Lian Tanner

My Blog

The ’67 bushfires

 |  | 

Fifty years ago this Tuesday, much of southern Tasmania was ablaze. Now we call it the ’67 bushfires; back then it was waking up to breathtaking heat, high winds, and a sun that never managed to get through the smoke. I was 15, and it was the day before school went back after the summer holidays.

I remember the sense of dread as the day got darker and darker, and the fires came up over the back of the mountain. Mum and I were in the kitchen looking out at the hillside across the road. One moment it was fine, then there was a stream of sparks, and suddenly the whole hill was alight.

Mum grew up on a farm in the South Australian mallee, so she knew all about bushfires. We filled the bath with water, soaked towels and hessian sacks, filled thermoses with tea and took it all across the road to the people who were fighting the fires. We rounded up a couple of horses and got them away. Then more tea, more wet sacks.

There was no rural fire brigade back then, and the city brigade was small, funded by the insurance companies, and only equipped to fight the occasional house fire.

So it was all volunteers. People with hand pumps, buckets and wet bags, trying to stop an inferno. Sixty-four people were killed, and 64,000 farm animals. Plus countless wild animals and birds.

Our house was fine, but the fire came close. That evening we stood at the front gate while a steady stream of people stumbled down the street past us. All their houses gone. All of them in shock and covered with ash. One old woman weeping because she hadn’t been able to save her canary.

For years afterwards, one of the most significant and heart-wrenching features of the Tasmanian landscape was the huge numbers of bare chimneys, where the houses used to be.

If you’re in Tassie, there’s a really good exhibition on at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. That’s where these photos are from.

Bodyguards #2

 |  | 

I started on the second book in the Bodyguards series this week. It wasn’t a serious start. I played around with a scene involving the slave traders, and then I wrote a scene about a chicken, and then I realised that a chicken probably wouldn’t think like that, so I rewrote it.

The chicken was feeling very strange. She’d been feeling a little bit odd ever since they’d left the strong-hold, especially when she was anywhere near Farmboy or Clevergirl. But now that oddness was far worse.
She didn’t know what it meant. She’d been happy in the strong-hold, especially when Healerboy had rescued her from the kitchen, just seconds before she was due to become the Margravine’s dinner. As a chicken, she hadn’t had to think about much. It had been mostly, Worms, mmmm! And, Breadcrumbs, mm-hmmm! And, Dogs! Eek!
Ever since she’d left the strong-hold, however, she’d found herself thinking a lot more. And some of those thoughts weren’t chickenish thoughts at all.

Worms, mmmm! Grass seeds, mm-hmm- Wait. Ghosts? Ghosts on the wind?
What’s more, she could see a shininess around both
Clevergirl and Farmboy. A familiar shininess.
She tried to ignore it, but she couldn’t.
She tried to remember why it was familiar, but she couldn’t do that, either.
So she had stayed close to them, all the way south.
But then they met the badmen. And now they were trussed up like a brace of hens for roasting, and thrown into the cart, along with Healerboy, Warrior and Bigman.
The chicken was about to fly up next to them when she noticed one of the badmen creeping towards her with his sharpstick in his hands. ‘Chicky chicky chicky!’ called the badman. ‘Come to papa! Chicky chicky!’
Eeek! thought the chicken. And she dashed away from the grasping hands, losing a couple of tail feathers in the process, but hanging onto her life and her head.
She hid around the corner of the farmhouse, with the cat, watching. She got distracted a couple of times- Mm, earwig!
-but the cat cuffed her with a large paw-

Eeek! Badcat!
and brought her attention back to the cart and its load.

And now the whole thing was moving away, and the cat was slinking after it in the long grass.
The chicken considered her options. Her wing was completely healed now. So she could stay here …
Or she could follow Farmboy and Clevergirl. Which also meant following the badmen and their sharpsticks.

Staying here was obviously better. But something drew her after the cart, all the same.

With a sigh, she snapped up one last earwig. Then she put her head down and dashed out of the farmyard.

That was fun. 🙂

In the early drafts, fun is a Really Good Thing. Which is why this particular draft is called the Play Draft rather than the This-Is-Serious-And-You’d-Better-Get-It-Right-First-Time Draft. Mucking around is good for the imagination. Mucking around takes you off in strange and magical directions, which is where I want to go right now.

I’ve got a bit of an idea where this particular book is heading. I know there’s a new and important character, and a new and important setting, plus some very important discoveries. I’ve got three big scenes (one of them is the slaver scene), and I know where this book ends and where the next one begins. But I don’t know much about what comes in between all those bits.

That’s where playing comes into its own. Letting my imagination loose.

