Sunshine Gypsies :: Lake Iseo, Italy

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It turns out, September is the perfect time to travel in Italy. The crowds have dwindled, and it’s still warm and delicious.

Ten days ago, we left our beloved Granny Annie in Semriach, and headed south to Italy. We spent a night in Udine, then dropped by Verona on our way to Lake Iseo.

Verona was spectacularly busy, and beautiful. It was our first proper taste of Italy, and we trawled the old streets and piazzas, looking for coffee, pizza and toilets.

We’d pre-booked a campsite at Lake Iseo, at Camping Vela. Being off season, we scored the most incredible spot directly next to the lake {and the WiFi}. And to Franca!

Franca is the most wonderful elderly Italian woman who ever lived in a bright pink house, with canaries by a lake. She’s lived in her glorious abode for thirty years. We couldn’t speak much Italian, and she couldn’t speak any English, and yet we communicated through food and gifts. Almost every day, she brought us a home cooked meal and / or espresso coffee, and chocolates for the children. And she insisted we sit at her little yellow table setting directly by the lake. How did she know I love yellow? It’s funny how little things like getting a spot next to Franca can completely change your experience of Italy.

Also fortunate about our spot, other than being shaded by an olive tree, was the outlook. We were directly across from Monte Isola, said to be one of the most beautiful islands in Europe. Close by, was a tiny castle on a tiny island, blocking our view of the mine on the opposite side of the lake.

We spent days exploring the neighbouring villages. Our own village, Merano, had a patisserie bar, run by Joanna, whose sing-song intonation became more sing-song the longer our stay, and the more her affection for us grew. The number of lollies she gave the children also increased throughout the week. Oh, and the homemade gelato! Pistachio… We may or may not have eaten gelato every day of our stay.

We ate several times at the local pizzeria. The equivalent joint in Australia would be the local snack bar. But in Italy, everything seems better, and the pizza certainly tastes better than anything you’ve ever had. With kids, we liked eating surrounded by the bustle of comers and goers, rather than in a big restaurant.

Across the road was the local grocer. Again, the seller insisted on giving us gifts. Her store was lined with local produce – prosciutto, salami, cheese, fresh bread, marinated goodness… need I continue? I could live in that shop.

Lake Iseo feels like stumbling into a secret. The villages are so unassuming and quaint, away from busy roads. It’s only when you walk through them that you discover the cobbled streets, by the water, and see the detailed frescoes on the coloured buildings.

We ferried over to Monte Isola a couple of times, and fell in love with the villages rolling up the terraced hill. Over the course of a couple of days, we walked over fifteen kilometres through olive and chestnut orchards, overlooking the lake.

Elka meandered, telling stories much of the way. We entered the decadent churches, where they were open, and we stunned by the opulence, nestled within such small villages. Overcome by their beauty, Elka took to praying everywhere we went. She also collected flowers on the way, to leave offerings to her new God.

When at the campsite, the storytelling continued. I’d write a little, or read, while the girls sat on the pebbles below us, ‘telling Harry’.

Telling Harry began when I started reading Harry Potter to Elka a few months ago. Elka’s own place in the story is told in furious mutters, which last literally hours. ‘Elka, please put your shoes on.’ No answer. ‘Elka, please!’ ‘I can’t! I’m Telling Harry!’

Now Rosie’s Telling Harry too.

I suppose I did this too at some point, but I cannot get over their ability to spend hours literally kicking around, telling stories to themselves.

We said our farewells yesterday. Joanna gave the girls boxes of sweeties. The local grocer gave us jars of mint yoghurt. Franca wiped away tears. Bruno, the kind campsite director and Franca came to see us off.

I love how this little holiday unravelled so perfectly…

Sunshine Gypsies :: Wolfgangsee

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I love the idea of camping. But until this week, had only ever camped two or three nights with my little sunshine family. Here, though, beside the Wolfgangsee in Austria, we set up our fancy glamping tent under an apple tree for ten whole magical days…

From under the shade of the apple tree, we’d emerge each morning in the quiet, lakeside farm campsite and walk directly into crystal water. A swan or duck on the surface, or a shoal of fish in the shallow water would be the only sign of life. Other than the glorious mountains, surrounding the lake.

