It’s my anniversary.

Twelve months ago I launched my debut novel, ‘Climbing the Coconut Tree.’ Three years ago I commenced my writing journey, made a heap of mistakes and learnt a lot along the way.  How time flies.

So how’s it been going?

Here’s my report card on Climbing the Coconut Tree-:

  • It received 23 reviews across various sites.
  • It’s available to buy across UK, Europe, USA, Australia and NZ in print format and across more than 70 worldwide digital platforms including Amazon, Kobo and Apple.
  • E-book sales are 12.6% of my total sales.
  • It’s available in seven libraries and two independent book stores in Melbourne.
  • Three book groups have included it on their list.
  • It’s travelled the length and breadth of Australia, across the Pacific to the US and  Europe in the hands of multiple readers, many of whom have embraced the beach lifestyle and drink of choice, gin and tonic.
  • It’s been spotted with a number of celebrities, including past Presidents, sportspeople and movie stars although they may have been in a wax museum . . . see my earlier post on that one https://sckarakaltsas.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/whos-reading-my-book/

What else is coming?

My collection of short stories, ‘Out of Nowhere’ is completed and once the cover is finalised will be released shortly.

A short story, On the Side of a Hill was recently published in the Monash Writers Anthology. Another called, ‘The Surprise’ was short listed in the Lane Cove Literary Awards in 2016. Both stories will be available in my collection.

I’m also working on another historical novel called, ‘The Perfect Stone’  set during the Greek Civil War in 1948. Hopefully it will be out in 2018.

Whew! I guess I have been just a little bit busy.

What does your book pile say about you?

pics-of-books
I love to read.

Last year, I read some terrific books including – The Natural Way of Things; All the Light We Cannot See; People of the Book; One True Thing; A Man called Ove; Of a Boy; When There’s Nowhere Else to Run; The Marriage of Opposites; Donna Quixote; La Rose; Where My Heart Used to Beat; View from A Barred Window to name just a handful.

I’ve listed twelve titles randomly and realise that six of them are historical fiction. My list consists of seven Australian authors, six of whom are women. Interestingly, of my list of twelve, nine are by women. Many have won awards and two are self-published.

I do like to read historical fiction.  In fact, I like it so much that I wrote and published my own historical fiction. Now I’m in the middle of writing a second novel set in Northern Greece during the Greek Civil War. I confess I’ve only just recently realised this about myself. I always thought I read widely – perhaps not widely enough across genres. There’s three written with the Second World War as a backdrop;  five set in Australia; one in the US; one in Europe; one in Sweden and one in the Virgin Islands.

Perhaps I like historical fiction because I like history? I’m not a history buff but I do like to learn about historical events through story. I like being transported back in time and place. I guess that’s what draws me. That, and of course, a well written book which is probably written by a woman set in Australia. Is that called unconscious bias? Too bad if it is.

I enjoyed each book in my list of twelve but if I had to name a favourite for last year, it would have to be All the Light We Cannot See – that’s one I’ll read again and again.

As for what I’m reading currently? You guessed it – another historical fiction called Beauty is a Wound set in Indonesia but it is written by a man.

What does your book pile reveal about you ?

’tis the season

img_3352This time last year, I was grappling with the intricacies of publishing and feeling somewhat nervous about releasing my work into the world.

Thank you to everyone who provided me with so much support throughout the year. The many lovely responses to the publication of ‘Climbing the Coconut Tree’ has been truly amazing and beyond my expectations.

One year later; my collection of short stories is nearly complete and I’m over the half way mark for my second novel.  I’ll let you know more about these two projects early next year.

So for now, I’m going to relax (as much as anyone can in the lead up to Christmas) for a couple of weeks enjoying a hot summer in Melbourne.

I’d like to wish you and your families a joyous, peaceful  Christmas and may 2017 bring everything you hope for.

S.C Karakaltsas

Who’s Reading My Book?

 

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Pedal faster – I’ve got to get home to read.

There are many people reading, ” Climbing the Coconut Tree.” Two readers  decided the readership needed expansion, and they took the book on tour.  Check out the responses below.

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My fellow Americans, reading this book will be the first thing I do when I hand over to Hilary.

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I’ll read it only if you get away from me.

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Yeah, I’ll give it a go. I’ve got nothing else to do.

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We are not amused. Get off my throne!

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Does this book make the world a better place?

 

Thank you to Mark and Lynette Hoyne for the fabulous pics taken at Madame Tussauds in Singapore.

Still Waiting For An Answer …

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“The Age” 25 September 2016

It’s been seven days since I wrote my open letter to  Malcolm Turnbull and Kelly O’Dwyer without the courtesy of a response or acknowledgment. Did I expect anything? Quite frankly, no.

What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming response by so many of you to my letter which was shared with hundreds of people. I didn’t expect an extract to be published in ‘The Age’ newspaper either.

Thanks everyone for your support – it means a lot.

Meanwhile the young man I met last week still languishes with no end to his detention in sight, along with all the others on Manus Island.

So what’s next?

I  will follow-up with Kelly and Malcolm today seeking an answer to my question, “What are you going to do about releasing all 850 odd asylum seekers on Manus Island and when?”

In the meantime, why don’t you write a letter to your Member of Parliament? Just ask the same question too.

Open Letter to Kelly O’Dwyer and Malcolm Turnbull

Last night I met a young man fluent in three languages despite never having had the opportunity to go to school. He spoke to me from the heart and I was spell bound but gutted by his story.

He wants to work but he can’t. He should have made a wide circle of friends. But he has none. He should be having the time of his life but he isn’t. He should have a home and a country but he doesn’t. You see he has no choices because he has no freedom to pursue any of things we take for granted in this country.

He can’t do the normal things a young person should, because he is touched with the curse of being an asylum seeker. He has spent three long hard years of his youth on Manos Island, courtesy of the Australian Government. He spent his youth escaping persecution in his own country and then rode the wave of desperation to find any country who would take him. He has seen things that none of our young should ever see. Somehow he ended up in the hell hole of Australian detention.

Now, his life which should have been full of potential, is slipping away with suicide attempts, despair and no end in sight for his entrapment.

So what does the Australian government do to help him start his life? Absolutely nothing. He lives temporarily, without hope in community detention in Dandenong – treated for his depression which no amount of medical intervention will ever cure while he lives in a state of limbo. Despite the widespread closure of detention centres – seventeen according to Mr Turnbull this morning – many more still exist.

This young man is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. He’s off Manus Island. More than 850 others can only hope for illness or death, so they too can leave. So their only choice is self-harm in the worst possible way. There are many like him who are trapped in detention not just on Manus Island but in Australia as well – with no idea, if and when, a decision will ever be made as to their future.

A murderer is given more rights and due consideration as to his/her fate than an asylum seeker in this country.

These people are human beings who deserve to be resettled to Australia right now. Like it or not – they are our responsibility. It’s not hard to make a decision and make it happen. And it must happen before we and future generations of Australians bear the guilt of their treatment on our conscious for decades to come.

Mr Turnbull, you said this morning, “We have been dealing with Labor’s legacy, their legacy of shame.” It’s easy to blame others but it’s now your responsibility. This is under your job description. This is what you are being held accountable for.

Is my smug middle class sensibility shaken to the core? You bet.

So now Kelly O’Dwyer, as my representative in Parliament and you, Malcolm Turnbull as my country’s leader, I want to know what you are going to do about releasing all 850 odd asylum seekers on Manos Island and when.

The Australian people want an end date, but more importantly the asylum seekers need it- right now!

A Discerning Reader?

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Introducing Ruggs who enjoys reading, singing, lolling on the couch in front of the heater or sunbathing. She loves a tipple of iced water with a meal of Whiskers after a stroll in the garden. She still retains a sprightly figure at the ripe old age of 17 and knows what she likes.  Apparently  she likes my book.

 

The Journey of a Book

 

Courtesy of Andrew Richards

Courtesy of Andrew Richards – Hamilton Island

Do you ever wonder where books go after purchase?

