About jenniferscoullar

Author of Australian Rural and Environmental Fiction

Release Of ‘Journey’s End’ & Giveaway

The time has come for some shameless self-promotion – the release day for my new novel, Journey’s End. Leave a comment about your favourite wild place to go in the draw for two signed copies (Aust & NZ addresses only) Contest ends Sunday 26th June.

JourneysEnd_coverWhen Sydney botanist Kim Sullivan and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment, they dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. Ten years later however, Kim is tragically widowed. Selling up is the only practical option, so she and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale. The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all.

The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals. Kim begins to feel that she might find love again. But Taj has his own tragic past – one that could drive a wedge between them that cannot be overcome …

I’m passionate about Australia’s flora and fauna and its magnificent wild places. There’s a world-wide movement afoot to reclaim territory for wilderness – rewilding. We’ve already lost so much. Conservationists are now trying to reverse this harm by restoring habitats to their natural state. I explore this fascinating notion in Journey’s End.            Most people have been aware at times of some primal core within them, which longs to break free of suburbia. Longs to escape deep into the desert, or high into the mountains. My main character Kim Sullivan acts on this instinct and I’m proud of her! Read the prologue to Journey’s End below.

Prologue

The day Kim Sullivan’s world ended was disguised as an ordinary Wednesday. She took the kids to school and did some shopping. She came home, put on the washing machine and went to make her bed. Scout poked his head out from behind the pillows. Kim picked up the old border terrier, and set him down on the carpet.

He whined, stiff legs scrabbling to climb back up. On the third attempt he succeeded and nestled down on Connor’s jumper, the one Kim slept with when he was away. His smell was in the weave. Scout had always been more Connor’s than hers. ‘We won’t have to make do with his jumper for much longer.’ Kim sat down beside the dog. ‘We’ll have the real thing home on Sunday.’

Home on Sunday. After years of deployments in war-torn Afghanistan, Connor would be home – home for good. It was hard to believe, a prospect too sweet to be true.

‘Daddy will be back from the army in four sleeps,’ Abbey had said on their way to school that morning, counting out the days on her fingers. ‘It’s going to be my show and tell. Mummy, do you think it will be good enough?’

‘The best ever.’

Jake had rolled his eyes. ‘What would preps know about the army? And Dad’s job is supposed to be a secret. You shouldn’t go telling everybody, Abbey. The Taliban might hear.’

‘I don’t think the Taliban will be listening to Abbey’s show and tell.’

Jake hadn’t looked convinced. He worried so much about his father.

Well, he didn’t have to worry anymore. In four sleeps Connor would be home and their new life would begin.

Her phone rang from the bedside table. Of course – that’s what she’d come in to find in the first place. ‘Daisy, what’s up?’

‘How about I pick your kids up from school this arvo, bring them back to my place for an early tea? Grace wants to show Abbey her new rabbit, Stuart’s been bugging me about having Jake over, and you’re always so tailspin busy before Connor gets back. What are you doing now? Cleaning behind the fridge?’

Kim laughed. She’d already done that. ‘Thanks. I want everything to be perfect. You know how it is when they come home.’

‘Steve’s lucky if I make the bed,’ said Daisy. ‘What’s the point, when the first thing we do is mess it up again? And I’m too scared to look behind our fridge. I think there’s a dead mouse.’

Kim shifted her feet as a flush of heat passed through her. Daisy was right. Nothing came close to come home sex, or waking up in Connor’s arms for the first time in months, or going to sleep knowing the man she loved was safe beside her. She sank down on the bed, dizzy with wanting.

‘Are you lot still heading off to your bush block?’ Daisy asked.

‘Just as soon as we can get away.’

‘Sounds like heaven,’ said Daisy.

That’s exactly what it would be.

Connor’s grandfather had left him two hundred hectares of land at Tingo, six hours north of Sydney, high on the Great Escarpment. Journey’s End. A property in his family for generations, although nobody had lived there for years. She could see it now. Stunning views across the mountains of Tarringtops National Park. Sharing a beer with Connor on the farmhouse porch, reconnecting. Watching the kids play on the old willow peppermint, its broad low branches just made for climbing. Talking about their future.

They had grand plans to restore the rundown farm to its natural state. It had been a shared dream since their first visit there, though more hers, perhaps, than Connor’s. She was the botanist. He was more interested in the wildlife.

