Launch of ‘Fortune’s Son’

My new novel, Fortune’s Son, will be officially launched at Readings Doncaster on the 13th of July. Please come along if you’re in Melbourne!

The winners of the draw for Fortune’s Son are Astrid and Veronica. Congratulations, and thanks to everybody who took part. I received some great suggestions for my historical fiction reading pile!  I will email the winners shortly 🙂

‘Fortune’s Son’ Giveaway!

To celebrate the release of my new Australian historical saga, Fortune’s Son, I am giving away two copies!

Simply comment on this post with the name of your favourite historical novel. Competition ends on June 8th with a random draw. (Aust & NZ only)

To entice all you good readers to enter, I have posted a lovely, early review (my first!) of Fortune’s Son by Brenda Telford, a Goodreads Top Reviewer. There is also a giveaway happening over on Goodreads, which means multiple chances to win!

Fortune’s Son
by Jennifer Scoullar (Goodreads Author)

2337007

Brenda‘s review of Fortune’s Son (May 19, 2017)

Utterly Brilliant!

” When fourteen year old Luke Tyler called to see his sister Becky where she worked at Sir Henry Abbot’s home, his disgust and horror turned to rage when he saw her being violated by the man himself. The result of Luke defending Becky was fifteen years hard labour on the notorious prison farm in remote Tasmania. Just that quickly, Luke and his family had their lives changed forever…

Four long, hard years later Luke made his escape, blending into the rugged bush and living rough for weeks on end. But when Luke discovered his old mentor lived nearby, his fortunes changed for the better and in the company of Daniel Campbell, his wife Elizabeth and daughter Belle, he knew happiness again. Luke’s beloved dog, a Newfoundland he’d named Bear, was his constant companion – the local wildlife; devils and tigers, kept him sane. But there was trouble ahead…

Escaping to South Africa devastated Luke – leaving everyone and everything he loved – but it was either that or be hanged. The following years found Luke forming great friendships and the work he did – saving the wildlife of Africa from poachers, building a school for the local children – he dedicated to his mentor Daniel. But his thoughts didn’t stray from Belle for long; he missed her always. When shattering news came his way, Luke didn’t hesitate to return to Tasmania. But what would be the outcome? He was aware what the consequences could be – but was he prepared for them?

Fortune’s Son is an intensely emotional, gripping portrayal of the harsh realities of the late 1800s in Australia’s history by Aussie author Jennifer Scoullar. Outstandingly written, in my opinion this is Scoullar’s best work to date. The beautiful portrayal of Tasmania’s remote highlands, the bush settings, the wild animals which were in danger from the local farmers and the arrogance of the landowners over the poor – all done in a way to make the reader feel deeply involved in the story. The vivid scenery of South Africa also benefited from her words. I have no hesitation in highly recommending Fortune’s Son to historical fiction fans. Absolutely love the cover too!

With thanks to Penguin Random House for my ARC to read and review.”

Flashbacks in Fiction

In this post, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I debate the use of flashbacks in fiction.

SYDNEY: A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me! I thought of all the books that use that literary technique.

Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left. Moreover, if you reassembled events in their chronological order, they would lose the mystery and terrific vitality that the flashback structure invests the story with.

More recently there is A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, which relies on flashback so extensively that without them, the reader would understand nothing about her main characters. The novel is flawed, in my opinion – deeply flawed. But that is not the fault of the flashbacks.

The Killing Lessons, a crime novel by Saul Black, published in 2015, uses flashbacks to uncover why the killer does what he does. Crime fiction in general uses flashbacks through dialogue to uncover the sort of information that will help the detective understand the murder victim and who might have killed them.

Flashbacks are a way of revealing back story, that drama from the past that drives the main characters in the present drama. There are other ways of revealing back story. But it has to be disclosed in some way, or in a variety of ways, if the main characters are to achieve psychological and emotional depth. Back story helps the reader invest emotionally in the main characters. Even commercial fiction benefits from a strong back story, and if done correctly, that benefit can be conveyed through flashbacks.

JENNIFER: I wonder if that fellow writer was me, Sydney. It may have been, because I am wary of flashbacks. They’re a useful device, but their drawback is they bring the momentum of the main narrative to a screaming halt. Flashbacks differ from exposition, where you tell readers something about a character’s past. A flashback is a fully dramatised scene.

My advice is never to use flashbacks in the first fifty pages. Wait until a story is well-developed and has built up energy. If you can wait until half-way through, that’s good. Three-quarters of the way through is even better. Flashbacks reveal information and motivation, and detract from the mystery. Readers will no longer be curious about why a character behaves in a certain way. In my latest novel, Journey’s End, I have a protracted flashback in the final act. If that scene came any sooner, it would prick the balloon of narrative tension. Keep them guessing, I say.

