The Soapmaker is a magical feminism novel with the theme of experiencing place.

This is the reflective essay (a mix of person reflection and academic research) that I submitted with my portfolio for module two of my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing in 2020 (University of Cumbria). The topic of the module was: Experiencing Place. © Veronika Robinson


I have explored this module through extensive reading, podcasts, interviews, weekly writing exercises, and culminating in my creative project: a novel, The Soapmaker. My reflections about the novel cover three main points: creating place, being out of place, and point of view in relation to place.

The idea for The Soapmaker came from breathing in the exquisite scent of handmade lavender and geranium soap; my sense of smell was keenly activated before I wrote a single word and it took me to a place I wanted to write about, and one my target readership would enjoy. Amanda Curtin, Five Things: Creating a Sense of Place, writes “Most writers fall very naturally into visual description, but the other senses have as much, perhaps more, potential to engage a reader’s sense of being there.”

My first decision was where to set the story. It would have been easy to set it in my native Australia, so I challenged myself to place it here in Cumbria. Although I appreciate the beauty of this county, it still isn’t home to me after twenty-one years. I decided to make my character, Grace, an immigrant like me. It would also mean, due to her use of plants in the soap, we’d both have to learn about Cumbrian flora. As a result, I have connection to this place in a new way.


Grace moves from an easy going way of life in warm Australia to cold and conservative (meteorologically, culturally and politically) Cumbria. This is an excellent example of my relationship between place and the written word. Cumbria has been a difficult place for me to settle in for the above reasons.

For the first five drafts, Grace was from Alaska. Although I felt that I’d researched the location well, upon discussion with my tutor about the intended learning outcomes, I changed it to Australia. The storyline didn’t change too much but her experience (and my writing) of place most certainly did. Naturally, readers will have a completely different experience of place when reading about the heat of Australia compared to the frigidity of the Alaskan climate.
Milford A. Jeremiah, The Use of Place in Writing and Literature, quotes William Zinsser: “Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that ‘somewhere’ is like.” The opening page starts with the soap’s place in the vat, and in the soapmaking studio where they are made, and place in the world.

As part of my research into soapmaking, I followed two botanical soapmakers on Instagram , to learn more about their work through beautiful photos. I found the imagery seductive, and I felt at home in their studios. This was something I wished to recreate through my written word. I had lengthy discussions with Lynda Cook Sawyer from Nevada Moon about the soapmaking method and process, the procuring of plants, and relevant terminology. This, and the images, shaped the sense of place I created for Grace’s soapmaking studio.


Other people’s philosophies and ideas influenced my writing, such as the podcast from week one of this module. This had a huge influence on me, and shaped the storyline. The topic, Out of the Garden, was an exploration of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and our desire to have paradise on Earth. Although scholars argue that the fruit Eve offered Adam wasn’t an apple, it remains so in the cultural psyche. My response to this was to include references to apples in the novel. The element of the forbidden fruit is also shown in the emerging relationship between Grace and Caleb. The Fall, as expulsion from Paradise, inspired my choice for the character’s name, Grace. Biblically, eating the forbidden fruit meant falling from grace. The novel is about falling for Grace. Caleb has to choose between everything he’s ever known for a new land: an unknown place.

Introducing a Jehovah’s Witness allowed me to explore both place and being out of place. Many people think of Jehovah’s Witnesses as simply another Christian religion when it is, by definition, a cult. , I engaged in extensive research about the organisation through reading books, online forums, and conversations with a number of friends who were all once active Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Curtin writes, “Before you can create a sense of place on the page, you need to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about so that it comes alive for you.” The places I’ve written about were augmented through further reading, research and imagination. “If you have direct experience of a place, or somewhere similar, you have a well of impressions to draw on.” I have long enjoyed the feeling of being in natural light, so a large conservatory was an appropriate setting in which to make Grace’s Cumbrian soapmaking studio. I knew, from my experience of place, that she would be missing the light from Australia enormously. As I wrote, I could feel the light coming in, and the view into the garden. I could hear the woodpecker in her garden as readily as I hear the one in my own.


