Skip to content

Guest blogger: Stella Quinn

3 July 2022

Road trips, research and rural romance

What do bush poetry, WW2 relics, and a wannabe farmer with a python problem in his out-back dunny have in common?

They’re just some of the story elements in my new book, A Town Like Clarence, published by HQ Fiction for Harlequin, release date 6 July 2022.

I did a radio interview for Country Radio last week (to be aired 11 July) and Kevin, the radio guy, said, ‘Stella, there’s a lot going on.’ He’s not wrong. Today I thought I’d share with you how I researched some of the storylines in A Town Like Clarence and how sometimes the research changes the story you thought you were writing.

The setting

The book is set in a fictitious town in the upper reaches of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. The location approximates to Lismore and the town approximates to Alstonville. Bangadoon, the off-the-grid community where our hero Joey grew up, is based on the little crossroads community known as Federal.

In mid-2021, in between border closures, I went on a road trip to explore the district, as I hadn’t been there since I stayed as a working guest at a macadamia farm in the 1990s.

The museum in Lismore was such a wonderful place, with its inner archival room busy with people researching family histories, that it inspired the creation of Carol and the Clarence Historical Society. Elements from the museum that made it into the finished manuscript include the iced vovos, the beaded 1930s dress that Kirsty found in her grandmother’s suitcase, the old dairy urns used for letterboxes on the farms, and Amy’s wish to trace genealogy back through the current residents of town, through the dairy farmers of the past generation, through the pioneer timber getters, to the Bundjalung people who were the first to make this region their home.

[Suitcases and an ivory gown seen in the Lismore museum which inspired items written in A Town Like Clarence. Photo credit: Stella Quinn]

A story I read in the museum about Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and a small plane taking off from a cow paddock (with the aid of a burly local bloke, a stout rope, and an axe) was the inspiration for understanding the flat paddock on the Bluett Farm could once have been used as an airstrip.

The secret

Kirsty, our heroine, inherits a ragtag collection of mementoes from a grandmother she has never met, and within the case are some clues to a special item that she needs to hunt down. The item is a war relic, brought home after the New Guinea campaign of World War Two.

I grew up in Rabaul, New Guinea (now PNG) and the seabed and foreshore and plantations are home to many war relics. When I learned to scuba dive as a kid, our first sea dive was to a Japanese barge lurking on the floor of the harbour at sixty feet. We swam through the rusted hulk, took turns sitting in the driver’s seat of a jeep-type vehicle that had floated from the barge’s deck as it sunk but miraculously landed, cat-like, on all fours.

And I picked up a small broken plate. It had blue and white patterning on it, and Japanese script on its base. I still have it, decades later, and it means more to me than you might think a broken scrap of pottery could mean to anyone.

[A plate from 1942 found (by Stella in 1984) on a Japanese warship 60 feet beneath the waves in a New Guinea harbour, which inspired the WW2 secret in A Town Like Clarence. Photo credit: Stella Quinn]

That, of course, is the power of objects tied to memory. They are heavy with nostalgia.

Kirsty doesn’t understand why the secret in the shed was so important to Old Bill, her great-grandfather. And her childhood wasn’t the sort of childhood where she was able to collect treasures … she and her flighty mum lived their life on the run, escaping the family ‘curse’. Their go-to rule was to never look back. What happens in Clarence, though, as she works her way through what her inheritance might mean, and as she befriends Carol the octogenarian historian, is that she begins to understand the importance of memories.

The Wacol Military Museum written about in the book is a real place, and a marvellous place to visit and see the collection curated by volunteers with a personal, and often tragic, connection to the war in New Guinea.

The Annual Clarence River Bush Poetry Muster

Many years ago, when I was at boarding school in country Queensland, me and my fellow schoolmates, most of us boarders, were herded onto a bus and driven for what seemed like hours and hours to the Jondaryan Wool Shed.

We had a wonderful time.

Possibly we were studying Australian history at the time. I don’t recall the purpose, but I do recall the sheep, and the shearers, and the kelpies roaming at knee height, and the schoolroom set up like a time capsule of 1892. We sang songs like Click Go the Shears on the bus, we took turns reading stanzas from poems by Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson (at least, the others did. Stella and reading on buses is a no-no unless she’s clutching a bucket, lol. But I was listening).

What I love about bush poetry is the storytelling, and the larrikin language, and the way the country (the air, the dust, the mulga, the vastness) is showcased. I particularly love the way it works when spoken aloud.

Reading turn-of-the-century bush poetry today can be problematic. Along with its romance of the pioneering spirit of the bush, can be inappropriate language (bigotry, I mean, not swearing) that reduces women and our First Australians and the indentured Chinese workers of the goldrush era to caricature. When I read it I keep this in mind, and choose to appreciate the good and acknowledge why the bad is so bad and disavow it … a subjective exercise, of course, and every reader will find their own way.

It was the committee, however, rather than the bush poetry event they were organising, which really caught my fancy. Committees are awesome. They can be a hothouse of gossip and power grabs, oases of support, jealousy, kindness—usually all at the same time—and all of this high emotion and ruthless organisation is usually dished up alongside a home-baked fruitcake and lashings of stiffly-brewed tea.

Clarence’s Muster committee is no different. I rubbed my hands with glee every time they were gathered together on the page.

I feel I had better stop typing now or this blog will turn into a story of its own. I hope you will all give A Town Like Clarence some room on your To Be Read pile. It releases in bookstores across Australia (and New Zealand) on July 6, and can be ordered online in print, ebook and audio. Here is a link to read more about Kirsty Fox and Joey Miles and all the Clarence locals.

When you read it, if you listen very carefully, you may hear the odd verse of bush poetry, and if you can get through the dog one without crying, you’re a stronger person than I am.

Happy reading
Stella Quinn xx

You can find Stella here: Website | Facebook | Instagram

One Comment
  1. AnneGracie permalink
    4 July 2022 8:14 am

    Really enjoyed the blog, Stella. So many stories.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: