Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, sprawls around Port Philip bay, with the city at its apex, the suburbs rolling away to either side, and inland up to the Yarra Valley. Five million people live in Melbourne, a glorious, diverse mishmash of cultures in a city full of cafés, bars, laneways, art spaces, open spaces, nature, and beach life. I love it! It’s my favourite Aussie city, hands down.
I lived here for many years before moving overseas. When I returned to Australia, it was to Queensland, but Melbourne still holds a huge chunk of my heart. So when I wanted to set some of my books in an Aussie city, Melbourne was the obvious choice.
I’m the sort of writer who needs to know a setting before writing about it. I’m not very visual, so I pick a setting (a house, a street, a suburb, a bar, a landscape) I know well to use in my stories. Mostly, I change names. Sometimes, I don’t. The Melbourne locations, for the most part, are very real.
So here is a tour of some of the real locations used in my books. If you’re in Melbourne, you can take a wander around and visit all of these.
The Number 94 Project is my most recognisably Melbourne book, with the most actual locations interspersed with the fictitious ones. The story revolves around Gaylord Street in Abbotsford. While Gaylord Street (unfortunately) doesn’t exist, the inner-city suburb of Abbotsford is very real—it’s where I used to live. Abbotsford is full of narrow streets lined with tiny Victorian workers’ cottages dating from around the 1900s. It was an industrial suburb, so there’s still many warehouses, garages, and factories, although many are now converted to upmarket living spaces. And while the queer community of Gaylord Street is fictitious, Abbotsford and the neighbouring suburbs of Collingwood and Fitzroy are full of queer community.
Gaylord Street is modelled on the narrow streets that run parallel to each other between the busy Hoddle Street to the west and the Yarra River to the east. They look like this:
Any of these houses could be Number 94, the old house Jorgie renovates, and also her neighbour, Marta’s, renovated cottage. They could be Elfin’s tiny sharehouse, or the house with the purple door and front yard with overgrown rosemary belonging to Coral.
I mustn’t forget Lizzie of For the Long Run. Lizzie, too, lives in one of these workers’ cottages, a couple of streets from Gaylord Street.
Marta, Jorgie, and Coral often enjoy a beer and a feed at the Retreat Hotel. This very real pub stands on the corner of Nicholson and Valiant Streets in Abbotsford. The Victorian features remain: dark wood, brass rails, stained glass, and small, cosy rooms. Locals jostle up with footy supporters, but now there’s craft beer as well as that old stalwart, Carlton Draught. And yes, you can get a good feed.
Abbotsford Convent is a very real space. The old building, founded by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863, sits above a bend in the Yarra River. Until 1974, it operated as a convent and provided shelter, food, and education. Like many institutions, though, many of the stories from that time are ones of abuse and hardship in institutionalised care.
Nowadays, the convent is no longer in religious hands, and operates as an arts venue, with workspaces for artists and health practitioners. There’s an outdoor music area with lush gardens to wander. There’s a bakery where you can grab a coffee or lunch (although you won’t find Elfin and her maroon hair serving you), and a couple of food outlets. And of course, there’s a convent bar. The current one spills out onto the terrace and grassy courtyard.
In the days when I lived in Abbotsford, there was a “secret” bar at the convent: Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment. To find this unsigned bar, you had to enter the convent through an unmarked door and follow your nose along winding corridors and up stairs until you entered a small room full of Geelong Cats memorabilia (the footy team Marta’s cat, Major Tom, supports) with a bar presided over by Handsome Steve. Unfortunately, Handsome Steve shut up shop in 2012.
The Yarra River meanders its way through Melbourne and forms the boundary between Abbotsford to the west and the more gentrified Kew to the east. The joke is to ask if someone lives in “Near Kew or Far Kew” (say it quickly 😊). Jorgie walks along the Yarra when she arrives in Melbourne and is pleasantly surprised to see so much green space in the inner city.
Lizzie and Shan in For the Long Run use the Yarra Path for running (as did I when I lived there). Shan’s first run after injury is an “easy” couple of kilometres along the river path that leaves Lizzie half-dead. And another time, they have coffee from a stand at Dights Falls—a small weir on a bend in the river separating the suburbs of Collingwood and Clifton Hill. Those who have read Code of Conduct might recognise Clifton Hill as the quiet out-of-the-way suburb where Viva meets Gabriela for coffee when they don’t want to be recognised.
In For the Long Run, Shan takes Lizzie and Presto to a secret viewpoint high above the Yarra River with a panoramic view of the city. The viewpoint is along an unofficial beaten path from Yarra Boulevard to a rocky overhang. Back when I lived in Abbotsford this was very real. I recently took a walk there, trying to find it again, and as Shan feared, it’s now been blocked off. But if you head along Yarra Boulevard above Studley Park, you’ll find a few lookout points with benches where you can get the same panoramic view over Abbotsford to the city. There’s plenty of walking trails here, too, from paved to scramble-trails that run through bushland. Watch out for snakes!
