Same but Different

Sat 19th Jul 2014


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When I arrived in Greece at the end of May, I expected some things to be different but other things to be much the way they are back here.

Different:            Ruined temples
Everyone speaks Greek
The street signs look weird1. Athens street sign
They drive on the other side of the road


The same:           Jeans and tee shirts
Motorbikes and cars (lots of motorbikes)
Coca cola
Cell phones

But then I got some real surprises. Like thunderstorms.

I love thunderstorms. When I was a kid, I’d stand on the dirt road outside our cottage on Waiheke, with the rain pelting down and the mud squishing up between my toes. After each flash, I’d count the seconds till the thunder came – BANG!-rumble-BOOM-BOOM-bump-thud-grumble-mumble. Then silence for ages, apart from the splish of the rain in the puddles.

In Greece last month, I was chased through the hills by a thunderstorm as I searched for an ancient road to Mykenai. I stopped the car and got out to watch. I soon realised this was different to any thunderstorm I’d ever experienced.

2. Thunderstorm over Limnes

For a start, I couldn’t see any lightning. But for the 15 minutes I stood there, the thunder never stopped. It groaned and muttered and growled away without a break, as if the sky god Zeus and his wife Hera were having an argument, with both of them insisting on having the last word.

And then there were the seagulls.

NZ seagulls drift through the air crying gkeee gkeee, when they’re not strutting about screaming Kaar Kaar Kaar at each other. That’s what all gulls do, right?

3.  NZ seagulls




Wrong. After I’d finished searching for my ancient road, I returned to the fishing village where I was staying. By now I was hungry, so I walked along the waterfront to a taverna. As I sat there, I heard a mewing sound. I looked about for the cat – Greek tavernas always have at least one cat and often about six.

5. Cat in a Greek taverna

But there was no cat to be seen.

After a while I realised the noise was coming from the seagulls sitting out on the water – you can see them as white dots out beyond the fishing boat. Close up they look just like NZ gulls.

4. Greek fishing boat and seagulls



Then I remembered reading some English story or poem, years and years ago, which talked about the “mewing of gulls”. The phrase had passed me by – it was so unlike anything I’d heard gulls do and I put it down to poetic fancy (ie: silliness).

This morning I decided to look up the Oxford Dictionary and there it was: “mew n. the characteristic cry of a cat, gull etc.” In fact, in England, another word for “seagull” is “sea mew” or just plain “mew”.  So European gulls are not the same as ours after all.

Sometimes it’s the big, obvious things that take you by surprise. But it’s just as much fun when some small unpredictable thing happens. It makes you look at everything in a fresh way, even the things that are the same.



Stranger and Stranger

Thu 10th Jul 2014


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A few weeks ago I was wandering through a Greek olive grove, searching for a 3300 year old city (as you do). The first thing I came across was a herd of goats. GoatsSoon after that I came across the goatherd, and when I asked him – in my very bad Greek – about the ancient city, he beckoned to me and set off through the trees. Goatherd

I decided he must be leading me to some spectacular ruins, but instead we ended up at his camp, an untidy clearing with a rickety tin shed, some goatskins over a pole, a very friendly dog and her two young pups. By now I was starting to wonder what was going on.Goatherd heading off through the olive grove

I soon found out. The goatherd produced a battered saucepan into which he poured some white liquid from a 20 litre plastic container. When he handed it to me, I knew I had no choice but to drink. It was fresh goats’ milk and it was absolutely delicious. This from a man who had almost nothing – by our standards. But because I was a stranger, he wanted to give me something.






What I’d just experienced was a Greek tradition called xenia that goes back thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, kindness to strangers was a sacred duty. The sharing of food and shelter bound people together almost like family. In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Diomedes and his enemy Glaucus, a Trojan ally, stop fighting and swap armour because their ancestors were guest friends.

Diomedes and Glaucus

And early on in my new book The Bow, Odysseus and Diomedes know they can trust each other for the same reason.

If you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – surely one of the greatest (and funniest) books ever written – you’ll remember how Durrell was plied with food and wine by the peasants he met .

My Family and Other Animals book coverTourism is eroding this deeply embedded tradition, but you can still find amazing generosity in Greece if you travel off the beaten track as I did.





These days, we’re increasingly careful around strangers.  A famous Dame Edna Everage quote goes: “My mother used to say that there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. She’s now in a maximum security twilight home.”   Dame Edna Everage

I think my goatherd would have agreed with Edna’s mum.

