Tag: Lisa Clifford

How I balanced my children’s grandmothers’ very different approaches to parenting

As seen in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

My mother is the doyenne of Australian etiquette, June Dally-Watkins. My mother-in-law is an almost illiterate farmer from the mountains of eastern Tuscany. Both are formidable, wise women.

But their mothering styles are biting opposites. One is a successful Australian businesswoman whose life’s work has been her career, the other a humble Italian woman who has dedicated her life to her family. Trying to glean child-raising tips from both has pretty much done my head in.

It might even be time to give up trying to be a good mum – or as my kids would say, mom. Or maybe mamma. Now 18 and 16, my children are half-Australian and half-Italian. They speak English with American accents and Italian with Florentine accents, and they flow easily between one and the other depending on their company. 

With such inherent cultural diversity, they don’t seem to suffer too much identity confusion. Whereas my maternal compass – born and raised in Australia, with one culture and one language – is frazzled. For 20 years I’ve been travelling between Sydney and my home in Florence, trying to work out which culture has the best parenting principles for my polyglots. 

Striving to be a good mum, mom and mamma by reconciling my birth culture with my new culture, I’ve naturally looked to my mother as a role model. But while navigating the choppy waters of my children’s teenage years, I observed my mother-in-law, too.  

Nonna Gemma on daily life:  “Never let your husband see you idle. When the working males return home, the women must not be seen relaxing. Men must believe their women are constantly on the move, cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing, keeping house with rigour and determination. You are a signora. Ideally, you won’t have to work outside the home.” 

My mother: “Work. Get a job. He might leave you so you must have a career to fall back on. Look fabulous at all times. When at home, wear casual clothes and look even more fabulous.”

Nonna Gemma on cooking: “Always make something the grandchildren love, something they’ve eaten many times so that your food will not fail to disappoint, a reliable, heart-warming dish using a well-worn recipe of lasagne, or roast chicken with roast potatoes. Pasta should be home-made, chicken hand-reared and potatoes home-grown. 

My mother: “Cook something no one has ever tasted or heard of. Use a new recipe adapted to what’s in the fridge.” 

Nonna Gemma on raising children: “Never let the children do sleep-overs. One never knows what other families do when they’re in their own homes.”

My mother: “Let your children go. Trust them to make their own decisions, and the right decisions.” 

Nonna Gemma on raising teenagers: “Give them lots of cash. Buy them clothes because they are the family’s mascot, our representatives when out and about. Repair their clothes with a fully kitted-out sewing box.”

My mother: “Make children get a job to learn the value of hard work and money. Clothes are birthday and Christmas presents. There might be a hotel sewing kit in my cabin luggage bag.” 

Nonna Gemma on school lunches: “Nothing beats a container of pasta with a tomato sauce made from scratch with garlic, basil, olive oil and parmesan cheese. In a second container add chargrilled chicken with salad.”

My mother: “A sandwich made with white sliced bread and last night’s chicken and lettuce should do it.” 

Nonna Gemma on university education for their grandchildren: “Why should they leave home for university? Why have babies if you’re only going to send them away? At 18, they’re still children.”

My mother: “The world is their oyster. Make them international people. Let them stand on their own two feet. Send them away.” 

Nonna Gemma on table manners: “There are none.”

My mother: “Put your knife and fork together to show you’ve finished. No. Not like that, the blade must be facing inwards towards the fork. No. The plate is like a clock and the handles must be at six o’clock.” 

The only way to tackle such opposing child-rearing advice is to try to mix and match their guidelines until the balance between Italian “smother love” and Australian “tough love” is just right, like one of my mother-in-law’s recipes. 

Anglo-Saxons show their children they love them by teaching them how to do everything for themselves. Italians show they love their children by doing everything for them. Trying to be a good mum, for me, is about harmonising that while focusing on how I feel. Most people in bicultural families live in the present, look to our children’s future and try to honour the past. Finding the best child-rearing process in the middle of all that cultural identity can be hard, especially with such wildly different matriarchs. 

Both women are contradictory in every way, but hearing their opinions opens up different worlds for me as a mother. Neither way is right, just as neither way is wrong. There are two lifetimes of insight in their approaches, and there is value in learning from both. If only I could fathom how. 

Maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard, to stop judging, comparing, choosing and balancing. Perhaps if I keep my kids close, while trusting them to make the right decisions, I’ll succeed in being a good mum as well as bringing their grandmothers’ attitudes into alignment. There is only one thing I know for sure about motherhood, and it applies regardless of where you come from: children thrive on love, no matter what the language. 

How I balanced my children's grandmothers' very different approaches to parenting

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 lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

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 lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

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.

When the magic of friendship changes your life.

When the magic of friendship changes your life.Permanently leaving the country of my birth at 35 years old and marrying the boy that I met when travelling the world at 17 was a big decision. It was such a biggie that I put the decision off for 18 years. My young adult life was a see-saw of plane travel between Sydney and Florence until finally, I married my Florentine at 35 years old.

I remember both my children were tiny and in the bath, when Carla Coulson, an up and coming photographer from Australia rang to suggest I write text for her photos. An hour later, with the phone tucked under my ear I was drying the kids, putting When the magic of friendship changes your life.them in their jammies, and still on the phone to Carla. I immediately loved her energy and enthusiasm. I also loved her story. Carla explained how she had quit her corporate job, packed up her life in Australia and moved to Florence to follow her dream to become a professional photographer. The rest is history – her photographs are now across the planet.

Carla Coulson is without doubt a global force in photography and image creation. She is one of the world’s best photographers. The fact that she achieved her dream is living proof that you can take risks, work hard and make your dreams a reality. Carla’s story, her reinvention, is breath-takingly wonderful.

When the magic of friendship changes your life.

So I am blown away, honoured and humbled to be featured in Carla Coulson’s Blog this month. Honestly, I am truly blessed to have such an extraordinarily special person in my life.

When the magic of friendship changes your life.Carla’s Blog has made me reflect on how the big, beautiful spirit that moves over this world provides us with the people we need to meet, when we need to meet them. How when we leave our safety zones, take risks, follow our hearts and open our hearts, there are gifts that await us, in the shape of the new people that come into our lives.

Leaving my Australian family and friends has not been easy. I stepped out into the unknown to create my own family, here in Florence. I had faith that everything would turn out OK and life, in its manifold wisdom, has become sweeter from the new companions I’ve found along the way.


How to reveal plot and avoid bad twists

How to reveal plot and avoid bad twists: an interview with Conrad WilliamsAfter eight thrillers, writer Conrad Williams is a master of page turning stories. In this Blog Conrad reveals some suspense advice on how to reveal a plot, while avoiding bad twists. Conrad is our Art of Writing 2016 guest teacher in Tuscany.  

What can writers, across all genres, learn from thrillers and thriller writers?

Thriller writers have to keep their readers turning the pages. In addition to creating believable characters and realistic locations, they have to maintain control of a knotty plot but also inject exciting scenes throughout the narrative arc. They have to have a good understanding and control of pace, knowing when to change gear and produce hi-octane passages that are counterbalanced by periods of relative calm. 

Is there a single common skill that all writers in your anthology, Dead Letters, possess in their stories? If not, what are some of the various narrative skills that you admire in the various authors in the anthology?

I was knocked out by the wide range of stories I received from the contributors to Dead Letters. There was the danger, I felt (and I’m always wary of ‘themed’ anthologies for this very reason) that I’d receive a lot of stories that had the same feel to them because they were all meant to be about lost, misdirected or returned mail. But the imaginative scope of my writers was broad and weird and brilliant. Should I have been surprised? They are all industry professionals with a strong publishing background. Even the relative newcomers have at least a couple of critically-acclaimed stories under their belts. I think the one unifying theme was unpredictability!

How to reveal plot and avoid bad twists: an interview with Conrad WilliamsWhat is the one stock thriller gimmick that aspiring writers should best steer away from, and why?

Twist endings can be tricky to get right. They need to be original, impactful and you have to make sure you’re not signposting them too much (if at all) in earlier chapters. Too often they can feel like a desperate effort to end a novel with a bang when it might not necessarily need it. The last thing a writer wants, so late in the book, is to have the audience feel as though they are reading a story and, at worst, knowing that they’re being manipulated.

Do you have a favourite narrative trick to produce tight, suspenseful, gripping scenes?

I will sometimes write a scene I know has to be fast and suspenseful in sentences no longer than six words. Get rid of the extraneous fat: lose the adjectives, lose the adverbs. Write tight. At the editing stage I’ll go back and ‘massage’ the sentences a little so they don’t look too similar, add a little more here and there – soften some corners, smooth some edges – without ruining the punchy, pacy feel that I’ve created.

