A Story From the Heart
The Hunter Valley. Even the name sounds romantic. And it is a romantic place, with gorgeous vineyards, spectacular hills, luxurious thoroughbred studs, bucolic dairy farms and a river that courses like a vein through the landscape, bringing fertility and life.
But my first experience of the Hunter was far from romantic. I’d been living in Melbourne, having moved there from South Australia after I finished my agriculture degree to work for a pasture and turf seed company. Then I met Jim and fell in love and all was going wonderfully until we found out he was being transferred to New South Wales. I had to make a decision – stay or leave. Well, I wasn’t about to let that man slip through my fingers and an offer of employment from another pasture seed company simply sealed it: I was heading to the Hunter.
The day before our little two-car convoy left Melbourne, raging fires broke out around the Hunter, Blue Mountains and Sydney. Praying they’d soon be contained and homeless anyway, we took off but as we drove along the Hume Highway reports of road closures and devastation kept coming. By the time we reached Picton, the F3 – the major artery connecting Sydney with Newcastle and north – was closed and unlikely to open anytime soon. We camped for the night, along with many other stranded travellers, in a tired-looking motel, wondering how the hell we were going to make it to our destination and hoping like crazy the road would open.
Morning came. The freeway and Putty Road remained closed. With no choice left but to make the long journey inland and around, we took off in the stinking January heat, eventually connecting with some obscure gravel road that took us over the mountains and to the very top of the Valley, finally descending onto the vineyard lined flats around Sandy Hollow.
As we headed down the Valley I didn’t notice the gorgeous scenery, the beautiful properties and fat livestock. I was exhausted after the nerve-wracking drive, the stress of leaving the familiar, of being far from my family and a land I knew and loved. All I saw was the filthy, churning dark sky, which worsened the closer we came to Newcastle’s then heavy industrial landscape. Everything inside me screamed to turn around and go home.
But I didn’t. I stayed, and my new job took me all around the Hunter, visiting farms and rural suppliers, attending field days and other agricultural events, and experiencing all the delights of this very special part of Australia. Within weeks I was completely besotted with the place, so how could I not write about this land that I’d fallen so in love with?
The second manuscript I ever completed was a romance set, like Heart of the Valley, in the Upper Hunter, but for several reasons the story didn’t quite gel. While the characters and landscape were well-developed, the book lacked a sustainable conflict. And when it comes to storytelling, you don’t get far without conflict. With plans of one day rewriting it, I filed the manuscript away and carried on honing my craft with other stories.
When Promises sold to Penguin I had to come up with another book idea quick-smart, and so I returned to this early Hunter Valley story. It didn’t take long to realise it was unsalvageable, but as I read a new story began to stir in my imagination. A story also set in the Upper Hunter, featuring a young woman facing the loss of her dream and her fight to keep it alive. A story that also explores a subject very close to my heart – the meaning of home.
One dramatic opening chapter later, I knew I had my book.