Where Fact Ends and Fiction Begins
(published in "Capital Letter" - the official Blog of the ACT Writers Centre)
People often ask where I source my ideas for writing. Perhaps they believe writers live in a separate world where creativity blossoms all year long … if only! I see ideas as little seeds that germinate in moments of freedom and illumination, which, for me is often when I am on holidays. These seeds remain hidden in the dark for some time (maybe years) before a little flash of light allows the first leaf to unfurl. It’s natural for writers to include elements of themselves in their writing, but where does fact end and fiction begin? Here’s my story of the origins of my latest novel The Grass Castle.
I’ve lived in Canberra for twenty-two years – insufficient to qualify as a local, but long enough to know my way around the roundabouts and to appreciate the privileged lifestyle. I moved here for love, following the man who is now my husband. It was a difficult transition as I came from semi-rural Healesville near Melbourne where I was the local veterinarian who knew everyone and their pets. At first I was lonely and miserable and I found it difficult to belong, but the BrindabellaRanges just beyond Canberra offered me a place to find connection with the landscape, which has always been important to me. I hiked there, mountain-biked, camped, rock-climbed, gradually made friends through outdoor activities. I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually this love of the mountains would lead me to the story that became The Grass Castle.
After completing a PhD in wildlife health at the ANU, I began a project studying kangaroos and their movements between reserves and farmlands. I spent many hours watching and radio-tracking kangaroos in the mountains and on rural properties around Canberra, working night and day and in all weather. I loved to sit on the verandas of old huts in NamadgiNational Park, looking out across the valleys where kangaroos grazed. At night I would lie on the grass and gaze up into the heavens.
My experiences in the mountains and working with kangaroos, as well as my spiritual connection with the landscape were woven into the key protagonists of The Grass Castle. First, I imagined Abby, a young woman in her early twenties studying in Canberra away from her family, as so many young people do. She has a passion for making a contribution through science and a great love of solitude and nature that was similar to mine when I first came to Canberra. However, although I used my experiences to help set up initially, Abby’s character developed her own life force and personality: fiction separates from fact.
The other main character, Daphne, is an old woman in her eighties whose ancestors were settlers in the BrindabellaRanges. She grew up in a slab hut built by her father’s family, and eventually she married and raised her own family there. Daphne came from my imaginings of life in the mountains. While I was studying kangaroos, I explored the old huts and walked around the valleys, and then, back at home I read books about the history of the region and how people lived and worked on the land. Daphne’s life is entirely fictional, but her feelings of connection with the countryside and the mountains come from deep inside me. Is that fact and fiction combined, or fact separating from fiction?
In The Grass Castle, I also drew on experience to write about the controversial topic of kangaroo management in the bush capital. As a veterinarian, I have worked with people from all sides of the kangaroo debate, from wildlife carers looking after orphaned joeys, and scientists working on fertility control in kangaroos, to animal rights activists campaigning against native animals as pets. The kangaroo issue provided scaffolding for the story and played a critical role in the resolution of personal problems for my characters.
Writing a novel is a journey which takes significant time and energy. It requires a writer to use every resource she has, and more: personal experience, history, research, impressions, material from discussions, plus a large hammer to batter words into shape. There are rare moments of inspiration, but there is no denying that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% hard work. Real experiences ring true, but in the end the best stories create a new reality, distinct from their source. Perhaps this is the definition of fiction: an imaginary world carefully layered on a hidden foundation of fact; heart and gut-feeling blended with truth.
Born in Melbourne and raised in the Dandenong Ranges riding horses and writing stories, Karen went on to study veterinary science at Melbourne University before working in practice for several years. She completed a PhD in wildlife health, and since then she has worked on a wide range of Australian native animals, including kangaroos. Karen loves landscapes, wild places, people and animals. She is the author of two previous novels: The Stranding (A&U 2008) and the bestselling The Lightkeeper’s Wife (A&U 2011). The Grass Castle is her third novel. She lives in Canberra with her husband and two children.