Karen Turner: Melbourne-based author of short stories

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Karen TurnerKaren Turner is a Melbourne-based author who, after 20 years working in financial services, shifted her focus to writing just a few years ago. As an escape from the corporate writing she was doing, she began writing short stories and, in 2009, published her first collection All That and Everything. Many of the stories included in this collection won awards, including the Society of Women Writers Victoria, Biennial Literary Award and the Free XpresSion Literary Award.

Her first novel is Torn, a historical romance exploring the dark side of human relationships during the Regency era. She has self-published her novel through Palmer Higgs and has already achieved impressive sales. She’s currently working on the follow up to Torn – titled Inviolate – will be available in April 2014.

Click play to listen. Running time: 21.40

torn

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability.

Danielle:
Hi Karen, tell us a bit about the novel, Torn.

Karen:
Well, Torn was a concept that probably started maybe five or so years ago. I had a couple of characters in my head and I really liked them, and they just started to develop and create personalities. I don’t know, maybe I became a bit fixated on these imaginary people, but then I started envisioning scenes for them and environments they would be in and situations that they would be in, and circumstances and the way that they would behave. And suddenly a story just started to evolve, so I started writing.

Danielle:
Tell us a bit about the story.

Karen:
The story… it’s set in the Regency period. And one of the reasons that I chose that period was because a lot of people are fascinated by that period. We’ve got the Jane Austin type of genre that is very well read. To me, I like the Jane Austin stories. Lizzie Bennett obviously, of Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful character, but I felt that I couldn’t really relate to her as a person, and people like her in those types of characters, because they had real emotions and real passions, and real desires, but because of the times they lived in they weren’t allowed to express them. I thought, ‘Well, these really are real people, so my characters live in that time, but they have real passions and they have real feelings, and real anger, and real motivations for doing the things that they did’.

This story is about Alexandria. It starts off when she’s 14 and she’s growing up in a family in the country. They’re moneyed people, they’re well to do. But as a woman in those days she didn’t have choices, she didn’t get the choice to go away to university, and she didn’t get the choice to marry who she wanted. This is a coming of age story for her, she falls in love but she’s not allowed to marry the person she loves. She’s actually betrothed to marry somebody else, because it’s a beneficial arrangement for the family. And the person she’s betrothed to marry doesn’t like her either, but he doesn’t have any say in it.

It’s really her story, her struggle, her growing womanhood, with the backdrop of the war, with Napoleon that was going on in those days. Her family is involved in that, her brothers go to war, and there are consequences to the family for that.

Danielle:
Sure. When you came up with the characters, I mean you kind of explained your motivation for setting it in time, but it’s also set in England, so I’m curious about what made you want to set in that time and place, if the characters that came to you were set there, or if it was something that came later? What appeals to you about writing for that period?

Karen:
I love history. I love reading history. This sort of book that this is, is the sort of book that I would like to read. I think it just fell naturally into place. It’s set in a town in Yorkshire, just outside of Leads. It’s an imaginary town, but it’s actually based on a town that I lived in for a number of months. So, I felt very close to that region, and it just seemed natural to set it there. Where I lived was very close to the Haworth, where the Bronte Parsonage is, so we’ve got Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte background. I visited their parsonage and felt very close to that environment, and thought, ‘Yep, this is where my characters are going to be. This is where I have to set my story.’

The story is set in a town called Austin, which is a fictional name, but descriptions of it are of the town that I lived in Yorkshire.

Danielle:
Right. How much research is involved when you…

Karen:
Oh, a lot of research.

Danielle:
How did you plan that research and how did you know when to stop and start in the writing process?

Karen:
It’s very hard to know when to involve the research and when not to. I was very conscious of putting facts in the book for the sake of putting facts in and then sounding a bit pretentious by doing so. But then there were things I researched that I didn’t use, for example, one of the characters comes back from the war and he has a sword, which gentleman of the day carried swords with them. I thought, ‘I wonder what that sword would look like?’ So then I started researching swords that were used during the war, swords that were carried for dress purposes by the young gentlemen. I got an idea of what it looked like, what it felt like to hold. I looked up pictures of it, I looked up things about how they were created. I learned all about these swords, but then never actually used it in my book. But to me, it created a setting, and a place, and helped me to perhaps visualise the character.

Danielle:
That’s interesting.

Karen:
Yeah, I thought so. Then I learned stupid things like the fact that Silent Night was written in 1812, I’m like, ‘Who cares’, and I didn’t use that. But, at the time I thought, ‘I wonder what’s popular around that time’, so I started looking at things that might have been popular, things that were part of people’s culture and the way they lived. Then other parts of the research I did use, like what they wore, what they ate, how they lived, what the war was like, what it meant to the families back home when their men went off to war. So, there was a lot that I used as well.

Danielle:
Yeah. You have actually planned this story as a trilogy.

Karen:
That’s right.

Danielle:
Are you working on the next book at the moment?

