The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Category: Life in Italy (page 1 of 3)

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.


Best Places to Write in Florence

Some writers are born with the ability to nurture their ideas. They can make their idea seedling flower without reading writing books or blogs or searching out tips and tricks on the net. Other writers (like me) need to acquire the knowledge of how to make their ideas blossom, stay creative b1e0fa42931bacb63887906c2b6271f4when they can feel as though they are scraping the bottom of their ideas barrel. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to learn your ‘happy triggers’ to help increase creativity and become skilled at knowing when you’re sinking into a creative abyss. You’ll have to understand why your creativity no longer flows and set about fixing that.

We want to push our creative selves to produce, pump out good stuff every time we sit in front of our computers. But artists do reach an ‘empty level,’ a point where they are no longer able to mentally or psychologically generate stories or paintings.

Try to understand your mind, heart and soul cues to recognize when you’re running out of inspired thought, artistic energy or inventive petrol. Don’t be hard on yourself or put yourself down. Work out what makes you happy and go and do, see or feel what makes you happy.

Getting out of the house/office helps me enormously. Here are some of the places in Florence with Wifi. Sometimes I go for inspiration, sometimes I go just to re-boot, by getting out of my home office:

4174319194_f6ec4d8da4_bFlorence National Central Library

Always a classic place to pull in inspiration from the thousands of authors whose books surround you. Don’t forget you can also head over to the Cafeteria delle Oblate, on the Library’s second floor. It’s also one of the best places to soak in a view of the Duomo.

Caffe Letterario Le Murate

Formerly a prison of Florence, it’s now a spot where students or writers can go to study (or write) all day. On warmer days, you can even enjoy the outdoor patio.

Arnold’s Cafe

An American-style cafe in the historic centre of Florence, it’s great for writers visiting the area who crave an American coffee or who are in need of reliable WiFi.

Libri Liberi Sit’N’Breakfast

A wonderful cafe near the Università degli Studi di Firenze with everything a writer could ask for: indoor and outdoor seating, wifi, printer and scanner, plugs, and of course, fresh food, coffee, and pastries. You can buy an hour, a day, a week, or a month.


Less then a five minute walk from the Duomo, this contemporary art library and cafe-restaurant is designed for you to eat and read. It is also the best vegetarian restaurant in Florence.

Hemingway cafe

Located on the south side of the Arno river, Hemingway cafe is a little off the beaten path. But that’s why I love it even more. This cozy little cafe was made with writers in mind, if the cafe’s name is any indication.

Remember, finding Wifi in Florentine cafes is not easy. If you’re willing to forego Wifi for a day, though, I suggest Parco delle Cascine and Boboli Gardens behind the Medici Palace. All are beautiful parks that will surely inspire you to write.

In a few weeks I’ll follow this Blog up with more ideas on where you can go in Florence to inspire the artist in you.


The Rise and Rise of the Domestic Thriller

c36b388db062175b0852abe86ee0ff4aDuring our June Art of Writing live interview with Martha Ashby this year, we heard about the upswing of a new genre. Editor of Commercial Women’s Fiction at HarperCollins in London, Martha said that after the success of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, a fresh sort of suspense story line was thrilling readers, editors and publishers – the Domestic Thriller.

These are not traditional thrillers that involve crime, murder, spy, adventure or detective mysteries. This kind of thriller is set in an environment that makes you think ‘it’ could happen to you. The plot lines are set within homes, families and spousal life.

I get excited just thinking about this kind of story line! Somehow it really resonates with me. The ‘what if?’ factor is endless. What if your mother-in-law…? What if your new husband was hiding…? Or turned out to be…? The story possibilities are endless. The idea behind the Domestic Thriller is that the conundrum might possibly occur in your life. Who do you really know? These stories are about trust or mistrust and suspicion.

e50e73b45badd31b6be7d5540e9b7dd5I don’t suppose this kind of story is new. After all, storytellers have been killing off husbands and wives for millennia. What is new, in my opinion, is that we have more tools as writers to accentuate the story’s psycho thriller aspects. This latest brand of crazy person is modern, selfish, a sociopath that hides potentially frightening and disturbing behavior with emails, text messages, mobile phones and laptops. Cleverly planted suspicions using these communication platforms heighten suspense and they are new.