SYDNEY: No, it wasn’t you, Jenny, though I can see why you think it might have been! I hold a different view from yours entirely. I think discovering motivation late in the drama is a mistake, usually – although I can conceive of occasions when it’s useful. If the character has depth, then uncovering motivation won’t dispel mystery. There should be plenty more to learn about a character – including about their motivation. Nor do I think flashbacks bring a narrative to a grinding halt. Does Wuthering Heights scream to a halt when Mr Lawrence reads Cathy’s diary? Does it scream to a halt every time Nellie tells him more of the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the Linton family? When done properly, flashbacks deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. I’m not that interested in linear narratives. I read them but I do like a narrative that jumbles things up. Plenty of novels and short stories are built on a switching back and forth in time and benefit enormously from it.

JENNY: I think of novels such as Wuthering Heights as “flashback novels”, exceptions to the general rule. Almost the entire novel is told in flashback. If a book begins with a woman on her deathbed, for example, the majority of the novel could be her recalling her life story. The flashback fundamentally becomes the novel’s main narrative, and the present day story is little more than a framing device.

I still maintain that flashbacks in more conventional novels slow the pace and risk losing readers. It’s something writers should be aware of. That said, I have published six novels which all contain flashbacks because, as you say, they do deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. Flashbacks are worth the risk. These are my tips if you decide to use them.

  • Use appropriate starting points. Memories are triggered by objects or our senses: a photograph, the scent of pine needles, a magpie’s morning chorus. Use these devices to transport the character back in time.
  • Hook the reader into the main story first. Give them a reason to go with the flashback. This means not using one too early, and choosing an exciting part of the story to insert it in. You want the reader to care enough to dive back into the present day narrative.
  • Make it completely clear that it is a flashback. There’s nothing more annoying than reading about a character in present-day Sydney and suddenly you’re back in 1970 Sicily without quite knowing how you got there.
  • I signal the transition with a break, and by changing the verb tense. My stories are usually in past tense, so I write the first two sentences of the flashback in the pluperfect. For example: ‘He had studied German at high school. It had been his worst subject.’ This grammatical change is necessary to tell the reader that they’re going back in time. After two sentences I go back to simple past tense: ‘He hated his teacher, that was the problem. Frau Goetz was a sadistic cow.’ On transitioning back to the present, I do the same thing in reverse. Two sentences in the pluperfect, break, then back to the simple past tense.

SYDNEY: These are good tips for the transition between present story and flashback. For me, the most important thing is to give the reader a good reason to go with them. That means setting up a mystery surrounding a character which can only be answered by flashbacks. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is a good example of that. Much as I disliked Jude, the main character, I wanted to know about his past, the one he refused to tell his friends. Thus, by withholding it and describing symptoms of his psychological disturbance, Ms Yanagihara sets up a mystery that is then solved in long flashbacks. The reader is in a privileged position — the story unveils to the reader all Jude’s secrets while keeping them hidden from the other characters. That privileged communication is one of the most powerful devices a writer can use.

As to ‘flashback novels’, I think you have to ask yourself why the writer chose to use flashbacks instead of stripping away the framing device and simply presenting the story in chronological order. There will be a very good reason for it, a reason that can’t be served by a linear narrative. Linear narrative is the most popular out there, but there are times when it impoverishes a story.

Also think of all the commercial fiction that uses different storylines involving separate casts of characters — George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, for instance. Although these different storylines are not flashbacks, they demand that the reader jump from one story to another, which is what flashbacks do. Does that multi-story structure alienate the reader? No. Think of the novels written with two or more timelines involving different sets of characters. For example, Green Darkness, by Anya Seton, a commercial historical novel set in modern-day England and in the Tudor period. Again, these are not necessarily flashback stories, but they demand that the reader jump from one storyline to another. Does that alienate the reader? No. Plenty of commercial women’s fiction uses the multi-story structure. Again, while these might not be flashbacks, they ask that readers leave one storyline and commit to another, which is the objection to flashbacks.

So, whether to use flashbacks or not, consult your own taste. Do you like flashbacks? Whenever I come upon them, I go with them. Since I like them, I disregard the so-called rule that prohibits them. But hey, call me an outlaw.

If you don’t like them, don’t use them.

‘Fortune’s Son’

I’m proud to announce the upcoming release of Fortune’s Son, my new Australian historical saga that will be released on May 29th this year! Fortune’s Son has been a long time coming, and as my agent says, it is the book of my heart.

Can one man’s revenge become his redemption?

Young Luke Tyler has everything going for him: brains, looks and a larrikin charm that turns heads. The future looks bright, until he defends his sister from the powerful Sir Henry Abbot. His reward is fifteen years hard labour on a prison farm in Tasmania’s remote highlands.

Luke escapes, finding sanctuary with a local philanthropist and starting a forbidden relationship with his daughter, Belle. But when Luke is betrayed, he must flee or be hanged.