Greek adventures

Thu 10th Jul 2014


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Writing – and reading – can be an incredible adventure, even when most of it happens inside your head.

I should say, because most of it happens inside your head. How else can you go back in the past or forward into the future or sideways into another world? How else can you “become” someone else and experience all their fears and dramas and successes, and wake up safe and sound in your own bed the next morning?

But just occasionally we can actually travel to that other place and experience it face to face. I have just come back from a couple of weeks in Greece, where I visited some of the places I wrote about in Murder at Mykenai and The Bow – the fortresses of Mykenai and Tiryns, the site of the lake and the river in Argos, and the secret cave that occupies the middle of The Bow.

Mykenai, even in ruins, is huge and rather spooky. Cath and the Lion gate 11

The fortress walls are made of enormous blocks of stone, some of them longer than me, and a good deal heavier. Here I am standing in the entrance – it makes you wonder how people 3300 years ago ever put that huge capping stone over the gate without modern cranes and machinery. The Classical Greeks later thought it must have been built by giants – by  Cyclopses. Even the doorways to the tombs are huge.

Alan in doorway of Atreus tholos tomb 2

The lake my heroes hide in, in The Bow, has silted up, and people now live on it and grow their crops. But the river is still there, and the reeds. The low, rounded hill on the right, in the middle distance, is the site of Bronze Age Argos.Argos river with reeds inside river mouth

There’s a shingle spit  too at the river mouth, just as I described it in The Bow. It was pretty freaky to find something I thought I’d made up – though the weather was too calm to make the sorts of waves Odysseus and his friends encounter.

The big excitement of the trip was going down into the cave, which was explored in 1893 but forgotten about since. I met up with a bunch of Greek cavers and we had a fantastic time exploring it. Here’s a photos of me and Elissa at the far end, just before the crevice in which Odysseus … but I’d better not say any more, so I don’t spoil The Bow for you.

Elissa 8

How did he die?

Fri 9th May 2014


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My Greek caving friends have explored the secret cave that forms the central core of my new book The Bow. In a month’s time, they’ll take me down there as well, to brave the mud and the dark, and see some of the amazing things they’ve found.The cave entranceCave scene 3

Some of it is wonderful  – stalagmites and stalactites are always beautiful and exciting. Some of it is a little daunting  – “expect some mud” was Nikos Leloudas’s warning. Much of the cave is up to 27 metres below the flood levels of the Mantinea Plain nearby ! So whenever it rains heavily, huge amounts of water come pouring through. Inevitably some of it stays there after the sun comes out.

I’ve been busy looking at predictive weather charts for this part of Arcadia. Fortunately June sees a big drop in rainfall, so I think we’re going to be okay! I’m remembering back to one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, where a cave under the sea gets flooded and The Five only just get out. I’m still haunted by the fate of the baddies who were trapped.

Cave skullThe scariest thing Nikos and his friends found was this skull. It looks as though it’s buried in mud, but in fact all the stuff around it is limestone. How long has it been there? That’s really hard to say – the growth of stalagmites will vary hugely. It could be as little as .007 mm a year, or as much as 1 mm. It depends on the amount of water dripping from the roof of the cave, and the amount of calcium in the water.

What we can be sure of is that this skull has been there for a while! Nikos believes that the skeletons they come across in these deep places are the remains of people caught in floods up on the surface, who were washed down into the cave. One group of bodies, in the nearby Kapsia cave, started turning into a rather gruesome stalagmite around 300 BC. Our gentleman here may not have been there that long.

I’m also a bit concerned about the hole in his cranium above his eyes. Could it have been the result of a whack on the head? This particular cave has an entrance up on a slope above the plain, so it’s less likely to have been caused by a flood-driven tree trunk or other debris.

Rabies, Greek caves and bats!

Fri 11th Apr 2014






bat-large-BWI’ve just had my second rabies injection, ahead of my Greek trip at the end of May. Not because I’m an inoculation junkie, or even slightly paranoid. Dogs are common in Greek villages but mad dogs are rare these days.

No, it’s because the biggest carriers of rabies in Europe are bats. And the Greek cave I’m going down into has a large bat population – or did back in 1893 when the cave was first explored. I’ve used the original cavers’ account to write the cave section in my new book The Bow, complete with flailing bats that come pouring out of a low crack that my heroes have to crawl through.


