Things I gained from the Covid lockdown

I went back to the office today. It was the first time in months. There was me, and about four others on my side of the building.  About five out of 50-60 seats.

Every meeting room was full, a single person in each, all in Microsoft Team meetings with online colleagues working from home.

I admit, I didn’t want to go into the office, but our company insists that we have to go in now for two days every week. One day is a team day, where the whole team is to come in. Only a third of the team turned up. No one wants to come into the office yet.

I got to use my big Mac screen (beautiful resolution on that) which is about the only advantage of the day. Oh, and it was lovely and quiet. I was less happy about the commute, however, as the traffic was horrendous.

There are so many bad things to come out of the pandemic today I want to talk about some of the good things. It in no way negates the bad things. I suppose I’m looking here for the silver linings.

Working from home

No commute. Heavenly, not to mention a comfortable workplace. Pre-pandemic I had been hesitant about working full-time from home because I know from writing that it can be solitary and isolating. Sure, it’s nice to talk to people face-to-face, but there are ways to communicate and work well together even remotely.

There were bad things, too, like the fact that I worked far longer hours, and the house got far messier, but let’s not talk about that.

It reminded me how important location of the workplace was.

I don’t work in the central business district (CBD)—most big companies in Australia have offices in the CBD—I work half-way between the city and my home suburb. When I initially applied for the job office location wasn’t at all important to me but if I was going for a job now, it would be. I want to work close to my home. Now I have discovered that at home is even better still.

Saving money

Enough said. I’ve spoken about this before. I’m not the only one, apparently. It seems to be a thing we all did. Less spending.

Being able to give most of my phone usage to charity

When I’m commuting, I’m online all the time. My mobile phone has a big data plan. Our phone plan allows you to donate data to a charity, and the charity (a reputable one) disperses that to children from low-income households so they have internet for their school requirements. I’ve always donated my excess data close to the end of the month. With I used the home fibre all the time, and hardly ever used the mobile at all. Nowadays I get a shock when anyone from work calls me on the phone, as we mostly use Microsoft Teams through the PC.

I could have changed my phone plan. Instead, I upped my donation to the charity. The kids needed it far more than I did.

Re-evaluating your life

This is the big one. All that time sitting at home has made a lot of people sit back and take stock. I was chatting with a florist the other day. She is busy right now, and one of her biggest classes is her six-week flower-arranging course which covers the business side of flower arranging, as well as everything else. People who have re-evaluated their work, and decided they want to do what they want, for a change.

I have certainly reconsidered my long-term plans. For example, why do I insist in living in the city? Why can’t I move somewhere else?

Particularly if I choose to work from home permanently.


A crackle of cockatoos

Not corellas, but …

Autumn. My favourite time of year.

The beautiful, golden days, warm enough to do things but not too hot to do them. The cooler nights, so you sleep better. The leaves turning.

The birds.

The parrots, which arrive around now and move on in a month or so.

The corellas (white cockatoos) that swarm around the area, their deafening screech making it hard to hear anything else as they swirl overhead. The love the big shopping centre near us. They also love the trees. The whole flock will swoop down onto a single tree—Moreton Bay figs, or the liquid ambers—in the evening to feed. They strip the tree.  In the morning you arrive out to a carpet of discarded seed parts all around the tree.

The corellas, of course, have screamed on to the next tree.

The collective nouns for cockatoos are a family, a chattering, or a crackle.

I like a crackle. It’s rather apt.


Trying new software

We have a writing process, if you could call something as informal as ours a process, and it goes something like this.

Write a first draft

This has lots of holes, is full of little notes like “(add something here)” and “(change the earlier story to match this)”—because you know, the story changes as we go along and sometimes we go back and sometimes we don’t. The story is a lot more fleshed out in the earlier stages than it is in the later ones. This draft can be anywhere from 60,000 to 140,000 words.

Sort out the story

We’re pantsers. Sometimes the story comes out pretty much as we want and we just edit it, most times it’s full of junk and needs a lot of work. We work out what the story is about.

Organise the chapters

We used to do this with a spreadsheet, or even just using the headings on Word, but nowadays we do it on Post-It notes.


Rewrite the story.

Rewrite again

And again, and again, and again, until we have a story we’re happy with.

