The girl … how memory colours story writing

People often advise, Write what you know. It’s not as clear cut as that, of course, otherwise we’d never have stories set in the past or the future, or of other cultures, or historical figures, or foreign countries, or even other worlds.

Gypsy Encampment, Appleby, by John Aitkinson. 1919

I write a variety of genres, but my favourite is tackling stories set in the past with feisty, but vulnerable young protagonists fighting adversities on the journeys they must take, along with their friends and foes.

The stories require intense research beforehand and during the novel’s journey – plus a stack of imagination. But pushing it on is a bright core that gives the story its heart, and keeps the author writing through draft after draft.

It could be a brave and clever cockatiel with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare – a bird who would risk his own life to protect the human he loves. Sweet Adversity. Or a boy, risking his life in a Lascaux cave 27,000 years ago, lifts an ochre pigment filled brush to the limestone wall. Dance of the Lascaux Ponies

The author and her sister – 1957

Or a childhood memory.

And there it is, as bright a spark in my mind and heart as it was way back then. A memory of the mountain rising above Mt Mulligan township in far north Queensland where my uncle was the last station master.

I see it still. The monolith’s sandstone cliffs shine like red-gold in the morning sun.

It’ll be another hot one, everyone says, but we kids only care that Christmas is days away. Heat rises from the red dirt at my feet, and eucalyptus wafts from the straggly gums around the cemetery.

My spine shivers as stories swirl through my head … of Ngarrabullgan’s Indigenous legends; and the tragedy that unfolded one day in September, 1921. In Mt Mulligan’s graveyard, I read the headstones of many of those miners lost in an instant to the explosion deep in black tunnels below the mountain.

Sixteen year old, Rowland McCormack – died 19.09.1921

My 13-year-old protagonist, Lela May Heron has the same sense of awe in 1921 when she sees Ngarrabullgan for the first time. She’s a girl from the green Welsh valleys. Forced to leave her home; travelling to a foreign land to find sanctuary for herself and her family. But of course, prejudice skips oceans.

Lela is without words, an elective mute. A girl without a country to call her own. A didakoi – half-Romani, half-Welsh, discriminated by both. But she also has an indomitable spirit, and a yearning to become a photographer, not the norm for girls of her era. Tinker’s Girl is Lela’s story.

I don’t know what the future holds for this manuscript. But I’m glad I didn’t give up on what’s become a very different story than the torturous first draft of that May Gibbs Residency 13 years ago. It needed to go through that ‘fire of truth’ over the years.

It’s a far better story now as I send it out to publishers. So begins the next stage of a story that began as a memory of a mountain-like-no-other.

In the Wet. The many moods of Ngarrabullgan.

Image was taken in the 1950s by a coal miner keen on photography. He gave the slide box of 20 Agfa images to my uncle, who gave them to me before he passed away. While suffering some fungal damage (the purple tinged splotches) over the decades, the slides’ colours are as vibrant as the day they were taken over 65 years ago.

The miner, a Mr Collins, also climbed a treacherous rusty ladder to Ngarrabullgan’s top to photograph the rarely seen topography.

These slides helped inform what my protagonist, Lela sees and does when she faces her own terror of the Ladder of Death.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Writing the story of a girl from another time and in particular, of a different culture has its risks for a white-skinned, Celtic-descendant Australian. But I am a sensitive writer. And a lover of history. My next blog post will be on taking this precarious risk – and also about the history of the Romanichal (the British gypsies), and particularly their history in Australia.

2 thoughts on “The girl … how memory colours story writing

  1. Hi Sheryl,
    I enjoy and am looking forward to your posts about Mt Mulligan, the mining tragedy of 1921, and of course to one day reading the Tinker’s Girl.

    Liked by 1 person

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