Missing persons advocate: Melissa Pouliot

The day I first met the staff in the Australian Federal Police National Missing Persons Coordination Centre set me on a path I could never have predicted. The support they have provided during the search for Ursula and then with the discovery that she had been found means more to me than I can put into words (and that’s saying something!). Although they do not play an investigative role, they were able to provide information that helped me navigate through the complex missing persons space. It was a privilege to be invited to sit down with them and share my journey and my passion for continued advocacy for missing people – this is what they wrote.

…..

Melissa is a woman who wears many hats; wife, mum of three, cricket mum, dance mum, media company owner, outdoors lover, book lover and keen mountain bike rider. You would think she wouldn’t have much time to relax, but around her busy schedule, Melissa manages to write crime fiction novels and speak around the country advocating on behalf of families of missing persons.

Ursula Barwick

Melissa has strong personal ties to the issue of missing persons. In 1987, when she was just 15 years old, her cousin Ursula went missing. She was on her way to the ‘big city’ to follow work and after her family said goodbye to her at the train station, they never heard from Ursula again.

Melissa’s relationship with Ursula was that of very close cousins. Melissa recalls how growing up on a farm meant that as kids, they would spend their days picking blackberries, riding motorbikes, camping and picnicking. They would ‘pack a lunch at the start of the day and head for the hills and come back at night’. They would share many chats and memories together, but it is the specific conversations that Melissa finds hard to recall. “I wish we had some recordings of her talking and laughing, as I have her voice in my head but it’s so long since I’ve heard it out loud… I miss her.”

During the many years spent searching for answers, Melissa said it was a difficult process. As she was quite young at the time of Ursula’s disappearance, she felt a very strong sense of powerlessness in being able to find her.

It took Melissa’s family 30 years to discover Ursula’s whereabouts, and a fresh investigation which started in 2014 ended last year with confirmation from police that she had sadly died in a car accident shortly after going missing.

Day for Daniel

It is this experience that clearly defines Melissa and her passion for helping others. As an advocate for missing persons, Melissa speaks regularly and is a Day for Daniel Ambassador. By generously sharing her personal insights, she hopes it will help others going through a similar uncertain journey. “I turned to writing as a creative outlet to help me work through my emotions, which I had buried for a really long time until I published my first novel inspired by Ursula in 2013, and spoke publicly about her for the first time. I really need something to help me get through the renewed investigation for her, and that’s where writing became such an essential part of my life.”

Melissa created a successful book series based on fictional characters. With five novels published, and now working on her sixth, they help her step away from her real life trauma. Drawing on her own experiences, her fast-paced novels are helping people all over the world better understand the confusing and emotional rollercoaster of having a missing loved one.

Ambiguous loss

When asked what she would like to pass on to the many families of long-term missing persons dealing with ambiguous loss, Melissa says:

The main message I try to pass on is to never give up hope. I really held onto that strongly through the past five years and that’s what drove me forward to keep speaking up for Ursula.

“The hope was initially to honour her memory and that was my driver. Then it became clear there were things that weren’t looked into, and it became hope for fresh eyes on her case. The hope kept transferring, shattering and swinging around, but I had to try to reinvigorate it continually in the hope we would discover the truth.

“Hope isn’t just one word, it doesn’t mean one thing. Hope is the pillar of small wins along the way.”

Further to everything she has so far accomplished, Melissa is running her successful business, MP Media Solutions, which aims to support her clients work and celebrate their successes.

This year she has volunteered her time to help her home community of Tathra after the devastating fires that tore through the small coastal town in March, and has collected thousands of new books to replace lost home libraries through the “Book Love for Tathra” campaign.

With so many balls in the air and such a selfless and friendly personality, Melissa is a truly inspirational person who has turned what was such a devastating loss into a lifetime of advocacy and community service with a focus and passion like no other.

We can’t wait to see what is next for Melissa Pouliot.

Day For Daniel: Online world leads to problems for children, police say

  • By Albert McKnight, Bega District News
  • October 26, 2018

The ubiquitous nature of the internet has meant some corners of the relatively-new technology are unsafe for children, which is one of the messages being shared on Day For Daniel.

The event is Australia’s largest child safety awareness and education day, this year held on Friday, October 26.

Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke of the Batemans Bay Police said social media was a large problem, as use of it could result in withdrawal from the family unit and community, or bullying.

“Parents allow kids to talk to whoever they want to, it’s not being monitored at all really,” she said.

“The online world is where parents are finding a lot of their problems as their kids get older, I can confidently say from age 11 up.

