Josephine Pennicott on Obstacles and Inspirations

Josephine Pennicott is a multi-award winning crime writer who has won the Scarlet Stiletto and (twice) the wonderfully named Kerry Greenwood Domestic Malice Prize. Jo has also written a dark fantasy trilogy, Circle of Nine. Today she reflects on writing obstacles and inspirations.


Thank you Ian, for inviting me to submit to your Blog. Those of us lucky enough to know Ian personally, know that he’s a gentleman who is incredibly generous with his support for other writers. Being part of an online writing community of fellow Selwa Anthony authors, I’ve read and gleaned a lot from Ian’s experience and wisdom over the years. So, of course I couldn’t refuse his invitation to be a part of his online project to help others.
My first novels were Dark Fantasy, published by Simon and Schuster (Earthlight imprint) – Circle of Nine (2001),Bride of the Stone (2002) and A Fire in the Shell (2004). They were the result of years studying painting at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. They evolved from my own artwork, my interest in Surrealism, fairy tales, mythology and comparative religions, in particular Paganism. Circle of Nine was selected by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow as one of the top ten debut books for their prestigious 2001 anthology, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. They will soon be republished by Pan Macmillan as e-books.
Afterwards I spent three years – a very difficult time with all sorts of obstacles in the way of my writing – working on what I shall jokingly refer to as my ‘masterpiece.’ You know when you read authors saying they wrote a list of all the things they loved, put all those elements in their book, and it became a bestseller? Well, that’s what I was after! I began writing a historical, supernatural murder mystery called The Witches of Paris. I submitted the proposal to Selwa, who was very keen. Sophia Coppola was rumoured to be directing a movie based on Marie Antoinette; my book was set in a similar location and so it seemed like a timely idea.
But in 2007, when The Witches of Paris was still not quite done, I went on holiday with my family to Stanley on the North-West Coast of Tasmania and fell in love with a white house by the sea. A house that became incredibly important to my writing career. It gave me an idea for a new book, Poet’s Cottage, which Selwa encouraged me to start while I was waiting for an editor’s report on The Witches Of Paris.
The more I worked on Poet’s Cottage, the more the characters came to me. I had been to India in my early twenties and stayed at a well-known spiritual Guru’s ashram who had a saying, ‘Take one step towards me and I’ll take a thousand towards you.’ This book was exactly like that. My characters literally dragged me into the story. They were waiting for me every morning and the process became very exciting.
I forgot my previous project for the time being as I began to lose myself in the mystery of who killed Pearl Tatlow, bohemian children’s writer, in her dark and eerie cellar on a foggy day in Pencubitt, Tasmania in July 1936. Was she really murdered by ‘the Tasmanian devil that Mummy kept in the cellar to threaten us with when she was writing?’ as her daughter Thomasina, who witnessed the murder, claimed. Or, did something far more sinister cross the threshold of Poet’s Cottage? A stranger to the town, as the local people kept insisting – or someone Pearl knew and trusted?
As I mentioned, I was on holiday with my family when I first spotted the house that ignited the spark that became the book Poet’s Cottage.
In my Sydney life, I live with my daughter and my writer husband, David Levell, in a small, historic brick house in the inner-west. It’s like a tiny doll’s house and my husband is used to me falling in love with houses on all my trips. I’m a very proud fifth generation Tasmanian – and often homesick for my home state.
This particular house ticked all my boxes – it was a white Georgian-style home that looked like something the Bronte sisters would have lived in. It overlooked the sea, in a picturesque, Tasmanian sea-fishing village. A village that was a combination of wild gothic, isolated coastline contrasted with a very Cornish looking, cosy village that could have come straight from an Enid Blyton or Daphne du Maurier novel!
I felt that this house had a story to tell me. There didn’t appear to be anybody living there and so my imagination was free to conjure up a myriad of scenarios. I spent a lot of time standing outside the gates, listening for the secrets and stories that I felt sure the house was trying to whisper to me.
There was a friendly gentleman who said hello to me in the street every day. On one of our meetings, I confided I’d fallen in love with the house, and he beamed, ‘That’s Poet’s Cottage! And I’m the poet who used to live there!’ This friendly local was Lin Eldridge – when he discovered I was a writer – he introduced me to his 90-something year old wife, whose name is Marguerite Eldridge. Marguerite and Lin live in Gull Cottage; my Birdie Pinkerton lives in Seagull Cottage in the novel. I had no idea when first meeting this charming, pretty and twinkly eyed lady that she was actually quite a well-known identity in Tasmania. Marguerite, who has never left her fishing village (and I can easily understand why) has self-published several books on life in Stanley. She has been instrumental in her town for starting creative ventures. In January 2011, she was awarded an Australia Day Award, for her service to the creative arts and her community.
They were a most welcoming couple, just as Birdie does in Poet’s Cottage, Marguerite urged me to ‘help yourself to my Daphne’ and they tolerated with good spirits my small daughter running amuck in Gull Cottage. Marguerite helped to inspire my character of Birdie Pinkerton – as did another elderly lady that I knew and visited in my high school years in Tasmania. But Birdie Pinkerton is not Marguerite – despite sharing several things in common.
Over the years I was always fascinated by the story of Enid Blyton’s two daughters, Gillian and Imogen, having opposing views of their mother. I remember one story in the UK Telegraph, Was Enid Blyton the Mother from Hell? I’ve seen in my own family how different members could all have totally variant views of an incident- and how sometimes it was impossible to fathom what was truth.