For more advice from Conrad Williams on creating believable characters and antagonists, visit here.

How to reveal plot and avoid bad twists: an interview with Conrad Williams

From Notes to First Draft: What to Write

Use Your Notes to Find What to Write

From Notes to First Draft: What to Write

The beginning of a New Year is a powerful moment. It can also be a potent writing tool, and inspire us with a new resolve to write. But what if we’re unsure what to write?

At this time of the year we generally make all sorts of resolutions about our writing; to write more, write better, write slowly or more beautifully.

Though there are many others, these are some of the New Year’s resolutions that I hear often.

  • I will write on weekends
  • I will write at night instead of watching TV
  • I will get up early to write before work or before I have to take the kids to school.

With this first Blog of 2016 I want to harness this fresh enthusiasm. As January is the best time to forge different habits, strengthen resolve and instil renewed focus, I’d like to help you get your work over the finish line this year. But it’s a step by step process and I’ll be working on my own book as we go. I wrote before about Inspiration and Your Writer’s Notebooks, and I want to show you step by step the process that I go through in organising and using my notes. That’s my own New Year’s resolution, to show you What to do with Your Notes or How to Move from Note Taking to Writing Your Book while I go through the process myself. So stay with me. Every writer has their own system but this is how I do it and how I’ve done it with 2 of my books. Let’s see if this system can work for you.
From Notes to First Draft: What to Write

These are my notes – I have 100’s of pages of them. Most of the folders you see are full. There are also loads of written thoughts in my computer but many fresh observations, ideas or characterisations come from here – my notes.

Given that I don’t have many longer pieces or chunks of text in my computer, I have scanned some of these notes and lifted out the fragment that most inspires me. My job is to take that fragment/sentence/ phrase and make it into a longer passage. This is the first job I need to do. Extrapolate one really good idea. Whatever I write at this point must inspire me to continue. It has to be good. It has to be very good as this extrapolation will help me find my story’s voice.

With all your notes and thoughts, at this point you should definitely know what scenes need to be in your story, and it should be easy to find what to write. The Fragment I have chosen from my notes is one I’ve wanted to write for some time.

From Notes to First Draft: What to Write

This is of key importance and how you chose what to write/extrapolate from your notes. Which part of your story is hassling you to write it? Which scene is on your heart right now? Which note kindles your imagination? What event is on your mind – searing into it? There must be a scene amongst these notes that you cannot get out of your head. That’s what you need to write right now. It will be good writing because it’s what you need to write now. The passion you need to get it down is going to flavour it.

I am not going to transcribe yet. My notes will guide me in finding what to write and on which pieces to extrapolate. I want longer, good quality scenes or events or dialogue or important sections drawn from my fragments now. When I’ve done this with a few of my fragments it’s likely these pieces will become chapters. For now, work to first find what to write and then extrapolating your favourite notes, or key thoughts on plot in your notes.

In my next Blog I will talk about how to extrapolate. For now, start getting your plot clear in your head and choose which fragments in your notes you want to/need to stretch.

The Art of Writing 19-25 June 2016

PS: I signed my second book contract on the strength of extrapolated notes. Just so that you know – if you can gather lots of good stretched thoughts from your notes that will at some point become chapters, publishers can ask for them NOW and you can get a book deal just from extrapolated text from key notes.

Keeping in Touch from Florence


A merry, wonderful Christmas to you. I hope your holiday season is filled with light, laughter, peace and inner harmony. When you are happy, internally peaceful, your writing should flower. Hopefully it’s during these content, comfortable, relaxed moments that you can slip away to your writing.

This message is to keep you in the loop about our plans for next year’s Blog posts and to let you know about our plans for our Tuscany retreat, The Art of Writing. 

As I’ve written extensively about the importance of keeping notes, most recently in my post Inspiration and Your Writer’s Notebook, some of you have written to ask me how I organise transcribing and note keeping.  Useful note keeping and ultimately knowing how to transcribe and organise your files, as your manuscript unfolds, is not easy. Especially during the confusing, head-spinning first 30,000 words of your manuscript. After 4 books I do have a bit of a filing, note keeping, transcribing system but that process changes with each book, mostly because each of my books is very different.