“It peters off around Year 11, but in that period there have been suicides; it can be quite extreme.”

What she wanted to drive home to parents was to look at their children’s behaviour when assessing if they were experiencing problems online.

“Rather than talk, watch them and listen. If what you’re seeing is not normal to what they have been doing, look at what they’re doing online,” she said.

Senior Constable Clarke said issues that stemmed from the online world such as bullying affected youths in metro and regional areas equally, and rates were not decreasing.

“It has not been reported enough to police, for various reasons families don’t want to tell police their problems, they try to deal with the issues themselves,” she said.

“Parents need to ask for help. It’s a community approach we need, not an individual approach.”

Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot said another factor to think about was how parents’ social media usage influenced their children.

Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke and Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot talk about ways to stay safe with Wolumla School’s Clancey Whyman, Renato Barrios-Jacobs, Amelia Walsh, Zak Rayner and Kaleila Mazzei.
Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke and Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot talk about ways to stay safe with Wolumla School’s Clancey Whyman, Renato Barrios-Jacobs, Amelia Walsh, Zak Rayner and Kaleila Mazzei.

On Friday, Senior Constable Clarke visited Wolumla Public School to talk to pupils at the school about ways to keep themselves safe.

They discussed when in trouble who were safe people to go to, such as neighbours, police and teachers, as well as safe places to go to, such as home, school, police stations and hospitals.

Senior Constable Clarke said if the children were lost and a person they did not know asked them to get in their car, the children should scream “no” as loud as they could so people in the neighborhood could hear them, then they should run away.

“People tend to take more notice if people yell loudly rather than if they yell ‘help’, unfortunately,” she said.

If that ever happened, she said children should try to remember as many details about the person and the car they were driving as possible, such as the car’s colour.

Also, children should memorise their full name and home address so they could tell the police when they called Triple Zero (000), as well as the address of the location where they were calling.

Writing, wellness and my return to my passions

found, crime fiction, melissa pouliot, book launch

During National Missing Persons Week 2018 I caught up with the lovely Samantha Moir from Warrior Women Radio, and we covered a lot of ground.

If you have a spare 12 minutes or so…

It is my first radio interview for a long time, as this year I have been having a break from writing and a break from talking publicly about my journey of the past five years with my missing person Ursula, who is now FOUND.

It was such a lovely chat and the perfect way to get back into my true passions – writing, missing people and keeping kids safe.

We pre-recorded, with a view to taking out the bits that didn’t work so well! But I love that Sam shared this in its entirety with a few stumbles by us both because isn’t that what life is? A few stumbles, but then we pick ourselves up and move along.

We honed in on the search for Ursula and my work with the Daniel Morcombe Foundation to keep kids safe. We also talked about writing and how writing fiction is a fantastic outlet for dealing with life when it gets too big.

books Write About Me Found

Unleash the Beast October 10

And here is my perfect segue into the Unleash the Beast event in Toowoomba on October 10, World Mental Health Day, where I am one of the guest speakers. This Writing and Wellness Symposium is absolutely packed from sunup to well past sundown. Ray Martin, Peter Fitzsimons and Mia Freedman will be there, along with so many other talented writers from all around Australia.

Here’s a little bit more about this great event which is raising money for Lifeline – you can book HERE.

Unleash the Beast is a writing and wellbeing symposium aiming to share, promote and propagate the conversation about mental health in a relaxed, entertaining and engaging manner. Why writers? Writers are able to articulate what it is about mental health that affects us as individuals, and at a family and a community level.

And on that note, it’s back to the writing for me. Book number 7 here we come!

LINKS

Books & Bikes

For me, a bestselling crime writer based on the stunning Sapphire Coast, where you’ll find some of the best mountain bike tracks in the world, they are intrinsically linked. As part of the launch of my fifth crime novel FOUND, I shared with Sapphire Coast Tourism how the bike trails I ride inspire my writing. I also shared some excerpts from my new book, which the Australian Federal Police launched in Canberra on July 27, 2017.

BUTTERFLY

The morning is warmer than usual and it won’t be long before I won’t need my gloves or beanie beneath my bike helmet. I look to my right and admire the swans gliding gracefully on Wallagoot Lake.

The water is so still it looks like glass. To my left I hear a rustle in the thick bush and wonder if it’s the lyre birds I see from time to time, building their nest, or something more sinister.

I shift gears as I reach a slight incline and look down at my handlebars. Something flashes past my face and my heart skips several beats as wildly look around to see what it is.

