The data bank

Afternoony post today! Aren’t I just full of surprises?

Sadly, my time in Adelaide is nearly over. But I’ve got heaps done while I’ve been here. The reason today’s post is late is that a) I’ve been REALLY productive on Grandest Bookshop and b) today I ran a workshop with some Year Fives!

The point of the exercise was to test out a few things on them. The last time I ran a school workshop, it… wasn’t that great. I pitched it a little too high, and read a part of a story that wasn’t age-appropriate (the vocab was a bit beyond eight-year-olds). But this time, I read from Chapter One (not Chapter Three). I brought along a lot of resources to ground the kids in the story before we started, and got them excited about Cole’s Book Arcade. I also had my Cole books with me to show the kids.

This session ran really well. The teachers were thoroughly prepped beforehand and everyone knew what to expect. The kids were SO EXCITED by my pictures and by the Book Arcade. They loved the first chapter and wanted to read the rest immediately. Then I tested out some of the brainteasers from the story on them. These were all girls, aged ten to eleven. None of them worked out the answers right away, but about two-thirds said their puzzle was ‘just hard enough; not too hard’ which was excellent.

A few couldn’t solve theirs, which was useful to know. The puzzle that I thought would be the hardest – a version of Einstein’s Riddle – was actually not too hard when the kids read the instructions carefully and worked through the logic of the problem. The hardest riddle was actually one involving palindromes. The grammar was a little dodgy, which threw them off: ‘do not start at rats to nod’ is a perfectly fine palindrome, but not really grammatical in English. Some of the visual puzzles were quite tricky but they were all solvable.

Anyway, this was a workshop specifically designed to generate material (or cull it) from the novel. Earlier in the week, I found myself at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, where I saw one excellent show (Bangarra: Bennelong) and one… other show. It was a musical, and it was corny, and I was completely unable to escape. But when I have such experiences, one thing that alleviates the frustration or boredom or despair is the thought that I can use it in a story.

In that spirit, here is this week’s poem.


In the labyrinthine brain

of a wordsmith or creator

there nestles the refrain:

don’t worry; use this later.


When a cyclone starts to form

in a land near the equator

the writer tells the storm

I’m sure I can use this later.


‘This is fine.’


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Our imaginary pals

Over the last week, I’ve been hearing a lot of writer talks. And something that comes up for me, again and again, is how weird we storytellers must sound when we talk about our characters as if they are real people.

Today, I’m going to attempt to describe this phenomenon with regard to my own relationship with my characters.

Firstly, we talk about them like they’re real because to us, they are. Yes, we’ve never really seen them or spoken to them – I mean, don’t hallucinate about my characters – but they are as real as friends you just saw the other day. When you spend a lot of time with a character, trying to inhabit their mind and write from their perspective, they become real to you. You know that human (or giant, or lizard spirit, or robot, or haunted tree) literally inside-out.


Pictures of the Coles for The Grandest Bookshop in the World

At the same time – for me, at least – I don’t think they know me. I suppose it’s because, as Neil Gaiman puts it, ‘he’s me but I’m not him’ – which is to say, parts of ourselves go into our characters, but we don’t treat them as avatars (or at least, we shouldn’t). This can mean that Character A has my nerdy side, B has my teenage goth phase, C has my love of nature, D has my big sister side… but also, A is kind of arrogant, and B is into Wicca and music, and C is a long way behind in his formal education, and D is naturally quiet and hates to dance, and so on. And none of them look like me.

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Hello from gorgeous Adelaide! I am having a whale of a time on my Fellowship – a whale, I tell you! It’s Adelaide Writers’ Week so I’m seeing lots of great talks, but also I’ve been writing and going to atmospheric locations and drawing animals and wandering along the riverfront. And eating bickies. Too many bickies, probably. The May Gibbs Trust is incredibly generous and has furnished my room with flowers and snacks.

Here’s the Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia – and if there’s any extant building that looks more like Cole’s Book Arcade, I haven’t seen it:


On Sunday I visited the Adelaide Zoo to draw some parrots and monkeys, and observe their behaviour for The Grandest Bookshop in the World. One of the marvellous things about both parrots and monkeys is their intelligence. Being smart is a great evolutionary adaptation that allows an animal to navigate social structures and find new ways to get food. It also makes them playful, deceitful, curious and fun to watch.

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How to Handle Your Harpy

Furious Fiction is a free monthly flash-fiction contest run by the Australian Writers’ Centre. Every month, you get a fresh prompt, and a weekend to punch out your story of 500 words or fewer. I’ve signed up for it this year because it sounded like fun, and because sometimes it’s good to stretch a bit.

February’s prompt was to use the words forty, flamboyant, flavour, furious and fortune. Contestants also had to involve a feather somewhere in the story. The winner wrote a beautiful and moving story about recovering from heartbreak.

I wrote a weird, silly bit of doggerel about the worst pet I could possibly imagine.

It made me laugh, which was the point, and helped me unwind for a few hours. Something about the harpies from Ancient Greek mythology has always seemed funny to me. They’re said to be birds of prey with the heads or faces of women. They’re supposed to be the personification of destructive winds, but my favourite part is that they steal food while you’re eating it. In their most famous appearance, one King Phineas is punished by Zeus for giving away the gods’ plans with his powers of prophecy. So Phineas is blinded and plopped on an island with a gigantic buffet… that he can never eat. For eternity. Because every time he lifts food to his mouth, down comes a harpy – SKREEEE! – and snatches it away, to either devour it herself or drop it on the filthy ground.

How annoying. How tragic. How hilarious. They’re like seagulls on steroids.


Here’s an artist’s interpretation of a properly horrifying harpy…


… but I like this one because it looks kind of like a goose with Alan Rickman’s head.

I can’t really use this story anywhere else, because the prompt was so specific. Also, it’s very, very silly. So please enjoy it, and don’t buy exotic pets.


Dear Travis,

Congratulations! Or should I say, condolences.

I’ve examined the feather and eggshell fragment enclosed with your query, under both microscope and thaumoscope. Indeed, the hatchling in your care is not the Phoenix splendidus for which you must have paid a fortune. Nor is she, I’m afraid, Sirena sirena – which, with their song and flamboyant colouring, make lovely pets (though spoiled; they’re simply irresistible sometimes).

What you have there is Harpyia tempestus: a Lesser Mediterrean Harpy.

Let that be a lesson to you. Don’t count your magical black-market chickens before they hatch. Especially if you buy them online. Especially from a warlock.

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As a kid, I was a huge puzzle freak.

I liked jigsaw puzzles; the games Rush Hour, Tantrix and Labyrinth; brainteasers; and books like Rowan of Rin and Artemis Fowl and The Eleventh Hour. I loved it when books gave me a chance to solve the problems with the characters. Often, I’d flip back to check out a problem again.

Once, in Grade Three, I had a brilliant teacher who set us a basic substitution code – A = W, but B = F, C = J etc – and I liked it so much, he set me another one. I spent all of playtime figuring it out. I still remember the message: ‘when I was born, I was so surprised that I couldn’t speak for a year and a half!’

Riddles have a very long history indeed. The oldest riddle ever is probably the riddle of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian problem from 1650 BCE that is similar to the ‘As I was going to St Ives’ riddle:

Seven houses keep seven cats; each cat eats seven mice; each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn; each ear of corn would have produced seven hekat of grain. How many things are described?


Apparently, there are lots of possible answers. The mathematical answer is 19,607, which makes it a straightforward multiplication problem. But you could also say, for instance, that the answer is five: houses, cats, mice, corn and units of volume are five different things.

Riddles show up a lot in folklore and fairytales, which is probably why they show up so often in fantasy. Not complaining! It gives me the perfect excuse to put riddles in my own stories. Here are a few from my research and development for The Celestial Kris and The Grandest Bookshop in the World. Some of these didn’t end up fitting into the stories. For instance, in The Celestial Kris, the riddling character has a fixation on family, motherhood and being loved, so all of her conundrums (yes, it’s a word, we are descriptivists around here) are kind of in that vein.

Below every riddle is the answer in white text, so highlight the words to see them. 

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The wrong hand

This is a poem about being left-handed. Kind of. I’m sure different people will relate to it for different reasons.

I’m glad I live in a time when differences of all kinds are celebrated, and becoming more accepted every day. And considering my many eccentricities, I’ve gotten off fairly lightly. But living as a ten-per-center in a ninety-per-cent world has its ups and downs.


left handed prejudice IM ASEXUAL YALL


the philosophy was

my right side was weak

there must be some glitch

or i wouldn’t lean that way


it will be easier for her

and it would have been

the world isn’t made for them

it wasn’t, and it isn’t

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Fading (a short story)

This year, you’ll be seeing a lot more creative work on the Narratograph. You enjoy it more, I enjoy it more, it just makes sense.

Short stories are a form I’ve never really been able to nail down. They’re like those tiny meals you get in fancy restaurants, where it’s, like, two pieces of ravioli stranded at the bottom of a bowl the size of a bathtub. That is to say, even though they might be delicious, they’re over too soon and I’m left unsatisfied.

Still, now and then I do a bit of flash fiction as an exercise or personal challenge. Think of them as lollies, rather than desserts that turned out too small. This one ended up being very personal and very challenging. Excuse my self-indulgence in using the second person. These are the things I wish I could say to a specific person, so nothing else really felt right.

But it’s the most personal truths that have the greatest resonance.



It’s okay if you don’t remember.

I tell you several times a day now. It’s okay. I tell you because somebody must. Because you are hearing everything for the first time. Because you don’t understand the world anymore, and that frightens you.

My brother is so tall now. You see him every Sunday when you visit my-mother-your-daughter. You might not remember him, but that’s okay.

Every day, you unravel a little more. You say it’s the appliances that are broken, the newspapers mistaking the date. Someone, you tell me, is changing the things for the light. You roll your eyes when I’m the one confused. You’re convinced a stranger has been moving the light switches in your house, but I don’t figure that out until later.

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