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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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What Elise Wrote-Castle of Dreams

I am so pleased that readers are enjoying Castle of Dreams.

The Blake sisters’ Vivien and Rose, Captain Robert Shine, an American soldier stationed in Brisbane during the Pacific War, Dave Bailey, mechanic and all round good guy, Ruby who reads the tarot, William who lost a leg at Fromelles and wears an artificial one and Harry who owns the castle.  And in the modern day narrative, Stella  a photographer and the daughter of Linda and granddaughter of Rose, and Jack, Stella’s boyfriend  who is a journalist; if they stepped through the front door this evening I’d know them.

I love montage photos so I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you.

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Have a lovely evening,

Elise

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What Elise Wrote-Castle of Dreams

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How beautiful is this photograph!

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Great news…yesterday my publisher at Allen & Unwin emailed congratulations…Castle of Dreams has had a great first week of sales…of course I can’t say how many but she is very happy…

I’ve had so many comments about Castle of Dreams since it was published: people have fallen in love with Vivien, her sister Rose, and the man they both love, American soldier Robert Shine, they love the different backdrops, and they love the story. And for me, storytelling is what books are all about.

The idea of the story came to me after a visit with my daughter to Paronella Park. A Catalonian immigrant, Jose Paronella, built a castle in the rainforest there in the early twentieth century but it was destroyed by a cyclonic flood in 1946. Walking around the ruins of the castle I became aware the past lingered all around and while my characters didn’t intrude on my conciousness that day I’m sure they were whispering in my ear wanting their story told.

It was several months later that the idea for the story finally came to me and my three main characters stepped out into the light. Light ended up being a motif in Castle of Dreams. Robert means bright, shining, so I gave him the surname Shine. Robert Shine, how I love that name. Robert comes from a place in Northern California called Paradise which is near the Feather River where his family cabin is situated.

Vivien, in Arthurian legend, was the name of the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who was the mistress of Merlin, and I’ve always loved that story. The name I had the most trouble finding was Rose. Her original name was the only name in the book that my editor, Christa Munns, at Allen & Unwin suggested I change. And, she was right,  it was the only name I’d changed several times during the writing of Castle of Dreams and still wasn’t sure about. We tossed around several names one of which was Rose, a name we both loved, and exactly the right name for Vivien’s sister. I do recall that Scarlett O’Hara originally started off as Pansy O’Hara!

My editors have told me that Castle of Dreams is a character driven novel which it is but I also think the atmosphere of the rainforest is a great backdrop and of course the main thing is the story. I love the idea that stories are carried down through generations of people through storytelling. Myths, legends, oral stories that are told around the fire at night before the days of writing and books read in the evenings before television was invented.

I loved writing Castle of Dreams. It came to me, as these things sometimes do, in a moment of serendipity when I visited the beautiful ruins in the rainforest of far north Queensland but it took a few months of looking back over my shoulder until my characters stepped out into the light. And I’m so glad they did!

Good writing and reading,

Elise

 

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What Elise Wrote-Book Launch Castle of Dreams

Hi Everyone,

Castle of Dreams, published by Allen & Unwin Australia was launched by Vikki Petraitis last night at Readings in Hawthorn. Mike Shuttleworth from Readings Hawthorn (a wonderful venue for a launch) organised the event and gave a short introduction and Lisa McCune my lovely daughter spoke next. I must admit I felt a very proud mother while listening to her thoughtful words about me. Lisa then introduced Vikki and myself. Vikki is a well-known true crime writer and a close friend who has given me great insights into writing in the time we have known each other. We did a question and answer that focused on Paronella Park where the main part of Castle of Dreams is set. Her insightful questions made it easy for me to talk to the audience about my visit to Paronella Park and the castle ruins that were the inspiration for Castillo de Suenos. My lovely friend Spanish friend Maribel can pronounce Castillo de Suenos much better than I can and in a beautiful musical voice! No wonder Spanish is called a romance language! I also discussed how I came to be published through Allen & Unwin’s innovative Friday Pitch (every day now) which was started by my publisher Louise Thurtell.  I read a short piece from Castle of Dreams and Vikki then declared Castle of Dreams launched.

After the launch some of us went across to the iconic Glenferrie Hotel. I had booked one table but we needed two and it was a great way to end the evening with family and friends.

Castle of Dreams

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With fellow author Juliet Sampson

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I hope you enjoy reading Castle of Dreams as much as I enjoyed writing it for you.

Elise

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What Elise Wrote-Paronella Park

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Many people have asked me about the castle in Castle of Dreams and where the idea for my novel came from and with the launch on Wednesday evening at Readings in Hawthorn it is the perfect time to tell you a little about the history of the Park and the Catalonian immigrant Jose Paronella who built the castle in the rainforest.

