Guest Blog: Meg McKinlay says The delight is in the detail

Meg McKinlay is a children’s writer and poet whose work ranges from picture books through to young adult fiction. Her publications include the Prime Minister’s Literary Award-winning A Single Stone, and CBCA-shortlisted No Bears and Duck for a Day, among many others. In this guest blog post she gets to grips with some common questions. Over to you Meg. 

What’s the story about? Where did you get the idea? Can you give a plot summary? What are the main themes?

When a new book comes out, authors answer these questions over and over again. And for good reason – they’re excellent, important questions. It’s important to have an excellent answer to hand. With the release of my new chapter book, Bella and the Voyaging House, I’ve been working hard lately to do exactly that.

But as much as I enjoy talking about these things, they never quite get to the heart of why I wrote the story. Yes, I can tell you where I got the idea, but I have hundreds of ideas and most of them will remain as fragments in notebooks, lacking that essential something that demands my creative attention, that makes me sit up and say, Oh. Yes. This is something I absolutely must write.

For me, that special something is always a tiny detail, a little grain that works its way under my skin and refuses to be ignored. In Bella and the Wandering House, the first ‘Bella’ book, it was the ‘perfectly round window’ in Bella’s bedroom. Though it has been some seven years since I wrote them, the lines that are used to describe it are lodged deep in my brain:

‘Grandad had made the frame wide, like a bench, so she could sit inside it, her back curving neatly against the smooth sweep of the wood.’

The moment I came up with this window was the moment when the story became inevitable. Something in it connected deeply to my childhood self, to a longing I had never articulated – for a reading nook, perhaps, or just a special space that was all my own. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my body, curving my own back against the imaginary wood, and there was no way I couldn’t write it into being.

Once I had done that, I was happy. I left Bella in her window and I moved onto other things, other stories. I had no plans for a sequel, until one day, several years later, long past the point at which it made sense to even consider another Bella story, a new little detail started gleaming in the corner of my eye.

I had just come back from the beach, where I had sat and watched the boats, and found myself thinking about Bella’s house, which has a nautical connection and likes to go out for a little swim every now and then. And just in the way that a creative brain does, I was idly wondering what it would feel like out there, what it would do, where it would go. What sorts of adventures that it might have, and what sorts of calamities might befall it and …

… just in the way a creative brain does, all day long. Sometimes all night long. Not in a way like an idea I’m going to pursue or a story I’m going to write. Until I tell my husband about these musings, spinning a little more and a little more, saying: You know, and they get stuck out there and someone has to rescue them and oh, I guess it would be Grandad and maybe he comes sailing in or … even flying in! On one of his contraptions!

And I look at my husband and he’s grinning like an excited kid, like one of the kids who sit in the front row at school visits and just.won’t.ever.put.their.hand.down, and he says, ‘Yeah! And he could be wearing some of those old-timey aviator goggles!’

And in that moment, I know I’m sunk. Because I can see Grandad, all of a sudden – braving the vast ocean, zooming in to the rescue. He’s grinning from ear to ear with the thrill of it, and even though I have no idea what this story is going to be about – why the house is on the ocean or why it gets stuck or what happens next or before or after … or indeed much of anything – I know I have to write it now because Grandad is having the time of his life and there’s no way I can let him down.

And thus, Bella and the Voyaging House was born, an entirely unsensible sequel, a mere six years after the first.

I’m calling these small details, because they are. But they’re also not. They’re the seeds from which everything grows, not just in terms of inspiration, but structurally, technically. Bella’s round window tells me something about Bella, about who she is. It starts to form her as a character. It suggests her relationship with Grandad, which is at the heart of both books. This in turn starts to build the characters of Mum and Dad, and their own, different relationships with Bella, which becomes important to both the plot and emotional narrative of both stories. Grandad’s goggles and improbable flight tell me that I’m writing about things like ingenuity and adventure, about freedom and courage, and a sort of resilient, childlike optimism. They give me an image and a feeling to head towards, and for a writer like me, that’s plenty.

Follow the details, I say – take that funny little grain that grabs you and write out of that. You can build a whole story that way, a whole delightful, detailed world.

Meg McKinlay’s Bella and the Voyaging House and Bella and the Wandering House are both available in all good bookstores and online.

Guest Blog – Katie Stewart author and illustrator of Where Do the Stars Go?

Born in the north of England, Katie Stewart came to Australia at the age of nine. She started her working life as an archaeologist and ethnohistorian, then went on to teaching and to being a mother. She later worked in a school library, but her lifelong dream was to be what she is now. She is married to a farmer, has three children, writes and illustrates books, and lives north of Northam with lots of pets. Sounds idyllic, right? In this blog post, Katie talks about the highs and lows of being a regional writer.

I always wanted to live on a farm. I’d lived in the country most of my life, but not on a farm. So when my fiancé, who works in the Department of Agriculture, said he wanted to go back to the family farm, I thought a dream had come true. I headed into married life with a head full of idyllic pictures of my future.

As a writer, there is huge inspiration to be found on a farm. Wandering over the top of the hill in midwinter, taking in the vast green landscape around me, I’ve often had to stop myself from twirling Maria-like over the paddock, arms raised, singing at the top of my voice. Okay, I’ll be honest, sometimes I don’t stop myself. Not a pretty sight, I’m sure, but who sees me but the birds?