It appears again, then multiplies. Butterflies. One, five, ten, twenty. They dance around my head then disappear into the bush. A few moments later they return, then they’re gone again.

They follow me like this as I ride past the boat ramp, along the corrugated dirt road and to the entrance to Bournda National Park. I stop for a drink and admire their quiet presence, wondering if I will be quick enough to capture them on my camera. I’m not.

I keep riding. There’s a steep section and I’m so distracted that I forget to change gears and nearly don’t make it up. The butterflies are still with me when I reach Wine Glass Bay, and they follow me to the steps leading down to Turingal Head beach.

My thoughts flutter to the fifth book I’m writing and by the time I’m back home, I have a new chapter already written in my head.

Ant was ahead of her, gesturing and pointing out things while Andy quizzed him. Occasionally Andy would crouch down, Ant standing awkwardly by his side. Rhiannon walked silently, also in front, and Christine watched a butterfly land on her shoulder. It was bright yellow with small dark spots on its wings. It was a Eurema smilax or small grass yellow butterfly. Quite common, but something Christine had never noticed in the city.

She watched it cling onto Rhiannon’s white cotton shirt with its tiny sticky feet, a slight breeze making its wings move ever so gently. Christine focused on the butterfly to calm her mind. She became transfixed, wondering in her foggy drug-induced mind, if it was a sign from Annabelle.

Annabelle loved yellow. The butterfly was yellow.

Annabelle was here!

She was trying to tell her something. A strong gust of wind dislodged the butterfly and Christine watched with panic as it flew away. She raced after it, convinced it would lead them to Annabelle.

Nobody noticed at first, until Andy called Rhiannon over to show him something and Ant looked back to see Christine running in the opposite direction.

‘Hey, Christine! Where you going?’ Ant called.

Christine didn’t answer, it was taking all her energy to not lose sight of the butterfly which was leading her deeper and deeper into the bush. She pushed through shrubs, she was off the path now, panting heavily from the exertion. She rolled her ankle as she scrambled through the dense undergrowth and pain shot up her leg, but she kept running.

Ant tore after her. ‘Christine, what is it?’

Rhiannon and Andy started jogging after Ant, while Christine dashed and darted after the speeding yellow butterfly, pushing through branches and around trees.

‘Show me Annabelle, show me where you are,’ she whispered hoarsely.

Finally the butterfly stopped. It settled on the flower of a Christmas Bush, its yellow standing out strongly against the white. Christine hunched over, trying to catch her breath.

Within minutes Ant was behind her. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

‘Shhh,’ she said. ‘Don’t move.’

Rhiannon arrived next; a few minutes later Andy crashed through the forest.

‘Shhh,’ Christine hushed him. ‘ Quiet! Don’t come any closer.’

Her eyes remained firmly fixed on the butterfly.

Ant leant in close, clearly annoyed. ‘What. Are. We. Doing. Here?’

Once Andy stopped the loud puffing of a detective who was unfit, overweight and spent far too much time at his desk, Christine spoke. ‘See that yellow butterfly there?’

They all peered amongst the mass of flowers on the bush, eventually making out the tiny yellow shape. ‘Yes,’ they said in unison.

‘It’s a sign from Annabelle! It landed on your shirt when we first arrived, and now it’s brought me here. To this spot.’

Silence.

Well? Don’t you get it? Yellow is her favourite colour. The butterfly is yellow. The butterfly has led us to Annabelle. The butterfly is Annabelle! This is where you need to look. Don’t you understand, this is the spot. She’s here, somewhere! Start looking!’

She was crying and shaking, clearly distressed. ‘She’s here, I know she’s here. Have a look, you’ll find her. I’m sure of it.’

Ant stepped in close and wrapped his arms around her.

Andy walked away first, then Rhiannon. Ant stayed and hugged Christine tightly. Through her tears, she stared at the tiny yellow butterfly, before it lifted gracefully off its flower and disappeared deep into the forest, never to be seen again.

BONES IN THE BUSH

It’s the first time I’ve ridden this track on my own; it’s always made me feel slightly uneasy but with a riding companion, there’s nothing to worry about. Right? Right.

I duck to avoid a low hanging branch then quickly swerve to avoid a large stick hidden underneath the thick mat of crunchy leaves.

I’m getting deeper and deeper into the bush and start to feel disoriented as I come to a fork in the track and wonder if I should go left or right. It’s a common theme in my book; my runaway teens including Annabelle Brown and Keely Johnson never know whether to turn left or right, and more often than not, take the wrong track.

