Friday, 27 February 2015

Pioneering days from The Housemaid's Daughter

I am just about to head off on a hiking trail through the Cape fynbos and it struck me that what for me will be pleasure, surely was quite daunting for my family when they arrived in South Africa over a hundred years ago. They didn't have the gentle delights of lush mountains and fynbos to ease them into their new country, but rather the stark challenge of the Karoo.

I remember my grandmother - the inspiration for Cath in The Housemaid's Daughter - telling me that the contrast with Ireland was almost unbearable. The lack of rain, the yellowness of the grass... In the early days, before she grew to love the wide open spaces of the Karoo, she used to fantasize that behind every rocky koppie, or just around the bend in a dusty road... were the green hills of Ireland. This was what kept her going. I used this recollection in the book, and every time I visit the Karoo, it strikes me afresh.

When we look back at the lives of our pioneering forebears, we often only look at their achievements, what they built and perhaps left behind materially for those who come after. We don't tend to wonder whether they were happy, or homesick - as was the case with my grandmother - or how long it took them to come to terms with their new environment. For, in those days, there was no going back. My grandmother and her generation couldn't say: Enough! I'm going home! They were committed for life.They'd traveled across a hemisphere to start a new life and there could be no going back...

Would we be as brave?

Friday, 13 February 2015

Writing a "first person" novel

When setting out to write a novel, how do you decide whether to write it as an "I" story? Or as "he said, she said"?

I first began The Housemaid's Daughter with every intention of keeping my distance and writing in the third person. I planned to tell my story from the perspective of the Irish matriarch, Cathleen Harrington. The young heroine, Ada, would be revealed through Cath's eyes, and through Ada's third person point-of-view.

I got about ten percent of the way through, and knew it wasn't working. Too detached. Too prissy. I was champing at the bit to reveal more of Ada's character than my sedate third-person style was allowing.
It was time for a re-think.
Ada, I realised, should tell her own story, and let the reader - and me! - into her volatile and poignant life. This entailed a revamp of both my carefully-drawn mind map, and the CVs I'd created for each player. It forced me to get far more involved, and to confront my apprehension about inhabiting a character who'd lived a life very different from my own.

Strangely, despite my nervousness, the moment I switched to first person, the story began to flow. I found Ada's voice in a way that I would never have managed if I'd remained behind the safety of third person. First person may not work for you but, in this case, it worked for me.

I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me...

And later, when Ada returns...

The old house with its pale stone walls watched me as I came up the path. I wondered if it remembered me, whether the apricot still carried me in its sap, whether the doorknobs still remembered my polishing of them, whether the soul of Mama was smiling on me. Or whether I was making the biggest mistake of my life...

Friday, 30 January 2015

Plot or Characters - Which comes first?

That's the eternal question for new authors: Must I know the plot before I people it?
Or should I nail down the characters first?

Some writers say it's only possible to develop characters if you already know the story they're about to enliven. After all, without knowing the action, how can you imagine the players who will navigate through it? On the other hand, isn't it better to have strong characters in place who will take the outline of a plot by the scruff of the neck and steer it in directions that you, as author, might not be contemplating? A healthy input, surely?

In writing The Housemaid's Daughter, I combined the two approaches. I didn't create the plot in its entirety before I started writing, because I wanted my characters to influence me, and thereby affect the outcome of the book. And perhaps I hadn't even identified the full cast anyway...

To instil some order into all of this uncertainty, I drew a mind map which showed the action as far as I had envisaged it, plus a tentative cast list. And then I began to write. Luckily, after a few false starts, my tandem approach began to pay off: the characters started to assume real personalities and, through their machinations, the nascent plot became richer and more interesting.

And when I look back at that early, plot-driven mind map?
Some elements of the finished book are totally different from what I imagined, some characters never ever saw a page of action (oops!), and other characters appeared from nowhere to drive the action forward. The mind map was invaluable in giving me enough of a plot to head me in the right direction, but not too rigid a prescription to stifle creativity.
So... Plot vs Character? I think you need both, in sometimes awkward tandem...
What's that familiar Frank Sinatra song?
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Close Reader Encounters!

