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Getting It Right In Fiction

From The Great Raven blog.

I'm reading a lot this week and have already unearthed a glitch in one of the books I'm reading. I tend to do this, even in mainstream fiction by writers whose books have won awards and so are selling a lot better than mine. But a mistake is a mistake. And it seemed like a good subject for a post.

I won't name any of the books or authors, some of whom are personal friends or at least acquaintances, and I will mention that at least one of them took my advice and rewrote for the next edition. (If you think you know the books and authors concerned, please don't mention them in a comment!Not even if you ARE one of the authors!)

There are some genres where it seems obvious you need to get it right. Hard science fiction, for example. Get your physics wrong and there will be people to let you know about it. What they can get away with in a TV series won't be tolerated in a book or short story. Well, mostly it won't, anyway.

Even fantasy needs to be right. Yes, I've read a Twitter conversation between fantasy writers in which one of them declared it was her universe and she could do what she wanted within it. Not so, since fantasy is usually based on real world societies and if you're going to write about horses and swords and mediaeval ships and such, you need to understand what they can and can't do. I've posted about that some time ago, so won't go into detail here, but I do recommend Poul Anderson's essay "Of Thud And Blunder", which is available online. But most people understand this and take the trouble to get it right. Heck, I've been careful in my own writing, creating a world with three moons and, not wanting to go against the laws of physics even in my own magic- dominated world, I checked it out.

If you get crime fiction wrong - say, a gun that does what a real gun of that type can't, or make mistakes in the medical treatment of a victim, there are going to be people jeering at you for it. So, mostly, crime writers make sure they get it right. I've read earnest, worried questions on the fabulous Jordyn Redwood's medical blog and a forensics blog I discovered on a search. "Can I do this or that to my victim?"

So why is there not the same degree of care with mainstream fiction, I wonder? Is it because it's the world you live in and you know how it runs, or think you do?

I remember a novel by a well-known Australian writer who is living off his writing, more than can be said for me, in which the children of the story are living with an aunt who has been cashing the Family Allowance cheques of their mother, who has disappeared, and she doesn't want to lose this income, so is keeping it secret. As it happened, I'd been working for what was then the Department of Social Security (a later Liberal Government changed the name to Centrelink). I knew about Family Allowance. In fact, the aunt was entitled to the payment as the children were in her care. I can remember times when a relative who had the kids overnight rang us, demanding the approximately $2.00 given for one night - and got it, despite the time it took us to process it and even their phone call cost about 50c. It wouldn't have taken much rewriting to get that right and might even have made the story more interesting. You might say, "Oh, well, you're a person who worked there, most people wouldn't have noticed," but anyone who was in the situation of a broken relationship with children would have noticed, though clearly the author and his editor weren't in that situation, so didn't know and didn't check.

Then there are school stories. Anyone who lives in Victoria, anyway, and has had children at school, might know the rules. Kids certainly do. "You can't touch me! I'll sue!" Only recently a student I hadn't touched was loudly claiming I'd slapped him, and I remember a nasty little Year 8 girl in my first year of teaching who rubbed her neck trying to produce a bruise so she could claim I'd hit her(she was caught doing it
in the toilets by the vice principal) and, when that didn't work, told her father I'd threatened her with a chair. Fortunately, he knew me and asked what was going on rather than accepting her lie, or I could have been suspended till the story was checked out and my reputation would have been gone while she might, at worst, have been given a couple of days' suspension and a grounding at home. They don't want to discourage genuine cases from coming forward, so the teacher is treated as guilty till proven innocent and the child isn't punished even if their story is proven to be a lie. And this was many years ago, in the 1970s. Oh, yes, they know their rights and if they do, why don't the authors of so many YA novels?

I can tell you about a short story in which the victim and the class bully get detention and the teacher walks out of the room to attend a meeting, leaving a potential for tragedy. Sorry, I told the author, a friend of mine. It wouldn't happen today. Duty of care. Schools can have the pants sued off them for neglecting it. If you must have the teacher leave the room, make it an emergency. The school would still be sued - and I've heard of a primary school being sued for not having a teacher in a particular part of the yard when a branch fell from a tree and injured a child - but at least it would be a situation over which the teacher had no control. "But it happened at my school!" he protested, meaning the teacher leaving the room for a meeting, not the tragedy. I pointed out that it was a very long time ago and that expensive private schools like the one he attended might have had different rules from the State system back then. Not now, and he was trying to sell a new edition. He took it on board and rewrote.

