The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Category: Life in Italy (page 1 of 3)

Let food carry your story forward.

Let food carry your story forward.When food is beautiful, drab, compelling or repulsive we can and should include it in our stories.

Food can carry a story forward. Not only the actual food, but the process of eating it, dining around it and/or sharing a meal. Food used in a social sense can reveal much about people’s relationships with each other. When you include a meal in your story, the possibilities are endless.

Enjoying or rejecting food and the company sharing it can be the focus point a scene needs. Writers needs scenes in which to reveal… and scoffing, or quaffing, can give us just the ambience and atmosphere we need.

Let food carry your story forward.Think about how often you’ve seen meal times in movies used to show how a family or friends relate. Or how often you’ve read a book where the pivotal scene was over the dinner table.

Here, Ruth Reichl in her book Tender at the Bone, talks about going for her first coffee in Italy. It’s not a food scene, but one written so evocatively that it made me think about how often coffee is now used as a scene setter for the story telling.

The scent of beans was so powerful we could smell it from two blocks away, the aroma growing stronger as we got closer to the cafe. It was a rich and appealing scent, and it pulled us onward and through the door. Inside, burlap sacks of coffee beans were stacked everywhere and the smell of coffee was so intense it made me giddy. Thin men lounged against a long bar, drinking tiny cups of espresso. The coffee was smooth and satisfying, a single gulp of pure caffeine that lingered on the palate and reverberated behind the eyes. I felt lightheaded.

What a great way to set up a pivotal scene – through coffee!

Let food carry your story forward.

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it’s finished.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.Yet another rewrite. My fifth and I’m told to expect more.

So I am working on a new book, as you know. It’s a novel – my first actually as my last four books were either creative non-fiction or non-fiction. The pages before me are fourth draft. The first draft was in third person and that didn’t feel right. The second draft became first person. I rewrote the third draft because the story needed big character changes and improvements. The text then needed a fourth draft to make it fit into a tight ‘thriller’ genre with a big suspense emphasis. This need to restructure the fourth time became screamingly obvious after a reread as I wanted to follow the rule ‘the story should turn about every four to six pages.’ Nowadays, if you want to sell, and sell well, you basically have to follow that rule.  

Now, after having shown it to a good friend who is also a top New York literary agent, the advice is that my new book needs, yet again, another draft. This will be my 5th draft and now the book will be in third person (again).

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.

Whining about rewrites will do no good. We write, that’s what we do. Again and again and again, changing, recrafting, improving, omitting, and adding. Part of being a writer is knowing that rewriting is compulsory. If you don’t want to rewrite – then get out of the game now. If you think what you’ve written is perfect and doesn’t need rewriting, you’ll never be published.

A dear friend of mine, on a three book deal with Little Brown, is on her TENTH rewrite. I have nothing to complain about.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.The more you rewrite, the faster you become at writing. I am a slow writer (no surprises there, you’ve only been waiting for this new book for about three years, or more) and I need to be faster. The only way I am going to write faster is by writing more. I need to rewrite, write faster and ultimately write better, without fear of the text being crappy. I can edit the bad bits out later. Right now I have to rewrite, then write more and faster.

Everyone has to rewrite, there is no way around it.

I totally do NOT buy into this (a tip I found on the internet) attitude:

Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel – there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.I do not agree with this advice because fundamentally I am a journalist, accustomed to being questioned, subjected to Fact Finders, sub-editors and finicky editors who know what story they want and how it should be crafted. I bow to their expertise. I trust those with more experience than me. I humbly accept advice though do not automatically take it. If I see what they mean, I accept their advice.

But I know, after being in this game for my entire life, that I must rewrite. Again.

I agree with Michael Crichton, ‘good books are not written. Good books are rewritten.’

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.

