Ep 347 Meet Fiona Palmer, author of ‘Tiny White Lies’.

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In Episode 347 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Learn how to edit your own manuscript and meet Fiona Palmer, author of Tiny White Lies. In a shocking plot twist, Allison shares her Word of the Week. Discover when to tune into a special Facebook live Creative Conversations with Allison Tait. Plus we have 3 copies of The Fire Star: A Maven & Reeve Mystery by A.L. Tait to give away.

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Show Notes

Creative Conversations with Allison Tait

5 key mistakes to avoid when self-editing your manuscript

Writer in Residence

Fiona Palmer

Before becoming an author, Fiona Palmer was a speedway driver for seven years and now spends her days writing both women's and young adult fiction, working as a farmhand and caring for her two children in the tiny rural community of Pingaring, 350km from Perth. The books Fiona's passionate readers know and love contain engaging storylines, emotions and hearty characters. Her novels are consistently Top 10 national bestsellers.

 

Her latest book is Tiny White Lies.

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Interview Transcript

Allison Tait 

Fiona Palmer is the Australian author of 12 bestselling novels, both YA and adult fiction. Her new novel, Tiny White Lies, is out now with Hachette. Welcome to the program, Fiona.

 

Fiona Palmer 

Thank you, Allison. Great to be here.

 

Allison Tait

All right. Now reading your bio, I see that before becoming an author, you had jobs ranging from actual Speedway driver to teacher's assistant. So tell us about your first novel, which I think was called The Family Farm – how did that come to be published?

 

Fiona Palmer 

It was all rather crazy. You know, I left school early, after year 11. English was probably one of my worst subjects. So, you know, being an author was nowhere near the top list of my professions. So I did many jobs, you know, I worked as a rousie, worked on crutching cradles.

 

Allison Tait 

Can you just explain for our city slicker listeners what a clutching cradle is? Just so that we're getting the full picture of the gamut of your experience here.

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, you crutch the back end of a sheep. So they, you know, it keeps that area clean so the flies don't come and blow them. So it's, you know…

 

Allison Tait

So it's a very glamorous, glamorous job, right?

 

Fiona Palmer

Yeah, they're all glamorous. I think, you know, the dirtier the better. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty.

 

Allison Tait 

Okay, so you were a roustabout, you were crutching sheep. You were… How did you come to be a Speedway driver?

 

Fiona Palmer 

That's a family thing. My granddad raced. My dad raced. You know, his brothers. I grew up listening to the stories. We had go karts when we were three and cars when we could reach the pedals. So I was sort of more or less born in a car. You know, I used to spend my days as 14-year-old practicing reverse spins and donuts and stuff.

 

So I went racing when I was 16. And right up until I was pregnant with my daughter, and then had a you know, a 16-year gap and then the kids started racing. And then I got back into it. So I'm out there racing with my dad, which I absolutely love. It's good fun.

 

Allison Tait

Oh, so you're still doing it?

 

Fiona Palmer

Yeah.

 

Allison Tait

Okay.

 

Fiona Palmer

Yes. Just got back into it. This is the second year back in which is, you know, it's been fun trying to chase dad down on the track; he's a very good driver. So my aim is to, you know, just get out there and beat him.

 

Allison Tait

Alright, so you've left school, English is not really your thing. You're out there doing all of these sort of outside, you know, as you say, the dirtier the better kind of jobs. How did you come to write a novel? And how did it come to be published?

 

Fiona Palmer

Yeah, well, I was probably, you know, after all these different jobs, you know, working as a secretary at the Shire. You know, went away to college in Perth for a bit, learnt to touch type, which comes in handy when you want to write a book.

 

And then I had my kids and my mum and I took on the local shop business together in a partnership. And so that kept us so busy and you know, add in a baby and a toddler, I just didn't have time to read. I didn't have time for myself. And I started, I guess, to daydream, which you know, I'm very good at daydreaming, and away with the fairies sort of thing.

 

But I started just creating this story in my head and it was about all the things I love. You know, I love where I live, the country, the small community, how they all rally together. I always… I grew up on my uncle's farm and, you know, he's since sold that but that was the grounding for, you know, I guess my love of the land.

 

And so I started in my head writing this story about a girl who wanted to work the family farm. And it got that way, my head felt so full, like I was trying to remember all these scenes. Because I sort of play it like a movie in my head. So then I started just typing it out. I opened up Word and I just started typing it out, really with no expectation to write a book, but I just wanted to clear my head.

 

And then it kind of morphed and I kept thinking up new scenes and kept writing. And in a space of three years, in between kids and work, I sort of got it finished. And then family read it and said, you know, this is really good. You should try and get it published. And I'm like, I don't know, how do you get something published?

 

So of course I went to Google, best friend Google, when you live out in the middle of nowhere. And the first thing that came up when I typed in, you know, how to publish your book was The Australian Society of Authors website. And they had, it was highlighted because they were running a mentorship program. So you would enter it by submitting your first three chapters, they would read it, and if they thought your story had merit, etc, one of the… I think they had ten positions available, and you got to work with a published author for 20 free hours. And I was one of the lucky ones that got selected. They said I had a really engaging voice, etc.

 

So that was invaluable for me, because the published author went through my manuscript and said, for a start, you need double spacing, paragraphing, indenting. Like, I had no idea how to set out a manuscript. So that was, for me, a big eye opener.

 

And from there, you know, knowing how bad I am at English, I made sure all my teacher friends read it for me, went through it all. And it was about this time that my auntie, she'd read it and loved it, and she read Rachael Treasure's Jillaroo and sent it to me and said, “You must read this, you know, it's just like your book. It's a rural sort of story.”

 

I read it, and of course loved it. I hadn't read anything like it and…

 

Allison Tait 

So you hadn't read rural romance at that point? You hadn't read anything in that sort of area?

 

Fiona Palmer 

No, there was nothing really like it at that time. You know, this is about 2007, 2008. And yeah, that was the first story of its kind I'd ever read. And that just gave me the courage to think, oh, okay, they do publish rural stories. So I went straight to Penguin, you're not meant to, back then, you have to have an agent etc. But I got their address and I wrote a letter and said, “My story is like Rachel Treasure's. I think there should be more rural stories out there.” And I sent them the first three chapters. And from there the office girl replied and said, “Can you send the whole lot through because it's made its way to Ali Watts' desk” who was Rachel Treasure's publisher at the time.

 

And a few weeks later, I had an email from Ali herself saying she loved it and she was just waiting to see what the publishing house thought. And my next email was an offer of contract. So I kind of fell into being a writer.

 

Allison Tait

That's a fairly extraordinary story. Had you done a lot… Like while you were doing all this roustabouting, Speedway driving, tractor driving, cradle crutching, whatever you were doing, were you reading a lot? Was it sort of like… Because it's a really interesting story to go from: I'm leaving school in year 11. I'm not very good at English, to doing all of those jobs, to I'm gonna write a book. That's a big jump.

 

Fiona Palmer 

Exactly. I often tell people, I don't write for the love of words, I write for the love of telling a story. I love to tell a yarn like most country people do. And so I think that's what drove me was my passion for where I live, wanting to tell our story kind of thing. And it is a bit weird, I suppose, how I fell into it, but I do remember, I loved writing stories at school. You know, I really took delight in creating stories. And, you know, I love watching a lot of movies and I would rewrite the endings in my head if I didn't think they finished how I would like them to.

 

And I used to write lots when I was a kid. I mean, when I was eleven, mum only had Danielle Steel books in her library, so Summer's End was the first book I remember reading. That probably started my romance love affair.

 

I went through a big time period where I didn't read. And it wasn't until I was a teacher's aide and the teacher started reading Harry Potter to the kids, and I was just like, oh, I need to read the rest of this! So I went to the library and I just read the whole series and became obsessed again with the magic of reading.

 

And I'd say it's from reading and watching movies, that was enough to guide me, I think, organically into how to write a story. You know, as I was writing, if it bored me, then I figured the reader is gonna get bored. So it was a very organic process.

 

Allison Tait

And just to kind of put this into perspective for our listeners, where exactly do you live? Like, you say, you know, you're in the middle of nowhere. You're in WA. Where exactly are you? Like in a sense of…

 

Fiona Palmer

I always say I am in between Wave Rock in Hyden and… Because Lake Grace…

 

Allison Tait

And how far is that from Perth?

 

Fiona Palmer

So it's about, oh, it's about a three and a half hour drive, four hour drive, which isn't very far. I mean, gosh, there's further places to go. But the fact is our town has got four little houses and a shop. We used to have a school. I went to primary school there, but that closed down in 1998. We have a tennis club that sits dormant and we have an amazing golf club that we still have about five people that play on weekends. But it's uh, you know, it weaves around big granite rock. So it's a pretty little spot. Well, it's home. So I like that we're a small community and we sort of, you know, rally together. It's great.

 

Allison Tait

So all of your first novels were in that sort of rural romance section of the bookshelf, but as time has gone on your stories have changed. Can you talk us through how and why that happened?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, it was my eighth one, I guess. I did have another one planned to follow on from The Family Secret. But this time, you know, in those eight years rural romance had exploded. And there was just so many out there and I'd read quite a lot. And I'd written quite a lot. And I was feeling like every word felt like I'd written it somewhere or read it somewhere. I was feeling like, this is very repetitive. And I guess I just needed a break.

 

And that's when Rachel John says, “Do you want to come on a boat cruise with me? It would be great research.” And we did. And the moment she said that, and I booked my tickets, I started, an idea came forth, which became Secrets Between Friends. And I just wanted to write that. I mean, I've lived in the city as well. So you know, I want to write about those experiences. And it just felt nice to, I guess, you know, open up the world and get to write about other places.

 

And yeah, and that sort of, the publishers sort of preferred that I stick with rural but, you know, my agent says no, we'll find someone and that's when we went to Hachette and started reading more life lit. And, you know, still talking about issues, relationship issues, you know, family issues, etc, etc. And it's just, I've got more of a, I guess I can use the whole world now, instead of just being set rural.

 

But in saying that, you know, a lot of, you know, like, Tiny White Lies is set on the rural rugged coastline, so I'm still dabbling a little bit.

 

Allison Tait 

I was gonna ask you about that, whether you think that that, you know, that your novels still have those rural kind of roots even as the even as the worlds expand?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, exactly. I mean, Matters of the Heart was, you know, set in a country town so that was sort of diving back into it again. And you know, using Burma Bay as the place in Tiny White Lies, you know, I love… If I can write about it about it, I'll put it in there.

 

Allison Tait 

So how do you go about building a sense of place in your stories? Because it is, you know, that Australian setting is important to a lot of what you write. How do you build it? How do you kind of, you know, do you see a place in your mind? And, you know, look at the tiny details of it? Or how do you go about immersing a reader in a world?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, I do. Well, like with Tiny White Lies, you know, Burma Bay's a place where we, you know, I take the kids and they have their school holidays and it's a place where they get to sort of detox from the internet as well. And so it was relevant for the book. And you know, I use what I've seen, experienced. But in my mind, I also created the place for the book to what I needed it to be. You know, I'm a very visual person. So I visualised the farm, you know, it had to have paddocks for sheep but it also had the rugged landscapes and the sand tracks down to the beach. And so it sort of gets made and created in my mind and then I'm just trying to write what I see.

 

Allison Tait 

Where do you start with your writing process? Like for Tiny White Lies, where did you begin with that? Is it a character? Is it a question? Is it, you know, and then do you plot or do you just sort of write? Like, how does it work for you?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, it was very much… I guess, first thing came was my teenage children and, you know, going away to boarding school at the age of 12. They sort of, you know, the necessity for a phone so they could call me, I could contact them. So they had phones pretty young, younger than I probably would have preferred. And with that all the fear and all the drama with all the things they've got access to. And so that was forefront at my mind. And I thought, “I need to write about this.”

 

So that was my initial start for Tiny White Lies. And then, of course, I wanted to write about a family just having a digital detox and going to a place where there is no internet. So there's some days I just wish the whole internet would blow up. So we just, you know, have the freedom to not have, you know… Like, procrastination when I'm trying to write. If there's no internet, I'm sure I'd write twice as much.

 

So there's… That spurred that on. And from there, I knew I needed, you know, I wanted two families that go down and then I sort of built up the characters. Sometimes I like to go and look for photos of the characters online and that'll sometimes spur on ideas. You know, I might see a photo of a face, like in the current book I'm writing, I went looking, and I come across this beautiful photo of this girl with scars on her face and, you know, that just – boom, an idea came, and that ended up being a massive backstory.

 

So yeah, there's sort of, you never know when you're going to find inspiration. But I'm very much a plotter. So I will, you know, get my character sorted, what's going to happen to them, organize how the books gonna, you know, middle, start, end, etc. And I'll write out a synopsis, three or four or five page, sort of detailing the characters and what's going to happen. And then I'll start from chapter one and work my way through till I get to the end.

 

Allison Tait 

Okay. You make it sound so easy.

 

Fiona Palmer

I wish!