I’ve got a couple of useful tools to help me along. The first one is the word box. I made this years ago when I was teaching writing at Adult Education, and I’ve hung onto it ever since, just because I like the idea of this little cardboard box with all these odd and interesting words in it. But now it has come in useful. When I’m a bit stuck, and my mind is bogged down, I close my eyes, dip into the box and take out two words. Then I start writing about those words and see where they take me.

The other useful tool is a rambling sort of research. The internet is wonderful for this, but so is my home library. Yesterday I dug out a stack of books that might be vaguely related to what I’m writing about.The first thing I discovered (in Consuming Passions, by Judith Flanders), was that in England in the early 1700s, anyone who wanted to put on a play had to give it to the Lord Chamberlain first, for censorship. This law came about because of a play called The Festival of the Golden Rump, which was about King George II and his piles.

Will this delicious bit of information influence the play draft? Who knows? But it made me laugh.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to Book #1 for (hopefully) a final read-through of the structural edit. If it’s all fine, I’ll send it back to my editor – a month ahead of schedule!

Back to work!

 |  | 

After a couple of weeks of laziness, and another couple of weeks of meandering gently through ideas for Book #2, I’ve just got the edits for the first book in the Accidental Bodyguards series back from my editors. So it is full steam ahead!

It’s actually a bit intimidating, getting edits like this. One of their comments was that the current story was a bit complicated, and could I please get rid of something – maybe the war?

I’d thought of that already, so wasn’t particularly surprised. The trouble is, the war is a really important part of WHY things happen. So getting rid of it means I have to find another WHY. No luck so far, so I’m nibbling at some of the other problems, hoping that something brilliant will drop down in front of me very soon.

I’m also not sure how I’m going to get rid of Tutor Voss – or rather make him a lot less important. I can see the reason – it’s just a bit problematic doing it. I am going to have to do some heavy duty thinking over Christmas!

Meanwhile, a couple of days before the editorial comments arrived, I was blissfully playing with my own spit. All in the name of research.

When I was a kid, we used to make invisible ink out of lemon juice. You dip the pen nib in the juice and write the message. When it dries, it’s (more or less) invisible. To read what it says, you heat the paper over a flame (taking great care not to set it on fire and lose the message forever) and the lemon juice turns brown.

Of course if you’re enslaved, you probably haven’t got any lemons. So I thought I’d try a couple of other things. First, vinegar. That worked well too. But you might not have any vinegar either.

So what will you have, no matter where you are? Spit, of course. (And urine, but I decided not to test that one.) But surely spit wouldn’t work as an invisible ink?

‘Hmm,’ I said to Harry. ‘Better do some research. Here, dribble into this egg cup.’

Harry refused, so I had to do it myself. Then I found a pointy stick – because most slavers won’t hand over a pen and nib – and set to work. Here are my results:


Not bad, huh?

Mending as a tool for creativity

 |  | 

The early stages of a new book are always tricky for me. I can’t just sit down and work, because a lot of it is daydreaming and letting the imagination wander off in odd directions, which can’t be forced. I usually walk a lot, with a scrap of paper in my pocket for taking notes of brilliant ideas, but I’ve been looking for something else that could help the creative process along. I had no idea what it was until last week, when I suddenly realised that one of my pillow cases needed mending. I sat down to sew up the seam, my mind wandered, and all sorts of ideas started taking flight …


I don’t think it has to be mending. Anything that I don’t have to think about too much would do. Knitting, sewing, crocheting, knife sharpening. All those things that sit me in one place with my hands working away busily, and my imagination free to wander. Many many years ago I started making a quilt by hand. It was going to be a present to myself for my 40th birthday, but then other things got in the way and I put it in a cupboard and ignored it. Now that I’ve finished the pillow case, I’ve taken the quilt out again. Maybe it’ll be a present for my 70th birthday instead. 🙂

My new business cards arrived this week.


Aren’t they gorgeous? I have started to hand them out already. The books will be in Aust/NZ shops from December 1st onwards.

That’s the good news.

The sad news is that Clara died last Thursday.


She was a very nice little chook who loved pasta, earwigs and helping with the gardening. She also loved chasing cats. I am missing her terribly – I keep going out to the back garden to have a chat with her, but there’s no one there. Except maybe a little red feathery ghost, delicately picking her way through the long grass. She was the last of three, and I will get more, but not straight away.


Writers’ Cafe

 |  | 

Last Wednesday I was guest of honour at Riverside High School’s Writers’ Cafe, in Launceston. This was the celebration of the Write Road project, which involved approximately 50 keen writers from three primary schools.


The teacher who invited me suggested that I talk about my beginnings as a writer, but I thought it’d be more interesting to talk about the four most important things I’ve learned along the way.