Some stay in their wrapping tucked away waiting to be read. Some sit on a bedside table or bookshelf in company with others.   But a book can be lucky to travel to far off places.

Readers are letting me know that ‘Climbing the Coconut Tree’ is getting around and since publication earlier this year has travelled around the world.

The drink of the day in the late 1940’s in the tropics was gin and tonic. Readers in the Whitsunday’s certainly got into the ‘spirit’.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Richards

Photo courtesy of Andrew Richards -Whitsundays

Set in the Central Pacific, this historical fiction revisited ghosts of the past in Fiji where the murderer was tried and executed in 1950.

Stuck in the vegetation in Fiji

Fiji

Last month it enjoyed the magnificent sights and sounds of Bali before relaxing on the beach. What a perfect location for reading about life in the tropics?

Courtesy of Sandra Goding

Courtesy of Sandra Goding- Bali

It made it to Byron Bay, too late for the Writers Festival but relaxed instead by the pool.

Courtesy of Susan Richards

Courtesy of Susan Richards – Byron Bay

I’ve heard from sources that it’s been sighted in most capital cities in Australia, Colorado,Paris, London, Italy, Canada and Majorca.

Where next?

If you would like to share a photo with me feel free to send it via my contact details.

Bookstores

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The online world of ordering books is pretty much common place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s convenient especially when you know what you want.

However, there’s nothing like browsing in a bookstore. There’s an ambience – I feel comfortable and relaxed. I like to pick up a book and turn it over in my hands – read the blurb, feel the cover; leaf through it to get a sense of the writing.

Of course, I find it difficult to decide. There are so many I want. Is it expensive to buy two or three or more books? Generally, one book is no costlier than a main meal at an average restaurant, yet the enjoyment of a good book lasts so much longer- don’t you think?

Instead of dying out as so many predicted, new bookstores are springing up everywhere. I’ve been into a few lately and was surprised to see what bustling places they are.

I’m even more excited now that my book, Climbing the Coconut Tree is available in two wonderful bookstores.

If you live in Melbourne wander into-:
Jeffreys Books, 140 Glenferrie Road, Malvern (http://www.jeffreysbooks.com.au/)  or
Benns Books, 437 Centre Road Bentleigh.(http://www.bennsbooks.com.au/)

And pick up two or three books while you’re there.

Why I Love Libraries.

There’s something  very unique about libraries. With the onset of the internet and eBooks, bookstores have declined in number but it seems that our libraries  have not. Having reinvented themselves, they hold a proud place in our local community.

Unlike many clubs, membership is free and open to anyone. They are the ultimate recycler of books, magazines, music and movies. EBooks are even available to borrow on line from the comfort of home.

I never feel alone or lost in a library. Libraries are social and are often located in beautiful spaces. Why stop in to borrow books when there’s a wealth of other things to do there? Whether you use the computers, attend an event such as story time for children,  learn something new  like a technology program, join a book group or listen to an author talk, there is something for everyone. And if you ever need anything, librarians go out of their way to help.  I once borrowed a book from an interstate University library – the librarian found the right solution for me. What a change to dealing with many retail outlets?

I like browsing the shelves for the latest and not so latest books. As an author it’s a thrill to see my own book on the shelves at the Monash  Public Libraries as well as the Stonnington Public Libraries. Did you know that when you borrow a book by an Australian writer they receive royalties? This doesn’t happen in other countries. It feels good to know that I can support an Australian author just by borrowing their book.

What are your favourite libraries? I love the view from the Wheelers Hill library where you can sit, read a magazine overlooking the Dandenong Ranges and watch the ducks paddling their cares away in the lake below. Then pop into the café for lunch and  browse the art gallery for the latest exhibitions.  I love Phoenix Park Library where you can watch children play in the park and then attend a painting class in the Community Centre next door. You can do more than exercise your brain at the Clayton library by heading in to the adjoining swimming pool and gym after borrowing a book.

If you haven’t stepped into a library for years, go and try it out for yourself. You might discover something exciting is happening.

 

Aren’t Book Groups Great?

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Last night, nine ladies came together on a cold rainy night to discuss my novel, “Climbing the Coconut Tree”. As the author, I accepted the invitation to attend. I stood tentatively on the threshold of the house in Carnegie wondering what response I would get; if they had liked it; what sort of questions they might ask or even if they had read the book. Then I heard their animated chatter and laughter – it reminded me of my own book group of which I have been a member for almost twenty years. We meet every month and read books that we might never have chosen ourselves. There’s nothing better than talking about a book with others.

I was warmly welcomed and introductions were made. Penelope told me that she knew Jody a mutual friend and the ice was broken. The coffee table was covered with wine glasses, and a generous cheese and biscuit platter. The host, Lynnie had thoughtfully scattered bowls of coconut M&Ms (who knew they existed) and Bounties to provide a thematic background for the novel. Her only regret was she was unable to serve an appropriate cocktail like Pina Colada. But she made amends with a generous serve of hummingbird cake covered with cream cheese icing – delicious.

After glasses were filled and nibbles munched, the catch up chatter quickly turned to what we were all there for. Most had finished the book and were armed with great questions. Thankfully, I could answer them all. Here are sample few-:

Q. What is phosphate used for?
A. It is used as a component in fertiliser and after the second world war, demand by Australian and New Zealand farmers was high.
Q. Who lives on Ocean Island now?
A. Ocean Island is now known as Banaba and apart from a couple of hundred indigenous Banabans, it lies abandoned. It belongs to Kiribati which is the poorest nation in the world and itself  suffers from rising sea levels creating ecological refugees for parts of their population. They are a two-day boat trip away from the capital of Kiribati, Tarawa and since there is only one supply boat a year they must be self-reliant.
Q. When did the mining stop and what happened to the infrastructure on the island?
A. Mining stopped in 1979 and the roads and buildings now lay in ruin. Many buildings contained asbestos so this now adds to the ecological problems of the island.
Q. Do you think that the person accused of the murder was rightly convicted?
A. Initially I had my doubts but after reading the murder file and examining the evidence, I was satisfied they caught the right person.
Q. What drove you to write this story?
A. After reading my father’s letters recounting his life there, I realised that this was a part of Australia’s untold history. But I was even more compelled when I discovered a letter written by one of the murder victims. It was almost as if the victim was reaching out to me from the grave to tell this story.
Q. Will you write another novel?
A. Yes. I am still continuing to learn the craft of writing and am presently working on a collection of short stories. I am also conducting research on another historic novel.

I asked for feedback and we discussed the characters, life for women in 1948, mental health; the racial and industrial issues and so much more. Thankfully they had all enjoyed the book. Of course there were many more questions and the evening flew by.

Just after ten o’clock, Melinda announced that she had to go – a tap was leaking and a flood crisis needed to be averted. Dates were agreed for the next get together and farewells and thanks were made. Then I ducked out into the rain.

Best Weather for Writing

 

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After a long pleasant summer, Melbourne winter has arrived. The daylight is shorter and the sun less harsh. Dark clouds burst and droplets hit my chilled window. I crank up the heater, pull on my woolly socks and sit down to write.

Hot soup, crusty bread with butter for lunch. A hot chocolate for afternoon tea. Now I’m in the zone.

 

Book Reviews

Pile of books

I love to read books and couldn’t tell you how many I’ve read over my lifetime. My book shelves are overflowing as is my bedside table. My IPad contains many eBooks, so that I can read on the plane or in dim light.

 I’ve been a member of a book group for at least sixteen years so I talk about books too. But until a year or so ago, I had never been in the habit of sharing my thoughts anywhere else.

So I looked at Goodreads and Amazon. I was astounded how many people take the time and effort to review books.

The easy part is to decide on a star rating. The hard bit is to articulate a constructive response that adds value to anyone contemplating reading the book. This is not a quick and easy thing to do. But I discovered that even a few words can still help the reader and the writer. I notice that sometimes reviewers go into depth to describe the synopsis before they add their own opinions. That’s not really my style. If I love it, then I say it.

