We’re deep in farming country in South East South Australia today. There is still a touch of summer heat in the warm breath off the paddocks, but the trees offer a long green vista and the Gatehouse at Woolly Swamp Farm is comfortable and as welcoming as our special guest – award winning author Tricia Stringer.
RH: Welcome, Tricia, to Writers’ Block’s re-creation of Woolly Swamp Farm. As it is a mild afternoon, I thought we could chat in the conviviality of the Gatehouse, Mackenna’s tasting room and restaurant. I’ve asked Mack to put together a plate of her specialties for us to nibble as we chat, and there is a nice cold bottle of Bunyip sauvignon blanc in the fridge. Care for a glass?
TS: I’d love one. Thank you.
RH: Cheers. *touch glasses* You’ve written several books. Right as Rain is your second rural romance for Harlequin, and your first, Queen of the Road, won the RuBy – Romantic Book of the Year – from the Australian Romance Writers Association, voted for by readers. Congratulations! Share with us a little about the award ceremony and how it felt to be honoured in such a way.
TS: The awards ceremony was very exciting. I had only recently joined the Romance Writers of Australia so it was my first conference. That in itself was fantastic but to be at the awards rubbing shoulders with so many wonderful authors was such a buzz and then to win the award was the icing on the cake. It took me a minute to realise they’d announced Queen of the Road as the winner. It was most certainly an honour and not one I imagined I would receive. I remember floating towards the stage. So many kind wishes came my way, the team from Harlequin were there and several old and new friends then we danced on into the night. Very special memories.
RH: It certainly sounds wonderful, and how nice to be able to share it with friends. Your latest book, Right as Rain, is set on Woolly Swamp Farm, a working sheep property, and tells the story of Mackenna ‘Mack’ Birch as she struggles to find love, keep the farm viable and pursue her dream of a tasting restaurant in the old homestead. Mack is a strong character. She is stubborn enough to persevere through great resistance yet is easily wounded. Tell us about Mack and why you decided to give her so much to contend with.
TS: I’m not sure I decided to give her all those problems. They just happened. I felt I knew Mack well before I began to write. Her character was always clear in my head but as I got to know her things evolved. She’s determined with that slight vulnerability. Some things happened because of her determination and other things happened to her because of her vulnerability. How she dealt with them all was a lot of fun to write.
RH: Fun to read too, though you certainly take us on an emotional ride. Mack’s main opposition to her dream, and to some extent her romantic happiness, is her mother, Louise. At times, I loathed Louise (hopefully that was your intention!). You have a great ability to draw the reader into the emotion of your characters. How did you develop this skill, and what do you feel is the most important thing a writer can do to have a reader feel the character’s emotions?
TS: Poor Louise. I do feel a bit bad about her. I’ve had feedback from other readers saying the same thing. I can’t imagine as a mother myself being like that but there are most definitely people in the world who live their lives trying to organise their families to the point of interference. They feel it’s their responsibility. I believe Louise genuinely thought she was doing the right thing. As to emotion I find myself walking in the characters’ shoes as I write and then I feel what they’re feeling. I think I’m good at empathising. I experience the emotion; everything from laughing out loud to wiping tears from my cheeks. If I can harness that emotion and turn it into words I think it transfers to the reader. It seems to work from the feedback I get.
RH: Oh, it works well – and I don’t feel sorry for Louise at all! She provides a lot of the obstacles to Mack’s happiness yet there is also Cam – good looking, cocky, and definitely up to something besides farming. Though related to Woolly Swamp’s immediate future, Cam’s story line is quite different. How much of his story did you know before you began writing? Why did you decide to keep his antics secret for so long?
RH: Well, thank goodness for Adam! That’s all I’ll say about Cam. *practices enigmatic smile* Woolly Swamp Farm is the Birch family property and central to Right as Rain. It is Mack’s love for it and the quality of her sheep that keeps her going against great adversity, and many details about a working sheep farm are interwoven with her story. Did you need to undertake research to add the believable details or was much of this drawn from your experience of growing up on a farm? If you did research, what type of research did you find most useful?
TS: I did grow up on a farm but that was a long time ago. While that farm girl is still a part of who I am, many things have changed. The South East of South Australia is also a setting I knew little about as far as farming went, so research is very important for authenticity. I love research. I visit the region, meet with people, ask lots of questions and keep in touch so I can check I’m keeping things fairly true to reality. I always have to play the poetic licence card of course but I want my stories to be believable. In Right as Rain I did indulge my interest in animal genetics. I gave that career option a lot of thought in my final year of school. I didn’t take that path but it remains an interest so my ears always prick up when I hear something or read something along those lines. It was great to have the opportunity to weave it into a story.
RH: Apart from making Woolly Swamp Farm thrive with new breeding techniques and expansion, Mack is passionate about setting up a tasting room and restaurant to showcase their lamb. There are some mouth-watering details about the food she serves. What type of research did you do to bring this alive? Is the paddock-to-plate philosophy a personal interest of yours?
TS: A dear friend of mine, Sue’s son-in-law, Duncan Welgemoed, is head chef at Bistro Dom* in Adelaide. Sue took me there for a special catch-up dinner one evening. The food was delicious and on the blackboard was scrawled ‘Hawker’s Creek lamb’. Sue proudly told me that the lamb was from her family’s farm. I thought at the time how special that was. Then I came across a beef property that ran a tasting kitchen. I researched further and thought it would be something Mackenna would enjoy and be passionate about. I grew up eating lamb (or more often mutton back then) and I can cook the basics. I soon worked out there were some great chefs serving great lamb dishes and the best way to discover new recipes is to try them. I ate out enjoying many lamb variations in the name of research. I also have a son who has been a chef. I asked him lots of questions. He was a great help to me with the recipes in the story. Duncan also launched my book at Dymocks in Adelaide.
