I lived in Australia for fourteen years so that’s fourteen Christmases I enjoyed Down Under.
My first Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere was a bit of a shock to the system. I didn’t feel festive at all! The sun was shining, it was boiling hot and I did my Christmas shopping in shorts and a T-shirt with plenty of factor 50 sunscreen. I remember seeing Santa in Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne, and it was such an oddity.
I had a friend staying with me for my first Christmas away from the UK and of course, we had the traditional roast dinner with all the trimmings. Or at least we would’ve done if we hadn’t forgotten the potatoes! We’d shopped for all the food and somehow left them at the checkout and so on Christmas Day 2000 we were driving around Melbourne and its suburbs looking for potatoes. We managed to get stuck in a traffic jam – something neither of us had ever experienced on the big day itself – but unfortunately had to eat the dinner without a key ingredient.
My mum was so distressed that I didn’t have a tree that year that she sent me a decoration so I’d at least I’d have something. I’m not sure why my friend and I didn’t have a tree but given we’d left the potatoes behind I’m not sure we could’ve been trusted to get a tree safely into the apartment!
I think people have a vision of all Australians enjoying a Christmas BBQ on the beach, but I’ve never met anyone who did. Most people I know had Christmas lunch at home, although a lot of families would have a lunch of cold meats and salads and plenty of seafood. Somehow, I could never let go of the traditional roast dinner though.
Over the years, Christmas evolved and I got used to the heat and the sun. I always had a real tree too. We’d choose it from a Christmas tree farm which was always a lot of fun with the kids. There were rows and rows of trees and we would tie a ribbon around the bottom of the one we wanted to buy and arrange delivery a few weeks later.
Last Christmas was our first in the Northern Hemisphere and it didn’t disappoint. We spent Christmas with family and wore Christmas jumpers of course, and I think I ate my bodyweight in cheese! The only thing that would’ve made it extra perfect is snow and we’re keeping our fingers crossed for that this year.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone, wherever you are in the world. I hope it’s a happy one! For us, it’ll be a lovely family time…with plenty of roast potatoes J
Helen J Rolfe x
My latest novel, What Rosie Found Next, is available now, from Amazon. It follows the story of Rosie & Owen, and set over November and December in Australia, there’s a little bit of Christmas in there too. Here’s the blurb…
A shaky upbringing has left Rosie Stevens craving safety and security. She thinks she knows exactly what she needs to make her life complete – the stable job and perfect house-sit she’s just found in Magnolia Creek. The only thing she wants now is for her long-term boyfriend, Adam, to leave his overseas job and come home for good.
Owen Harrison is notoriously nomadic, and he roars into town on his Ducati for one reason and one reason only – to search his parents’ house while they’re away to find out what they’ve been hiding from him his entire life. When he meets Rosie, who refuses to quit the house-sit in his parents’ home, sparks fly.
Secrets are unearthed, promises are broken, friendships are put to the test and the real risk of bushfires under the hot Australian sun threatens to undo Rosie once and for all.
Will Rosie and Owen be able to find what they want or what they really need?
Helen J. Rolfe writes contemporary women’s fiction. She enjoys weaving stories about family, relationships, friendships, love, and characters who face challenges and fight to overcome them.
Time to chat with Helen!
What is your latest book?
Handle Me with Care is my latest book. It’s a book about second chances and here’s the blurb…
Does true love come along more than once in a lifetime?
Maddie Kershaw doesn’t think so. She lost the love of her life in the 9/11 attacks, and since then has hopped from one casual fling to the next. But when she delivers an erotic cake to a one-hundredth birthday party by mistake, she meets Evan and starts to believe in second chances … until she realises there’s a risk of getting hurt all over again.
Evan Quinn is serially single, yet when he meets Maddie he feels an instant connection, so much so that he confesses on their first date that he may have testicular cancer. Was it a mistake to tell her? He wants Maddie more than he has ever wanted any other woman. But he doesn’t want her pity.
With the odds stacked against them both, finding love won’t be easy. But beneath the Australian sun, a Happy Ever After could be worth fighting for.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I think the genre chose me because I love to read the same sorts of stories. Romantic fiction has always been my go-to genre, whether it’s in the form of a book or a film.
For me, there’s always a romantic thread in the stories I write and I think that will always be the case, but the story isn’t just about that romance, it’s about real men and women who are faced with everyday challenges. I like to explore deep themes sometimes, which means more research, but I enjoy creating stories that my readers will relate to.
What else have you written?
My debut novel was The Friendship Tree. I set this novel in Australia too, where I lived for fourteen years. The Friendship Tree is about facing up to problems rather than running away.
Tamara Harding leaves her manipulative ex behind in London and heads to Australia to get away from him and spend time with family. She is soon drawn in to the small community of Brewer Creek where she becomes the coordinator for an old fashioned Friendship Tree – a chart telling people who they can call on in times of trouble. Things get complicated for Tamara when she meets Jake, a man with secrets of his own.
Again, The Friendship Tree is romantic fiction with a little bit of suspense thrown in when the past catches up with one of Brewer Creek’s residents.
The Write Romantics are a group of writers who met via the Romantic Novelists’ Association and we blog together about writing, reading, our books and everyday issues. Last year, with the help of other published writers, we put together Winter Tales, an anthology of winter and Christmas stories that raised funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. My story, Christmas in July, was based in Sydney’s Blue Mountains and again there’s a featured romance. The story is currently featured for free on my website.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
All the time! I plot my books beforehand but I know it’s important to stay flexible because once I start writing my characters evolve in ways I didn’t predict
In The Friendship Tree for example, I didn’t originally plan for Mr Wilson or Danielle to have any significant involvement with Tamara, but the friendships formed as I wrote. It was fun that way and I guess teaches us that friendship sometimes surprises us and age is no barrier. Mr Wilson is elderly but he and Tamara have a bond and understand each other. He’s the first to see that she’s in Australia because she’s hiding something about her ex, and she finds herself confiding in him. Tamara also bonds with Danielle, who is, I think, someone Tamara can relate to. Danielle sees Tamara as brave and independent, and I think she helps Tamara realise that what she’s actually good at is hiding the way she really feels.
