A Sense Of Place

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about the role of setting in narrative.

KATH
This writing caper is full of surprises and learning curves. Even now, with two books published, I sometimes feel like I’m only just ready to graduate. From Novel Writing kindergarten.

When I wrote Rough Diamond, I planned to keep its Melbourne setting to a minimum. Why would I do this? Well, it’s about my own reading preferences. Firstly, I like a fast-paced plot with plenty of action, not lengthy descriptions. But mostly because my own taste is for exotic locations―places I’ve never seen or would love to see. Parts of the world that exude whatever isn’t Melbourne. Because Melbourne’s humdrum, right? It’s my city, where I grew up in my dull little life. It’s just an extension of boring old me. It’s all so everyday, routine, familiar. How could it be interesting?

Rough Diamond was released, and reviews poured in. Imagine my surprise that many of the positive comments were about the Melbourne setting! The setting I’d so determinedly kept vague (as I thought) with just a few snippets to place the reader: the streets of Richmond, the botanic gardens and tan track, South Melbourne market, Crown casino, Collingwood football club, the local pub. All those very boring, everyday, familiar spots. As it turned out, in my naiveté, I’d unwittingly yet convincingly set my novel in Melbourne.

Collingwood Football ClubUntil I read those reviews, I hadn’t realised―or rather considered―how enjoyable the familiar can be. In reading we relate to characters for various reasons; we share their pains, joys, experiences of all kinds. So, too, I’ve learned, can we relate to a novel’s setting and enjoy the company of familiar turf. Joggers who frequent the tan track, people queuing for those famous South Melbourne market dim sims, our love and hate of Collingwood football club.

 

Funnily enough, I appreciate Melbourne more now. In fact, I’m giving careful attention to place in my current work-in-progress, Grand Slam (working title, my publisher reminds me to add), which is set around the internationally famous Australian Open tennis tournament, hosted by my own beautiful Melbourne. My characters will spend time at the tennis and surrounds as well as thrilling, familiar spots like Southbank and Chadstone Shopping Centre (Chaddy!). And you know what? I’m feeling so excited about it, I might take a quick research trip now…

SYDNEY
I do get what you’re saying, Kath, about the allure of the exotic. But I also get the thrill of reading a novel set in a familiar place. The former is an escape from daily life. The latter makes me feel as if I’m IN the novel I’m reading. I could walk out my door and bump into these characters, pop them on the nose if they irritate me, hug them if I like them.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly – Crime Writer

I happen to like a good description. One of the things I love about early Michael Connelly, US crime writer, is the depth of characterisation of LA, where his novels are set. His series hero, Harry Bosch, lives in a house on the side of a hill, with scrub choking the arroyo below, scrub bearing Spanish names―that word “arroyo”, too, which conjures up the dry deserts of California and nearby Nevada. He usually spots a coyote trotting amidst the brush. The coyote is his animal, the battered loner struggling to survive in the increasing urbanisation of its native land.

Harry works in West Hollywood, a place seamed with porno shops, greasy hotels where rooms are rented by the hour, soiled junkies and prostitutes. The big Hollywood sign looms over the city, promising the dream, but it’s a damaged sign, a symbol you trust at great risk to your life and your heart.

That’s what a good description does. It gives the reader the feel of the place in which the story is set, and therefore, the mood of the story itself. The description should convey emotion. If it’s flatly realistic, it’s probably not doing its job.

JENNIFER
I’m with you, Sydney. I love good description. Teachers of writing craft often say that description is boring. Don’t you dare add more than a sentence or two on setting, lest you lose your reader. I think this rule screams out to be broken. A convincing setting helps make any story memorable. But as a writer of Aussie rural fiction, a vivid sense of place is even more vital. Readers of this genre crave a relationship with this country. They’re asking the question :what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is that we come from this place. That’s our identity―the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is completely different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means the regions. That means the bush.

CC 4In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literally geographical place) functions like a character in the story. It’s one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek, for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush.  In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by becoming grounded again he finds his future.

There must be balance of course. Don’t spend paragraphs describing how things look. Do what Sydney says. Describe how they feel. Use detail. Make it a sensory experience. Here’s an example from my own writing: a man is climbing a tree.

“That precious, familiar calm. Tree climbing. Different to rock-climbing. Trees lived. Even giant Pallawarra still gave with the wind. He moved. Matt moved too, away from the people and the cars and the ravaged earth. He moved into another dimension. For the first time in a long time, Matt focused on the moment. On his breath, his feet, his fingers. A meditation. There was no choice. Any slip was death.

