Fiona McIntosh: Author and travel writer

image-fionamcintosh200Fiona McIntosh was born in Sussex, England and spent her childhood travelling with her parents between England and Africa.

Fiona’s latest book is Royal Exile, the first book in the Valisar series. She has written three books in the Percheron series, Odalisque, Emissary and Goddess and three books in The Quickening series, Myrren’s Gift, Blood and Memory and Bridge of Souls.

She has also written Betrayal, Revenge, and Destiny which are considered Goth fantasies.

Fiona is a prolific writer who also writes crime fiction under the name of Lauren Crow. All of Fiona’s books have received great acclaim and reviews. As well as being an author, Fiona is a travel writer who finally journeyed to Australia – and stayed. She set up a travel writing magazine with her husband and has travelled to many exotic locales for her work.

She lives in South Australia with her husband and two sons.

Click play to listen. Running time: 34.26

 

Betrayal Bridge of Souls King's Wrath Myrren's Gift Royal Exile

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Fiona.

Fiona:
Good morning Valerie, thank you. I’m delighted to be on this.

Valerie:
You’ve written so many fantasy books, what’s your interest in fantasy? Where did that come from?

Fiona:
I think it stems back to childhood, the fairytales that we all enjoyed. Once I’d walk through that wardrobe, I wasn’t walking back and I got stuck there, not the whole concept that magic is possible. I then moved away from that as I grew up of course and found my way to the usual stack of thrillers and crime and horror, the Stephen King time that we all go through as we’re going up. Then when I had my children I was looking to start reading again seriously and discovered that it was fantasy that drew me back to it. I read a book by Guy Gavriel Kay which is called Tigana and that really inspired me, made me realise I’d never really lost my joy of this sort of epic adventure.

So I started devouring fantasy and realised, wow grownup fantasy is quite special and transported me. I get lost in these magnificent stories and of course I have my favourites and I had to plough through a lot of books that you realise there are different levels of fantasy.

I said to myself if I ever wrote a book and I think we all hanker after that, this is what I’d like to write. I decided to act on it when I was having my midlife crisis, I thought well I’m going to write that damn book that I’ve always dreamed of writing and fantasy felt very natural, very comfortable.

Valerie:
Before you had your midlife crisis what were you doing and how did you start writing?

Fiona:
I think it’s true to say, I’ve never done any creative writing before and that is honest. The last time I did any sort of write a story type thing it was back in junior primary. I wasn’t a writer, a scribbler, but all the jobs that I’ve had through my working life required me to word crunch. I was in PR and marketing so I was constantly writing press releases or writing reports or correspondence. I was involved in the crunching of words and then my husband and I set up, we’d both been involved in the travel industry and we set up our own publication. It was when that magazine came on stream and it was one that sent to people, so online wasn’t heard of in those days. I’m going back about 20 years.

I began to be almost like an apprentice to Ian who is an editor and very senior newspaper man and in a way he was training with me without me realising I was being trained. I was beginning to write quite good articles about travel, obviously, but learning how to be very disciplined about my writing. I think when I actually decided I’m going to write a book the mechanics of writing came quite easily to me. It wasn’t hard. I wasn’t as daunted as perhaps someone who has been a chef all their life and suddenly decides I’m going to write a book might find it harder.

For me the mechanics were there, the training was there, it was, is the imagination going to be there and I realised that I’d never lost that love of very imaginative stories and off I went with all the right tools, so to speak. I understood how to write in short sentences and how not to bury the lead, get things happening up front and that all stood me in very good stead.

Valerie:
But even though the mechanics are there, writing a travel article is so much shorter than writing a fantasy book.

Fiona:
My word and here’s something that you can’t be taught. It’s a skill or a gift that you’re born with and I think that is the gift of storytelling and I think I am a natural storyteller and I sit down and I’m regaling the family with something that happened today. I can turn something that somebody wouldn’t even bother to mention, I can turn it into a massive Ben Hur like story. I tripped over and it becomes this huge event. I didn’t realise it, but I’m obviously a natural storyteller and I think that’s something we inherently have and I’m lucky enough that I had it and it came together.

