Rachel Quilligan chats to author Nicole Alexander about her new novel and a research trip to America’s South.

Australian author Nicole Alexander had to journey to the other side of the world for her latest novel, The Great Plains.

After extensively researching the history and culture of Oklahoma in the 1800s, Alexander realised that reading non-fiction books and exploring the internet wasn’t going to be enough.

“I soon discovered that I would actually have to go to the States, so my mum and I went to Oklahoma last July for this whirlwind two-week trip,” she says. “We circumnavigated the state … which was probably really scary for the Americans, with me driving on the wrong side of the road!

“It’s very difficult to write about a place if you haven’t seen it. You have to stand on the earth, smell it, and try to understand the people and the landscape, and Oklahoma’s very diverse geographically.”

Alexander says she discovered lots of new information about the region and its history after visiting, like how the humidity of the state changed in some areas due to the amount of new dams and lakes that were built through work projects to stimulate the economy in President Roosevelt’s time.

“It’s not really somewhere most of us would have on our bucket lists, but it’s a really amazing place,” she says.

The Great Plains is an epic historical novel with many complex relationships and loyalties, an endeavour Alexander takes on alongside her duties on the family farm.

“It’s literally been seven days a week for me – four days on the farm and then three days writing,” she says. “When I have a writing day I have to say to myself, Nicole: you have to do 2000 words today.

“It’s been very much a juggling act.”

The novel follows the story of a family divided by tragedy with many complex relationships and loyalties, but Alexander says she never works out a story completely before beginning.

“A lot of authors do plot out the entire story but I find if I do that and I get halfway through and I realise there’s something better I could write, then I’ve constrained myself,” she says. “Is it hard to keep the characters all together? I do have to keep a rein on them – you’ve got to make sure your characters stay with the story! But it’s usually a natural progression.”

Alexander says she began with the character of Philomena and built the characters and story from there.

“I never know how many characters are going to be in a story,” she says. “And I’m not a great believer in really happy endings but I do believe that novels should have endings that are satisfying. Not everything can be a Hollywood movie.”

As for advice for aspiring novelists, Alexander says it’s all about hard work, timing and luck.

“It’s very much worthwhile going into bookstores and talking to people about what’s around,” she says. “I’m not saying write to the market but be aware that there’s not much point writing something if you know a publisher’s not going to pick it up.

“As far as writing in the beginning – it is so much about redrafting, refining and polishing. You really are turning a kernel of an idea into a pearl, and there’s no way you can get out of that hard slog.”

The Great Plains RRP$32.99 by Nicole Alexander is available in bookstores now.