When Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar decided to explore her creative side, she didn’t do it by halves. She took extended leave from her work in correctional services and women’s health and went to Scotland, where she took on a job as a caretaker for holiday cottages. There, she began writing in earnest.
“I was delighted to discover the AWC online courses and threw myself into listening to them daily – often more than once – and completing the exercises,” Jennifer told us. “I soon filled a notebook with random and unconnected characters, ideas for plots, descriptions of scenes.”
Jennifer kept writing when she returned from Scotland and her first traditionally published novel, Missing Pieces, is out now with MidnightSun Publishing.
“The joy of having a publisher offer me a contract is the ultimate recognition of any writer's hard work,” Jennifer says.
Leaning into the joy of writing
Jennifer is proud of the work she did as a social worker and manager in the public service, but after 25 years, she was ready to explore her creative and intuitive skills. After reading author Kate Grenville’s Writer’s Workbook, Jennifer rediscovered her joy of writing. That’s when she decided to head to Scotland to really dive into her writing.
“I took extended leave from my work and arranged to go to a remote part of Scotland where I became the on-site caretaker of five holiday cottages in return for free accommodation. My duties were minimal as the lovely people who used the cottages, mostly bird watchers and hikers, were always kind enough to leave them clean and tidy. This left me plenty of time to begin writing,” Jennifer says.
It also left her plenty of time to discover the online courses run by the Australian Writers' Centre.
“The fact that the courses were online meant I could fit them into my time zone and caretaker schedule. They were so jam packed with information that I found I would pause and rewind often and listen more than once,” Jennifer says. “The presenter was enthusiastic about the craft of writing and clearly knew her subject. Her presentation style excited me and gave me the confidence to move from the Creative Writing Stage 1 course into the advanced course. I also received feedback from her and other participants, which was my first introduction to what I now know is the wonderfully generous writing community in Australia.”
Creative writing was not just a holiday romance for Jennifer; she kept writing when she returned to Australia, and took the chance to do History, Mystery and Magic with Kate Forsyth.
“I still have my notes from that course and always remember Kate talking about giving your writing a ‘sprinkle of magic’. I have done that with my novels and it is what sets them apart.”
Bringing her story to life
Jennifer’s novel Missing Pieces is inspired by the story of the 1831 discovery of a hoard of priceless chess pieces on a remote Scottish Island, which are now in the British Museum.
“When I came across Nancy Marie Brown's non-fiction book about the chess pieces, Ivory Vikings, and her suggestion that they may have been carved by a woman, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do a multiple timeline novel because it seems to me that our present is inextricably tied to the past. My extensive research uncovered many colourful characters whose actions had a significant impact on how the artefacts finally came to be in the British Museum. I then found a photo online of a late 1800s Scottish islander woman. Her determined attitude and strong features spoke to me. I had my main character and the novel began to write itself in a way. After many drafts and many unsuccessful submissions I was about to self-publish again when I got the offer from MidnightSun.”
Jennifer had self-published her first novel Vivaldi's Lost Concerto, and had been pleased with the process and result. But being picked up by a traditional publisher is a dream come true.
“When I got the phone call from the lovely Anna Solding at MidnightSun Publishing I was overjoyed. I certainly did a happy dance while I was talking to her and could hardly take anything in! She has been very patient with me as a new-to-being-published author. It has been a great process working with her and her team. I have learned a lot already and have lots to learn as we move into launch and publicity phase.”
Jennifer has now retired from external work and is now a full-time writer. She is marketing her published books, submitting a third novel for publication, and has the synopsis for a fourth on the go.
“It might sound cheesy but the AWC courses changed my life! I finished a (very rough) first draft of my novel while I was in Scotland and haven't stopped writing since. The courses provided me with great foundation information, the basic building blocks for any novel writing. It is information I have retained and, through my writing groups, I've felt confident in sharing my learning with others.”