I was writing feature stories for the magazine so that made it, I was used to writing at length but it’s nothing. Nothing can prepare you for writing a book the first time where you have to make sure that the story doesn’t lose its way and that it’s got great pacing and the tension doesn’t ever die on you. There are a lot of structural parts to putting together a story that you need to pay attention to that I suppose readers who don’t write just expect and almost take for granted. Fair enough, but as a practitioner, we have to understand or at least be very aware of all those highs and lows of the story, how it’s all bolting together.

Valerie:
So when you first sat down to write your first book did you basically just sit down and start writing for months or how did that come about?

Fiona:
The first thing I did was I felt I needed a catalyst or I needed some impetus because I was a corporate kind of person sitting at a desk all day and at the end of day I’d come home and play mum. I had nothing to base how to write and I didn’t know about places like the Sydney Writers’ Centre and I didn’t know that there are wonderful books out there. I must be dim not to realise that there is a lot of wonderful help out there if you go looking for it. What I thought was I know what I’ll do, I’ll take a course. But even that hadn’t registered in my mind until I happened to be at the dentist and I was reading, I’m in Adelaide and we have a publication here called The Adelaide Review, and it’s the arty sort of folk you could say of the state and it’s free and I was just flicking through it because I was nervous at the dentist and this tiny little ad, and I mean tiny, little column ad, leapt out at me and it said come and do a summer writing fiction course with Bryce Courtenay.

That was what I needed. It found me, it was obviously waiting for me and it gelled in my mind, that’s what I need to do. I need to take a course and I need to understand what how you do this sort of writing. But I need to learn from somebody who is a practitioner. I didn’t want to just go and learn from a lecturer. I wanted to learn from somebody who understands and is selling books and writing best-sellers and I’ve read The Power of One and it moved me tremendously when I was a youngster. So I thought want to meet the man himself anyway so why not. I couldn’t believe I was taking a week off from week and from my family and flying to Hobart for this very selfish indulgence of a week, but I did it and an epiphany occurred down there and I felt as though Bryce was talking only to me. There were 15 other students in the room but I felt like he was lecturing only to me. Everything he said resonated, everything he taught felt right. It entered me and felt right.

I took all of what he taught us, came home and I wrote my first manuscript in about 12 weeks.

Valerie:
Wow!

Fiona:
Yes, it was done. Done and dusted and I had my first contract within three months.

Valerie:
Wow!

Fiona:
It was the right time in my life. I was 39 and busting a gut to make sure that I had this book written and a contract by the time I was 40 which was my big goal. I was going through a life changing event and it did, it changed my life. He changed my life.

Valerie:
Absolutely. Thank you Bryce Courtenay.

Fiona:
Thank you Bryce Courtenay. I’ve never stopped thanking him. He’s a marvellous person in my life still. He still pushes me and bullies me and he’s very proud and to have that kind of strength always making me feel good about my writing is brilliant. Everybody needs a Bryce in their life I think.

Valerie:
So your most recent book, Royal Exile, that’s the first book in the Valisar trilogy. Tell us about Royal Exile and what inspired the trilogy and where that world came from?

Fiona:
When I write my fantasies I do base the worlds, call me lazy, but I base my worlds on our world. Anyone who reads my book will instantly recognise a world they know. There is nothing extraordinary about it and I like it that way. It anchors them into a reality they understand. In anything else I do which might involve magic or strange events, they have that anchor into a world they understand. For me that’s very, very important. I don’t do a lot of world development because I don’t want to and I don’t want the world to feel strange.

I borrow from history, I go straight for a medieval setting which I like and apart from Percheron which was my previous trilogy which I used the Ottoman Empire and a Byzantine era I mainly stick with late medieval times and it’s usually Europe. That’s the feel and that’s the world and everything feels right in that world and totally plausible until magic might occur.