Is it naughty to look at reviews while you’re still reading the book? I confess! I’ve had a sneak peak if I’m struggling with the book and this helps me to persist to the end.

So what have been some of my favourite books? In no particular order – People of the Books ( Geraldine Brooks); Burial Rites (Hanna Kent) ; The Strays ( Emily Bitto); The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ( Mary Ann Shaffer); The Light Between Oceans ( M.L Stedman); All the Birds Singing (Evie Wyld); Lost and Found ( Brooke Davis); Eyrie ( Tim Winton). I could go on, but is it any coincidence that my list contains so many Australian authors? Many of them have inspired me with my own writing.

So now I try to take the time to write a review. I think it helps everyone.

The Cost/Benefit of Self-Publishing


Some people have asked me if it costs much to self-publish. To be honest I hadn’t costed it initially as I didn’t really have much of a plan. Now that my book has hit the market I’ve started to add it all up and was surprised that it wasn’t as much as I thought.

Editing and Formatting

If you decide to do your own book cover, self edit and go with Amazons CreateSpace, then it costs you nothing other than your own time. You don’t even need an ISBN with CreateSpace.

In my case, my book cover design and editing cost was a valuable investment for me. I was a bit scared when I saw  quotes for $2000-$4000 which I’d seen advertised and heard stories that authors had spent tens of thousands of dollars. I spent not much more than AUD$1000  but I’d advise you to shop around. I would highly recommend a good editor and book cover designer. See my earlier post on this at the link below.

(https://sckarakaltsas.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/so-you-think-youve-finished-your-book/)

I decided to buy a set of ISBN’s so spent just over $100 because it was more cost effective and I wanted to have control.

If you have expertise with word formatting, then there’s no reason to spend hundreds of dollars. I managed to format my own for CreateSpace but I wasn’t confident and made mistakes. I used Pressbooks to format my book for IngramSpark as an ebook and paperback for USD$99. If you are familiar with WordPress then Pressbooks is for you but otherwise it can be a bit tricky but not insurmountable. I managed to get a half price deal of US$49 and Pressbooks seem to have offers every now and then. I couldn’t have used IngramSpark without them. Of course, IngramSpark charge US$49 for publishing your book but they have a much wider reach than Amazon. So you need to weigh this up.

Then there’s the proof prints. These are very expensive and I found they cost on average US$25 each for CreateSpace and about AUD$25 for IngramSpark. The proofs are a necessity, so try to make sure your book is perfect first before you publish – that’s a given. Check out what I think of proofs in my earlier post at the link below.

(https://sckarakaltsas.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/the-proof-is-in-the-hand/)

Printing Costs

Firstly, you’ll need books if you intend to sell them yourself or for your launch. If you order books via Amazons CreateSpace, then they’ll cost you a lot depending on the exchange rate.

I woke up one night and suddenly realised that CreateSpace was quoting the USD for the printed book and an equal amount in shipping. If you live in USA then it’s not an issue. But if you live somewhere like Australia then you have to consider this:  exchange rate + bank fees + shipping = three quarters of the total cost for each book.

If you print with IngramSpark (Lightning Source) then in Australia, the cost is almost halved because they print in Australia and other parts of the world. Of course the downside is, that they are not as easy to deal with and I would allow a good two months in your timeline with them.

Book Launch

So you’ve got your books – check out the shipping times carefully with CreateSpace and IngramSpark as this may cause you additional stress and cost if delivery is not within your expected timeline.

You can go as big or small as you like here.

Other costs to consider at your launch is the venue, wine and nibbles. I wouldn’t bother printing invitations – email, Facebook and phone worked the best for me. Is it worth it? I would say yes.

I covered my costs with the sales at the launch, created a buzz and have continued to receive orders as well as sales online. It’s a great starting point in your marketing campaign. Each person at your launch becomes your advocate and can pass the word around. Naturally this will only happen if you have a good book.

Alternatively, if you do a launch at a book shop then they can take care of ordering your books. Some independent bookstores can do this and all you do is provide the wine and nibbles. Of course they take care of the sales and you get a smaller percentage. You just have to ask.

Marketing

Again you can spend up here, but you should research how cost effective it is to get your book noticed.

If you decide to do none of the above and go with publishing on CreateSpace then you can launch your book via social media, have a blog site and try to generate sales which won’t cost you anything either. Will you get many sales? Probably just from your family and friends. If that’s your aim, then it’s easy.

If you’re looking to get your book out right there, then you might have to consider spending a lot of time on social media. Amazon, IngramSpark, Facebook and many others are all willing to take your money and advertise for you but you better make sure you have an eye-catching product easily explained to the reader who will take barely a second to notice.

Personally, I think your book sells when you speak to as many people as you can about it. Signing up for events, door knocking bookshops and libraries are better than a remote control campaign. Of course that means time, guts and confidence and  that in  itself maybe in short supply.

Summary

It can cost you as much as you want. It just depends what your goals and expectations are. The biggest cost is time and the lack of a good product.

But I look at it as an investment in yourself  and your book which can provide many more benefits than dollars. Let’s face it, most writers don’t expect to make a living from writing.  I guess the biggest benefit for me was that I had total control but wasn’t too proud  to seek help and expertise when I needed it. The fact that I did it all by myself outweighs all those other costs.

So what are you waiting for ? Give it a go!

 

 

My book is out. Now what?

20295-Sylvia K-Climbing the Coconut Tree-Cover Design-FA Ingram

You’re probably wondering what I’ve been doing since the book launch.

I mean it’s all done, published and out in the marketplace. Right?

Not at all. It’s only the middle of the process. Just because friends and family have been enthusiastic and kind enough to buy my book, this doesn’t translate into sales across the world. Although I do recommend a book launch as family and friends can and will spread the word for you too. A lot of writers think that all you have to do is release it and hey presto your book is found.

With a quagmire of books out there and thousands of new releases every day around the world, my one and only book is barely a spec in the world for readers. When I look for it online it doesn’t exactly come up screaming its name out from the many retailers out there.

I have no brand, public relations and marketing team behind me to work on selling my book. It’s just me and it is quite daunting. Part of me wants to stay obscure and another part wants to see how far I can go.

This is what I’ve done so far.

1.       I’ve expanded distribution beyond Amazon and have been working with Ingram Spark. So my book is for sale online to forty-nine other eBook retailers such as KOBO, Booktopia and Barnes and Noble. Bookstores will shortly be able to order paperback format via Lightning Spark. This last process has taken at least six weeks so the learning for me is to allow for a longer lead time next time.

2.       I’ve used social media such as Facebook, GoodReads, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I haven’t inundated this and I probably should as I have achieved a good reach.

3.       An email address list has been put together to provide updates.

This is what I still have left to do:

1.       Get my book into bookstores and libraries particularly in my city.

2.       Encourage more reviews

3.       Check out cost/benefits of promotional advertising online

4.       Seek out a reputable book distributor

5.       Explore interested media outlets eg local newspapers and community radio stations.

6.       And blog!

Somewhere in all this is writing the second book which is well under way.

 

I Launched my Book

Book signing 2

The date was set and the venue sorted. I ordered copies of my book for selling and signing on the night. So who to invite. I scrutinised my email list, phone contacts, Facebook friends, colleagues, neighbours and the word spread. Before long the list was over one hundred attendees.

