The mountain. The girl. The story.

Two months ago, I began to re-write a novel I started 13 years ago during a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship residency in Adelaide. What a frustrating first draft that was too with its jumping between three generations, and even the paleogeology of the magnificent monolith called Ngarrabullgan! I put the manuscript out of sight and mind.

But you know when you can’t give up on a story? This was one of them.

Now, my updated novel begins in a small Welsh valley in 1921, and ends in Mt Mulligan, a small coal mining town that used to sprawl below an impressive sandstone monolith in far north Queensland.

Known to the local Djungan people as Ngarrabullgan, the mountain is sacred to the Djungan community, and is part of a their protected National Park.

Mt Mulligan is also the site of Queensland’s worst land-based tragedy, and Australia’s third worst mining accident.

On Monday, September 19, 1921, the Mt Mulligan coal mine beneath Ngarrabullgan exploded. All 75 miners died that day, including two teenage boys who’d gone underground with their fathers.

A quarter of the town’s citizens were gone in an instant in the lethal coal dust explosion.

Ngarrabullgan and the remains of the Mt Mulligan coal mine. Image: Sheryl Gwyther 2009

Ngarrabullgan and Mt Mulligan are part of me too. My uncle, Patrick O’Neill was the last station master at Mt Mulligan in the late 1950s, before the town shut down forever and the rail line ripped up.

When I was a child, we holidayed in the town with my uncle and aunt. I listened to the stories about that tragic day, and the folk myths that came as well.

Forty years later, I finally returned to the ghost town to research my story. Ngarrabullgan’s awesome presence still sent a shiver up my spine.

Back to my pesky EPIC-like nameless manuscript. It jumped between three different decades and three different protagonists. It even dropped back 400 million years ago to describe the monolith, Ngarrabullgan’s origins in an ancient reef. Can you tell I love geology and paleontology?

I told publisher Lisa Berryman about this manuscript two years ago. She said the plot was too complicated and suggested I focus on Lela May Heron, my most interesting character’s story. And to stay in Lela’s era of 1921, not jump all over the decades.

Lisa was right. I loved writing the 1920s era … and Lela May Heron breathed a sigh of relief. At last, I could let this Romani/Welsh mute girl’s story shine. I swear Lisa Berryman is a genius – a story-diviner! Is that a term? Should be.

Two years later, The Memory Keeper has become a very different story. A much better story! It went through ‘the cleansing fires’ – but all good stories are like that to write.

Meryl and Sheryl in 1957

Now … a truly significant date approaches. SEPTEMBER 19, 2021. The 100th year Commemoration of the Mt Mulligan Mining Disaster.

I’ve been asked to write an article about that tragic day and the aftermath for the Queensland Journal of Labour History. Over the next few posts, I’ll share my article’s words and images.

Meanwhile, Ngarrabullgan continues to enthrall all who are wealthy enough to see it these days – the site where the town used to be was bought by a developer.

It’s now a super-luxury eco-resort for millionaires.

My landscape-gene, and my soul cries for Ngarrabullgan.

9 thoughts on “The mountain. The girl. The story.

  1. Thanks, Diane! Keep your fingers crossed for me – it’s such an uncertain profession, but we have to keep going if the story sings to us. Thanks for your support. It means so much to me, my friend! ♥♥♥


  2. Truer words were never said, Ged! Killing the words is bloody hard … but you’re so right. You have to do it. I may not even have captured the ‘right story’ yet either, but I’m happy with what it’s become, and my young heroine is feisty, vulnerable, and a rebel, and even though I took a risk making her an elective mute half way through the story, I reckon it’s the right decision. Thanks for your positive words, my friend! ♥♥♥

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so pleased you perservered with your story, Sheryl, and that Lisa Berryman was able to help you work out how it had to be told. I look forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The genesis of every good story is never simple or easy. Props to you, Lass, for hanging in there and finally finding the path.
    I have several un-finished books lying in wait of the right compost and good digging-over. As an instinctive untrained author my hardest lesson has always been to rewrite – to totally trash everything and start again. MY PRECIOUS WORDS! THEY’RE DYING, THEY’RE DYING …
    But it’s always worth it.
    Congrats! Win stuff! You rock!!

    Liked by 2 people

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