I keep the magic quite slim on the grand you could say or thin on the ground. I don’t like to have lots and lots and lots of magic. I tend to keep it as a backdrop or there’s a vein of it running through the story. The majority of my stores are always about human struggle. That’s what I’m after. This story is the story I suppose I’ve always been gearing up to write. It’s the favourite book I’ve written and that feels good to say because I always thought my favourite was about six books ago. This is a lovely feeling to think I’ve just produced that I’m not only proud of but I love, deep within I love this book. I love the story and its potential and I have to tell you that when I write, I don’t write to a plan, I don’t plot, I don’t know who’s who or where the story’s going. I know so little about my stories, it’s embarrassing.

I’m just delighted that the story has such scope and it’s a great mystery to me where it’s headed. It really emerged from The Quickening which was my second trilogy where I had this character, a king, he was considered a barbarian and he threatened to make cannibals of his people. He threatened to roast some people and eat them to prove a point. He never did, but that idea stuck in my head and I really love this idea of the barbarian tyrant and that’s really where the story emerged. But it’s taken on a whole new shape and form and the story itself is quite simply that a barbarian tyrant has invaded a peaceful series of realms, slaughtered a lot of people, built his own empire from the ashes, so to speak. And he’s actually doing quite a good job of it by the time we meet in book two. But he’s ruthless and quite cold and calculating.

Also quite charismatic despite all that and I know that I really, really like Lazar. I can’t help but be fascinated by him. Not all the readers who are writing to me this morning who’ve already grabbed and read the book in a matter of hours, which is very disturbing, they’re all saying how much they love Lazar and are we meant to? They’re saying this is really weird, he’s the bad guy but we all love him and I thought that’s great because that’s how I feel about him too. He’s a mystery and I don’t know where it’s going but I sense there’s so much more to him.

It’s a story of usurping a throne and sending a young king into exile and also it’s got a cast of thousands as is usual with my books. There’s about nine story lines all coming out of this main sort of highway of a story. That’s just typical for me because I don’t plan anything. If I planned I wouldn’t dream of giving myself nine story lines and a billion characters to juggle.

Valerie:
How do you manage nine story lines when you’re writing? Is there some element of planning once those story lines have taken shape?

Fiona:
No, not at all. I’m such a gunslinger and I feel quite ashamed of myself to admit that. Because I know people would like to think, maybe readers would like to think, that I’ve actually thought deeply about this and I’ve constructed this story for them but I don’t. I just suddenly think oh blimey I’m losing track of Kirin or what’s happened to Gavry. I think I must bring them back into the story. So I go and find out where I’ve left them and I weave them back in. That’s how it works and for some reason that I cannot fathom it all comes together by the end of the book. I firmly believe that this is to do with the back of brain really does take care of business. I think when I go to sleep at night there’s a part of me that stays awake and says all right well she’s done all of this, now we’ve got to make something happen with all of that because that changes how the story can go.

When I wake up in the morning and I sit down in front of the computer it seems to flow. I think, “Aren’t I a clever clog,” but really I think the work is being done back of brain. I think that’s just how I’m wired. Other writers do their plotting maybe I don’t want to say front of brain because I don’t know how that all works but they put it on paper or they have it somewhere and they’re conscious of where their story is going. I’m not, it’s just a different method really. Terrifying but it works for me and I’ve produced quite a few books this way and I try not to analyse it too much in case I jinx myself. It just works.

Valerie:
Considering you had your turning point at 39 and 40, you’re extremely prolific. Can you describe to us your typical writing day? You must get through so much.

Fiona:
What you discover when you’re writing for a living, the writing is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that is a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of editing, a lot of emailing and talking to publishers around the world, lots of visits to bookshops, lots of appearances. If you’re going to make a go of it, make a business. Make it pay you a living and then you have to do that sort of thing. That’s all par for the course of being a writer. We have to be entertainers today not just sit in our quiet little writing rooms and produce glorious work. We have to actually go out and then sell the work, promote the work. The role of a writer is constantly changing so what I do is I’m quite disciplined about when I’m writing so I’ll actually get going by around 9:30. That’s when the writing begins. Up until 9:30 I’m emailing and answering questions and touching base with a lot of people. From 9:30 phones go off, I stop looking at email even though I’m a junkie for email and try not to notice that little ping in the background and I write for probably a solid three hours, that’s the maximum I’ll do.

In that time, I’ll produce a hefty word count. I never read what I wrote yesterday, never. I never think about what was written, I only push the story forward and I think that is the key to why I can always at the end of each writing period I’ve written a new chapter or I’ve written a new section of the book and each time you can operate like that the story never falters. It’s always going forward. Providing I’m throwing out a couple of thousand words a day very quickly will a manuscript come together. I only write for four days of the week. I give myself Friday off to be a mum, to be totally shallow and go off for coffees with friends and just let go of the story.

From Monday to Thursday I am really powering through the story and the first time I read the story is when it’s finished and the draft readers are reading it. So I read it with fresh eyes for the first time when it’s finished. I just power through the whole thing hoping to goodness it makes sense. Then when I go back I’m amazed that there are 40 chapters and the story works. As I say it’s a bit of a magical event for me as well. It does all seem to come together. I’m not saying I don’t need to do editing or rewriting or streamlining something. Naturally that all has to be done, but the skeleton of the story is always there, always.

Valerie:
So even though you write four days a week, are you in that world or thinking about it the rest of the time or do actually switch off?

Fiona:
No, I switch off completely. After my three hours I’m done, I’m dusted and I don’t want to know anything about that story. I’m probably editing another story by then. Because at the moment this year I’m juggling four novels which is pretty full on and I have to switch off from Valisar and move on to another novel that I’m working on. I’m not usually writing two novels at the same time, I’m editing two novels, writing one and researching the fourth. So that’s how it all bulks together.

I switch off completely, completely. I have 17 year olds and they’re rambling in at 3:30, quarter to 4 and they need attention. They’re doing Year 12 and raiding the fridge and demanding proofreading this and I just cannot be in a different world, I have to be quite grounded and alert and paying attention at that stage. So I do, I just switch off and I switch back on at 8:00 the next morning.

Valerie:
So I suppose one of the reasons that you need to compartmentalise is that you also write crime fiction.

Fiona:
I do.

Valerie:
Under the name of Lauren Crow. How did you get into writing crime fiction and why? How did you develop that interest in it? Because you seem so passionate about fantasy and why do you use another name?

Fiona:
I’ll answer all of those. Firstly, when you’re writing in a particular genre all the time it’s very easy to get totally swamped by it so rather than writing fantasy and only reading fantasy, I needed to withdraw from fantasy. There is this notion and I subscribe to it that if I’m reading too much fantasy I’m always nervous that I might borrow too heavily from someone else’s ideas. So I like to keep myself very distant from what else is going on in the fantasy world in terms of reading other people’s work. I do read their work but I read it when I’m on holiday or I’m not writing fantasy.

I tended to read crime so when I’m not writing I’m reading crime. I was really loving it, it was such a total distraction from fantasy and I really got into it and started devouring crime in the same way that I was devouring fantasy for a while. Then I suppose normally the pattern for a new writer is to produce, with fantasies they like you to produce a book every six months so that they can keep the momentum going for the trilogy. But when you hit a certain level, the publisher wants to pull you back to just one big book launch a year and just release one book at Christmas time. I’d hit that point where HarperCollins preferred to bring me out of the trade side and just bring it out each Christmas. But that left me with this gaping hole for the rest of the year.