I’m also addicted to the UK TV show Midsomer Murders, with its surreal but quite realistic juxtaposition of pretty English villages and murder most foul. Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie are both writers I love. I’ve won quite a few awards over the years for my crime writing short stories, which were always very dark. I love reading cosy, English-style mysteries and I wanted to set myself the challenge of writing an English style mystery but with an Australian setting. All these elements came together at Stanley. Tasmania was a perfect place to set the book as it’s so English looking!
I used elements of two Tasmanian towns for my imaginary town of Pencubitt for Poet’s Cottage, Stanley in the North-West and also Oatlands, which is the very pretty midlands Georgian village where I spent my high school years. My early years were spent in Papua New Guinea. Generations of Pennicotts have settled in Oatlands and the name seems to belong to the town and area.
It was a joy to escape into my imaginary fishing village of Pencubitt every day from my garden writing shed in Sydney with planes flying overhead and heavy traffic outside the front door of our brick house. I based the character of Sadie (in the present day thread of the book) and her daughter, Betty on a lot of mothers I saw around me in Sydney’s inner-west. A majority were older mothers and trying to parent in a different way to their mother’s generation. They weren’t trying to be friends so much with their children but there was a difference in the dynamic that I was trying to capture. Sadie also helped to partially satisfy my own longing for a sea-change.
Pearl Tatlow in the 30s thread evolved from years of watching crime dramas set in the 1930s. And also a little of Enid Blyton and Jerry Hall, the Texan model went into my boho Pearl. I once saw Jerry Hall strut her stuff down a Sydney street and never forgot the impact her beauty and sassy attitude had on the gawping crowd of normally too-cool-for-school city folk.
Birdie Pinkerton was inspired by the two older ladies mentioned above. She was always very strong and quite stern with me when I wasn’t capturing some aspect of her character.
Maxwell was inspired by a gentlemanly, kind and caring Uncle of mine. I always enjoyed Maxwell’s sweet and considerate manners when I was working.
Thomasina just came striding in to the writing shed, with her beanie on her head, filled with a terrible memory and some really fun scenes for me to write for her. She was always strong, always unpredictable and very touching to connect with. I grew to care for all my characters very deeply over the three years it took to writePoet’s Cottage.
Looking back, I’m thrilled with how things worked out. The Witches of Paris was a love letter to France and I still hope to see it published one day. Poet’s Cottage is a love letter to Tasmania, my home state. My father, who had always been one of my most staunch believers of my writing from when I was a little girl, has been battling a very aggressive cancer for five years. I realised towards the end of writing Poet’s Cottage – the cancer reached his liver just as I finished the copy edit – that Poet’s Cottage itself had become not just another historic house I had fallen in love with – but rather it represented something a lot more personal. It was a dwelling between the worlds where my ancestors resided and represented all the secrets, dramas, misunderstanding, passions and mysteries (not to mention the enormous family love) that we all have hidden in our respective family cupboards.
If you’re in need of some inspiration to get you out of any pity-tea party you may be enjoying when it comes to your writing, I hope you can find it in my post. I was determined, focused and able to walk away from three years of working on a dream and start again for another three years with a different book. If I can do it –so can you. Sometimes whether we realise it or not – and however it may seem at the time – everything does work for our greater good. If you get rejected and your ‘masterpiece’ is knocked back – then write another. If it takes you years as it did me – that’ s fine. Your ego will live with it if you’re following your spirit’s path.
We’re all conditioned to believe all the success stories on writers the media broadcast but the reality is much grimmer for working writers that I know. They may get a few books published and then they have to go back to the drawing board. It’s a touch business, it can crack your heart open – and you do have to be tough as old boots to cope with it at times.
Looking back, I can see how all the characters in my writing career played their parts perfectly. I’m forever grateful that Poet’s Cottage beat The Witches of Paris to publication because it meant so much to my father to see me finally get taken seriously with a book set in Tasmania. And, I do plan on returning to my Parisian witches with all the new skills I’ve learnt over the last seven years. But first I have another mystery novel to complete for Pan Macmillan.
Writing can be a tough, bitchy, hard, isolating, heart-breaking profession at times. And that’s the good days. But I’m very honoured to be a Tale Peddler and to experience the joyful bliss of characters flowing, manifesting and telling their story. So give thanks for it all. The good fortune, the set-backs, the rejections and the awards. Don’t believe books and your career have to follow a set path. Keep open to your own personal timing and rhythm. No matter how things may appear at the time – use the experience. Both the so-called ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ can honour a higher purpose – and if you are patient and diligent enough – and believe in a little bit of pixie and glittery wishing dust – the seeds you scatter will be harvested.
Thanks very much, Jo, that’s a lovely and inspiring story. Poet’s Cottage will be published by Pan Macmillan in May 2012.
Josephine Pennicott’s site is here: http://www.josephinepennicott.com/
You can find Josephine on her blog Tale Peddler, http://talepeddler.blogspot.com/
and on Twitter, Facebook or Good Reads.


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