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The night was approaching. I had to prepare what I was going to say. I hate long speeches but I knew that the story about this book needed to be told – much like this blog site only a tad shorter. There were so many people to thank. You might think that writing a book is done on your own but there were over twenty people who had helped in some form or another. So you see a writer’s life is not so alone – anyway not for me.

crowd 3

Everything was organised. It began to rain after weeks of dry, hot weather. The roads were a mess but soon they came in their droves – well, maybe two’s and threes. My brother Andrew, surprised me by travelling from Sydney; my friend, Karen flew in from Adelaide.

transactions

No doubt many were curious about a person who had reinvented herself as a writer- banker no more. But in the end it was a great excuse to get people together – some who hadn’t seen each other for years. I wasn’t nervous. If I was going to stumble, then better it to be into the arms of supportive friends and family.

book holding
I was swept up by the excitement. Only I felt removed from the author tag. It was almost like it wasn’t my book but someone else’s. What was everyone congratulating me for? Why the clamour for my very long signature?

speech 4
I guess it takes a while to get used to the tag – I’m an author. Mmm…it sounds rather good.

My Book is Actually Published.

It was quite accidental really. After uploading my book into Createspace umpteen times, fixing format, spell checking and staring at the same errors over and over, I finally pressed the approve button.

Then the message popped up, “Congratulations. You are now published.”  Oops! I hadn’t meant for it to be out there so soon.

You see I ‘d decided to present my book at a formal book launch with supportive friends and family, but somehow it made its own way to the  Amazon book store. Then  within a few days the book was purchased not by one but three customers. I was very nervous as well as excited. Of course, the launch is still being readied.

I just can’t quite believe it, but now I’m a published author.

But a word of warning – go back and check the instructions before you press that approval button.

If you’re curious, feel free to check  out my novel “Climbing the Coconut Tree”  at the link below.

http://www.amazon.com/Climbing-Coconut-Tree-S-Karakaltsas/dp/0994503202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456357758&sr=8-1&keywords=Climbing+the+coconut+tree

The Proof is in the Hand

 Proof pic

I uploaded my  manuscript into Createspace and waited for the file to be checked. Approval came through and I was invited to peruse the finished book on-line. It looked like a book, but for me, I needed to touch and feel it.  So I ordered three proof copies; one for me and two, for others to proof read.

A few days later, the door bell rang and there was the courier holding a small box in his hand. I took it and walked around the house with it. I knew what was inside, yet all I could do was stare at the package.

Finally, I peeled off the wrapping and found a real live book –  a manuscript no more. Like a newborn baby, I was tentative about picking it up. I was excited yet nervous. Months of work and obsession sat there waiting for my scrutiny. I made myself a cup of tea glancing into the open box, I guess to make sure the book was real. Then, with my cuppa, I picked it up and sat down to read.

About twenty percent of book sales are eBooks but there really is nothing like holding a paperback in your hands – flicking the pages back and forward, turning it over to read the back, examining the feel of the cover and pages inside.

Unsurprisingly I found myself making changes once again. Was I ever going to stop I wondered?

What’s in a Cover

How your book is dressed entices the reader to look inside. Never judge a book by it’s cover? Rubbish! We all know that’s simply not true. It’s the greatest marketing tool to have. So how do you decide what the cover should look like? It’s a big question and a hard one to answer.

My book is historical fiction so I knew that I wanted a vintage feel. My book is titled “Climbing the Coconut Tree” so a coconut tree might be a good idea somewhere on the front. I had a working cover photo of an original ink picture that someone had drawn by hand of a coconut tree and native huts. It was on a Christmas card sent by my father in 1948. I was never able to find out who the original artist was. It is beautifully drawn in black and white and I although loved it, I knew it wasn’t strong enough.

Original front cover

Strolling across the internet there are lots of economical do-it-yourself covers. Createspace and Smashwords provide templates. But the problem for me was there was nothing that really grabbed me. Finally, I decided to seek help and found a graphic designer Anthony Guardabascio from http://www.continue.com.au. He designed my perfect cover which is below. I really love it and I hope you do to.

Print

 

In the gutter.

When it comes to getting your book out into the marketplace,  big decisions are needed.

I’d tried traditional publishers but in big business an unknown and untried author is rarely noticed. I wasn’t daunted though because I wanted to stretch myself further by exploring the options of self-publishing.

I had a manuscript. It was edited, reworked and revised. I went to workshops on self-publishing. There’s a carnival of sites like Ingram Sparks, Createspace and Smashwords amongst many who make it sound easy. After all what could go wrong. Just sign up, build your cover and upload. Easy. Nothing to it.I knew some people who had done it. A couple were in their eighties. Surely it couldn’t be that hard.

I was wrong.

There was another step in the process that I hadn’t counted on and it was called formatting. How naïve I was?

I tried a recommended site called Pressbooks which is a WordPress format. The deal is that you copy and paste your book and they take care of the format. For a small fee they do the formatting for print and ebooks in one foul swoop. Somehow it didn’t work quite that way for me. There was so much extra work for me to do with them that I decided to format it all myself. Was I brave or just stupid?

Nevertheless, I took the leap. I spent weeks learning how to format my lovely manuscript. I learnt about gutters (that’s the bit in the centre of two pages in a book) and how they need to be a certain width. Who’d have thought  this was so important and that I would find myself falling into it, so to speak.

I learnt about indentation, paragraph spacing, font, sizing, page numbers, front matter and back matter. There’s lot to it. Making lots of mistakes along the way and seeking help from Robert, a fellow writer, improved my expertise enormously.

And of course, formatting a print book is very different to an ebook.

But a basic crash course in Word would have been very helpful at the start.

 

My Adventure into Social Media

mazeApparently I needed an online presence to get my book out to a wider audience. Easier said than done!

I had no presence. Online, that is. I typed my name into the internet browser and found that there was absolutely nothing about me. It all seemed scary… but then the unknown often is.

Is this what people felt when Galileo declared that the world wasn’t actually flat? If I take the leap will I fall off the edge of the world wide web?

Like a modern day explorer, I set out off into the maze. I joined Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. That seemed easy.

Now for a webpage. I heard about WordPress. It seemed straightforward, but it was a minefield of inhospitable terminology. Well, for me anyway. For goodness sake -what on earth is a widget? I got as far as I could on my own and then got stuck. I sought help and luckily, my friend’s son, Theodore knew all about it. After a few pointers I got back on track.

It was exciting to set up my page. Like decorating a new house, I chose colours, pictures and themes. Now what?

I had to write something. What was I going to say? I looked at what other writers were doing. Some were writing about their daily lives. Some wrote stories; others wrote poetry. In fact, people seemed to write just about anything.

Finally, I typed my first post. My finger hovered over the publish button. I moved my hand away. Once I published where would it go? I was invited to make it sticky. What did that mean? Uncertainty and fear plagued me. Like Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone with the Wind, I too decided to think about it tomorrow.  I kept my first draft for a day or two or three.

After a week or so of procrastination, I took a deep breath and  pressed the publish button. Then waited and waited. Nothing. Funnily enough, I was relieved – there was no expectation, no feedback and it didn’t come crashing down all around me.

No news was good news as far as I was concerned so I decided give it another go. My next post was published. I got some likes and then some followers. Then I posted again and again.

It seems so long now since that first post but if you haven’t read it here it is… https://sckarakaltsas.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/the-letters/


The Publishing Merry-go-Round

I had restructured, edited and rewritten my whole book. Spent nights and days thinking about nothing else.

It was time to send it out to traditional publishers.

I researched how to write a pitch or query letter. There are plenty of great ones on line.  I carefully read the submission requirements for each publisher. I tested the waters and sent the first three chapters off to three or four publishers.  Then sent another three or four and so on. So then the waiting began. Most tell you that if they want to read more they’ll get back to you. You may never hear back and, if three months has passed then you know that you will never get a response. That’s just the way it is. It’s nothing personal – it’s just business.

One afternoon I received a phone call from Adam. He rang to let me know that my submission had been received- a nice touch instead of the obligatory email, I thought. He had read my query letter and asked me a few questions about the book. Like a job interview, I answered his questions and well, perhaps earbashed him with my enthusiastic response. He told me that he would refer it to the team for them to read. I hung up the phone in disbelief and excitement. But I think, in truth, I was feeling anxious. Was I truly ready for someone else to read my work? Did I want to hand over my baby to others?

A month later, I received some rejection letters from other big name publishers. Thanks but it’s not what we’re looking for … and so on. It was as I expected.

