On Writing: Life Song
Years ago, when I finally committed to actually writing fiction rather planning to do it, I envisaged a whole world with a community of characters whose lives intersected and diverged as the issues and concerns of their respective lives and the times brought them in and out of contact. My plan was for each novel to have a different set of characters at the story's heart and to write about their lives in that world. Like Tennyson, I believe that not only are we part of everything that we meet in life, but what we meet becomes part of us for good or for bad. I'm interested in the ripple effect of experiences in life and how that contributes to and shapes our personal stories.
My first set of novels are not sequels one to the other, but rather a series of novels about that constructed world. Secondary characters in one novel are central characters in another and so on. Each novel stands independently and on its own merit. Of course, when read within the context of the series, the readers' knowledge of the characters in that world is enriched. That world is contemporary Australia rather than outback and pastoral Australia so often celebrated in novels and film.
When I wrote 'In and Out of Step', I knew that Mavis Mills was going to be the protagonist in the second novel although I didn't fully know where her story would lead or what the title of the second novel would be. I wanted Australian names for the Mills family, and when I discussed the matter with my mother, she suggested the name of Mabel, a character from one of her favourite radio shows - Dad and Dave from Snake Gully.
Mavis and her family represent Aussie battlers, and I wanted names that echoed that experience. I varied the name from Mabel to Mavis because I discovered Mavis is a variation of Mabel and that mavis is also the name of a songbird. I developed Mavis' back-story in 'In and Out of Step' as a contrasting subplot to Cassie Sleight's story and journey. Cassie is a dancer, and it seemed fitting that Mavis, although from a different walk of life, should share the same strong creative impulse that would bond them somehow. Their lives ran in parallel at times but diverged because of the choices made.
An overheard snatch of dialogue between children at play became the stimulus for Dan's story (Mavis' son) in 'Life Song'. The little boy (the child of a single parent) in response to his playmate's comment that his father was returning home from overseas duty said, "I don't know where my daddy is, but I know he'll come home soon too."
In developing Dan's story, I was interested in exploring aspects of life when a child grows up without his biological father in the picture. Dan is six when the novel begins. Zoey's story is juxtaposed against Dan's story. At times it runs in parallel to Dan's plot, but it also provides contrast through a different perspective. When I created Zoey, she was originally a minor character needed in the plot action, however, she stepped off the page very quickly and demanded that her story be told too.
As a writer of women's fiction, I do a huge amount of research into women's issues and stories through discussions with as many women from different walks of life and generations as possible. I spend about a year in research. Despite obvious generational differences, we are all beneficiaries of the second wave of the women's movement. We enjoy the advantages that resulted from that movement while we try to navigate our way through the maze created by unforseen issues.
That research revealed that we share common concerns that arise from plotting a course through life in uncharted territory while trying to have it all. We are interested in the nature of love and worry that we could be deceived by counterfeit love and subsequently hurt. Many of us share a desire to have love of the adult kind - the real version of it and not an imitation. That research also generated common questions.
- What does it mean to be a woman in the modern world given the dualities of roles played?
- Does a mother's responsibility for her child take priority over her responsibility to self?
- What should a mother sacrifice and why versus what should be non-negotiable and why?
- How does a woman remain true to herself without short-changing her child and her family?
- Can a modern woman have it all?
- What does having it all really mean and involve?
Those questions became the starting point for my imaginative explorations of characters in a range of situations and settings. Research into the music industry continued during this time. As I considered the duality of women's roles in western society, I asked myself, What if ...? As a result of that imagining, a story finally emerged.
Given Mavis' back-story in 'In and Out of Step' and her musical ability, the Australian music industry was the obvious vehicle for Mavis' pursuit of a career. The music industry also forms one of the backdrops to Mavis' journey. The other backdrop is life in a coastal town south of Sydney.
'Life Song' is not non-fiction masquerading as fiction. It is Mavis's story first and foremost. It is a quest story about boldly journeying down a path less travelled. It is a tale about the power of believing in self. It is a narrative about rebirth with 'Life Song' beginning at the end of a period of loss and sacrifice.
Before I could actually put fingers to keyboard, I needed to find the organising motif and the central metaphor to shape my writing. When I was considering the story arc, I realised I wanted to write a story where the conflict grew out of conflicting character objectives and desires rather than having an antagonist who was a wolf in sheep's clothing or an outright corrupt person. I realised my motif was the tug-of war a woman goes through when she is pulled in opposing directions by the roles she plays and the people who have a claim on her.
With that motif established, the writing flowed. All I had to do was write what I saw and heard happening to the characters in the imaginary world in which I had immersed myself. The story itself is an uplifting one with endearing characters whose lives took a different course from the journey that I had originally plotted but which was ultimately a better course for all involved in that journey. I hope readers enjoy this story as much as I did writing it.