The darkening forest lay in mysterious degrees of light and shade. The more Matt looked at the tree, the more he saw the tree. Its position, its size and form, its unique structure and balance. He saw through its bark-dangled camouflage. He saw its art. A shred of song popped into his head, even though, since Theo, music made him cringe.

‘If you plant ten million trees, none will grow like these.’

Now light rain began falling, deepening the colours. The auburns and browns, the greens and golds, the glistening, mottled curls of stringy-bark streamers. The birds of the upper canopy had long fled, leaving the forest silent. Except for the sound of a strengthening breeze, like the sea-shell psalm of a distant sea.”

And as Kath says, no matter how ordinary the place, assume that some of your readers will be unfamiliar with your setting. The smell of a South Melbourne dim sim that you take for granted, will be a revelation for readers who’ve never visited that market.

SYDNEY
That’s beautiful, Jenny. Place plus emotion plus atmosphere equals setting.

KATH
I take it back. I love lengthy descriptions if written by Jen Scoullar. Mind you, the above piece is also brimming with action and suspense, yes?

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REVIEWER SPOTLIGHT: Write Note Reviews

jenniferscoullar:

Interesting post from Monique Mulligan from Write Note Reviews – and she lists Billabong Bend and my mate’s book Mountain Ash (Margareta Osborn) as in her top five Aussie romances for 2014!

Originally posted on AusRomToday:

Reviewer Spotlight: Write Note Reviews

 

Tell us a little more about Write Note Reviews:
As a book reader and food enthusiast in no particular order, I’ve always thought books and food go well together. For me, it all started with popcorn … eating a bowl of popcorn and reading at the same time. Write Note Reviews combines these two loves with two more – writing and photography. My book reviews (from 2013 onwards) are complemented by a suggested food treat that “matches” the book. But really, the site is just a way for me to immerse myself in the world of books in a way that suits me best.

 

What prompted the creation of Write Note Reviews?
I started reviewing books while working at a community newspaper as a journalist, and later, editor. Apart from writing a regular column, it was one of my favourite aspects of the role…

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Our New Horse – Lofty

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around with my friend Bronwyn, looking at horses for sale on-line. She was looking for a quiet horse for her sixteen year old daughter. We started looking at sites dedicated to giving sale-yard horses a second chance – ones that were heading for slaughter. There are many wonderful people who volunteer to publicise these last-chance horses. And with the drought hitting hard in NSW and Queensland there are far, far too many of them.

Lofty's On-Line Photo

Lofty’s On-Line Photo

Well, my friend decided to take a chance on one of these horses – a little chestnut mare called Trixie. Then my son Matt came in, sat down with us and started scrolling through the horses. Lofty, a big standardbred gelding with a noble head caught his eye. The picture is on the right. In the end Matt decided to spend all his savings on buying Lofty and transporting  him here from the Echuca Sale Yards.

Lofty Safe At Home

Lofty Safe At Home

This was a risky enterprise. Buying horses the old-fashioned way is tricky enough. Buying sight-unseen from the briefest of descriptions is slightly insane. Nevertheless Bronwyn and Matt went ahead, knowing that these horses were in dire straits. We spent a nervous few days waiting. Horror stories about buying horses on-line emerged from the woodwork. The lady who bought a stockhorse, and it turned out to be a just-off-the-track thoroughbred that almost killed her husband. The girl who bought a yearling filly and found an unhandled two year old colt dumped in her paddock instead. Weeks later she still hadn’t caught it! I’m sure you’ve all heard many more.

Lofty's first day 058Well, the horses arrived on Sunday, shell-shocked and a little the worse for wear. A few cuts and scrapes. BUT they are beautiful! Trixie has a new home with a doting teenage girl to love her. Lofty is settling in, and is well on his way to becoming Matt’s pride and joy. A total gentleman with perfect manners, and at 16.2 hh he’s big enough to carry Matt and all his camping gear. I had a cry yesterday, thinking about where these lovely horses might have ended up. Trixie had been totally neglected, however Lofty’s feet were trim and his mane and tail tidy. Somebody once loved this beautiful horse, but he still ended up on a truck heading for oblivion. I wish I could reassure Lofty’s previous owner that he’s safe. I’m VERY proud of my son for doing such a great thing. And a huge thank you to the wonderful people who volunteer their time to give these horses a second chance!

Trixie

Trixie

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Power Of The Secret-Keeper

jenniferscoullar:

I’ve pretty much finished my latest novel, Turtle Reef, except for one last read through. That means I’m taking a blogging holiday this week. But never fear, I’m reblogging a terrific post from one of my favourite bloggers, Kristen Lamb. This post is on the power of secrets in fiction. I hope you enjoy it!

