Where Do Characters Come From?

Right now, I’m looking for characters. I have a new, delicious novel a-brewin’ and I’m looking for people to fill the pages. But where do they come from?

Main characters I have known and loved…

Kate Fullerton, the main character of The Tea Chest, arrived between the time it took for me to sniff a selection of teas in a tea shop and the two hours it took me to drive home. Her personality was pretty easy to pin down, which made life simple.

Maria Lindsay, the main character of The Beekeeper’s Secret, was such a strong ‘force’ that she pushed aside the novel I was trying to write and instead demanded a whole novel all to herself. She was a dream character, always on my shoulder, always ‘there’ in the space, waiting to talk. She made writing that novel the easiest of all my novels so far.

Tansy Butterfield, the other main character of Beekeeper’s, was based on a woman that sat opposite me on a ‘coast to airport’ shuttle bus I once took. I sat on that shuttle for several hours and she was diagonally opposite me and I had so much time to observe her that I created Tansy around her. The woman was tall, with long limbs, a long nose and dark hair, and she looked like a runner or a ballerina. She was around the right age (29) and I jotted down notes on my phone as we zoomed the highway.

Christmas Livingstone (main character of The Chocolate Promise), on the other hand, took a lot longer to come into ‘view’ and was in fact the third iteration of that character for that book, although she chose her own name very strongly when, one day, I asked her, ‘What is your name?’ Quick as lightning, I heard “Christmas Livingstone” in reply. I said, ‘Really? That’s your name?!’ But it had been delivered so decisively that I couldn’t tell her otherwise.

Supporting characters I have known and loved…

Supporting characters are generally my favourite ones to work with. They tend be the most clearly defined, often larger-than-life, and bring humour, or deep pain, or great adversity. I find that it is often the relationships between my main characters and supporting characters that allow us to see extra dimensions and great truth in our heroes, who will often speak of the unspeakable with a supporting character when it’s too difficult to do so with a close family member, for example. In my first draft, my supporting characters are generally a bit quiet, but start to really find their stride around the third draft, bringing so much more depth and richness to the story.

Often, supporting characters just ‘turn up’ as I’m writing, with little to no forethought at all. Caesar, the Golden Retriever in The Chocolate Promise was a great example of that. I was writing a scene between Lincoln and his father when suddenly I ‘heard’ a scratching on the back door. I thought, ‘What is that?’ So I sent Lincoln over to the door to open it to find a hungry, unloved old dog there. It was as though I saw it happening in the same time zone as Lincoln did. Caesar was a total star character, one who stole every scene he was in, I think.

One of the greatest joys I have with supporting characters is that, as they often turn up unannounced, I might not know why they are actually in the story at all until I’m halfway through the book, or later, and then all the threads come together and I have a truly satisfying moment of thinking, ‘Ohhhh, that’s why you’re here!’ I had that moment recently, while writing the first draft of The Tuscan Feast (to be published April 2018), with Sven, a young Swedish man who turned up unannounced and then later earned his place in the story so perfectly.

Lulu Divine, a fierce and fabulous nursing home character in The Chocolate Promise, was actually sixteen years old and a trick rodeo rider last time I’d ‘seen’ her. She was a character in a Young Adult novel (set in 1958) that I wrote many years ago (but was never published) and one day just popped up in a scene I was writing, surprising me greatly, both because she had walked so unexpectedly into a different novel but also because that wasn’t how I’d ever imagined her life would turn out!

So where do characters come from?

In short, characters come from anywhere and everywhere. They might pop out of the ether, like Maria Lindsay did, or they might be awkwardly wrangled out of thin air and onto the page and then worked and worked until they are ‘real’, like Christmas Livingstone. They might be someone on a bus who catches my eye, who I then take a mental picture of, like a template, and then build from there, like Tansy Butterfield. Writers always have troves of stories that have never made it to print and these can be absolute diamond mines of fully formed characters just waiting their turn for the right story, as was the case for Lulu Divine.

And then there is this man.

old man

I found myself walking behind him in the streets of Rome on my way to the Trevi Fountain and there was something (something!) about him that made me pull my phone out and take a photo. A week later, sitting under the trees out the front of a sixteenth century villa in Tuscany, the memory of this man came back to me.

Samuel.

Samuel was the way into the story of The Tuscan Feast for my main character, Lara Foxleigh, who finds herself following him on her way to the Trevi Fountain.

But that’s as far as my journey and Lara’s journey went together. After that, it was up to Lara to lead the way out of Rome, and a whole novel rolled out in front of me.

 

 

 

Artists, you are a human being first

<Trigger warning: contains descriptions of violence and murder.>

I recently saw a one-act play. It was part of a number of one-act plays being showcased in an afternoon. I took a last minute invite into the theatre. Then came the terror.

This particular play told the story of three little girls who’d all been murdered by a depraved man. We witnessed (with fabulously effective lighting and sound effects) his stalking, snatching and killing. The girls relayed to us how they felt–the fear, the intuition, the terror. And we learned what he did to them after he’d killed them.

Even as I write this, my heart pounds, my hands sweat and I feel like vomiting. This was how I felt in the theatre. I desperately wanted to flee but felt trapped. I blocked my ears but could not block out the sounds. I closed my eyes but it made no difference.

At the end of the play, a woman a few seats down from me leapt to her feet and fled. I followed. We made our way out of the curtains and exit doors and burst into the sunshine, stared at each other in horror and burst into tears.

‘That was horrendous!’ I gasped.

‘I don’t want that in my consciousness. I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to see that,’ she cried. And therein lies the problem: what you’ve seen you cannot un-see; and what you’ve heard you cannot un-hear.

‘Neither do I. I have a four-year-old,’ I said. ‘Was there some kind of rating on that?’

We both fumbled for the program. No, there was no rating or advice about viewing. There had been young teens in that audience (maybe twelve or thirteen). The synopsis gave nothing to indicate the sheer viciousness of what we were to be subjected to.

Assault. That’s what it was. A random attack on our psyche–serious mental and emotional disturbance from out of nowhere.

Obviously I am an artist and I champion the rights of artists to make provocative work. So be it. Make what you like. But what you don’t have the right to do is inflict something so clearly designed to instigate serious affliction on someone else without some kind of warning.

Sometimes a work of art will take us to dark places for the explicit purpose of showing us movement in a story–from dark to light, from despair to redemption, from grief to love. There is a purpose to that darkness. But darkness that is that sophisticated (and it was cleverly written, sure, and it was expertly executed by the production team, certainly) and has no light, not a single shift, not a ray of hope, is just immature, thoughtless exploitation of our most precious resource: our own sensitivity to each other’s pain.

And lest you feel I might be a lightweight when it comes to things like this (which, hand on my heart, I confess I am), I think only someone who lacks a human spirit or consciousness would be unaffected by hearing how this man dismembered these girls and buried their little kneecaps under the staircase of their mothers’ home.

It is not okay.

I feel graphically assaulted, viscerally wounded and I will not bury my distress under the collective artists’ cop-out catch cry of ‘it’s art, you can’t censor it, it’s meant to provoke!’

You might be an artist. But you are a human being first and foremost and your first responsibility is to your fellow humans. Always.

Be the light in the darkness; don’t BE the darkness.

Produce what you like. But make sure you give us choice.

Tuscan White Bean Soup

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It’s been really cold (relative for the Sunshine Coast) and wet here lately so yesterday I made my first warming soup for the season and boy was it good! So I thought I’d share it with you.

This is my Tuscan-inspired white bean soup and I am declaring it my best soup ever! The lemon and thyme together just bring this soup to a whole new level. Enjoy! xx

 

Ingredients

1 large leek (or 2 small ones)

2 garlic cloves

1 potato (I use Dutch Cream potatoes all the time, just because I love them the best)

1 parsnip

Half a head of cauliflower

1 carrot (optional… it will change the colour of your soup, but it’s a good way to use up vegetables in your crisper!)

2 cans of cannellini beans (drained of juice)

4 cups stock (I use lamb bone broth)

Salt and pepper to taste

The leaves of a few sprigs of fresh thyme (just pick them, wash them and use your fingers to strip the sprigs)

2 Tbs lemon juice

Pecorino cheese (optional)

Method

Chop all your vegetables.

  1. Fry your leek and garlic in olive oil under fragrant.
  2. Add the rest of the your chopped vegetables and mix thoroughly, allowing to cook for a few minutes.
  3. Add water just to the top of the vegetables and simmer for ten minutes.
  4. Add your stock and cook for up to 30 minutes, until all vegetables are well cooked.
  5. Allow liquid to reduce a little if it seems to watery, otherwise proceed to blending.
  6. Blend half your soup until creamy then return to the pot. (Or blend three quarters, or even the whole lot. It depends how you like your soup.)
  7. Add your salt, pepper, thyme and lemon juice and heat through.
  8. Serve with sprigs of thyme for garnish and a side of crusty bread, and grated pecorino cheese if using.

Clare Valley Readers and Writers Festival

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I am super excited to let you all know that I am an invited guest to this year’s Clare Readers and Writers Festival in the beautiful Clare Valley in South Australia. Once again, I have drawn the lucky straws when appearing alongside other authors (and one agent) and am thrilled to share the stage with this year’s list.

The festival runs from 25-26 November and registrations open from 1 September.

I hope to see you there!

Jo x

You can read the official announcement here.

Win ME at your book club!