We’re at the ‘organise chapters’ phase of the novel we are working on, and I had just finished affinity-mapping a week of user research (google it—it’s a great technique for a lot of things, including writing). I use Post-Its to affinity map. Post-Its are marvellous tools (and at the rate I go through them, I should buy shares in 3M).

“If I see another Post-It in the next week I’ll … I don’t know what I’ll do,” I said.

So instead of switching to Word, like we normally do, I decided we’d invest in Scrivener.

Clever? No.

This is my third attempt at using Scrivener. Other writers love it, and I have to admit, I like the look of it, too, but I’m a Word guru from a long way back. There is little I can’t do in Word and do much faster than any other program.

Third time lucky? We’ll see how we go.


Binge watching

While I enjoy listening to the piano live, I confess it’s one of my least favorite instruments to listen to in a recording. Despite this, for the last week I have been binge watching a Japanese anime called Forest of Piano on Netflix.

It’s a lovely little story about a piano prodigy, his friend–who is pressured by his father to compete with the prodigy–and the international Chopin piano competition held in Warsaw, Poland, every five years. There’s everything from single-parent families, parents putting their own desires on their children, good and bad reporters, and good and bad judges in the competition.

And, of course, there was a lot of piano playing. Especially Chopin.


Discovering authors via Kindle Unlimited

Not free, no. The Kindle Unlimited subscription cost USD$9.99 per month, and there are some months when you can’t find anything to read.

I have to say my break was fantastic. Although I’m already a week in to the new work year and it’s starting to feel same-old, same-old.

I did, literally, spend the first week of the break sleeping. I’d get up at 10 or 11 am, have an afternoon nap, and then go to be early. I didn’t realise quite how exhausted I was until the break.

I spent the second week reading.

Early in the pandemic I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited. It was supposed to be for three months, but here we are, two years in, and I still have the subscription.

The quality is hit and miss, and I’ve had dry periods, where I couldn’t find anything to read, or where the ideas were great but the writing was so bad that I couldn’t keep reading. The two things I have found with the unlimited subscription. I am more tolerant of the standard of writing when I’m not paying for the book (Even though I am, via the subscription, but it doesn’t feel like I am), and it’s hard to find good books.

I find it difficult to find books on Amazon anyway. To me, Amazon is the final step when you go to borrow/buy a book, it’s not an easy browsing platform. Most times I go in already looking for a book I want to buy.

There are places you can find books on Amazon—readers who read this book also looked at, best sellers, new releases, and so on—but I still find that unless I know what I’m looking for, it’s a lucky-dip. One thing that helps is recommendations of authors who read and like similar stories to those I read. In this post, I would like to talk about some authors that I have discovered through my reading, mostly on Kindle Unlimited (KU).

The stories/authors skew to the romance side, and to urban fantasy. I don’t know if that’s just what I’ve found so far. I have to say, as a result, I’m getting really picky about new urban fantasies. The two I mention below (Nash and Harper) were discovered early in my KU adventure. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was reading them for the first time now.

Where possible I’ll do book comps, rather than describe the story.

Also, whilst I discovered these stories trawling through Kindle Unlimited, not all the books are on the subscription, because another thing authors do is put in a $0.00 first novel, so you select it, and then buy the following novels. Also, these are $0.00 or Kindle Unlimited for me, they may not be in your country, so check before you download.

Kat Ross, Lingua Magika series

Has a similar feel to Charlaine Harris’ Gunny Rose books. Wild west, railroads, phantoms.

This is not Kindle Unlimited. The first book is $0.00, the next two cost. I liked it enough to pay for the second, and I have pre-ordered the third.

T. A. White, Dragon Ridden Chronicles

I mentioned this one is a quiz a few months back. Starts out as a classic fantasy—girl with a dragon tattoo which moves around and turns into a real dragon. Midway through the series you realise the bones of the story are science fiction.

Lindsay Buroker, Star Kingdom series

When I’m recommending this to friends I tell them it reminds me a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books. Some Vorkosigan fans may hate it, others may not even see the parallels.

Eight books in this series. I enjoy most of Buroker’s books. This series is science fiction, others are fantasy.

Vanesss Nelson, Ageless mysteries

I’m a sucker for SFF whodunnits. Protagonist is a policeman (policewoman) in a classic fantasy city that sits below a citadel populated with winged, powerful people who treat the city-siders like dirt. Police procedural with an interesting story about the protagonist’s past sitting behind it.

Three books so far, three more planned. I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

Helen Harper, Highland Magic series

Think of any of the classic urban fantasy series with a touch of whimsy. A bunch of thieves doing their (supposedly) last job. Includes a genie in a sword (a letter opener, really, but he’s only a small genie). Integrity tells terrible jokes, though.

Helen Harper has a number of series I like, although this is probably my favourite.

Ariana Nash, Shadows of London series

Another urban fantasy series (m/m). Tracking down illegal artefacts.

Quenby Olson, Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide (to the care and feeding of British dragons)

Pure regency romance. With a dragon. Pride and Prejudice crossed with the narrative style of Princess Bride.

This is one of only two stand-alone book on my list. I’ve found the Kindle Unlimited books tend to be series, rather than single stories. More so, I think, than traditionally published books, and the series are often longer. Eight books and more.

Light Raid, Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice

Young adult science fiction. Royalty, romance, spies and of the stories they coauthored, the one that feels most like Connie Willis. The light-hearted Willis, if her protagonists were younger.

The second stand-alone book. My favourite of the Felice/Willis cowritten stories.

Your mileage may vary

Obviously, one person’s taste may be another’s ‘blegh’, and I have to say that when I am paying for books I can be a lot more demanding of the book, especially when as the price increases.


Happy holidays

All the best for the festive season. I hope it’s a good one for you.

Me, I am looking forward to ten days leave. It’s been a long year, and it’s nice to have the break. I keep telling everyone all I’m going to do is sleep.

It’s quiet here at chez Dunstall. All the feline friends I wrote about last week deserted us as soon as school holidays started. 🙂

All the best.


Welcome to cat paradise

I have no idea how it happened, but we have suddenly become the trendy day-hangout for cats.

We don’t have cats ourselves. We’d love one, but Sherylyn has chronic allergic reactions to cat fur. If she visits friends who have cats the eyes run within about ten minutes and she gets a rash, all of which persist for days after the visit. So sadly, the last cat we’ve had in the house was Mum’s cat, Mercedes.

We all adored Mercedes, but when she was here, she used to love sleeping on Sherlyn’s bed. You can imagine how that went. Lots of antihistamines.

Anyway, like I say, no cats. Now we also have an established garden—let’s be honest, a beautiful crop of weeds—with mature trees. (Beautifully mown lawns, though. Thank you, James, 😊 you do good work.) It’s the suburban equivalent of old-growth forest, and like any old-growth forest supports a rich community of creatures. Birds, insects, little creatures.

Over the last ten years our neighbourhood has changed a lot. Houses have been knocked down and new ones built. Often the builder puts two separate dwellings on the one block. The owners have less land for gardens, and it’s all new growth. Most of our neighbours have cats, but there’s less garden for the cats to be in.

Oh, and did I say we’re on a weirdly-shaped block with about six houses abutting ours.

Not only that our back porch faces north-east and this time of the year it’s a beautiful, sunny spot until mid-afternoon. Plus, we have a lovely, cushioned chairs for sitting in.

It’s cat heaven.

At first it was only one cat. A tortoiseshell. She’s a hunter. She comes into the garden to stalk the wildlife. She’ll sit seemingly for hours watching the same patch of weeds.

Then a ginger-and-white cat started coming. He’s not a hunter. He sits on the lawn, king of all he surveys.

A couple of months ago a fluffy Burmese arrived. She’s a princess. She doesn’t hunt. She makes straight for the porch and the comfortable chair. She spends most of the day there.

Lastly, two weeks ago another Burmese arrived (from a different back yard). This is a young cat. He’s noisy, and he likes company. If there’s no other four-legged company when he arrives, he’s quite vocal about it.

All these cats keep school hours. We don’t see a whisker of them before 9am, nor after about 3pm.


Use it or lose it

When I first left home I could cook almost anything and I did. Want roast lamb, I’d turn it out beautifully, with perfectly cooked potatoes, pumpkin and beans alongside. With fresh, home-made gravy that was just right. Even mint sauce if it was a lamb roast. Cakes, too. I could whip up a lovely sponge or a cinnamon-sugar dusted teacake in seemingly no time. Moist Anzac biscuits (think oatmeal cookie) that melted in your mouth. As for pastry, I made my own pies and pasties, and everything from scratch.

Everything except steak, which for some reason I have never been able to cook well.

Use it or lose it, they say.

