How many times? Captain Cook was NOT the first European to set foot in Australia!

Back in the UK now, after a month long trip promoting my shipwreck books in Western Australia and taking part in the 400th anniversary celebrations of the landing of the Dutch mariner, Dirk Hartog, in Shark Bay, in October 2016.

My fascination with the 17th and 18th century Dutch shipwrecks began eight years ago when I visited the Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle for the first time.

I was aware of the powerful Dutch East India Company (the VOC), its establishment of headquarters throughout Asian countries and, in particular, its hugely profitable trade in spices; but what I didn’t know was that, by 1617, its great ‘retourships’ were required to adopt the new Brouwer route, sailing South from the Cape in South Africa before turning West to pick up the ‘Roaring Forties’ winds and then North towards the East Indies, parallel with the coast of Western Australia or, as it was called at the time, ‘The Unknown Southland’.

As I stared at the great hull of the ship Batavia, at the replica stone blocks destined for the castle gate in Java and all the artifacts salvaged from the ship and read about the mutiny, the shipwreck, the massacre on the Abrolhos Islands, the eventual retribution and then the marooning of the two young mutineers, I was intrigued.

Why had I never heard of this appalling event in Australia’s history? What if those two young men, Pelgrom and Loos, had survived and integrated with the coastal aborigines? If they had, then they would have been the very first European settlers in Australia, nearly 150 years before Cook sailed into Botany Bay!

Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey. I have written two books about the early Dutch shipwrecks off the West Australian coast, ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ and the new ‘Forgotten Footprints’, have visited the Abrolhos Islands where all the Batavia horrors occurred, toured schools in the Eastern States, flown over the Zuytdorp cliffs, travelled by boat parallel with Red Bluff, South of Kalbarri, from which so many early Dutch mariners took their bearings, given the Batavia lecture at the Maritime Museum and, most recently, had a wonderful trip from Yallingup up to Shark Bay, speaking to schools and other groups about my books and about the rich maritime history of the State.


And what a privilege it was to be part of the celebrations in Denham to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of Dirk Hartog at Cape Inscription in October 1616, to attend the moving opening ceremony, watch the procession of cardboard boats, admire the costumes for the 17th century ball, crawl over the replica ship ‘Duyfken’ and travel across to Dirk Hartog Island and see the new commemorative plaques and the cleft in the rock into which the original post, plate attached, was rammed.


The day I left WA to return to the UK, I was able to fit in a visit to the newly opened exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – ‘Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean’ and see the originals of both the Dirk Hartog plate and the Vlamingh plate and to learn that the very latest research will soon be available into whether Western European DNA found in some Aboriginal coastal tribes can be traced to pre-settlement days.


And yet, whenever I go into Australian schools and ask the question: ‘Who was the first European to set foot on Australian soil?’ nine times out of ten the answer is still ‘Captain Cook.’



Knowing Me, Knowing You


Creating characters is one of the most enjoyable aspects of story writing and not always easy to get right. No hero is all good, no villain all bad, so it’s important to avoid stereotypes. If readers can relate to real characters then they will care about them and want to know what happens to them.

I helped run a session recently at a Writers’ retreat where we were thinking of ways in which to bring our characters to life. Here are some of the ideas which came out of the session – some mine, some from other writers – which I thought I’d share.

  1. Choose a character and then describe a room in the house where he or she lives, indicating, through your description, all the aspects of the character but without the character actually appearing in the piece. It’s surprising how much you can learn about the person who inhabits the room through the state of the room and the objects within in.


  1. Imagine you are on a wide, flat beach. In the distance, you see a figure. This is your character. Slowly, you begin to see them better. You begin to see their body, their clothes, their face. Watch them walking towards you. Take a good look. They are close now and you can see every detail of their features. What does their hair look like? Is it long or short? What colour is it? Is it neat/messy? What about their eyes? What colour? And their face? Is there any feature which stands out? What are they wearing? What kind of clothes? What colour? Are they normal/exotic? Are they in a uniform of some sort or in their own clothes? How old are they? You can tell by the way they are walking that they are feeling something. What are they feeling? Are they afraid/happy/angry/sad/scared? Do they have a secret?