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I am a storyteller first and foremost and while Jose does not appear in Castle of Dreams I feel he would have approved of my story and my depiction of his castle of dreams. I read somewhere that Jose’s grandmother told him bedtime stories about Spanish castles and this inspired him to one day build his own castle. And while castles are more easily associated with Europe and the Middle East, Jose built his castle in the far north Queensland rainforest, the place he called home and never wanted to leave.

José Paronella arrived in nearby Innisfail, Queensland, Australia in 1913, having sailed from his homeland, Catalonia, in northern Spain to plan a splendid life for himself and his fiancée Matilda. He applied for Commonwealth naturalization in 1921, identifying his place of origin as La Vall in the province of Jarona. In fact his full name was José Pedro Enrique Paronella, and he was born on 26 February 1887, in La Vall de Santa Creu, a hamlet in the province of Gerona, north-eastern Catalonia. José worked hard for 11 years, creating his wealth by buying, improving and selling cane farms. While travelling through the beautiful countryside he discovered a virgin forest alongside spectacular Mena Creek Falls – perfect for his dream.

Upon returning to Spain, José discovered that Matilda had married another! Determined to sail back with a bride José proposed to Margarita, Matilda’s younger sister. One year later the happy newlyweds were ship-bound for Australia and by 1929 had purchased the land of José’s dreams. He first built the grand 47-step staircase to shift building materials between the lower and upper level. Here the fun-loving couple had their cottage hand built of stone, and moved in on Christmas Eve.

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The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. First they built a house to live in, then they started on the Castle itself. Apart from the house, which is made of stone, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete, the reinforcing being old railway track. The concrete was covered with a plaster made from clay and cement, which they put on by hand, leaving behind the prints of their fingers as a reminder of the work they had done. They laboured with unswerving determination, until, in 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. The Theatre showed movies every Saturday night. In addition, with canvas chairs removed, the Hall was a favourite venue for dances and parties.

A unique feature was the myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. With spotlights of pink and blue shining on the reflector from the corners of the hall, it was rotated slowly, producing a coloured snowflake effect around the walls, floor and ceiling. During the mid-sixties the Theatre ceased to be, and the Hall became devoted to functions, particularly Weddings.

Above the Refreshment Rooms was the projection room, and up another flight of stairs was the Paronella Museum. This housed collections of coins, pistols, dolls, samples of North Queensland timbers and other items of interest. Originally, food service was from the lower Refreshment Rooms downstairs.

The concrete slab tables forming the lower Tea Gardens and the swimming pool both proved extremely popular, as they still do today. The avenues and paths were well laid out with the familiar shaped planters which are still to be seen wherever you go in the Park. Two tennis courts were behind the Refreshment Rooms, with a children’s playground, The Meadow, situated near the creek.

Upwards of 7000 trees were planted by José. These included the magnificent Kauris lining Kauri Avenue. A Tunnel was excavated through a small hill. Above its entrances are the delightful stonework balconies. Walking through here brings you to spring fed Teresa Falls, named for his daughter.

The creek is lined with rocks and traversed by small bridges. Some parts have cascades built out of rocks, so the sound of water is always there. The Hydro Electric generating plant, commissioned in 1933, was the earliest in North Queensland, and supplied power to the entire Park.

In 1946, disaster struck. Upstream from the Park a patch of scrub had been cleared and the logs and branches pushed into the creek. When the first rains of the Wet Season came, the whole mass began to move downstream until it piled up against a railway bridge a few hundred metres from the Castle. Water backed up until the weight broke the bridge, and the entire mass descended on the Park. The downstairs Refreshment Rooms were all but destroyed, the Hydro was extensively damaged, as was the Theatre and Foyer.

Undaunted, the family began the task of rebuilding. The Refreshment Rooms downstairs were beyond repair, so this service was moved upstairs, and only the structure of the building recreated. In addition, José built the fountain. The Castle was repaired, the gardens replanted, and the Park was alive again.

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In 1948, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, daughter Teresa, and son Joe, to carry on. In time, Teresa married and eventually moved to Brisbane with her husband. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Renovations and maintenance meant there was always plenty of work, and the floods of 1967, ’72 and ’74 further added to the load. In 1967 Margarita died, and in 1972, Joe died, leaving Val and the two boys to continue the hard working tradition and keep the dreams alive.

The Park was sold out of the family in 1977 and sadly, in 1979, a fire swept through the Castle. For a time, the Park was closed to the public. Cyclone Winifred in 1986, a flood in January 1994, Cyclone Larry in March 2006, and Cyclone Yasi in January 2011 were all further setbacks and challenges for Paronella Park.

Mark and Judy Evans, the current owner/operators, purchased the Park in 1993 and formulated a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding. Small restoration projects have been undertaken, pathways uncovered and improved, and the Museum, an ongoing project, is continuously being enhanced.