Here are the rules, in Victoria at least(and the main offending novels I've read have been by Victorian writers) : you must have a teacher to supervise students, so no allowing students to run their own event at school outside school hours with no teachers there, as happened in one CBCA shortlisted book I read. You can't have a detention after school on the same day it's earned(in a book I'm reading right now); parents must be given notice. You certainly can't publicly humiliate students, even as a punishment. Not without facing the legal wrath of parents. What you can and can't do for punishment is strictly limited.

Yet I've come across CBCA shortlisted books by Melbourne writers that have done most of these things and some that weren't shortlisted but were by well-known local writers that did the last-mentioned. And somehow they made even otherwise-wonderful novels just that much less wonderful for me.

I've read a novel written in the era of the Internet that had two kids exchanging emails and one of them doing physical research for something that was easily available on Google, even then. (I know, I googled it).

It's not so hard to check before submitting your manuscript. The Internet is a wonderful resource, or you can call someone who knows.

Writers, you must do your research, even for mainstream fiction, even if you think you remember what things were like when you were in your teens.

And guess what? Things probably weren't quite as you remember them.

The new Aurealis Awards judge!

First posted on The Great Raven yesterday, where it's inexplicably had several thousand hits already. Wish someone had commented!

C'est moi! :-)

Just got my confirmation. I will be one of those on the children's section panel. Now I will see what all the CBCA judges go through, except they have to do all types of children's books, while I'm only going to be reading and judging children's spec fic. The books are likely to be shorter than adult or even YA, so it won't take as long to read all the entries. We did get the gig on the understanding that we are willing to read ebooks. I agreed, with the rider that if something is available in print I'd prefer it, because it can can go on my library shelves afterwards. I probably won't be reviewing anything from the AAs here, because while it's not against the rules you have to be careful not to make authors or publishers think they're out of the running. For the same reason I won't be giving star ratings on Goodreads, though I rarely do that anyway.

But it will be nice to see what's out and see how close we get to the CBCA shortlist or the YABBAs.

Speaking of YABBA I have been told that my school has won a visit from a writer or artist sponsored by CAL and YABBA, under the YABBA Ambassador program. I don't know who it will be yet - that's part of the deal, they choose - but whoever it is will be made very welcome and given lunch and publicity and maybe even a small gift. It's very exciting!

For any Melbourne teachers or librarians reading this I hear they have just opened a second round of offers, up to 25 schools in total will win it. The only condition for entry is that you must be a member of YABBA. At $42 a year, even I can afford it! And there are a lot of incentives to join.

May 4 - Happy Birthday, Audrey and Helene!

First published on The Great Raven, my book blog.

Today is May 4. May the Fourth Be With You!.

However, I won't do the usual meme stuff in this post, just a couple of birthdays.

One of them is on Google today, Audrey Hepburn, who would have been 85 today. Unfortunately for the world she died when she was only 64. As well as her wonderful films, she did a lot of humanitarian stuff in her later years. She was already sick the last time I saw her interviewed, and you could see it on her face, her slim body gone from waiflike to simply thin. But when the interviewer said something that made her smile, her face lit up and you coud see the beauty from within. You don't need me to write her biography here, but if you want more, just go to Google today and click. Happy birthday, Audrey!

It was also the birthday of my late friend Helene Shaw, whom I first met at university, where she was working as a librarian and studying some subjects as well. Helene died soon after Audrey Hepburn, actually, in April 1993. She nearly made it to 61, I believe - I never knew her age till after she passed away. I will tell you a bit about her, because you won't find it in Google.

Helene persuaded me to try for the librarianship Graduate Diploma at RMIT; I will always be grateful to her for that.

She was a neighbour, living only a few streets away from me when I was living in Elsternwick. She had lived in the area all her life and was very knowledgeable about its history.

