Some Thoughts On Character Arc

cross blogI am madly writing in order to reach a deadline for my new novel, so my blog has been neglected lately. But there’s always time for some thoughts on craft, especially when in the throws of finishing a novel. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I talk about character arcs.

 

SYDNEY:-
A character arc is the journey a character takes through the course of a story, from someone whose actions and decisions are shaped by their internal antagonist (also known as their character flaw), to someone who has modified or overcome their internal antagonist and is rewarded with the thing or person they most want in the world.

Mr DarcyMr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is a good example. He begins the story being proud and disdainful of others, judging people on their social standing, and ends by having a more open and accepting attitude. His reward is marriage to the woman he loves.

In The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly, Harry Bosch’s internal antagonist is his refusal to accept that he is having a mental breakdown which is endangering the welfare of himself and others. Through the course of his investigation into the murder of his mother many years ago, he is confronted with the consequences of his reckless refusal to acknowledge that he is dangerous. His actions bring about the torture and murder of his supervising officer. By the end of the novel, he has acknowledged his flaw and has changed it. His reward is the solution to his mother’s murder.

The important thing to note is the vital role of the internal antagonist. If the character has no internal antagonist to overcome, they cannot change. They will be at the end of the story the same person they were at the start. Their circumstances will be different. But they themselves will not be different. They will not have learned an important lesson about themselves. They will not have been tested and will not have met that challenge.

JENNY:-
ScroogeWhen planning my character arcs, I focus on the personal lie the protagonist lives by. What false belief about himself and/or the world is causing his life to be unfulfilled?This fundamental misconception can take many forms, but it must be deep-seated – influencing the character’s every thought and action. Usually it can be simply stated in a sentence. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge believes a man’s worth is based on how much money he makes. In Schindler’s Ark, Schindler believes it is okay to exploit other people for profit. In Toy Story, Woody believes that his worth only lies in being the favourite. In Jane Eyre, Jane believes the only way to earn love is by serving other people.

The lie is born of a wound in the character’s past. Barely realised at first, it acts as an obstacle to achieving his goals. I always identify this lie right at the beginning. It becomes the foundation for planning the character’s transformative journey.

SYDNEY:-
Character FlawThat’s an interesting take on the issue of internal antagonist, Jenny. Some people put it that way, as a lie the character tells themselves, or a secret they keep from themselves. Whichever way the writer phrases it to themselves, the vital thing is that they understand ths aspect of character and the role it plays in the story as a whole.

As a teacher and manuscript assessor, I have seen how writers avoid this whole concept of internal antagonist. They desperately want their character to be liked, and believe the best way to achieve that is by making them free of this kind of character flaw. But that is death to a character. Readers want to identify with flawed people. The great stories in literature show that the flawed characters are the ones we love and who endure.

So I look for ways to help writers get around that fear of making their character flawed and unlikeable. Sometimes, it’s simply the way it’s expressed. I thinking referring to the internal antagonist as a lie or a secret is a good way of doing that. I’ll have to use it in future!

Launch Of Journey’s End

JE LaunchThank you so much to the friends and readers who attended the recent launch of Journey’s End at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn. It was a great event. For those who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of the Q&A with Kathryn Ledson.

  • (1) Back in 2010, when you and I were sitting together in Andrea Goldsmith’s novel writing class with the rest of the LLGs, did you imagine we’d be sitting here today, barely six years later, talking about your 6th novel? How on earth have you managed to do it?

    Well, of course not. I didn’t think either of us would be here. It’s surreal, isn’t it? And I’ll remind you that you’ve published three novels yourself in that time Kath. What an inspiration Andrea must have been! I’m committed to writing a novel a year, so I take my writing time very seriously. I set myself a modest daily word count. Around a thousand words a day, and often less. But the point is I do write daily. It’s amazing how quickly the words add up.I’m inspired to take Steven King’s advice. He says when writing a novel you have three months. That the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season. It takes me a lot longer than that, but I always think of him when I reach the three-month mark, and I hurry up.

(2) For a lawyer, you know a hell of a lot about wild places and wild creatures. Where did this passion come from? Was it childhood influence or something that coincided with your change of career?