But Kim had quickly fallen pregnant. Connor was promoted and went on the first of many overseas postings. And it had remained just that – a dream. When Jake was two, she started teaching horticulture at Campbelltown College, and then Abbey came along. Their lives were too full, too busy. ‘One day we’ll take off,’ Connor would say. ‘Use our saved leave and just go bush.’ That day was almost upon them.

Kim wouldn’t have heard the knock if Scout hadn’t barked. She glanced in the dressing-table mirror, running her fingers through her blonde hair then smoothing her shirt. Good enough. She opened the front door and blinked in surprise. Captain Blake stood on the step. He looked different somehow: sallow and slump-shouldered. Scout appeared at her heels, yapping in short, angry bursts.

‘Is Connor home early?’ she asked. ‘Should I pick him up from the airport?’

He shook his head. A cold stone formed in her chest and slipped down to her belly. ‘Is he all right?’

‘Let’s talk inside.’ He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, and she knew. The terrible truth showed in his swift breath, his guarded eyes, how he spoke – the fact he was there at all.

Kim put a hand to her heart. Panic claimed her, like she was walking too close to a cliff. Pain too. Her legs gave way, while white noise drowned out the Captain’s voice. Not Connor. Not her brave, handsome, clever Connor. Her best friend, her lover, her soulmate. What about their life together, their future? What about Abbey and Jake? She swayed alarmingly as the ground lurched beneath her. What about her? How would she live?

World Environment Day

World-Environment-Day 1

World environment dayToday is World Environment Day, and don’t we need one! A World Environment Year would be more useful. Or maybe a century? This year’s theme for WED – Go Wild for Life – encourages us to celebrate all those species under threat and take action of our own to help safeguard them for future generations. This can be about animals or plants that are threatened within your local area as well as at the national or global level – many local extinctions will eventually add up to a global extinction!

2016-06-05 00.02.32To celebrate this special day, I went for a nature walk here at Pilyara. And look what I found? A group of these gorgeous red-spotted Amanita muscaria toadstools. Every child has made their acquaintance via countless illustrations in fairy tale books. They’re a classic symbol of enchanted forests and magical groves – where elves, gnomes and witches dwell. And they’re not a great candidate for an Environment Day blog – as they are an introduced species. But I still love seeing them.

2016-06-05 00.01.47Amanita muscaria is found on the ground and in leaf litter, mainly under exotic conifers and broadleaved trees. I found these ones under a pine tree that we planted after it served as our Christmas tree for many years. That was two decades ago now. I presume the spores survived in the pot.

Finding these toadstools is of some 2016-06-05 00.02.17concern, as they’re extending their range into native forests. This spread will change the ecosystem, and could cause the decline or elimination of some native fungi. Amanita muscaria is native to conifer and deciduous woodlands of the Northern Hemisphere. Although classified as poisonous, reports of human deaths resulting from eating it are extremely rare. After 2016-06-05 00.03.18parboiling, which weakens its toxicity and breaks down the toadstool’s psychoactive substances—it is eaten in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. I don’t think I’ll give it a go!

On a more bookish subject, I’m excited to announce I have a new contract with Penguin Random House for the historical I’m writing. It will be available next year. And this year’s release, Journey’s End, is now available as an eBook. The print version will be in the shops on June 13th. Exciting times 🙂

Versions Of History

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. This month we talk about the power of historical fiction.

JENNY
Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ Standard history books don’t tell the truth. Absolute truth is beyond reach. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga states that, ‘the historian is a wrestler with the angel of death.’ What so often emerges is a collection of stories, written by those in power, designed to influence future generations with whatever they wanted us to believe. And too many voices are left out.

History blog 1Some fabulous Australian writers have tried to redress this. Take historian Clare Wright, for example. Her marvellous book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka won the 2014 Stella Prize. Wright reinstated women to their rightful place in the history books. Conventional accounts of the Eureka Stockade – as a founding legend for Australian democracy – were blind to the high proportion of women living and working on the Ballarat goldfields. They neglected the crucial contributions women made as agitators, petitioners, fund raisers and all-round rabble-rousers. ‘Women were there,’ Wright states in her introduction. ‘They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire.’ Other non-fiction books like Australian Tragic by Jack Marx and Forgotten War by Henry Reynold place forgotten stories back on the historical record.

But what about historical novels? Fiction gives writers freedom to fill in gaps and explore new explanations and theories. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang are prime examples of this. Novelists can tell a fresh version of history, tales of the vanquished, the outsiders and in my case – the animals.