And they found it quite amusing that I was complaining that I wasn’t able to bring out more books. They got tired of my bleating and said “Why don’t you just write something else? Why don’t you just stop worrying about fantasy, give us one fantasy a year, but write something else and we’ll take a look at it.”

So I said “Like what?” And they said “You’re always going on about crime, have a go at a crime.” That’s exactly how it came about. I wrote this crime and we were all rather astonished that it gelled and it worked and it had merit and they said, “Okay. We’re going to buy two of these and see how you go, but you have to write under a different name because we don’t want to confuse your readership.”

I was never fully comfortable with that decision because I thought that the readership would happily embrace me writing in a different genre and if they didn’t want to read crime they wouldn’t feel obliged to. If they wanted to read it, they would, at least they’d know who I was.

HarperCollins preferred to do it this way and I had to respect that. It seems that we’re all now in agreement that we should reintroduce me as Fiona McIntosh writing as Lauren Crow because it’s a lot easier for the booksellers if they can say well you know this is Fiona. She’s really behind it and that actually adds weight to it now rather than detracting from the fantasy.

I only wrote under a pseudonym for a short while. For book two of the crime we’ll be moving back into my own name.

Valerie:
How did you pick the name, Lauren Crow?

Fiona:
It took forever. Every name I threw at them, Harper Collins, Would say, “No, that’s not working for us,” and it went on and on. We must have gone through dozens and dozens of names and then in the end there were all sorts of strategies for it as well. Let’s have a nice short sharpened edgy surname. Let’s keep it under 10 letters. Let’s keep it in this part of the alphabet and all the strategy just sends you barmey. But in the end it came down to a weird and wonderful event where we rescued an injured crow and a crow is a bird of ermine in the fantasy world and also in medieval times. A crow brings a message and this crow was sadly, badly hurt and he wasn’t meant to make it but we made him make it and the day he flew was a very sad day for all of us, but it was a marvellous day at the same time.

Then he came back, he came back for just an hour and he sat with me. He had been with us months and he sat with me and it was just, I know you’ll all laugh and think this is Fiona going off on one of her tangents, but I just felt like he was passing on a message and I thought my surname has to Crow.

Valerie:
Oh, that’s gorgeous.

Fiona:
As soon as I said it to HarperCollins, I said how about Lauren Crow? They just said it’s perfect, that’s it. It was destiny, I think. It was an omen. It worked and we won’t completely let go of Lauren Crow but the readership and the book sellers will know that it’s much more openly that it’s me now.

Valerie:
You talk about this magical way that it all gels together after you just keep getting the words out. What do you think are some of the techniques or tips that you would give to people to help them gel their stories together?

Fiona:
If they’re going to write like me, if they’re going to freefall slightly and not be too, I’m trying to find the right word, too nitpicky about their own writing, and it’s very easy to do that, if they’re prepared to just let go for a while and have a go at writing like this then the main thing is that you do not tinker with what you’ve already written, that is number one. Because it’s so easy to go back and tinker, tinker, tinker and what happens months go by and you’re not producing a manuscript.

I talk to people all the time who when I say to them, “Okay, so they want to write and they’re very keen on this piece of work and how long have you been working on this?”

“Oh a few years now.”

A few years? No. And I think, “A few years, are you kidding?” I would have put out three million books by now and it’s just because of the – no I’m exaggerating of course. But it’s just the way that I write.

I do not allow myself to go back and keep nitpicking at my own work. We are never going to get it perfect and I tend to hand over responsibilities to my editor anyway. I trust my editors implicitly. I totally understand that we’re a partnership, a working partnership and they have the best interests of the book and me at heart.

I hand over that trust and I think whatever we’re now going to do we’re going to do over and over again for the next few months. We’re going to keep refining this manuscript. Why would I tinker for years when I can get an editor to do a lot of that thinking for me with fresh eyes and coming to it from different angle than I do. I’ve never had a problem with sending out the first. My poor editors they often get the first draft because I’m screaming onto the next project. And they’re quite comfortable to say, all right all right send it quite raw and then of course I’ll have to do a fervor to work on it.

