Christchurch 22nd February, 2011

The fall of certainty

(I recently rediscovered this piece, written a week after Christchurch’s major earthquake while my partner worked for Victim Support and we stayed in our Addington flat – Heather Sylvawood)

On this first day back in the city I find myself caught in a Carmelite-like situation where I am left to pray and imagine the sorrows of the world while others get out and do things.

Our little bolt hole is the epitome of privacy – I feel the jolts as the great earth mother creaks her bones and tosses about to find a comfortable spot to rest for another millennium, but only the sirens and occasional texts from people out in the city let me know what is happening.

TuiNook 008

Reports come in

From my partner Tre comes in a report that the evacuation centre at Pioneer Stadium where she is stationed has been evacuated itself to check out the safety of the structure. The refugees must wait to return to their borrowed mattresses on the floor.

From daughter Natalie a report that her boys are having a great time on the skateboard ramp across the road from a crumpled Basilica beyond the cordon. I suggest the boys could use some of the local streets so crumpled are they that cars treat them like a series of road humps.

Another daughter and her husband text in delight that their chemical toilet has finally arrived. It is a relief that some normalcy has descended into their lives. They’re still without power or running water but having a toilet as opposed to a hole in their backyard has become the height of luxury.

EQC staff blitz our area marking off each residence as they inspect whether it is structurally sound. Tre is briefly home, but still wearing her Victim Support ID and they recognise it. There is a moment of camaraderie – an acknowledgement of a common purpose and then they move on.

Fly past of the victims

This afternoon the air is cut, cut, cut by the rotor blades of a series of choppers. We are less than a kilometre from South Hagley Park and I suddenly realise that these khaki Darth Vadars have arrived to take bruised and broken bodies to the morgue at Burnham. It seems fitting that these victims should fly above us … they gave their lives as the city shook itself beyond recognition.

Less than three kilometres away people from many nations hand pick rubble to uncover the next victim for the Darth Vadar patrol .., and yet here, around our barely-touched flat, the wind tosses the trees and splinters the sun shadows. The traffic sound is quieter than I remember for a shopping Saturday. Even the voices of neighbours are absent.

I am here as a camp follower, displaced, working on my computer, which I can do anywhere, but don’t feel like doing. I want to be picking up pieces too. This is my city, a city that shared the birth of four of my children and five grandchildren. I want to give them back some certainty. But I cannot.

An earthquakes’ legacy

And that is probably the greatest legacy this catastrophic earthquake has given Christchurch residents – the certainty that we can never again be certain. It’s snatched the tragedy from the distance of television screens and planted it firmly in our heads. Life is uncertain.

Several days have passed – too fast. They have tumbled their impressions like loose debris into my consciousness.

  • Waking to earthquakes in the night, and sometimes not waking. Dreaming weird dreams of improbable people tossed together.
  • Clutching bench tops and chairs that cannot give any protection, but instinctively wanting solid support during the aftershock.
  • Hearing stories of escape and more stories of random destruction.

The instinct of survival

My daughter and son-in-law are being entertained by a couple of other Kiwis in a house that does have power, water and a flushing loo. A large jolt has three of them (the Kiwis) diving under the substantial table, while our German son-in-law rushes around in a panic looking for a doorway safe enough to stand in.

“That’s what comes of living in the shaky isles,” my daughter muses. “All those earthquake drills have become instinctual.”

That may be so, but the wobbling glass and metal table I have to shelter under does not fill me with such confidence.

When will the next one strike?

We seem to be in a constant state of tension. A sudden rumble as a truck passes, or the vibration of the ranch slider sliding open, have our ears on alert. The instant fight or flight decision when a rumble materialises into a shake: ‘Is it going to go on, or get larger, or start breaking things?’

It seems that the community is being divided into opposing groups.

  • The ‘copers’ who dig their outside loos, cover their roof holes or prop up their leaning walls; and the shocked and paralysed who want ‘someone’ to arrive and fix things.
  • The short tempered drivers who honk if they have to wait more than a second while someone makes a tricky manoeuvre over liquefaction humps; and the courteous drivers who stop and let others cross-over in front or quietly join the queue ahead of them.
  • The residents still in darkness, who fear looters; and the looters themselves whose thefts often seem to be based on survival: petrol, food, bedding.

Of course, some criminally inclined use the cover of darkness as a way of making their job so much easier, and equally there are those whose wrath and anger would have them do despicable things to the thieves.

There is certainly nothing like a disaster to bring out the best and worst in people.

