Celebrating the Month of May

May is a special month for me, being the month of my father’s birthday, my wedding anniversary and Mother’s Day. In New Zealand May falls in Autumn, when the leaves are at their brightest colour and the weather can’t make up its mind to let go of summer. May is also my middle name, my father being so disappointed I wasn’t a boy who could be named after him, insisted I took the month of his birth as my name. I’m pleased my mother convinced him May sounded better as a middle name.

May holds another story for me though, a story that took place over fifty years ago when a teacher taught us how to dance around a Maypole.  Imagine the task of teaching a group of eight and nine year old children with no prior knowledge of maypole dancing.  We’d never seen nor heard of this English custom and had no visual support such as You Tube in those days. Our teacher and a few pictures in books helped us along the way.

The teacher, pictured now all these years later on my “About” and “Recently Published” pages, obviously knew the challenge ahead. Practices must have tried his patience, but little by little we learned to dance the steps he required. Eventually we graduated to ribbons. By the time our parents saw us perform as part of a larger pageant, we danced with perfection as we wound our ribbons around the pole, in and out, creating an intricate pattern.

It may not have been Spring in New Zealand when we danced, but a love of learning was planted within me during my two years with that teacher. The maypole dance was only one of many fun activities he introduced to us to help us with our learning. I often think back to that colourful maypole during the month of May.

May is a month of celebration for many around the world. How do you celebrate during the month of May?

Inspired by Others

After reading several inspirational blog posts lately of people enrolling in online courses I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Last night, I found myself an online Creative Non-Fiction writing course and enrolled. Apart from parting with my money – not too much – I discarded those asking for my entire bank balance – what I’m really in for is yet to be discovered.

I had a few criteria when looking, one being it should cost as little as possible. Another criteria was the time frame. I lead a strange life at times when it comes to work load, so I didn’t want one requiring me to work furiously at for a few weeks or a few months. My chosen course, http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/online/writing/creative-nonfiction.htm will allow me to work at my own pace in my own time for up to a year. This sounds my kind of course.

What am I hoping to learn from this? Well, having just published my 1950s school memoir I’m looking for support and guidance as I branch out beyond my comfort zone to write a little local history coupled with memoir about the old swimming pool I grew up with, almost in, during the 1960s. I’m hoping the course will keep me motivated as well as provide me with feedback along the way.

I did this last time, participated in a couple of little courses to help me along the way. They proved useful in keeping me on task over a journey that took longer than it should. I’ve allowed myself more research and writing time for this latest project, but decided a course might be more useful at the beginning of the journey than further down the track.

So, thank you to all those who’ve shared posts about the courses you’re undertaking. You are my inspiration. Now all I need do is sit back and wait for the first module to roll in. What have I let myself in for?

One Mistake is One Too Many – Check Your Facts

In my recent 1950s school memoir, I made a small mistake. But even one small mistake is one too many. This mistake involved a date only one person would notice. I wrote a year date incorrectly, giving one person longer at school than the average person. Most people wouldn’t pick up the error, but my brother did. He wasn’t impressed.

A quick phone call during the writing, to check with him when he left school, would have eliminated the error. I chose to think I could work it out for myself. That choice, while not too harmful, was a bad choice.

One thing I’m learning, as my writing turns more toward creative non-fiction, is the need to get my facts right. Simple phrases, while seeming to add my personal touch to the story, often need to be altered. For example, I recently started a sentence in my work in progress on the trees of my district, “Since the beginning of time ……”

Whoa! I can’t write that. How do I know the trees of the once magnificent forest had been there since the beginning of time? I don’t and neither does anyone else. The realisation enabled me to change the whole paragraph and, I believe, give me a far better piece of writing.

Writing creative non-fiction is a new venture for me and is proving a fascinating challenge. I can’t make anything up, but I’m enjoying telling a story my own way. I’m enjoying the research involved, even for such a short piece as 1000 words, such as the tree piece I’m working on.

At the moment I’m reading and researching more than I’m writing, all for the sake of 1000 words. This is definitely proving to be worthwhile. The facts need to be right. I’m not a historian. A reader out there is bound to have more expertise than I do.

The message then is to verify all the facts, make sure they are the truth. The way I’ll choose to write the story is slowly taking shape in my mind. But I need to remember, one mistake is one too many – I need to check my facts.

Self Publishing – A Personal Experience

The days of sending out a manuscript hoping an agent or publisher will accept it for publication are over. There just aren’t enough publishing houses to cope with the volumes of material being written. Publishers are in business.  They need to be selective about publishing choices. In other words, the books they select need to sell and make money for them.

Where does that leave the writer producing a smaller, more specialised volume, one not intended for a huge commercial distribution, but deserving of the audience its written for? Many options are now available to writers of quality material wishing to write the stories of ordinary lives. One popular option is publishing as an e-book. Another option, the one I chose for my recent school memoir, is to enter the world of self-publishing.

This thought would have frightened me once, but I decided my story, or that of my school in the 1950s, deserved to be told. Several people have asked me about my self-publishing journey since the launch and successful sales of my book, so I want to share a few of brief thoughts here. My experience has been positive through every step of the way.

A writer choosing self-publishing needs to be confident in themselves and their work. The journey requires more than writing. A self-published author needs to be writer, editor, events organiser, marketer and promoter, accountant and business manager all rolled into one. But approached correctly these tasks are achievable. I admit now, although hesitant at first, I enjoyed the entire process.

You need to identify your market before you start writing. Who will your readers be? This gives a clear approach to writing and helps you stay focussed.

I chose the self-publishing business I’d work with early in the process. I wanted someone who would print a small book – mine turned out to be 80 pages. They needed to be prepared to print a limited first run of 100 copies. I knew the book could sell well at the School Centenary, therefore the company I chose needed to be able to print further small numbers of the book. The first 100 sold and I had a second order of 50 produced. I’ve just ordered another 25. When approaching self-publishing companies ask questions about initial cost, cost of re-printing, time frames from order to delivery.

Ask what help you can expect from them along the way. I chose to pay a little extra for my cover and inside of the book to be designed. This resulted in a book I’m proud of. I had an account manager who handled all my questions efficiently by e-mail. She had to be very patient with this first time author, but guided me through the process giving me confidence all the way.

I initially approached more than one printing / publishing firm, but eventually chose one I considered best suited my needs. It’s easy to find people who will produce your book for you by looking online, but don’t rush in. Do your homework first and make sure the people you choose will listen to you. After all, it’s your book and you want the best for it.

When you receive your precious box of books, the next marketing and promoting stage of your self-publishing journey starts. I’ll talk about my experience with this in a future post, but you may like to read my piece, ‘Promoting Your Self-Published Book,’ published elsewhere. I can say with pride, two copies of my book are now in the local library and when I last looked, both were out on loan.

Hopefully these thoughts will give readers considering self-publishing a starting point. If you have any questions, please do ask. If I can self-publish my first book and enjoy the experience, anyone can.

Trees Have Stories Too

How aware are you of the trees in your locality? I confess my knowledge is minimal. Trees grow, they exist for either beautification or to serve a specific purpose and some have existed longer than others.

Two things sparked my recent interest in trees. Firstly, faced with a writing challenge about Trees, I decided to look into the place of trees in the early settlement of my city, a city where trees hold a respected place. Then, a second discovery fed my fascination, a recent newspaper article about an arborist locating and recording details about notable trees in the district that need protecting. Some of these trees go a long way back in time.

With my limited knowledge of the history of my local area, I realise trees played an important part in development here from pre-European settlement days.  The original town site was built in a large clearing on an otherwise forested plain. Early literature, settler journals and local history publications describe the beauty of the forest, the trees and the bird song.

Whenever people choose to live in a previously undeveloped area, they need to build homes and create communities. In order to achieve this back in the late 19th century, trees were felled, houses and business premises were built and the town began to grow. The beautiful forest retreated and the townsfolk lived in a newly cleared environment where mud and dust reigned.

A quick search of an online site, Papers Past, provided fascinating reading. I didn’t expect much when I entered the keyword Trees for one of the local papers from the early 1900s. My astonishment at the wealth of information held me captive for more time than I intended as I located further information.

In the early 1900s, if not earlier, the locals demanded more of the developing town and a group of people formed the Beautification Society, a lobby group to encourage the local Council to plant and grow trees to make the town more appealing. From these early settler endeavours, over a century later our city takes pride in trees contributing to the local environment.

Local history started with a beautiful forest, became cleared and burned off land devoid of trees, back to the formation of a society to plant and beautify the surroundings. For my May writing group challenge I intend further researching the story of the Beautification Society of the past and attempt to record some of its story.

Also read the story of a New Zealand Tree and River, before the arrival of people: Kids Illustrate New Zealand Maori Legend

The Hole in the Macrocarpa Hedge

The next monthly challenge of my local writing group is the topic ‘Trees.’ The first thoughts tumbling through my head cried out, “This is too overwhelming. Where do I start?”  I took a breath, grabbed one of my writing journals and started writing, hoping to make sense of the topic. It occurred to me, if I write a short piece of free writing every day, one will take my fancy and will be suitable for developing into a more polished piece. Of the three written so far, this childhood memory is my favourite.

