Book Review: The Home Girls by Olga Masters

I listened to this collection of short stories a few years ago, mainly as I wended my way to work along mountain roads in winter. At the end of some the stories I simply had to turn the audio off, needing time and space to absorb the dynamics of a story, or the machinations of various characters. Masters captured the essence of a character, of life in a small town, of the many joys and devastations of every day life with such a deft touch.

Sometimes I would also refer to the written word to recapture the moment, or to check my understanding of a story. I was also struck by the physicality of her writing; her way of depicting a character’s inner world through their physical actions. These stories in particular stayed in mind.

The Home Girls. This was a short, disturbing story of two sisters preparing to leave one foster family for another, sharing a final act of defiance before they head to their new home.

The Rages of Mrs Torrens. I loved this story of a vibrant and passionate woman, who was perhaps a bit extreme in her mood swings. The timber town is enthralled by her antics, during which she seemed to lose focus of her beloved Harold and their five children.

The rage that ended all rages took place when there was an accident at the mill and poor Harold lost the fingers on his right hand. Mrs Torrens goes to the mill and climbs atop a fence with surprising grace and agility to address the men who were ‘standing there … faces tipped up like eggs towards her’. She asks them what they have done with her beautiful mannikin before going wild with a piece of timber, destroying parts of the office.

The incident is strangely not widely discussed by those present, who were deeply affected by her rage. The family left town soon after, and eventually medication was used to stabilise her mood swings.

‘During these times Mrs Torren’s blue eyes dulled and her beautiful red hair straightened and she moved slowly and heavily with no life in her step or on her face. She looked like a lot of the women in Tantello.’

On The Train. This depicts an interaction between a beautiful mother travelling with two young plain daughters and a nosy stranger. The stranger speculates about their relationship, trying to prise information. As the two leave the carriage, the mother tells the stranger something deeply unsettling.

The Done Thing. An interesting twist on the tale of attraction between two married couples. On revisiting this story recently I was struck by the contrast between the two wives: the educated but insecure Annie and the thoroughly practical Louisa. Annie’s husband Peter arrives unannounced at Louisa’s place, bearing a large pumpkin.

She laid a hand on the grey-blue skin of the pumpkin as she might have touched a beautiful fur wrap.

Peter’s delight in the homely order of Louisa’s home is evident and there are gentle hints of the attraction between them.

As she spoke she bent and pulled at some grass, ripping it away to show more rock. He bent and pulled it with her and she straightened, holding the long loop of root against her skirt as if it were a bridal bouquet. 

I was pleased to see that I wasn’t alone in finding much satisfaction in this collection of stories. There is an excellent review by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: old kitchen at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill]

A Novel Approach

This time last week I was in a state of something close to euphoria. The reason? I had finally completed the first draft of my novel.

I had known the moment was coming. Although I am usually a planner, I had worked through the novel with only a rough idea as to what was to happen. There were character sketches and plot points at certain stages of the process along with flexibility which worked well. But as I approached the final quarter, I could feel a bit of reluctance creep in.

My creative writing to this point has mainly been in the space of short stories. There were several times throughout the writing of the novel that I was secretly pleased that I had made it this far. But it was also a bit daunting. I know, you see, that this is only the first draft. I will need to edit, to carve out bits, to write new sections. As I wrote I had to battle the urge to edit as I wrote. But once I started to tinker with the structure, the house of cards might tumble. Instead, I channeled the advice listed under ‘Finish the damn novel‘ and finished the damn novel.

It is imperfect. Some writers are famous for writing scores of drafts before they have the final, polished gem. Others seem to be able to attain perfection with hardly an edit. As the logical conclusion to the story approached part of me was wondering if the character arc development was enough. Should I up the ante for a character by doing this, or tweaking that, or is something entirely different required?

It would be easy to spend my writing time devouring the millions of words of writing advice regarding what to do now I’ve finished my draft. Instead, I’ve paraphrased Stephen King in my head and I’m going to let it sit for a few weeks. I have a copy of the draft printed and ready to edit, but I’ve resisted the impulse to pull out a pen and start scrawling amendments. It needs to breathe a bit. As do I.

There are other writing projects that I am keen to get started on, chunkier jobs that just seemed too much to take on in addition to finishing a novel. So that is the approach that I plan to take for now.

Do you have a break of sorts between larger projects?

[Photo: a glimpse inside the pavilion at the Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath]

Banana Cake Bribery

As I write this post, I am in the last quarter of my current novel. In most areas of my life I am reasonably well-organised, prone to lists and spreadsheets and the like. This novel, however, was started during a time of turmoil which coincided with last year’s NANOWRIMO. I decided about a week before the start date that I’d give it a crack. I have done NANOWRIMO once before, and having even a rough outline was beneficial, particularly when the daily word count is quite high (1666.66 words) but with one thing and another, it was 1 November and off I went without a roadmap.

Somehow I made it to the word count goal of 50,000 with a couple of days to spare. It was challenging but rewarding to find the time to write in amongst everything else. I have continued on with the novel since then, but I tend to pick it up, do a bit then move on to something else, which is not ideal. I have also created character summaries, location details and plot points. These have been scanned into Evernote so I can pick them up wherever I am, and the hard copies are dotted around my study.

One of the reasons I like NANOWRIMO is the word count goal. Some writers estimate their progress using pages completed, or plot advancement. There is a part of me that is itching to re-read the first draft, tidy up the inconsistencies and generally see how it hangs together. But the persistent part of my personality is winning at present, and it wants the damn novel finished. Tinker all you like when you finish it, just get the words down.

This is where the banana cake comes in. My goal today was to hit the 85,000 word mark. Which required about 3,200 words. I rather reluctantly started, then my fingers were dancing and the pages were flying by (I am getting the first draft down using Pages, and will do the editing and rework via Scrivener). I keep an eye on the page numbers as I go, not the word count in case my short-attention span kicks in and I start to think of other things I can, should or could do other than come up with another batch of words. I worked out that if I could get to page 215, there would be enough words on the page and I could have cake.

I made it. The cake was moist with lemon icing. It was worth it.

How do you bribe yourself to write when required?

[Photo: part of the Waste2Art 2016 Exhibition showing at Eskbank House, Lithgow]