A low crack that I will soon be crawling through … Yikes.bat-large-BW


My travel doctor explained that bat teeth are so fine, you often don’t know you’ve been bitten. So I could come out of the cave thinking I’m absolutely fine, and die horribly within a few months. A few near-painless injections at the doctors seems like a sensible alternative.


Rabies is one of the most terrible diseases you can get. Symptoms include paranoia, terror and hallucinations, hydrophobia (fear of water) and delirium. Once the symptoms appear, death is almost certain.


But once I’ve had my final booster, those rabid little critters can chew on me all they like.


Pruning by colours

Mon 16th Dec 2013


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It’s coming into summer, and my garden is full of colour.

P1030693But every day some of the flowers droop, and the plants become overgrown and straggly. Out come the secateurs and soon it’s looking jaunty again.

Back inside, a parallel process has been happening. The Bow – my new project with Walker Books – landed on my editor’s computer screen at 85,000 words. Walker love the book AND they want it to be 60,000 words long. That’s 70% of the original length.

Six weeks later, the pruning’s done. I won’t say removing three words out of every ten has been unmitigated fun – sometimes it’s been exhausting and stressful. Slaughtering your babies (as Margaret Mahy so tellingly said) leaves you wading knee deep in your own verbal blood. Think leeches and other medieval forms of medical torture.

My old method of pruning was to print out a hard copy and attack it with pen or pencil. It generally looked like this:

pruning the old way

Barbarous, eh?

With The Bow, I realised I could have huge amounts of fun onscreen, using highlighting colours. There were three themes or subplots my editor and I identified as spurious, and they were tagged in yellow, green or blue. Red was for re-writes and purple was for excess in general.

Here’s the same passage as the hack-and-slash version, with the highlights instead.

pruning with colours

Not only can I see more clearly what I’m changing, I’m also seeing why I’m making the change. Every morning, once the highlighting was done for each chapter, I had a ball zapping all the coloured bits with my trusty mouse and delete button.

And it was exhilarating to re-read the chapter once the “extra” words were gone. Nearly every time, the new version felt clearer and stronger.




George OrwellGeorge Orwell’s famous 5 rules have been invaluable guides.

They are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive when you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Orwell sums up the whole process by saying: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.

You can find the full essay on

The best one of all is #3 – this has served me as snips, secateurs, shears, electric hedge trimmers and even chainsaw when required. You can paraphrase it by saying: if you can take this word or phrase or clause or sentence or paragraph or chapter(!) out and the writing still says what you need it to say, TAKE IT OUT.

Happy pruning

My second book, The Bow, signed to Walker

Wed 20th Nov 2013


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I am hugely excited and daunted
Odysseus and the Bow -Wyethat the same time!

Excited because Walker have signed up my second book, a sequel to Murder at Mykenai called The Bow. Publication date is June 2014 – an excuse for another party! The book tells how Odysseus came to own the great bow which he famously (and much later) shot the dastardly suitors with at the end of The Odyssey.

For Odyssey buffs, the Homeric version comes at the start of Book 21: Odysseus “though a mere boy at the time” has been sent by his father and the Ithakan elders to Messenia, to retrieve 300 stolen sheep and their shepherds. There he meets … but that would be spoiling the story.

How did Odysseus acquire such an extraordinary weapon as such a young age? After all, this bow was rivalled only by the great bow of Herakles (Hercules to non-Homeric buffs). I had to work backwards to find the threads that might have woven themselves together to create such a startling result.

As with Murder at Mykenai, I’ve taken a small strand of mythology and expanded it into a much larger story. And this is where the daunting part comes in! I was having so much fun, my word count ballooned out to 85,000 words – 25,000 more than Walker Books want.

Yup, three words out of every ten have to go. So right now I have my pruning shears in hand – you might think “chainsaw” rather than “secateurs”. And we’ve all viewed gardens that have been pruned that way. But it’s proving to be a really enjoyable exercise – a bit like polishing a gemstone. The more I rub away, the brighter and clearer the story gets.

Wish me luck!


Murder on Amazon!

Tue 15th Oct 2013


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Murder on Amazon

Yes! “Murder at Mykenai “ has finally made its way onto what most people think IS ebook territory, pure and simple – Go to   or just search under “Murder at Mykenai” or “Catherine Mayo”.

Amazon hasn’t quite equalled Google – when we want to buy an ebook, we don’t say “I’ll Amazon it”, in the way we say “I’ll Google it” when we’re searching for information. And yet, over the last few months, whenever I or my friends were checking to see whether Walker had managed to conquer the e-demons and turn Murder at Mykenai in to an ebook yet, it was to Amazon that we went.