I am enormously fortunate to live a life rich with pickings for my writing. Scene ideas for my novel are never far away because for an Australian girl, everything I live here in Tuscany is unusual and interesting.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.Last weekend I went up to cousin Vanni’s farm in Casentino, the mountains of Eastern Tuscany. We made sausages, pancetta, capocollo, capaccia, salami, ribs, pork fillet, prosciutto and cotecchino. We spent the day making these ‘salumi’ using every part of half a pig. The process we used has not changed for millennia, apart from the meat grinder – a mincer that in the old days was cranked by hand.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.So here’s the tip: in every story something happens. Writers are always looking out for how and where a certain plot event can happen or evolve. I plan to use our ‘salumi’ making scene as an occasion where action takes place. While making our sausages, I took notes, but not your typical notes. My records center on the senses. What we smelt, heard, tasted and the scene’s atmosphere. These are the nuances we forget when we finally have time to sit down and write the scene we witnessed, sometimes even years beforehand.

Here are some of my notes as an example:

  • Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.The smell of wine, vinegar, spices, cinnamon, raw garlic.
  • Cognac like tea drizzled
  • Red wine bubbles with garlic in an ancient pot on the austere stove-top
  • Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.Silence punctuated by steel tubs being rinsed
  • The men hum
  • Bay leaves crackle
  • Fennel sticks and fennel seeds
  • Air is pungent, thick with these smells
  • The men work quietly, humming or breathing heavily through their noses as they work with their tube of sausage, twisting and knotting it into four finger lengths.
  • The women chatter in the kitchen as they pull pasta, mash potatoes with conserve and cinnamon.

This is just a simple example of what you can draw from, later, when you’re ready to write your scene. Can you do this too? Do you do this? Write the smells and sounds to keep ready for when you’re ready to structure your action scene?

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.

Why every writer should join a writers group.

There are no excuses anymore. By joining my little writers group in Florence I must write, must edit and must listen to my fellow writer’s thoughts and advice. Why didn’t I do this earlier?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.My writers group lets me know what is not clicking. So often we think our readers will understand, that they will ‘get’ what we’ve written. But my writers group lets me know that, actually, they didn’t pick up the thread because I wasn’t clear enough, or didn’t explain enough. Yes, it’s a little daunting, scary, being picked apart but it’s so good for your work! Your writing group sees where you can extrapolate. They let you know whether your story is engaging or not. My last question to my fellow writers this week was ‘do you want to know more?’ and that, as a writer, is what we are aiming for, no? Are you hooking your readers? Are they bored? Overwhelmed? Disinterested?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.I must say, I had put off joining any kind of writers group for years. It’s my first time. Funny, huh, after four books and finally on my fifth that I now know I need fresh takes, readers, second opinions. Probably because this is my first Fiction book, while the others were all Creative Non-Fiction. I cannot recommend sharing with a writers group highly enough. Especially if you are embarking on a new form of writing, like I am.

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.Am I being narcissistic also adding that the thought of plagiarism within writers groups also scared me? I had heard of writers sharing their work, only to have ideas copied, concepts imitated and phrases plagiarized. But I flattered myself. Their work is fantastic! Who did I think I was? They’re amazing! My work is paltry compared to theirs.

Check your library or local arts group for any writers that meet up. Start a Google Docs Sharing session so you can all post your work, and pick the month to upload your work.

Go on, do yourself a favor and force yourself to diarize, write, share and enjoy writing with other people. Regularly!

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.

This Valentine’s Day, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.I love Valentine’s Day. I love the flowers, the sentiment and the message behind a day dedicated to love. Romantic love. However this February 14 I would suggest that you turn that love back onto yourself. It’s been such a crazy year, with international news making many of us depressed, emotional and anxious. It’s a weird time in the world. So why not, in 2017, on the day of romantic love, nurture the artist within and give yourself a present?

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.As one of my favourite creative teachers, Julia Cameron, says: ‘Do something for yourself that you normally wouldn’t do. In order to have a real relationship with our creativity we must take the time and care to cultivate it.’

So nurture the artist within! Your special treat can be something as simple as an hour in a café, with a pen and paper, making a list of all the things you’d like to do this year. Maybe make a list of all the things you’d like to do or achieve in your lifetime. Knowing that if you are a part of this Blog, you are a creative, here are some creative gift ideas to give to yourself on Valentine’s Day this year:

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy yourself a lovely new notebook, one that you always thought was too expensive for yourself.

Buy yourself some sweet little pot plants for your windowsill or garden.

Get those pots of rosemary, sage and basil – even if it’s just because they smell nice!

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy some inexpensive water colours or sepia water colour pens and take the time to draw or paint some pages in your notebook, while you listen to your favourite music.

Get that special bottle of wine, special coffee or special tea – your favourite, not your child, mother or spouse’s favourite!

Buy a ticket to your favourite band, show, production or play.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Make or buy your favourite sauce, relish or jam.

Go for a walk to your favourite museum or art gallery, or browse your favourite shop.

Make a date with yourself to go to some different flea markets or foreign food shop.

Buy a new novel.

This Valentine’s Day stay cultured, stay calm and stay happy on the inside. Above all, remember YOU don’t need a Valentine. You have YOU! And you are special.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

New Year’s Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.With Christmas and New Year over I see all the Writing Blogs, writing sites, podcasts and publisher’s social media platforms going crazy about New Year’s writing resolutions. I wish I could join in! After all these years writing you’d think I’d be first in line with encouraging tips and tricks as to how to make 2017 the year of quality text or how to have more productive time etc, etc, etc. Others are screaming; Resolve to Write More! Start Editing Now! Land that deal in 2017! But I’m not. 

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.I seem to be imploring the universe for time to write, then when I do carve out some time I sit in front of the computer distracted by emails, admin, The Art of Writing, social media and a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t help me increase the word count on my book.

Surely, I can’t be alone in this vortex of grasping at air, trying to shop for food, cook food, clean up Christmas decorations, send invoices, chase invoices, tend to urgent tax, hunt down errant bills and the other boring mundanities of life?

IsNew Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write. anyone else being sucked into such a humdrum everyday routine that their creative impulse is left trampled like a mat at their front door?

I was writing. The book was flowing and really happening, moving forward. Then came Christmas and New Year and now I can’t seem to get into the swing of it.

One thing is for sure. I am not giving up. Next week will be better.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.It was a Public Holiday in Italy yesterday and the family came over to lunch. Nonna had her cannellini beans on the boil all morning. She boiled them with a bunch of salvia, an onion, salt and three garlic cloves. We had them for lunch, ladled across a thick piece of toast that had been scraped with garlic. We drizzled our dishes with ‘olio nuovo,’ the new, fresh olive oil just picked and pressed last month.

I took advantage of having Nonna here and interviewed her. There is much she remembers about life in the old days, when she was raised on a Tuscan farm without electricity, gas or plumbing and I wanted to probe deeper. Many of her memories have been woven into The Promise and Death in the Mountains but recently she’s started to tell different stories of her past. It’s as though some new part of her brain is alight. She’s telling tales I’ve never heard, accounts and feelings that are new. Maybe it’s because she’s getting older and frailer, but not a meal goes by without her telling a story that I haven’t heard before. It’s as if these memories and her need to tell them to us is ‘piu forte di lei,’ – stronger than her. She has to tell.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.So I bought a book called Nonno Raccontami – Tell Me About It, Grandpa. I bought the book in Puglia last year and have finally decided to fill it this year, because it’s an empty book. It’s a book specifically printed to record your Nonno and Nonna’s memories. Such a sweet idea. Each page is almost blank apart from questions, like:

When did you meet Nonno? Where? How? Did you fall in love with him on sight? What was it about him that you fell in love with?

What work did you do? What work did you want to do, dream of doing? Were you given the opportunity to follow a career?

What year did you start school? How old were you? Where? How did you get to school? What did you enjoy learning most? Were there both boys and girls in your class? Who were they? How long was your school day? Did you have lunch there? School on a Saturday?