SYDNEY –
history 2The novelist is supremely well-equipped to present a different historical agenda. Tolstoy did this in War and Peace, his brick-sized pot-boiler, which argues his ideas about the vicious futility of power, territorial ambition and war. He includes women as central players – because novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers. Natasha Rostova, his main heroine, comes to stand not only for the soul and spirit of Russia but for all that is life-giving and life-sustaining.

The novel can also criticise history’s opinions. In The Child of Time, Josephine Tey has her detective hero turn his attention to Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England. In his play, Richard III, Shakespeare presents the king as a villain, a child-murderer and a coward. Through her hero, Miss Tey offers an alternative view of Richard, traces the origins of Richard the villain to Sir Thomas More, he who was sacrificed to Henry VIII’s light-fingered attitude to marriage, and to Holinshed, whose Chronicles provided many stories for Shakespeare. Miss Tey notes that both men lived and worked in the service of Tudors. You will recall that Henry Tudor usurped the throne of England by defeating Richard on Bosworth field.

The novel is a polemic. Miss Tey is bent on reversing the historical view of Richard as a bad man. You only have to check out the Wikipedia entry on Richard III to see how her polemic caused consternation amongst historians, some of whom busily rejected her take on the king. For the sake of this blog, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, though Miss Tey’s argument is persuasive. What matters is that her novel, a classic of detective fiction, put a hissing, clawing cat amongst the fluttering pigeons of academic history.

JENNY-
It’s interesting how you say ‘novels have to be about little people if they are to speak to their readers.’ That of course is the beauty and strength of fiction. Most academic history does the opposite, and is filled with stories of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and various kings and queens.

history 3I glanced through the historical novels on Booktopia. Many titles point to their strength: The War Bride, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Maid, The Ship of Brides, The Tea Planter’s Wife, Girl of Shadows, Orphan Train, The Potato Factory, The Tailor’s Girl – the list goes on and on. Readers of these novels are drawn to tales of ordinary people.

Tim O’Brien, who wrote novels about the Vietnam War once said: ‘A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.’ Before I began writing my historical novel I asked myself – Is it a great story? Will it reveal some new aspect about the people and wildlife of the period? And lastly, does it deal with issues relevant today? The answers to all three questions was yes.

CoorinnaI’m writing a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, the hunted and the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It’s a unique story. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. It’s time to fill the gap. My new novel will explore the forces behind the extinction of the greatest marsupial predators since Thylacoleo Carnifex, the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years ago. What if those responsible weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play in their demise? And could the heroic actions of one, young fugitive alter the fate of an entire species?

The Million Paws Walk

Million paws walk

Registrations are now open for the biggest doggy play date of the year! The Million Paws Walk is the RSPCA’s most ambitious fundraising event, and a fun day for all animal lovers. Now in its 21st year, the walk is the premier event on the canine calendar. Thousands of people will walk at 17 different locations across Victoria on Sunday 15 May, 2016. Money raised through entry fees, the sale of merchandise and online fundraising will help to fund critical work in the community, including the care of more than 28,000 animals entering RSPCA shelters each year.

Dr Cam Day

Dr Cam Day

The Million Paws Walk was started in 1994 in Queensland by Dr Cam Day, who believed a special event involving animals walking together would provide a fun day out for pets and their owners. It would also promote responsible pet ownership and raise much-needed funds for the RSPCA. Since then it has expanded with over 70 events held nationally.

Taking part in the Million Paws Walk is a great way to help animals in need. All animal lovers are encouraged to brush off their walking shoes, pull out their pet’s lead and bring along their ‘best friend’ to Australia’s favourite pet event. You can register and find Victorian walk locations here. People can set up their own fundraising page – a great way to make every step count. You don’t even need a dog! As well as joining fellow animal lovers and dogs on the walk, there will be entertainment, displays, stalls, giveaways and a host of other activities. There’s nothing like the sight of thousands of pooches (and various other pets) to gladden the heart of non-dog-owning dog lovers! And there will be plenty of RSPCA staff to talk to if you are interested in adopting a dog or other animal.

Million paws walk 2Don’t worry if it rains. The walk will happen come hail, rain or shine. As an added bonus this year, if you register online and create a fundraising page, you will receive a free RSPCA Frisbee for your dog. Every dollar raised will make a difference, and help raise the target of $500,000 to prevent animal cruelty. See you there!