Finding the Write Road

Musings by Heather Sylvawood

This morning started with a bit of a hiccup – I had a flat battery. The car I am currently driving doesn’t have mod-cons like warning beeps if you turn off the car while the lights are still on. It does, in fact, assume you will be vigilant and remember … duh!


Once the battery issue was solved by the nice young man from AA, I set off.

Now I don’t usually drive a manual. Anyone driving behind me could probably tell. I often manage to confuse the slot for third gear with the slot for fifth gear. Consequently I’m either over-revving or stuttering under the strain of a gear jump.

All of these faux pas instantly connect with the blood supply to my face.

Battering my self-confidence

Taking the back route (less chance of shaming myself in front of others), I rattled along, berating myself for every mistake and generally giving my self-confidence I right battering.

Then, in one of those break-through moments, I realised that this is what I do when I’m writing! I leap forward and write heaps, and then I re-read and start to doubt myself, comparing my first draft writing with the polished published writing of others. I compare my least polished with their pristine.


Recently I have been reading a selection of writers – the series writer, romance writers, mystery writers, New Zealand writers, and Christian writers. I find myself picking up proofing errors (ahhh … the permanency of print against eBooks) and even clumsy language which their editors surely should have noticed. What’s been happening to me is I have been developing my critical eye. Only this time it isn’t for my own work but for that of others.

The Critical Eye is valuable

I am beginning to realise that my over-revving and stuttering gait probably mirrors that of other writers. They too must feel  lacking when comparing themselves to the honoured writers of our culture. That critical eye, however, is what keeps writers improving.

As well as noting the less-than-perfect, the joy of my research is that I am also identifying clever writing.

I recently read Tiger Lillie by Lisa Samson, a Christian writer living in Maryland, USA. I love her style. She manages to convey so much more in simple descriptions and with such humour, I want to come back for more. Take the following example:

“I’ve always loved evening. Even back then, as a chubby, bug-eyed little girl who also loved a good joke, that time of day sobered me and filled me with peace. I know now it’s due to the fact that the clock never stops ticking down and the time for making the day’s mistakes draws to a sweet close. Even the circumstances in which to make these blunders fly away, for in the twilight we simply sit and breathe quietly, cross our fingers and hope the phone won’t ring or the Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t come to the door.”

What craft! How much does she reveal about her character in a passage ostensibly about ‘evening’?

Research good writer and author examples

By reading the work of others I am observing the unusual word construction, the insightful capture of character, and the clever development of plot.

Research is important, be that by reading the work of others, or finding out what is capturing the readers of the day. Writing, however, is the key to becoming a writer. So it’s back to the computer for me.

Oh! Yes. I am writing. A blog!

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Hooking in your readers

I’ve been a bit slack with my writing over the last two years. It was something to do with moving house and total renovations, not just in one house – but two. Sort of puts you off your stride in the writing market.


Above: Toby our dog didn’t understand about wet paint!

Serious writing

To prepare myself to take up serious writing again I decided to research what other writers are doing to capture and satisfy their readers and create a new market. What I have found is:

  • In fantasy, suspense and romance creating a series is the way to go. That means a commitment, not just to writing a lot, but to planning ahead so that your characters can jump the divide between books AND your endings leave an exciting urge in your readers to discover what happens next.

Serious focus

The writers with such a long term plan must be disciplined. I tend to follow the most recent idea in my head instead of planning for the book after next. I’ve read enough How-to books to know this is a system doomed to failure in the competitive field of online writing, for instance: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish And Why You Should, by David Gaughran. But does that convince me to be more focussed? Nah! Well not yet, anyway. Perhaps this year will be different.

Serious money

If my plan to make some serious money self-publishing on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and possibly Kobo, then more discipline is required. I also need to catch-up on what is happening in the self-publishing world, such as the ever-changing rules around Smashwords and Amazon. The field is so constantly changing that books I downloaded on the subject two years ago are already out-of-date.

Another area I need to uncover the secrets of is how to encourage readers to leave reviews of books so that  new readers are drawn into my readership. All this learning and I still have to motivate myself to write more and faster.

Anyone else have any experience of these dilemmas?

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Gossip-end of the Grapevine

Heather Sylvawood,

I have lived in small towns or villages in New Zealand for most of my life, and I have been amazed to find that I’m the last to hear the latest in gossip. At one time I commented to my partner: “We need to put up a sign – The End of the Grapevine.”

A grapevine is a wonderful illustration of how news travels in small communities. The tendrils snake into the smallest crevices and cling tight, and then the flowers that the tendrils support blossom and develop into fruit.