I stick left. I nearly fall off my bike when something hits the back of my helmet at full force. I’m terrified. The track narrows and the bush closes in around me. I hear a buzz over the loud crunching my wheels make. It gets louder and louder, then something hits my helmet again, and again. I scream, and get off my bike, flailing my arms about, fighting with the giant buzzing creature that is swarming around my head. I can’t get away from it.

I jump back on my bike and pedal as fast as I can to escape, but it keeps up with me. It won’t leave me alone. My legs are burning and I can hardly breathe. I feel it land on my back and I writhe and wriggle to free myself from its dangerous grip. There is no sun in here, and I am completely spooked.

I keep pedalling, searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. I know it can’t be far away. Something catches my eye on the ground, tangled in the leaves and undergrowth. It’s a black jumper. My imagination is going wild. What is the jumper doing here? Who does it belong to?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever escape the ‘the spooky forest’, and it becomes a recurring theme in all my books. It’s where terrible things happen, deep in the Australian bush.

teph’s daughter Sara, Annabelle’s best friend, was home for a school friend’s engagement party, so first stop was her room.

‘Hey, Sairs, got any plans tonight?’

Sara looked up from the book she was reading, leaning over her bed at full stretch to turn down the volume on her cassette player. ‘Not really. Why, what’s on?’

‘Want to come out to Lee’s with me?’

Something in her Mum’s tone scared Sara. ‘Don’t tell me,’ she said, snapping her book shut and getting off the bed to move closer.

‘No, not that. But Lee’s in a fret. The news tonight, more bones in the forest.’

Annabelle,’ Sara said quietly.

‘Maybe,’ Steph wrapped her arms around her daughter. ‘Best place for us is with Lee, on the couch, with chocolate.’ ‘And cups of tea,’

Sara tried not to go into a panic. They’d been here before. Waiting, watching, wondering. Watching every news bulletin for that glimpse of information that might connect bones to Annabelle. Daring the phone to ring, wondering how long it would take for detectives Andy Cassettari and Rhiannon McVee, and the seemingly slow-turning wheels of the police system, to match bones in the forest with Annabelle’ s.

Within half an hour Lee and Steph were on the couch, Sara in the kitchen making tea and preparing a platter of sweet treats.

‘I hate this Steph.’

‘Me too, Lee. The not knowing, it’s so hard.’

‘Should I call Rhiannon and ask?’ Lee posed this question every time. She and Steph went around in circles, like they had many times before, and eventually talked themselves out of it.

‘You’re right,’ Lee said, after they’d been over it from all directions. ‘They’ll have it in hand. Of course they’ll be checking against her file. Rhiannon will let us know.’

Sara handed them their steaming cups of tea, slipping easily into her role of chief carer. She never contributed much to the conversation, letting their words wash over her while she did everything she could to cheer up Lee and look after her every need. Sara kept her thoughts for her diary, the one she was planning to give Annabelle when she came home.

Sara stubbornly refused to entertain the possibility these bones could be Annabelle’s. She refused to let conversations like these filter through to her inner belief that Annabelle was still alive and well. That didn’t mean she didn’t feel paralysed right now. With so many bones being discovered, and all this talk of a serial killer on the loose, her hope of seeing her best friend again was at risk of shattering, piece by tiny piece.  

The Missing Series – AFP launch Found

It was an honour and a privilege to have the Australian Federal Police launch my fifth crime novel, FOUND , in the perfect book launching venue of Muse Canberra in July. The AFP National Missing Persons Coordination Centre has played a pivotal role in the search for Ursula since 2013, and endorse all my fiction novels for raising awareness for missing people.
All my special people were there to wrap me in love including my family and friends and other authors, as there was a lot of emotion surrounding the launch as it was the first time I spoke publicly about the story behind the story – that Ursula had been found .
I was thrilled to also meet other families of missing people and some of Canberra’s keen reading crowd. Kings Cross Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward, who led the search for Ursula prompted by the release of my first novel Write About Me, was also there.
The 30-year search for Ursula involved a entire village of people who never gave up: her family, her friends, the AFP, the broader community and Kurt and the investigating team for Strike Force Hemingway that also included Detective Senior Constable Amy Scott.

Launch speech
Below is part of the launch speech by AFP Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz, which made me feel humbled and extremely fortunate to be where I am today, as a strong advocate for missing people and an established fiction author. And the family member of someone I have missed for 30 years, who thankfully now is found.

