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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Why Cicadas?

Updated: Jun 7, 2018

It does seem a strange choice. Most fantasy authors populate their created worlds with awe-inspiring creatures of legend: vampires, werewolves, trolls, dragons, giant sand worms! Cicadas are noisy insects that fit within palm of hand.

I’m not saying I’m the first to build a fantasy-adventure trilogy around the concept of magical insects. There may be others (and happy to be enlightened in the Comments section), but at the time of writing I am unaware of them. It’s not important; originality was never the motive. The author's intent was to create a relatable story by placing at its heart a creature that invoked memories of childhood summers – both his own, and the ones captured in coming-of-age stories like Stephen King’s IT, Stand by Me and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The creative seed for the world of Broken Meadow as it evolved and expanded into greater Dellreigh was germinated in an unremarkable suburb of Sydney’s north.

Stand by Me: Wil Wheaton, Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix
Hangin' out in the summer. Who knows what one might find.

One road in. One road out.

I still dream of North Epping, and often. Hornsby Council tags itself The Bushland Shire . Sadly, there is less of it now than when I was running around in shorts and a shock of orange hair (much less of that now, too), but North Epping remains completely surrounded by bushland. At High School they used to tease us with the ‘One road in. One road out.’ barb, implying we were all inbred yokels. North Epping was the school’s only feeder suburb not split by some god-awful arterial road.

The barb never stuck; I loved the idea of living in Australia’s largest city in a place that felt nothing like it. I still remember horses gambolling in a paddock opposite the laneway by the school. Everything felt semi-rural, and being surrounded by woods was a blessing. One doesn’t need a romantic soul to know that that is where the magic comes from.

The horse laneway is the first part of my childhood to creep onto the pages of Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada. From Book I, Chapter 2:

“Keen to get rolling, he turned toward the far corner of Mr Mulquinney’s fence-line, where a row of peach trees cast the lane bordering the yard into deepest black. The smell of overripe fruit was making his mouth water.”

I don’t actually recall peach trees – and Mr Mulquinney was based on our old bus driver, not the owner of the property over the fence – but the laneway was otherwise clear in my head. A little further along in Chapter 3, we get to the edge of the bush:

“Frog’s Leap Crossing was built at the narrows where the water ran fast and deep. The rushes that hugged the west bank all the way up to Birchbarrow Park here gave way to a narrow beach of brown pebbles dotted with larger stones of smooth grey. Four wooden bridges linked shore to shore via three large river rocks, each breaking the surface at convenient intervals. It was a popular spot for daredevil swimmers looking for an exciting ride downstream in the swift current. The wild terrain was just perfect for keeping grown-ups at bay.”

The last line is significant. There was no place of deep running water in the North Epping bush (Browns Waterhole was about it), but it was our domain, our sanctuary. In fact, we were indignant every time we happened upon grown-ups traipsing through it.

What made it so special? Perhaps that it was so wild and untamed, in contrast to the manicured lawns and gardens of our suburban homes. There were creeks and gullies, steep cliffs and giant stones to climb. In the higher-up places you could drink water straight out of the rock pools, and find yabbies and freshwater turtles if you had the eye (and the right bait to lure them out). We rode the walking tracks on BMX bikes, and could travel unseen to adjacent suburbs of Beecroft and Pennant Hills without ever touching a paved road. It was our playground, our cloak of invisibility to shield us from the grown-ups when the spirit of independence began to take hold. I remember building campfires in the quiet places, and dividing into teams to fight cracker wars that filled the valley with coloured fire, noise and smoke (no harm done).

In woods there is always mystery. Not far from the Boundary Road entry to the main fire trail, there was a great slab of jutting sandstone called Whale Rock. It always looked more like a dolphin to me, but the landmark had another layer of legend to it. I don’t know if it was widely known, and the years in between have buried the detail, but there was talk of a ghost that haunted the landmark at night. The rumour definitely made it to my ear. And as much as I loved the place, no force on earth could have made me enter that bush alone after sunset.

Whale rock? Sorry, that's a dolphin.

Which brings us to…

It was not the only bush-related playground rumour to reach my childhood ears. In the summer months, the most popular revolved around rare cicadas. Like tales of wild hermits haunting the caves deeper in the valley, the idea of exotic cicadas usually originated from an older brother, or a friend once-removed. The idea that there were rare cicadas that hatched only once in an age had a captivating effect on my imagination. The concept is introduced early in Book I:

“Never really thought of myself as lucky,” Hopskotch whispered to himself, brushing aside a clump of wheat grass that overhung the right-side verge. Stepping past it, he added: “Just like to see one of those rare cicadas you hear about sometimes.”
Dobbin drew a deep breath. “Like White Ghosts, right? Look there’s always someone’s older brother who knows someone whose best friend saw one once. And there’s always someone like you and Gav who’ll swallow it hook, line and sinker. Might as well keep our eyes open for the elusive Blue Mist, the Purple Prince, the Jade Corsair, the Scarlet Cardinal.”

