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Category: Writers

When I first called myself a writer

When did you first call yourself a writer?

On the Word Wenches blog (where I blog every fortnight) Mary Jo Putney wrote this piece about how she became a writer.

And it started me wondering about when I first thought of myself as a writer. I’ve written all my life — letters, silly poems (that I called pomes), short stories, songs etc, and things for school — short plays and skits for kids (and teachers) to perform. But it never occurred to me to write books, because somewhere in my childhood I’d decided books were written by rare and wonderful creatures that lived in a magic land — or something. (Photo by my friend Fiona McArthur)

And then I started working with a guy who turned out to be a newly published writer, and I thought Huh! Well, he’s no unicorn. And I read his book, and thought, huh, maybe I could do that. 

It got me thinking seriously about writing for publication. The following year, I went backpacking around the world on my own and, being alone and often in countries where I didn’t speak the language, I found stories spinning in my head. So I bought a notebook and started writing them down.

I came home at the end of the year with a number of filled notebooks, full of ideas, stories and scraps and at least one novel — and a determination to seriously pursue a writing career. Even then, I might never have prepared anything to send to a publisher — I never learned to type and that seemed like a real barrier — except that a friend sent her little Macintosh computer for me to “mind” while she was away. 

The idea was that I would learn to use it — me, the luddite! But I kept getting post cards from her mentioning the computer and asking how I was going with it. So it was pure “fear of embarrassment” that caused me to haul it out of the box, set it up and start poking around. And it turned out to be amazingly user friendly and intuitive, so that even a computer-resistant person like me could use it with ease!

So I bought a Mac and started seriously writing for publication. (Though I never did type up any of those stories in the notebooks.) I loved that I could make typos, and then fix them without retyping a whole page, or having pages heavily weighted with white-out. It was magic.

In those days, I never called myself ‘a writer’, even though I was writing a lot, because a writer is a job, not just an activity. After all, I clean and garden and cook, but I don’t call myself a cleaner or a gardener or a cook. 

But also I was a bit shy about telling people what I was doing. I mean, if you say “I’m writing a book,” from then on they will ask you about it, and after a while it will become “Haven’t you finished that book yet?” or “When are we going to be able to read it?” As if rejections weren’t a normal part of most journeys to publication.

And there’s this line in a Yeats poem: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” But some people tread happily wearing hob-nailed boots.

So I waited until I was published. And once I started calling myself a writer, the questions from non-friends went like this: “You’re a writer eh? So have you ever been published?” Said in the kind of cynical voice where the subtext is “How pretentious, to call yourself a writer,” and the expectation is a shamed admission that no I haven’t been published.

But then when I said I had been published, the next question was, “Will I have heard of you?” 
Probably not. 
“So what do you write, then?”

And when I said I wrote romance, the reaction was “Oh right, so you got the formula” — the subtext being I wasn’t a real writer. And there was never any point in explaining that there was no more a formula for romance than there was for crime novels — although I did try — because they simply didn’t believe it. I was just trying to pretend I was a real writer.

I’ve had more than 20 books published now, with translations into eighteen other languages, and I’ve made my living solely from my writing for years now, but some people still ask me, “When are you going to write a real book?”

But I don’t care any more. I write real books for real people and I love what I do and I have a host of romance-writing (and other genre-writing) friends and so who cares what other people think?

And I still write in notebooks a lot, and sometimes in cafes and libraries, though not looking quite so elegant as the woman in this picture.

The HNSA Conference 

The HNSA (Historical Novel Society of Australasia) Conference was really interesting — quite different from Romance Writers’ conferences, and I really enjoyed it. Romance writers’ conferences are mostly about the craft of writing and business and publishing, and I always enjoy them. The HNSA Conference was more about ideas — issues to do with research and people’s lives, research challenges across eras, truth and lies in crime fiction, historical fiction screenwriting, sources of inspiration, and much more. You can find the full program at this site. (Sorry, I tried to put a direct link to the program but Mad Mimi won’t allow it.)

One of my favorite speakers — and also a favorite writer — is Jackie French. She was guest of honor and was interviewed on the first morning. Fascinating and inspiring. I’m a huge fan of her work.

It was both refreshing and inspiring, listening to people talk about historical writing from such varied points of view. As well, so many of the speakers and panelists were natural storytellers, and were so interesting I wanted more, and bought their books. I learned things about history — mostly Australian history, but also South African and NZ and other times and places — that I had no idea of.