The farm where we stayed provided fresh cow’s milk, and semmel (little breads) every morning. The girls disappeared directly into the apple tree to eat breakfast while Gregor and I drank coffee.

Days were spent either beside or in the warm lake, rowing across the lake, in one of the lakeside towns, like St Wolfgang or Hallstatt, or walking in the mountains. In the afternoons, Gregor and I took turns running into the surrounding hills.

Our neighbouring campers were mostly locals – people who have a permanent camp set up, and have travelled to the lake most weekends of the summer for years.

There are many big resort-like campsites across Europe. But this is my style. Simple, inexpensive, lakeside, farm camping among friendly people.

What more could you want?

 

Children Book Tuesday :: Writing by heart

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As some of you know, I have spent much of the last week sitting beside a lake, writing. Words flow in a steady stream. I pause for a moment to look up at the magical horizon, then back at my computer, lost in the story as it unfolds.

This is what I imagined it would be like to write a novel.

Like many lovers of books, I’ve had a quiet fantasy to at some point write a novel. Every novel I have read since I was a kid makes me feel like maybe I could do this too. But it was an airy fantasy. Because, as I have been finding out, writing a novel is far harder than it looks. It’s craft. It’s hard work. It requires knowledge.

I’ve studied writing at university, and have written many thousands of words since. Last year, it occurred to me that I really need to learn how to write a story. A novel-length story. I can write a 350 word picture book. I can write 150,000 word course books. But as far as I knew, I didn’t have the skills to write a full length novel.

My first step was to ask other professional writers: what courses have you done? What books have you read? Where did your knowledge come from? I read blog posts and websites. Some resources I have come across include Story, by the formidable Robert McKee, James Patterson’s masterclass,  Writing Irresistible Kidlit  by Mary Kole and The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. I also did a wonderful course through SCBWI Netherlands earlier in the year with Sarah Davies. Threads started to come together, and I began to understand the makings of a good story. The task of writing a novel began to feel less daunting.

Because I haven’t been doing a lot of paid work this year, I’ve had time to write. So armed with a little knowledge and time, I began. I had a few story ideas, so started to flesh them out. It seemed that writing by heart was my style, and I would write, and write and write, and suddenly had 10,000 or so words for a couple of stories.

But that’s where I’d get stuck. I began four different times. Four different stories. Each time, when the uphill bit began, and my story started to lose momentum, I fell into the temptation of a new prospect. A new character would come to mind, and a new plot would unravel, and I would leap from what I was doing into the next project. It became easy to start, but incredibly hard to keep going.

One of the popular theories in fiction writing, is that you are a pantser or a planner. Al Tait says you are a mapmaker or a discoverer. By all attempts, I thought I must be a pantser, i.e. someone who writes by the seat of their pants, and sees where the story takes them. The discovery is fun. Characters come to life, and an initial idea for a plot swells and twists, taking you in all sorts of directions.

In life, I am a pantser – someone who plays everything by ear. I wait and see where I end up. There is no official plan. No law degree, or linear education. I have done things because I like to, or am interested, or because a particular door opens at a particular time and it just feels right to step through. Mostly, this approach has worked. But there have been times, {like nowish}, where I find myself living in a tent, with no clear objective and direction. The world is my oyster, but geez, that’s a scary concept.

As is completing a novel, when you have absolutely no idea which direction you are heading.

Of course, when I explained the concept of pantser vs planner to my husband, he had to play the devil’s advocate.

‘I don’t buy it,’ he said. ‘No one will be one or the other. They will be a combination of both.’

I read about the Snowflake Method at some point in my self-education, and decided it wasn’t for me. I’m a pantser, after all. But maybe there was something there – something to help me.

When I write education and training course books, they come with an outline. I use the outline, and fill in the blanks. I work fast and well, and before I know it, I’m 100,000 words in. Because there is an outline.

When I thought about my life as a pantser, I had to think again. Yes, sure, I’ve followed random paths, and taken unexpected forks in the road. But then again, I do have clear goals and objectives. I know, and have known for a long time, that I want to be a professional author, and I know roughly what my objectives within that look like. I’m heading to certain plot points along the way. Plot points evolve as I move towards them, and goals shift, but that just makes life interesting.

Could it be I am not such a pantser after all?

I revisited the Snowflake Method, and applied it to one of my stuck manuscripts.