The bottom of the backyard boasted a magnificent macrocarpa hedge, trees closely planted and merging their branches so closely they were more effective than a wooden fence. On the neighbours side the hedge was trimmed neat and tidy, a perfect boundary to their perfect garden. Our side grew in an unruly tangle, like a child’s unbrushed hair, matching the rest of our backyard.

Over the years the tree had grown thick and bushy, providing a total curtain between the two properties. But, down in the corner, behind our overgrown vegetable garden, hidden from the prying eyes of my household, the hedge and I shared a secret. A little parting of the branches close to the ground protected a hollow space, a sanctuary large enough for a budding writer to hide away from the prying eyes of the neighbours and my family.

I often wandered out to the hiding hole and stayed out of sight as long as I dared. I sat crouched, not wanting to attract attention, until one day I picked up a broken branch and started sweeping the earth beneath me, transforming the hole into a secret home.

Back in my bedroom I gathered a few treasured belongings, like a squirrel stashing away its stores for winter – a book, a scribble pad, pencils and pens and an old discarded box for storing them in. After further rummaging in other parts of the house I found an old biscuit tin, perfect for storing food supplies of broken biscuits, apples and sweets, necessary for my more prolonged stays in the hide-out. An old doll from the toy box came along to keep me company.

My hole in the hedge gradually became my castle. For one long summer I became the mistress of my kingdom. Whenever I needed to disappear I had a place to call home, where I could read and write, play imaginary games and munch on my secret food supplies.  My only visitor was our old cat, who sometimes followed me to my haven. If others were aware of my secret place, they didn’t let on.

When winter came I moved back inside, behind the couch in a rarely used sitting room. Not quite as private as the hole in the hedge, it served the same purpose. I seemed to thrive in small spaces. Now, all these years later, I long for a small quiet space, hidden from others, where my thoughts can tumble onto the page without interruption. I need an adult version of the hole in the hedge.

What about you? Are you lucky enough to have a private space for your creativity? Or do you, like me, drift through the house, inhabiting the quietest place you can find when you need to write?

I Write because I Can

Earlier this evening I started re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful book, ‘Writing Down the Bones.’ I return to this book whenever my writing feels tired and in need of a burst of energy. After two chapters I turned off the light, falling quickly into sleep. But, as often happens, I awoke after a few hours, my brain wide awake.

Unable to go back to sleep I’m writing because I can. I have no idea why this happens, but when I’m not booked to work as a relief teacher next day I feel free to write whenever the urge takes me.  In these early hours, freshened after a few hours sleep, ideas dance into my head, not waiting to be invited. With no other external factors demanding my attention, writing knows it has my full attention.

Nothing else is important at this time. While my immediate world stands still, energy returns. Like the caterpillar waiting to be transformed into a butterfly, I’m cocooned in the quietness of early morning darkness, with nothing else forcing its attention upon me. My only companion is the gentle breeze outside, gently sweeping away the abandoned thoughts of yesterday, like the sea washing away footprints on the sand.

It is one o’clock in the morning and I write because I can.

What do Roast Beef and Writing Have in Common?

Last night I hosted a family dinner and, as the weather has been cooling in anticipation of winter, I decided to cook a roast meal. This is always an easy way to feed a large group. Others had the responsibility of providing the befores and afters. I started early in the afternoon, knowing if I rushed my piece of meat would become dry and stringy. We’re in the middle of the TV MasterChef series here in New Zealand at the moment, so I felt the need to prove my personal cooking skills had benefitted from my time spent watching the programme.

Roast beef hasn’t been on the menu for awhile, so I decided to look to the internet to brush up my skills. I read and followed the instructions for cooking a roast to perfection and admit I wasn’t the only one delighted with the outcome.

This morning, still gloating over my success as I read a few blog postings over coffee, I became aware of how cooking roast beef is similar to producing a piece of writing. Here’s my advice for a succulent and flavoursome feast – with apologies to the creators of the original advice at http://www.themainmeal.com.au

Roast – or write – from room temperature. Interpret this as letting your idea sit in the temple of your mind a short while, as the project  adapts to the task ahead. Let your idea test the room temperature before you rush in with insufficient understanding of how you’ll proceed.

Pre-browning and seasoning – brainstorm your writing ideas before you start. This will keep your juicy ideas within the framework of your writing, helping the writing to stay focussed and not lose any of its potential impact.

