Or to borrow a title from Heinlein: A Stranger in a Strange Land.
Thanks, Charlie, for hosting me today at the Purple Rose Teahouse
While I haven’t travelled far from my native New Zealand, apart from a trip across the ditch (as we locals refer to the Tasman) to Australia back in the days when one didn’t need a passport to go there, as a writer I’m constantly noting the differences between here and the U.S.
I don’t set stories in the U.S very often partly because of the research I’d have to do because of it, and also because there’s a lack of fiction set in New Zealand, especially in the genres I want to read. Although most of the stories I have in print aren’t set here, a lot of what is on my ‘to write’ list is. In the meantime, apart from Slow Dreaming and A Slice of Heaven which are set in Wellington, I often write a Kiwi connection into my fiction. In current/WIPs, Ben from Shades of Sepia (the first book of The Sleepless City, which is a series co-written with Elizabeth Noble – we’re writing alternate books), is from Wellington, and in Winter Duet (the sequel to Shadowboxing) the Allied Team help a downed Kiwi pilot. The latter series is set during WW2 and Kiwis were flying in the RAF at the time.
On the flip side, several of my characters are from the U.S. Donovan in the Hidden Places series is originally from the States as are Matt and Ken in the Echoes series. Neither of these series is set in the U.S but I’m still very conscious when I write that these characters that they’re not about to exclaim “bloody hell” like their British companions might.
However, it’s the little things that catch me unawares. I’m expecting things like driving on the right side of the road, referring to a trunk instead of a boot, and garbage instead of rubbish, but something like creamer in coffee makes me go ‘huh’. Those of you from the U.S are probably going ‘huh’ at this point that I’m mentioning something that probably isn’t a biggie from your perspective, but by the time I’d sorted that particular one out I was ready to throw something against a wall. Hard.
When I’m writing a character it’s the little quirks, or the details such as ‘no way I’m drinking that stuff, I’ll have my coffee black’ reaction which bring him to life. It’s one of those reactions that a Kiwi will have, while someone who is used to the way things are in a place where they’ve grown up wouldn’t bat an eyelid or most likely see why I wanted to include it in the story. I was amused when friends got back from a holiday in the U.S recently. They’d spent a couple of weeks enjoying the scenery and the experience but the one of the things that stuck in their minds was an emergency trip to the dentist and an offer of a cup of tea in the waiting room. Said cup of tea (or cuppa as we’d refer to it here) didn’t come with milk but the option of creamer. My friend turned it down with pretty much the same reaction my character did and the receptionist couldn’t understand why.
We’re very particular about the type of milk in our tea and coffee here. There are major complaints at work when there’s a shortage of different types of milk for weekend staff which bring forth comments like “Gross. I’m not drinking that (insert options) milk,” and then pulling a face when there isn’t a choice. I quite agree. I drink green top (low fat/trim) milk, and although I’ll drink blue top (homogenised milk) if I’m forced to, I’d prefer not to. It’s foul stuff and I don’t like it, but weirdly I’ve heard the same sentiment spoken about my preference. LOL. As for the creamer (which incidentally isn’t readily available here, just as powdered stuff in coffee machines), it’s definitely, at least from my perspective as a Kiwi, not sweet as.
As an agent for the Tempus Institute, Jason Adams’s task is to observe the past, not change it. But when he’s sent to 21st-century Wellington, New Zealand, during the last week of aspiring songwriter Sean Henderson’s life, Jason finds he can’t just watch from a distance. He and Sean quickly become friends and then lovers, and when the song that’s haunted Jason for years connects them in a way he never anticipated, he’ll risk changing history for the chance of sharing a future with Sean.
Jason smiled, trying to put Sean at ease. “Thanks for the compliment, by the way. It’s been a while since anyone’s made the effort or shown any interest.” No one since Rex, but that was history in every sense of the word. They hadn’t spoken to each other since they’d broken up three years ago, and the last he’d heard Rex was on assignment in the mid-1940s. Very hush hush.