For the first part of 2016 this Blog will look at how to approach your notes. How to transform your notes from sentences into fragments, then longer passages and finally into chapters is a messy business. I’ll try to explain how I organise my first draft from my notes, as best I can.


The Art of Writing 19-25 June 2016


Finally, our Art of Writing 19-25 June 2016 retreat is shaping up to be really quite special.

I’ve thought deeply about our week’s focus for 2016. What, as writers, do we need to learn in this era of change in publishing? Are readers changing? And yes, though we shouldn’t care and should write about what moves us, what kinds of stories or books are people reading now? Interviewing, discussing and researching these questions have led me to understand that there is one common thread that links all forms of literature today. Readers want more suspense, more thrill, more engagement and more compelling, truly gripping stories than ever before.

Whether you’re writing historical non-fiction, romance, a memoir or literary fiction the Art of Writing 19-25 June workshop discusses pace, build-up and how to write unput-downable text.

How do we build tension? How do we create characters and dialogue that add pressure and conflict? Can characters and dialogue generate suspense? I am so looking forward to kicking back, listening and learning from Conrad Williams on these topics, and more. Conrad is the author of eight novels, a further two slated for release next year on his Joel Sorrell thrillers trilogy.

The Art of Writing 19-25 June 2016 retreat will also look more profoundly at my personal favourite: Writing from a Sense of Place, as after all, we are writing in Tuscany.

For a deeper look into the courses offered in the 19-25 June 2016 retreat, visit the Programme.

The Art of Writing Group

Sending all my best from Florence and I hope we always keep in touch,


The art of suspense: an interview with Conrad Williams

conrad-williams-author-photoCrime and suspense writer Conrad Williams will be our main teacher for the Art of Writing retreat in Tuscan in June 2016 as we concentrate on how to write suspenseful page turners. No matter what your genre, you must always engage your reader.

Conrad, Dust and Desire is your seventh suspense novel. It is also the first in a trilogy, a three-book deal with Titan Books. I hear the sequels, Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty, will be published next year. Congratulations!

You have so much experience, knowledge and skill to pass onto us all. But as there are many components to a great thriller, for now let’s concentrate on your Art of Writing ‘Unusual Suspects’ lecture that you’ll be hosting for us in June.

You’ve said in the past that ‘for a suspense novel to have any chance of success it must be populated with believable characters. Not every hero is exclusively good; not every villain is plain bad.’ How important are flaws in our protagonists and why?

Everybody has flaws, and if you neglect to acknowledge them on the page you’re selling your reader short. If you can show that these heroes are not too unlike you or me, you forge a stronger bond between the character and the reader, a deeper layer of empathy.

51C9xea8FjL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_What about redemptive qualities in antagonists?

Again, it’s about honesty and authenticity. We want our fictions to be as real as possible, to chime with what we know to be true. We like our villains to be bad, but a little vulnerability on their part allows us to believe even more that they are human. It becomes interesting when the antagonist elicits sympathy from the reader. You develop a whole new layer of interaction.

Sincerely and personally, I am beyond excited about Conrad’s classes because I myself am writing a Domestic Thriller. I cannot wait to hear more of Conrad’s tips and tricks on managing suspense through prose, dialogue and character.

Read more about Conrad’s new trilogy in his interview with Crime Time magazine here.


50,000 words in November — can you do it?

988cc59bd8000e1103a45e97bcdc2c6cI recently discovered a good, global, free online writing event that’s taking place this month called NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who don’t know what it is, as I didn’t until about two days ago, it’s an annual challenge held every November to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Last year, 325,000 participants walked away with 50,000 words of their novel completed. Not bad!

Maybe NaNoWriMo could get us to buckle down and focus on what we love: writing. We lose so much writing momentum through plot planning, editing, rereading, perfecting dialogue and mulling over descriptions or metaphors. Before we know it we’re not moving the story forward, we’re stuck looking at what’s already written, instead of looking forward and moving the story along.

images (1)One month to write 50,000 words could be a reasonable goal. It’s an average of 1,667 words a day but the magic is your being consistent and persistent. I quite like the idea of committing to a month-long challenge that might just encourage writers to keep writing every day when it’s over. They say that it takes thirty days to build a habit and this challenge just might be the perfect commitment tool to inspire you put your story down on the page.

Every day.


Art of Writing Affirmation 08






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

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