Looking for evidence

Like grapevines, gossip sneaks into minds and our minds look for evidence to validate what we’ve been told (true or false). We rarely look for evidence to refute the gossip, just to substantiate it.

When we’re intent on seeing what we’re looking for, more evidence that supports the gossip appears. At this stage our minds are headed in one direction: “the news is true”. When it’s based on a misinterpretation of something, these creeping Chinese whispers can cause irreparable harm.

A modern twist on gossip

We tend to think of gossip as titbits of news passed on from person to person as opposed to being broadcast through accepted media – television, newspapers, news websites etc.  Prior to the invention of printing presses by German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, however, word-of-mouth or letters were the only way to disseminate information, person-to-person. Nowadays our gossip comes through more sophisticated sources, yet it’s really no more than an expanded version of person-to-person chat.

Our ability to observe and translate what we see, is the basis of all news. Reporters see violence and in a split second translate this, based on the evidence around them, into a report that purports to be the truth of the  matter. The next step in their process is to corroborate their observations before jumping into print or broadcast. Yet even these trained observers can sometimes get things wrong. 

But is gossip all bad?

Individuals are not held back by the constraint of hard evidence. They see something, translate it, and tell others. The ‘others’ add this information to knowledge they already have and hey presto the news flows. If something really is happening that needs to be in the public eye, gossip will do it. The fear of causing gossip is a natural constraint to keep most of us honest.

“Reputation systems promote cooperation and deter antisocial behavior in groups,” according to The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, Jennifer Stellar, and Dacher Keltner. 2012.

The researchers claim that when an individual observes or experiences antisocial behaviour, they are generally compelled to share it with other potentially vulnerable people. As the information spreads, the perpetrators of the antisocial behaviour are likely to be ostracized and brought into line with accepted community behaviours.

That works well unless the individual who first passes on the information is not telling the truth, or embroidering the information to enhance their own reputation.  But on the whole, gossip gives us new ideas, alerts us to wrong-doing, and makes us feel we’re a trusted member of the group. Not “at the end of the grapevine”.

Heather Sylvawood,

The Truth of the Matter

Heather Sylvawood,

I was thinking about ‘stories’ the other day and how the word itself has the implication that a story contains some element of ‘make believe’.  When we read a newspaper story, however, we believe the story to contain the truth, not make believe.

So are there true stories?

As I followed my fanciful thoughts I came to realise ‘the truth of the matter’ is far from ‘the truth’ because no matter who is writing the account it is seen through their filters.  Even autobiographies (written by the subject person) are filtered remembrances because who wants the world to know about their embarrassing or shameful moments? And if they do want to share them, doesn’t the author skew the account to elevate their part and play down their protagonist’s part?

True C onfessions magazine
True or fiction?

Newspaper stories

I thought back to the time when I was a newspaper reporter and considered how make believe might have sneaked into my writing. Embarrassing confession: it did regularly.

My first filter was which of the leads did I want to spend most time on? You’d expect the answer to be the one of most public interest. The answer, however, was always the story that most appealed to me personally. Subconsciously I’d assume that because it appealed to me, it would also appeal to everyone.

Less important information

When writing the story I would highlight the facts that enhanced my viewpoint and minimise comments or information that didn’t feel quite so important. Even though I reported this ‘less important’ information it would be relegated to the last paragraphs which the sub-editor would cut if space was tight.

My important story would be allowed an accompanying colour picture and would probably be given the largest headline. The reader subconsciously would assume that the picture and large headline meant this was an important story.

News filters the truth

Imagine what is happening in the US at the moment. Picture the differences in reports of President Trumps’ saying and doings. Same story/report of actual facts will be written with different filters and appear in print as if the writers were listening to different events or broadcasts.

The readers, viewers or listeners will hear only what they are expecting to hear. They will apply their own filters and accept or reject the reporter’s bias – their filter. When stories link into emotional issues, as President Trump is doing, the blurring of reported facts becomes catastrophic. Such stories can lead to  hatred, riots and war.

President Donald Trump
It’s merely the way you look at him … or is it?

Editorial versus Reporting

We accept that an editorial contains some element of opinion and therefore ‘make believe’. We don’t expect a news report to contain make believe. However, I would challenge anyone, whatever side of the Trump debates they sit, to say they can eliminate their personal bias or filter from what they write on the issues Trump raises.

And guess what? I don’t think reporters should.  Whatever moral ground, religious filter or belief you have should be applied to any news report, just as you would to an editorial. Public debate is important, dissension is important. These are the tools that define a nation’s moral codes on which are built our judicial system and laws.