Writing in the Margin (by Cheryl Rogers)

As you’ll read in this post, Australian short-story writer Cheryl Rogers is a former journalist and the author of two nonfiction books. For her short fiction, she is a multiple winner of both the Henry Lawson Society of New South Wales Short Story Award and the Queen of Crime Award given by Partners in Crime (Sydney). I’ll let her tell you more about the course of her writing career herself, but I will say that I hope to read her book Finding Marjorie King—A Daughter’s Journey to Discover Her Mother’s Identity when it comes out this spring, and EQMM readers can look forward to another of her short stories later in 2022.  —Janet Hutchings

The aim of this piece is to encourage any aspiring writer who happens to read it, to have a go, give it a crack as we say in Australia. Do not be afraid to put your work out for scrutiny. Do your best and keep doing it, your writing will only get better. If you are both aspiring and young then start documenting your life experiences to use later, to fill all those pages you’ve yet to write.

That said, let’s start with a confession. There are often times when I don’t enjoy writing. In any form, it can be a grind. And writing short stories can be really, really tough. For an extra degree of difficulty, throw in a murder. Then try to solve it. Wrangling a plot can be as painful as wrestling an axe murderer on a bed of nails, metaphorically speaking. Of course, I have never wrestled an actual axe murderer, on a bed of nails or anywhere else.

Now that particular cat is out of the bag, another confession. As soon as the staple gun shoots its bullet into the top left corner, binding together those crisp, white pages of a new creation, I feel a sense of satisfaction that is beyond reason. Elation, even. Happiness. Those reading this, who also write, may identify with that emotion. Those who don’t, probably never will. A dear, close friend, after listening to me banging on about writing for probably longer than she cared, once advised: “Cheryl, not everyone thinks about writing all the time.” Oh?

For a few precious weeks, each new creation seems as near darned perfect as any offspring has a right to be. Sharp, clean, incisive, the pages even smell good. To me, at least. This is undeniably the honeymoon phase.

It leads to what I now think of as the matchmaking phase. No bow, no arrow, and at last some pragmatism. That’s when, in the case of a short story, I scout the lists of competitions or magazines with potential to be my perfect baby’s perfect match. Then I boot it out of the nest, electronically these days. In earlier times I queued, and licked stamps and watched the eye rolling of the man behind the counter at the post office when I requested international reply coupons to stuff in the envelopes.

Off would go each submission, fueled by hope. Then the long wait, to see whether bubsy had been ravaged, or scorned, or even treated with complete indifference. Ouch! Any writer who chooses to put their work “out there” knows that we shoot our babies from canons, over and over again. Never really sure on whose desk our precious cargo might land, nor how it will be received.

And when they limp back home, with “reject” written all over their dismal cover sheets, what do we do? We take them in, dust them off, patch them up, maybe tweak some plot or reinvent a character, pinch their cheeks to add a bit of color, and push them out again. No point taking it personally—rejection is part of the sometimes treacherous landscape we writers inhabit. “Suck it up princess, and get on with it,” was a lesson fast learned.

I once went so far as to give a character a sex change. A fairly insipid outback barman became a flint-eyed, flame-haired (bottle burgundy, actually), ex-cop in heels who’d taken on a run-down pub and “pulled it up by its bootstraps.” Eleanor Parry was a strong character and packed a far sharper punch than the wishy washy has-been she’d sent into delete. I loved her; she was so much more interesting to write. That was “Such Rage of Honey” (EQMM, March/April 2008)

Maybe that’s what drives some of us to invent, as pathetic as it may sound, that need to escape into a parallel universe inside our heads, to make our dull lives more interesting. Apart from blind hope, of course. That someone, somewhere, will love our baby almost as much as we do and pin a blue rosette on its romper suit, award it an honorable mention or maybe give it a good home in a decent magazine.

For more years than I care to admit, I probably wrote short fiction as just such diversion, to add a bit of color and variety into a frantically busy life, yet where something was missing. Having given up a career as a rural journalist, where I was paid to talk to people and write about whatever it was they said, and instead grow wine grapes/citrus trees/cattle/chickens/ducks/civic trees for landscapers greening urban space (not all at once, but over past decades these have all been part of our farm diversification), I can see now that I’d experienced a loss of identity.

Then along came more precious creations, in the form of our son Joel, and three years later our daughter Anna. Sleepless nights, gummy grins, then school runs that gave way to driver education and teen challenges and meanwhile both sets of grandparents aged and year after year seasonal crops rolled out and needed picking, pruning and selling to the steady line of customers they brought to our door. This is what’s known as Life. How does one write around that? Read on . . .