 

Allison Tait 

I just think of what's gonna happen and then I write it. That's great. Like, for me, I think one of the most difficult aspects of contemporary fiction, particularly when you're dealing, you know, with friends who are from a similar place and a similar age and, you know, is ensuring that your characters voices are distinct. It's very difficult to make people who are similar sound like they have different voices on the page. You know, for me. Obviously, you're quite used to it. But like, what are some of the things that you do to ensure that those characters have a distinct voice?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, that can be tricky, isn't it? You've got to… Sometimes you might draw from, you know, characters you've met, you know, over the years, or all sorts of different things. You've, yeah, that's where it gets tricky. And it's not only for that book, but it's every other book you've written. You're sort of trying to be different. And, you know, people say, “oh does it get easier when you've written this many books?” But I think it actually gets harder because for each book, you want to be better, you want to grow as an author, but you, you know, you've had all these characters beforehand and all these situations so you're trying to make something fresh. And that comes with a lot of pressure.

 

Allison Tait 

Do you have fall back phrasing that you have to go through each manuscript and edit out? I know, you know, when I write that, obviously, particularly when I'm drafting, I'll have phrases that I know have come across different books that I then have to go back and actually actively look for. They're kind of things that I fall back on when I'm looking to describe something or whatever. And I have to go back, like my own personal set of clichés. Do you have those?

 

Fiona Palmer 

I'm pretty sure I probably do and that they get weaselled out in all the editing process. But that's… I try not to think about that until I've done the first draft. I just, the main thing is to get something down, and then go through… Editing is where I fall down. That's what I really need to focus on a bit more. You know, not being that good at English, I'm really bad at trying to pick up mistakes, because I just get so lost in the story that I read past every mistake. You know, my brain just automatically tells me what it should be. So that's sort of something I'm working on, is the whole editing process.

 

Allison Tait

So your press release says you're a writer of women's and YA fiction. So I guess I have to ask you what you think the key is to writing – and you're obviously a successful writer of women's fiction – so what is the key to writing successful women's fiction? How do you engage that audience?

 

Fiona Palmer 

I don't know. It's one of those… I tend to just write what I want to read. And the things that inspire me. And I figure that if I'm getting bored by my own story, then so is the reader. So, okay, it must be time to throw something else in here.

 

Allison Tait

A car chase.

 

Fiona Palmer

Yeah, exactly. And, you know, I read a lot of different books as well. You know, like, that's probably the reason I wrote YA. I love reading YA. I'll read most genres especially if there's a romantic thread; that always keeps me invested.

 

But my YA series is a bit left field but it's kind of based on a bit of a true story. A friend of mine and I wanted to tell his story through you know, this work of fiction. And so he helped a lot with some of the, you know, terminology and the guns and the weapons and all the bits and pieces and the situations. And I had really fun writing that because I love reading fast paced action as well. So yeah, that was different.

 

Allison Tait 

So your YA series is the MTG Agency series and there's four books in that series. So it's you know, it's a fast paced, it's got spies and crime and stuff, hasn't it? I haven't actually read one. But why did you… So yeah, okay, so you like fast pace and you like that sort of thing. But what made you think, “This has to be YA?” Like, what made you think you couldn't do that as a romance series for older readers?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Well, at one point I wanted to write a story like that. Secrets Between Friends, I was making that more a bit fast paced and spies and stuff, but the publishers were like, “no, it sort of won't fit, we can't market it.”

 

And it's a bit like my YA, it was very hard to market, because it's not quite YA. You know, Joseph's 17 but it deals with a lot of adult themes, you know, they're taking down drug dealers, they're trying to stop, you know, drug shipments and all sorts of stuff, you know, they, they fly to Pakistan to try and get information. There's all sorts of stuff happening. But because she's 17, you know, turning 18, it sort of put it in the YA class. And then they didn't know what to, you know, classified as, but it's romance and action. And I mean, I absolutely loved writing it. It was good fun.

 

Allison Tait 

So speaking of, let's talk about marketing for a moment. Because you are living in an isolated rural community, does it create problems when it comes to promoting your books? Like is it something that you have to factor in? When it comes to actually, you know, book promotion and marketing?

 

Fiona Palmer 

It is a lot harder. I mean, you know, that's the great thing about the internet is I can do a lot of things from home. It was a bit harder earlier on because we had really dodgy internet so I couldn't Skype and do those kind of things. It just wouldn't work. But now it's a lot better. You know, I've been able to upgrade and get a better signal booster, things like that.

