Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theory on Thursday with Fiona McCallum

Today, I'm very excited to have BEST-SELLING rural author Fiona McCallum on Theory on Thursday (especially because Fiona's books are also published by Harlequin Australia, so we're stable-mates). And she's answering the question EVERYONE wants to know of authors - WHERE DO WE GET OUR IDEAS?! 

Over to you Fiona...

I thought today I’d address one of the most common questions an author is asked: “Where do your ideas come from?” The short answer is “Everywhere and anywhere”. But that wouldn’t make much of a Blog entry, now would it?

I tend to write about what I know. So far my books have been set around a framework of two main themes:

Theme 1: rural setting

I was raised on a cereal and wool farm near the small town of Cleve on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. I loved farm life so much that when I was in my final years of school my dream was to work the farm with Dad. But as I had a brother, it wasn’t even worth mentioning.

I stayed in the area and did what I thought was the next best thing; marry a farmer. I had grand notions of working as a true partnership. But the man I married turned out to be very threatened by a strong woman with ideas and get-up-and-go. I was to shut up and drive my tractor and stop and get meals when appropriate. We split after three and a half years.

They say “You can take the girl out of the country but not the country out of the girl”. It’s certainly true for me. I write about rural and farm life because that’s what I know and that’s what I have a passion for. Also, by writing about it, in some way I’m probably still processing my thwarted ambition at a psychological level. Beats paying for years and years of therapy! 

Theme 2: journey of self-discovery storyline

It’s a bit of a long story, but after leaving the farm I ended up in Melbourne with an ambitious fellow who was in executive sales and marketing. Inner-city life in Melbourne and then Sydney and being embroiled in the corporate world was a huge eye-opener for this down-to-earth country girl with humble values and relatively simple needs.

I was stunned at the huge amounts of money floating around, the excesses being displayed, the worshipping of material possessions, generally, and the adoration of companies by staff despite watching friends being retrenched. It seemed to me that people were offering more loyalty to the company than their own family by working ridiculous hours and doing lots of travelling away from home.

I felt like an outsider looking in. And the whole time I was thinking, “Can’t you see what you’re doing?” Fascinating stuff! I watched my new partner climb the corporate ladder. The higher his salary went, the less I saw him and the more arrogant he became.

Gradually it became clear that all that mattered to this person was money and looking wealthy to his peers - not just keeping up with the Joneses, but passing them. When I complained that he wasn’t spending enough time at home, I was told to “Take the credit card for a spin”. After seven years together, clearly this person didn’t know me at all.

It was whilst standing in the cemetery at the funeral of a very dear friend, having travelled alone halfway across the country, that I realised I may as well be single. What was the point of having a life-partner if I didn’t have his emotional support? We had all this money to buy heaps of stuff, but all the stuff in the world can’t give you a shoulder to cry on or a hug when you need it.

I had worked towards being a novelist for a few years and written a couple of well-rejected manuscripts. It was then I decided that I would rather be financially poor and chasing my dream than selling my soul, which is what I realised I was doing staying with this man in this environment. So I left and came to Adelaide and started all over again. There’s a whole other long story in here, but you’ll have to wait for my biography in about thirty years for that one!

Apologies, but I’m no good at telling a short story! The point is, I’ve been on the journey of self-discovery that I tend to send my characters on. Sure, I use different settings and characters with different jobs and different dreams, but the emotion behind it is the same. It’s learning to have the courage to have a dream and then chase it, no matter how hard it might get. Because ultimately being rich isn’t actually about financial gains; I believe it’s about how comfortable you are at a soul level. If in your heart of hearts you believe you’re living a truly fulfilling life. If not, do something about it. I think modern society with all its ads and marketing has too many shackled to lives they don’t like in order to conform. Oops, sorry, now I’m on my soapbox! I’m meant to be telling you where I get my ideas from.

Filling in the gaps around the themes

So, with the basic platform of my stories sorted (the rural and journey of self-discovery themes), the gaps then need to be filled in. This I do with ideas that come from all sorts of places. Gems of ideas seem to pop up in the strangest places, at the strangest times; whilst reading books, standing in the shower, sitting on the loo, when out walking, staring at the TV - really whenever my mind is relaxed enough. They often start as the tiniest seed and then just grow, gathering more detail as they go.