RH: That’s definitely the kind of research I can relate to. *offers Tricia a choice of Mack’s appetisers* One theme that stood out for me in Right as Rain was family obligation, more specifically, the imposition of parents’ dreams upon the children. Mack is certainly affected by her mother’s plans for her, and her childhood friend, Hugh, is pressured to join the business by a family who can’t understand why he’d want to make a different choice. This obligation to the family legacy is also prevalent in Queen of the Road. How much does theme shape your plot, or is it more subconscious, emerging as you write?
TS: I didn’t purposefully set out to follow that theme in either book so maybe it’s in my subconscious. Angela in Queen of the Road initially only follows the family legacy to help out her dad whereas Mackenna has farming in her veins from the start. It’s what she wants to do. I do think children of families who run a business like a farm or a trucking company have more pressure on them to take up the family business. It certainly is a good source of conflict.
RH: I’ll agree with that. There is plenty of family tension in Right as Rain. This is Mack’s story told from multiple points of view. We get to know Louise, Mack, and Hugh as they narrate various chapters. Share with us why you decided to use multiple viewpoints, how you determine who will narrate and at what point in the writing process you decide this.
TS: I like my readers to be very clear about whose point of view they are hearing. I think if there are too many points of view in one story it can get confusing and make it hard to form a relationship with the character. That’s my personal view of course. Lots of writers use multiple POV’s successfully, it’s just not how I like to write. Having said that I like to have at least two or three POV’s to narrate the story. The strongest voices are usually those who will be heard. Adam also has a bit to say which was tricky as he was missing for the first third of the story. I always have the two main characters and one or two others who offer a very different aspect to the story.
RH: You also write for children and have a Diploma in Children’s Writing from the Australian College of Journalism. Tell us a little about your other books and how you juggle writing for children and writing for adults. For example, do you need to change hats to write for such different audiences, or does it really depend on the story?
TS: I began my writing career with stories for children. I haven’t written one for a while but have several ideas I’d like to go back to at some stage. There are some very obvious things like type of language and concepts that are different but the things I learned about writing for children very naturally carried over into my adult stories. Things like – Every word should count, no waffle. Be clear about whose point of view we hear. Dialogue moves a story. And my personal favourite, chapter hooks. Always leave the reader at the end of a chapter wanting to know more. I get feedback from readers who tell me they can’t put my books down and sometimes I hear from people who say they haven’t read a book since they left school but they read mine. The teacher in me loves that! Reading is a life skill but it’s also such an easy form of entertainment and enjoyment. I get excited when I think one of my books might have brought someone back to reading.
RH: The best kind of feedback for a writer! So what’s next for the prolific Tricia Stringer?
TS: I am always writing. My next rural romance with Harlequin will be out in December and we are having talks about some other ideas for the future which I’m very excited about. Early days yet but you may see two books from me in 2015. A small hint, one allows me to follow my passion for history. *Another wink*
RH: *leans forward pushing for more but gets nothing but that enigmatic smile so practiced by writers!*
RH: Thank you for letting us get to know you, Tricia. I hope you still have some energy left because it’s now time for our…
RH: What is your all-time favourite book/movie?
TS: Gone with the Wind
RH: What are you reading now?
TS: Extra Time by Morris Gleitzman. I’m also a teacher/librarian so I read lots of kid’s books during school term.
RH: What is your favourite word?
RH: Wow, I can’t even spell that … What is your worst writing habit?
TS: Proctrastination. If you find me doing housework you know I’m desperate!
RH: What is the best bit of advice you ever got (about writing or life in general)?
TS: Fiona McIntosh has been a great mentor. I was procrastinating one day (surprise!). She looked me firmly in the eye (she can be scary) and said “Do you want to be a writer or not?” Of course I replied I did. Then she said, “Write every day, even if it’s only a few hundred words your story will grow until eventually it’s finished.” She was right of course. I can’t tell a lie, there are times when I don’t write every day but I made writing a habit. That made the difference.
RH: Thanks for joining us today, Tricia. Where can we find Right as Rain and all of your other fantastic books?
TS: Right as Rain and Queen of the Road should be available from any book retailer and also as ebooks. My Harlequin page has all the details. Sadly my earlier books are out of print but one of my children’s books, Smokestacks and Sails is available from Amazon as an ebook.
*Interested in Duncan and Bistro Dom? You can check out his restaurant Bistro Dom
Bio – Tricia Stringer
A country girl through-and-through, Tricia grew up on a farm on South Australia’s, Eyre Peninsula.
With a brief stint in the city for secondary education and teacher training she has always lived in rural communities and is currently not too far from the beach in the Copper Coast region of South Australia.
Inspired to create local history stories for the children she taught, Tricia honed her writing skills via courses, classes and lots of practice. While awaiting the publication of those early children’s books she began dabbling with an adult short story for a writing competition with a rural theme. The short story became a full length novel and went on to become the first of her rural romances. She has since published three books for children and five for adults, the last two being with Harlequin Australia under their Mira label.