From research scientist to author: Nancy Cunningham’s debut novel

Research scientist Nancy Cunningham always had a love of literature and frequently participated in the yearly writing challenge National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Although she had written and published scientific articles, she never imagined that she could publish her creative writing. However, after reassessing what she really wanted from life, she realised that she wanted her writing to be more than a hobby. That’s when she turned to the Australian Writers' Centre.

She found inspiration from Reinvent Yourself, motivation from Creative Writing 30-day Bootcamp, and technical tools from Fiction Essentials: Structure. And now she is a novelist with the publication of her debut novel Crossing the Bridge, out now with Harlequin Escape Publishing.

“I've met so many wonderful writers through the writing community and feel blessed that I can call myself an author,” Nancy told us.

The makings of a rural romance

They say write what you know, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Nancy drew on her agricultural expertise to write a World War II rural romance.

“I love National Novel Writing Month and have been doing it since 2012, but I never took writing seriously until late 2017 and decided to write an Australian-set World War II story – about life on the homefront – and because of my agricultural scientist background I wanted to set it on a farm in my home state of South Australia. I loved researching the history of the time and created my first draft.”

Nancy put that first manuscript aside and worked on a few other novels. She found Fiction Essentials: Structure an incredibly useful tool for learning about narrative tension and pacing, while the Creative Writing 30-day Bootcamp was invaluable for getting the writing done.

“I found the daily prompts from the Bootcamp were enough to motivate me to write something every day – something I struggle with as I work almost full-time and have a young family.” 

Nancy also threw herself into the Australian Writers' Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction writing challenge. Drawing on her new skills, she completely rewrote that first manuscript, and entered it in a few competitions.

“It did very well and finaled in some big romance competitions, and at the Children, Young Adult, and Adult Writers’ and Illustrators’ (CYA) Conference it won best unpublished adult manuscript, so I was excited to think it could possibly be published one day! I did an online pitch to an editor at HarperCollins for a different manuscript and they came back fairly quickly to me to say it wasn't a right fit for them but they had gone to my website and saw I had this other manuscript that they liked the blurb for and would I like to submit that to them – of course I said yes!”

Nancy submitted the manuscript for Crossing the Bridge and within 12 months had an offer for publication.

“I was on the phone with my daughter's orthodontist at the time and whilst waiting, checked my emails – where I saw I had an offer from Harlequin/Escape Publishing! I was so excited (and nervous too!) As soon as I got off the phone, I rang my partner Tony. Then my sister, brother and my friends and went out and bought some champagne to celebrate!”

A dream come true

Crossing the Bridge tells the story of widow Poppy Guilford who, in 1944, is fighting to save her farm. But a devastating secret from her husband's past threatens to derail her struggle to save the property and keep her son by her side. When former soldier JB Beaton takes on a job as a farmhand at Poppy’s farm, neither can battle the surge of attraction they both feel. Bestselling Australian author Victoria Purman says, “This emotional debut novel is a cracker.”

Having had a taste of publishing success, Nancy is not content to rest on her laurels just yet. 

“I have one other manuscript ready to submit, another that has gone to a professional editor after it won the Romance Writers of New Zealand Pacific Hearts Award (for unpublished manuscripts) and I wrote the sequel for Crossing the Bridge during Nanowrimo 2023.”

It’s an incredible achievement for someone who used to treat writing as a hobby.

“I always had a creative streak, and when I was younger wrote plays and fan fiction, but never thought I could write anything original or be considered among some of my favourite authors and be published, but a health crisis made me re-evaluate what I really wanted from life,” Nancy told us. “Writing, a minor hobby previously, started dominating everything I ever wanted to do creatively; it became a way to express myself that I had pushed to one side.”

Nancy still uses the Fiction Essentials: Structure course notes when setting up a new manuscript and finds Creative Writing 30-day Bootcamp is the perfect way to kickstart a first draft.

“I would say that if you're serious about wanting to write, whether it be creative, business or copywriting/editing head over to the AWC website they have a course for everything you need to help you move forward.”

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