In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine's No. 3224
Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine’s No. 3224. From here.

A couple of weekends ago we had to go to a wedding at Camden, which is a smallish town at the northern end of the Southern Highlands, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney (in fact it’s basically become a commuter town due to Sydney’s ridiculous sprawl). For various reasons, the wedding was on a Monday, so we decided to make a long weekend of it and explore the region, as this is the area where I’m planning to set The Dark Before the Dawn, and I really don’t know as much about it as I should.

The Southern Highlands is a gorgeous and fascinating part of the world, and if you’re ever visiting eastern Australia I can highly recommend it as a place for a weekend away. Situated on the Great Dividing Range – the mountain range that runs thousands of kilometres down the east coast of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria – the environment is all towering eucalyptus forests, sandstone gorges and meandering rivers. In the autumn the foliage is nothing short of spectacular.

Fitzroy Falls
Fitzroy Falls

The region is full of historic towns, beautiful bushwalks and great food and wine. It’s also got an amazing history, if that’s your thing – these towns were some of the first settlements on mainland Australia and were at the heart of the country’s developing wheat and wool industries.

This history is one of the main reasons I chose this area for the setting of The Dark Before the Dawn – because it’s brimming with bushrangers (like highwaymen or outlaws) and adventures and ghost stories and folklore. In short, it’s a rich vein for a writer like me and I don’t know why I didn’t think of mining it earlier. I suspect there’s the good old Australian ‘cultural cringe‘ involved – one of the things about growing up Australian is that most of us remain generally ignorant about the richness of our own history, as it’s not taught much in school (or at least wasn’t in my day). This is even more true when it comes to Indigenous history – it’s embarrassing how ignorant I am of Aboriginal history and culture.

Anyway, since we were in the area I decided to visit some of the places I’d been thinking about in the context of the story, and the first stop was Bargo. Bargo was an important staging post before the railway went through, and the infamous Bargo Brush was home to the highest concentration of bushrangers in the colony (the Bargo Brush was a particularly thick type of scrubby bush, which made it perfect for bushrangers to hide out in and attack coaches). I’d expected Bargo to be a historic town like Bowral, Camden or the other smaller Southern Highlands villages, with their colonial architecture and museums, but I was sorely disappointed – there was nothing there but a meagre collection of shops and a cluster of houses that wouldn’t have been out of place in the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney. We stopped for lunch at the local takeaway joint (which did pretty good burgers, I have to say) and then went on our way.

We spent  most of the next day at the fabulous Trainworks museum at Thirlmere, which is all about the development of rail in New South Wales and is full to the brim (the site is 5 hectares/12.3 acres) with restored carriages and locomotives of various vintages. It’s a paradise for kids and fascinating for adults if you have any interest in infrastructure or history (or, obviously, trains). The coming of the railway in the mid-1860s revolutionised the colony – where it once would have taken a week to get from Sydney to Goulburn by coach (a distance of about 200km), it could be done overnight on the train. The implications for farmers in southern NSW were enormous – suddenly it was possible to get their produce to Sydney before it spoilt, opening up whole new markets.

The 'pay bus' at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This 'bus on rails' used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers' paycheques.
The ‘pay bus’ at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This gorgeous art deco ‘bus on rails’ used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers’ paychecks.

Thirlmere is just down the road from Picton, and this is where I found the history I’d been looking for. Picton is another old staging town, at the foot of the escarpment known as the Razorback. The original road over the Razorback was hand-built by convicts and apparently there are still old milestones nestled in the forest. We stayed at the lovely Pepper Tree Ridge bed-and-breakfast and had a good chat with the host, Barry, who recommended the local historical society and museum if I wanted to find out about the region’s ghosts and bushrangers. Australian country town historical societies are an untapped wealth of records and stories compiled by people who are passionate about their districts and who often come from families who have been there for generations. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this trip, but I feel a proper research visit is in order very soon. All my other books have been set in either fantastical worlds or areas that aren’t directly accessible to me (like northern England), so it’s quite a novelty to be able to explore a setting in my own backyard – it really brings it to life.