For my picture book Where Do the Stars Go? (Fremantle Press, May 2021) living on the farm was a great advantage. Like Possum in the story, I wandered along the creek until I found enough examples of ‘stars’ to make the story. The environment and inspiration for the book was there on hand. I lived what I wrote.

Then there’s the peace and quiet afforded to the writer/illustrator at her computer. A twittering bird, a bleating lamb, even the short-lived roar of a tractor heading for the shed has to be preferable to the constant street noise in some city houses.

Sad to say, though, there’s a downside. Living on a farm is wonderful until something goes wrong with the services city folk take for granted. Our house on the farm is in a ‘dead spot’ as far as mobile signals go, so to use our mobile phones means a walk to the top of the hill. Believe me, I don’t feel like singing when I’ve had to trudge up there to receive a confirmation code, or to report the fact that our power has gone off, thus rendering the landline useless as well. Power cuts are so frequent that we’ve had a generator plugged into the house wiring so that we can just flick a switch to use it, rather than having to search for extension cords.

The distance from Perth can be a hassle too. There are so many things I’d love to be able to attend, at the Literature Centre or a SCBWI function, for example, without having to arrange accommodation to save a long trip home in the dark. I’m slowly learning to combine things to make a daytime trip more worthwhile, like coffee with a fellow author and shopping for things I can’t get here, on the same day as a meeting at Fremantle Press, as I did recently. I belong to a lovely writers’ group here in Northam, but I still wish I could get together with fellow children’s authors more often. There’s so much to learn from them.

That said, I couldn’t live in the city. I’m a country girl. I’m here to stay.

Katie Stewart’s picture books are full of gorgeous and accurate depictions of Aussie plants and animals. Where Do the Stars Go? and What Colour Is the Sea? are available in all good bookstores and online.

Guest blogger: David Allan-Petale and the harvest that inspired the writing of Locust Summer

Locust Summer, which was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, is the story of a young man called back to the family farm for one final harvest. Readers get a ‘harvest of suspense’ according to Carmel Bird and, according to Toni Jordan, ‘insights into pasts and futures, nostalgia and grief.’ In this guest post, David talks us through his very first harvest and how it spawned a novel.

‘A sandgroper, eh? You can teach us all how to grow wheat then!’

That’s the greeting I was given on my first day of working with the harvest crew on my mate’s farm in New South Wales.

Lucky they didn’t look too closely. They’d have seen the creases still ironed in to my brand-new KingGee shorts and shirt. The lack of callouses on my office hands. And the look in my eyes that said I had no idea what I was doing.

‘Righto, boys,’ the boss cocky said. ‘Let’s get stuck in.’

Like the best of adventures, this one began over a drink. I was working as a journalist for the ABC’s Kalgoorlie office in the WA Goldfields, and after a tough day of gathering news from around the region, I’d host a gathering on the verandah of my place on Dugan Street to have a yarn with a few other journos.

One night my mate started talking about the harvest at his family farm. How he would return there every year and bring in an enormous crop of wheat. It sounded like an adventure to me, and he said I should come. The next day I booked time off work and a ticket east.

I’d worked as a journo in the Mid West region of WA where wheat farming dominates, and had covered harvests with the spare remove of an observer. But actually doing it? It was so far beyond my ken as a city boy from the suburbs. Then again, I loved to travel and give new things a go, and wasn’t afraid of hard work. Or so I thought …

The weeks I spent working on the farm were backbreaking, hot and fast. We worked from sun-up to sun-down and often deep into the night with a full moon haloed by wheat dust. I carted fuel, fetched lunches, fixed broken header harvester teeth, drove chaser bins to catch the grain and helped keep the grain bunker organised. I even got to drive a harvester for a few spells.

It was busy. It was tough. But it was glorious. There were lightning storms and crop fires, wild dogs to chase off and stranded sheep to rescue. Sunrises and sunsets that were like Hans Heysen paintings come to life. And the good humour of the workers chatting on the CB, drinking cold pints after a hard day while reciting bush poems. It was a bumper harvest my mate often says was the best he’s ever seen, as if a highlights package of everything that could go right or wrong had been prepared just for him to share with me.

The experience stayed with me long after I left to catch a train and a plane back to the big smoke. After that, no job was too hard, no conditions too rough. I knew I could back myself and stand up to a big task. And it gave me a far deeper appreciation of rural life and country people than I had ever grasped as a dispassionate observer. Over many of the following years I spent as a regional journalist, I found I could relate far better to the people whose lives I was seeking to reflect and explore.

And damn, if it didn’t give me some good stories to draw upon as a writer. The first book I attempted was set in the forests of South West WA, and was infused with my experiences on the land – the language, feeling and nuance that can’t be found solely through research.

Yet something deeper was calling. When the time came to begin another book, I knew it had to be set on a farm. Had to be about a harvest. Had to connect to the magnetised feeling I had while working in the blazing sun as an outsider looking in. And so, slowly, inexorably, Locust Summer’s raw elements began to take shape.

Back to the farm, back to the harvest, back to a place where ‘the earth spins steady, the moon rises, and all crops grow: wheat, sheep, dementia.’

Thanks for visiting, David. Locust Summer is available in all good bookstores and online.