Karen:
Yes. The second book is going to be called Inviolate, and it’s due for publication probably this time next year. It’s in its first draft at the moment, and then I’m hoping there will be a third one the following year.

Danielle:
Right. Is the story already planned out for you for all three books?

Karen:
Yes. It’s all up here.

Danielle:
And how do you plan a trilogy? Is there a process for that, are you really working on one book at a time?

Karen:
It’s funny because I’ve read a lot about other writers who work on things one book at a time, but for me this was an entire story that just evolved in my head, and then I thought, ‘This is way too much for one book, it’s going to have to be two’. Then when it evolved a bit more it became three. So, I’m hoping it won’t become four.

But it is all in my head and I had to actually break it into chunks to make it readable, to make it interesting, to make it not so weighty that people are going to be scared of it.

It could go on forever. But, it is all planned in my head.

Danielle:
OK. Tell us a bit about the publishing process, because you are self-publishing these books.

Karen:
That’s right.

Danielle:
What does it involve, exactly?

Karen:
Well, for me, it involves having a lot of say over how the book looks, for example, and how it’s put together. I knew right from the start what I wanted this book to look like, and had discussions with Palmer Hicks, who did publish it for me. I actually knew that it was going to look like that, and I kept insisting to him, ‘No, it has to have an oak tree’, ‘No, it’s going to have to look like this’. My husband trolled the internet, we actually purchased photographs from the internet that people sell, and picked out the tree that I wanted, and then sent it to the publisher and said, ‘This is what I want, this is how I want it to look’. So, I had that much control.

I also had a lot of control over what it would look like inside. They send you all of these different concepts of what paper we would use, what font that was going to be used, did I want a nice, pretty capital letter at the beginning of each chapter, or did I not? I had control over that as well. To me, that was very, very rewarding, because this is my baby.

I see it now and it’s exactly as I envisioned it to, and the self-publishing process enabled me to do that. It was also very painless, I didn’t have to deal with people that didn’t know who I was and rejected me. There was no real problem with getting it out there.

It was just a matter of saying, ‘This is what I want, this is how I’m going to do it, and, yes, I’m prepared to pay’. Because that’s one of the other things, if you have a publishing house that does it for you, they bear at least part of the risk, whereas I’m bearing all the risk of this.

Danielle:
I was going to ask you about… I’m not going to ask you exact figures, but I assume you have to be very careful in how you budget this. How you order and that sort of thing. How are you managing that process.

Karen:
Well, I think one of the biggest things for me was when we went to the first print run. I had to think very hard and I spoke with my publisher, I spoke with my publicist, I spoke with a number of people to find out what their needs were going to be. The publicist needed copies of books. I needed copies of books. We’ve engaged a distributor who needs copies of books. Having said that, do I want to spend a lot of money having boxes and boxes of books printed only to keep them forever in my cupboard?

So we went with quite a small print run to start with, and it was I think about 400 books, and I probably kept maybe 50 or 60 of those for myself, because we were doing an official launch and we had various events and things like that. The rest of them went to the distributor, who got the bulk of them, and my publicist got probably a box or so of books. That way I’ve paid for them, but I don’t get them, and they’re out now in bookshops and things like that, thanks to the distributor.

But it was a big question for me, because it’s not a cheap process, it was very expensive, and the book owes me a lot of money.

But the pleasure of seeing it there and the pleasure I’m receiving from the people who are enjoying reading it makes it all worthwhile.

Danielle:
You’re going through a distributor, you’ve hired a publicist.

Karen:
Yes.

Danielle:
How important do you think it is to, I guess, hand those processes over to professionals rather than try to take it on yourself? Because many self-publishers would just try and do that themselves.

Karen:
Oh, yeah. Yeah, they would. And that’s great. I have friends who are self-published and they are very good with that. I’m not. I know my strengths lie in writing the book, not in marketing myself. So I engaged a publicist because that’s what she does, that’s what she is good at. There is no way that I could do that for myself. I’m just not the type of person to do that.

So, if somebody said to me, ‘Do you suggest I use a publicist?’ I would be suggesting they look at themselves, because it’s a huge job, and I know that Tamara is working very, very hard to contact people like yourselves, and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t put myself out there that way, it would be very confronting for me, way too confronting for me.

The distributor – I’m amazed at how that works. I was googling the book on the Internet the other day and found that there are bookshops in the UK carrying it. Now, there is no way I would have done that. I wouldn’t have even thought of that, but there it is, you can buy it online if you live in the UK.

So, yeah, there is a benefit to that. It’s going to the distributor, who takes a margin from the book sales, that’s fine, because if he didn’t get it out there, it wouldn’t be sold at all.

It would be in a box in the corner of my room. So I would recommend that you use people like that.

Danielle:
Yes, definitely. Just back to your writing, you also write short stories and you published a book of short stories as well.

Karen:
That’s right.

Danielle:
How is the process of writing a short story different to the process of writing a novel for you?