In November 2009, the ambitious project to restore Paronella Park’s original (1930s era) hydro electric system was completed. At a cost of $450,000, the system once again provides all of the Park’s electricity requirements. This work, and other environmentally focused initiatives culminated in Paronella Park being awarded Eco Australia’s GECKO award for Ecotourism in 2011. Paronella Park’s life as a pleasure gardens continues as José intended, for visitors, and with social gatherings, particularly weddings, continuing to make use of this unique location.

Paronella Park – The Dream Continues…

The Park gained National Trust listing in 1997, and has been recognised by multiple Regional and State Tourism Awards from 1998 onwards.

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I hope you enjoy reading about my inspiration for Castle of Dreams.

Elise.

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Kind thanks to Luke Evans for permission to use this information.

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What Elise Wrote-Castle of Dreams

With Castle of Dreams now in book stores across Australia in time for Christmas I’d like to share a few of my favourite excerpts with you (no spoilers):

Castillo de Suenos  (aka Paronella Park far north Queensland)

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Rose nodded in silent agreement. Castillo de Suenos had no dramatic history, no portraits of ancestors hung on the walls or white busts on plinths, no remote eerie rooms forgotten and uninhabited for centuries, but it was beautiful, largely because of its spectacular rainforest setting: drifts of butterflies flew in through open windows and landed on ornate vases; this morning she’d found a butterfly feasting on a sliced orange someone had left on the kitchen bench. Plants clambered up the walls and swayed through the windows with the breezes; brilliant light flooded through the hummingbird stained-glass window at the front of the castle.

On a night when stars sheltered Castillo de Suenos a ball was held:

The band played on, a Glenn Miller tune now; young couples jived across the black-bean floor and back again. A GI held his girl so low that when she kicked her leg high, her long blonde hair swept the floor.

When the song finished there was a break in the music, and the main lights came back on. The crowd threw back drinks and lit up cigarettes and headed for the buffet.

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I wonder who Tom is talking to?

She smiled. ‘What have you come to tell me, Tom?’

‘It’s a long story and one you are entitled to know,’ said Tom. ‘The past can be complicated. People then were the same as people today. They had their secrets, things the believed no one would ever discover . . .’

‘Please, go on, you’ve come a long way to tell me.’

Tom looked relieved, as though he’d been waiting to unlock the past and now the time had come.

One of my favourite scenes in Castle of Dreams:

He told her about mushrooms called hen of the woods and boletes, both much sought after in late summer and fall, and others with folk names: witch’s butter, shaggy mane and bear’s head, and amanita, a white-spotted red mushroom, written about in fairytales , and deadly, he added. ‘Winter brings hedgehogs, also known as sweet-tooth–and, and for those who know how to find them, crops of truffles.’

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Seasons Greetings to All

Elise

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What Elise Wrote-Publication Day

Publication day today! Castle of Dreams is finally winging its way out into the world. I can’t tell you how much the characters in the story mean to me. If they walked through my door right now I’d know them.

I am so happy to have Allen and Unwin as my publisher and Cappelen Damm as my Norwegian publisher.

Wine and chocolates have arrived all the way from my dear friend Bernie in Perth, WA and lots of wonderful messages of congratulations from family and friends.

1940’s era

Vivien

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Tony nodded. ‘I noticed her beauty, of course–what man wouldn’t notice a beautiful woman?–but what I fell for was her ability to make anyone she spoke to feel special, as though you were of the utmost importance to her.’ He paused, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘What I mean is that Viv had the quality of grace.’

Rose

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I tried to picture the two sisters as they must have been: Rose in a swing-skirt, her copper-coloured hair, shot through with gold, in waves over her shoulders; Vivien stretched out on the lawn reading a magazine, wearing a lilac-coloured dress and a gardenia in her dark hair. The world they’d inhabited in those distant days at Castillo de Suenos was no more, but I could see them as clearly as if it were today.

Robert Shine

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As her eyes become accustomed to the dark she glanced to her left and noticed the American looking at her. She felt herself colouring up and wished William had sat in the back seat with him instead of her.

The American smiled. ‘It sure feels good to be safe, ma’am.’

Then, William turned around, his expression impassive. ‘Vivien, you’ll have to make up the guest room with clean sheets when we arrive home.’

‘Yes, of course,’ she said, quickly.

‘Thank you both for your help,’ said the American.

When Vivien looked at him he held her gaze, she blushed again, but she didn’t turn away.

Ruby (the mother of Vivien and Rose)

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Her mother picked up Vivien’s cup and offered to read her tea-leaves. Vivien laughed. ‘Oh, go on then. It’s been a while, Ma.’