I ran out of frozen pastry sheets the other day (so useful), so I decided to make my own pastry. Not only did it take forever to do, it was so bad we scraped the pastry off our little egg and bacon pies and ate only the filling.

I can’t even cook eggs any more. I like my yolks runny but my whites cooked (over easy for a fried egg). Oh man. I can get hard whites and hard yolks, or runny whites and runny yolks. Ugh.

As for my roasts. The only way I get the potatoes to be ready at the same time as the meat is to microwave them first.

Too many years spent cooking quick meals or eating take away when you’re too tired to be bothered. Then along comes COVID, and curfews, and it’s harder to duck out and buy something so you start to cook again. And you realise how much skill you have lost.

The worst thing is, I’ve been ‘cooking’ again for two years now, and it’s not all coming back. I’m too slapdash now, not prepared to take care in preparations.

Not that I’m a bad, cook. I’m okay, but I’ve come to realise I am nowhere near as good as I used to be, and that’s because I stopped doing it for so long. It certainly makes me appreciate good cooks more.



My chatty AI is part of a grandiose, futuristic house

I am seized with a horrible desire to add a chatty AI house to the story we are currently writing. 60,000 words in and I want the house to talk to my protagonist.

It’s going to change the whole story. Worse, it will change the tone of the story and probably mean a massive rewrite.

I still want to do it.

First drafts are always exploratory, and they do change. We didn’t add Josune to Stars Uncharted until a later draft. Even so, adding Josune didn’t change the basic story.

My chatty AI will.

Decisions, decisions.

Outside of writing, I’ve been re-reading some of the Diana Wynne Jones books. Not so much the ones I read and reread in my earlier years like the Chrestomanci books, Howl’s Moving Castle and Dogsbody, but the ones I never read as often. Deep Secret, The Merlin Conspiracy and The House of Many Ways so far. I’m enjoying them.

These are her books for older children. There’s even a little romance in some of them. I don’t know if it’s true, but I always imagine that the age she was writing for increased as her children grew up, and then when her grandchildren started to get old enough to read, she started writing for them, because her later books were for younger readers again.

I used to think no-one, but no-one, could tell a story like Diana Wynne Jones.

Naturally, I’m wrong. DWJ is a grand master, of course, but there are plenty of good writers out there who tell stories in similar ways. A quick glance at my Kindle shows me Sage Blackwood’s Jinx, T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Sarah Prineas’ The Lost Books and Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round, to name a few.


Black roads

Concrete trucks and other building deliveries do take up a lot of road, unfortunately.

I’ve discovered our house is on what builders call a black road.

Our house is around 50-60 years old now, and needs some major repairs done soon.  A new roof, new plumbing. We have a garage that will fall down when the next major wind blows though.  Plus a huge tree in the front yard that has one branch alive and the rest is totally dead that needs to be removed.  (We have to thank covid work restrictions for this. Otherwise we’d have been leaving the house in the dark and coming home in the dark and not really noticing that most of the tree didn’t have any leaves.)

That’s not even mentioning the interior, which hasn’t been painted for a long, long time, and our cream carpet isn’t exactly cream any more.

Here in Australia it’s as common to knock down your house and rebuild as it is to renovate.

“Let’s find out how the rebuild and renovate prices compare,” I suggest.  “At least we’ll know rough figures, then.”

So we go looking at houses to build. 

Ouch.  Prices have effectively doubled since we last thought about doing this.  I think I’m living in the past.

Then there’s the extras.  “You’re on a triangular block.  Our standard houses won’t fit, so we’ll have customise.”  Extra.  “You want a lift?”  Extra. (We were expecting that one, but we have old knees, and stairs are a problem for both of us.)

The biggest extra?  “You’re on a busy road.  We might not build in your street.  I’ll have to check.  Let me get back to you.”

One person outright said they wouldn’t do it.  Another said they would, but it would add costs.  At least $50,000 for traffic management.

The problem, apparently, is that on a busy road like ours there are restrictions on the hours that builders can block off the road for deliveries of materials. Most times you can block it off from 7:00am and go all day, but for a site like ours, it’s only 9:00am – 2:00pm.  This cuts into the hours you can organise things like concrete trucks, and delivery of building materials.

Compounding that problem, we’re on a T-junction, and if the builders block off the road, they need people manning stop signs on the main and side road while deliveries are happening.  All of it adds to the price. Who knew that traffic management would be a deciding factor in whether or not a builder would choose to build your house or not?