Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Let's Bloom where we're Planted

I live in Australia, which as many know, tends to be an obscure country when it comes to the media. Lots of celebrities in the arts have moved overseas to try to 'make it' in places where they believe more is happening. When you look at Australia's situation at the bottom of the globe, it's easy to understand why this may be so. It takes a glance at the whole picture to show how far removed from the rest of the world we are. (Apart from our Oceanic neighbours, such as New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, who share our plight.) It's all very well to say we're surrounded by ocean on either side, but words alone don't paint an adequate picture of just how much Pacific Ocean there is to our east, and Indian Ocean to our west.

Okay, having established that, I remember an interesting message my pastor once gave, about how our position in the world is basically an arbitrary choice made by the world's map makers throughout history. Our planet is out in space, so it could have just as easily been flipped upside down in our Atlas, which would put Australia high in the north. It wasn't done that way though. We are far south in everyone's minds, which has connotations of being 'down there'. We have deserts, kangaroos and blokes slouching around in tank tops and thongs. That's us, in the world's eyes.

So having established that, my state, South Australia, is probably one of the most obscure states in an obscure country. This hit me hard once when I was part of a group of Aussie Christian authors who were talking live online to several American readers. We asked where they would like to go if they were able to visit Australia. The answers, although not surprising, were overwhelming.

'I'd like to see the beautiful eastern coast... Sydney and the Harbour Bridge... the Gold Coast with all the theme parks... it would have to be the Queensland tropics with the Great Barrier Reef... Ayers Rock. How beautiful... I've heard that Tasmania is lovely, with all its produce.' South Australia was mentioned just once, and that was by a lady who had relatives living in Adelaide, who had told her how beautiful it is.

Once I acknowledged that I'm living in the most overlooked state of the most overlooked country, other things began to slot into place. I remember asking my dad, 'Why didn't your father ever become more famous?' He had such a successful boxing career that he'd been asked to retire, to let younger men have a fair go. Yet if you search for my grandfather on the internet, hardly anything comes up. 'Why isn't Red Mitchell's name as widely recognised as Les Darcy's,' I asked.

I took Dad's answer on board without a thought at the time.

'He was only South Australian.' That said it all.

I finally got it when people started suggesting that I might want to change the settings in my books. 'They won't get anywhere if you keep using South Australia. You should make it Sydney. At least the rest of the world has heard of it.'

I don't know about that though. It might not be wise because I'm a South Aussie girl all through. The blood of several generations of others flows through my veins. Some were Germans who wanted to flee religious persecution in their own country, and others were Brits who wanted a brand new start away from the mid-nineteenth century poverty they'd struggled with. They all became South Australians. Although I'm not one of those people who couldn't possibly live anywhere else (such as Emily Bronte and her Yorkshire moors or Heidi with her Swiss Alps), I'm so familiar with my home that the South Aussie authenticity can't help slipping accidentally into my stories. It probably wouldn't work if I tried to adopt another setting.

I use words such as 'Fritz' and 'Fruchocs' assuming that everybody will know what I'm eating. I use long R sounds, pronouncing 'castle' as 'carsel' instead of 'cassel', and 'graph' as 'grarf' instead of 'graf.' I know all about Beehive Corner, the Silver Balls of the Rundle Mall, and the State Bank Christmas pageant without having to research these things. I've always thought of using my own environment for my novels as putting my stamping ground on people's radars. My South Aussie settings have been my trademark, not because I'm doggedly stubborn, but because I'm not sure I could easily change if I tried.

I'm not really sure I'd even want to sacrifice my setting, as it really is a beautiful corner of the world. South Australia has four very distinct seasons. If you were to see a photo of my Adelaide Hills, you'd be able to tell whether it was summer, winter, autumn or spring. When we speak about going to the beach, we're often talking about safe, warm gulf waters which have lost the Southern Ocean chill. It's been a pretty good home for me. At the moment, even though it is the most obscure place in the most obscure place, I tend to think I'll probably keep using it for the time being at least. I'll finish up with this photo, taken in Adelaide last week, of me with the statue of Catherine Helen Spence, a very illustrious South Australian lady who became an author, journalist, politician and well-known suffragist, all from the obscure spot of South Australia. She bloomed where she was planted, and so can we.