  1. Show don’t tell (yes, I know it’s an old chestnut but it’s worth repeating). Describe someone you know well. Make a list of some of the person’s traits then show examples of these traits in your writing. For instance, here are some ways you could describe someone’s gran. Big busted: used to brush the crumbs off her chest with her hand. Fun: used to cheat at Snap by shouting loudest and laughed until no sound came out and she had to wipe the tears away with a cotton hankie she tucked under her bra strap. Feisty: A man threw his empty cigarette packet out of his car window. She picked it up and threw it right back!


  1. Have a go at interviewing your character to find out more about him or her. For example, what football team does he/she support? What does he/she like to eat – and when? What
    music does he/she enjoy? By asking lots of ordinary questions you can really begin to get inside that character.


  1. Write a few pages of a diary in the voice of one of your main characters.

The session certainly gave me some new ideas of ways in which to get to know the characters in my stories and flesh them out for my readers.







Literary Tea Party

Lovely literary party this afternoon at Pippa Goodhart’s house in Granchester.  So good to be able to catch up over a cream tea with other Cambridge authors – Adele, June, Annemarie, Anne and Gillian. Nourishment for both body and mind!




Visit to London Book Fair

Being at the London Book Fair at Olympia can be overwhelming.  Publishers from across the globe, so many people, so many books, so many genres, to say nothing of the digital content. Some good seminars too, though this year I didn’t attend any but focussed on the children’s books area on the first floor – and that was huge enough.  Good to catch up with old friends (my current publishers and ex colleagues) and meet new (coffee at Pizza Express with members of Scattered Authors’ Society).

A stimulating day in all sorts of ways – seeing new books and new ways in which to inspire children and, quite unexpectedly, eliciting interest in my current work-in-progress.

Definitely a worthwhile visit – and it is reassuring to have evidence that the physical book is not on its way out.  It is alive and kicking vigorously!



A blog I wrote for inclusion in Australia’s Women’s History Month

The Highs, Lows and Bits in Between for a Writer of Historical Fiction

blue eyed aborigine

I’m not by nature a joiner of groups but I am very glad I overcame my reluctance and signed up to two or three authors’ societies. One of the best things about being part of a network of writers is the support, encouragement and advice you get from colleagues when things aren’t going so well.

Yes, it is great to share successes, but in my view, even more valuable to share the failures, the bad times, when your confidence is so shattered that you can’t believe you were ever arrogant enough to call yourself a writer.

Knowing that you are not alone, that all writers, however apparently successful, have been through these experiences, can be the only thing that keeps you going and spurs you on to dig yourself out of that deep hole of waning self confidence.

There have always been blips in my writing life. It had begun so well and, initially, been so easy. I had written an historical novel with a twist of fantasy; a story I really wanted to tell and believed in, which had been brewing in my imagination for years. I’d put it away for long periods and then taken out again, tinkered with it, asked others to read it, incorporated their advice. And then, finally, entered it in a national competition here in the UK, after which I forgot about it again and got on with my life, looking after my three children and an assortment of animals, working part time, doing voluntary stuff, visiting aging parents, coping for long periods on my own while my husband worked abroad.

Okay, so that’s what women do at these busy times in our lives. We multitask, switching priorities when we have to, juggling, keeping all the balls in the air and, if we are lucky, managing to fit a little time into our lives to indulge in our hobbies. And, back then, I did see writing as no more than a hobby. Having written my novel I felt that I had, at least, achieved what I set out to do and if it never saw the light of day, never got to be read by anyone except family and friends, then too bad. At the time, I knew nothing about the publishing process, about agents or editors. I was impossibly green. It was only much later, when I went to work for a large publisher, that I realized how lucky I had been.

The national competition was run jointly by a well known publisher and the Book Trust and the results weren’t announced until months later. I had genuinely forgotten about it when, to my astonishment, I heard that my story was runner up in the competition and that it would be published.

These were the good times. I worked with a brilliant editor who taught me so much and helped me fine tune my work. Four more books were commissioned and I began to believe that I was a ‘proper’ writer. But then the editor in question went on to higher things and, as so often happens, the new editor didn’t particularly like my work, was looking for new voices, and no more commissions came my way.

That was my first time in the wilderness and there was a long gap before I was taken on by Penguin Australia and had a very happy relationship with them, writing many books over a period of about eight years. Three of these were historical novels, all based on events in Australia’s history, with which I have a particular fascination (more of this later). Then again, the wonderful editor with whom I had worked moved on, my ideas for new books weren’t accepted, the work dried up and no other publisher showed any inclination to take me on.