Helene was a great book lover, especially science fiction. She was also a fellow Star Trek fan, who collected all the Trek novels, which she was happy to lend out to friends because it took her a while to get around to reading them. She had a stack of fanzines which, in those days, were all print, in the days before online fan fiction.

A passionate lover of astronomy, she belonged to two astronomy clubs, one of which asked her to catalogue its library, a huge job(and didn't even thank her by naming the library for her, despite all the hours she put into the task, sometimes whole weekends)

Helene and I went together to SF conventions where I watched her, with great admiration, making friends; I always used to say at the time that if you dropped her by parachute from a plane and followed her down, by the time you got there she would be friends with the local people. She could get people to confide in her; after about half an hour, she'd know things about new friends their other friends didn't know after years!

I know she would have loved the Internet and ebooks and over the years, when a new book, TV series or technology came out, I would think, "What a pity! Helene would have adored this!"

If she were alive today, I'd be giving her an iTunes card as a gift, to buy more books.

Happy birthday, Helene!

Happy birthday, Helene!

Preparing for Pesach

Today I'm cleaning the pantry. Sunday the fridge, which takes at least two hours, by the time it thaws and I wash it out, throw out anything that has lurked there forgotten; I'm not exactly Dirk Gently, with the fridge monster, but my fridge does get overfilled, especially since I have been having fruit delivered by Aussie Farmers Direct. I can't get through it all and even cooking up all the fruit I haven't time to eat is not enough.

Tuesday I have overseas visitors, Bill and Linda, who went to school with me back in the dinosaur era, and drop in when they come from the US every couple of years or so. So the lounge room has to be tidied of all the books and papers cluttering it up, the table wiped down. I can't bake for them since my oven is STILL not working, so I might have to pay the outrageous prices for kosher-le-Pesach macaroons which cost peanuts to make and take about ten minutes.

The family will be meeting for first night at my nephew's in-laws' place. I have fond memories of little Eden, my middle nephew's boy, asking for the menu(they'd just come back from a holiday). I will be taking spare wine and matzah.

Time to go to the supermarket when I've done today's housework, to pick up some supplies - eggs, for one thing. I'll be making at least one matzahbrah during the week and hard boiling eggs. Somehow, there are a lot egg dishes during that week.

I am so glad I'm on holidays!

I Am Sad

Today, I went to a funeral. The lady who passed away was the mother of some of my students. I knew her briefly. She rang me one day out of the blue, explained she was studying to be a library assistant and would appreciate some help with her homework. So, she arrived at my library, a pleasant, cheerful lady who hadn't realised I was her daughter's homeroom and English teacher. I told her and we had a chat and then exchanged email addresses. I only saw her once mre, but we did exchange emails now and then. She asked me some library questions one day and I replied, then a day or two later she told me she had cancelled her course due to being diagnosed with cancer, and knowing she hadn't long to live. She had seven children, from university level down to two little ones, one just starting secondary, one in primary school. The younger children are autistic, as well as young, and wouldn't understand. She was having to explain it first to the older kids. Their father isn't living with them, but cancelled his plans to return to China. So, while he's giving financial support and signing stuff, the kids are pretty much on their own.And two are doing their last years of secondary school, one to do it next year as well as a VCE subject this year.

It has not been easy for them over the past year. The only thing I could offer was nominating my former student for a Western Chances scholarship - and I knew her older sister and brother well, through my library and through the Pathways project we have been doing in Year 8.

When, last week, we heard that their mother had finally gone, I knew I had to be supportive. I got the details from the welfare teacher, who also went today, and got on the train for Sunbury, where the funeral was to be held.

I've been to funerals before, but never one where the deceased had left behind school-age children. The older ones handled it as best they could, but the youngest stood alone, a stressed look on his face; his father, who'd had an arm around him, had had to go and make some arrangements. His older siblings stood together, so I approached, made my condolences and asked if one of them could go and look after him. I was pleased to see one of them approach her little brother and take him to stand with them.

