the writing muse

The sign that inspired the winning story

Last month I wrote of the ‘couple of stories’ that had been ‘gifted’ to me – one inspired by a cardboard sign tacked to a tree not far from my home had which had worked itself into a first draft by the time I drove back in through my gateway.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to hear – in a week that produced its fair share of spills – that on its first time out this story had won the Society of Women Writers’ Launceston Tasmania Literary Award for 2015. A few days later a beautifully put-together package arrived from SWWT containing the first-prize notification, the certificate, a report from the judge T. D. McKinnon and the cheque. My thanks to all. The writing awards I’ve received may be well-spaced, but they’re certainly exhilarating when they arrive.

But the story has an interesting rider. The sign I spotted some three months back read something like: 4 Sale. House, furniture, workshop, tools. Everything 2 go. As I had driven past, I had glimpsed an elderly man disappearing into the house and I had felt incredibly sad, wondering what circumstances had caused him to put everything he owned up for sale. Perhaps his wife had died, perhaps he was ill or in debt? If my story won a prize, I promised myself, I would share a portion of my luck.

So, when I won, I set out to find the motivator of the tale. However, the sign had disappeared, and I hadn’t been sufficiently confident of the story’s success to note the address, so when my enquiries at the local shopping centre were unproductive, I decided to park the car and door knock along the main road; surely there would be traces of a sign on one of the verge trees.

Much later, I came across a man well into his seventies, stripped to the waist and tanned (what a body, folks!) who was meticulously sweeping the footpath. Alongside this man was the tree, small fragments of signs still evident. I’d found my man. Excitedly I started in on my explanation when, to my astonishment, he called me by name. How on earth? I wanted to know. Oh, I’ve had a long conversation with your husband Richard, said this man called Chips. Unbeknown to me, my earlier enquiry to a real estate agency had caused one of the agents to contact Chips who had called home while I was out conducting this search along the road.But the story doesn’t end there because it turned out it wasn’t Chips’ sign, after all, but a favour for a friend. Chips refused to take the money, instead whipping out his mobile to provide contact details for Eddy, who had since moved into a retirement village.

Next day, tentative about bothering a stranger, I wrote a note of explanation and enclosed it with a print-out of the story and a portion of the winnings in an envelope to slip under the door of Eddy’s unit. But on impulse I knocked instead and the door swung open. Well, Eddy might have been surprised to see me, but he certainly wasn’t old and he was just as charming as Chips. He asked how I got my name* and whether it had any connection with Africa. And from there it turned out that he too had spent 16 years in East Africa – much of that time on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and in the little-known town of Moshi where I had spent three years. Besides, he had just returned from a trip to my birthplace of Zimbabwe.

How about that for a chain of ‘coincidences’ and the extraordinary nature of truth versus fiction!

* In another link to this tale, the title that caught Mr McKinnon’s attention – “My Mother Was a Russian Spy” – started life as my spontaneous response at the end of a late-night book club presentation when I was asked how I got my name. Rather impressed by the stunned silence that greeted my statement, I thought it would make a good title to a story – if only I could think of a tale to fit. Via the kind intervention of the real estate agent and Chips, Eddy’s sign closed the circle.

Upcoming competitions

In what looks as if it might be a good year for worthwhile writing competitions, there are a number of dates for your 2016 diary  in these two associations alone: The Society of Women Writers Tasmania at — and a writing friend has mentioned the Hunters Writers Centre — see which also offer a variety of interesting opportunities.

Good luck! I’d love to hear of your own successes — and happy writing and reading meanwhile.

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