I think I was born this way. Perhaps we all are, it’s just that I never outgrew my natural childhood wonder at nature. I didn’t grow up in the country. We 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 us and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

That 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 stunning moths as big as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with snake-like grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. That 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.

  • Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    (3) You’ve invented a new genre that we’re calling “eco-romance”. Some people are quite misguided about novels with romantic elements. They are often dismissed as being light-weight, poorly written, and so on. Your novels are far from poorly written – in fact, they are beautifully written, and touch on issues that others might prefer left unsaid. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve brought into the light in your other novels?

    A compelling story is always the most important thing for me, but I also explore rural conservation issues in all my novels. Brumby’s Run has cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country. Currawong Creek has coal seam gas mining on the Darling Downs. Billabong Bend has water use in the Murray Darling. Turtle Reef is about protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And the first novel I published a little eco/thriller/horror story called Wasp Season, is about invasive species – namely European Wasps. The wasp queen has her own point of view. You’d love her Kath!

(4) Let’s talk about Journey’s End – tell us first about Kim Sullivan.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan is the main character, and is a Sydney botanist. She 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. However, when Kim is tragically widowed, selling up is the only practical option. 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 …

(5) You write emotion so well, Jen. I found myself hopping from laughter to tears to anger, even shame. All of your books have well defined themes. So what’s Journey’s End really about?

In some ways the novel is about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s also about Kim finding the courage to step outside her comfort zone and rediscover what’s fundamental and authentic in her life. When she sets about rewilding Journey’s End it’s not just about her land. It’s about her mind and spirit as well.

(6) We’ll talk more about that in a minute… I remember you saying once that if your characters must inhabit the city, then you get them to the country, as fast as possible. I’m keen to know about Tarringtops – where the property Journey’s End resides, and where Kim Sullivan takes her children. Does Tarringtops exist? Did you go there?

Tapin Tops National Park

Tapin Tops National Park

Tarringtops is a fictional blend of Barrington Tops and Tapin Tops – real national parks high on the Great Eastern Escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. And the character of Kim Sullivan is inspired by my old school friend, Kim Gollan, a real-life bush regenerator. She can’t be here tonight because she’s on remote Lord Howe Island, restoring habitat for the Lord Howe Island Giant Phasmid, the world’s rarest insect.

Twenty years ago Kim and her husband Pete established the Dingo Creek Rainforest Nursery at Bobin on the edge of Tapin Tops National Park. I’ve had the great privilege of staying at their nursery, and having a guided tour of Tapin Tops’ subtropical rainforest by two passionate botanists who love and understand it.

  • (7) I was completely convinced that Kim Sullivan is an expert horticulturist, and it’s hard to believe you’re not. How do you know so much about, for example, wild orchids, dingoes and trophic cascades? What sort of research do you do?– Well as you can imagine, having real-life Kim as my friend helped a lot for this particular book. But I’ve been an amateur naturalist all my life. I’m fascinated by everything wild and have some kind of David Attenborough complex. I read a lot of non-fiction. At the moment I’m reading a book called Once and Future Giants – What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Mammals. Also a book about Australian wildflowers, a book on Tasmanian history, and the 40th anniversary edition of Born Free by Joy Adamson, A Lioness of Two Worlds.
    Novels with similar subject matters are also must reads. For example, one of my works in progress has a fair bit of falconry in it. Reading novels such as H is for Hawk and My Side of the Mountain adds to the knowledge bank. I also immerse myself in locations when I can by taking research trips. When you visit a place, maps turn into landscapes and you get a feel for the people. And of course there’s always Dr Google
  • (8) Journey’s End takes us beyond Australia’s borders and touches on a very topical issue – racism. Tell us about Taj.
  • snow leopardTaj is an Afghani refugee who has been given asylum in Australia through the Interpreter Resettlement Program. He comes from Nuristan province in the north-east, an area which doesn’t conform to the stereotype of Afghanistan being a place of deserts and bombed out landscapes. Nuristan is instead a place of mountains, rushing rivers, and vast stands of oak, cedar and pine. These wild forests of the Hindu Kush reach all the way to the snow-capped summits of the Pamir range, known as the roof of the world. Next stop, China. Snow leopards and bears still live there. Wolves too.Taj is Tingo’s town handyman, but like many refugees, he once had a very different career. I’ve met a Pakistani taxi driver who was an orthopaedic surgeon back home, and a cleaner who was a lawyer. It’s hard starting out in a new country and Taj has a haunted past. It takes him a while to find his feet.
  • (9) As well as animals and the environment, children always play an important role in your novels. Taj has a very special relationship with both Kim’s children. Can you tell us about this? 
  • – Kim has two children, 11yo Jake and 7yo Abbey. Both children have highly emotional responses to Taj, who is working around the house and yards, preparing the property for sale. Jake hates him. The children’s soldier father was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and perhaps understandably, Jake can’t get past the fact of where Taj comes from. Abbey on the other hand loves him – she is drawn by the gift Taj has with animals, and by his gentleness.
  • (10) Journey’s End is a love story in more ways than one. There’s a gentle, budding romance, and a worrying one. This book explores the love between adults and children, humans and animals, female friends, animals and nature. For you, as its writer, which of these romances came most easily to the page?

    As you might guess Kath, the romance with the animals and nature came most easily. Followed closely by the love between the animals and the two children. I completely understand that intense childhood connection with the natural world. Because, as I said before, I never outgrew it.However, this time I didn’t have my usual struggle writing the human relationships. I think this is because of my respect for Kim and the fact that I’m secretly in love with Taj. He’s a wolf-whisperer. What’s not to love? 
  • (11) I think your books are more than just greatly entertaining. They’re important and I think should be widely read. For example, I love that you’ve shown in Journey’s End how we can SHARE our environment with its indigenous plants and creatures, instead of culling or destroying them. What else would you like your readers to take away from this story? 
  • – Journey’s End has several main themes. It’s about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s about finding the courage to live an authentic life. It’s also about overcoming prejudice. Both Taj and the dingoes are unfairly judged throughout the story, Taj by Jake and the dingoes by the town. Prejudice is a very destructive force that is based in fear. It’s only when people confront their fears that positive change can happen.
  • (12) Finally, I want to ask about your writing process. I was well into my third book before I discovered mine. Do you have one? What’s yours? 
  • – I write very consistently, daily if I can. I’m not a fast writer – a thousand words a day is about as much as I can manage, and I often write less, but it’s amazing how quickly the words add up. I edit as I go, producing very clean manuscripts that don’t require much redrafting.I do chapter summaries as I write, noting characters, POV, location, and main plot points. This is an invaluable tool during the redrafting process. If I want to add scenes I can see straight away where they will fit in best. I roughly plan the book before I start, putting plot points on a whiteboard, following a three-act structure. It always changes a lot in the writing, but it helps to have some sort of guide.
  • (13) And now, what next? It’s exciting. Are you allowed to tell? 
  • – I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new contract for a historical saga that will be out with Penguin in the first half of next year.They say history is written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It will begin in late 19th century Tasmania, and is the first novel of a trilogy. It’s the story of Luke Tyler, a man unjustly condemned to prison in his youth, and of Isabelle Holmes, the girl he loves. It follows their lives over a twenty-five-year period.CoorinnaLike in all my stories, animals play an important part. It will also be the story of one of the last Tasmanian tigers, soon to disappear from Earth after twenty-five million years. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. I think it’s time to fill the gap. 
  • The novel will explore the forces that caused the extinction of the greatest marsupial predator since Thylacoleo Carnifex the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years earlier. What if the ultimate culprits weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play? And could the heroic actions of one young fugitive determine the fate of an entire species? I’m having a lot of fun writing this one!

Beauty & Lace – Review of Journey’s End

Australian Women Writer's Challenge

Releasing a new book and getting ready to launch it is a busy time in any writer’s life. LaunchSo instead of my usual blog, I’m posting a review from the online magazine Beauty and Lace. Thank you Michelle for reading Journey’s End as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, and for the five stars! (Winners of the prize draw can be found at the end of the post)

I hereby extend an open invitation for my readers to attend the launch at Readings Hawthorn at 6.30 PM on Thursday July 7th. I will be in conversation with friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. I will be terribly serious and Kath will make jokes. Free wine and nibbles.

 

Jennifer Scoullar goes from strength to strength and I finished Journey’s End the way I started it, on the brink of tears, though very different types of tears.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan and her husband Connor have big dreams of their life together and many of them centre on the rundown property Connor inherited, Journey’s End, and finally the time has come to start working on all of their plans. In a few short days Connor will be back from war-torn Afghanistan and they can start making their dreams for Journey’s End realities.

Until the knock on the door that changes everything, the knock on the door every wife and mother fears; the knock that says Connor isn’t coming home.

Two years later Kim decides it is time to put Journey’s End on the market, all of the dreams she had for the property were dreams she shared with Connor and without him it just seems way too hard.

Life has moved on but the family is struggling and the passing of their dog Scout is what broke me in the opening pages; I think because I can relate as I have an old dog of my own who is starting to slow down and I can’t bear to think of life without him. They decide to take a trip to Journey’s End to scatter Scouts ashes and look at what needs to be done to ready the place for sale. My biggest issue here was that I couldn’t understand scattering ashes in a place you’re about to sell, but that’s just me and I am already torn with how to make the decisions when the time comes.

The first trip to Journey’s End is heartbreaking for Kim, the family have moved out of the family home so they don’t have the constant reminders at every turn; once they get to Journey’s End that’s exactly what they find. It’s like having to let go all over again. But there is something comforting about the place and before long Kim decides to take 12 months off work and go to Journey’s End to get the place well and truly ready for sale and give the children a change of scenery.

As is always the case in Scoullar novels the surroundings, and the animals, play as large a role in the story as the people.

Kim Sullivan and her children need to heal, they need to learn to live again and they need to learn to live with their grief, rather than just keep on with the one foot in front of the other existence.

Journey’s End also needs to heal, it’s been left neglected for too long and there is much work to be done to bring it back to a thriving property. The property has a conservation covenant on it, meaning that it can’t be logged, and it will affect the type of buyer that’s attracted. The neglect of the property has attracted an endless stream of wild animals, the ones that are actually more looked upon as pests in farming areas. Lots of wild rabbits, foxes, kangaroos, wallabies, goats and they even see a couple of brumbies on their first visit.

Much of the story centres on the wildlife work done by Kim’s neighbour Mel, and in turn the Sullivans as they take on the overflow and always have a menagerie of orphaned animals around, and the regeneration of Journey’s End. The replanting, the controversial pest eradication program and the slow fixing up of the house.

Alongside the story of the property is the reawakening of Kim, the blossoming of Abbey and the calming of Jake. The change of scenery is good for the family; they meet new people and have a totally different set of experiences in the small town of Tingo than they would in Sydney.

The story isn’t all about the Sullivans, there is also the mysterious Taj; a relative newcomer to Tingo who generally keeps to himself but is a great handyman around town.

The story is narrated in the third person but alternates, not evenly or regularly, between Taj and Kim.

Taj has a haunted past and his grief and loss is evident in his eyes, though no-one in town really knows his story. Jake takes an immediate dislike to him and Abbey is the complete opposite being drawn to him. Taj is not only a talented handyman but also has a way with animals. He works on the house and yards for Kim to help ready it for sale, and they begin to also work together on Kim’s plans for the property and rewilding the bushland.

Ben is the real estate agent looking after the sale of Journey’s End and he forms a friendship with Kim. He is charming and charismatic, perhaps a little too much, and Jake takes an immediate shine to him, though Abbey never warms to him.  The reactions of the kids illustrate the sharp contrast between the two men in the story.

The characters are beautifully drawn, they are realistic and believable; their pain is palpable and their reawakening is a joy to watch. Scoullar has done another stellar job of creating fantastic characters that complement one another and make you feel… even if that feeling is one of anger.

The small town of Tingo and its characters are an interesting mix and help complete the picture when it comes to the more controversial plans Kim puts into place on her property.

Journey’s End has a little bit of everything, it’s a little bit suspense, a little bit romance, a lot of regeneration and a great deal of environmental awareness. Love, learning to laugh again, friendship, family and living with loss are all major players in this engaging new Scoullar novel.

Every Jennifer Scoullar novel I have read helps bring awareness to an environmental issue and I have loved every one of them, and now I need to go and track down the one or two that I have missed along the way.

Journey’s End is book #30 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2016

Congratulations to jay hicks and Janine K for each winning a signed copy of Journey’s End. I shall email you soon for your postal address 🙂 Thank you to everyone who commented.

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?

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.

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!