“You will know there is a personal touch to all Melissa’s books, through her cousin Ursula who went missing in 1987. Ursula was the first person in Australia that the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre age progressed in 2010, she was age progressed to 39 and her picture placed on billboards in Sydney airport. She was featured again as part of National Missing Persons Week in 2015, and a result of that, we received many leads from various parts of Australia in our efforts to try and find Ursula. Fast forward to this year and tonight, 30 years after Ursula was first reported missing, and the launch of Melissa’s novel FOUND. This picks up the story of teenage runaway Annabelle Brown who we first met in Melissa’s first international #1 bestselling book Write About Me.
Melissa’s first story was published in a newspaper when she was 8 years of age, Santa’s Elf, and since then we’ve seen her go from strength to strength tonight, to launch the fifth in her Missing Series, FOUND.
What is profound about Melissa’s books is that because of her personal connection with the storylines, the things that have happened in her life, she can actually tackle complexities of missing people. She can show us what it’s like to feel hopeful, and also despair and what it’s like to feel hopelessness. Melissa is also an advocate for missing persons, an Ambassador for Daniel Morcombe Foundation, and by what I can see tonight here with her family and friends, she is really well respected and loved by everybody who comes across her. I know for a fact that the people at the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre are deeply indebted to Melissa for the work she has done, and love spending time with her.”

Saying goodbye to Ursula

Words have real power. Words can wound, words can heal. And in my case, words can find people.

In 2013 I put a whole bunch of words together in a crime fiction novel I named Write About Me. After I finished all my made up words I wrote some real words about my cousin, Ursula Dianne Barwick, who went missing in October 1987 when she was 17 and I was 15.

After reading all my words, one of my best friends wrote to me: “Just finished your book! Fantastic job you should be so proud. I feel like giving you a big hug after reading the author’s note. Love and hugs to you.”

And my best friend from high school wrote: “Give up your day job now. I have 20 pages left and I don’t want the book to end.”

Those words, among many others, spurred me on to keep writing, and to keep searching for the truth about Ursula. Four years and four more books later, around half a million words, and I am staggered by how much words have changed the course of my life.

Finding Ursula was a team effort, driven by two dedicated detectives from Kings Cross – Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward and Detective Senior Constable Amy Scott.

I had a small but strong support network every step of the way, encouraging me to be brave in my pursuit of the truth. Initially thinking it was too late to solve the mystery of her disappearance, my quest started as a way to honour her memory. To show her, no matter where she was, that I had not forgotten about her, I had not stopped missing her, I had not stopped searching for her. An amazing groundswell of support followed, and it soon became clear that Ursula wanted to be found.

On July 19, 2017 I tried to say goodbye to Ursula, who, nearly thirty years after she went missing, is FOUND. Her lifetime was 17 years, two months and thirteen days.

I stood with my family, some of Ursula’s school friends, the people who worked so hard over the past several years to find her and the people who have supported me along the way. Ursula’s Mum, my Aunty Cheree, wasn’t with us, although I like to think she and Ursula were reunited when Cheree died in 2004.

Yet, the journey is not over

To be completely honest, I am at sea as to how to say my final goodbye, as the long journey of her death is not over yet. We are still trying to join the dots that connect Ursula and the fictional character of Jessica, who she created for her new friends in Sydney that were with her when she died on the Hume Highway at Tarcutta on October 27, 1987.

I am unable to gather the words to describe my grief at discovering that Ursula died in a car accident only a short time after she went missing. During that first horrible, painful, devastating year after she went missing, words refused to settle into neat sentences. Then they raced around in circles for the 29 years that followed, all those years when we held onto hope she would come home to us. But she couldn’t. Because she was long gone.

I haven’t fallen into a crumpled heap onto the floor to sob my broken heart out. My stomach doesn’t twist in pain. I still wake up each day with fresh hope for a new day, and my life is moving forward at its usual rapid pace. Instead of the raw volcano of emotion that I expected to go with the news that Ursula is dead, I carry around a dull ache across my shoulders, behind my eyes, in my right leg and in my lower back. My grief moves and shifts around, quietly, reminding me every now and then that she is really gone. There are other signs of my grief. I forget things. I fade away in the middle of an important conversation. I lose concentration while riding down a steep, rocky hill and nearly end up in a pile of trauma at the bottom.

What we remember about Ursula

Every person who knew Ursula, both those who grew up with her, those who were close to her, and those who only said a casual hello to her in the school yard or up the street, all remember the same things. Ursula was always laughing, always smiling, always having fun.

The circumstances surrounding her death are now in the hands of the NSW Coroner and I look forward to having clearer answers to the questions we cannot answer at this time. Maybe then I will be ready to say my goodbye.