Here is a picture of me at a book signing for The Housemaid's Daughter, but lately the world of facebook, blogs and online book clubs like Goodreads is bringing farflung author and reader into close proximity - digitally - despite the physical distance between us.

I have had numerous online conversations with readers from all over the world.
And what do they say?
Very often, they want to tell me they've enjoyed the book, or wish to share an anecdote that mirrors an incident I've described. But the most insistent communications come from those who want to find out what happened, or will happen in life-beyond-the-book, to a particular character - especially when I have chosen leave his/her fate to the reader's imagination.

Ada's daughter, Dawn, leads a short, brilliant life before she dies of an unspecified disease. Many readers have contacted me, desperate to know if their suspicions about her life and untimely death are correct. Likewise with Phil, who is Ada's best friend and the young son of Cathleen and Edward Harrington. What really happened to him, they want to know, when he leaned out of the window of Cradock House to watch Ada hanging washing on the line...
Even Ada wonders...
Why did God take Phil so soon? When there was such a long world ahead of him? And why had he not called out to me in the garden below?

While I'm happy to share many aspects of the book's background, some things need to be kept a secret! After all, if there was no mystery, a character would be too easy to understand. And it would take away that delicious uncertainty, that frisson that keeps us all awake at night...
Did he really do such-and-such?
Did she?
You decide!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The USA Paperback arrives!

I am thrilled to say that The Housemaid's Daughter will be published in paperback in the USA in the New Year - the 6th January 2015, to be precise!

Up until now, the book has been available as a hardback in the US, but now comes the more affordable paperback. The cover has been tweaked slightly, but it still offers the same arresting image of a young woman against an African landscape.

I hope that this new edition will build on the success of the hardback, and extend the book's reach even further. The e-book version for iPad, Kindle, Kobo and various e-readers, is, of course, still available. And, if you have the time, you could listen to the story on CD, read by Bahni Turpin and Cat Gould in a fascinating "performance" brought out by Blackstone Audio. It lasts an indulgent 15 hours, over 13 CDs...

If you are in the US and you see a copy of the new paperback in a bookshop, please post a pic on The Housemaid's Daughter facebook page. I like to see evidence!
And please keep spreading the word into 2015!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A real book for Christmas?

Here I am in a South African bookshop with a copy of The Housemaid's Daughter.

Are we still giving books as presents? Or have so many of us moved on to e-readers that the physical book is threatened with extinction?

There's no doubt that e-readers are extremely convenient, especially when we travel. I remember hauling suitcases groaning with books in the past, but now I can download my reading list for a holiday in no time, and it only weighs an iPad's worth...

But I must confess that I still love a physical book. There's something about turning pages, about flipping back to a part that you liked, even about turning down the corner of a page (sorry!) to mark a particular spot. A book in the hand conveys so much more than its constituent pages.

Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s - but did you know that he wasn't the first to do so? The Chinese developed the technology in about 1040, then passed it on to the Koreans. They produced the first metal "movable type" printing in 1234. Once printing became established, the growth was phenomenal. Fifty years after Gutenberg's breakthrough in Europe, printing presses across the continent had already produced some 20 million books.

Let's keep the modern presses rolling!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Waves of Paintbrush Grass...

In The Housemaid's Daughter, Ada sees the African veld unfolding before her eyes when she looks out of the window on the top floor of Cradock House.

And once she leaves the suburban streets and walks through it, she is forever enchanted.

All about me the earth is clothed in waves of fragile grass with golden paintbrush tips. From where we stand in their yellow, tickling midst, I can look straight up at the koppie and watch the sun wander across the brown stones and make them shine.

The distant mountains, the endless sky, the distinctive plants that survive a harsh climate... the veld becomes a place of refuge and solace.
Later in the story, she passes on her love of untamed reaches to her grandson, Thebo.

I show him the furry dassies that sunbathe on nearby rocks.
He follows shiny ants along tiny paths.
He giggles at the grasses that tickle his legs as he runs.

And when Ada must bury her daughter, Dawn, she chooses a wild setting that reflects Dawn's mercurial character.

The cemetery is not fenced in but is open to the Karoo veld.
Low bushes and wild, golden grasses surround her.
The koppies look down on her, the Groot Vis (river) murmurs to her.
The trains heading for more exciting places go past where she lies.