When illustrating ways to create place, Curtin writes: “I’m strongly influenced by skyscapes, and there are many ways the sky can be used metaphorically or imagistically in fiction—as messenger, mirror, portent, signal…” An example of this, from my novel, is found in the opening chapter: Without warning, the unbridled sunshine which had filtered in through the windows and glass roof all morning, was eclipsed by sombre clouds. Grace shivered. Something in the air had shifted. “You’re safe,” she whispered, looking around the room in case she’d missed something. Or someone. “You’re safe.”

Curtin continues: “Skies are often associated with place—for example, through colour or atmospheric elements, constellations or position of the sun.” When describing Grace’s childhood, I wrote: “As an only child, she learnt to make her own fun under the canopy of the ‘mac trees’, as she called them. They offered magical shadows on days when the clouds hung low, and glorious streams of light between leaves when the Sun was beaming bright.”
Madge’s disregard for the real place of environment is due to her belief in an imagined place: The New World, when Jehovah restores Paradise to Earth. Although Grace is incensed and finds this selfish and irresponsible, they both have the same end goal: a Utopia. On our residential for this module, I was fascinated by the differences and similarities my cohort shared about ‘what makes Utopia’. We all agreed that having shelter (a sense of place and security) was a priority.

The use of different time frames appears throughout the novel: A glimpse into Grace’s childhood; living in Australia; and Cumbria. Curtin writes “A strong sense of place helps readers to make the imaginative leap into another world, whether that world is in the past, present or future.”

Modern versions of The Fall include ‘enclosures’ and ‘gun powder’. Having been kicked out of paradise, Grace creates a new world. Milford writes “Another feature of place in literature is that it serves to activate the reader’s senses and to evoke an emotional response on the part of the readers.” As I wrote a traumatic scene for Grace, I could feel the terror of being in an enclosed space with no ability to escape, and the fear each time the gun fired.

Due to Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, Grace is also somewhat out of place in her body and constantly vigilant for intruders or anything that’s out of place. Examples include brushing off the soap flakes off the curing rack, and dropping the compost bucket, or her response to Caleb’s reaction when he refuses the gift of soap for Madge. Again, I know that if I am out of sorts emotionally then everything in my place (home) irritates me if it is not in order.
Caleb, too, is out of place. He’s wrestling with doubts, not only as a Jehovah’s Witness, but also his marriage. If he openly questions his religion, he’ll be labelled apostate and, if disfellowshipped, will be shunned by everyone in his community. He’s been brainwashed since birth, and realising that there is no Armageddon or New World means that he will grow older and die. He straddles a fine line between the psychological places of breakdown and breakthrough. Grace becomes his place to rest. This sanctuary (emotionally, but also in her lovely, welcoming home and garden) is an imitation of Paradise. We see ‘place within place’.

Dystopia is feared due to the belief in the place of Armageddon. At the time of writing, many Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world believe Covid-19 is the start of the much-awaited and prophesied Armageddon, the precursor to the perfect New World.

Grace fears living in climate-change dystopia if we don’t act urgently.


I deliberately chose different points of view to experience place: Grace in her soapmaking studio, the kitchen, garden, the road to the village.

I have also written about the natural habitat of dragonflies, and the connection Grace makes to her inner landscape; as well as their first beachcombing experience on a Cumbrian beach.

Through flashback, another indicator of time and place, we are at The Channon markets; the Macadamia Nut Grove; the seaside town of Byron Bay; inside the police car and police station.

Through Caleb’s view, we’re in his bedroom, and shower. As he’s driving to the Kingdom Hall, the radio announcer says “BBC Radio Cumbria”. Milford states that “In the literary world, place is usually combined with time and events to establish what is known as the social setting or the social context of a literary work.”

Madge has several experiences of place: home, the garden shed, car, and Carlisle city centre. I had planned to write about the Extinction Rebellion rally from Grace’s point of view, and it certainly would have given me more freedom but I chose it from Madge’s point of view to illustrate being out of place.

There are the imagined places of Armageddon and the New World; as well as the place of one in their own skin; and the emotional and psychological realities of one’s place in relationship.