Once you hand over that responsibility it’s a lovely feeling. Because you think well that’s your problem now. It’s come back to me and say what needs to be done with this work. I don’t have to stress on the decision of have I got that character right, or is this reading just the right way. You see I just hand over responsibility, I delegate brilliantly and make it someone else’s problem. I think that’s something that some writers create problems for themselves if they’re not strict enough with themselves then they will keep going back and wanting it to be perfect first time and it’s not going to be.

Valerie:
And it’s a form of procrastination too, isn’t it?

Fiona:
It is. It’s a fear, it’s all of those bad things happening to you, that you’re not trusting yourself and you’re frightened of showing it to anyone else. It’s all of those totally normal and perfectly understandable complexes that all of us writers suffer. I suffer it too but I have taught myself how to let it go and take the consequences. And that’s exactly what I do. I just let it go after the first draft. I read it through and I think oh, dear there’s a bit of a hole there and then I’ll email my editor and say there’s a bit of a hole in chapter seven but I’ll fix that on the next pass.

The editors are brilliant and a lot of them really enjoy it in its raw state. Providing there aren’t spelling errors and all that sort of thing, providing they’re getting quite a polished manuscript in terms of the presentation and how it’s going to read then it’s fine. I wouldn’t suggest somebody does that for their first effort. Definitely not. I think it’s worth putting in the time and the editing. But it’s almost worth giving it to other draft readers. Please everyone listening should not feel embarrassed to show their work to other people. Find some booksellers, find some librarians. Find some readers. People who don’t owe you anything and will give you an honest appraisal of the work. Give it out to as many people as you dare. I use six draft readers so I wouldn’t hesitate to use 10 draft readers and just say tell me what you think.

Now it doesn’t mean to say I’m going to do what they say but you will find common threads where they’re saying I loved so and so but it didn’t make sense when he did this and if enough people say that you know you’ve got to fix that area. Using draft readers is a great way to go. Not going back and editing, editing, editing. Setting a word count for each day is a very good discipline to get into or setting a time limit, saying I am going to now write two hours every day, one hour every day, whatever suits your lifestyle. Everyone’s got a different set of stresses and needs in their lives. People who are running busy jobs, busy families, they don’t have as much time as someone who perhaps is home all day. Everybody has different times that they can give but the main thing is continuity so that you’re writing each day if you can and that you’re writing in a disciplined fashion. Either it’s to write 500 words every day or it’s to sit down and write for an hour every day but it’s to push the story forward. You don’t spend that hour reading what you wrote before.

You use that hour only to take the story forward and to be absolutely disciplined about it. To me that’s the key, it’s the discipline. The discipline of writing.

Valerie:
The discipline is so important, isn’t it? Because you don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to hit, you sit down at your computer and start writing.

Fiona:
Just start writing. Just start writing anything. That’s what I do and I’m not saying I start writing about a pot of tea or something but I just leave myself a leading sentence usually for the next day because by the time I come around a 24 hour cycle and I’m back in front of the computer to write Valisar I might have looked at three other manuscripts by then and played with other items, maybe written a few blogs or things like that. By the time I come back I very understandably might have lost that mindset, where was I yesterday, what was I thinking, where might I have been taking this. So I just leave a leading sentence. I don’t even read back, I read that sentence and then think okay I go on from here and off I go.

That’s a little trick that they might like to try and just see if that works for them. Not everyone’s wired to write like that. I do understand and some people like to write quite clear notes but if you are going to write notes for yourself that’s fine but have a cutoff point where you say from this date I begin writing and not just spend the whole time plotting and planning. Years can go by world building. Imagining the world in its entirety. Have a go doing it the other way, just letting the world develop as you’re going along and see what that throws up for you.

Valerie:
Great advice and on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Fiona.

Fiona:
Okay, pleasure. Bye.


Comments