A former English teacher, Barbara Hannay is a city-bred girl with a yen for country life. Many of her forty-plus books are set in rural and outback Australia and have been enjoyed by readers around the world. She has won the RITA, awarded by Romance Writers of America, and has twice won the Romantic Book of the Year award in Australia. In her own version of life imitating art, Barbara and her husband currently live on a misty hillside in beautiful Far North Queensland where they keep heritage pigs and chickens and an untidy but productive garden. Visit Barbara’s website here.

Monique: You’ve written more than 40 contemporary romances, but now you’re trying something new with intergenerational stories that have both a contemporary and historical element. What prompted this move? Is it scary taking this step?

Barbara: My interest in the WWII era actually started twenty years ago when VP 50 (fifty years after victory in the Pacific) was celebrated in Townsville. Thousands of American servicemen returned to our city and the newspapers were filled with their wonderful stories. I started talking to locals who’d lived through the war years and my imagination was spinning.

I was focused on contemporary romances at the time, and didn’t really think of myself as a historical writer. The ideas kept nagging, however and, as I’ve been gradually pushing my boundaries in recent years, the progression felt natural and not too scary. I first included a WW2 element in Moonlight Plains.

Book Cover: The Secret Years

Monique: You’ve just released The Secret Years, which combines intergenerational stories, a bit of mystery, romance, and some fascinating historical insights. Tell me a bit about this book.

Barbara: The Secret Years is about three generations of one family. There’s Lucy, a returned female soldier from Afghanistan who finds her life at a crossroads, Ro, her under-confident mum who feels she’s made a mess of her life, and Harry, Lucy’s grandfather, an outback cattleman and WWII hero, who won the heart of a glamorous and wealthy London debutante. The story moves from the Aussie outback to England (where there’s plenty of glamour) and also involves a desperate escape through the New Guinea jungle during the war, so there’s plenty of romance and heroism.

Monique: What has the feedback been like so far for The Secret Years?

Barbara: I’ve been overwhelmed really, first by my publisher’s enthusiastic response, but also from reviewers and readers. I’ve been particularly touched to hear from readers who had relatives in Rabaul in 1942.

Monique: Which character could you most relate to? Why?

Barbara: Well, I’m closest in age to Ro and I’m also like her in that I’m a little insecure and under-confident, so I could really relate to those aspects of her personality. Luckily, I’ve had a much more stable life than than Ro, however, including a long-lasting happy marriage. Traditionally, romance characters are gutsy and heroic (like George, Harry and Lucy) so it was a new experience to create a less than perfect character.

Monique: What sort of research did you do? How? What are some of the interesting things you learnt?

Barbara: The fun part of my research was actually visiting Cornwall in November last year. It’s a part of England that’s always fascinated me, thanks to writers like Daphne du Maurier and Rosamunde Pilcher.

Apart from travel, I was restricted to reference books. Anne de Courcy’s The Last Season and Debs at War really opened my eyes to the way life changed so drastically for the débutantes when war broke out.  One month they were being presented to the King in Buckingham Palace and partying in London’s grandest hotels; the next they were driving trucks and changing tyres, becoming nurses, or working in the War Office.

My research also taught me about the tragic fate of a small contingent of Aussie soldiers called Lark Force, who were defending New Britain at the time of the Japanese invasion. It’s easy to forget how much we owe to previous generations.

Monique: What are some of the differences between writing this sort of story and your contemporary romances?

Barbara: I suppose the amount of research required is the biggest difference, although I’ve always tried to make my stories as authentic as possible – walking a fine linebetween romantic fantasy and a grounding in real life scenarios that readers can relate to.

Monique: What attracted you to writing romance?

Barbara: I actually discovered this genre quite late, when I was teaching a unit of popular fiction to a Year 11 class. I read my first Mills and Boon and immediately saw a connection to stories I’d loved as a girl like the Anne books, Little Women and Daddy Longlegs, all of which contained a romance.

Almost immediately, I wanted to have a go at writing one of my own.

Monique: How do you react when someone makes fun of the romance genre?