Curtin writes “Before you can create a sense of place on the page, you need to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about so that it comes alive for you.” My writerly self has felt alive in each of the (real) places I’ve explored.
Philip Hensher, writing on The Importance of Place in Fiction, “A novel has to place the psychologies of individuals in a delicate relationship with the world that formed them.“ For my purposes as a writer, this included the soap. By nature of the novel’s genre: magical feminism (a sub genre of magical realism), the soap, too, has a voice. The Seaweed, Spice Orange and Cedar soap is explored through three different points of view, and therefore, place: the soap itself; memory flashbacks of when and where the ingredients were gathered (oranges hanging from trees in sunny Spain; cedar from high in the mountains; and seaweed from the ocean); and when Caleb’s showering. Right from the start, the soap’s place in this world is noted.

Based on feedback, I have made significant changes in the writing of drafts so that the descriptive text was broken up in various ways through flashback, dialogue, changes of point of view. I can see the value of this now that I’m at draft seven.

Having lived in six countries within the span of six years, and as a new mother (with daughters born just 22 months apart) living in three countries within just seven months, my experience of place, and being out of place, readily forms my writing practice. This module helped me make sense of my conflicting needs: to settle, and to move on. I am an Australian born to German immigrants. My New Zealand-born daughters have immigrant parents, and my Welsh granddaughter has immigrant parents. This theme of being uprooted and transplanted continues down the family line and, indeed, in my writing.

The Soapmaker serves as contemporary nature writing as it highlights the urgency of climate change through references to ecology, environmental issues, fair-trade products, composting and recycling, the ‘Make it, Bake it, Grow it’ movement, and the Extinction Rebellion.

These weeks of lockdown due to Covid-19 have highlighted that the experience of place is the foundation for all aspects of my life and writing, and I remain grateful to live rurally with a lovely garden and mini orchard; my own paradise.

Amanda Curtin, Five Things: Creating a Sense of Place
[Accessed 10th April 2020]
Jeremiah A Milford, The Use of Place in Writing and Literature; Language Arts Journal of Michigan, Volume 16, Issue 2, Article 7 (2000) <> [accessed 9th April 2020]
Nurturing Soul (@nurturing_soul) <> [multiple access dates]
Nevada Moon Soap Company (@nevadamoonsoap) <> [multiple access dates]
Bonnie Zieman, Exiting the JW Cult: A Healing Handbook For Current and Former Jehovah’s Witnesses (North Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015)
Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control, Fourth Edition (Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2018)
Curtin, Five Things
Philip Hensher, The Importance of Place in Fiction
<> [accessed 10th April 2020]

It’s late at night, my feet are bare on the cool terracotta kitchen tiles, as my husband and I chat happily about various things. Debussy fills the air, lending a gentle tone to the evening. Leek and potato soup simmers on the stovetop. I’ll freeze batches of it for my daughter’s school lunches later. I wash the evening’s dishes, and pop the vegetable and fruit scraps of the day outside to the compost heap. I take a moment to enjoy the birdsong and twilight breeze before heading back to the kitchen to join my husband. He is tending to some jobs, and the scene of domestic bliss is one that makes my heart sing. It might bore the pants off some people, but I don’t care. For me, moments like this are amongst my favourite.




My daughters would laugh if they could have seen me in the late 1980s, what with my killer high-heel shoes (what was I thinking?) and padded jackets. Don’t even start me on the permed hair. Ouch! Feminism was my middle name. I was all about career plans, and the rights of women. Power to the girl, and all that. Hello, I read Cosmo and Cleo magazines. But even then, I think I had a hunch that feminism was about so much more than equal pay!

I learnt about feminism at my mother’s feet, even though she was a stay-at-home mum for all her parenting years rather than a career chick. She was strong, feisty, followed her heart, and wasn’t bound by anyone’s rules. From her, I learnt that women could do anything. From my father, I learnt that it was important to believe in yourself. Pretty good grounding for life, really.