Originally posted on Kristen Lamb's Blog:

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.47.12 AM

Image via the award-winning show “House.”

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

My POV? All memorable stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus Authentic Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see…

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Blues For The Bush

Blues for the bush 1The Shire of Perenjori in mid-west Western Australia will join with Bush Heritage on October 4th to present the second annual Blues for the Bush celebration. This will combine an open day at Charles Darwin Reserve with a fabulous evening concert.

Bush Heritage is one of my favourite conservation organisations. In fact I dedicated my last book, Billabong Bend, to them. Established in 1991, they now have thirty-five conservation reserves protecting over one million hectares. Their vision is, by 2025, to protect more than seven million hectares of Australia’s high conservation value land, water and wildlife. What’s not to love?

Blues for the bush 3Blues for the Bush was conceived last year to celebrate the ten year anniversary of Bush Heritage purchasing the 68,000 hectare Charles Darwin Reserve. This purchase was made possible, in part, by a generous donation from the great-great-grandson of the famous naturalist after whom the property is now named. Formerly known as White Wells Station, the reserve is located at the junction of major landforms, ecosystems and climates known as the Mulga‑Eucalypt line, where  desert meets the south‑west. As a result, it’s a melting pot of plant species with eucalypts and mulga scrub intermixed.

Blues for the bush 2Ancient woodlands of York gum, salmon, gimlet and pine are interspersed with wildflower-studded sand plains. Of course spring is the perfect time to see this colourful display. Dense thickets of wattle, casuarina and melaleuca shrub surround natural salt lake systems. Bush Heritage has destocked the property and controlled weeds and feral animals. The reserve is fast returning to its original, natural beauty.

It is in these stunning surrounds that Blues for the Bush happens. The Open Day is free from 10am – 4.00pm. There will be something for everyone to enjoy. Children’s entertainment with painting, art and stories. Guided ecology tours of the property will run throughout the day. Bush poetry. Song-writing and bush music workshops, slow food demonstrations and much, much more. There will even be a free Bush Tea, the local’s answer to the traditional high tea – lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and a fresh brewed cuppa.

Hat Fitz at last year's Blues for the Bush

Hat Fitz at last year’s Blues for the Bush

The highlight will be a blues concert. Local Ngoongar musician, Craig Pickett, will open this year’s event. Craig is an incredible guitarist and has played for many years around Western Australia. Following Craig will be some of the absolute best in independent Australian blues and roots music, including Hat Fitz, Cara Robinson and Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk. Tickets on sale here. They include a spit roast and salad meal. There will also be a cash bar and camping facilities available. What a night it will be!

On a personal writing note, I am rushing to get Turtle Reef ready for submission to Penguin on the first of October. Won’t see the manuscript again until the first round of edits roll around. I’m getting my mares, Sheba and Star, shod on the second of October. My reward for finishing. Bunyip State Forest, here we come!

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Sydney Smith On Author Branding

In this post, Sydney Smith, author and writing mentor extraordinaire, adds her words of wisdom to our previous Author Branding discussion (see last post)

sydney-smith_regular‘Different and yet the same. Whenever a writer submits their manuscript to one of the opportunities out there, like the Friday Pitch or Manuscript Monday, they’re asked who they write like. They have to offer the same thing, but with something in there that’s different. Jenny, you quoted a reviewer who likened Kath’s work to that of Janet Evanovich. There’s that point of similarity. But anyone who’s read the Stephanie Plum books will know that Kath’s work is also unique to herself.

When you set out to brand yourself you have to be very careful. Is the brand you choose the one you want to be defined by? I didn’t give a thought to branding when I approached Text with my memoir. All I was thinking was that I had a good story to tell. But I know now that it was the wrong move, strategically. I’m “branded” as someone who writes literary narrative. But that isn’t who I really am. I have a literary bent, sure. I love reading Tolstoy and Henry James, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, Ian MacEwan and Elizabeth Kostova. I love reading fiction that makes me think about the characters and feel potent emotions.

Crime FictionBut I also have a genre bent. I’m a crime fiction addict. I read five crime novels a week. No kidding! As a writer, I’m trying to access my inner psychopath in order to write about murder. This morning, I started my first murder story, having figured out that I might be able to get at it if I go by way of a missing persons investigation. Don’t ask me why that works for me and a more direct approach doesn’t. I’ve got no idea. I just know that I can work with a missing persons investigator, not with a homicide detective, even if, at some point, I have to get to a murder.