It is painfully obvious now that although I still thought of myself as a journalist back then, cramming country drives in pursuit of a rural feature story around the edges of farm and family life was never going to work. Mind you, I tried. Because we women are meant to do it all, right? Wrong! I speak from experience. We once did a five-hour round trip with a crawler, so I could interview a couple of farmers for a feature. And a few years later, a much longer solo drive out into our State’s vast wheatbelt, juggling farmer interviews in between the school drop-off and pick-up. Utter madness. The interview schedule ran way, w-a-y late. Not the happiest ending to a fraught day. Those stories were delivered on time, but I had to wonder: What on earth was I trying to prove?

Between babies, I did find a kind of balance in the most unlikely circumstance. Our good friend Gun Dolva and her husband Rodney Potter, had three beautiful children by this stage. Their middle child, Karina, has Down Syndrome. Not long after our son was born, Gun asked if I’d be interested in co-authoring a book with her about their first five years with a child with special needs. She thought it might help other parents, and health professionals working in the field of infant and child care.

Of course I said yes. Looking back, we were amazingly sensible in our approach to the job. We resolved to meet for one morning each week, with our boys rolling then crawling or bottom-shuffling at our feet, and our sole aim was to make some forward progress, no matter how small. This proved key, as it meant we felt we were gaining ground no matter how incremental, and success is a great driver of enthusiasm. New mother/writers take note.

It took a while to finish, mind. Joel was four months old when we started, and the call to say the book had found a home came on the morning of his third birthday. Anna was 18 days old, and I had a birthday party to host. That slim volume (20,000 words) was released exactly a year later, edits being done when the children had their afternoon nap, proof that it is possible to write around the edges, just be patient through those times when Life intervenes. Karina Has Down Syndrome was first published by Southern Cross University Press, Australia, and later by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, U.K. and Paidos, Spain. It was short-listed for the 1998 Premier’s Book Awards for Western Australia. 

Just like farming, where we have had to diversify in order to remain productive, I was learning that forms of writing other than journalism might be my way forward. Be open, be flexible, and don’t be too hard on yourself, would be my advice now to that younger self.

Short stories seemed the most manageable option, but I had to learn the craft. As a journalist, believe it or not, I had stuck to the facts. Fiction seemed a bit scary, at first, but it soon became obvious that it also offered tremendous freedom. Writers of fiction make stuff up. How cool is that! The trick is to make it believable.

Hence, I tuned in to my surroundings here in the beautiful Swan Valley, outside Perth, in Western Australia, an area of red loams and endless blue skies, renowned for its vineyards and wineries.

Another confession—I once killed a woman in a wine cellar. Recently, I remarked as much, quietly of course, to a friend as we walked past aged oak barrels lining that very same cellar en route to a book launch for Perth writer Sally Scott’s debut crime romp Fromage. The mingling bouquet of muscat and damp took me back to the fun I’d had writing “Wine and Ice” (EQMM March/April 2013), also borrowing the tall Norfolk Island Pines and flamboyant mauve jacarandas from that same winery’s grounds for the story’s setting.

As writers, we must tap into what’s on hand. I’ve plotted murder while pruning grapes and also when picking oranges—there is something about physical work that frees the mind to wander, an excellent technique for moving forward a plot.

I’ve donged an unpopular local (“Cold War” EQMM September/October 2011) with a lump of ice that fell off an airplane and landed between our rows of chardonnay. The flight path into Perth airport crosses our farm and the ice lump this was based on was actually discovered by my husband, on a hot summer’s day. I gave thanks that he’d not been donged, obviously, besides there’s a copy of Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” in this house and I wasn’t sure what the police might make of that.

And now, the winds of change are stirring again. Writing submissions to oppose developments threatening the viability and ambience of the rural zone where we live, and the environment, have shifted to the head of the queue vying for my writing time. This is so annoying! With good governance it would be unnecessary. But all that time spent presenting fiction as fact has sharpened my focus for double speak and greenwash in a press release. Sadly, there is such a lot of fluff about.

Given my whinge here about the difficulties of writing short stories around the edges of a busy life, you will understand that I had never considered attempting a longer work. It would take energy. I didn’t think I’d have the stamina.

Then Life pitched another opportunity, one too good to let slip through to the keeper.