Some answers I already knew but there are many, many more that I didn’t know. I was so looking forward to a cup of tea and deeper discussions with Nonna, so that we could explore this book together.

Perhaps next week I’ll share some of her answers with you.

Interviewing Nonna on Immaculate Conception Day. Going deeper.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.If you are lucky in life, you’ll meet a teacher. Someone who fate presents to you on your life’s journey. If you’re extremely fortunate this person will not only become a lifelong friend but also someone who will educate and expand you, as well as help you evolve personally and professionally. So I have to thank fate for introducing me to Australian born and Paris based photographer Carla Coulson.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.In Naples, A Way of Love, a book we jointly produced for Penguin, I wrote this dedication:

Thanks to Carla from Lisa, for teaching me how to see. After all these years in Italy I had become blind to so much. She opened my eyes with her camera. Carla has a gift and a generosity which is endless.

So it is with enormous gratitude that I write this Blog during Carla’s birthday month to share my appreciation for such a wonderful friend and teacher.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.Last July, Carla and I went to Puglia and scoured places like Bari, Martina Franca, Matera, Terilizzi and Monopoli. We wanted to find Puglia’s elderly and record their stories. It was a privilege to once again join forces with a woman who truly knows how to reveal Italy. Working with a photographer like Carla Coulson in Naples and Puglia helped me see with fresh eyes the spirit and love within everyday Italian life. Exploring these areas with this amazing woman gave me a sharper lens and a tighter focus on the beauty of life’s simple details. They are the minutiae that I pass every day of my life.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.However, after 38 years in Italy I was becoming blind to the country’s wonder, surprise and beauty. Stalking the streets of southern Italy with Carla was like a rebirth. She taught me how to catch an image, love an image and be inspired by the image. This is a woman who understands the power of a picture. She knows how to capture the picture so that it makes you feel.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.I am a person who works with words and I can be pretty intense. I reflect, mull, scrutinize, then try and give the image words, expressions and a language to fit the secret behind the photo.

But it’s Carla who sees so much, transmits the inspiration and captures the essence of the moment.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.So it is to friends like Carla that I devote this Blog. We owe so much to creatives like Carla. They are colleagues who are teachers and who we are lucky enough to ultimately call friends. Happy birthday Carla, and thanks for being a wonderful teacher and image diviner.

When destiny sends you a teacher, colleague and friend.

What happens when our Nonnas and Nonnos are gone?

What happens when our Nonnas and Nonnos are gone?It’s a question that has hounded me for the last 38 years, which is how long I’ve known my Florentine husband and his lovely mamma, Nonna Gemma.

The likes of Nonna and her generation have always been the heart of Consuma, my husband’s village in the mountains of Eastern Tuscany.

What happens when our Nonnas and Nonnos are gone?Her friends have tended the graves and the church as well as the flowers that decorate both sites. They cook for the local priest and also carry lunches and dinners on trays from home to home to those who can no longer cook for themselves.

Nonnas and Nonnos across Italy constantly volunteer their time to cook and serve at sagras and festas. They are the backbone of culture, tradition and all that we love about Italy.

What happens when our Nonnas and Nonnos are gone?For a long time I’ve doubted whether or not the younger generations would grab the baton and continue their grandparent’s work. I don’t see many Italians below 35 years old in the veggie patches or orchards. I don’t see them doing the time honoured work keeping the forest floors clear of ivy and other plants that strangle. I don’t see as many young people out collecting porcini mushrooms, nipitella or the edible wild spinach and grasses. They just don’t forage like the old folks did. Some do, many don’t. So who will keep the traditions alive? Who is being taught the know-how and will actively continue the age-old customs that we love?

What happens when our Nonnas and Nonnos are gone?After this weekend up in Consuma, I was thrilled to see all our Consumi cousins stepping up to the plate, literally. “In Consuma there are no elderly left to run our long-established festas or sagras,” said Simona Consumi. “So after years of lamenting the fact that all our Nonnas and Nonnos, who used to cook, set up, serve and clean up, are gone, we have now set up the celebration again ourselves. We are the next generation. We finally decided to get off our butts and start the festa again.”