With all seeming lost, Luke sails to South Africa to start afresh. Yet he remains haunted by the past, and by Belle, the woman he can’t forget. When he returns to seek revenge and reclaim his life, his actions will have shattering consequences – for the innocent as well as the guilty.

Set against a backdrop of wild Tasmania, Australian gold and African diamonds, Fortune’s Son is an epic story of betrayal, love and one man’s struggle to triumph over adversity and find his way home.

PRAISE FOR JENNIFER SCOULLAR

‘Lovely lyrical prose. Scoullar, it turns out, is a writer of documentary calibre.’
The Australian

‘An excellent read!’ Newcastle Herald

‘Superb! … Scoullar’s writing has a rich complexity. Poetic and visual … the landscape vivid and alive.’ Reading, Writing and Riesling

Call Out For Victorian Nature Stories!

environment-victoriaVictoria’s native species are under pressure. Too many are threatened or endangered, and the laws that are supposed to protect them aren’t working. But these laws are about to be reviewed by the Andrews government.

This is our chance to make sure the places we love and the plants and animals that live there are protected. Governments need to understand how important this is. Environment Victoria has put out a heartfelt plea to all Victorians. They want to hear our stories about threatened plants or animals we care about.

Helmeted Honeyeater, Victoria's critically endangered bird emblem

Helmeted Honeyeater, Victoria’s critically endangered bird emblem

Whether it’s the beach, the bush, the mountains or a beautiful river or lake, many of our amazing native plants and animals are under threat. Victoria has around 100,000 different species. Too many of them are in trouble – 21 percent of bird species, 18 percent of mammals, 39 percent of frogs and 21 percent of plants are listed as threatened in Victoria, and are on the downhill slide towards extinction.

This is staggering.  Even common species like Kookaburras, Willy wagtails and River Red Gums are not as common as they once were. The problem is that our plants and animals are losing their habitat. The areas that they can call home are shrinking as cities expand, logging destroys forests and agriculture becomes more intensive. And the laws that are supposed to protect them have proved powerless to stop the  decline in numbers. Too many species are on the path to extinction.

Now the Andrews government is reviewing our threatened species legislation, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, and this is our chance to strengthen the laws so that they really do protect our native plants and animals. Environment Victoria is planning their submission, and they need our help.

Have you got a threatened species story to share?

Blue Banded Bee

Blue-banded Bee – my favourite bee! Fabulous photo by Steven Riding

Some of Environment Victoria’s member groups have great stories to tell about their efforts to rescue threatened species. Like the Friends of Merri Creek, who have been working to help the Blue-banded bee save an endangered plant!

Blue-banded bees are one of the few insects that can pollinate the endangered Matted Flax-lily. Unfortunately the bees can only fly 300m at a time. The Flax-lily populations along the Merri Creek in Fawkner and Reservoir have thinned out so much that they are too far apart for the bees to travel from one to the next.

matted-flax-lily

Matted Flax-lily

So the Friends of Merri Creek have raised over $25,000 to establish pollination ‘stepping stones’ between the populations to help the bees reach all the Flax-lilies and keep this important endangered species going. What an amazing project!

Environment Victoria will be using these stories to illustrate their submission – have you got one to share?

In 2017, we have a great chance to improve protections for our threatened species and make sure our natural environment stays healthy. So before the year wraps up, why not share a story about a plant or animal that’s important to you?

Rewilding Our Homes and Hearts

When I was a child I lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between it and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

emperor-gum-caterpillarThat was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as moths as large as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with sinuous grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. The heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

As a keen amateur naturalist, I’m fascinated by the notion of rewilding – restoring flora and fauna to their historical range. The theory has gained popularity after conservation success stories such as bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and the large-scale return of Europe’s apex predators like lynx, bears and wolverines.

Zealandia Sanctuary

Zealandia Sanctuary

New Zealand provides a shining example. It is restoring Wellington’s former water catchment to forest. The sanctuary known as Zealandia, is an ecological island in the centre of the city, and home to some of the country’s rarest species. Now an important tourist attraction, it’s responsible for increased sightings of birds like tui and the endangered kaka in surrounding suburbs.

Australia is beginning to embrace rewilding. Quolls, bilbies, bandicoots and bettongs are being returned to parts of their natural range. Plans are afoot to bring Tasmanian devils back to the mainland after a four-hundred-year absence. Many ecologists advocate reintroducing dingoes to control introduced pests like rabbits, cats and foxes – a concept I explore in my new novel, Journey’s End.

