Episode 3 Australia’s Great Southern Land
Rural romance is always popular, and I wonder what makes it so? Is it the history of rural settings? The rugged outdoors, the smalltown cosy factor, the sense of life being lived at a slower, more meaningful pace? The appeal of RuRo no doubt varies from reader to reader, but it is indisputable that setting and context must play a leading role in that appeal.
John Mullan, in his book How Novels Work, draws a distinction between location and setting which seems apt for rural romance. He says location is a known thing – the reader and the characters know, for example, that they are in the town of Yarraman Falls in the Southern Alps. Setting, however, can be foreign, or as he puts it “any sense of place is also a sense of being out of place, a tourist.” (Mullan, 2006)
This made sense to me. When you read a rural romance, often a character is unsettled and therefore transforms because they are away from home. So let’s saddle up and go forth to explore a known location (Australia’s rural south) and the unknown settings that authors make their characters face.
Here’s the super-brief recap of the premise of this series in case you haven’t read the first article:
The Setting & Context articles uses two novels each month for a quick eye-spy on how writers engage their readers through setting and context.
There are three crucial elements to a story: character, conflict and context.
Character provides the heart, conflict provides the story, and context is the framework within which all the elements of fiction bounce and jostle together to become a unique and engaging read.
Context = your fiction’s physical setting + the rules of your fictional world
Context is a boundary (like a split-rail cattleyard) against which your characters and conflicts can be pushed, or a safe-haven in which they can flourish.
That boundary can be physical (think a mountain range), social (think conservative country attitudes), or by choice/trait (think a need for isolation, or a family legacy of land ownership)
Writers trap their characters inside contextual walls with their conflict – the characters cannot walk away, they must work it through, and this is why the strength and believability of the context and setting in fiction is crucial.
Let’s go meet our travel companions. This month I am taking you on a day trip to the country that stretches from the Southern Ocean to the Australian Alps, running upstream with the mighty Murray River..
“… they broke from the edge of the bush, the undergrowth fading into scruffy ground cover, while the land opened up to show them a view across the high country. Even with the haze across the horizon, Peta’s heart soared at the lofty sense of space …” (Nash, 2019)
Travel companion number one is Charlotte Nash, Australian author of rural romances and more recently the beautifully-covered roadtrip rescue story Saving You.
The book we’ll be packing in with your trail mix is The Horseman. Charlotte’s website tells us “Her signature style features a lush sense of place” (Nash, 2019) – which is perfect for us!
Craft tip: what is “a lush sense of place”? The Oxford Dictionary (online) describes lush as meaning “very rich and providing great sensory pleasure”. To me, this means the author must choose details which invoke the spirit of the country, its sounds and smells as well as its sights, and have those details mean something to the characters.
Travel Companion number two is Darry Fraser, author of three novels set in Southern Australia on the banks of the Murray and Ballarat. Her novel Where The Murray River Runs just featured in Better Reading’s Top 100 Reads list. The book we’ll be reading this episode is Daughter of the Murray.
Craft tip: write what you know really can pay off. Here’s what the team at Better Reading had to say about their Top 100 reads list: “It demonstrates what we’ve long observed on social media, or overheard in our local bookstore: Australians are huge supporters and readers of home-grown talent and greatly appreciate the quality of local writing.” (Better Reading, 2019)
Let us peek into some text now and consider some strategies our two travel companions employed to create their context and setting.
The Horseman by Charlotte Nash
The Horseman settles us into the alpine horse country of southern Australia from the first line of text: “January, somewhere in the Wonnangatta National Park”. The sensory detail swiftly follows:
• Leafy trail
• Foggy morning
• Ferns and shrubs
• A heavy pack
• A horse
Craft tip: small bursts of sensory detail help place the reader in the setting of the novel
The author’s attention to detail is acute. A wombat isn’t randomly dropped into the story to let us know we’re in the Australian bush; rather, a character says of her horse: ”a wombat spooked him this morning”. The phrase comes with a richer image of a wombat scurrying to the cover of sparse scrub, a horse snorting and stamping. The author doesn’t just mention peaks and crags – she has the main character using those peaks and crags to help her use a compass to estimate her position in the wilderness.
We are only 22 lines in when we have our first instance of character and context causing conflict: “Oh,no. People.” The heroine, about whom we know nothing at this point other than that she is hiking on a rural alpine trail, has only given us three words, but already we are wondering: who is she? Why is she hiking alone? Why is annoyed at having her solitude disturbed?
Craft Tip: what are the tropes of your genre? Are you planning on playing to them, or defying them?
Peta’s irritation plays into the rural romance trope: a woman goes to the country to find herself, distance herself from baggage, reassess, re-boot. Whether she finds, or something else entirely … well. That’s why we read to the end …
The author uses the setting to inform her word choices. Here’s an example: “the spur plunged down towards one of the creeks”. I love this one, because not only is it giving us a geological feature of the alpine range in which she is hiking, bit it has a horsey double-meaning to it. And Peta doesn’t know it yet, but she’s got to be featuring in a story called “The Horseman” for a reason …
Craft tip: use setting to influence word choice. This can be particularly evocative when used in simile or metaphor. Example: when the hero is able to get off his horse after a long ride “the relief was as refreshing as cool mountain water”; the tension between two men who don’t get along as being “like a dense cloud”; when Peta meets the man with whom she’s about to start a relationship, she describes him as “the kind of man who should be wielding an axe at a country show”.
Daughter of the Murray by Darry Fraser
Daughter of the Murray isn’t just set in a rural location; it is set in the past.
The author steeps us in this past through researched detail. “Echuca, the river port town, was bustling as usual, the dock alive with gliding riverboats, the cranes busy unloading freight.” Steamboats are a constantly chugging backdrop to the plot: “the low chug was as regular a tattoo as his own heartbeat, which took its rhythm from the river itself.”
She brings in the foreignness of the land (the heroine is English): “Overhead, the brilliant sun reminded her that more tardiness would be a mistake.” And later, “the great aromatic eucalypt gums scented the air.”
The 1890s setting provides excellent sources for conflict as our heroine butts up against the patriarchal views of Australian society in that era. Clothing choices, work-versus-wife choices, property ownership, even saddle types and the ability to have a bank account are, for women, restricted by convention. For Georgina Calthorpe, a strong-willed young woman with competence galore, these restrictions chafe. This conflict is explored in the story as Georgina becomes involved in the suffragette movement.
Craft tip: examine your fictional world. What are its rules? Use them to create subplots such as Georgina’s involvement in the suffragette movement and the tension this causes within her marriage.
Toot toot, all aboard, mind the gap!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief eye-spy into context and setting via Australia’s great Southern land: present and future.
Next month I’ll be directing the pilot to take us to Africa, to explore Zimbabwe with author T.M. Clark and her novel My Brother But One. We’ll be re-fuelling in Capetown, South Africa on the way to check out author Qarnita Loxton and her novel Being Kari.
Wishing you bon voyage,
Fraser, D. (2016). Daughter of the Murray. Sydney: Harlequin.
Mullen, J. (2008). How Novels Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nash, C. (2016). The Horseman. Sydney: Hachette.