The Zookeeper's Quarters is Macleay Island author Cassandra Fletcher's first novel

A collection of emails sent to a friend - a harrowing series which documents the daily anxiety in a war zone - inspired Cassandra Fletcher's first novel.

First book: Macleay Island author Cassandra Fletcher.

First book: Macleay Island author Cassandra Fletcher.

Her emails, which her friend called the Fletcher Files, detail life in Baghdad, one of the most dangerous places on earth.

They describe helicopters buzzing overhead as men frantically wave AK-47 machine guns. Car bombs regularly go off across the city, while missile attacks are commonplace.

That is the setting of The Zookeeper's Quarters. The book tells the story of Syed, who flees Iraq for the safety of Australia.

He becomes an IT specialist, and has a bright future until a bad investment threatens to destroy the life he built for himself and his family in Australia.

The danger which the book details is something Cassandra knows all too well, after working in government in Baghdad.

Cassandra remembers being assigned her own security detail while travelling beyond the Green Zone - tough young men who barely looked old enough to vote.

Any travel required full body armour, which was tough in the hot, dry climate.

"The heat was oppressive, and these guys were suited up in full combat gear, loaded up with grenades, machine guns and handguns and, always polite and patient," Cassandra says.

The locals were, for the most part, friendly.

"Most of the Iraqi people I met were desperately anxious and kind," Cassandra says.

"Understandably, some were resentful at foreign occupation. The war was an industry. You could buy and sell anything."

She remembers the woman who cleaned her bungalow in the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's bombed out palace estates.

She was a Christian, and one of many locals contracted to the Americans, and faced danger on a daily basis.

"She was under constant pressure, enduring dangerous local bus trips from Baghdad city across the Tigris and through the security points to get to work every day," Cassandra says.

"Car bomb explosions and missile attacks on the airport road and across the city occurred as regular as clockwork.

"As the war progressed, and the balance of power altered between the Sunni and the Shia, life became more tenuous for her.

"Yet, she never complained, and on more than one occasion, she brought me flowers from a cemetery to brighten up the bunker."

Both of the woman's sons had been murdered while on security detail, just one of many depressing stories which were everywhere in Iraq.

Cassandra began keeping notes of her encounters. One of her emails recounts a story of being run off the road by a contingent of Humvees, escorted by three helicopters.

"A guy was up the top of the vehicle waving an AK47 at us and throwing his arms around, very aggro," it says.

"The whole place is total military. Helicopters and guns endlessly."

She remembers the horror when finding a bombed out American security point on the edge of Baghdad.

"The building had disappeared, and in its place was a large crater in the road," she says.

War zone: Cassandra Fletcher about to board a Blackhawk while in Iraq.

War zone: Cassandra Fletcher about to board a Blackhawk while in Iraq.

"All the marines were killed. That was awful."

She was equally disturbed by the corruption, with rules of war being easily bent.

She describes writing a novel as a natural progression from her career in academia, which began at Australian National University in Canberra.

"It's something I thought about over the years," she says.

"I've heard many people say they'll write a book someday. I've said it myself, but until I retired, it was just an idea.

"It requires commitment, and time."

She enjoys bringing the fictional characters and situations to life.

"For me, it was a way of telling a story based on my own experiences without having any boundaries or restrictions imposed," she says.

"Plus, it involved a lot of research, which is very satisfying."

Researching food, customs and the history of people and countries can take you deeper into people's lives, which, she says, is interesting.

"It also gave me an outlet for giving characters some of the peculiar features in people I met over the years that I liked, or in some cases, didn't like."

Now that Iraq is out of her system, Cassandra jokes about plans to turn to a lighter topic.

"Corrupt officials in local government," she says.

"The characters are completely fictional, but not the research. I have a long road ahead but I am totally enjoying bringing them to life, although some of them are absolutely ghastly."