Her legacy, the thing that will inspire others for many years to come, is that it is never too late to find your missing person.

Yes, words certainly do have power. They can wound, yet they can heal. And as I have shown, words can find people.

Ursh, I love you and always will. I will never stop missing you, and I will always remember your bright blue eyes, soft blonde hair and lovely loud laugh. Let the good times last forever. Dance all night and shake the paint off the walls. Forever yours, Lissy x”

  • This was my speech at the official launch of FOUND, my fifth crime novel. The Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz launched my novel  at Canberra Muse on July 27, 2017 as part of National Missing Persons Week. My closest family, friends, parents of missing people and keen readers wrapped me in love as I spoke publicly for the first time about Ursula being found.

 

Crime fiction and missing people feature at About the Book festival

The role of faith, personal stories and imagination play as starting points in writing puzzles, mysteries and journeys. This was the topic that started a fascinating discussion involving myself and fellow self-published author Karen Nelson during the inaugural About the Book festival in Merimbula.

Experienced facilitator and regional news storyteller Ian Campbell and people in the audience asked lots of great questions. Although Karen and I write very different novels, we are similar in our passion for telling important stories through fiction.

I never miss an opportunity to speak publicly about my love for writing and how I shift between writing fact by day as a media company owner , and fiction by night, as a crime fiction author .

I also never missing an opportunity to talk about missing persons , how more than 38,000 people go missing in Australia every year, which is more than 100 a day. How my books are another way of trying to connect with the broader community to take notice and help foster more understanding and support for missing people, their families and their friends.

I’m always happy to share my tips on self-publishing and how I navigate through the quickly changing book publishing arena. I even managed to get on the microphone during a self-publishing session during the festival, and shared some of my experience and insights in how to get your book ready for publishing.

About the Book Merimbula
About the Book is a festival celebrating all aspects of the book. It embraces all books, old and new, in whatever form they take.

About the Book is about:
– those who author, design and publish them
– those who sell, deal, and distribute them
– those who read, collect and repurpose them

They embrace any style and form of the book: graphic, comic, picture, text, fold out, grimoires or whatever manifestation the book happens to take, in both traditional and new media, embracing and celebrating what has happened in the past, while anticipating the future.

I look forward to seeing this event grow and become a permanent fixture on the Australian book festival tour – watch this space!

  • To find out more visit About the Book’s website HERE .

Why you need a deadline to finish your book

When you don’t think you are going to meet that major deadline, and you are drowning in the sheer size of the task, you need to remind yourself that you can do anything!

But sometimes you need an unshiftable deadline to make it happen!
I managed to finish my fifth crime fiction novel (80,000 words) and submit it to a publishing award six hours before deadline, and I feel proud.
I wrote this novel in my spare time, around family and my business commitments, and I had to be super organised, passionate and motivated.
But I needed a deadline, not one set by me as that is easy to shift, but one that wouldn’t change.

I actually ‘finished’this book on January 1, 2017, which was the first deadline I had set for myself. However, it wasn’t actually finished, it was in very rough draft.

I then faced what seemed an insurmountable task to proofread, edit and organise the book into something that closely resembled a real book.
I stuck at it quite diligently for a while, but then life got in the way, and my scribbled on manuscript sat in a messy pile on my desk reminding me every day it wasn’t done.

Twenty-four hours before the deadline I really didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, but I meet deadlines every day for my clients, so was determined to meet this deadline for myself.

If you’re a writer and struggling to finish your manuscript, remind yourself to breathe, write lists, remember to do what you love, then go for it! Because you can do anything.

Missing persons: Crime writer walks line between fact and fiction

TO THE thump of leather on willow, crime writer Melissa Pouliot delves into the heartache of families with missing loved ones.

As her children play Saturday morning cricket, Melissa imagines life in Kings Cross in the 1980s and the unremitting grief felt by families of missing people.

Melissa doesn’t have to delve far to find empathy — her teenage cousin went missing in 1987 when Melissa was just 14 and her disappearance was never solved.

It’s this Saturday morning routine that has allowed her to become “a book writing machine” as her children, Jake, 17, Tom, 12, and Laura, 7, describe her.

She has published four novels about missing people, Write About Me (2013), Find Me (2014), When You Find Me (2015) and You’ll Never Find Me (2016).

The former journalist, originally from Quirindi in NSW, now lives near Merimbula on the NSW south coast.
She has never given up hope there will be answers to her cousin Ursula’s disappearance.
“Ursula went missing when I was about to turn 15,” Melissa says. “She caught the train from the central coast of NSW to Sydney and nobody heard from her again.”