Then Adam called. “We’re interested,” he said, “but we need to get an evaluation report externally to determine the books saleability. We might need to change the title or structure.” He went on to say that I would need to make an investment to meet the cost of the evaluation feedback. Warning bells rang in my head. Traditional publishers never ask for money. Was Adam a vanity publisher? That is, one who’ll publish your book for a substantial fee. His web page indicated otherwise.

It was my turn to interview him. My years in business enabled me to get some answers. And I wasn’t very satisfied. The whole reason why a traditional publisher is sought after, is for their distribution network. They can get your books into book stores. Yet Adam’s distribution network was very small and mostly in schools. Then, I heard a podcast, warning writers about unscrupulous publishers stinging writers for tens of thousands of dollars. Adam’s company was one of them. I realised that he was not the publisher for me. Which is why it’s so important to research publishers.

It is indeed a hard slog for writers to get a book published by a traditional publisher. It is after all a business for book sellers, distributors, agents and publishers who together must make a living – often taking 90-95% of the takings from a book sale. The author gets the rest.

It was time for me to take stock and consider my options.

****

So you think you’ve finished your book

 

editor pic

I was smugly satisfied that my book was done. But was it?

There were nuances in my writing that my beta readers had pointed out; words in my dialogue such as ‘well’ at the beginning of a sentence was one example. I knew I needed help with punctuation – who doesn’t?

I read a lot about editing – copy editing, line editing, developmental editing – these terms were all confusing to me. I’d also heard that a writer should be their own editor. That an editor can change and interfere with the integrity of your story. Ok then, all I needed to do was critically edit my own work and organised for someone to proof read – surely that was enough.

Then I met a lovely lady called Meredith who asked to read my book. Luckily for me she’d been an editor in the past. She gently set me straight and pointed out ways to cut my wordy sentences. Did I really need a whole page to describe something which I’d said earlier in one line? Had I really developed the characters enough? Male dialogue sometimes sounded girly in parts; there were too many adverbs. She opened my eyes to things that only someone with such expertise can do. She could see things that I couldn’t and under her expert guidance I revised and revised. I realised then that I had needed that valuable advice and that my book was far from finished.

After the rewrites I found another lovely lady, Annie, who did a final edit. Like Meredith, she too gave me advice and feedback which all served to make my book the best that it could be.

When I look back at my first drafts, I just can’t imagine what I must have been thinking. If I’d released my book on the world in that state, I would have regretted it.

Writing is a journey especially for someone who is new to it. Increased skill will only come from practice,great feedback, more practice and more feedback. I don’t think I’ve nailed it and maybe I never will, but I’m motivated to continue on the scary path to improvement with many amazing people helping me along the way. I’m in awe of all the incredible editors out there and the painstaking work they do. Everyone needs them.


Yes, I lost the plot.

It was as if I’d taken a lover.I’d spent day and night with it. I thought of little else.
Pride, love and energy caressed each page. That was how I felt when I finished and printed my first draft.

Yet doubts haunted me. Was it good enough to show off yet? Filled with trepidation, I approached five people to read the first draft. I chose people who I knew would give me honest and direct feedback. I wasn’t interested in feeding my ego. I wanted to develop my writing.

Like waiting for exam results I was restless to have their feedback. Days and weeks rolled by as busy lives got in the way. Then one by one they came back. There were pencil notes on grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. Some pointed out flaws that I’d not seen before; changes in point of view; over explaining a point in two or three ways, repeating some of the same words over and over again. These were just a few areas to work on.

Then my good friend Don sat me down and asked, “What do you want your book to be about?” We talked about the plot. What was I writing? Was the plot a series of events pulled together without any cohesion? Yes, I had lost the plot.

I suddenly saw my book in a different light – it was clear what I needed to do. My book and I needed time apart. Fortunately, it was Christmas and the holiday season  made it easier to deal with any seperation anxiety.

Eight weeks later, I opened the file on the computer – there was my book. I’d missed it. I re-read the first chapter, said goodbye and then deleted it. Then, I painstakenly altered, deleted, expanded, tweaked and corrected. Each chapter and every sentence had to earn it’s  place. I had to be ruthless. With that, I changed the whole direction of the book.

You can’t do that to a lover.

How My Writers Group Saved Me.

 

One morning as I went into my local library I saw a sign that said “Writers Group Meeting This Way”. I did a double take. What was this about?

I was struggling. I was half way through writing my novel and still had no idea if I was on the right track. I was lost. I wanted to talk about my writing, to test it and find out if it was any good. I needed help.

I found out that there were three groups operating in my local neighborhood house, each facilitated by a professional writer. Later I discovered that there were groups all over the city. I put my name down and soon found myself walking into a room with eight other people I didn’t know.

I was welcomed and introductions were made. There was man who had written and published a book, five years before and had written several others, yet unpublished. Another, who wrote short stories and had several published. Two women had already written a novel and were onto their second. The facilitator had successfully published a novel and was a qualified teacher at a tertiary level. They had all been writing for a long time and  knew each other well.

It was my turn. I nervously told them I had been writing my novel for three months, had never written before and explained what my novel was about. Had I brought something to read out loud? I nodded – my novel was on my Ipad – luckily I’d brought it.

Then it was down to business. The first writer handed out pages to each of us and began reading it out aloud it was a short story. I glanced around the table and saw that everyone wrote notes on the pages. I hadn’t thought to bring a pen. As the story ended, I wanted to clap. I thought it was wonderful. The writers offered their constructive opinion as the story was critiqued and debated. The facilitator gave her feedback on what could have been done differently to enhance the ending. Corrected punctuation, grammar and feedback scrawled on the pages were  returned to the writer. Then, it was on to the next person whose work was workshopped in the same way.

My nerves began to kick in, as writer after writer read out their work. The standard was high.  My mind whirled with uncertainty . . . I can’t read mine out, it’s terrible . . . what was I thinking? I shouldn’t be here, I thought. Could I slink out during the break and not come back?

Then it was my turn. I took a deep breath, ignored the sweat dripping down my underarms and read the first chapter. When I finished everyone was silent . My relieved smile was returned and words of encouragement, interest and support surrounded me . They liked it!

I took their suggestions home and rewrote the chapter.It’s funny, but eight months later, I deleted that first chapter.

After workshopping my novel for almost 12 months, I can honestly say that the feedback, advice and suggestions challenged me to make my novel, so much better. This group helped me learn how to write and I thank them.

Helpless

The Quest to Find a Murder File.

So what was the next step to investigating the murders? Another friend Katrina, told me about the State Archives and that they are the source for many historical pieces of information.

After countless emails and internet searches I found  the file was at the State Archives of QLD.

“Yes,” the email said, ” We have that murder file. However, you will need to fill out the attached forms to seek permission for access from the QLD police.”

That should be simple, I thought – until I looked at the forms.There were complicated, but  I managed to fill them out,  get my identity verified by my local police station and send them off. This shouldn’t take long.

Wrong.

The file could not be accessed for 100 years. It had only been 65 years – oh dear!

More forms to fill out, until finally the permission came through five months later.

I could view the file at the State Archive of QLD in Brisbane – I had twelve months to do it.

Can’t someone copy it for me? No – the permission meant that I had to fly there and sit in the archives and read over what I needed. I could not copy. I could not  use a dictaphone. But I could take notes.

So I convinced my friend Valerie to come with me. We landed in Brisbane and while she shopped and took in the sights, I locked myself away and read the police investigation of the murders – all under the watchful eye of the archivist.

It took me seven hours. There was a newspaper article about the lead detective in the file – could I copy that? No  – I would need to go the State Library and get a copy from them. My head started to ache – dive into my handbag for pain relief.

The next day, Valerie and I traipsed along to the State Library. We found a room where newspapers were stored on microfiche – how do we find the article?

I said to Valerie, “Let’s leave it. I don’t really need the article.”

But Valerie was persistent and persuasive.

