Big Country Book Club-Q & A Elise McCune

‘Smart publishing guru, Bernadette Foley, has come up with a great idea – Big Country Book Club. This is an online book club which you join and buy books from a selected choice of titles made by a publisher and editor who understands books and writing. Plus, it’s like being part of a book club even if you never leave home.’

Di Morrissey, The Manning Community News

Q&A with Elise McCune, author of ‘Castle of Dreams’

June 6, 2016
Castle of Dreams was a May Book of the Month at BCBC. Now its author, Elise McCune, tells us about her writing process, her inspiration and the importance of light as a theme in her novel.

Elise is fascinated by photography, as visitors to her Facebook page will see, and she has illustrated this Q&A with some great images that inspired the characters and places in Castle of Dreams.

1. Before talking about words I would like to ask you about images. Photos seem to be important to you as you create your stories. Is that right?

Yes, I search the Internet for photos of people and places that will be the inspiration for my characters and settings in the novel. I post some of these photos on my Castle of Dreams boards on Pinterest. I also put any relevant photographs at the beginning of the chapter I am working on. Sometimes it might be an historical photograph of some unknown person in a magazine ad or a movie star. I use these photos to bring my characters to life in my mind.

This photo inspired me when I was writing the character of Vivien

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This shot inspired me when I was creating Rose.

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2. Following this idea, what inspired you to make Vivien, one of your leading characters, a photographer? How unusual was that profession for women in her time, just after World War Two?

It was not that unusual. Women have had an active role in photography since its inception. While researching I found that in 1900 British and American censuses women made up almost 20 percent of the profession at a time when it was unusual for women to have a profession.

Many Australian women photographers worked before the Great War and more did hand colouring and darkroom work. At that time it was thought that ‘lady operators’ should only photograph women and families. By WW2 women photographers were working in advertising and portraiture and the worlds of fashion and theatre.

I made Vivien a photographer because I wanted to have a motif of light through the story. The American soldier is named Robert Shine and the rainforest is lit with filtered light and the sparkling glitter ball that hangs from the ceiling in the castle’s ballroom showers the dancers with light. There are many references to light in the story.

3. Where did you begin with this novel? With the characters? An idea about secrets, or a sense of place and Castillo de Sueños in particular?

The seed of the idea for Castle of Dreams came to me when I visited the ruins of a castle in the rainforest at Paronella Park with my daughter and the little ones in our family. It’s a beautiful place and while it didn’t come to me straightaway as these things sometimes don’t, I started to imagine what secrets those old ruins might hold and wonder about the people who had once lived there. So it was a sense of place and the ruins at Paronella Park that were the inspiration for my story.

4. How important was it for you to visit the castle in North Queensland to help the writing?

It was very important to have visited the castle ruins and when I discovered that the American servicemen who were stationed in the area during the Pacific War came out to the castle for Saturday night dances and for recreation I had another link to my story.

The falls and pool at Paronella Park. PHOTO: Luke Griffin, Deisel Photography.

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5. The historical accuracy in Castle of Dreams is so important and you have achieved it beautifully. Can you tell us about your approach to research?

Firstly, I had a wonderful friend in Luke Evans. Luke’s parents own Paronella Park and he happily answered my many questions about the history of the castle.

I also read primary sources: diaries, letters and newspaper reports. I read fiction and non-fiction books written about and of the period. I love Trove and Ask a Librarian, an online resource at the National Library of Australia. I use Google but online information can be inaccurate so I always check it carefully from more than one source. I use my wonderful local library and inter-library loans for books I don’t necessarily want to keep on my bookshelf or cannot find, and I always read bibliographies carefully in each book as they are a source of more information. I also talk to experts in any particular area I am researching.

The ruins of Paronella Park, North Queensland. PHOTO used with the permission of Luke Evans.

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6. Your dedication to your writing is inspiring. What was your writing process for Castle of Dreams?

I woke early and checked emails and then tried to be at my desk and writing by 9.00am. I usually wrote for three hours and this produced a thousand words or so. I could then get on with the rest of my day. In the evening I’d do some research or answer emails. This was the first draft; I had to spend more time on future drafts and I checked all my research again. I found that when I was editing Castle of Dreams I had to make it a priority and spent many more hours at the computer. For months I didn’t watch television or socialise often, although I did make time to exercise. I found this routine worked well for me.

7. How has this process evolved for you?

I have three books in the bottom drawer and with each finished manuscript I discovered ways to make the writing process easier. For me the perfect day is one where I write in the morning and later do some form of exercise: walking, swimming or yoga. This leaves me time to live my life by going to the movies or out to dinner with friends. But, of course, life gets in the way and when it does I just throw my routine out the window.

8. Your novel is set in two periods – during and immediately after WW2 and in the present. What are the difficulties and delights of writing a novel structured in this way?

I love to read books that are structured this way so I guess that’s why I enjoy writing them. With Castle of Dreams I should have had a timeline printed out and a floor plan of any dwellings that both my WW2 characters and my present day characters use. I got it right in the end but would have saved time in the writing of the novel to have these to check back on during the writing process and also in the editing stage.

9. This is your first published book; did anything about the publishing process surprise you?

It is such a learning process and so interesting. If I had known about the publishing world as a young woman I would have wanted to be a publisher. Because I didn’t know what to expect nothing surprised me. I consider my publishers are the experts and hopefully I can learn from them and I have asked lots of questions.

10. What advice would you give emerging writers?

Never ever give up. I have three books in the bottom drawer, my apprentice books I call them, and every one of them taught me something. If you don’t have time to write a novel then write short stories, or a blog, or write reviews about other books. Writing should not be at the bottom of a long list of ‘to do’ things, it should be near the top. Treat it like a job, even a part-time job, and not a hobby. Set goals. Those first words are the hardest part. Then rewrite.

Thanks, Bernadette, for having me speak about my writing process on Big Country Book Club.

Thank you for the Q&A and your fabulous novel, Elise

Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune is published by Allen & Unwin

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Filed under Allen & Unwin, Castle of Dreams, Elise McCune

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