At these points in your writing life, unless you have incredible self-belief, it is very easy to lose faith in yourself as a writer. Even though, by that time, I had a bunch of published books to my name, it made no difference. A lot of navel searching went on. I had no background as an historian, so maybe I should never have attempted to write historical novels. But even at this low point, some of these events from the past just wouldn’t let me go and I continued to mull over ideas, do research, jot down plot structures.

A couple of years went by when neither agents nor publishers seemed interested in my proposals and then, just at the point when I was ready to abandon my writing, a commission came from Hachette for a trilogy of historical novels – a family saga, this time, from early Victorian times to the second World War. Although the stories were essentially about an English family and their triumphs and tragedies, an Australian thread sneaked into them (transportation for a petty crime, the gold rush). But they didn’t sell particularly well and, although the editorial team wanted more from me, marketing and sales felt the books’ sales didn’t justify further commissions.

This was when I became aware of a shift in emphasis from publishers. Editors’ enthusiasm for a wonderful story, a great idea, frequently had cold water poured upon them by the sales and marketing departments and by the accountants who, as larger publishers gobbled up the smaller publishers, became more and more influential, their eyes always on the bottom line of the balance sheet. Editorial had to go through endless hoops to commission books and often a quirky, original idea that had so grabbed an editor, failed to pass the scrutiny of those looking for a ready market and guaranteed sales. Or, if it did, it became so diluted as to be unrecognizable.

Those Hachette books were the last ones for which I received an advance based on a first chapter and a synopsis. After that everything changed. Now you have to do all the research, write the full story and submit it and, if you are very lucky, it is accepted. Admittedly, this is not true for high profile authors but if, like me, you are ‘mid-list’ this is how it seems to be.

Post Hachette there were more fruitless years, then a new publisher and four more books; and just when I felt I had got my feet under the table there, the company was bought by a larger publisher, the Young Adult list was axed and all the YA editorial team were out of a job and their writers abandoned. But at least I was not alone on this occasion; there were so many of us that we staged a wonderful party – a wake to mark the burial of the YA list!

Since then, I’ve been taken on by a small independent publisher – set up by an editor, as it happens, who was involved in publishing my first novel, so I have come full circle. But who knows where this will lead, how many more books I shall have accepted? There is absolutely no certainly in this game.

I’ve been in the business for a long time now and seen a lot of changes. From being nurtured as a newbie, having long and wonderful associations with talented editors, having launches and promotion all done for me by publicity departments, to this new and scary time for writers when editors are either over stretched or inexperienced (or both) and an author is expected to do most of his or her own marketing and publicity.

Of course there are authors who actively enjoy putting themselves out there on social media, setting up school visits, turning every possible marketing opportunity to their advantage, but what of those of us who do not? I am essentially a private person, at my happiest being left on my own to research and read, dream up stories to flesh out historical facts and write them as well as I possibly can. I don’t mind sharing my professional life with those who are interested (like you!) but I want to keep my private life private. Of course, I do the social media stuff, but not regularly and usually reluctantly – and I resent its banality. It is not what I am and I don’t really enjoy engaging with total strangers just to blow my own trumpet. And yes, I know I’m missing out in terms of sales – but ideally I’d prefer that my books spoke for me.

Back, then, to what I mentioned earlier – to my fascination with Australia’s past. I have spent most of my life living in the UK, so why this urge to write about Australian history? Why does it hold such appeal for me? Well I suspect it is because I came to it afresh when I lived there. In particular, learning about the voyages of the early Dutch mariners, ploughing their way up the coast of Western Australia en route to the East Indies, years before Captain Cook landed on the Eastern side of the country in 1770, and discovering that the first European settlers in Australia were two young men involved in the infamous Batavia mutiny and massacre, marooned on the West Australian coast in 1629. Other shipwrecks followed with more survivors, no trace of whom was found. What happened to these people? Did they integrate with the coastal aboriginal tribes? DNA evidence suggests that they did. There are so many untold stories – extraordinary stories of hardship, endurance and bravery. A rich vein indeed, which I shall continue to tap, whether for my own interest or for a broader audience of young people.