Barbara: I’m pretty much used to it. It started before I was published when my teaching colleagues told me I’d have to make my writing worse and worse before my story was accepted. This was rubbish, of course. It was a matter of learning and internalising what it was that readers loved about the genre. The disrespect is still annoying though. Some of the cleverest people I know are romance writers. Unfortunately, happy endings are regarded as simplistic, but it’s actually quite a challenge to write a convincing romantic ending and it’s what our readers hang out for. That ahhh moment.

Monique: Some critics of the genre say romance novels promote unrealistic expectations in women. What are your thoughts on that?

Barbara: I think most readers recognise that they’re reading fantasy.  They don’t expect or even want these stories to be mirrors of their own lives. Most of us only get to fall in love once or twice in a lifetime, but it’s a very special experience, so we enjoy re-visiting that ‘swept away’ vicariously through books.

Monique: Another criticism is that romance books must be easy to “churn out”. What are your thoughts on that?

Barbara: I wish. LOL. I think a lot of writers started out thinking these stories would be easy to write, but the simplicity is deceptive. It’s much harder than it looks to write a smooth, easy read that sucks the reader in and tugs on her emotions.

Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words. 

Barbara: Realistic. Emotive. Descriptive.

Monique: Can you take us through a “typical” writing day?

Barbara: I usually wake early and lie in bed for a bit, thinking about my next scene. With luck, it starts to play in my head like a movie and I actually catch pieces of dialogue. I usually leap out and start to get this down before I lose it.

On a really good (rare) day I get a thousand words down before breakfast. Most days I’m much slower and I’m at my computer till teatime.

I take breaks to either garden, or ride an exercise bike while listening to an audio book, or to spend time with my long-suffering husband who’s retired.

Monique: How do you start a novel?

Barbara: I start with a situation rather than a character. For The Secret Years, I knew I wanted a romance between a glamorous London deb and an Aussie digger. Finding the rest of the story usually involves a great deal of daydreaming, as well as brainstorming with my husband. Sometimes further research triggers fresh ideas. I have a vague outline in mind, but I’m not really a plotter. I like to make discoveries as the novel unfolds.

Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?

Barbara: If I’m having doubts, it’s often a warning that I’m on the wrong track. I think it’s important to be prepared to go back and make changes – big changes, if necessary. For example, when I first started writing The Secret Years, the character Harry was dead. He was off the page and only referred to in Lucy and Ro’s thoughts.

I took a break to go overseas in the middle of writing the book and being distanced from  the work helped me to see it with fresh eyes. I realised that I needed to resurrect Harry, to have him there as an active participant in the story. This required quite a bit of back-tracking but it turned out to be incredibly important.

I have a few strategies for when I get stuck. One is another brainstorming session with my husband, but if I didn’t have him, I’d probably telephone a writing friend and we’d ‘throw spaghetti at the wall’, trying out a few different solutions.

Other times, it’s just a matter of getting in the zone. I like to put on a CD of classical music and make myself write through the block. On these occasions, I’m not allowed to stop till the music stops. Usually, at some time in the next hour the writing starts flowing again.

Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?

Barbara: I’ve actually learned a great deal of resilience from writing for Mills and Boon. This company is very attuned to what readers want and they make sure the promise to the readers is delivered. As a result there can be extremely demanding requests for revisions. I once had a very tough editor who required me to rewrite an entire novel.

I’ve learned that there’s no point in being precious about my writing. Often the turn of phrase that thrills me most ends up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?

Probably plotting. I’d love to become more daring with my plotting and to plant some really big OMG surprises.

Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?

Barbara: That it’s a glamorous job?

Monique: Which book are you reading now?

Barbara: The Separation by Dinah Jeffries.

Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?

Barbara: This list keeps changing and expanding all the time, but I’ve especially loved books by Kate Morton, Jane Austen, Rosamunde Pilcher, Rosie Thomas, Anne Gracie and Markus Zusak. And I think I’ll be adding Dinah Jeffries to that list.

Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not read?

Barbara: Harry Potter.



Monique Mulligan

Monique Mulligan

0 Responses

Related Posts

Your basket is currently empty.

Return to shop