So here they are:

1. Writers need to daydream. If you want to be a swimmer, you have to swim a lot of laps. If you want to be a musician, you play a lot of scales. If you want to be a writer, you read and write a lot – but you must also daydream. Sometimes we forget this. When I run writing workshops in schools, I ask kids to write a story on the spot. If someone asked me to write a story on the spot, I could – but it wouldn’t be one of my best stories. For my best stories, I have to spend a lot of time daydreaming. Staring out the window at nothing. Going for long walks on the beach by myself. Letting my thoughts stray in wild and wonderful directions.

Daydreaming is one of the most important things a writer can do.

2. Writers need to be risk takers. This one took me a long time to learn, because if you take risks, at some point you’re going to fail. That’s what taking risks is all about. You try something new, you experiment. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. And I hate getting things wrong.

But the thing is, if you don’t take risks, you can’t be creative. Being creative is all about taking risks.

[At this point I told them about the spiderlings that live on Mt Wellington/kunanyi. At a certain time of year, they spin long threads and throw themselves onto the westerly winds, with no idea where they’ll end up. Some of them fall into the Derwent River and drown. But others are blown across the river, across the Tasman Sea, and even across the Pacific Ocean to South America.

And that’s what we do as writers. We spin a thread and throw our imaginations to the wind, with no idea where they’ll end up.]


3. Writers must live their lives deeply and passionately. Some people go through their whole life half asleep, hardly noticing what goes on around them. We can’t do that. If we want to be writers, we need to notice everything, both around us and inside us. We need to take notice of what it feels like to be scared, or filled with joy, or heart-broken or so excited we can’t stand still. Because if we don’t feel those things, how will we be able to write about them?

And as well as taking notice, we need to go out and have adventures.

[At this point I told them several stories about when I lived in Papua New Guinea, and taught at a little bush school with 250 kids and three teachers. I told them about our headmaster, Mr Oscar Tammur, who used to train the kids for the interschools sports by chasing them around the oval with a whip. I told them about learning to scuba dive, and how one day, when a couple of friends and I were 30 metres down, a fisherman paddling his canoe above us decided that instead of using his fishing line to catch fish, he’d use dynamite. I told them about the time I helped a special team from Japan search the jungle for a Japanese soldier left over from the Second World War.

I told them that I’ve been arrested for busking in the Hobart mall, back in the days when it was still illegal. That I’ve hitchhiked around Holland and France. That I’ve explored the Paris catacombs, where the bones from all the old Parisian cemeteries are stacked in patterns along the walls of underground tunnels.

I explained that those catacombs turned up in Museum of Thieves as the Place of Remembering. Mr Oscar Tammur inspired the character of Guardian Hope. The scuba diving came in handy when I was writing Sunker’s Deep.

Our lives are our material. They are like a deep well we can draw from over and over again. But only if we take notice.]

4. As writers and storytellers, we are part of a great and honourable tradition. There have been storytellers for as long as there have been humans. There have been writers for as long as there has been writing. And every one of those writers started off as a child with a huge imagination and a love of stories. Everyone who writes has hundreds of thousands of colleagues, going back through history. Like us, they were daydreamers. Like us, they learned to take risks. Like us, they lived their lives deeply and passionately.

And like you, and like me, they were proud to call themselves writers.

Nice things in the mail

 |  | 

It’s been another good week for the mail, with my author copies of the re-packaged Hidden series arriving a couple of days ago.


Aren’t the colours stunning? I’m very much looking forward to hearing what people think of them.

I’m off to Launceston later this week, to talk to 40 students from Trevallyn, Riverside  and West Launceston Primary schools, who make up a community of creative writers. Wednesday night is their end-of-year celebration, in the form of a Writers’ Cafe, and I am the guest speaker.

I was going to talk about my own beginnings as a writer, but then I thought it’d be more interesting to speak about the four most important things I’ve learned along the way. So I’ve been busy trying to work out what those four things are. 🙂 I think I’ve got it now – I’ll tell you about them next week.

I’ve been on holiday for the last little while, waiting for editorial comments on the first Bodyguards book. They still haven’t come, but this week I’m getting back to serious work. More thinking about the second and third books, and also thinking about another book that has been lurking in the back of my computer for several years. I’d love to finish it – but can I write two books at once? I’ve always assumed I couldn’t, because my subconscious mind gets confused, but I’ve had a few ideas about how it might work. I shall report back.

I’ll finish with this gorgeous picture of Harry. 🙂



New website

 |  | 

I’m in the process of getting this website remade. When I first commissioned it from web designer Jin Wang, all I was thinking about was The Keepers trilogy. And the website reflects that – particularly the home page.