Size up your roasting dish – establish the best fit for your writing, whether this be short story, poem, novel or maybe a short blog piece.

Heat the oven to suit  – having decided what shape or form your writing idea will take, flesh out your idea with a little more brainstorming.

Test for doneness – writing may not respond to tongs or thermometers, but it does benefit from being read through thoroughly. Ask questions to see if the piece says what you intended it to.

Rest the roast before carving – don’t be in a hurry to submit your work for publication. Let it sit awhile. Return with a fresh mind and make any necessary adjustments.

Season for extra flavour – sprinkle a little detail throughout to add to the flavour.

Follow this advice and you’ll produce a written feast enjoyed by the guests for whom it is intended.

Happy cooking , er, writing.

Saturday Morning at the Bottom of the World

Some of you may not be aware of this, but New Zealand is the first country in the world to see the light of a new day, not only a new day but also a new month and a new year. We made a big thing of this way back at the turn of the century when we were the first to welcome the new millennium.

This difference became apparent when I started blogging just a couple of short months ago. Many of you will be relaxing on Friday night as you read this, knowing the weekend lies ahead. I’m sitting here on Saturday morning, looking at the dishes on the bench demanding attention and the vacuum cleaner trying to throw itself into my hands. I refuse to let my thoughts dwell on all the regular weekend chores. The only problem with starting the weekend ahead of the rest of the world is Monday come around more quickly as well. So those of you in the northern hemisphere can sit back on Sunday night and spare me a thought as I trundle off to face my working week.

This is my time, when I make myself a cup of coffee and treat myself to personal time, before my conscience takes over and insists I get on with real life. This is my time to read my favourite blogs. Many blogs have captured my attention since I started writing here. This is my time to be inspired by the words of writers I’ve come to admire. The rest of the weekend can wait.

There’s another difference I have with bloggers in the rest of the world, I stare out my window at an autumn world. The sky is grey today and a light, drizzling rain is falling. This rain is welcome here in New Zealand, as we’ve had the hottest, driest summer in many years. The morning is warm and as I write the clouds are starting to part, letting a little blue sky peep through.

If the world could be frozen at any one point in time, what a fascinating array of situations we’d be greeted with as people go about their daily lives. Fortunately the world doesn’t stand still and we go about our lives wherever we are. I’ve developed a new fascination, that of making contact with people in different parts of the world experiencing different time frames from my own. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Playing Marbles 1950s and Present Day

Mention playing marbles and most people can recall stories of their childhood. The game has been around for hundreds of years and continues in popularity today.

I arrived at a local school today and to my delight the kids in the playground were playing marbles before school. The scene differed a little from my own school days in the 1950s, but the games purpose remained the same – to compete against a partner, trying to win your opponent’s marble rather than lose your own.

In the classroom I talked to the students about my own marble playing days and read the following passage from my 1950s school memoir book.

“Winter saw the emergence of marbles and knucklebones as favoured playtime and lunchtime activities. Marble season lasted a short time, the length possibly being dictated by teachers tolerance of arguments and upset players.

When marble season arrived I pleaded for pocket money and bought marbles from a toy shop in a corner of the Square. Mum made a little cloth drawstring bag to keep them in.  I’d start the season with a selection of small cats eyes, clear glass marbles with a colourful piece of glass in the centre and larger more sought after marbles called biggies. It wasn’t often I managed to win a steely to add to my collection.

We played at the edge of the field, on dry mud surfaces or where the grass was short. My marble collection was precious and I hated losing even the most boring looking marble, so I chose my playing partners carefully. The aim was to hit another marble, thus winning it from it’s owner, I didn’t want to go home with an empty bag. Sometimes my luck was in and I’d win a biggie off another player. Or, when a player was down on their luck they’d offer to swap a biggie for two cats eyes, keeping them in play.

Those unlucky enough to have empty marble bags watched on. Player concentration demanded silence and the click of glass marbles hitting each other preceded a triumphant cry from the winner.”

The children fascinated me by showing me the range of marbles now available to them. The largest, called Titanics, were so big I couldn’t imagine their small hands manipulating them with ease.

We discussed the differences in their game and mine, the major being I played on grass while they played on the asphalt courtyard. In my day we gathered in small groups. These children lined up in rows, facing their opponent, but still taking turns.

One boy complained that no one wanted to play marbles with him, as he is considered one of the best players and the others didn’t want to lose their marbles to him. So, some things haven’t changed.

Did you play marbles as a child? What are your memories of the rules of the game? What were the marbles like you played with? Take a trip down memory lane and tell us about your own marble playing experiences.