Yet rewilding isn’t restricted to sexy, large-scale conservation efforts. We can all play our part. Rewilding Australia founder, Rob Brewster, says ‘It’s about filling those vacant rock crevices, and hollow logs with the marsupials that evolved over millions of years to fill these niches. It’s about acknowledging that the world should be a wilder place – and that humankind merely shares a spot in this wild world!’

wildscapes_008And it can start in our own backyard. Wildscaping is the new gardening buzzword for mingling layers of native trees, shrubs and ground cover. Throw in a pond, a rock wall and a nesting box or two. This provides shelter and foraging areas for species that prefer different heights and micro-habitats. Then sit back and watch the garden come to life. Even pots of natives on a balcony provide vital habitat. Nature wins by growing stronger and more diverse. We win by reconnecting in a small way with the earth. Imagine local communities wildscaping schools, railway corridors, vacant lots and parks. Before long our urban landscapes could be transformed into thriving webs of life.

I’m very fortunate, where I live. Yet many of us lead lives so far removed from nature, that we rarely even touch the earth. We delude ourselves that we are somehow immune to and separate from the natural world. But at what cost? The cost to our declining environment? The cost to our hearts? Rewilding isn’t just for our land. It’s a concept for our minds and spirits as well.

The Supporting Cast

cross blogI finally have the first draft of my new novel in. Hurray! Now I can get back to regular blogging. This week I’m discussing a story’s supporting cast with friend and writing mentor Sydney Smith.

When I told my agent that I was writing a sweeping historical saga, the first thing she did after asking about my main characters, was to ask about my secondary characters and subplots. We all lead lives surrounded by family, friends, mentors, bosses, competitors and even enemies. Main characters are no different. I give my top-level secondary players their own character arcs – ongoing personal struggles that form sub-plots running alongside the major one, adding complexity and depth.

My rule for these secondary character arcs is that they must support and supplement the main action. Challenging the protagonist for example, or getting them into trouble. Helping them learn lessons or see things from different points of view. Their arcs must conclude before or at the same time as the main plot.

catch-22A good example can be found In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The main plot concerns U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian’s attempt to avoid dying in World War II. A subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder’s rise as the king of a black-market food selling operation. It provides countless connections and reflections on the main plot.

SYDNEY:-
Gawd, it’s been decades since I read Catch-22. I don’t recall Minderbinder at all, though I remember Major Major because of his unfortunate name and his role as victim and loser extraordinaire. He looked like Henry Fonda, I recall.

Yes, I agree with all that you say about secondary characters. I would add only that a secondary character must want something, have a goal they pursue, a problem they work on. That gives shape and direction to their character arc. That goal must interfere in some way with that of a main character. The intersection points are places where the conflict detonates into action.

I find that new writers do everything possible to limit their secondary characters. If they build up those characters into vital players in the narrative, the writer’s job suddenly becomes more complicated. Writing a novel is hard work. But in fact, while getting your secondary characters to add vitality to the story increases your work – you have to think about them and how they affect the main action – it also fills in that blankness that surrounds these characters. All new writers know what it feels like to have a character but have no idea what they should say or do. The writer gives them things to say, actions to perform, but it’s unsatisfying. A puzzle surrounds the secondary character, a puzzle that is solved when you give them a problem to solve in pursuit of a goal. Suddenly, the character has direction and meaning in the story. Suddenly, the writer feels energised in their relationship with that character. It’s like a character who was mute opens their mouth and speaks.

JENNY:-
secondary-charactersYes, characters need to clash. Your protagonist is desperate for a baby? Give her best friend an unwanted pregnancy. Protagonist wants to breed dingoes? Have her neighbour breed sheep. Protagonist policewoman has been raped? Have her boss assign her to the sexual assault squad. Protagonist is scared of water? Have her mother need rescuing from a flood. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.

Some other tips. Give your supporting character quirks, to make them instantly recognizable. Maybe they’re the witty one, or the forgetful one, or the funny side-kick. Maybe they’re a taxi driver who always gets lost.

Know their back story. Help readers understand the relevance of the supporting character by providing a few details about their life. This ties in with giving them their own character arc.

And most important of all, know what their function is in relation to your main character. Are they friend or foe? Are they a mirror or foil to the main character, showing contrasting choices and behaviours. Are they a false ally—seeming to help the main character while actually pursuing their own agenda? Understand this function before you start writing them.

SYDNEY:-
supporting-characters-2I go with everything you say, Jenny, except the last bit. The imagination needs time to brew on characters and story. I find in the work of my students that a character might appear in draft after draft but their purpose in the story is unclear. I never advise a writer to get rid of a character who doesn’t appear to have a purpose in the story, or advise them to foist a purpose onto that character. I work closely with the writer’s imagination and trust it the way I trust my own – even when the student doesn’t! Given time, the imagination will work out what this character is doing in the story. If the character is obstinate in maintaining a foothold despite their apparent lack of purpose, it will turn out that they have a vital function in the story, one that spins the story into the stratosphere. I love it when that happens.