Screenwriting skills applied to the novel: Joan Sauers

Sydney author, Joan Sauers, has fourteen books under her belt, including Mothers & Daughters, Ageing Disgracefully, and Sex Lives of Australian Women. She is a screenwriter, consultant, and lecturer in screenwriting in Australia, Europe, and Morocco. Here she reveals to Robyn Walton how she drew on this experience for her debut crime novel, Echo Lake (Allen & Unwin).

Joan, congratulations on the release of your debut crime mystery novel. You have had a distinguished career in screenwriting and are still in that industry. Were you conscious of this experience influencing how you went about creating the novel?

Very much so. I initially imagined the characters, setting, and story in visuals, and while I was writing I looked around what might be on screen in my mind’s eye and described what I saw. Then afterwards, I would cut out descriptions of anything that seemed irrelevant to the story or characters.

I was also aware of rhythm and pace and became conscious of slowing things down when I wanted to build suspense and let the reader take a breather in between scenes of action as if I were the film editor.

I also imagined the music that might be used on the soundtrack and often inserted it into the text as a diegetic element, so not only could the reader imagine it, but the characters in the scene could hear the same piece. I loved bringing this multi-sensory cinematic experience to the page.

To what extent had you worked out the plot in advance?

Before I sat down to write, I sketched out the big plot points on a large whiteboard, using classic storytelling structure as a loose guide. I played with those plot beats, finessing them, moving them around, sometimes throwing them out altogether, for a couple of weeks. This way I always had the bones of the story to fall back on and had a pretty clear idea of where I was going.

But I was also prepared to change direction if, as I was writing the story, a better plot point came into my head. This often happened, courtesy of my characters, who, after a while, take on a life of their own and tell you what they will do next. I’ve learned to listen to my characters and not force them into a predetermined narrative schematic. Your characters need to make sense and ring true in the end. You disobey them at your peril.

You chose the NSW Southern Highlands for your setting. Pros and cons of that choice?

I kind of feel like the Southern Highlands chose me. I’ve always loved books (and films and TV shows) set in the countryside, or in small towns with a somewhat English or Scottish vibe, and the Highlands has that in spades. All that fog and greyness and cold creates a wonderful atmosphere for gothic mystery and murder. I was developing the idea for a while but it wasn’t quite coming together until I moved to the Highlands at the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly everything coalesced.

The amazing thing about the Highlands is that each of its little towns has a unique character, and the landscape itself varies from dense forest to rolling farmland to elegantly manicured estate. Each of these locations offers its own dynamic quality that can be used in the narrative, and I don’t think I’ll ever run out of settings for future books in the series. The Highlands also has four distinct seasons, so in the next book, I might leave the cold behind and embrace the lush greenery and scorching heat of the Highlands in summer.

Your epigraph comes from Margaret Atwood: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes.” Your protagonist, Rose, is a history researcher. I don’t have a precise question about this, but would you like to elaborate a little?

Making Rose a historian was one of the last things that fell into place. I knew I wanted the character to be able to work from home, and I also wanted her to be sensitive to the feelings she’d get from being in different places—to get a sense of the past. I’ve had my own real-life experiences with intense, physical reactions when I found myself in certain locations, and later found out they were the site of some violent historical event. It occurred to me that if Rose had those feelings, it might have been what spurred her to study history in the first place and, of course, as an academic researcher she could be good at digging up clues about how and why something happened.

I always wanted a reluctant amateur sleuth as my protagonist rather than a professional detective, so a work-from-home historical researcher fitted the bill.

Rose’s sister can be either terrifically supportive or annoying. What is it about sisters? 

Hahaha, yes! I have three sisters and I’m very close to all of them, but I think all sibling relationships have a paradox at their core. When I was researching my book and subsequent documentary, Brothers & Sisters, many years ago, I got in touch with an American psychologist named Frank Sulloway who had just written a best seller about birth order and its effect on personality. I asked him what you asked me—what is it about sisters (and brothers)? And he said, oh it’s simple: we share approximately half our DNA with our siblings, so it’s in our interest to help them survive, but they’re also our direct competitors for things like food, affection, and attention from our parents, so it’s in our interest to kill them. So we spend our whole lives wrestling with this primitive contradiction that often results in complicated, love/hate relationships.

In my book, Rose’s relationship with her sister, Kim, is what I used to track the arc of Rose’s development. So how their relationship evolves mirrors how Rose evolves as a person—as a character. I think our relationships with our siblings are integral to how we relate to the world. Whether we like it or not.

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