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel, an Australian Gothic thriller tentatively titled The Dark Before the Dawn.

Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.
Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.

The first week of NaNoWriMo is over, and to be honest it’s been a bit of a bust for me. I have a grand total of 3685 words so far across one-and-a-bit chapters (i.e. practically nothing). Unfortunately this week I was struck down with a bad case of Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong did. Work went crazy, home life was hectic and getting up early to write suddenly became very difficult. The evenings and weekends have been spent alternately catching up on life admin and binge-watching episodes of Castle, because I don’t have much energy left right now at the tail-end of a very big year and it’s easier to watch a TV show about a writer than to actually be one.

Had this happened during my first crack at NaNoWriMo (the one that produced Greythorne), I’d probably be beating myself up pretty badly right about now. But I’ve come to value the NaNo experience not so much for the word count as for the things it teaches me about writing and about myself.

As I’ve mentioned before, last time around NaNoWriMo taught me discipline. I learned that if you just keep showing up day after day you’ll eventually get somewhere. But this time around I’m learning to be a bit kinder to myself. I no longer have to prove to myself that I can do it – I know I can. The proof is sitting there in boxes on my living-room floor. Writing a novel is hard – especially psychologically – but it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And sometimes the shit hits the fan and all your best-laid plans get thrown completely out of whack, and that’s ok. I’m fortunate in that I’m not up against a deadline, so I have the luxury of sitting back and letting things unfold at their own pace. And given my perfectionist tendencies, this has all come as a bit of an epiphany.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in those 3685 words is trying to get a sense of authenticity. It was only after I started writing that I began to realise I’ve fallen into the trap I’m always warning beginning writers about – I haven’t read enough of the genre I want to write. Looking back, I can see just how much nineteenth-century British adventure/horror fiction I’d read before I started Greythorne, and how that made it so much easier to tap into the tropes of the genre and make it sound authentic. Trying to transpose the Gothic themes to an Australian setting is proving much harder, because it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything set in my home country.

Throughout NaNoWriMo you get sent pep talks from experienced writers and, as fate would have it, this one popped into my inbox this week from graphic novel author and artist Gene Luen Yang. This is what he had to say about ‘writer’s block’ (which is a term I don’t much like, but I’ll rant about that another day):

Writer’s block can kick the wind right out of you. When I was just starting out, a serious bout of writer’s block would make me question my worth as a writer. Maybe the ideas weren’t coming because I wasn’t creative enough, or clever enough. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Now I realize that I just didn’t have enough input. Your brain doesn’t generate ideas out of thin air. It generates ideas by taking what it’s already experienced and reshaping it in new and interesting ways. If you’re not getting good output, maybe it’s because you haven’t taken in enough input.

When writer’s block hits, do research. Flip through old photographs. Watch a documentary. Read a nonfiction book, preferably one that’s been out of print for years. Visit a place you’ve never been and talk to people you don’t know. Gather input.

This input-output equation makes so much sense to me, and reading this confirmed what I’d already suspected – I just haven’t read enough yet. I like to think of it a bit like music. I’m a pretty average musician – I play piano and euphonium and sing, and I love it, but I’ll never be a concert pianist or an opera singer. I have only a basic knowledge of music theory, but lately I’ve been dabbling in a bit of songwriting. I know the kinds of things I like, and occasionally I get lucky and hit on something magical, but I couldn’t tell you why it works. Compare that to  the jazz musician who’s had years of training before even starting to improvise. It’s only by knowing the rules that they can break them and go to incredible places. Writing is exactly the same. You don’t read the genre because you want to copy it – you read it to gain a knowledge of how things are done, so that you can then make conscious technical decisions to change them to achieve your desired effect. As far as Australian Gothic goes, I’m still just plunking away and occasionally getting lucky, so I’ve realised it’s time to go back to basics before I can even think about putting my own spin on it. So I may have only 3685 words but, with that realisation, I think I can still count NaNo a success so far.

And now I’m off to read some books.