Anachronisms

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here we share some thoughts on anachronisms – those pesky out-of-time errors, and how to avoid them.

 

JENNY –
The word anachronism is derived from the Greek word anachronous which means against time. The term refers to a person, thing or idea that exists outside its time in history, especially one that happened or existed later than the period being written about. If readers stumble over details they know to be incorrect, it distracts from the story, breaking the contract between writer and reader. Avoiding this trap can be a minefield for historical authors. Fiction set in an imagined past is bound to be anachronistic to some extent, no matter how hard a writer tries to avoid it. The trick is not to let it show.

Anachronisms 1Shakespeare is famous for his anachronisms. He wrote of a clock in Julius Caesar, when clocks would not have existed. In the same play he talks of a man wearing a doublet, a garment unknown in ancient Rome, but fashionable in Shakespeare’s time. In Macbeth he talks about dollars, the wrong unit of currency. Then there is Cleopatra wanting to play billiards. Billiards was invented almost 2000 years after her reign, but was a game of luxury and masculine entertainment in Shakespeare’s era. The audience would have understood that it was an allusion to Cleopatra’s enormous political power. Such anachronisms were probably intentional, designed to help a contemporary audience engage more easily with a historical period.

SYDNEY –
As I read your list of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, Jenny, I wondered if it was also a way of letting the audience know that under the thin disguise of historical fiction, he was actually writing about modern times, modern conflicts, and commenting on modern political tensions without risking imprisonment by a touchy monarch.

Anachronisms 2The same cannot be said of the anachronisms in the manuscripts I’ve assessed over the years. In some cases, these errors are there because the writer hasn’t done their research. But more often, it’s a failure of imagination. When a writer sets a story in the early 1980s and describes a character texting messages on her phone, I’m quite sure the writer hasn’t exerted themselves enough to imagine themselves into the time of their story. They can’t imagine life without mobiles.

That’s an obvious instance. A subtler example is when the writer can’t imagine life without mobiles, but knows mobiles didn’t exist in the period her story is set, the 1960s, and so she hands her characters pagers. This particular writer told me with complete confidence, ‘Pagers existed then. They were used to summon doctors to emergency cases.’ That might be true. That’s not the issue, though. The issue is that the writer has been unable to imagine life without instant contact, and so has given all her characters, none of whom are doctors, pagers to fill a gap left by a lack of imagination.

Anachronisms 3I think this points to one of the nagging problems of writing historical fiction. The writer doesn’t simply have to do their research and get the fashions, architecture, language and political scene correct. The writer has to think themselves into the world they have created. People in the past thought differently, had a different outlook, a different worldview to people of today. Many behaviours remain recognisably the same. But the way people understand the world and how it operates, what they expect, is different. Those who are old enough, have seen how quickly worldviews can change. People who were adults in the 1980s know what it’s like to set out for a date or an appointment or to meet a friend on the understanding that something might happen to derail them. They can’t phone to say something’s come up – they missed their train, they witnessed a mugging and stopped to help the victim, they tripped and sprained their ankle. I postponed for years getting a mobile, hating the idea of being in constant reach of other people. Then one day I set out to meet a friend for lunch. I missed the train. I was only ten minutes late, but she was furious because I hadn’t been able to let her know I was delayed. My attitude was the old one – it didn’t matter if I was ten minutes late. Things happen. Her attitude was the new one – no matter what, you phone to let the other person know something’s come up. The next day, I bought a mobile. Now I’m bumping up against another new assumption about the world – that everyone’s got a smart phone. I still have my old steam-powered phone, which can’t receive emails. People send images to my phone and can’t understand why I don’t respond. But that’s another story!

JENNY –
Anachronisms 4It sounds like you’d fit perfectly into a historical novel, Sydney! As you say, an anachronistic worldview can be just as disconcerting to readers as obvious lapses like mobile phones that hadn’t been invented yet. This is particularly important when writing about fairly recent periods. I intend writing a book roughly covering the years 1929 – 1960. Some people will remember these times from first-hand experience. My mother once complained about a novel set in World War 2. ‘There weren’t nylon stockings during the war,’ she said. ‘Nylon was reserved for military use, like making parachutes.