Thinking about all these different stories and aspects and approaches to history stretched my brain, in much the same way that a good brisk walk along the seashore refreshes mind and body. (Though all the conference sitting didn’t do a lot for my back.)

 

On the left is the “Feminine Mystique”panel, discussing the writing of strong female characters. From left,  Kirsty Murray, Juliet Marillier, Elizabeth Jane Corbett and chair, Sophie Masson.

I was chairing one panel and speaking on another — one on writing historical romance series, and the other on “George and Georgette”  – ie “mad” King George, Georgette Heyer and the Regency. Both went well, I thought. 

 

On the right are the three panelists from the “George and Georgette”  panel — Anna Campbell, Alison Goodman and me. Here we’re sitting out in the sun after the panel was over, and feeling much more relaxed.

Two nights before I was due to fly up to Sydney (and my latest book was due to be sent in) the three historical romance writers on the panel I was chairing decided they were all coming in full historical costume!!!! Because they’d all had Proper Historical Costumes made. Aarrggh!

With very little time to make anything, I decided to go as a dowager in mourning, as I have lots of black — Melbourne is a city where we wear a lot of black. I hitched a long black skirt up under my bust, wore a black jersey singlet underneath as a chemise, and found a tiny net long-sleeved cardigan that I wore many years ago when I was a LOT skinnier, (though, let’s face it I was never skinny.) But I squeezed into it, and buttoned the three buttons, and lo! It looked almost like a Regency-era spencer. I draped myself in pearls, which showed up well against the black — widows in mourning wore no color, only black, silver and white.

I also had some lovely black ostrich feathers that I could use for a head-dress. I twined a silky black scarf around my black netting beekeeper veil to make a turban. With the turban thingy and the ostrich feathers clipped in to my bun, it all looked fine — ridiculous but fine. Rather as though I belonged in a Victorian-era funeral, leading the plumed funereal horses — but fine.

But then just before the panel began, one of the panelists decided we should get a photo taken outside. It was a very windy day, and my feathers were almost swept away. I had no time to refasten them, and ended up chairing the panel looking demented as well as silly. <g>  But the panel went well, and I think the audience enjoyed it. Here we all are in our costumes, including one writer’s historical husband. The writers, from left: Lizzi Tremayne, Renée Dahlia, Elizabeth Ellen Carter, and me.

On the last day, at lunchtime we were treated to a display of sword-fighting through the ages from the Stoccata School of Defence. We sat around outside in the shade — it was a hot, sunny day — while two heroic swordsmen in full fencing gear took us through the history of sword fighting, demonstrating various kinds of fencing and different swords and even pikes. We munched on sandwiches and fruit and delicious little cakes while these two stalwarts sweated for our education. It was wonderful.

I had been planning to do a very small cruise — so many of my friends have been doing cruises lately and this was my chance. A friend had told me there was a ferry up the river from Circular Quay (where all the Sydney ferries leave from) to Parramatta (a suburb of Sydney, where the HNSA conference was held) and it would only take an hour or so, so I decided that would be my cruise for the year. LOL  And the weather was glorious.

Trouble was, by the time my luggage arrived off the plane, and I caught the train from the airport to Circular Quay, the ferry had just left, and the next one was three hours later. So no cruise for me, alas. I turned around and caught the train to Parramatta. And on the way back to central Sydney, after the conference, I shared a cab to the station, and rode the train with two historical writers, and we talked and talked the whole way. So again, no cruise, but a lovely way to finish a conference.

Some of the sessions were recorded, so when they become available, I’ll pop them up on the blog, and maybe write a bit more about the conference later.

Interviewing Sulari Gentill

Today on the Word Wench blog, I’m interviewing historical crime writer Sulari Gentill. In the interview she  talks about her inspiration, her books, ridiculous research rabbit holes and her upcoming US tour.

Sulari writes a crime series set in the 1930’s during the rise of fascism — in Australia, in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Fascinating history and good stories with likable and interesting characters.

One of the things I really enjoy in her books are little historical “bon-bons” where a  walk on peripheral character will be a real person from history. You won’t recognize them all, but she explains them at the end of each book. Such fun.

Sulari is giving away a book on the word wench blog so if you pop over there and leave a comment, you’ll be in the draw.

Anyway Sulari and three other aussie crime writers are about to head off on a US tour. The schedule is below.

If they’re appearing near you, why not pop over and say hi.
And try her books. They really are fun.