I was calling my new book a first person thriller. Now, if someone asks what I’m writing I say a Domestic Thriller, not just because Martha Ashby told me that’s what this new genre is called (and what publishers are looking for) but because it was and is what I am writing. I just didn’t know that it had been given a name. It’s a thriller or suspense novel, set in my own home, in my own town, knowing that what happened to me could happen to you. Having a fab new name for this kind of story makes me so much more excited about writing it!

Art of Writing Affirmation 10

Country life in early 20th century Tuscany: a reader’s response to Death in the Mountains

d34d6d2bca17cb197598f86e74a2181dOne of the greatest joys of being a writer is receiving beautiful letters like this. John is an 83 year-old Italo-Australian who recently read my novel Death in the Mountains. It’s always such a blessing to read how passionately someone feels about one of my books. I can’t express how grateful I am to have such wonderful readers.

Death in the Mountains resonated deeply with John Maneschi because his father was Tuscan and every September he was taken to Tuscany to spend the month with his nonni.

By coincidence, John Maneschi also lives down the road from my late father. They would have travelled on the same buses, jumped on the same ferries. John, from Mosman in Sydney, thank you:images (1)

I have just finished reading your gripping book and wanted to express my sincere admiration to you for what is undoubtedly one of the most cleverly constructed “whodoneits” that has come my way for many years. You have managed to weave the story into a seamless tapestry with many supporting strands, the locale, the people, the climate, the living conditions of the Casentino, the unfairness of the mezzadria system, the wretched poverty, all the time keeping the reader in suspense, looking for clues, wondering about red herrings. The finale is astounding, and your reflections on the Italian mentality of the period, the intense family loyalty that takes precedence over juridical considerations, affording unspoken protection and forgiveness to feuding family members are convincing. Lisa, I  have read many stories about Italy, written by Italians and non-Italians, and yours is up there with the best of them.

image1I must confess that besides enjoying your literary skill your book also has allowed me to wallow in some sentimentality about times gone by: I am an 83-year old Italo-Australian, of Tuscan heritage of my father’s side, and Anglo-Saxon Australian on my mother’s. I was born and brought up in Milan, a city boy, but from the age of 6 every month of September I would be taken to spend the whole month with my adoring nonni at Terrarossa, a hamlet (un borgo) in Lunigiana, the sub-region of Tuscany that follows the Magra river from its sources in the high Apennine, on the border with Emilia Romagna, down to the sea at Bocca di Magra. In those golden September months I would be surrounded by agricultural activities, the harvesting of corn, of chestnuts, of grapes, the making of cheese.  My grandfather had retired from his job on the railways by then but my grandmother was a woman of the land and took active part in field work. Her 2 brothers were carrettieri and ran produce deliveries with horse or oxen drawn carts, up and down the valley. I remember them well, dour, silent, always wearing the same threadbare collarless suits, the same black hats which they never took off, not even indoors. Your account of the shucking of the corn brings back memories of seeing the golden grains laid out on the ground on blankets, on the aia of my grand-uncles’ farmhouse. I remember women with long handled rakes turning the corn over daily to get it to dry. Your book recalls many sensations: the smell of manure, of urine, of unwashed people! You brought those back to me – I am so glad you didn’t edit the smells out. I recall to this day the stench of the infamous gabinetto a tappo, the privy, suspended and attached to the outside wall of the building, shared by four families. My nonni owned a small field, il campetto, which grew olives, walnuts, figs, grapes. When my grandmother was left a widow she had to employ a mezzadro, and saw the other side of the mezzadria system! She felt she did not get her rightful share of the produce: though she saw the olive trees were prospering her share of olive oil seemed to get smaller every year, from several damigiane in my grandfather’s time down to a few bottles.

“Murder in the mountains” has been a great effort Lisa: my wife is now reading it and I shall be recommending it to my friends.


Flier April 2015

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