ducks and can actually be fatal. This is not good for my story-duck, Max, who is very fond of them. And whose fondness for said chocolates is very important to the story.

When my editor tells me of this unfortunate fact, I take a moment to pause. I say “Damn you, facts! Why must you always get in the way of a good story?”

Continue reading

The Price of Cement, Swimming Pool Fencing Laws, and Year 6 Mathematics

These are some of the things I’ve had to research while finishing up my latest novel The Big Dig, forthcoming in July this year (if I can get it done in time!). Anyone like to guess what it’s about?

Email me with your ideas and I’ll post them here when I have a few. If anyone gets close, there might even be a prize!

Hint: if you live in the City of Melville, you may have something of a head start. In a curious alignment of planets, I am writing this from Civic Library in that very city. More on that another time.