Melissa is hopeful her cousin’s disappearance might be solved by the 30th anniversary of the date she went missing, but she is aware of the limitations of the original police report.

“There were only six pieces of information about her disappearance, such as her hair colour, eye colour, height and where she got on the train,” Melissa says. “And some of that information was wrong.”

Melissa’s first book, Write About Me, is fiction but was inspired by Ursula, and Melissa drew on her family’s experience. She admits it was somewhat cathartic.

“The main character, Rhiannon, she is what I wanted for Ursula,” Melissa says. “She is someone who is so determined when police have limited resources.”

At the last minute before publication, Melissa decided to include an end note about Ursula.
The publication of the book led to fresh leads and Melissa was determined to get the inaccurate records changed.
“Ursula’s case was never closed and in the past few years it was given to a new detective and it has been a whirlwind since,” she says.

As a journalist, Melissa says she had always wanted to write, but never thought fiction would be her style.
Melissa started her career at a newspaper in Charleville, Queensland, before a long stint in the Wimmera where she worked in journalism before launching her own public relations company.

She started to write about Ursula, her missing cousin, but there was too little information about the disappearance of the 17-year-old to hold up a book, so Write About Me became a blend of fiction inspired by real-life events.
As a journalist who sticks to the facts, Melissa says she found writing fiction liberating, although she brought some journalism skills to the research.

“I have police officers who worked in the 1980s who check my police sections and my brother lived in Potts Point since the late 1990s so he helps me find the Kings Cross history,” she says.
Melissa says her family still grieves for Ursula, as many families of missing people do.
“There is a term ‘ambiguous loss’ where you grieve for your missing person but there is no end point because you don’t know where they are and what’s happened. So the writing has helped me understand and make sense of the emotions that go with missing Ursula for so long.”

Write About Me for Book Clubs

Check out the Book Clubs page on this site for Reading Group Questions for all my books!

When I was in my late twenties a friend and I started a book club in the tiny rural Victoria town of Minyip, home of the television series The Flying Doctors and home of some very special people in my life. Nikki and I wanted to discover books that were not on bestseller lists, to challenge ourselves by reading books we would never consider purchasing in a bookshop, and to find books that didn’t follow a formula. Okay, we also wanted an excuse to get together and drink wine!

I have since moved away and our book club is no longer running, but many of us still keep in touch and remember the wonderful books we read and the robust discussions each book inspired. Although I had always wanted to be an author, I never imagined that one day book clubs just like mine would be reading and discussing my books.

It took a lot of courage for me to firstly write, then release to the world, my debut fiction novel Write About Me – inspired by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of my cousin Ursula in 1987. More than one hundred thousand people have read Write About Me since it’s 2013 release, and it has been the impetus for a fresh investigation into Ursula’s case. I’m so proud of this book, and of what it stands for. It has changed my life and the life of so many others.

On my never ending list of things to do when I became a published author was to put together a list of reader discussion questions for all my books, of which there are now four with a fifth underway. With the help of my book club friend Nikki, here is a list for Write About Me .

Kicking things off is what Nikki thought of my book.

“Just finished “Write About Me”!! Wow!! You had me from the first page! Couldn’t put it down. I was enthralled with the characters and the storyline! Please don’t stop writing, I’m now a huge fan as well as a friend!”

WRITE ABOUT ME synopsis

The year is 1988 and 16-year old Annabelle Brown from northern Queensland runs away from her family and friends for the bright lights of somewhere new. She ends up in Kings Cross in Sydney where her life takes some dark twists and turns. Endorsed by the Australian Federal Police, Write About Me is real and raw and will break your heart into a million pieces. Inspired by the author’s true family cold case mystery, Write About Me is a heart-wrenching story about a teenage runaway who doesn’t come home. Not crime, not fiction, but that dangerous place in between.

Discussion topics

  • Missing persons – Has the book made the reader more aware of this important subject and created more empathy towards the missing and those missing them?
  • Mental illness – Are we today more knowledgeable and compassionate towards those with mental illness or are we still just as ignorant and is the stigma still there?
  • 80’s song references – Does this help to take the reader to the time and place in the book and invoke emotions/nostalgia? Are the lyrics of each song relevant to what is going on in each chapter?
  • Sex workers – Has the book made the reader more sympathetic to how people find themselves in this line of work or do we continue to see these people as bad people, not people who have made bad choices?
  • Sexual abuse of children – How far have we come in exposing and preventing this insidious crime?
  • Drug use – Scarier now or when the book was set in the late 80s? With ice and other designer drugs now in use, are these drugs worse than what was around back then?