Consuma is a tiny snapshot of Italy, a small example of what the disappearance of our beloved Nonnas and Nonnos means. Such a great feeling to know that their spirit of serving, giving and teaching has not passed away with them. Viva l’Italia!

thumbnail_Art of Writing Affirmation 01

Celebrating 20 years in Florence and 16 years since I wrote The Promise

imageThis is a different post for me. It’s about writing, but indirectly. Because this week, 16 years after writing my best seller The Promise, which focused on the birth of my babies here in Italy, my eldest child finished school. The end of the school years is a milestone for many parents, a watershed moment for lots of mothers. For me, however, it marks almost 20 years of living in Italy. This week celebrates the closing chapters of those early bilingual, and often lonely, years when my children Natalia, then Leo, were born.

imageSince The Promise I’ve written other books and I’ve loved working on them all. But there will never be a book so personal, as profoundly meaningful for me as The Promise. Leaving Sydney, saying a final good-bye to my family at the airport with baby Natalia in my arms, marrying my Florentine boyfriend, beginning a new life in Italy, struggling to fit in with our Italian nonna and finally accepting that I will raise my kids on Piazza della Signoria and not on Bondi Beach, all in two languages is all done now. That first little bundle of joy is out of school and onto the journey of her own life.

imagePublishing The Promise seems a long time ago and I treasure the letters from so many readers who have told me The Promise was their favourite book. Thank you. It was my favourite book too (and I’m not being glib).

The years have passed and I wanted to paste here a part of the end of the book to celebrate. Because even though I knew that everything would turn out fine, it has turned out fine. It’s been an amazing, wonderful and emotional journey. It’s the end of one era and the beginning of another. My first born baby girl is all grown up now.

When it’s my turn to tell the stories, Natalia hears all about wild brumbies, lost kangaroos and lonely koalas stuck up trees. She crosses between her parent’s cultures, countries and languages with the ease of the innocent. Her first spoken language was Italian, though she has always understood English perfectly too. For a child to be truly bi-lingual, both parents must speak to their children only in their mother tongues. From the moment she was born, I’ve only ever spoken to Natalia in English. They say it’s the only way, though it’s difficult because a mother finds herself communicating with her child in two languages for years and it does affect the depth of bonding (no matter what they say). In our case, Natalia spoke in Italian and I spoke in English for two years before there was a breakthrough. I so desperately wanted her to call me mummy instead of mamma. Then one day, just as I was starting to give up hope of ever hearing my child speak the same language as me, Natti called me mummy. I whooped, and then tried to rein it in, just in case my reaction had the reverse effect on my recalcitrant toddler. Then slowly, her every second word popped out in English. At this point no one except Paolo and I understood her. Nonna now needed me to translate for Natalia. Her language had become a peculiar mix of English and Italian, depending on what word first sprung into her mind.

‘Damme toothpaste’ – give me toothpaste.
‘Fa bath’ – have a bath.
‘Chi coming?’ – who is coming?
‘Questi pants are troppo smallie’ – these pants are too small.
Then Natalia herself told me that she was turning a lingual corner. In her stroller, she turned herself around to face me and said in Italian ‘oh, you’re speaking your funny way again mamma!’ Rather than the words being a jumble that she understood but couldn’t differentiate, she began to tell the difference between Italian and English,
Later, at three and a half years old, the door in her mind that would let her wander fluidly between the two languages, opened. She could construct whole sentences in English and ask intelligent questions about words that ended with a feminine vowel.
‘If Santa is a man why does he have a girl’s name?’ Got me on that one.
Not only was her accent in English perfect, but also she could immediately tell who spoke which language and addressed people accordingly. Natalia would offer our English speaking friends a cup of tea and our Italian friends a cup of coffee. Such is the perception of the cross-cultural, bilingual child.


Older posts

© 2017 The Art of Writing

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