Remembering and reflecting on journeys made down State Highway 1 has helped win a would-be New Zealand author a major Australian writing prize.

Sam Coley, a 32-year-old law student who lives in Adelaide, won the 2017 Richell Prize for emerging writers for a proposed novel about an estranged twin brother and sister. The pair reunite following the death of their parents then, to cope with their grief, take a road trip along the country's main highway.

Coley will receive $AU10,000 ($NZ11,056) and a year-long mentorship with publishers Hachette Australia. He had to submit the first three chapters of his book, with the working title State Highway One, along with a synopsis for the rest of the story. The idea took root when he was living in London and feeling homesick for New Zealand.

"I really enjoy photography and got to thinking about State Highway 1 and how cool it would be to produce a coffee table book with photos from all the different landscapes and small towns you find along it because it's so diverse."

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He says almost immediately he turned to thinking about it as a fiction story and reflecting on what home means. Coley, who had been living for some years in London, says it arose from conversations with people about how two places can feel like home at the same time.

"I got to thinking about what home can mean rather than what it is and the story went from there. It literally all started to fall into place during one shower!"

His main character has spent three years living in Dubai with minimal contact with his family when he learns his mother and father have died in a car accident. He returns to New Zealand and, with his antagonistic twin sister, makes a sudden decision to drive to Cape Reinga and farewell the spirits of their parents. Unable to resolve their grief, the twins keep driving along SH1.

Coley says it's not autobiographical; he's never been to Dubai and his parents are alive and well. They were visiting Adelaide when he got the telephone call to say he had won the Richell Prize, set up in 2015 to help emerging writers of adult fiction and narrative non-fiction.

"They spent several minutes looking at me, very curiously, as I wandered around in circles, talking on the phone and not quite believing what I was hearing."

Coley, who moved to Adelaide late last year, is a law student who also works full-time in a law firm and makes time to write late at night. He says he's always been interested in writing and spent many high school hours sitting at the back of classes writing "idiotic" teenage stories. After leaving school, he studied script-writing and directing but switched to production.

"Film's a very visual medium so I stopped writing and almost forgot how to do it."

His interest was renewed when a former boyfriend bought him a typewriter for a gift and another gave him a book about how to write. Despite being nervous about sharing his writing, he's started entering short-story competitions and was inspired to apply for the Richell Prize after attending the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival.

"I've always been scared to show my writing to anyone or to enter it in competitions but this has given me confidence," says Coley. "On the day I learned I'd won the prize, I got another letter saying I'd been unsuccessful in a short story contest that I'd entered but, having this, it didn't matter as much as it might have done."

The judges described what they read of Coley's State Highway One as a captivating read that explores loss and what it really means to come home, reckoning with the past and the challenge of the future ahead.

"The sense of place and the slow break-down of the lead character's mental and emotional state makes for a truly gripping read. Sam's writing feels fresh and modern and is bursting with both heart and humour."

The annual Richell Prize is in memory of Hachette Australia's former CEO, Matt Richell, who died suddenly in 2014 after a surfing accident near Sydney.

Meanwhile, two New Zealand essayists writing on very different topics - life as an army recruit and the power of scent - are joint winners of the 2017 Landfall Essay Competition. Laurence Fearnley, of Dunedin, and Alie Benge, of Wellington, will share the $3000 cash prize and both will receive a year's subscription to Landfall.