I did what I felt I ought to, and don't regret it, but I am going to be sad all evening, thinking of that grieving family, especially the kids I know. And I will say that two of the younger boys, the ones who know me from the library, brightened a little when they saw me. So it was well worth going.

School teaching, don't you love it? Anyone who tells me for the umpteenth time that you get lots of holidays and it's a slack job can have a go at it themselves,including all the hoops you have to jump through every time we get a new government who think that having a go at teachers is an easy way to get votes! And maybe it is. People haven't a clue. They really haven't.

I am taking three classes including one in a subject I don't know(see below) and fully exect to have more thrown at me if I stick around, and trying to run a library as well, on a budget of about $3000 a year!

The post that follows was written for my general blog, but seeing no one who follows me there is following me here, here it is(written as a "reflective journal",
one of the many hoops we jump through!)

I met the challenge of teaching Pathways, the homeroom subject, with a wonderful practical community project that appealed to even the most difficult students, who showed what they could do and had every reason to be proud of themselves at the end of the year. Last year, our Year 8 students raised $900 between them for Save The Children!

And after the feel-good ceremony we were all called into the staff room to receive our allotments for this year and I had been taken off Pathways for the convenience of the timetable and given history/ geography, a subject I'm not qualified to teach -again for the benefit of the timetable. Knowing history is not the same as knowing how to teach it, I add for anyone who might say, "But Sue, you know lots about history!"

No more Community Project! My colleague Jasna was also taken off it and while both teachers assigned to the subject have been supportive, I doubt either of them is interested in doing this. So we'll be back to presenting one student with the Pathways award and the subject being entirely classroom-and-theory-based and no one being able to add it to the resume they have to do in Year 9 and 10. Sigh! You know, I had one extremely difficult student last year who proved to have some leadership skills and some good ideas and rated this as his favourite subject.

But I made the best of the H/G. A colleague arranged for me to see a very good junior history teacher at her old campus to get some ideas and materials. The whole thing lasted about half an hour, after which I thanked her politely, took the stuff she had given me(not a lot of use, alas) and took public transport back to my own campus. I got hold of the then Scope and Sequence -the document that tells you what you have to get through(though not how - it assumes you know that)-and spent a chunk of my summer break trying to come up with something to start with.

I prepared something I thought might be a good start, according to the document I had, and might even be engaging. And as soon as we returned, we were handed a revised scope and sequence document and there has been another change since then. There are meetings every week and I suspect there will be more changes still before the term is out.

Still. I have done what I can. I took them through a bit of research skills practice, using the topic they're about to cover, so they would have something to start, plus showing them some primary sources(another thing we have to do), such as Ibn Fadlan's description of Vikings as filthy and John of Wallingford's description of them as disgustingly clean. I thought this might stick in some kids' heads.

I found I also had to do mapping - what do I know about maps and mapping? I asked the campus vice- principal, who himself has to do H/G. He said, "What do I know?" and told me he had had his year 7 label and colour a world map.

I decided to do the same, except I stuck to a map of the Viking world, after a map of Scandinavia, as we're about to do the Vikings. And that told me something about the class's skills - or lack, thereof - in looking things up. I had intended to spend some time working on it with them, but when I was absent on the day I was to start, someone found my photocopied maps and handed them out to start, without discussion. So they began without me there.

Some did very well and will have their maps up immediately on the classroom wall. They understood what they had to do and how to look up the countries they needed to label. Others didn't. They started the colouring in before they had done the labelling. So two or three coloured in the Mediterranean green and North Africa blue! Two put the Mediterranean in the Atlantic and one labelled the coast of North America as Algeria! I photocopied them all so I could return the originals with comments, but one student - the one who labelled Algeria in North America - refused to fix it, despite only a couple of small things needing changing. I'll keep the photocopy to show his parents if necessary, when they come for PT night, and cover the mistakes in the original with a white label, to make it easier. If he still refuses, well, all I can do is keep the mixed up one to show his Mum and Dad. His sister was in my class last year and they came for her. One boy didn't exactly do what I had asked, but worked so hard on his map that I'm putting it up anyway; he is apparently a difficult student and I want to reward his effort. He got the labels right, anyway, just didn't do it as I had asked.