Anachronisms can crop up in a hundred ways – a change in the geography of a town, forgetting to check when introduced animals or plants arrived (for example, trout were only introduced to Tasmania in 1864) or simply using out of context word choices. Historical writers need to be constantly on the alert. People often say, ‘I really liked the story, but then such-and-such happened and I couldn’t get past it.’ It would be a shame to lose readers for want of a little research.

Great BYO Horse Riding Holiday

chericke 3

Chericke 3

Star & Lofty enjoying breakfast!

Chericke ParkLast week my son and I took our horses on a holiday to Chericke Park at Maryknoll in Victoria – a hidden gem! This lovely cottage, nestled in the foothills of the Bunyip State Forest, offers horse and rider accommodation. It’s situated on five acres, has secure horse paddocks and you can bring your dogs too.

 

The cottage is beautifully appointed, and has everything you need to enjoy your stay. There are two large bedrooms, an open fire, barbecue and outside fire pit. It can sleep ten people, and there’s plenty of room available for camping if you want to bring a crowd. The state forest is only ten minutes away and offers stunning riding trails and bush walking. Although the cottage caters for horses and riders, it also welcomes city families and their pets to stay and enjoy the country life.

Chericke 1We spent hours exploring the forest trails, and the horses enjoyed their stay as much as we did. The safely fenced paddocks were chock full of sweet, juicy green pasture, and even the holding yards had grass.  Guests have complete privacy, yet the owners live in the property’s main house, and are only a phone call away if needed.

I highly recommend a stay if you can’t bear to leave your horse behind when you go on holiday. Didn’t get much work done on my new book though – there’s too much great riding on the doorstep. I’ve already booked another stay. Five stars! 🙂

Chericke 2

One Character, Two Conflicting Goals

by Peacewolf Creations

by PeaceWolfCreations

Stories need conflict, we all know that. Usually this comes about via a protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. One man wants to win the battle and another man wants to stop him. This is the simplest version. But what about when opposing goals are contained within the same person? This happens when a character desperately wants two things that are mutually exclusive. It echoes life, and allows for rich characterisation when the choice is finally made. Readers really feel for a hero in the throes of this kind of tortured inner turmoil. If done well, the readers themselves become torn in two directions. They take sides, change their minds, feel the frustration. It’s an unbeatable recipe for a page-turning read, and the engine room of many popular novels.

Anna KareninaConflicting goals lie at the heart of Anna Karenina. Anna wants both her adulterous lover Vronsky and her child. In nineteenth century Russia she can’t have both. Will she follow her burning passion whatever the cost? Or will she return to a safe, suffocating marriage for the sake of her child? She chooses Vronsky. Her choice destroys their love and leads to ultimate disaster. Tolstoy uses action, thoughts, dialogue and backstory to emphasise the pull of these conflicting goals. They seem equally matched, until the fatal choice is made.

  • Other well-known examples are Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – Bella wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to live.
  • Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen – Jacob wants to keep his job at the circus, but he also wants to protect the elephants
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet wants to avenge his father by killing the king, but he also wants to fulfil his duty as a prince by protecting the king and the stability of the kingdom
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss wants to win the games so she can live, but if she wins, her friend Peeta will die. She wants him to live too.

internal conflictThe greater the war within, the more compelling your story will be. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out a good way to create conflicting goals. ‘Ask what does your hero most want in the novel – his story goal. Then ask what’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue his goal. He wants both at once, but can’t have them both. The story will play out in how the hero pursues these opposing desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.’

Women Writers and Aussie Rural Fiction

International womens dayNext Tuesday is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is gender parity. Worldwide, women contribute more than their fair share to social, economic, cultural and political life. Yet progress towards gender parity is slow, including in the literary world. Australia’s Stella Prize and Britain’s  Baileys Prize are attempts to redress this inbalance. In one literary field however, I can proudly say the achievements of women authors far outstrip men – the hugely popular genre of Australian Rural Fiction

All The Rivers RunThe books in this genre are overwhelmingly written by women, most of us living and working on the land. (Head over to the Australian Rural Fiction website and see for yourself. You’ll find many current and upcoming releases) Publishers point to this as a new phenomenon, but of course, Australian rural literature written by women is not new. Quite the contrary, it’s steeped in tradition. From Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes Of Richard Mahoney, Nancy Cato’s All The Rivers Run through to Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, the drama, difficulties and romance of the Australian bush has long been the stuff of great narrative tales.