A librarian must have noticed how clueless we looked and asked if she could help. We almost hugged her. She found the article and switched on a massive machine.  Did we have a USB as they don’t provide paper copies?

I was aghast. What would I be doing with a USB? Valerie, in the meantime, dived deep into her handbag and pulled one out. What a life saver! The librarian inserted it into the machine and copied the article for us. It was two minutes to closing time as we scurried our way out of the labyrinth with our prize.

I never did ask Valerie why she happened to have a USB in her handbag.

When someone knows someone, who knows someone, who can help.

Banner-PeopleTalking

At dinner one night, I was telling my good friends James and Sue about my project and how it had morphed into a book of sorts. James worked for a large fertiliser company and knew someone who had worked on Ocean Island.
“Would you like me to get him to contact you?” he said.
“Could you?”I said excitedly. I could hardly wait.

A few days later, a man named Sam emailed me some information about Ocean Island – its history, its people and the mining.  He told me that he’d mostly worked on Nauru but gave me a name and phone number of someone else who had worked on the island for fifteen years, almost until the mine was closed in 1979.

I was excited and anxious. Now I could find out first hand, rather than rely on books and articles for my information. What would I say to this person? That I was writing a book? That I wanted to know what it was like to live on Ocean Island. That I wondered if he knew about the murders?

I knew if I thought about it too much, that I’d lose confidence and resolve, so the next day, after writing down my questions, I rang.

What a wealth of information I received from this generous man. He spoke to me for over an hour and told me about a group of people who had lived/or worked on all the phosphate islands – Ocean Island, Nauru and Christmas Island. They called themselves ‘The Phosphateers’ and  got together once a year to reconnect and reminisce. Soon, I was the subject of an email trail to everyone who was a phosphateer. Before long, I received responses and names of more people who had lived on Ocean Island during the late 40’s and early 50’s.

I contacted and interviewed a number of them. They’d been children in 1948 and remembered what life was like – fun and carefree. When they reached high school age, they were shipped back to Australia to continue their education at boarding school.

Everyone was only too happy to fondly share their memories and pass on the names of others who might have been able to help.I was lucky to be invited to their annual reunion held in the suburb next to mine – what luck! There, I talked to as many as I could – each generously sharing their experiences and memories – painting a picture for my imagination and my story.

But no- one could remember much about the double murders – it was too long ago. No- one knew my father either.

And even now, when I tell people where my story is set, I still find that someone knows someone who had worked or lived there and they pass on their name.

Five things I’ve learnt about writing so far.

keyboard

I had my story, but was trapped by the truth. How do I tell it, yet be faithful and true to the people who lived during 1948? I needed help but I didn’t know how to go about getting it.

Quite by chance I read an article about an upcoming Emerging Writers Festival in my city. I trawled through the site and worked out what sessions I wanted to attend.

The day arrived; it was cold and lonely walking into the large auditorium. I found a seat and the first session opened with a panel of five writers. The comments of  Emily Bitto and Hannah Kent resounded. They had both written and published historical fiction novels; The Strays and Burial Rites. I read them later and urge anyone to read them – they are fantastic!

These are the points that created an impact for me -:

1. Just write!

I went home and gave it a go and discovered that when I wrote I got into a zone. It was almost meditative.  I didn’t worry about where it was going or how it sounded. Naivety meant that I had no expectations and no rules to get in my way. It freed me!

Many people tell me that they have an idea but don’t know where to start. Go with the first thing that comes into your head and let it go. I might be wrong, but if you torture yourself about how to go about it, I can’t see how you’ll ever get it done.

2. Read, Read and read!
I have always been a prolific reader for pleasure but now I began dissecting the books I was reading for structure, language, character development – borrowing concepts and ideas to see how they fitted for my writing. One idea quickly led to another. I didn’t have anything to lose but try.

3. Be empathetic
I had to walk in the shoes of my characters and transport myself to 1948. What did my characters know, understand and feel about what was happening around them? How did they speak? I read newspapers of the time. The fear across the globe was of Communism and financial problems. When you read the newspapers today that fear is Islam and financial problems. Some things don’t change much.

4. Draw on your own experience
I pulled out character traits from people I knew, without even realising it. Now I can recognise elements of the people I have known throughout my life, in the characters I’ve built.

5. Don’t get bogged down in research.
I had spent months researching the era, Ocean Island, mining, the murders etc. How was all of this research going to find a place in my story? I suddenly realised that I could use fiction. I drew on my research when I needed it. It released my imagination and freed me up to write. It was exciting and exhilarating.

 

No wonder it became my obsession.

Feel free to let me know what you’ve learnt.

 

 

What happens when you take your obsession on holidays?

DSC_1284A holiday to far north Queensland with my dear friends, Pauline and Ron, took me away from my book. The trip had been pre-planned for months and somehow I had to wrench myself from the computer. Like a newborn child I couldn’t leave it, so I took my writing with me.

The day before we left, we found out that a category 5 cyclone  was bearing down on Cooktown, some 650 kilometres away from our destination, Townsville.

When we arrived it was calm and sunny in Townsville. The cyclone hit Cooktown and was downgraded to category 4 – nothing for us to worry about. The next day it began to rain. We watched the weather forecast closely –  the cyclone was making its way down the coast straight toward us. Should we now be worried?

The next morning I woke and all seemed calm in our solidly built apartment overlooking the sea. I got up and opened the curtains –  the wind and rain was fierce. The palm trees were being buffeted from side to side; the waves from the sea splashed over the pool. Pauline stood next to me – we  looked at each other in alarm. Is this what a cyclone is like?

The loudspeaker crackled on and a man with a deep voice announced, “Good morning, the lifts are closed until the cyclone has passed. Please stay indoors. We apologise for any inconvenience.” Our plans for the day had been thwarted – what should we do?

With my obsession never far away, my thoughts went to my book. I could use the imagery of the cyclone but what else? Could my friends re-enact the murder? After a little persuasion, they agreed to humour me. The scene was re-enacted – laughter included. I wasn’t expecting an  academy award winning performance, but they did a great job to help me visualise how the murder might have happened. But it created more questions. I wondered why the woman hadn’t run out of the house while her husband was being stabbed. She had picked up the phone instead.

Soon after, the sky cleared. We looked out of the window – people were on the beach, children were in the pool. The cyclone had passed.

How do you know if you can write?

keyboard

I had finished reading the book “Questions of Travel’.  The author, Michelle De Kretzer,  wrote two stories with two points of view. One was about a man who suffered the loss of his wife and son under horrific circumstances during the war in Sri Lanka and the other was the story of a wanderlust young woman.

Perhaps I could do the same thing but instead tell one story from two points of views. What I had was an important history in my fathers letters.Could I write a book about what happened on the island?

The Australian media focussed on the murders of the husband and barely mentioned his wife. I know it was indicative of the times but this got under my skin. I wanted her to have a voice. Why had they died? What had happened?

One night I lay in bed and thought about what she must have endured . I couldn’t sleep so  I got up and wrote my first chapter.

I hadn’t written anything creative since high school. I had worked in the financial services industry for more than 30 years. What did I know about writing? I hadn’t written anything . . .  or had I. I began thinking about my working life. I had written policy, procedure, letters, emails, newsletters, speeches,templates. Perhaps I was equipped to write but didn’t have the confidence. What I did have though, was my growing obsession which drove me to just give it a go. What did I have to lose? I read that first chapter to my family and with their encouragement began to build confidence.

I went away for a weekend with some close friends and read  the first chapter. I got some positive feedback – wow. A small part of me wondered if they were humouring me . . .  or if they were just shocked to find out I wanted to write a book . . .  or maybe just surprised I could string two words together.

It was enough to spur me on to write five chapters. I picked out the events that my father wrote about then visualised the scenes with the help of the photos I had.The story was built  around the events and I  filled in the missing blanks. How did I do this? Research and imagination.