For all the years and more that I’d been inventing short mysteries, my old school friend Jennifer Durrant had been attempting to solve a real-life mystery of her own. For decades she’d been trying to find out more about her (now late) mother Marjorie’s true identity. Despite their extremely close mother-daughter relationship, Marjorie had always been reluctant to speak about her past. Nor were there ever any visitors from her relatives to their family home, just up the road from where I am writing this now.

This puzzle had been bubbling away at the edge of my consciousness for all the time I have shared with you here. Being a sucker for a mystery, and with some experience of genealogy, I too was drawn in, thinking it would take maybe six months to crack. Hah!

Like all good mysteries, Jennifer’s search combined red herrings, strong characters, lost opportunities, even hard science. These elements might be fun to play with in a piece of fiction, but proved frustrating in trying to solve her real-life puzzle.

At the lowest point, Jennifer admitted she’d accepted she would never find what she needed to know. She was 60. As the friend who’d jumped on board so confident of a result, I felt as useless as an ash tray on a motorbike. Then, like a line of dominos, in May 2018, the pieces suddenly began to fall into place and Jennifer had many of the answers to questions she’d been asking for so long.

Many who heard Jennifer’s story were adamant that it needed to be written. But in 2018, those close to the heart of it were still trying to process a vast quantity of new and unexpected information, after years of virtually nothing. It was all much too raw to touch.

Two years on, however, that landscape had changed. Then there was Covid. We closed the gate on citrus sales from home, streamlining sales through local Swan Valley fresh produce outlets instead. Both children had left home. So when Jennifer called and asked if I’d help tell her story, the writer inside me was ripe for the picking.

Helping shape Jennifer and Marjorie’s story has without doubt been the most exhilarating writing experience of my life. We knocked out 78,000 words in six months, hosting a family wedding at home in a glammed up hay shed, smack bang in the middle of it. All that writing around the edges had been worth it. As a writer, for once I felt match fit.

And all that sweat, creating mysteries in the short form and reading how others manage the craft, undoubtedly affected the approach I took to this much longer work. It imbued my writing with a confidence I very rarely feel—that sometimes comes later, once a piece has been honed and tweaked over and over again. Sometimes never.

The best bit is that a publisher likes the story, too, and in 2022 Jennifer will get to share her long and ultimately triumphant journey with others. Finding Marjorie King—a Daughter’s Journey to Discover Her Mother’s Identity is due for release in March. We know it will inspire readers to never, never give up on a personal quest.

Which brings me back to the beginning. Writing is not always easy, and it is only by doing it that we get better at it. We need to be brave. If the aspiring writer addressed at the start of this piece is still reading, don’t be afraid of failure, embrace it. Learn from your mistakes. Fake it ‘til you make it, and you will. It will be worth it.

I am so grateful that in 1979 Perth’s Countryman magazine took a chance on me as their new cadet, one who had an awful lot to learn, because now I know where that led. Writing has taken me into the heart of this amazing country, through the cobbled alleyways of London, to ballroom dancing comps at a holiday centre in North Wales, and to the hallowed halls of Cambridge. Such a rich source of settings to choose from when the crim inside my head starts to stir, and I feel the urge to pop someone off. 

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7 Responses to Writing in the Margin (by Cheryl Rogers)

  1. jeffbaker307 says:

    Dear Cheryl: I’ve published a few stories (mainly small-press) and believe me I appreciated the encouragement! Thanks!

  2. Cheryl Rogers says:

    Thanks for the feedback Jeff. Good luck on your writing journey.

  3. Cheryl,
    A lovely, inspiring article!

  4. Cheryl Rogers says:

    So glad you found it inspiring, Jacqueline. I love the way this forum connects writers, no matter where in the world we happen to be. Good luck in 2022.

  5. Stefano Cossara says:

    I came to fiction after working for years as an academic philosopher. So my starting point was not facts, like Cheryl, but pure ideas and abstract concepts. But my literary journey, like her, has been driven by dissatisfaction. I recognize myself in her description of the effort required to write. Contrary to what I thought when I started, I’ve had to recognize that the famous “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” gets the proportions right when it comes to writing. The most important thing for me is to find the right balance between enthusiasm and self-critical control. Congratulations Cheryl on your accomplishments, and good luck with your forthcoming book!

  6. Cheryl Rogers says:

    Thank you for your good wishes, Stefano, and also your valuable insights. If only I’d known earlier that all those pesky Life intrusions into writing time would provide the fodder for so many future stories. Your inspiration/perspiration quote is spot on! Best wishes for the next stage in your writing journey.

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