Karen:
The biggest thing with the short story is trying to capture a moment in time in a very small number of words. With the novel I could take a little bit of license, because it could be as short, or as long as I wanted it to be. But, with a short story – nobody wants to read a short story that goes on for 80,000 to 100,000 words. I really enjoyed the process of learning how to be economical with words. Being able to say something that might take a dozen words in maybe six words, and learning. it really extends your vocabulary, because you’re able to concisely express a thought, or an expression, or a description in many fewer words. And, to me, it’s a challenge, but it’s also fun. Then when you get this final product, that’s maybe 2,000 words, and it has a start, an ending and a body, you think, ‘Hey, this is really doable, and this fun to read, and they’re fun to write.’

Danielle:
Do you still write lots of short stories now?

Karen:
Not so much at the moment. I’m actually employed as a technical writer, I write financial articles for various publications. So that kind of takes my mind away from it. But, again, because the articles that I write are limited in words, they’re usually 400 to 500 words, and they’re usually quite technical, I have to learn. And I think the short story practice is helpful, because I’ve been able to really bring things down to… I’m trying to find the word I’m thinking of, but really just bring things down to much fewer words. It’s a practice.

Danielle:
Again, is there a switch when you go from your technical writing day job to sitting down and writing a novel? How do you get your brain into creative gear?

Karen:
I can’t do the same thing in one day, I just can’t. Unfortunately most of the time I have to write technical things, but if I’ve decided I’m going to write some fiction, it has to be a separate day. I can’t just take off one hat and put on another one. It’s like I have to clear my head totally.

And then I have to have my office set just so. I’ve got to have my coffee, usually chocolate. I have to have cleared everything, no housework needs to be done,because they’ll all be sitting in my mind. I have my cat, I have the window and the birds outside and everything just perfect. I think I’m a bit OCD with it. Then I can sit and write, and then I can lose myself, I can go to another world. I could go to the 1800s, or I can go wherever I want. My husband will come home from work hours later and the place is cold, it’s in darkness, I’m starving and I hadn’t noticed. So, I’ve spent the entire day in another world, but I have to separate it from the short stories, or from the technical writing.

Danielle:
Do you have to plan time then? Do you deliberately schedule in, ‘OK, this is my writing day? So, the house has to be cleaned. And the cat has to be fed’, is that how you approach it?

Karen:
Yes. Exactly. When it comes to writing articles for my day job, that’s a day job, I just go in there and I get it done and come out for a cup of tea and do whatever I do, because it can be fairly intense, so you’re constantly clearly your head, and you don’t get lost in technical stuff. But, if I’ve decided I’m going to write some fiction, then I’ll plan it for that day next week when I’ve cleared my desk of all the other obligations that I have. That’s my day and I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to write. So I’ll go out for a jog in the morning and I’ll come in, have breakfast, do what I have to do, and then just let everything go. I usually have some classical music playing in the background, and I just lose myself.

Danielle:
Yeah. Did it take you a while to realise, because I assume you’ve been a technical writer for a long time, this is your first novel, and the short story was your first published book.

Karen:
Yeah.

Danielle:
I mean had you always planned to write fiction at some stage? Or was it just something that came to you after?

Karen:
I don’t know that it was a plan, but I remember as a little girl, and I would have been 10 or 11, making my own Little Golden Books, and I used to… do you remember those?

Danielle:
Yes, I do. Yeah, I had loads.

Karen:
I used to write stories about my brother and my pets, and my family. And then I’d illustrate them really, really badly, and then staple them all together. And then I’d have all of these little stories that I had written, and then at some point I just forgot about all of that and got caught up in growing up, getting a job, getting married, and life sort of runs away with you.

Danielle:
Is there a trigger then that sent you back to that?

Karen:
Yes. There was one day, I was working in an office and I was the only employee based in Melbourne. It was a boring old job when there was nothing to do. So I was trolling the Internet one day, and I came across The Society of Women Writers. And they had a short story competition and I thought, ‘This could be fun’. So, I wrote a short story. I just sat there at my desk and wrote this short story and sent it off the next day, and it won first prize in the competition. And I thought, ‘Well, there could be something in this. This is exciting’. When they had phoned to tell me I had won first prize I thought, ‘Get away, that’s not happening’.

But then I went onto write more and won more awards and thought, ‘Hey, there’s something in this’. And what’s more I’m really, really enjoying it. At that point I had already had ideas for my characters for this book, but they had not actually formulated,. So, as I started writing these short stories, and realising that people were liking the way I write, people like my writing style and it works, maybe I should start writing down Alex and Patrick’s story, which is what Torn is.

Danielle:
One final question for you. What is your advice to writers, new writers?

Karen:
Just start writing, don’t delay. If it’s in your head, get it down, you can always tidy it up later. But the most important thing is just start because if you don’t start you’ll never start. And I started and now I have a book that I’m proud of.

Danielle:
That’s excellent advice. Thank you very much, Karen.

Karen:
Thank you.

Danielle:
Good luck with the book.

Karen:
Thank you.

Danielle:
Good luck with writing the second one.

Karen:
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

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