For instance, the idea of using horseracing for Paycheque came from watching the Caulfield Cup in 2005. The runner-up, Mummify, had won the year before. He was a great horse that had made the connections millions. Anyway, he pulled up lame after the race and was put down that night. It really upset me because, while I’m not involved with horseracing and I wasn’t there, I felt that they had just treated him like a money-making machine and not a wonderful creature that deserved every chance. So I decided to write Paycheque as a bit of a tribute, and give Mummify, and every other horse that hadn’t had it, their second chance.

I’m a huge animal lover, so there will usually be a creature of some sort feature in my stories. I had horses for most of my life until leaving the land; so again, with Paycheque, I was able to draw on the knowledge I had even though it was in a slightly different realm. 

The origins for Nowhere Else were a little different. I lost two friends in a plane crash in South Australia in May 2000. I was living in Melbourne at the time and hadn’t seen them for a few years when they died. I knew that one day I wanted to somehow incorporate a bit of a tribute to them in one of my books. Somehow, somewhere I realised that having a character who was a journalist tell the story and have a personal connection would do the trick. And of course she had to go on her own journey of self-discovery, and it had to include the bush.

These are just two examples. I could go on forever, but I’d better stop here and let Rachael have her blog back!

So, you see, I tend to write about what I’ve lived, what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve observed. Ideas just pop into my head - and often at the most ridiculous, inopportune times. Many are banished as not worth pursuing at that point. But those that hang around long enough get used. I don’t write a journal so the ideas just float around up there or disappear to come back better formed at a later date.

Thanks so much Rachael for having me on your Thursday Theory segment. I hope I haven’t bored everyone with my long, convoluted explanation of where I get my ideas from. But, as I’m sure you can all appreciate, it’s not a question with a simple, quick answer.


Fiona's latest novel WATTLE CREEK is available in-stores now and online at You can find Fiona online at her website and also on Facebook.

Blurb for Wattle Creek:

Damien McAllister is a man on the brink. Spending long, hard days on a farm he has no affection for, and nights ignoring the criticisms of his mother, Damien can no longer remember what he's living for. But in a small town like Wattle Creek, there are few people to turn to - and Damien learned long ago to keep his problems to himself.

Until Jacqueline Havelock, a young psychologist escaping her own issues, arrives fresh from the city and makes Damien question everything he has known about himself…also igniting a spark in his lonely heart.

Soon Damien is daring to ask for more than an ordinary life, and can glimpse the possibility of happiness. Will this accidental farmer dare to fulfil the long-forgotten legacy of his father and find peace in the arms of the doctor?

Or will the ghosts of their pasts threaten the fragile new lives they've just begun to build?


Fiona Palmer said...

Hi Fiona, you made perfect sense! It's how I go about writing also. All the best with your new book. Thanks Rach! :)

Anonymous said...

Fiona, it has been interesting watch you evolve as a person and writer over the last 17 or so years. Thanks for sharing this insight into what inspires you.
Cheers, Jules.

Helene Young said...

What a fascinating life, Fiona - that memoir will be a best seller!

Love the idea of themes in a story and 'writing what you know.' I enjoyed Paycheque and I now have Nowhere Else sitting in my TBR pile - along with more books I bought today.

Thanks for another lovely Theory segment, Rach :)

Michelle Ford said...

I like hearing author's 'backstory' and look forward to reading your books Fiona. :)

Catherine said...

Hi Fiona and Rach!
I enjoyed hearing about your process, Fiona - and felt relieved it wasn't just me who used stuff from my life in stories (as you say, beats therapy!).

Thanks for sharing.


Fiona Lowe said...

Great interview. The book sounds really interesting, Fiona and the cover is sensational. Rural depression is a huge issue.

Rachael Johns said...

Thanks Fiona for coming on and everyone for reading! I think it was a fascinating insight into how Fiona writes and I love reading about other writer's processes :)

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