Maybe, though, feminism was about learning to find my voice, too. Perhaps it was standing on my own two feet and not being treated shabbily. I didn’t have the impact of Germaine Greer, but in my own small way I created change that to this day has gone on to help others. In my early twenties, I was sacked from my job as a phlebotomist (the person who takes your blood [and gentlemen, your semen!]) in my local hospital. Why? What had I done wrong? My crime was daring to put in a formal complaint against my boss for sexually harassing me. He thought it was his God-given right to grope me and make lewd comments from 9 to 5. The general manager was sympathetic, but in the end said his hands were tied. It was easier to hire a new lab assistant than to hire a new scientist. Can you feel your inner feminist rising? Mine sure as hell did! As it turns out, at the time, for some odd reason, Queensland hospitals seemed to be exempt from any laws against their staff being sexually harassed. That is no longer the case after my time with the Ombudsman. This was never about me getting revenge, but about speaking up for women and for the underdog. It was about saying ‘wait a minute, we’re important too!’




Several years later, when working as a media officer and author for the Royal New Zealand Society for the Protection of Animals, I became incensed by the many cruelties to animals in the name of ‘human food’. In particular, the fact that a battery hen spends her whole life in a space the size of a piece of A4 paper: denied her biological needs of sunshine, dust, and freedom of movement. My inner feminist began to boil. The way a culture treats animals is usually a fair indication of how it treats its women, too. My daughter Eliza thinks it’s pretty cool that I launched the Ban the Battery cage campaign. The highlight for me was when my boss, bless him, called me into his office because five ‘top’ men from the Egg Production Board were there. They wanted me to stop what I was doing. My campaign was hurting their lucrative industry. I was about 24 years old, standing in a room with men all aged 55 or older. It’s fair to say it was one of the more empowering moments of my life.

So, I stand here today, in my cosy cottage in rural Cumbria, a thousand years away from that young feisty girl, barefoot and content, but as much a feminist as ever.




Feminism has meant that marriage for me is easy. I’m with a man wouldn’t dream of thinking I was anything ‘less than’. My husband is my greatest supporter. He’s the first person who’ll encourage me to sit and write an article or book before I do the vacuuming. You’re more likely to find my husband washing the dishes than me, and I am just as happy to put the rubbish and recycling on the kerb. I mow the lawn (though, in fairness, he has to start the thing for me), and he repairs clothes with his little sewing kit. My daughters find this endlessly amusing.

There are some feminists who’d see the scenes of my domestic harmony the antithesis of their rally cry, and yet…this is exactly what it’s all about. Equality is about looking into the mirror of a relationship and knowing the scales are fairly balanced. Surely the heart of feminism is harmony, whether it’s at work or home?

I enjoy cooking, and it’s fair to say that most of the meals in this house are generated by me. If, though, I was with someone who demanded a meal on the table at 6pm each night… Never mind, scrub that thought, I’d never have ended up with someone like that!




Feminism, to me, is freedom. It’s not a fight. It really shouldn’t even be a cause. It’s had to be, of course, because, like battery hens, women have been treated shoddily for a good chunk of history.

Not all men are like that, of course. In my life, I’m blessed to know men who are thoughtful, kind, considerate, generous and fair. I guess it’s indicative of the journey I’ve been on in life, but every time I meet a man like this, I do a silent cheer.

What have I learnt after decades as a feminist? Feminism isn’t about what’s out there. It’s not even about changing the world. Sorry! Feminism isn’t actually about men and women, or worse: men v. women. It’s about loving yourself. To be a feminist means valuing yourself enough that you won’t tolerate any situation that doesn’t match your ideals and values, whether that’s in the way an animal is treated, or an employee, or how our planet is raped and pillaged. A true feminist is a woman who values herself enough to make lifestyle choices which honour who she really is, and what she loves to do: whether that’s having a career, or being a stay-at-home mum (or in my case, both); or being a humanitarian or anything else that makes her heart sing.



So, to the young women coming along who think feminism is a fight. Stop. Put your weapons down. Instead, slip your shoes off and go for a walk on the grass. Look up the stars. Feel the rain on your skin. Recognise your place in this Universe. Love yourself unconditionally. Don’t buy into the cultural hype about what womanhood means. Be kind to yourself, and be gentle. Define your own values. Live a heart-centred life. After all, isn’t that what the feminine energy is all about? Listen to your heart. It has the answers. Inspire yourself, and you’ll inspire others, whether you’re at the kitchen sink or landing a multi-million pound deal. Being a feminist means being free to write your own script!