 

But it is harder. Like if I want to do events, I've got a long journey just to get to the city. But you know, I'm used to driving as well. Great to listen to audiobooks. So it has its disadvantages at times, but, you know, I really, it's so easy to get on social media, and just keep posting bits of the book. So that side of things is great. You know, I work pretty much full time at the farm as well. So I juggle both jobs. And I mean the tractor has auto steer, so then I can sort of you know, do some marketing while I'm doing my other job.

 

Allison Tait 

So you're actively sitting in a tractor while you're doing your… See, you're just right in it, aren't you? You're right there with the rural life. You talked about social media, where are you most active on social media? What works best for you as far as, you know, staying connected to your readers?

 

Fiona Palmer 

I think Facebook is still my number one go. I've got over 9000 followers on my Facebook page, and I really like to engage with them all and try to reply. I just built up such a wonderful readership there and I like to nurture them and interact with them. Instagram, I'm on there a bit as well. And Twitter, I'm mainly on Twitter to follow all the farming chats because I really enjoy keeping up, you know, it's kind of like the adult version and it's a place where my kids, my kids don't go on Twitter, so I can talk about them and they don't know.

 

Allison Tait 

And they don't know! And what about other writers in the publishing community? Like how do you stay plugged into that? Are you a member of groups or do you have your own set of writing friends that you talk to regularly?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, I definitely love the RWA, the Romance Writers of Australia. They have been such a huge help in my journey. Like I joined up the moment… I think I went to my first conference in 2010, I think, after my first book was out, and it's, I've met so many wonderful authors. They're such a really supportive community. And Rachel Johns and Anthea Hudson are, you know, my sort of my go to girls, when it comes to writing, we have a group chat.

 

And I really think you need to have that, a group of writer friends who understand, you know, anytime I'm stuck with a plot, I can tell them and they get it. Or, you know, they also understand what it's like to get those really, really horrible first structural edits and how devastated you are and, you know, they help pick you up and keep you soldiering on. And I think that's really important, especially being so isolated, and I can't, yeah, there's no one next to me that I can just go over and say, “Oh, you want to have a cuppa? I need to chat.” So being able to talk to them every day, you know, on Voxer is really, really helpful and just great.

 

Allison Tait 

So you're working on a new book at the moment, you mentioned. Is that coming out in 2021?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, it'll be out next year. I'm not sure of release date yet. They might be juggling it around, just to try something different. But yeah, I've got about 8000 words to go on it.

 

Allison Tait 

Wow, okay. Are you basically writing a book a year at the moment?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, yeah, a book a year. It works in great, especially between my farm work. As you finish seeding, get off the tractor, and then I start writing my next book. And I aim for like 2000 words a day. 10,000 words a week.

 

Allison Tait 

Wow. So you have a writing season along with all your other seasons?

 

Fiona Palmer 

Yeah, yeah. And I have to get my first draft done before harvest starts. So that's where I'm at now. I'd like to get the first draft done. And hopefully the structural edits before about October. And then I start going hammer and tongs because with harvest it has to end.

 

Allison Tait

That's fantastic. I love your deadlines.

 

Fiona Palmer

Yeah. So at the moment, it's been working really well. Yeah. That's it.

 

Allison Tait 

All right. Well, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you today. We're going to finish up with our final question which we always ask. Well, first of all, I'm going to ask – Where can people find you online? Is it Fionapalmer.com.au?

 

Fiona Palmer

That's it. Yes.

 

Allison Tait

And what about on social media? Are you just Fiona Palmer Author, or…?

 

Fiona Palmer 

It's Fiona_Palmer, I think, for most of them. For Twitter and Instagram.

 

Allison Tait 

All right. Keep an eye out for that, people. And we're gonna finish up with your top three tips for writers.

 

Fiona Palmer 

Okay, well that's, I say this over and over again, but the best thing you can do is write. Look at me; I had no idea, I just opened Word and just started writing. You need to get words on a page. Number one tip is just to start writing.

 

And number two would be to write about what you're familiar with, especially if you're starting out. Like I did, you know. Wrote about country settings and country people, everything I knew.

 

And the third thing is, write what you're passionate about and what you love, because if you're invested in it, you'll be able to get that across onto the page and then bring people into it. I really think if, you know, anyone who is going to write about something they're not interested in it's not really going to come across as good.

 

So that would be my three tips.

 

Allison Tait 

Excellent three tips. Thank you so much. Thanks for your time today, Fiona, it's been lovely. Good luck with the writing and then with the harvesting which I can imagine is fairly intense. And of course with Tiny White Lies which is out now in your favourite bookshop.

 

Fiona Palmer

Thanks Alison. It's been lovely.

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