How did I know if I could write? Well, I still don’t but if it makes sense and the reader gets something out of it then I’m half way there. Aren’t I?

How My Obsession Began.

I had almost finished typing up the letters.

The next one dated 3 May 1949 dropped a bombshell. The gruesome murder of a couple – I knew their names. My father had mentioned them in his earlier letters. Why had this  Australian husband and wife been stabbed to death? I didn’t know them but my father had a connection to them. I don’t know why, but I felt sad. Was I the only one who thought about them after 65 years?

I flipped through the remaining letters – there were only 3. The murderer was at large and three detectives from Brisbane  arrived. The next letter speculated about the murderer. “By the way, you seemed to think that natives were the cause of this strife – well they’re not. They would never come at anything in that nature and so far as I’m concerned the Chinese aren’t a patch on them so far as work and manners is concerned.”  Did he believe someone from the Chinese community was the culprit?

The final correspondence ended by saying that a person had been arrested.Then nothing more.

Imagine my frustration. I had lots of questions  and my father was no longer here to ask him. Then, when I thought about it, I realised he probably didn’t know much anyway.

I had typed up 65 pages and 23000 words – a story had unfolded.  All I had to do was work out how to tease these events into a coherent story. That’s when I started writing my  novel and my obsession.

When do you tell a white lie?

My father had an operation on his appendix. The doctor and his boss each wrote to my grandparents to tell them and to also let them know that he was well.

He had always been fiercely independent and he played it down in his letter.’I’m very sorry about his appendix business Mum. The doc didn’t tell me anything about sending that cable, and I told you a fib in the letter so as not to worry you.’ I wonder what my grandmother must have thought. He had been away three months on this remote island and already two trips to hospital!

To prove how well he was and I suppose to allay any worries  he later writes,
“I’m thriving on the life up here though and reckon it’s a great place. I’m as fit as a fiddle – developing quite a few long unused muscles owing to the strenuous work and still eating like a horse.” He painted a picture of  his social life – playing tennis, dinner parties and dances.

I knew from his letters there were about 2000 workers on the Island, some with families, but for the most part, the population was male. I started imagining what it must have been like. No doubt there would have been alcohol and I wondered if a young man like him would have indulged. It was a rare day when he didn’t enjoy a beer in his adult life and he was proud to tell us that he never drank to excess.

I wondered if it had started on Ocean Island. I smiled when I read a line in one of his letters.
  ‘And I hope you’re not worrying about the manner of my liquid refreshments – the strongest drink I’ve had, or intend to have is fruit cordial, but put away an average of about four or five coconuts per day.’

I found out later that the European workers each had a daily beer ration. I learnt to read between the lines.

How exactly do I find out more?

State Library of Victoria

State Library of Victoria

So  I knew a bit  about Ocean Island. But if I really wanted to understand what my father had experienced, I would have to read something of that time. Luckily he’d mentioned reading  the “Mid-Pacific Outposts” which had been written in 1945 by  Albert Ellis himself (see my earlier post entitled ‘ Where is Ocean Island?’ for more on him).

Surely my father had kept a copy – I searched through all of his old boxes – nothing  but old school trigonometry books – why on earth had he kept these?

I searched the internet and found it listed but not in stock. I searched bookshops for old and rare books – nothing.

Then I discovered Trove which is the brainchild of the National Library of Australia. What a site! I found articles, newspapers, books, letters, archived for viewing in many cases on-line, dating back to the 1800’s – and mostly for free. It listed the book available in my own State library. The only catch was I would have to go there – it wasn’t available to borrow.

I admit that I’d never been to this amazing place in the centre of Melbourne. Once there, I ordered the book and waited for half an hour while they brought it down from some secret spot in the bowels of the library. I  explored –  there were terminals, a newspaper room, communal desks, people everywhere and books, books and books. It was a busy place. I must have looked like a country hick – mouth open in awe. In truth, I  live only a short distance away in suburbia.

Soon my book, labled with my name, was ready. It  looked and smelt like it’d been in a dark dusty dungeon. I  found a place at a communal table and opened the cover.The last time it had been taken out of its dingy hiding spot was in the fifties – a popular book, it wasn’t.

After ten minutes of reading, I was only up to page 15 – this was going to be slow.  My Ipad was in my bag – so I took photos of the pages I wanted. I glanced around but no-one bothered me or seemed the least bit concerned.

There was great information but if Mr Ellis were relying on reviews of his book today, I’m sure the feedback would not be good.

The internet has been an amazing source of information  and it continually astounds me. But there was stuff in this book that I would never have found on the internet and there are still holes in our information highway waiting to be filled.

Where is Ocean Island?

pacificislands

I began telling friends about my project. I was surprised they were interested – they wanted to know more.

“Where is Ocean Island?”
“In the middle of the Pacific,” I happily answered. But that meant nothing to anyone.
“You know, Nauru?” I said.
“Yes.”
Everyone knows about Nauru but only because of the emotional and raging debate against Australia using it to house asylum seekers.

“Well, it’s near there. About a hundred or so kilometres to the east,” I said confidentally.But I knew very little else.

I thought I’d better find out a bit more and the internet enlightened and surprised me.

I read one reference from a fellow to the question, ‘where is Ocean Island’ and he replied, “All over Australia mate.” What did he mean? I soon found out.

In the early 1900’s, Nauru had been in the hands of the Germans who mined phosphate. Albert Ellis, a young New Zealander discovered that there was tons of phosphate on nearby Ocean Island and placed a stake on behalf of the British. He negotiated with the island chiefs and paid them fifty pound a year and promised to bring in water. The islanders or Banabans ( as they were known)  thought it was a great deal considering that most of their number had been wiped out from the last long drought some years before. So at the turn of the century, mining commenced and didn’t stop until the phosphate was virtually gone in 1979. During that time, Australia managed Nauru and Ocean Island jointly with New Zealand and Britain. When the First World War broke out, the British secured Nauru from the Germans and the Australians mined it too.

However,during the Second World War the Australians abandoned both islands when the Japanese advanced and occupied most of the Central  pacific region. The islanders were treated harshly and most of the Banabans were dispersed across the other nearby islands. Food was scarce and death was the norm at the hands of the Japanese. My father must have been touched by the site of old Japanese tanks left abandoned around the island. This is a photo he took in 1948.

Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)

Abandoned Japanese Tank left on Ocean Island ( Banaba)

Today, Banaba as it is now known, belongs to Kirabati, one of the poorest nations on earth. You can just make out the speck called Banaba near Nauru on the map above. Now largely abandoned with an ecological disaster on their hands, a small number of native Banabans try to eek out a living.  The rest of their people live on Rabi, an island bought for their relocation in 1945 – some hundreds of kilometres away in Fiji.

So what is phosphate used for? It was mined and brought back by ship and used primarily by our farmers as fertiliser.

My curiosity and excitement about this island was growing. I was drawn to the place and its history and the experience my father had in the twelve months he was there. In the back of my mind, the threads of a story was brewing.

I wasn’t a writer I told myself. I didn’t know what I was going to do or how this project was going to unfold, but I knew I had to push on.

 

The Box

Chinese Camphorwood Chest

Chinese Camphorwood Chest

I couldn’t wait to read more and every spare moment I typed. Thank goodness for spell check.

His letters were detailed. I could sense my father missed home but he also seemed happy which must have been a comfort to my grandmother.

He explained proudly about the purchase of a camphorwood chest from a Chinaman. He described it in detail, the markings, the size and the cost. He had bargained for the first time and boasted at how cheap he had acquired his prize.

I looked up from my typing and glanced at my shelf. There was the camphorwood chest, holding letters and photos of a lost time.

It was the same one. I was sure of it.

A Mother’s Worry.

Pinnacles on Ocean Island

Pinnacles on Ocean Island

As a man, there are things you can write to your father that you don’t write to your mother.