“I’m usually a little more subtle.” Sean sighed. “For all the good it does me.”
“I’m surprised.” Jason leaned over and placed a hand on Sean’s arm. It was warm, fine dark hairs smooth under his fingers. He thanked the powers that be that it was warmer today so that Sean’s shirtsleeves were rolled up above his elbows. “You’re a good-looking guy.” More than good-looking. Jason made a point of looking Sean up and down. “I’d even go as far as to say hot.”
“Really?” Jason could almost see the steam coming out of Sean’s ears at the idea. Sean shook his head in disbelief. “Me?” He shook his head again. “Hell no. Now you….” His voice trailed off. “Um, can we change the subject onto something else? Are you from around here? I hadn’t seen you before the other day.”
“I’m from… overseas.” Jason nodded, running through what was left of his cover story in his mind. “I’m a journalist, travel, mostly. This looked like an interesting place, so I thought I’d look around for a few days, take notes, that kind of thing.”
“Where overseas?” Sean settled back into his chair, relaxing as the conversation moved onto a safer topic. “I’ve been to Aussie once, but apart from that I haven’t been out of New Zealand. It’s on my list of things I’d like to do one day.” He laughed, but there was a self-deprecating air to it. “Perhaps once I’m rich and famous. Can’t see it happening otherwise.”
Jason thought quickly, latching onto the first country that came to mind. “Canada.” He hoped Sean wouldn’t ask for anything more specific than that. Giving the truth wasn’t an option. He couldn’t very well explain that although he was a local, the Wellington he was used to was very different from how it was now. It was better this way; there was less chance of slipping up and referring to something that didn’t exist yet.
“It’s on the list.” Sean sipped his coffee, thoughtful. “I’m a mainlander myself. Christchurch. My parents are still down there, don’t want to leave. They reckon they’ve spent their whole life there, and it’s going to take more than a few earthquakes to make that change.” He shrugged. “They’re one of the lucky ones. Their house is still relatively intact.”
“Have you been to see them recently?” Jason hoped Sean had. Closure was important. He’d seen too many families who’d missed out on that. They couldn’t be there at the end, but at least having had some contact beforehand had helped.
“Yeah. I went down as soon as I could after the first big one and spent some time.” Sean wrapped his fingers around his cup, long fingers, slender. “I offered to move back, but they wouldn’t have anything of it. My life is here now, has been for a few years. I’ve got my music, and I work in the cafe part time. Never going to be rich, but it works for me.”
“You’re a musician?” A familiar not-quite tune whispered to him. He ignored it.
“Yeah, although more of a songwriter than a performer.” Sean shrugged. “I doubt you’ve heard of me, although a couple of local bands are willing to play my stuff. I play keyboards for them on the occasional gig, too, when the usual guy is off sick or whatever.” He glanced toward his pile of papers, his mouth twisting into a half grimace, half-shy smile. “I’m working on a new one but having trouble getting it quite right. That happens sometimes, then when it’s the right time, it all falls into place. It drives me crazy until it does, though. I swear I eat, drink, and sleep the thing.”
“I’d love to hear what you’ve got so far.” Jason could have kicked himself for not taking the time to listen to the sound files attached to Sean’s dossier. However, it was Sean’s role at the cafe that was the focus of the assignment, not his music.
“That settles it.” Sean grinned. “I knew you were crazy with all your talk of hotness. Now you want to hear music composed by a guy you’ve only just met.” He schooled his face into a solemn expression. “I think that’s about the fourth sign of madness isn’t it? After all, for all you know my music could be really bad. How do you know you won’t lose your hearing and good taste for the rest of eternity?”
“And here I was thinking the fourth sign was being a true believer of the sanctity and healing properties of coffee,” Jason deadpanned.
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She shares her home with two cats who are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.
In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.
She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth.