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My Ideal Thanksgiving

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in Australia, but I wish we did. A day of reflecting on the things we’re grateful for would be good for us all. (The photo was taken by my friend Barbara Hannay, and is used with permission.)

My ideal Thanksgiving would be non-religious and would be celebrated by people from all cultures and religions, and it would centre around a friends-and-family feast — with no particular style of food.  Of course Americans have their traditional food and their Thanksgiving has a particular history, but in my ideal Thanksgiving people would bring dishes to share, so each feast would be different. And no one person would get stressed about having to cook.  (Though of course if cooking is your thing, go for it. Here’s a thanksgiving feast from an Aussie cook.)

I have no family within a thousand kilometres of me, so my Thanksgiving would be made up of friends, and possibly some strangers. When I was a kid, my older brother (who was an adult) often brought friends without family to our family Christmas. Some were new to this country — I remember a pair of American teachers who came for several Christmases —and a few times he brought a couple of backpackers. It always added to the fun and interest of Christmas, and was very much in the spirit of things. I’d make that part of my ideal Thanksgiving.

Above all, there would be some time in the celebration where we’d each reflect on things we are grateful for. I think that’s such an important thing to do.  I try to do that on a regular basis, and it can make such a difference to how you feel about your day, or about your life. It’s a kind of rebalancing procedure — we might be feeling frustrated and grumpy because of things (and people) encountered that day (or week), but sitting down with a journal (as I do) and listing five things I’m grateful for changes my mood completely. It doesn’t have to be hard — just scrolling through my photos trying to find a few pics to go with this post made me smile so much, so find five things that make you smile and you’re done and feeling happier already.

So that’s my ideal Thanksgiving. What’s yours?
I hope all of you celebrating Thanksgiving (including Canadians who’ve already had theirs) have a happy day.

Rooms with a View

I’ve always loved windows, especially those that frame a view. When I’ve traveled, I’ve often been lucky enough to score a room with a view, and so my photo collection has a lot of photos taken through windows, using the windows as a frame.     I even wrote a blog about my love of windows on the Word Wenches once. It’s here if you’d like to read it.

But today I discovered what might well become a new addiction for me — it’s a site called Window Swap, and it’s simply a live feed from windows around the world. You click on the link and it takes you to a window somewhere in the world — Scotland, Poland, India, The USA, Slovenia, France, Hong Kong, Russia, Holland, Brazil, Turkey, Australia, and many more.

So you watch rain falling through a screen and plants in Mumbai (that’s the photo above), then a view of trees and a busy road in Canberra, hens scratching around a quiet backyard in the US, a courtyard in Brazil, a tranquil scene in Ireland, a cat washing itself in Holland, a park in Poland, sunrise in Istanbul, an apartment view in Mexico, a view over Sydney Harbour, and so on.

Some showed an outlook over city construction sites and high-rise apartments, but the variety was wonderful. And it’s live, so you see places at different times of day. You see things move, and hear the rain on the roof, the wind in the trees, the birds calling, the trafffic . . . 

 

I found it fascinating. The photos really challenge your perception of how people in different countries live — you get an impression of places, gleaned from TV etc, but honestly, for so many of these, if it didn’t have a label telling you where it was, you couldn’t always guess. 

As well, it was a really peaceful and pleasant way to spend five or ten minutes. I’ve bookmarked the site because I know I’m going to pop back there again. You can also see more of these, though not live on their instagram page. And all of these images are screenshots I took.

Above: Sunrise over Istanbul.

Below: boats in Sweden.

Below: Tucson, reminding me of my friend Vicki’s garden there.

Below: Beautiful bougainvillea in South America (I think Brazil, but I forgot to note down all the places.)

The website again? Window Swap.  Or for a swift impression, without movement or change, or sound, instagram.

Settings

The other day a friend asked me how I come up with the physical settings for my books and scenes — the locations, the houses, and so on.  And as it happened I’d just been working some of that out for my newest book, which has barely begun. For me, settings are very important, even if they’re only imaginary. So I thought I’d share my process here.

In this case, I wanted to find the country house in which the heroine lived as a child. There will only be one scene set there (I think, though that might change) and that’s in the prologue (which is what I’m writing now.) But by the time I’ve finished it, there might not be many setting  details left in the scene. So why research it?

The setting feeds into the heroine’s backstory, the places she loved and hated as a child—it’s part of who she is. So many of my own childhood memories are inextricably linked to the places where we lived; the tree in which I sat, meaning to read, but instead dreaming among the leaves;  The pine-trees under which a friend and I built forts of piled-up fragrant dry pine-needles; the rock-pools I explored in summer, peering into tiny perfect complicated worlds; the attic window I gazed out of in Scotland, looking out over the rooftops.

I wanted to find those kinds of places for my heroine — not necessarily because I’d use them in the book, but because it would help me know more about her and what makes her tick. And particular settings rather than generic ones throw up particular and individual aspects of a character’s personality. And sometimes the spark events that help shape her as a person.

I usually start by deciding on a county, and then narrow in on the map. Often in a series, I like to site my people’s country houses not too far from each other so they can get together for Christmas etc. without too much trouble. But in this case, she won’t ever be going back to that house (probably), so her childhood home could be anywhere.

I chose Hampshire because as I was poring over a 19th century map of the counties of England (borders change over time so a historical map is necessary) I looked at Hampshire and the phrase from My Fair Lady popped into my brain — “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.”  So I chose Hampshire. <g>

Then I did an image search for stately homes in Hampshire. And I scrolled through the various pics until one jumped out at me, and my subconscious said — that’s it. Then I explored that place and if several features jumped out at me I’d grab them for my imaginary heroine’s imaginary childhood home. 

It doesn’t even have to be one house — this is not history I’m writing, but fiction set in historical times, so I’m free to assemble features from several houses.

When I was collecting images for The Perfect Kiss, for instance, this photo jumped out at me of an old stone staircase with hollows worn by generations of feet climbing it. It also had a lovely gothic feel, which suited the story, so it became a part of the story– a few lines only, but it added to the atmosphere in my mind, which was its main purpose.

The stairs also had meaning for me, because in one of the many places I lived as a child, I attended a very old school that had stone steps with dips worn in them by generations of children. They fascinated me. I was very aware of stepping into the hollows made by the feet of generations of children before me.  So I used that ancient staircase in my story, but the house they were in was quite a different one — though also quite gothic.

This process, believe it or not, helps me to understand more about my character. For instance the minute I saw the image above,  of a walled garden, I thought — this is where she hides out, reads her books, dreams her dreams. I hadn’t planned it — the image sparked the thought. And those feelings she has about the garden will feed in later to the part of the book that’s set in London.

There’s a turret — I love turrets. So then I wonder, maybe the house has a turret room in which she has her bedroom. Or maybe the turret is haunted. Or maybe she wants to go there but it’s in disrepair and she’s forbidden to go there, and so the question arises, will she go there? And what will be the consequence of that? And until I saw the turret on the house, none of that even occurred to me.

Even so, the images you see in this post will not be the same as the place in my story. In my story the house is a little bit shabby and run-down, the garden wilder and more tangled, the turret might be taller and quite crooked. My heroine, you see, is a little bit lonely and neglected, and she escapes into the garden and the hidden corners of the house in a way she couldn’t if everything was efficient and well run. It’s all to do with creating the atmosphere I want — I’m a big believer in “landscape as metaphor.”

So that’s a little bit about how I explore settings for my books. If you found this interesting and you’d like to read more about this process, here’s a blog I wrote a few years ago on the Word Wenches.