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Would you like to WIN an hour with ME hosting your next book club or gathering of reader friends? Tell me in 25 words or less why you’d love me to host your book club (and which of my books you’d choose to discuss) in the comments below. Then, share this post and you’re in the running to win! It’s that easy!

Also, if you’re the winner, you and each person who attends your book club event receive a signed book plate for their copy of my book. Check out the terms and conditions on my website if you’d like more info. Entries close on 12 May. I’m so excited to be part of someone’s book club – and it may be yours! Happy posting!

(Click here for T&Cs.)

Chocolate is good for you!

Chocolate Mask Facial Spa. Beauty Spa Salon

My post-Easter message is one of happiness. Eat more chocolate!

I know what you’re thinking. More? Last weekend’s indulgences may already have you dreading the scales and reaching for lettuce. But, just for a moment, imagine a world in which chocolate was medicine.

I like to think it’s not too much of a stretch. You see, rainforest plants provide the chemical basis for a quarter of Western medications, yet only a small number of the total rainforest plant species have been tested by science to see what other wonder ingredients they have on offer.

Chocolate comes from the rainforests, growing in a small band of tropical climate zone either side of the equator. And the best news is that research reveals exactly what we want to hear: chocolate is good for you.

Actually, more specifically, cacao is good for you. Cacao (pronounced ka-cow) is where chocolate comes from. Cacao comes from the rainforest tree Theobroma cacao, which means food of the Gods (no argument here.) The tree produces flowers, a small percentage of those flowers turn into fruit pods, and inside each pod are beans covered in white flesh. Crack open the beans and you’ll find the cacao nibs—small, hard and bitter fragments that give us cacao.

Raw cacao and cocoa are different. Cacao comes from cold-pressing unroasted nibs, while cocoa powder is the refined, processed product that has been heat-treated, thereby changing the vitamins and enzymes. One is a whole food and one is not.

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This is an important difference. So before you run off to buy a truckload of high-fat, high-sugar, relatively inexpensive chocolate from the supermarket shelf (yes, the stuff you may have munched on over Easter), think again. After many years of researching (and eating) chocolate for my novel The Chocolate Promise, I’ve come to think of chocolate products as either confectionery or real food—there’s not much in between. I can eat shameful quantities of a certain type of milk chocolate in a day (because it’s confectionery) and far less of high-quality dark chocolate (because it’s actually real food, and therefore filling, nourishing and satisfying).

So what makes this real food so great? Raw cacao is bursting with phenolic phytochemicals (i.e. antioxidants), and minerals and vitamins (magnesium, iron and potassium to name a few). Some say it has the highest antioxidant of any food in the world. And many go so far as to call it a superfood. Backing this up, researchers at Cornell University (USA) found that cacao surpassed the antioxidant levels of both red wine and green tea. Antioxidants are the marvelous little scavengers that work to beat off cancer cells and heart disease.

Cacao also assists our own body to produce more of its feel-good hormones in the brain, namely serotonin and dopamine—it therefore has antidepressant qualities. It also contains phenethylamines, which help us to release endorphins, our ‘happy high’ hormone. And since the time of the Aztecs—clever people who worshipped cacao as the food of the Gods—it’s been a known aphrodisiac. Theobromine is a stimulant to the central nervous system and the heart. (But be warned, while we enjoy the effects of theobromine, it also makes chocolate toxic to dogs.)

In fact, there are more than seven hundred known components of chocolate and more not yet known. And the science says that cacao is good.

Having said that, not all chocolates are created equal and you need to know what you’re buying in order to benefit. Firstly, the price of the chocolate will give you a fair indication of quality. Next, look for the ingredients. You can make sweetened chocolate from just a few ingredients. I’ve handmade raw chocolate just from cacao, cacao butter, agave syrup and sea salt. That’s pretty much as authentic as you’re going to get. But if the ingredients are listing lots more than that, take note. Vanilla is used as a masking flavour to cover the (naturally occurring) variations between batches, while vanillin is a synthetic flavour.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t eat compound chocolate! It uses cocoa powder (of questionable value), ‘vegetable oil’ (which could mean anything) and a lot of sugar. I wouldn’t count on this for any medicinal qualities whatsoever.

The percentage of cacoa mass will give you some indication of quality as well. The higher the number then, potentially, the more health benefits (and less sugar) you’ll receive. I can enjoy up to 90% percent, though 70–80% is my preferred range. If you’re new to dark chocolate, try starting around 40% and working up.

Eat enough of the good stuff and your palette will change. Like all things, the more you educate yourself, the more you’ll learn to appreciate the immense varieties and value of chocolates out there. Better yet, you’ll be experiencing and receiving just a fraction of the amazing medicines the rainforest has to offer us, delivered in a silky smooth, universally-loved and endorphin-boosting treat. And in my dreams, maybe one day we’ll all be lucky enough to go the doctor and receive a script for chocolate.