Heather Rose’s novel Bruny, which won the 2020 ABIA for General Fiction Book of the Year, is not easily classified: it combines political satire with thriller, and adds elements of romance as well as complex family dynamics into the mix.
For Heather’s part, she says she never set out to write a book which fell neatly into any of those categories: she just told the story that needed to be told, one which was true to her characters. Her eight novels are all different, spanning magical realism (The River Wife) to crime fiction (The Butterfly Man), and Heather says that as a writer she set out to explore writing and doesn’t try to fit her writing neatly within one genre.
“I never want to do the same story over and over again,” she says. “And so if I’ve done a book that is like a crime thriller, that Bruny seems to be pegged as – I might write another one in the distant future. But I won’t set out to write that. I always am character driven.”
If you’re finding it hard to keep the momentum going in your own writing, we’ve got some tips from Heather to help inspire you.
1. Wait for the right time, and keep notes
You might come up with the germ of an idea which you know you want to explore, but which isn’t quite right for whatever reason. It could be a specific character, a scene or an event. Maybe it doesn’t fit what you’re currently writing, or maybe it needs more time to percolate. Note it down, keep it somewhere safe, and in time you will be able to come back to it and to develop it the way you want to.
In Bruny, the politically powerful Coleman family and their dynamics are a fascinating element. Heather says she first came up with the family when she was 21, and wrote a short story about them, but she didn’t have the right experience to do them justice.
“I couldn’t make this story work, I wanted to write about the sort of subterranean conversations that go on in families while we’re all very polite on the top. But I just wasn’t old enough. I wasn’t wise enough,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t write that kind of dialogue effectively. And so I let it go but they kept occurring to me again and again, in my mind, sort of every decade I’d see them all sitting at the table.”
Coming back to Colemans when she began Bruny helped Heather write the novel because she already felt a connection with the characters.
“I instantly felt at home with them in a way that I might not have, if I had to get to know them from the start, and I sensed that they had been waiting a long time for this story,” she says.
2. Follow your characters
To get to the Colemans, Heather started with central character Astrid – one of the three Coleman siblings – who came to mind one day when she was walking near her house.
“Between the main island of Tasmania and Bruny Island, there’s a narrow channel there. And the cloud bank made it look as if there was a bridge, a really enormous bridge. And I thought, Oh, I wonder what would be happening if there was a bridge, and I always think it’s good to start a novel with a question. And then almost instantly, the main character of Astrid Coleman turned up and I saw her at Hobart Airport and, and so from that point on, I followed her home.”
Once that character had appeared, Heather says part of what drove the novel in the direction it went was her aim to represent them as truthfully as she could.
So if you have a character you just can’t get out of your head, you might find that your story gets shaped around them – their history, their desires, fears, wants, or dreams. Explore where they’ve been and where they might go, the people who are important in their lives; as you flesh that character out, the questions you ask and answers you find could help lead you to the right story.
3. Read broadly – and edit closely
It can be tempting, when you’ve done a lot of research on a topic, to want to show your reader just how much knowledge you have – but it’s important to remember to balance your information with narrative.
By all means, go and research: it will never hurt to read and deepen your understanding. But use a light hand when you’re writing, and remember you’re ultimately there to tell a story. If you want to write a book about someone becoming an astronaut, and why they wanted to leave Earth behind, you don’t need to teach your reader how to fly the space shuttle.
While Heather researched various themes of Bruny in depth – world and foreign politics, foreign investment, and agricultural security to name a few – she was careful to keep the novel exciting enough that it wouldn’t be bogged down in detail.
“I kept thinking if I gave it enough pace, then a reader who doesn’t really want to know too much about global politics or the machinations of foreign investment will read it as sort of more like a whodunnit,” she says.