More Specific Questions for BookClubs

  1. The simple act of stealing her friend’s mail changes the course of Annabelle’s life dramatically, was this the beginning of the end for Annabelle’s future choices?
  2. There are many hints of what happened to Annabelle as a young child behind closed doors, although largely the adults in Annabelle’s life remain oblivious, how important is it to speak to our children about feeling safe and giving them skill to get themselves out of dangerous situations?
  3. Do you think Annabelle’s risk taking was learned or was she simply born this way?
  4. Big John and Lins rescued Annabelle and provided her with a safe haven, what could they have done differently which might have resulted in a different outcome?
  5. Bessie rescued Annabelle when she reached Kings Cross – was Annabelle fortunate or unfortunate that Bessie entered her life?
  6. Rhiannon McVee is quick to investigate Annabelle’s disappearance and appears to leave no stone un-turned. How is it that she was still unable to solve the case?
  7. What was your favourite storyline within the book and why?
  8. Did you understand who the characters of Anna and Belle were right from the start or did it take some time for you to realise who they were?

Q & A WITH THE AUTHOR

Q: Is the book fact or fiction?

A: This is a great question and I get asked all the time.

“The best lie is the one that has an element of truth, so it’s good to include something real in your fiction.”  Renee Conoutly , Australian writer

I describe Write About Me as ‘not crime not fiction but that dangerous place inbetween’.

Athough inspired by my first cousin Ursula Barwick who disappeared after she boarded a train bound for Sydney in 1987, it is a fictional novel about a teenage runaway called Annabelle. What happens to Annabelle is pure fiction, not fact about Ursula. The readers of Write About Me know what happens to Annabelle and see her journey through her eyes. But sadly, none of us know what happened to Ursula after she reached Sydney.

When I published Write About Me I decided to share the story behind the story because I wanted people to know Ursula wasn’t just a two-dimensional face on a Missing Persons poster. But most of all I wanted the world to know what it’s like when families and friends, investigators, school teachers and friends of friends have to go on with their lives while their missing person remains missing. I was also hoping that somebody, somewhere might come forward and help our family find some sort of end point in regards to her disappearance.

The book resulted in NSW Police taking a fresh look at Ursula’s case, and although we haven’t found clear answers yet, it has given fresh hope to us and to other people in the same situation as ours. So the answer to the question is yes, Write About Me is fiction even though the characters and meaning behind every single word come from a very real place.

Q: One of your characters is a young policewoman named Rhiannon McVee. Who is Rhiannon McVee?  

A: A twenty-something girl from the Australian outback with her eyes set firmly on being a detective. Her career starts in the late 80s at Kings Cross Police Station, amongst a dominant male police force who see so many people go missing that one missing person just blends in with the next. But Rhiannon’s no pushover, and doesn’t take no for an answer when she’s on a case. Off the job Rhiannon is like any normal girl in her twenties, she loves to party, she loves her family and she loves her cowboy who waits patiently for her to return to her outback home. Rhiannon McVee is also the detective I have created as my own fairy godmother, who I wish was in our lives in 1987. It’s people like Detective Rhiannon McVee who make our lives better and help us find our missing loved ones. And when we do, she’s there to help us pick up the pieces.

Q: How difficult is it to fictionalise what you have experienced in real life?

A: Fictionalising a real life experience the way I have, gives me some distance and allows me to explore the experiences of others. All my characters have something important to say about missing persons. For example, one of my favourite characters is Rhiannon McVee. I’m so captivated by her I’ve created a detective crime mystery series in her honour. Through her experiences and those of the people she’s looking for, I’m able to convey the issues and feelings that surround missing people. Rather than get dragged down by my own experiences missing Ursula, writing fiction helps me channel my energy into a reinvigorated search for answers. Through my books I am giving a voice to Ursula, and to all of those who are missing.

Q: Your books are drawn to two distinct places – Kings Cross and the Australian outback. Can you explain the significance of location for a writer?

A: Location is extremely important when you are piecing your story together. While I write I see the scenes play out in my mind like a movie, and location plays such an important part. Both Kings Cross and the Australian outback have a real sense of mystery about them. They’re intriguing and although vastly different, evoke similar feelings for the reader. The outback is such an isolated and lonely place, and with that comes a sense of foreboding and danger. Kings Cross is so small size-wise compared to the outback and it’s busy and hectic and noisy, but has the same sense of foreboding and danger. I love moving from one space to the next in my books, as both provide dramatic backgrounds for my characters.