Ruby inspected the tea-leaves. A slight frown flickered across her face, and she glanced at her elder daughter. Seeing Vivien watching her, she smiled. ‘You’ve always had a fortunate future, Viv.’

Vivien sniffed. ‘Ma, you always leave out the bad parts when you read my cup. Come on, what can you see?’

Her mother laughed uncomfortably, turned the cup around. ‘I see two parrots–surely that’s lucky.’

Contemporary era

Stella (Rose’s granddaughter)

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These days I travelled Australia and the world taking photographs, always looking forward to my next assignment, yet on my last morning in Vietnam I’d walked the streets, breathing in the smell of piquant spices, the sounds of traffic and voices all around me, wishing I could stay longer.

‘Your old school friend Jack rang us when you were in Vietnam. He’s a pleasant chap,’ said my father interuppting my thoughts. Turning onto the highway, he drove steadily, past cane fields, paddocks speckled with grazing cattle, and a little country cemetery enclosed within an iron-railed fence.

Jack

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At school, Jack and I had been good mates. Not long after I’d moved to Sydney, I’d visited him in his flat in an old subdivided mansion in King’s Cross. My eyes ran over the piles of books and the reproduction Renaissance Madonnas in gilt frames he’d started to collect.

There are other characters in Castle of Dreams: William, Tony, Harry, Margaret, Florence, Maggie, Edie and others but  Castillo de Suenos the Castle of Dreams is of course another character.

Castillo de Suenos (aka Paronella Park)

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What Elise Wrote-Castle of Dreams

Three days until Castle of Dreams is published.

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Allen & Unwin sold the Norwegian rights to Cappelen Damm recently and my Norwegian editor is Jorid Mathiassen.

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Growing up together in a mysterious castle in northern Queensland, Rose and Vivien Blake are very close sisters. But during World War II their relationship becomes strained when they each fall in love with the same dashing but enigmatic American soldier. Rose’s daughter, Linda, has long sensed a secret in her mother’s past, but Rose has always resisted Linda’s questions, preferring to focus on the present. Years later Rose’s granddaughter, Stella, also becomes fascinated by the shroud of secrecy surrounding her grandmother’s life. Intent on unraveling the truth, she visits the now-ruined castle where Rose and Vivien grew up to see if she can find out more. Captivating and compelling, Castle of Dreams is about love, secrets, lies—and the perils of delving into the past.

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Short Excerpt (1942):

It was a warm summer evening with a storm threatening. Vivien stepped out of the taxi in front of a two-storey house set back from the road behind a wrought-iron fence. In a wealthy suburb a mere four miles from the city, the house had an understated grace Vivien found appealing.

She unlatched the gate and walked up the path. Light spilled from the diamond-paned  windows across a square patch of lawn. Virginia creeper had rambled up to the first floor and feathered the window frames.

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Vivien (aka Gene Tierney)

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Good writing and reading

Elise

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What Elise Wrote: Castle of Dreams

Thrilled to let you know the rights for Castle of Dreams have been sold by Allen&Unwin to Norwegian publisher, CappelenDamm. The publisher is very well known and extremely reputable.

I loved writing Castle of Dreams a story set in Australia and weaving the two storylines together. I felt immersed in the story from the start. It is set in two time periods: WW2 and contemporary times. I had visited Paronella Park some years previously and never forgot the sense of mystery and decided the castle would be the thread to hold my story together.

After three novels in the bottom drawer, a memoir, and a lost romance novel I was thrilled when Louise Thurtell from Allen&Unwin’s innovative Friday Pitch made me an offer to publish Castle of Dreams. I can’t speak more highly of the support I received from the whole team at Allen&Unwin and they did enjoy the cake my daughter and grandchildren delivered to their office in Crows Nest in Sydney!

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What Elise Wrote-Castle of Dreams

Like a lot of writers I had trouble thinking of a name for my story. When Castle of Dreams was finally selected from various other titles that had been suggested I didn’t realise what an intriguing title it was: the stuff of legends and myths. Now I have a link from my story to a fairytale world.

Think of King Arthur’s Camelot and the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty castles. Vivien and Rose the two sisters in my story grew up in a castle in the rainforest in far north Queensland.

Real world castles are just as magical and most often are linked with stories and fairytales of their own. I have a board on Pinterest called ‘castles’ but I must admit I haven’t added any to it for some time now. Busy with writing Book 2 and the publicity for Castle of Dreams.

Bran Castle can be found in a ghostly and remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. It sits high upon craggy peaks within Transylvania, bringing vampires to mind.

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More to my liking are fairytale castles from the movies of Walt Disney.

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And this is the castle that was the inspiration for Castle of Dreams.

Paronella Park in far north Queensland.

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Have a lovely Sunday

Good writing, Elise

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