JourneysEnd_coverFrom the earliest days of white settlement and before, the bush was central to how we became Australian, how we identified ourselves as Australian. Yet during the second half of the twentieth century, it fell out of literary favour. We weren’t a bush people any more. We lived around the urban coastal fringe, and saw ourselves as urbane, cosmopolitan and civilised. But thanks to a talented cohort of women authors, the bush once more looms large in the literary landscape.

Why the massive popularity of this genre, that regularly outsells all others? I believe readers are craving a relationship to country. They’re asking the age-old question – what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is, that we come from this place. Our identity comes from the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means regional Australia. That means the bush. That means the climate, landscape and geology that has shaped our culture.

JE Proofs 1I’m so very proud to be part of this immensely supportive group of Australian women writers. I’ve just finished proofreading the pages for my new book, Journey’s End, out with Penguin at the end of May. It’s set on the Great Eastern Escarpment, and pays homage to the men and women who strive to conserve and restore our natural environment. Thanks to the hard work of so many talented women, the story has a ready audience. So let’s hear it for the Aussie rural writers – a shining example of achievement on International Women’s Day!

Australian Rural Romance

A Foray Into Historical Fiction

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here are some thoughts on the challenges we might face.

JENNY –
I love historical fiction. Take Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, for example. I learned so much about the Tudors from these richly detailed stories. I love the way novels bring a period to life, in a way most academic scholars do not. (I also enjoyed The Tudors television series, but mainly because I had a crush on Henry Cavill)

I asked some friends to name their favourite historical novelist. Surprisingly, two out of the three said Jane Austen. But she wrote about the people and society of her own contemporary world. That’s not historical fiction. To qualify in this category, according to the Historical Novel Society, novels must be set in a time at least fifty years before they are written.

Wolf HallI see two main categories in this genre. There are the period pieces, frequently romances, such as the books of Georgette Heyer. These novels are set in a specific period, but are not impacted by specific historical events. I sometimes find these tedious, wishing they contained the odd true-life signpost to ground me in their times. Then there are what I call the genuine historicals, where both people and events from the past play a role. When well-written, these are the stories that fascinate me.

Now I’m writing my own historical novel, (make that novels, for I have a trilogy in mind.) Of course all history is fiction to some extent – it’s just written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of Tasmanian history, giving a voice to the outsiders and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. I want to follow the lives and loves of two families from 1880, through two world wars, to the present day. Through the lens of this family saga, I want to explore why the tiny, far-flung outpost of Tasmania became a cradle for the first global environment movement. It’s a change from the contemporary rural fiction that I also write. What a lot I’ll have to learn!

An Infamous ArmySYDNEY-
Now that you point out the two different forms of historical fiction, Jenny, I realise I prefer the other kind, what you call a period piece, and I call a costume drama. Actually, Georgette Heyer did write the sort you like. For example, An Infamous Army is about the Battle of Waterloo and is highly regarded in military circles as one of the best accounts of the battle ever written. The Spanish Bride concerns the Peninsula War, seen through the eyes of John Smith and his Spanish wife, Juana, and based on his memoirs. She wrote about William the Conqueror and John of Bedford as well. But, apart from The Conqueror, I didn’t care for those historical novels. I preferred the comedy of manners she came to specialise in, set in Regency England.

I’ve been turning over in my mind the historical fiction form. I have a novel I’d like to set in the Brooklyn and New York of the 1950s. Once I start, I’m sure I’ll think of other novels. This period interests me first of all because of the fashion. Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, feminine and frivolous after the austerity of the war years. It created a new trend in fashion that rolled on to the early 1960s.

The Feminine MystiqueAlso, women had been sent back into the home after the end of World War II, when men returned from the battlefields. The United States went through a period of growth in a materialistic sense, but also underwent torments of another kind. The 1950s is the era of McCarthyism. It’s also the era that gave rise to The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book about the suburban malaise gripping women as their lives narrowed to cramped confinement, all domesticity with no outlet for their intellectual energies and wider aspirations. Hollywood depictions of women changed too. The dumb blonde was born in the 1950s. All of which is great for me and the kind of women’s fiction I write, about psychological confinement and the urge toward liberty.