In Handle Me with Care I had no idea until I started writing, what journey Evan would follow with testicular cancer. I didn’t want the book to be about the nitty gritty of cancer and medications, but more about the emotions that come to the fore when you’re faced with the disease. I wanted to be able to highlight the importance of early detection and the importance of leaning on people when you need to, and with these goals in mind, my character evolved as I wrote. Sometimes it’s hard to know how characters will work together until you actually get them on the page, side by side. Then they often surprise you!
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
It sounds strange but I enjoyed all of it. The research was fun because it gave me the confidence to pen characters who were realistic and to whom readers could relate to. I enjoy the first draft because it’s so free…the story can go anywhere you like!
The editing is fun too, because it means the first draft is complete. This is the chance to turn it into a better story and as that happens it’s really satisfying.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I’d definitely get my first draft down first. My first draft is full of question marks and italics with notes to go and check on this and that, instructions to refer to research. That way I’m not thrown out of the story. Also, I think if you obsess too much about getting each bit perfect, not only do you lose momentum, but you lose some of the passion for the story you’re writing.
I guess different methods work for different people though!
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
I think this always happens. I think it’s important to put a novel aside and have time away from it. This is usually when I pass it to at least 2 beta readers and they flag up any major issues or criticisms. Then the novel goes to an editor and once it’s returned I’ve had enough time away to look at it afresh and make changes that’ll help it be a better story.
Authors, especially Indies, are constantly trying to understand why some authors sell very while their talented fellow authors have a hard time of it. It’s an ongoing conundrum. What do you make of it all?
I think it’s a tough job to do, being an author. And it’s much tougher than most outsiders give you credit for! To a lot of people, an author’s life is all about long lunches and sitting at a table signing books. They don’t realise that 9-12 months, often much more, of hard work has gone into that book and then equally as much work must ensue to promote it.
I also think the marketplace is crowded now and it’s hard to get books noticed. There’s a lot of advice out there although I think if you obsessed about it too much you’d never write anything else.
Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed with it all, the cure for me is to get away from obsessing about rankings and sales and write something else. This is when I’m at my happiest. 🙂
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
In writing Handle Me with Care, there was a bit of research particularly around the topic of testicular cancer. I wrote articles for health and fitness magazines a few years ago and I approach my research for novels in the same way as I did then for non-fiction. Firstly I trawl the internet and read up, from reliable websites, to get a feeling for the subject matter. This also helps me devise a list of questions that I need answered.
Next I find an expert or two, depending on how many questions I have and what level of detail I need. For Handle Me with Care I interviewed the Cancer Council in Australia and they sent me booklets that usually go out to patients. These were particularly helpful when trying to deal with the emotions of cancer and develop my character, Evan.
I also interviewed a doctor who specialised in testicular cancer and I was able to expand what I’d already found out. As I was writing, I could also email him to check I was along the right lines with my character.
Interviewing specialists / experts also gives you confidence when you’re writing. For example, an editor had queried the chemotherapy aspect in my novel as they didn’t think it sounded as in depth as it should be. I was able to go through my interview transcript and check that I was correct with how my character had experienced chemotherapy, and to double check, I reconfirmed with the doctor too.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I tend to keep it a secret – the title, the subject, everything, until I’m well on the way to having it ready. I’m not sure why but I think it helps me work it out in my own mind first so that my writing isn’t clouded my anyone else’s opinions on how I should or shouldn’t write the story.
Are you a fast typist? Does your typing speed (or lack of it) affect your writing?
Yes, I type at about 75 wpm! It was probably one of the best things I ever did, learning to type. My Dad brought home a library book teaching touch typing when I was about 14 and I learned on one of those old-fashioned typewriters. I’ll never forget it … the ‘a’ key stuck all the time and you needed to give it quite a whack with your little finger to make it move.
Being able to type was a godsend at University, typing a 10,000 word dissertation, and then in temporary jobs during school holidays where I could be an office assistant.
And now, of course, as an author it’s great to be able to type quickly, particularly when the ideas are flowing!
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
A long walk or an exercise class really helps. Anything that’s time away from my desk really. The other day, my plotting for novel number 4 was painful. All day, I tried and failed to really get going with it. Then, waiting in the car for my child to do their gymnastics class, the ideas just kept flowing!
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I have just returned to the UK after living in Australia for fourteen years.
If I had to live in another country then Australia would have to be first choice. I fell in love with Melbourne, where I spent 9 years, and Sydney was pretty spectacular too. It’s an amazing country with lots of space, brilliant weather and so many opportunities. The only thing missing from Australia was family. 🙂
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
It’s a tough choice…crisps or chocolate! My least favourite food is avocado!
What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?
Trustworthy, loyal, and easy to laugh with.
If you had a million dollars to give to charity, how would you allot the funds?
That’s a really tough question. I think I’d divide it between ten charities but it would be so hard to choose.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
In 2000 I resigned from my job in the UK, bought a one-way ticket to Australia, and not knowing a single person there and having never been to the country myself, I moved to Melbourne.
It was the best experience ever!
What was the most valuable class you ever took in school? Why?
English for sure. I still remember my teacher saying she’d wanted to be a journalist and that I should never give up on my dream. Her words kept me going when I doubted I’d ever become a published author.