  1. To your credit, Paula, your books and the books of other SA authors I've read, such as Meredith Resce, have made me want to visit South Australia, something I never would have thought of doing otherwise.
    Oh, and we say carsel and grarf here in Brisbane too. :-)

    1. Hi Lynne,
      Yes, I think it's been mostly Victorians and New South Welshmen (that's what they call themselves, isn't it?) who have said 'cassel' and 'graf' :)
      I hope you do make it down south some day. It would be fun to meet up and show you around. You're right, there have been some good South Aussie stories published. For the record, I always appreciate a visit to Queensland.

    2. LOL Lynne - My hubby's from South Australia and I'm afraid I 'dance in the cassel" while he 'darnces in the carsel".

    3. LOL. Another dialect difference we South Aussies have to the eastern states is in the way we pronounce words such as 'pool' and 'school.' You guys seem to draw it out longer with more of an 'oooo' sound. Language studies is fascinating, as it really is a bit of a melting pot.

  2. Interesting post Paula. Good on you for using those settings in your books. I think readers want to be transported to a different place, so it shouldn't matter if it's somewhere they're not as familiar with. If the setting and description is well done, it should make them want to go there (as Lynne noted).

    I've got the opposite dilemma with my novel. I've set it in Nova Scotia because I've been there a couple of times and love that part of the world. However, having visited there a couple of times isn't the same as living there of course, and it is harder to do all the research and get the setting 'right' when you're writing about a different place. I really feel like I need to go over there again now that I know what I specifically need to pay attention to. Not in the budget at the moment, but once those million dollar royalty cheques start coming in, I'll be on that plane! Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Hi Nola,
      Thanks for your feedback :) Sometimes I've felt as if using SA is a bit of a cop-out, as I haven't had to do the research, but I think the reasoning behind it is sound. I'm sure readers can recognise authenticity. And all of our states deserve their chance in the spotlight.

      I would love to visit Nova Scotia, and all the rest of Canada too. I'm thinking of you writing your novel with the aid of memory, Google and lots of other research. I get quite envious of authors who are able to fly to faraway and exotic destinations and claim it as research for the novels they're writing. If I'm ever able to do that, I might get bolder with my settings. Until then, it's easy to stay safe with good old South Oz.

    2. Hi Paula - I do feel very blessed to have been able to go over there and would go again in an instant, but think it will be some time. Our finances don';t stretch that far anymore. There's a lot you can do on the internet these days, but it's not the same as being there. I have a couple of Canadian friends lined up as beta readers when I get to that stage, but another trip certainly would help the 'authenticity' as you mention.

  3. Hi Paula
    I've sailed past and flown over Adelaide many times - but a couple of decades ago I did go on a road trip from Brisbane, down to Melbourne and across to Adelaide and back again - plus an earlier school trip there (when I was a student at Hamilton College). So I can confirm it is a beautiful part of the world :) I will say though that I don't how many times a famous musicians will do shows in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney but leave Brisbane out - or how many books will mention just about every capital in Australia including Darwin but not mention Brisbane at all.

    It does make sense to write a setting you know very well. Personally, I write fantasy - so I get to make up my environment and that's a lot of fun too.

  4. Hi Jenny,
    Lol, we often say the same thing about concerts and special events missing Adelaide. It must depend on thei own agendas. Sometimes it seems to us that they are sticking to the east coast and missing Adelaide, and probably Perth, altogether. By the sound of, only Sydney and Melbourne can get guaranteed visits from everyone all the time.

    I think Brisbane is a beautiful city. I love that gorgeous river walk just behind the CBD, and our drive up to Mount Coot tha lookout was spectacular.

    1. PS, excuse all these spelling mistakes and omissions. I was trying to type fast on my IPad.

  5. I think I read this before, but I'm still going to comment, even if I'm repeating myself...

    It's funny, one of the reasons people used to read was because it was the only way they would visit other places in the world. That's why there was so much detail about the settings. I love hearing you talk about South Australia and still hope I can visit there someday. If you never talked about it, I wouldn't know about it. It makes sense that you would set your stories where you live. To have someone tell you you should set it somewhere more popular is like telling a fantasy writer they should really set their story in Narnia or Middle Earth, since people know about those place better. :)

    1. Hi Cristina,
      That's a great analogy :)
      As I go through some family notes written by my Dad about his own ancestors, I realise more what an interesting and rich history South Australia has.
      I hope you can visit some day too. We'd love to show you around.