The names Dobbin rattled off in Chapter 2 were made up, but the real ones doing the rounds of eighties-era Sydney playgrounds were no less imaginative. Common cicadas included the Green Grocer, Yellow Monday, and Floury Baker (brown with white flecks). A lucky child might manage to capture a Black Prince, Cherry Nose or Double Drummer. Then there were the cicadas of legend – rarely if ever seen, and only spoken of in hushed playground whispers. Such whispers added new layers of depth, mystery and magic to our summer adventures into the North Epping bush, and the BMX’s often got parked at the base of some gum tree as we searched fruitlessly for the elusive White Ghost or Blue Monday.

This fellow inspired the Red-eyed Onyx introduced in Book I

Fast forward

I was surprised to discover only recently that the latter is a real-life cicada – a rare mutation of the Green Grocer minus yellow pigmentation. As much as the colour, the name reflects the notion that it was only ever found ‘once in a blue moon’.

Of course, it was all about the colours. As a trigger to creative thought, there is no greater spark to a child in his/her formative years. It is no coincidence that these core themes – colour, cicadas, dreams, imagination – are the philosophical heart of The Waking World trilogy.

It was always going to be about finding colour in a world of grey, but with cicadas locked in as the magical catalyst, the story and characters began to grow and evolve with a momentum that, at times, felt almost like a living beast moving with a will and inertia of its own. Writing fantasy affords the writer the kind of liberties of imagination that birthed the magical cicadas of Delgardian legend. Their origins will only be revealed to those who finish the trilogy, but it is no spoiler to reveal that the Golden Dukes, The Guardians, and Whisper magic are all threads of the greater weave, inseparably intertwined with the Absent God Aethelron and his plan for Syltian folk.

Tropical cicadas featured prominently in historical sci-art

Cover models

That cicada you see on the book sleeves and in the banner of the website is a real species of tropical cicada (albeit, with a little Photoshop work). I happened upon him doing some background research –an essential part of any storytelling journey based around content one knows little (or nothing) about. For all the liberties I took with Broken Meadow’s golden cicadas and their soul-moving Dawnsong, I could not ignore the basic biology behind my centre-of-stage insects. What did I learn? From Book I, Chapter 19:

“Every child knew how important it was the cicadas reached the trees alive and in good health. After the crowds had scattered, and the hunters – duty done – were back in their homes, the male cicadas would erupt into that familiar summer song. Calling the females to mate, the breeding cycle would begin under the safety of the river birch canopy: pregnant females would lay their eggs in shallow slits cut into the branches; six to eight weeks later, the tiny nymphs would hatch and fall to the ground, through which they’d burrow to feed on the root sap.
Depending on which type of cicada, the nymphs lived underground for anywhere up to thirteen years. Once large and strong enough, they’d claw their way to the surface and climb the trunks, shortly thereafter emerging from their shells as adult cicadas, ready to repeat the cycle.”

Fact Vs Fiction

In the Australian bush, it is rare to find a creepy-crawlie that doesn’t bite, sting, or otherwise paralyse and /or render you stone-cold dead upon first contact. For all its size and noisy bluster, cicadas are perfectly harmless and easy to handle (just pin the wings and ride out the shrieking – easy peasy). Cicadas cannot bite you. Cicadas cannot bite anything because they do not feed – they drink. That straw-like appendage coming out of their mouth is called a labium, and acts as a straw to pierce the surface of tree and plant and feed off the sap.

The humble green grocer, captured with a flash on a river birch tree.

The hills are alive…

The mating call of the male cicadas blasting the background beat to my Sydney summers was impossible to ignore. Many times I imagined the trees in my backyard must be filled with scores of them dripping off every branch, only to discover an orchestra of one chirping happily away. The final chapter of Book III, Hopskotch and the Rising Sons was penned in the summer of 2017, a milestone that just happened to coincide with the biggest cicada boom in living memory. By December, they had emerged in such migraine-inducing numbers that my family had to retreat indoors for our traditional Christmas lunch (a first).

How loud are they? According to the boffins, the sulfur-crested cockatoo of the cicada world is the Double Drummer, which can crank out an ear-splitting 120 decibels. Alone, and without even breaking a sweat. To put that into perspective, if it were the size of a human being, the noise generated by its vibrating tymbals (drum-like organs in their abdomen that create the trademark chirp) would result in the spontaneous combustion of any human brain within a 50-metre radius. Probably.

I could go on and on and on, and still not do justice to these unique, mysterious, magical creatures. If you’re interested in learning more about the 3000+ species, is the best place to start. Actually, make that the second best.

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