But now of course there’s the Keepers trilogy plus the Hidden series. And the first book in the Accidental Bodyguards series will be published next year. So I’ve been thinking for a while that I need an updated look, and I started talking to Jin about it last week.

Harry and Clara of course have their own ideas as to what the new website should look like, and most of those ideas seem to include pictures of them. Clara has been sitting just outside the cat door for the last couple of days, in case I need to take a photo of her.


I have instructed Jin to ignore any mysterious pics of cats or chickens that arrive in his inbox. 🙂

Meanwhile I’m playing with collage ideas for Bodyguards #2 and #3,


and making soap,


and getting interesting parcels in the post. This came a couple of days ago. It’s a shelf-talker – one of those things that bookshops use to draw your attention to particular books. It was made by Allen & Unwin for the new covers of the Hidden series.


We are all very excited about the new covers. They are coming out  in Australia and New Zealand on December 1st, only three and a bit weeks away!


The new Australian covers!

 |  | 

The new Australian/New Zealand covers for the Hidden series have been revealed at last, and I am very excited about them. I loved the ones Sebastian Ciaffaglione did for the first edition, so I was a bit worried about the new ones.

But they are gorgeous. Completely different in tone and colour and everything else. And so adventurous! Art work by Arden Beckwith, design by Josh Durham. What do you think?the-hidden-icebreaker_front-1



Now I just have to work out how I can get all three onto a business card. 🙂

Waiting …

 |  | 

I sent the manuscript of Bodyguards to my agent, Margaret Connolly, a week and a half ago. It’s funny how this works. Right up to the moment when I sent it, I was really happy with it. Two seconds later I was chewing my nails and thinking of all the things that were wrong with it.

Margaret loved it! (Phew!)

But then of course she passed it on to my Australian publishers, Allen & Unwin, so now I’m chewing my nails all over again, waiting to hear what they think of it.

Meanwhile, to distract me a little, there are wonderful things happening with the reissue of the Hidden series in Aust/NZ. My publishers have found a new illustrator, a young woman called Arden Beckwith. And she has just recently sent the cover roughs, which are the preliminary sketches the artist does to show the publisher what they’re thinking. I love this one for Ice Breaker!


You can find a description of the process here, on the Allen & Unwin blog.


What to write?

 |  | 

Every two years, a group of people get together and present a snapshot of current Australian science fiction/fantasy, including interviews with the various authors. The last one was in 2014, and the new one has just gone up. You can find my interview here, and if you want to see some of the other people currently writing in this area, and read a whole lot of interesting interviews, click on the home page. I’m slowly working my way through them.

One of the questions was whether I saw myself as always writing for middle grade/YA, or whether I’d follow my readers as they grew older. The answer I gave was the one that was true on the day of the interview – which is not to say that it’ll be true next week.

Before Museum of Thieves took off in such an exciting way, I was writing a whole bunch of different books. Let me tell you about three of them. (Keep in mind that no one else except me has ever seen this, so it’s just between you and me, okay?)

Trollbaby was a YA verse novel. Given that I haven’t written poetry since I was ten, I’ve no idea why I thought I could write a novel in verse. As it was, I found it incredibly slow going. Here’s the beginning of the first draft:

‘So what’s the news?’ says Deb.
‘I’m dating one of Them,’ I say.
You are?’ says Deb. ‘Who is he? A vamp?’
She grins. ‘I love the way they walk into class
as if they’re doing us a favour just by being there.
And that pale skin makes me shiver.
I’ve always fancied Lucas.
Though Winston is gorgeous in an evil sort of way.
What’s he like to touch, is he cold,
can you feel his heartbeat?
Has he got a heartbeat?’

‘He’s not a vamp.’

‘Oh…’ Deb’s disappointed.
Then her eyes light up again. ‘It’s one of the wereboys, isn’t it!
Oh god, who? Zack? Jake? Not Benbow?
Have you seen him—you know—do the furry thing?
Is it scary? Is it gross?
What if he forgets himself and bites you?’

‘He’s not a wereboy either.’

‘Really? Bum.
Me, I’d pick a wereboy.
They’re not as sexy as the vamps,
and Benbow gets dog-breath when he’s excited,
but at least they’re warm-blooded.’

As well as Trollbaby, there was Puppy Love, which was a trashy romance/bodice ripper aimed at adults, and another unnamed m/s which was going to be my very own vampire novel set in Tasmania. I was going to paste bits of them, too, but chickened out. 🙂

I go back and look at them every now again, and am awfully tempted to pick one of them up again. But that usually happens when I’m struggling with my current book. Whatever I’m not writing always looks easier.