For those who finished, I found a BBC schools game where you have to arrange a Viking attack on Lindisfarne, starting with building the ship and choosing some of the crew. I failed three times, but most of these students came home in triumph, with lots of loot and prisoners, to the approval of their lords. ;-) Even better, at least one student paid enough attention to have some idea of what runes were.

Anyway, last Friday, I did an exercise using Melway's Street Directory, to give them practice in looking up; it works pretty much the same as an atlas and is clearer. I discussed it for a while, then handed them a sheet of places in their area to look up. All they had to do was look up the map numbers in the index and write it down, then mark the spots on the photocopy I'd given them. That seemed to work better than the previous mapping we'd done, in giving them an idea how to look up. The only problem is that Melway's and atlases alike go out of date. The area didn't, of course, but the edition 35 I had at home, where I'd prepared it, had facilities the school's edition 32 didn't, so I had to change that bit.

The atlases are another matter. The class set is so old, it still has the Soviet Union in it! The individual copies are battered and some have had pages torn out. I am going to see if a proposal for a new class set, even ten copies to start with, will get some support.

My library is gradually starting up. I am hoping to arrange manuscript reading again this year, possibly in March, according to the publicist at Allen and Unwin. The kids love doing it and I have a new member or two in the younger classes, which is good, because I'm not sure all the Year 10s from last year are interested - some of them are doing VCE Psychology, though this didn't stop my first lot. On the other hand,some kids who had drifted away are back . I have mentioned to the English co-ordinator that I'd love to do Premier's Reading Challenge, but it's a lot of work and can't be done without staff support. He said we might discuss it in one of our English meetings.

I've found a new children's bookshop to do displays, since the Little Bookroom emailed to say they're not doing this any more and tried to make it sound like good news! (You can now buy online - yay! How wonderful! Actually, we can't. I tried to explain this and that I do this for the students, who help choose new books, to no avail. Also, that I'd been a loyal customer for many years. No use. The only visits they will make are if you're Veryrich Grammar running a book fair). Fortunately, the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville is happy to come instead, and there's always Dymock's for the specific books.

I'm discovering the students' reading levels to help them choose the right book for them, helping the literacy bunch with advice and suggestions and working out the reading less of books they buy.

Keeping busy and trying to work out how to teach a new subject!

Suddenly Teaching History :(

I've been ordered to teach Year 8 history this coming year. It's not that I know nothing about history, I know plenty, especially about the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the eras being studied, but teaching it? How?

One thing we're apparently supposed to do is teach the difference between primary and secondary sources. Here I'm on firmer ground. But how many primary sources do we have for the Middle Ages that you can teach to thirteen year olds?

So I have decided to start the year with other primary sources, just to give them an idea. I've got some newspaper articles from the 1960s about the Beatles visit to Melbourne. I've also discovered the joys of Trove, the National Library site that is in the process of digitising newspapers from 1803 on and the Women's Weekly between 1933 and 1982.

The Weekly is my primary source of choice. I picked a PDF of the issue for September 16 1939, which I can put on USB stick and show on an interactive whiteboard. There's a cover with a glamorous woman on it. So what, I might ask, was happening in September 1939? A student with an iPad can look it up: the beginning of World War II. Priorities? But this is a women's magazine. You aren't going to put a picture of a soldier on the cover or even the PM. And the first article is all about how women should be keeping busy and the author's mother had eight kids and never bought a cake or used an electric iron and did fine. There are photos of happy housewives cleaning.

Flipping further into the issue, you do find references to the war. There's a lot of human interest stuff - a letter from a girl in Poland assuring her mother she'll be fine(despite the Nazi invasion), pictures of cute kids being evacuated from London to the countryside, advice on stocking your medicine cabinet and how you, as a woman, can contribute to the war effort.

There is also plenty of fiction, knitting patterns, movie reviews(Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier gets a good one), fashion photos, an article about those cute kids Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and ads for feminine-themed products. - soap, face powder, corsets, floor polish, baby formula.

And I love it. If I was writing a story set in Australia in the 1930s, this magazine would tell me how ordinary people lived, what they fantasised about, how much stuff cost in those days, what was on at the movies... A bit dense for the kids, but I an pck bits to use.

