You began writing novels after a workshop with Bryce Courtenay at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Could you tell us how and why you came to decide you would write novels or seriously consider a career writing fiction?
I hate to sound flippant but it really was a mid-life crisis. I was staring down the barrel of turning forty and while from the outside my life must have appeared very much on track in terms of being happily married with two children, with a flourishing career in the travel publishing that included lots of travel and a great industry to be involved with, I was obviously searching for something more. I had no right to look for more, of course, but I suppose that restless, ambitious girl still inside wanted to leave her mark. I don’t know why so many of us get like this as we make that milestone birthday but a few years beforehand I had begun tinkering with the idea that I’d like to write a book. It never really went anywhere serious and it wasn’t until I was four months away from slipping into my fifth decade that this whole notion of writing a novel became a compulsion. I had not been the sort of child that had scribbled stories; I didn’t get involved in the school magazine and I had no burning desire to be a journalist or writer of any sort. I did, however, read voraciously and now that I look back over teenage years for instance, it is definitely true that I was a grand weaver of tales. I could turn a tiny event in my daily life into something epic that would entertain the family around the dinner table that night. I became a teller of stories and even if I dig further back into childhood I can recall that I was the one that always set up the game my cousins and I would play…. I’d come up with a scenario – always perilous – that we had to thwart in some way because were the good guys. My imagination was always working at building stories – I just didn’t know it until one day, turning forty, I decided to use that imagination to write down a story. And while that milestone birthday was a great catalyst to follow through on that promise, seeing the small ad promoting the course in Tasmania with Bryce Courtenay felt like a beacon calling to me and instinctively I sensed it would help me kickstart this plan. My instincts didn’t let me down; there was an epiphany experienced in Hobart – as though I’d finally found my place – and while I departed Adelaide full of anticipation and anxiety and excitement, I returned with the notion that a piece of my life’s jigsaw had just slotted into place and that writing was my future. I know that seems bizarre, given that I had not even completed a manuscript, had barely attempted to even write creatively previously, but I certainly returned from Hobart with a burning belief that I would become a full time writer. There was never any doubt in my mind that this would become my reality and my future. That was 10 years ago and my first attempt at a novel was bought and I haven’t stopped. Since Year 2000 I’ve written and had published 16 novels and a quartet of novelettes for children.
You travel a lot doing first hand research for your writing. What are some of the most important insights you have gained about researching for novels?
I have travelled constantly for perhaps the last 25 years of my life. However, when it came to writing my first novel it didn’t occur to me to consciously go in search of information overseas. I wrote my first six books from imagination. That said, I was well travelled since childhood and so undoubtedly I was drawing on many of those sights and experiences; plus, I do think if you’re going to be a fantasy writer who sets stories in a faux-medieval European landscape that it really is a bonus if you’re from the Northern hemisphere. I was born in the UK so medieval architecture, landscapes, stories, characters were in my blood and I didn’t find it hard to create the settings.
However, by the time I came to writing my third adult fantasy series and decided its landscape and atmosphere would borrow heavily from the Ottoman era in Constantinople, I was six years older and a bit wiser to the power of research and how it could seriously enrichen a story. So I spent some time in Istanbul and in and around the Eastern Med and the Percheron trilogy benefitted enormously from all that I discovered and experienced. This was a crucial revelation for me and I now won’t write any book until I’ve done a lot of physical research into the setting, culture, history, etc.
This creed was especially important for writing my crime thrillers, which are set in contemporary Britain and vital for the historical saga, the first of which was set in 1920s Britain and India. Getting the period ‘right’ and knowing the settings first hand was critical to the success of this novel. I could never begrudge either the financial or time investment I put into researching India and Cornwall … it was returned tenfold in terms of the impact that research made on me being able to write Fields of Gold confidently.
So my main insight I suppose is that no investment – monetary or time – into research is ever wasted and it will always return a profit. Neither can the beneficial effect that researching has on the writer in terms of education be underestimated. You are enriching yourself the whole time that you are learning about destinations, cultures, social and political events, landscape, traditions, history. Finally, I think during research you are broadening your mind to the scope of the story and there’s a lot of work going on subconsciously in how to make use of all the different ideas, notions, interesting titbits you pick up along the journey of the research. Lots of new ideas will occur as you travel, listen to others, or simply as you’re being affected by what you see and experience. Sitting behind the desk and surfing the Net is an amazing tool for writers but nothing…and I mean nothing, can match the powerful effect that immersing one’s five senses into a ‘place’ can have.
Do you have a typical process you go through when writing a novel, or is it different every time?
No, it’s not different each time. In fact it’s pretty much identical for each book. I’m disciplined about my writing and while that can make it a bit robotic in approach, it does mean I have a routine that I adhere to and in all honesty that routine is something that constantly comforts me. I’m not an erratic writer; I don’t work feverishly through the early hours or late at night, and I’m certainly not a writer who can work all day, all night for days on end. On the flip side, I’m also not very good at working on a manuscript, delivering it and then taking the rest of the year off. That really doesn’t work for me either. I’m probably at my happiest when there’s always a manuscript on the go and I’m fortunate that I write fast and so that combination means I can write at least two novels each year, sometimes three, depending on what they are. My process is incredibly simplistic but it works for me, particularly as a mother, wife and someone running a business.