New York 1950's

New York 1950’s

But for me, voice is a problem. Whenever I think about writing fiction set in the past, I come up against the issue of voice. First there’s the voice of the story. Then there’s the voice of the characters. How do they speak? I don’t feel the need to restrict myself to the speech rhythms and manners of the period. But I do need to capture the tang of it. I also want to capture something of the era, rather than transplant a 21st century story to the 1950s. But I don’t want to be confined by 1950s insularity or values. Maybe these problems will be solved once I connect with my main characters. But somehow, whenever I think of my own historical fiction, I feel close to my characters’ personal dramas and psychology, yet distant from them. They remain elusive in my mind.

And there’s something indefinable about the world of another country. It isn’t so much the past that bothers me as the mysterious otherness of a country I haven’t visited and don’t know except through books and movies. If I write anything set in 1950s New York, I first have to visit New York. I have to know what the weather is like, the feel of the sun on my skin, the hustle and bustle of people, the smell of public transport systems. Even if I never use this kind of detail, I feel I need to give myself the choice of using or not using it.

I suppose I need to create authenticity on my own terms. All fiction poses problems of authenticity. Historical fiction is no different.

JENNY –
I didn’t know that about Georgette Heyer, Sydney, having only read a few of her Regency romances. Perhaps I should revisit her work.

Creating an authentic, historical voice is obviously a challenge. I hate it when an author becomes bogged down in antiquated language. Yet I am trying to give a credible impression of late 19th century phrasing. Avoiding a heavy-handed result takes some care.

I know what you mean about experiencing a place before writing about it. I’ve made research trips to the locations of all my novels so far. With outback fiction, the land becomes a character, and is a major part of the genre’s appeal. It’s essential to get it right. No amount of research beats spending time on the ground. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Photos can’t replicate the beauty of a red The Go-Betweengum framed by pink sunrise. When you go to the heart of your setting, maps become landscapes. Statistics turn into people. Mountains and rivers become metaphors.

Yet as L P Hartley so famously put it in the first line of The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Nobody can go back in time. Reading widely, teamed with a vivid imagination, are the most important tools an author has. Part of my new novel will be set in South Africa during the Boer War. I wasn’t there, and I’ve never been to Africa, but that won’t stop me!

 

An Ancient Mimic

stick insectI’m deep in edits for my upcoming novel, Journey’s End, which will be out with Penguin Random House at the end of May. Taking regular walks is a must, to clear my head, and it’s always a treat for me to find an insect like this one during my wanderings – Ctenomorphodes chronus.

Phasmids (or stick insects) are remarkable animals. Even the name, Phasmid, has an evocative, romantic ring to it. They have been disguising themselves as walking leaves and twigs for 126 million years, even before the evolution of flowering plants. C. chronus has an uncanny resemblance to a gum tree twig and can grow up to 18 cm in length. The males are long and slender, have full wings and can fly. The females are larger but their small wings are not functional, except to flash at predators. Phasmids are harmless herbivores, eating gum and wattle leaves. They also eat blackberry leaves, and I sometimes find them doing a good job feeding on clumps of this invasive weed. They often rock back and forth, as if swaying in the breeze.

Stick Insect fossilFossil discoveries from modern-day Mongolia mark some of the earliest examples of twig-mimicking insects. Evolution quickly produced disguises for bugs, with the arrival of the earliest birds and mammals, which visually preyed upon insects during the age of dinosaurs. This is more tantalizing evidence of early insect-plant co evolution. These ancient phasmids were about 7 cm long from tail to antenna tip. They had parallel black lines running along their wings, which at rest would have resembled a ginkgo tree leaf, also preserved as fossils in China and Mongolia where the insects lived.

Spiny Leaf Insect

Spiny Leaf Insect

One especially interesting Australian phasmid is the Spiny Leaf Insect. Females lay eggs resembling seeds, flicking them onto the ground below their tree. The eggs have a knob, called a capitulum, which is tasty to ants. Ants carry the eggs underground, eat only the knob, and leave the rest of the egg in the nest, protected from other animals that might eat it. The young phasmids (or nymphs) hatch after 1-3 years underground They look and behave like ants. When they emerge from the nest they climb into the trees, where they moult into slow-moving leaf mimics.

Phasmids are parthenogenic, which means the females can lay fertile eggs without mating, but the babies will all be girls. Males can even mate with species other than their own, which can create new species. What fascinating creatures! No wonder they’re becoming popular as pets. Museum Victoria is currently breeding rare giant stick insects, that can grow more than 50 cm in length. Next time I’m in Melbourne, I plan to meet these miracle babies!

Congratulations to Womblywoo for winning the prize draw book giveaway! I shall email you soon for your postal address.