Picture This…

 My characters – Sam and his three gangster cronies – have just arrived at the Woolloomoolloo Finger wharf to meet the Chinese ratter, Chang. It’s Sydney, 1938 and I wanted this scene to capture quite a lot. From the feel of the wharf at night, the sights, sounds and smells of Industrial Sydney to memories of the rat plague of 1900. What I mostly wanted was to find a way to convey the dirt and filth and struggle that my characters lived with. I had such a clear sense of what I wanted this scene to do, yet every time I put words on the paper, they just didn’t cut it. So I went searching for pictures.


When I found this picture, I could see my characters getting out of their car and walking down the street to the wharf.


Now I could see the wharf and imagine my ratter, Chang, pushing his punt with a bamboo pole through the pylons. I could imagine what the water smelt like and what he would see underneath the wharf.


And with these pictures, I could sense the filth and squalor that so many people lived with. I could believe that rats would be swarming houses and streets.

Sometimes we writers need pictures and images and music and emotions and tactile stimuli to enter the fictional worlds of our books. These pictures are from the NSW State Archives. Some scenes rush onto the page perfectly (well, almost). This scene took me weeks to get it just right. Here’s a snippet.

The rat traps work like this. A cage of lashed wire is lowered into the water with a piece of fish meat secured on string inside. Rats sniff out the meat and swim through a small opening hoping for an easy meal. And then they’re stuck. They can hold their breath for a while—they’ve a talent for it—but eventually even they succumb to the need for air, and drown. It’s an advantageous death for Chang because this way there’s no damage to their fur, which is naturally lush and water resistant, pay a pretty penny. So Chang can skin them, dry them on racks and they’re perfect. You like, you buy. Canadian otter pelt. No better, you buy. It’s easy work for Chang. He sets the pots, strings them around the wharf, and paddles through the night like a watchmen. He’s the city’s ritual superstition. Nineteen hundred is not so long ago. Everyone remembers.


2 Responses to “Picture This…”

  1. That’s great, BElinda – I could imagine it through your words too.
    I use pictures as well ( like ones from the Depression in Australia for my story ‘McAlpine & Macbeth’). It’s not such a leap of imagination to put yourself in a picture and start using all your senses. Love it!
    Happy writing… 🙂

  2. It’s certainly an advantage of living in the computer age. So much information is available online, even just through typical search engines such as Google. It’s fascinating, taking something such as a picture and re-creating it in our own imaginations, and passing that processed image — with sounds, colour, scent, touch, the whole shebang — on to others to imagine and re-create. Because it’s highly unlikely any two readers will imagine it in exactly the same way. All those alternate realities springing into existence, all from an old sepia image! This is perhaps part of the magic that lures us into writing… 🙂

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