Books are like children: each one is different

There are many similarities with creating books and creating kids–the gestation, the labour of getting them out into the world, the letting go. And most of all, is the nurturing process, the drafts and drafts of ‘growing up’ with them, of listening to what they want to do while simultaneously trying to shape them into what you want them to do. Writers will tell you that each book’s process is different, just as every child is different. Here’s what I’ve learned so far from each of my very different (published) book babies.

The Tea Chest

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As an aspiring author who’d been rejected over one hundred times, I truly didn’t believe this book baby was going to make it out into the world. Perhaps like a mother who’d struggled to conceive and had lost so many babies along the way, I was well prepared to ‘lose’ this one too. I was shocked when this book sold, struggling to find excitement though it was something I’d wanted and worked so hard for for so long. I didn’t trust it. Fortunately, it all worked out, and it worked out far better than I could have dreamed.

But the biggest thing I learned from this book was to trust the magic. Writing a book takes discipline, sacrifice, artistry and more than a sprinkling of magic. I wrote the book I wanted to read. That was it. It was a lesson that took me twelve years and ten manuscripts to learn, but I got it. Finally.

The Chocolate Promise

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This book was written with a young baby in arms, excruciating levels of sleep deprivation, endless hours on long country roads to doctors, specialists and real estate agents as we make a difficult transition from the bush to the beach, gambling everything we had on a 115-year-old renovator’s ‘delight’, simultaneously relocating our family business to a new geographical region, with many months split between homes. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I drank so much coffee and ate so much chocolate (as research, but it doubled as caffeine too), blindly packing up my stuff to go and write for three hours at a time while a friend came to look after my young son. I never want to write a book under those circumstances again. Yet, I did it. I learned that even if a book feels like it’s going to fail, it won’t. I learned that I can make deadlines under the most crippling of circumstances. And I learned that the story always turns up. Even when I think I have no idea what I’m doing, the story has its own ideas and if I turn up at the page, it will turn up to meet me. Trust. Trust. Trust.

The Beekeeper’s Secret

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This book turned up unexpectedly. I’d been trying to write a family saga set on a coffee farm and had done heaps of research into coffee but I wasn’t getting any ‘signs’ to support that I was on the right track. So I had to sit back and say, okay, what else am I interested in. Everywhere I went, I saw bees, beekeepers and honey. I began researching bees and fell head over heels in love with them. I started to write a story (a corporate sabotage), but it wasn’t working and I had Catholic nuns in the background who were trying to wedge into the story. But they didn’t belong there. Again, I had to stop and say, ‘okay, what do you want?’ Maria Lindsey started talking and she didn’t stop. This book wrote itself so easily. Don’t get me wrong; it’s always hard work. But Maria’s voice was there every time I fired up my laptop. I trusted her, stepping outside of my comfort zone, delving into some darker places, and it all came together. With this book, I again learned to trust the story but I also learned to trust my readers. I was worried my readers would baulk at the change of direction this story took, but they didn’t. They came with me and loved it. I also learned that writing a book doesn’t have to be hard. Easy books are still good books.

Three Gold Coins

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Okay, so fourth novel in you’d have thought I’d learned a few things? Well, as previously stated, each book is different. This one was my most difficult book yet. I wrote three separate versions of this story. The final word count is around 110,000 words but I would have easily written over 220,000 in the process.

I mucked it up.

Firstly, I wrote the ‘wrong book’. I started this book in the Cotswolds in England and it was called Foxleigh’s Cheese Emporium and the novel revolved around two sisters, Lara and Sunny Foxleigh. But I got 50,000 words in (half a novel) and realised I’d written myself into a corner that I couldn’t get out of. So, I did what any sensible author would do and ran away to Tuscany 😉 While in Tuscany, I found a way to reincarnate Lara and Sunny Foxleigh into a totally new story.

Next, I mucked it up again. I started writing the story and backstory arrived. But I didn’t like the backstory and didn’t want to go there. I simply didn’t do books like that. So I constructed all sorts of plot and backstory to avoid writing what I didn’t want to write. I sent it off for an appraisal and upon reading my editor’s notes I realised my fatal flaw. I hadn’t listened to the story and I hadn’t trusted myself to write it.

I wrote a third version, one that went to difficult places, far darker than I’ve been to before. It was hard for me emotionally. I struggled. But good advisors kept encouraging me to continue and I pushed through it. I realised how much I have avoided writing about deep, deep pain because I didn’t want to feel it myself. But it was what the book needed and it is far, far stronger now than it was in the second version. It is now the story that wanted to be told from the start. I was a very, very slow learner on that one. In hindsight, I think that the commonly given advice to writers–to write what you’re most afraid of–is actually spot on. I know I am now a better, stronger writer for having gone to the place I didn’t want to go. I’m no longer afraid to go there again. This book made me grow ten-fold over what any of the previous books did.