The next letter  to my grandfather was different and the tone changed.This was a man to man letter. The language was looser, less formal. He described the hardship; hacking at bush; of sweat and dirt; the mining and how it worked; of cableways; crushers, dryers and storage bins and pinnacles of phospate. It was a dry, harsh landscape and it sounded less than tropical island idyllic.

In contrast the next letter to my grandmother talked about his broken watch which he was sending back to her to organize repair. He told her of listening to the amateur hour and about his housemate. He mentioned that he’d cut his leg falling on some steps some weeks prior; that it had become infected and that he had gone to hospital for a few days. He told his mother not to panic, “The leg is quite ok now, so don’t go worrying.”

What a bombshell that must have been. She found out well after the fact.What must she have been thinking. Like most mothers she would have worried. Isn’t it built in as soon as you’ve conceived? If a child tells you not to worry, that’s when you worry. I’m surprised he confessed. But was this because there were bigger issues brewing on the island?

This was a pattern in his behaviour that I recognised. Even when he was sick and in his last days he didn’t want any fuss and tried to hide the reality of his predictament from his family.

I wondered what else he was leaving out.

What Happened to the Strikers?

Looking across Home Bay - Ocean Island 1948

Looking across Home Bay – Ocean Island 1948

Like a good book put aside, I anticipated the next revelation.

I learnt about the friends my father had made; what he ate, the cheap cigarettes he’d bought to send home and the native phrases he’d learnt. He went to dinner parties; joined the rifle club; played cricket, went to the outdoor picture theatre and attended a fatele which he described as a native dance.

I discovered that the Gilbertese natives had been sent home and replaced by Ellice natives. I wondered if this was related to the strike? “Well anyhow the latest rumor is that, since they can’t get enough Ellis labour, they’re going to recruit about 600 Chinese which will means I’ll have to learn Chinese!!”

I reviewed his earlier letters and it was the Gilbertese natives who had gone on strike to get 10 pounds a month. If you went on strike in 1948 they merely sacked and deported you. Imagine doing that today?

But then, there are more subtle and covert ways to deal with workers these days.

Turmoil

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It had been a few days before I could get back to the letters. I’d been emotionally drained after thinking about my father. Perhaps it was part of the grieving process –  I don’t know. I decided not to think too much – get it down – read and think later.

The third letter was to my grandfather – interesting. I had thought all the letters were to my grandmother. I had never known my grandfather – he had died several years before my parents had even met.The date was 30 June 1948 and my father had been away for a whole month. He had finally arrived on Ocean Island. There was a hand drawn diagram of his house and a photo of it (displayed above). Could that be him, shirtless? I wasn’t sure. There were no drones so someone must have climbed a tree to take this shot.

The next paragraph made me think this was no idyllic island paradise. He explained that the natives had gone on strike; some natives were speared; and Europeans had armed themselves with guns. I wasn’t expecting this. What had been going on? Then he talked about how hot it was, what his job was like and detailed descriptions of his meals. I re-read the part about the strikes and firearms. He was matter of fact. I tried to read between the lines; was he scared, anxious,homesick, excited? He ended the letter by advising his father to take his mother for a holiday to Brisbane to see his sister – nice touch. I’m sure alarm bells would have been ringing for his parents.

I couldn’t wait to get to the next letter, dated a week later and was frustratingly short – half a page. It mostly explained that he needed to write the letter quickly to catch the boat. There was nothing more about the strike. What was really going on that he hadn’t put into his letters? He ended it by promising to write a really long letter later that night. Lucky for me I could read his next letter in an instant. How excruciating it must have been for my grandparents to wait weeks for the next instalment. That wouldn’t work now in our age of instant gratification.

As I typed the next letter quickly, I wondered if he would update about the strike. There were descriptive passages about the weather, the people he met and his daily routine. He mentioned his boss Mr Allen, who he described as “quite a decent chap”. He joined the Rifle Club and learnt some local phrases from the natives. He seemed to be getting along well. No updates on the strike. Was he keeping that to himself so as not to worry his parents?

Here was the hard part. I wanted the letters and the story to reveal itself to me. But I knew that if I read ahead then my discipline to type it all would wane. I knew myself too well.

Getting to know my father

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I took a deep breath and began typing the first letter – one and half pages. There were words I couldn’t decipher. He was on the ship, “The Triona”. He talked about the Lascars – who were they? Who were the Mc Raes he saw before he left? I penned a note to ask my Aunt. She was bound to know. At 94, she was still as sharp as a tack.

I typed up the next letter ’20 June 1948’. Three weeks in and he was still on the ship. There was a diagram of his quarters and a description of the food he’d eaten. I guess he was a typical 18 year old boy who loved to eat. He wondered if his new nephew or niece had arrived. He worried about my grandfather and if he was coping with the garden without him. He was sick of being at sea.

I finished typing the second letter and pondered. It dawned on me that I was getting to know my father as a teenager. What child ever gets to do that? He was 28 when I was born and my earliest memories of him began at three. I was looking up at him, my neck craned to watch him shave off his red fluffy beard – he would have been 31. I really got to know him in his mid to late 30’s and by the time I was a teenager with a consciousness, he was already in his 40’s. By then we were already worlds apart.

What an extraordinary opportunity I’d been given to discover my father as a boy and watch him turn into a man – into the man I knew and loved. He was the man who I had adored and followed everywhere as a kid; who did no wrong in my eyes – the teacher, the larrikin, the organiser, the drinker; the fixer, the adventurer. The man,I had stood up to as a teenager, and fiercely argued with, for my own independence. The man who had been my champion; who had been proud of everything I had ever done even though I shrugged it off. The man who could fly off the handle for the smallest of things yet hated confrontations. The man, who in later years, withdrew from me and everyone else, into his own world. Had he always been like that?

The Letters

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I hadn’t looked at the old camphorwood chest since I was a kid. But now I examined it, as if, for the first time.There was a large butterfly carved into the lid and other designs on the side with old scratches across the front of it. I carried it to my desk and opened the lid. Inside were piles of envelopes containing old photos and letters. One envelope was neatly labelled Ocean Island. I flicked through the photos, the handwriting on the reverse named places and dates. Thank goodness there was no digital photography then.

Then I found what I was after. The letters were folded neatly inside a large envelope. There were three piles of them. I opened the first pile and glanced at the top right hand corner; ‘C/- BPC Ocean Island, 6 June 1948’. The letter was addressed, ‘Dear Mum’; my grandmother. The letter was yellowing yet crisp in my hand; I began reading the cursive writing and imagined the excitement of the writer and the reader. The letter told of the ship’s voyage from Melbourne to Newcastle; what it was like on board; the crew and the food. It was just a typical letter home from a travelling son. Only he wasn’t on holiday – he was on his way to Ocean Island to start a new job. I looked at the date again; my father had been 18. I imagined what it must have been like back then. The war had ended a few years before and for some reason he decided to go to a small island somewhere in the Pacific. What did BPC mean? I didn’t know.

I ran my fingers down the page. I’d never really taken much interest in his story. My childhood was peppered with vague memories of his adventures in the tropics and I remembered the name of Ocean Island. I knew  phosphate had been mined there. Like most kids, I half listened to my fathers stories or not at all. I read somewhere that interest in family history reaches us in our older years. Now it was too late to ask him anything as he’d passed away four years before.

I’d finally found the time to help my mother clean out his things – he had a lot. My mother and I had sat on the carpet of his study pulling out things that he should have thrown away years ago. We laughed as we binned the old cheque stubs from the 1960’s, his handwritten to do lists, business letters in carbon, receipts for things which had long since become landfill. And that’s when I found the letters – tucked away in a small camphorwood chest. My grandmother must have saved them and given them back to him a long time ago. I wondered why he’d never mentioned them. Even my mother hadn’t remembered seeing them before.
I made my decision that day not to let the letters wallow for another sixty years – I was going to type them up and publish them so that my family and future generations could read his story.  I looked at the dates of the other two piles of letters – 1949, 1950. There were three years of history in more than 100 letters.

This is the story of what I did and what I found out. I hope you enjoy it.