Tag Archives: writing

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.





Speaking Youth to Power

Many moons ago when I was teaching at UWA, I heard a creative writing lecturer talk about how writers often find themselves ‘worrying at a particular knot’. Maybe they’re writing all kinds of different things, but somewhere in the midst of each of them, if you look deeply enough, or from the right angle, you’ll find some version of this one theme or concern.

The writer, of course, doesn’t always know this. Slightly fewer moons ago, when I was easing out of teaching at UWA, I had a student say to me, “It’s interesting how so many of your poems are sort of about containment.”

And I said Huh?

And she said, “You know … how you’re always talking about borders and margins, inside and outside, about edges and stuff like that.”

And I said, No I’m not … am I?

And then she showed me. And lo and behold, I was. And still am. At least in my poetry.

poetry2 Poetryimage1

There are similar knots in my work for young people, one of which I became aware of recently because it features in both The Penguins Are Coming! and DUCK! Continue reading

A Rhinoceros By Any Other Gender…

As many of you know, I have a new picture book coming out very soon.OUASR_CVR_HR-RGB

Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros will officially hit bookstores on 1 September. I’ve blogged previously about the inspiration for the book, and a little about the process of writing it. During that process, many things changed. Some were big – like the title. Others were small – a shift in phrasing that made a line sing, an ellipsis that opened up the ending.

And there was one that was both – tiny but enormous.

Here’s the last line as it appeared in one of the roughs:


If you’ve read the book, you should be able to spot the difference. If you haven’t, then know this: across many, many drafts, and until quite late in the process, my small rhinoceros was male. And then at a certain point, I said huh?

Because my small rhinoceros was male for no good reason. For no reason at all except that I had unconsciously defaulted to that without a moment’s thought. Continue reading

Once Upon a Time …

… there was a small rhinoceros.

It hung on the wall of an art gallery in Subiaco, all the way back in 1997. It was part of an exhibition entitled Three Narrative Artists.

And it looked like this:

intrepid-journey220-x-160_edited-1[“Intrepid Journey” by Sue Templeton]

It was right near the entrance, and when I walked in on opening night, it stopped me in my tracks. There was something about the image I found intrinsically appealing.  Or perhaps it was the combination of image and title – the word “intrepid” together with the rhinoceros and the boat.

It stayed with me, as things sometimes do unexpectedly. That’s something I love – that you never quite know what’s going to catch the light for someone. It isn’t always what you’d expect. In this case, it was a small rhinoceros.

But here’s where it gets interesting, because many years passed. Many, many years. And I guess my memory isn’t as good as I thought it was. Because when I thought about the rhino, I saw it as a tiny thing in a tiny boat on a very very wide and vast blue ocean. And I  remembered the title as being simply “Intrepid”. I told myself it was the perfect marriage of that single-word title and the image that lent it appeal for me. Except that it wasn’t a single-word title and it also wasn’t a vast open ocean. In fact, looking at it now I’m not even sure it’s an ocean. Maybe it’s a desert. Maybe it’s a lava field. Maybe it’s the surface of the moon. Continue reading

The Year of Taking a Deep Breath …

… and writing a great many things …

… is here. It’s here.

What is she talking about? you mutter.

Upon which I refer you to my earlier post, The Year of Doing Way Too Much and Nowhere Near Enough.

And then I say this:

In 1999, in an airport departure lounge, I scribbled the beginnings of what would eventually become my first poem.

In 2001, I said out loud to someone for the very first time that I was interested in maybe writing something one day. I remember this very clearly for reasons I will save for a future blog post.

In later 2001, I had an idea for a picture book, and thought it was excellent and bound to be published.

From 2001-2006, I collected approximately 762 rejection letters for that picture book, other picture books, chapter books, Young Adult novels, and novels of indeterminate genre and readership. I also published a few poems.

In 2007, my first novel, Annabel, Again, was published.

In later 2007, my poetry collection, Cleanskin, was published.

                     2782WALK_AnnabelFULL02.indd    Cleanskinhires

From 2008-2015, I published a further 11 books for children and a far-too-small handful of poems.


Continue reading

The Year of Doing Way Too Much & Nowhere Near Enough

So it’s come to this, November. Or perhaps I should call you by your real name — almost-December-dear-god-where-has-the-year-gone?

2016 has been a year of many things. But mostly of two things, which are subtly connected. For me it will go down as i) The Year of Doing Way Too Much and ii) The Year of Not Writing the Novel I Should Have Written Long Ago (subtitle dear-god-where-has-the-year gone-is-that-my-editor-coming-quick-everybody-hide!).

In 2016, I encountered a perfect and unrelenting storm of day job and volunteer work and family stuff and RSI and book-related commitments and assorted essential but fundamentally not-writing administrivia, all of which combined to leave me with an amount of head-space/writing time which can be best characterised as nowhere near enough.

Herewith a Twitter-ish chronicle of my descent into chaos…


Continue reading

Ten Years and Still Counting

Last week, I posted a little something about where I was ten years ago versus where I am now.

It’s a post I almost didn’t write because I was worried it would seem braggy. CHECK OUT ALL MY SWAG! AND THIS IS JUST IN ONE WEEK! NEXT WEEK I’LL SPLIT THE PUBLISHING ATOM!

It wasn’t meant to be like that. It was intended as a kind of self-talk, a rejoinder to the messy stuff that goes on in my head, which seems to focus almost entirely on how I could be writing faster or better or differently or just plain more, and never mentions – hardly even seems to notice – the good stuff.

When I shared last week’s post, I prefaced it with the comment: “A few things have changed.”

And that’s true. But here’s something that’s even truer: most things haven’t.

Continue reading