Teaching notes

The team at Text Publishing have put together some terrific teaching notes for Five Parts Dead. To download them as a PDF document, click here.

I’ve compiled the notes below to shed a little light on what I was thinking when writing both my novels.

Five Parts Dead author notes

The lighthouse is an obvious one, piercing dark times. I also liked the constancy of it. It made me question who and what are the constants in our lives when everything else feels like it is falling apart.

Survivor guilt
This is an issue that resonates strongly for me and I researched various resources on this topic. What does one person feel when they come through a tragedy and others don’t? There are plenty of examples online – cancer survivors, people who walked out of the World Trade Centre Towers on September 11 and more. Some of the common reactions include guilt, anger (‘why me?’) and comparing yourself unfavourably with others. Dan has had all these close calls and might consider himself unlucky. The truth is he’s very lucky. Each day is precious and I think he comes to understand this. (Thus the ‘let your light shine’ message in the dedication.)

Even though Dan & Lily live in different eras, with different technology, grief is an emotion that transcends time. There are also parallels with Pip, who has lost her father and is searching for ways of understanding loss. There’s a passage in the book about everyone experiencing grief differently. I thought everyone affected by the accident (or other loss) would be coping in contrasting ways and the story is about coming together again.

I also looked at ways young adults express grief now, compared to in the past. They centralise it in Facebook tribute pages, create unofficial shrines at the site of an accident and so on. I interviewed a counsellor specialising in young people and grief and he talked about how kids are tribal. Losing a member of their group can destabilise them so they look for something else to hang on to. This influences much of Dan’s behaviour through the story.

Spiritual/mystical elements
When structuring the story, I looked at the elements – earth, sky/air, fire, water, metal. Dan has had close calls in all five. That made me think about him ‘crossing over’. Dan becomes a bit like the wizard card in the Tarot who is the conduit or link between the worlds of the living and dead. I ended up slashing the Tarot material in the manuscript and de-emphasising the mystical elements but they were a big part of my initial planning. Some of these symbols remain.

There’s plenty of evidence of astonishing bonds between twins. I liked the idea of the twins as opposites, yin and yang, yet as family members they probably have more in common they they’re ready to admit. Making peace with Mel is a bit like Dan making peace with half of himself.

In YA fiction the adults are often pushed out of the way ASAP. Think about Tomorrow When the War Began or even The Hunger Games. I wanted to let Dan find his balance again (an injured leg is the physical manifestation but he’s out of kilter generally) on his own, with adult input. I realised along the way that a loving set of parents wouldn’t abandon a traumatised teenager in the middle of nowhere. That meant rethinking and rewriting the parents’ characters.

Stories within stories
I wanted to emphasis the importance of storytelling whether in logbooks, sitting around a campfire, telling tall tales to tourists, ghost stories at midnight, newspaper clippings, novels, visitors’ books … Stories are everywhere. By listening, we start to connect with people and understand them and the world better. And curiosity is a good thing. I tried to write an old-fashioned mystery – discovery of a story – for the characters to solve, at the same time as covering the heavier topics.

I didn’t want a love interest who was a Barbie doll. Pip is smart, sassy, brave – and vulnerable, too. Dan has this image of a perfect girl in his head at the party preceding the accident. It takes him a while to realise that he’s looking in the wrong places.

I’ve had students accuse me of a fade to black – and there’s some truth in this. There’s a lot to be said for ambiguity and letting people write their own endings to scenes.

The main thing I aimed for was honesty. Most people aren’t smooth. They lose confidence and say the wrong things. They stuff up big moments. Putting your feelings out there takes courage and leaves you vulnerable and exposed but there’s no other way.

Nautical flags
The flags were mentioned in the actual logbooks from the lighthouse that I read during my research. It made me wonder whether I could use them as a coded synopsis of each chapter – a taste of what’s to come. You can read more about the flags at http://www.marinewaypoints.com/learn/flags/flags.shtml

Game as Ned author notes

Nicholas ‘Ned’ Edwards is 17 and doesn’t speak. Diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, he lives with his grandfather and generally shuns other human contact, particularly that of the neighbourhood bully, Nigel Collier. Sent along to primary school, Ned ends up spending most of his time in the library, where he absorbs facts and figures on his favourite topic – Australian bushrangers. Eventually, Ned becomes too old to remain at primary school and is moved to a sheltered workshop.