I will also look for some secondary sources:"Daily life in Australia in 1939" perhaps.

I may show them some of the research I did on the Beatles visit to Melbourne in 1964; you can now save newspaper articles to your USB stick at the State Library, and I did.

When I do have to get on to the Middle Ages, perhaps images will do some of the primary sources for me - peasants in the fields, a feast in the castle, war, there are illuminated manuscripts for them all.

For Vikings, there's that Arab traveller who describes the Vikings in Russia as the dirtiest people he'd ever seen, must find that on line somewhere... He also describes a funeral for a chieftain, very gruesome, including a human sacrifice of a slave girl who ends up being killed to keep the chieftain company in the Otherworld, AFTER some other horrible things, but I'm not sure I'd be allowed to show them that. They'd like the bit about dirty Vikings, though.
Can I persuade them that history is important? That research is worth doing?

Let's see how it goes.

**Since writing the above, I've downloaded issues of the Weekly from 1944 and 1945. Lots of stuff abut making the best of your rations, with meat-free meals, of couples reuniting when the POW husband came home, one mention of something happening in San Francisco which I guessed correctly to be the establishment of the Nited Nations. Very nice!

But you know what I say above about covers? For no reason explained in the issue, one 1945 issue has a cover painting of Josef Stalin!**

ASIM Slushing

It has been a while since I posted. I've been keeping my Blogger blog up to date and doing my own writing and editing an issue of ASIM. For the few of you who have no idea what this is, or think it's short for Asimov, it's Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I'm a second-wave member - not the original bunch, but one of the next lot to join. People ave come and gone over the years, but we still have quite a few who have been with the team since nearly the beginning and a few who have been there since the start. And somehow, we've kept it going and it's now up to issue 58. Mine, issue 60, will be out early next year and I'm proud to say that I have five first sales including one poet and one story writer who had previously self published( well, most poetry has to be self published these days, so it was lovely for the author to finally be paid!)

All but one of my stories I found in slush - and that one I asked to look at because I was short in that genre. And here's where I am going to get to my point: we're a popular market. There are some Hugo and Nebula nominees out there who sold us their first stories. We're so popular that our slush wrangler, Lucy Zinkiewicz, is currently short of slush readers. I have agreed to take on more stories per week, but that really isn't enough.

This is a volunteer thing. There's no money in it. But if you're a writer who wants to see the slushpile from the other side or an editor who currently has no work and wants to keep their hand in or just a reader who would like to read new stories, this is a good place to come. It's fun. My sister does one story a week, because she is a writer who has done the Holmesglen writing and editing course and wants to keep her hand in.

You don't have to be a professional. You don't have to luve in Australia, everything is done by email. You just need to love speculative fiction. You can volunteer for as little as one story a week or as many as suit you. It's a real eye opener and if you are a writer yourself, you will have a better idea of what happens on the other side of the slushpile and maybe grumble a bit less when your masterpiece comes back. ;-)

If interested, contact Lucy at


Jan Finder Memorial At Conflux

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Conflux programmers if we could do a little something to celebrate Jan Howard Finder, aka the Wimbat, who unfortunately died a few weeks ago. Yesterday I received an email letting me know it was being worked into the program for 4.00 pm on the Friday, which was kind of them, and asking me for a blurb they could put into the program book.

Here's what I wrote:

Jan Howard Finder, aka the Wombat, was a US fan who loved Australia. He worked tirelessly to help save the rare northern hairy-nosed wombat, and arranged Tolkien conventions(he was working on one when he died). When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he bought a bright red Corvette and went travelling in it. A few weeks ago, we got the sad news of his passing, from his friend Lin Daniel, who's organising Wombatcon in his honour. If you knew him, please drop in and chat about him, share funny memories, and photos, if you have any, or read from his favourite stories,eg The Hobbit, Phryne Fisher books.

Think of this as a personal invite to any of my friends who will be at Conflux and if there are any friends who knew him, but won't be there, and would like to send a message to be read out, or a photo to share, that would be great! Email me at

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