So what does that have to do with branding? Well, I suppose this is my brand. Or anyway, it’s the one I’m trying to create. It feels confining. I am a whole lot more than a single, narrowly-defined product. But there’s no way around it.

By the way, are there any crime fiction buffs out there? If you want to chat about crime fiction and crime TV shows, drop me a line.

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

 

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Author Branding

Author Branding 3A distinctive brand gives an author a major advantage in marketing their books. It defines what they stand for. It helps them refine and cultivate a unique voice. Not every writer appreciates being ‘put in a box’ so to speak, as if they are a product on a shelf. But books are products on shelves, and readers are consumers. In this week’s blog, fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson and I share our thoughts on the concept of branding. I’ll start the ball rolling.

JENNIFER
Author branding is all about promising a certain kind of reading experience. ‘Brand’ means having a recognisable, consistent voice and approach from book to book, so your fans know what to expect. It doesn’t mean you have to write the same thing over and over. Take the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, for example. His movies range from courtroom dramas like The Paradine Case to historicals like Under Capricorn, set in nineteenth-century Australia. But no matter what the subject matter, you always know you’ll get a taut, psychological thriller. Woody Allen movies are funny, quirky and character-driven, while nobody portrays alienated men living on the edge like Martin Scorsese.

Author Branding 2I was lucky. My author brand just fell in my lap. I write Australian rural fiction with powerful environmental themes. Nobody else does that (I have no idea why!) and it became my immediate point of difference. The books I write celebrate a love affair with the wild, and it gives my publisher a clear idea of how to market my work. Kathryn also has a very distinctive style and voice. She writes fast-paced and funny romantic adventures. ‘Fans of Stephanie Plum rejoice. There’s a new undercover angel in town,’ said a review in Marie Clare. Bam, there’s her brand right there.

Identifying your particular brand isn’t always that easy. You have to figure out the goal of your writing, define your purpose and identify your audience. A consistent, core message should start to emerge. Everyone wants to appeal to a wide audience, but I think it helps to have a specific focus, especially in the beginning. On your blog, on social media, in the way you talk about your work. For me of course it’s the environment. Last week I blogged about Melbourne’s Environmental Film Festival, and tweeted about the repeal of the Wild Rivers legislation. Zeroing in on your own passions and interests helps define you in the mind of your audience.

KATH
Author Branding 1I recently met a writer whose goal was to have her novel published. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do all that public-speaking stuff like you do,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t want people knowing my business.’

What many aspiring authors don’t understand is that the “public-speaking stuff” and your business go with the turf. It’s part of your brand. Who you, the author, are plays an intrinsic role in the branding game and, yes, if you want to really connect with your readers, it can be personal. Branding of course is all about marketing and promotion. It’s about finding that unique thing that sets you firmly apart from the crowd and puts you under a spotlight so that, ultimately, it’s your book a reader will pick up, thinking, ‘I’ve heard about this author. She’s the one who (insert unique thing).’ Your brand is like a fingerprint. If you nail it (pun intended), your brand will be so individual that you can honestly claim no-one does what you do.

There are two very important reasons to have a brand. First, to get publishers to notice you. And then to get readers to notice you. Getting readers to notice you can happen via publicity, and your brand is the thing that attracts the media. Every month in Australia, dozens of authors make their debut. In that case, why would any newspaper be interested in you? What’s so special about you? You’re a product. Yes, you are. So, market yourself. Find your brand. Your unique thing.

It’s not necessarily that easy to find your brand and, as Jen points out, she and I are lucky because, although we’re writing for popular genres, neither of us had to work very hard to find our points of difference. Jen writes environmental or eco-romance (isn’t that fabulous?). I write funny, romantic adventure novels. However, that’s not special or unique. Other people write books like that. I write “like Janet Evanovich”, but even that’s not unique because it’s like Janet Evanovich. I think my brand is (currently) my series character, Erica Jewell. Like Evanovich has Stephanie Plum, Helen Fielding has Bridget Jones, Lee Child has Jack Reacher, my Erica is the stand-out thing that sets my work apart. One day, when Erica and her man are finally tucked into boring happily-ever-after, and I write another book or series, then I’ll have to re-brand myself. I think it will always be “funny, romantic adventure novels”, but still that’s a bit dull. Perhaps I can find a new name for that genre: Laugh-Out-Loud Romantic Adventure? LOL Rom-ad?

I’m sure you’ll come up with something wonderful Kath! What do readers think? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of author branding?

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