But there are lots of other ebook sites, and lots of online bookseller sites which include ebook options, besides Amazon. And it’s not as though everyone is using a Kindle as their reading device. Lots of people have a different brand of pad or tablet, which can limit where and how they buy their ebook.

When I first got my iPad (yes, I’m an iPad girl) I went hunting round the iBooks store. There were a few delirious moments while I downloaded all my favourite Jane Austins for free. And then … maybe my choice of reading is weird. Different, anyway. I couldn’t find title after title of contemporary fiction I wanted. But there they all were on Amazon.

Grizzling and moaning gets you a long way – or at least, it gets non-computer-savvy people a long way when they grizzle and moan to much-more-computer-savvy family and friends. Before you could say “Pride and Prejudice” I had the “Kindle Store” app downloaded onto my iPad (thank you, Alan!) and I was away. It hasn’t done my credit card balance much good (“But darling, it was only $4.99” – only repeated umpteen times a month).

A BIG thank you to Walker Books Australia for persevering – they are new to the ebook process and I’m one of their first titles to go this way. Having listened to my writer friends wail about the head-scratching, hair-pulling ordeal of creating and lodging ebooks in cyberspace, it’s interesting to note that publishers can go through the same teething problems.

But here we are, at last. Crack open a bubbly – or a bottle of Mykenai Estate vintage 1295BC red, if you have one!


Murder at Mykenai ebook

Wed 18th Sep 2013


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Murder at Mykenai is now outMurder at Mykenai final front cover (1) as an ebook!!

It hasn’t quite made it onto Amazon, but Walker Books have told me that’s coming. In the meantime, here are 5 sites you can buy it from, with a few tips for eMorons like me…


Here’s a direct link to my ebook at a good price! No search panels required – this will take you straight there.

2. Bookworld Australia

Note: this is a different site to the NZ bookshop Bookworld in Blenheim

Just enter Murder at Mykenai into the search panel at

3. Dymocks Australia

This is their online store for both the ebook and paperback . Again, use the search panel at   They haven’t loaded the cover art on to the site – rather boring of them!


They are a US based site  Again, just use the search panel to find the book.

5. iTunes through their iBook store.

You need to have downloaded iTunes and the iBooks app onto your computer, iPad or iPhone. THEN, if you’re in Australia, you’ll find Murder at Mykenai, easy as.

BUT if you’re in New Zealand or elsewhere, you’ll have to reset your regional setting to “Australia” to find it. Being a bit of a computer ningnong, I have no idea how to do this.

Happy eReading!



Prequels and Sequels

Sun 1st Sep 2013


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Ulysses and Penelope by Honore DaumierHow often do we wonder what happens to our favourite characters in fiction after we’ve read the final pages   of a book? This urge to continue the story is what drives our love of sequels – trilogies, quartets and extended series, whose publication can span decades. And then there are prequels, those fascinating glimpses into our characters before they became the person we came to know and love.

Odysseus is and was no stranger to this curiosity. Murder at Mykenai  is very much an attempt by me to find out what happened to Odysseus and Menelaus before the start of the Trojan War, based on a snippet of mythology about Menelaus’s father.

The Odyssey itself is a sequel to The Iliad, that epic poem about the destruction of Troy. In its pages we catch glimpses of other sequels, as the surviving kings were either swept away by storms at sea or returned to Greece to meet with rebellion and betrayal. And although Homer tries to reassure us, at the end of The Odyssey, that Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus do finally live happily ever after, there have plenty of people who dreamed up a different picture.

Tennyson had Odysseus sail away from Penelope’s arms, westward through the Gates of Hercules. Nikos Kazantzakis has him head off in the opposite direction, accompanied by Helen, on the basis that she was a much more interesting character than Penelope and she and Odysseus must have been made for each other. Other, more ancient writers had him banished from Ithaka, all ignoring Teireisias’s prophecy of a happy old age at home.

Honore Daumier, on the other hand, has his own insight into Odysseus’s return, as we can see in the picture he drew of our hero’s homecoming night. I suspect from the fact Odysseus is lying on his back, he was snoring loudly through that great honk of a nose – something else Penelope needed to employ her much-vaunted patience to cope with.

And C K Stead has added to the tradition in his poem, The Death of Odysseus, in his new collection The Yellow Buoy (AUP). It’s a great poem and well worth tracking down.

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