Book Five?

What’s next? I’m pleased to say that book five is so far behaving itself! Phew! I am hoping it will be the easiest kid yet. It will be out in 2019.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Win The Beekeeper’s Secret

Quick competition!

I have TWO copies of The Beekeeper’s Secret paperback edition to give away, anywhere in the world! Just like this post (share if you like) and say “me please!” (Or similar) in the comments. Competition drawn on Wednesday at 7pm AEST. Good luck!

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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.)

Josephine’s Fancy Honey Carrots

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To celebrate The Beekeeper’s Secret, our hardworking bees and the beautiful nectar they produce for us, this is my timeless recipe that even the kids will love.

1 bunch (16-18) of ‘fancy’ carrots with their green tops attached
60 g butter, melted
80 mL local, unrefined honey, plus more to serve
1-2 cloves garlic (minced)
zest of 1 orange
salt and pepper to taste
Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 180 C. Wash and scrub the carrots. Chop off the greenery, leaving a couple of centimeters of stalk for effect; you still want them to have personality.
(Tip: keep the greenery aside for a green juice or smoothie or throw into a stock pot to add flavour. Otherwise, compost.)
  1. Pat the carrots dry, then lay them out in a single layer on parchment paper. Pour over the melted butter and salt and pepper, shuffle them about until they’re evenly coated, then lay them out in an orderly fashion once more. Place in the oven to roast for 15 minutes.
  2. Zest your orange. Mince your garlic.
  3. After 20 minutes in the oven, remove the carrots.
  4. Pour over your honey, then sprinkle your zest and garlic over the top. Give them a shake around again and return to the oven for another five to ten minutes, depending on how tender you’d like them. Test them with a fork to see when to take them out.
  5. Present on a beautiful platter and garnish with parsley leaves if using. Add a small bowl of honey for extra dipping (optional).

Tip: If you don’t have a zester, the fine blades on your grater will do.
Note: These are super tasty the next day, cold, straight from the fridge!

The Bees Behind the Book

 

Autan

‘You could come and see my bees if you like. I’d be happy to show you around the hives.’

The beekeeper was standing at my local market stall, his pyramids of honey for sale around him. We’d been talking for about a minute and a half when he made his offer, one I think he actually regretted the moment it came out of his mouth. But all I could think was it’s a sign!

When I begin research on a book, I look for signs. Signs that I’m going the right way. Signs that the universe/muse/creative spirit (whatever you like to call it) is onboard with what I’m doing and will support the direction my work is going.

I’d previously been researching coffee for my third foodie fiction novel, but although I was really intellectually interested in the history of coffee, particularly, I knew I didn’t have enough fire in the belly to sustain it over the course of a couple of years to get a whole novel out. So I let it go and started looking for something else, and everywhere I went I saw bees. I started reading about them in books and online and watching loads of YouTube videos on bee handling. And then I met the beekeeper and he offered to take me to his hives, which was so random that I knew I was definitely on the right path.

I took the beekeeper’s number but later thought, hmm, as nice as that offer was, maybe I shouldn’t actually be heading out into the bush with a complete stranger!

But the universe wasn’t done with me yet. I continued my research and went to the Ginger Factory’s Super Bee Show here on the Sunshine Coast. Gayle Currie, head beekeeper, conducted the show and her knowledge and enthusiasm was addictive. We got talking over a number of weeks and then she too invited me to see her bees.

What I learned while researching and writing this book is that there is no ‘one’ way to handle and keep bees. Beekeepers all do things differently (much like horse people or dog people do, I suppose). And there’s a huge range of humane, ethical and holistic ways to do this (or not). Something I loved so much about Gayle was her very obvious and real love for her bees, her exceptional reverence and respect for them, and her very ‘feminine’ way of handling them. Those values and details carried through to Maria, my main character, who treats her bees as family.

Until I started researching bees, I didn’t even realise that we had an array of native bees in Australia. I always thought bees were great, but I had no idea just how outstanding they are and how much humans depend on them and how much we need to be urgently acting to save them right now. I do hope my book inspires others to love bees, just as I fell in love with them when researching.

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This post is currently featured as a guest post on ‘Love That Book’, a blog by Melissa Sargent.

Pic credit “Autan” from Flickr.