I couldn’t bring myself to do the whole scene by scene, Excel spreadsheet breakdown, so I did an abbreviated version. My steps were:

1. Write down a clear story hook; make sure it sings

2. Write down a clear plot summary, outlining the key arcs and finale of story

3. Get to know characters thoroughly, and outline a story synposis for each

4. Flesh out the story synopsis

5. Write.

In truth, the planning stage didn’t take long at all, because the idea was already there, and I had already taken three attempts to write the story.

When it came to writing character outlines, the story really took shape. I could start to see various subplots, and understand my characters’ motivations. I needed to see how this story would shape them.

While I started a scene by scene lowdown, I gave up when I got to the lakes of Austria. It was time to launch in, headfirst. And so the tick tick of my keyboard began.

On Saturday, not long after rewriting my story from the beginning with my new outline in mind, I sent myself a 30,000 word draft of an almost complete middle grade novel.

Of course, there is no way this is anywhere close to being complete in real terms. Now the really hard work begins, as I go back over it, refine the story, and probably rewrite every line.

Still – something a week ago which seemed impossible was suddenly possible.

So maybe, as usual, my husband is right. Writers, or at least me, aren’t one or the other. A bit of pantsing and a bit of planning can take you a long way when writing a novel, just as it can in life.

What are your thoughts on this?

Join in for Children’s Book Tuesday by linking your post below. Anything related to children’s books is welcome!

Fairytale Village

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Earlier this week, we visited a town on a lake in Austria called Hallstatt. It is said to be one of the ten most beautiful lakeside towns in Europe. And I’d believe it. Overrun with tourists, and rarely sunny, yet so like wandering through a fairytale. Little Elka wandered the town, lost in storytelling mode. It was magic. 

Sunshine Gypsies :: Garmisch-Partenkirchen

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I won’t pretend we are not lucky. For the next six weeks, the Sunshine Gypsies are travelling around Europe. One tent and a carful of gear.

Stop one. Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany.

We enter the green valley by train. The surrounding mountains are not imposing or intimidating. They seem kind, like a protective force around the valley.

Our sunshine tent has already been set up for us by loving family. It looks over the kind mountains, and we look over them.

Our first morning camping, the sun blazes. We dress and do a little walk among the pine trees. My daughter calls it fairy land and it is. The sun glints through the trees, sparkling on moss covered ground. We want to creep off the path and be part of it all. Fairy land. Red Riding Hood’s forest. Cottages made of wood remind us of the little piggy’s house. Sheep tinkle, bells around their neck as they graze. The music of grazing.

From the top the view is clear and perfect.

We meet granny Annie at the play park by the lake. We leave the children with her, and Greg and I go for our first run together in months. Up the mountain. Down. Around the lake. The day is so warm and I’m worried about my heart and blood pressure. But I don’t need to be. I feel amazing.

Like my daughter does most of the day, I tell a story in my head as we run. The lake is bright blue. Bright pink umbrellas and tanned German holiday goers line  the shores.

Later, all of us leap in the lake. It is unbelievably cold but once you get used to it, bearable. This mountain lake has a slide going into the water! One by one we pop out into the water. I’ve never seen little Rosie’s eyes so huge!

Walking back Gregor and I realise how amazingly relaxed we feel. Thank you mountains for your kindness and your protection.

‘Do you love them yet?’ asks Greg who is from a long lineage of mountain loving people. I think I do.

 The next day, we leave Garmisch, but not before stopping off at the cable car. We ride up within the incredible cliff, and reach the pinnacle. Well, there is climbing to be done first. One child on the back, and the other one – a self-proclaimed mountaineer, heading up the mountain. One wears her Peppa Pig tutu swimmers and sandals. The other wears a skirt and gold sandals. None of us have jackets.

‘What would my Austrian grandfather be thinking, his grandson taking his children up the mountain dressed like this?’ says my husband, slapping his forehead.

We walk through a tunnel in the mountains, then stand with one foot in Germany and the other in Austria. The air is cool, but it’s bearable, as the day is stunning.

We leave late afternoon for the Wolfgangsee, just beyond of Salzburg. Driving in a hot car with two little kids isn’t ideal, but if that’s as bad as it gets, we aren’t complaining.

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