Erin is 16 and keen to finish school and become a nurse. Unfortunately for Erin, her father can’t keep out of trouble and soon winds up in jail again. When her mother has a stroke, it falls on Erin to become the family breadwinner but, in a small country town where your name is mud, there are few opportunities for employment.

After moving to a larger town, Erin finds work as a carer at the sheltered workshop. She befriends Ned and soon realises he faces regular bullying at the hands of the thuggish Collier. When the feisty Erin gives Collier a tongue-lashing, she unknowingly triggers an horrific chain of events.

Ned finds himself on the run from the law and in desperate need of a means to have his say. To achieve justice he’ll need to be as game as Ned Kelly.

Writing style
Erin’s voice is chatty and colloquial. Ned’s “voice” involves short, abrupt sentences, particularly when he is anxious. Because he doesn’t speak, his observational skills are more acute:

I know what people say. They reckon I’m simple. Call me dumb. Retard. Spastic. Some of them don’t even bother doing it behind my back. They don’t get a response so they do it to my face. Think I don’t understand.

Nigel Collier started it. Back in primary school. From the moment I arrived, he was on my case. Thought he had my number, he did. He lived a couple of blocks from my place. He’d seen me around. Knew I wouldn’t answer back, no matter what he dished out. So he started this chant: “Neddy, Neddy, never ready; ain’t got nothin’ in his heady.” For a moron like Nigel, it was probably his greatest work.

I began with a character who does not speak or communicate. How would this affect the people who know and love him? Would they speak more to compensate or would they be worn down by his silence? Would other characters react to his silence with mistrust and/or fear, or empathy and understanding?

As this character grew in my mind, I found myself asking how he would get his point across if he needed to stand up for himself. What instances of “taking a stand” have permeated the Australian consciousness? The most obvious example was that of Ned Kelly’s last stand.

These two ideas gave me the basic structure for my story. I began researching conditions where people might not speak and discovered that this could occur within the range of autism spectrum disorders. I then read as many books by authors with autism that I could find. These included books by Donna Williams and Temple Grandin.

In researching the Ned Kelly story, I looked at how the famous outlaw attempted to have his say – and how circumstances largely silenced him until after his death. The Jerilderie letter was an obvious attempt to influence public perceptions after the tragic events of Stringybark Creek. This also became an important ingredient of my plot.

Themes and ideas
I wove factual material from the Ned Kelly story throughout Game as Ned. This includes character names, events and extracts from the Jerilderie letter. In part, this is designed to invite comparison between the Kelly Gang story and Game as Ned. For example, Erin’s family and their troubled relationship with the police represent the poor Irish, Kelly family.

I guess I’d hoped schools studying Ned Kelly might use my story as a puzzle – unravelling the Ned Kelly facts from the Ned Edwards fiction. I’m rapt to say I have heard from teachers who have done exactly this.

As to themes, the things I considered were:

  • Masks – Do we all wear masks in daily life?
  • Justice & power – Is there one justice for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else? How easy is it to manipulate opinions and make or break reputations?
  • Taking a stand – In what ways can you make yourself heard?
  • Bullying – Is bullying behaviour limited to the schoolyard? Can adults be bullied?
  • Autism – The main character in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is also autistic. What are the similarities/differences between the ways Christopher (Curious Incident) and Ned interact with other people and express themselves?



Note: When autism spectrum disorders were first diagnosed, the causes suggested included poor parenting! Autism is now known to be a disorder of the central nervous system.

People with autism are unique so no two cases are identical. Some people might have difficulties with communication, social interaction or interpreting emotions, or be unsettled by change to their routines.

Prior to the development of early intervention and other intensive therapies, people with autism were sometimes institutionalised – put out of sight, out of mind.

Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams
Doubleday 1992

Nadia: a case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child by Lorna Selfe
Academic Press 1977

Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism by Donna Williams
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1998

Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism by Temple Grandin
Doubleday, 1995

Autism Victoria

Donna Williams

Autism Speaks (US)

Dr Temple Grandin

National Institute of Mental Health (US)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (US)


The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia by Justin Corfield
Thomas C. Lothian 2003

Ned Kelly: A Short Life by Ian Jones
Thomas C. Lothian 1995

A Pictorial History of Bushrangers by H Nunn, Bill Wannan and Tom Prior
Paul Hamlyn 1968

Ned Online (documents from the Public Record Office Victoria)

State Library of Victoria – Jerilderie letter

Iron Outlaw

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