I don’t like to plan ahead. I’m not a writer who scribbles down notes in a book, nor do I like to write a detailed synopsis. It’s an organic process to me. I think of it as freefalling. I write Monday to Thursday depending on mood and whim; if you believe that character is plot – and I do – then I just leave it up to the characters to make their decisions and the story unfolds behind them. I also don’t read anything I’ve written until I have a finished manuscript. I’ve written all the novels in this manner and I’ve now learned to trust myself that while it is an unusual way to approach my writing, it works for me.
I give myself Fridays off to rejoin civilisation and I use this day to meet friends, catch up on movies, have lunch, go shopping, have my hair done, etc,….generally to be free of all commitment to work and to have some ‘me time’. Saturday and Sundays are kept entirely for family time and this weekly set up gives me a great work/life balance that I think is terribly important.
You have written fantasy novels, crime novels, a historical saga, and you also have a section on your website set aside for children’s fiction. How have you approached writing in each of these areas differently, or do you treat them all very similarly?
When you start analysing the mechanics of writing, it makes no difference whether you are producing a children’s fantasy novel or an historical saga. It all comes down to great storytelling, irresistible characters, and a tale that sweeps the reader away. So to answer the question, yes, I treat them all similarly because it makes no difference which sort of book I’m writing; the process is the same. There is a lot more research required for historical saga because I’m writing the real world, which people know and I need to get the history and sense of place and time spot on. By the same token my crime books have absorbed oodles of time in research to get streets right, settings perfect, police procedure absolutely correct, and so on. And in my fantasy books I’m really exercising my imaginative/creative side so yes there are subtle differences in the process but the writing approach is all the same for me.
You have provided the first chapter of your novel Bye Bye Baby on your website. What makes a great first chapter of a novel, or what is a great example of a first chapter and what makes it stand out for you?
Personally, I like a bit of shock value; either that, or something so intriguing that I need to keep turning the pages. I think almost all of my books start with death and while I’ve not pondered this previously, I imagine I naturally gravitate to this as a starting point because death usually brings change. And someone or some place in a state of flux is a very helpful springboard for me into a story.
What fiction do you enjoy reading and why?
I love a great thriller and I’m a real fan of the psychological style thriller. Something like Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, or Black Angel by John Connolly is the sort of tale I want to get lost in when I’m hanging around in airports or on train platforms. I don’t get much time for leisure reading. If I’m not reading one of my own manuscripts, then I’m powering through research material. When I travel is the only time I read other people’s books so I really do look forward to the next long haul flight and woe betide anyone who sits down expecting to have a long conversation with me! My nose is buried in a book long before take off and I have been known to read steadily from Australia to Europe.
You have some advice for new writers on your website. What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give to new writers?
Stop fiddling with what you wrote yesterday! Yesterday’s words are done. Tomorrow’s words will come. Today’s words are all that matter, so get on and write them … and push the story forward. I’m amazed by how many writers spend years on their manuscripts; I glaze over if someone says they’re writing a popular fiction novel and I learn it’s been four or five years in the making – where they find the patience is beyond me. I want my stories done and dusted and off to the publisher within 16 weeks, so the only way to achieve that is to power through the first draft with no editing or tinkering until it’s complete and then only do I read it back for the first time. This system is not for everyone, of course, but it works for me and it will work for the procrastinators who want to be popular fiction writers but waste too much time dabbling around with plotting and thinking through themes, and worrying about plans for scenes and chapter points and character glossaries and oh I’m boring myself just thinking about it! Get on with it!
What makes a great writing workshop?
Definitely one that is led by a published and successful writer who can draw on the experience of all that he/she has learned about the craft and the journey from inception to commercial fruition…and effortlessly pass it onto the eager students in a way that inspires and motivates. This is what Bryce Courtenay did for me and while he will deny it, it was his mentoring in Hobart that hit the mark just at the right time, for me to take all that he taught us on board and use that knowledge. I have looked in on some shockers where I just know the lecturer has not and probably will never produce a manuscript that a publisher will buy and so has little to draw upon for their teaching other than some dry and academic rules that sound appropriate but are often useless – and sometimes misleading – to the aspiring writer because there are no rules, and there is nothing dry about writing….it’s a wet, emotional, often deep experience that you ‘feel’ as you draw the story out of yourself.
I would urge new writers to not ignore the value of a workshop because I do believe that a gathering of people pursuing the same dream and led by someone who knows how to guide you onto that pathway and inspire you is incredibly motivating. It can be the difference between lumbering along for years or feeling so determined and energised that your commitment changes into something unstoppable and nothing and no one will get in the way of you finishing a manuscript to show a publisher. That’s what a really great writing workshop can do for you but you need to look around and hunt down the right one for you. The really good ones may not be cheap either but again if you are passionate about writing then it’s one of the best investments in yourself you could ever make.
More on Fiona McIntosh and her fiction can be found at www.fionamcintosh.com.
The Australian Literature Review