A Heart This Big takes place on a community farm on the outskirts of Sydney. But the fictitious Banksia Farm that Nina and Leigh struggle to save is based on the real Collingwood Children’s Farm in, yes, you’ve guessed it, Abbotsford. The farm runs a young farmers program for kids in Abbotsford and surrounding suburbs that is similar to the Barn Kids program Nina runs. Kids learn work and life skills, handle animals, and learn to grow food. You can visit the farm—you’ll find it immediately below Abbotsford Convent on the river flats—and for a small entry charge you can wander around the farm, meet the animals, talk with volunteers, or have a light meal in the Farm Café.
In A Heart This Big, Leigh walks across a paddock and steps on a snake. My editor questioned this, and asked why the farm wouldn’t take steps to ensure snakes weren’t present. Unfortunately, and in the vein of everything-in-Australia-wants-to-kill-you, this isn’t possible. Snakes are occasionally present in the bushland corridors into the city. Collingwood Children’s Farm recognises the possibility, and has signs up to alert visitors.
Abbotsford merges into Richmond at Victoria Street. It’s a scruffy, well-loved street full of Asian grocers and cheap and cheerful pubs and cafés. Marta and Jorgie go up a set of stairs from the street and eat at a Vietnamese restaurant. That café no longer exists (anyone who knows Victoria Street has probably already picked it for Thy Thy—and you’d be right) but there’s plenty of other, mainly Vietnamese, restaurants and takeaways that do amazing food at reasonable prices.
A few kilometres from Abbotsford is the Melbourne Park Tennis Centre, home of the Australian Open grand slam every January. My tennis romance, Code of Conduct, takes place over the Australian tennis season, culminating at the Aussie Open. Viva plays her final matches in Rod Laver Arena, the main venue, and much of the tennis action in the book takes place on outside courts and the grounds.
Anyone can go into the tennis centre, and unless an event is happening, you can sign up for lessons, or social tennis. For $55 you can even hire one of the show courts and pretend you’re Ash Barty (or Viva Jones) for an hour, or sit in the umpire’s chair and officiate as coolly and calmly as Gabriela Mendaro, the silver badge umpire in Code of Conduct. Outside court hire is cheaper, if you just want the experience of playing on the famous blue Plexi cushion.
Queen Victoria Market
There’s plenty of other smaller Melbourne experiences scattered throughout my books. Marta of The Number 94 Project and Lizzie of For the Long Run take the tram to North Melbourne to shop at the Queen Victoria Market. Go in the last thirty minutes before it closes on Saturday for the best bargains.
Characters shop on Johnson Street, take the tram to Fitzroy for dinner, and Jorgie spends way too much time at the Council offices seeking planning permits (the real Collingwood Town Hall).
Melbourne Central Business District
In Fenced-In Felix, when Felix and Josie travel to Melbourne to try and unravel the mystery surrounding Josie’s horse Flame, Josie expertly navigates a hook turn in the rental car. Hook turns can confuse even the most seasoned Melburnian (including me). Basically, in the CBD, to allow easier travel for the trams, if you want to turn right, you have to pull over to the left, wait for the lights to turn red and then complete your right turn across the tram tracks. Arrgh! No wonder Felix was confused. If you want the Felix experience, drive into the CBD and you’ll find the hook turn signs at most intersections with tram tracks. Good luck!
No wrap up of my Melbourne-based books would be complete without a mention of Sheila-the-Sheoak. When Lizzie visits Shan in her apartment in the real suburb of Parkville, the two of them run in Royal Park. Lizzie picks a tree to act as her finish line, and calls her Sheila.
When researching the types of trees in Royal Park, I hit upon Melbourne’s Urban Forest Project. This lists every tree in the inner Melbourne area on a map, by type, age, and condition. And—get this—you can email a tree. Originally, it was so the public could report the condition of the trees—branches down, exposed roots etc—but people latched on to this, and started emailing the trees to say hello, tell them about their day, or compliment them on their foliage. And sometimes, the trees answer. Well, it isn’t a yellow gum on Gatehouse Street putting twigs to keyboard—it’s an employee at the City of Melbourne. Best job ever? Maybe.
While writing For the Long Run, I picked a tree on the Urban Forest Project website and emailed her asking if I could use her in my book. And the tree replied, saying she’d be honoured. This is possibly my best fanmail ever!
And that, good people, is how Sheila-the-sheoak came to be. She has a mention in the acknowledgements.
And here is the very real Sheila-the-sheoak in the very real Royal Park in Parkville, Melbourne with the very real author of For the Long Run with her very real book.
If you live in Melbourne, or if you visit, I’d love to hear where you went. Maybe you did visit some of the places mentioned in my books. Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy all that Melbourne and Australia have to offer.