Article about ‘The Travellers’ up on SCBWI UK’s website

Have a look at the article up today on the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators ‘Words and Pictures’ blog

Also worth reading is an article from the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers – which talks about cuts to Traveller education in Cambridgeshire

All the families I interviewed for my series of stories were based in Cambridgeshire where, currently, they have excellent support from staff in traveller education. So many would lose out if this was taken away from them.

Virtual Historical Fiction Festival

A heads up about the forthcoming Virtual Historical Fiction Festival which runs between 18th and 22nd April.  It will mainly be hosted on Twitter and there will be lots of historical fiction writers talking about their books, their research and so on.  Go to and read some of the writers’ blogs up there (including mine) and join in the chat next month.  I’ll be talking about ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ and my forthcoming book, ‘Forgotten Footprints’.

Books and other Bits


Far too long since I last blogged, despite good intentions.

Lots has been going on since the beginning of December last year and not only the splendid and prolonged invasion of family over the Christmas period.

On December 12th my critique group ‘Walden Writers’ had a book sale in our local library which was a lot of fun. We were allocated several tables on the ground floor and it was really good to engage with local readers and talk about our books and – it being just before Christmas – we sold quite a few, too. Our secret weapon was Clare Mulley, the biographer, who is no shrinking violet. Clare shouted out to all passers-by to come and sample our wares – and, as added incentive, we offered chocolate brownies and a free Walden Writers magazine, showcasing our writing, to anyone who bought a book!

I can’t stress how valuable a good critique group is to a writer – and this one is the best, consisting, as it does, of published writers in various genres. I’m just starting out on a new venture, in slightly unfamiliar territory, so I am very much feeling my way – and to have their expert, constructive criticism, is invaluable.

But sadly, just now I can’t get to meetings of any of my ‘book-y’ groups as I’m confined to the house following a foot operation, unable to drive or to fulfill my normal commitments. The upside is that there is absolutely NO excuse not to get on with the new project, so I’m plodding on, trying to rough it out. This is the process I like least; the enjoyable part is coming back to a story after a few weeks’ absence, seeing its many flaws, and rewriting and editing.

Another upside is that I’ve been able to do a lot of reading. Finally got round to Meg Rosoff’s ‘Picture me Gone’ and Patrick Ness’s ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ as well as the first of the ‘Hunger Games.’  Yes, I know.  Shaming that I’ve not read these before but hey, better late than never, eh?  Other reading I’ve really enjoyed is Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests’, ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton and ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin.

Today I booked a place on the wonderful Charney Manor writers’ retreat in Oxfordshire. I’ve been twice before and it is always such a shot in the arm to talk to other children’s writers, compare notes, join in the many activities and just generally be reinvigorated and re- inspired. Roll on the Summer.


The Muslim Young Writers’ Awards 5th December

Delighted to have been invited to the presentation of the Muslim Young Writers’ Awards last Saturday at the Senate House at London University. I was one of the judges in 2014 but couldn’t attend the ceremony – and was SO pleased to be able to go this year.

What a wonderful, positive, vibrant occasion it was. The Senate House packed with confident, talented young people and their supporters and families. There were speeches given by high profile guests and judges, including Louis de Bernieres, Roopa Farooki, Tim Bowler, Caryl Hart and many others, all emphasizing the power of story and of the imagination and encouraging the young finalists to keep writing, keep reading and change the world for the better.

And I certainly left feeling that this new generation of British Muslims could do just that.

A timely reminder of how much these young people can contribute to our society.

UK Middle Grade Extravaganza, Nottingham, 17th October

What a great event this was!  Somehow, the organisers (Emma Pass, Kerry Drewery, Jo Cotterill and the Nottingham Central Library team) managed to gather together THIRTY THREE children’s writers from across the country for an afternoon of quick-fire panels – four authors at a time, each talking for two minutes about their books and then fielding 5 minutes’  worth of questions from the floor.

It could have been chaotic but amazingly it went very smoothly, entirely due to the wonderful Paula who chaired the sessions and cut us off if we overran our 2 minutes, ably helped by various children who manned the giant egg-timers!

It was a lot of fun and a chance to re-connect with old friends, meet new ones and talk shop.

Oh, and I enjoyed sharing a platform with a witch!