Friday, 8 July 2016

The Girl from Simon's Bay

Experienced writers always say that the second book is the hardest...
And they may be right.

Flushed with success (hopefully!) first time around, the enthusiastic author leaps into book number 2 and wonders:

Do I still have it?
Can I do this one more time? Will this new story be as good as the previous one?

For me, writing a book to be set in the beautiful Cape Peninsula where I spend part of every year is a dream assignment. The question was, could I create a plot worthy of my magnificent surroundings?

Simon's Town itself provided the answer, for it has a history which is made for fiction. From its early beginnings as a winter anchorage for Dutch sailing ships (north winds were all too likely to drive them aground in Table Bay) to its vital role in the Second World War and onwards through the apartheid years, Simon's Town has a glorious, bitter-sweet story of its own. All I needed to do was to let loose my characters amongst its rich past, and see what happened.

I always like to layer my fiction atop as much authenticity as possible. Luckily - and credit is due here to the Historical Society plus determined local residents - much of the town is still preserved as it was from Victorian days. The buildings that my hero and heroine walk past or serve inside, are still there today. So my research for The Girl from Simon's Bay took me down the town's streets and through the excellent Simon's Town, Naval and Heritage Museums, and then on to the National Archives in Kew and the British Museum in St Pancras.

And the characters?
More next time...

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Breaking News!

At last!
Just when you were wondering what I'd been up to for the past couple of years... here's a press announcement from my publisher:

Allison & Busby is delighted to announce the acquisition of The Girl from Simon’s Bay, a second novel from Barbara Mutch, author of The Housemaid’s Daughter and ‘born storyteller’ (Sydney Morning Herald).

The Girl from Simon’s Bay is a love story set in the author’s native South Africa against the backdrop of the Second World War. Louise Ahrendts and Lieutenant David Horrocks meet amid the hive of activity that is the Royal Navy port at Simon’s Bay near Cape Town. Despite the gulf in their backgrounds, the risks to both their careers, and the expectations facing them from family on both sides, Louise and David are determined to be together. But as the end of the war approaches and a new troubled moment of history dawns, can they find their way back to each other?

The heartfelt drama of Louise and David’s story is set against the trials of wartime and the approaching apartheid regime. Barbara’s existing fans are promised another ‘gripping and soul searching’ read (Leah Fleming) and everyone at Allison & Busby is eager to introduce Barbara to many more readers.

The Girl from Simon’s Bay will be published in January 2017.

I hope you're going to love it!
More next time...

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A 4th Anniversary

Four years ago! And this is me holding the first copies of The Housemaid's Daughter in hardback and paperback!

It was a lovely spring day and I ran out into the garden to get some photos with my book in all its new, commercial finery! It had taken 6 years of toil, rejections and revisions to get to that point. In fact, I guess it took about 16 years in total, because what you may not know is that I wrote an entire, separate book before Housemaid - that has never seen the light of day. Ah, well... they say that your first manuscript is simply practise for the Real Thing...

Standing in the garden, I was not to know that the book would go on to be published in the USA and then into translation into 14 languages. Of those, the French and Spanish versions have seen the most success but every so often I do get reviews in Polish or Turkish or further-flung languages that flummox me. Each time that happens, I pinch myself and realise how lucky I was to be given an entry into the hyper-competitive publishing world.
Ada, the heroine of The Housemaid's Daughter, was my guide.

I began to realise that Madam was the same as me: we both carried sentences inside ourselves that we never spoke out loud.
The difference was that she could tell her sentences to her diary, or to her letters, whereas I had to keep mine forever inside my head. Because, you see, even though I could read, I wasn't yet able to write.

So... what now?
Watch this space!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Online poker? No, heliograph chess!

What, you may be thinking, has this got to do with my novel The Housemaid's Daughter? Bear with me! It's an interesting story...

Do you know what a heliograph is? They're no longer used but in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were the device of choice when you were faced with communicating over long distances from remote locations - no telephones, definitely no facebook or Snapchat in those days! Heliographs are simple telegraphs that work by using the sun, a mirror and a vantage point. By pivoting the mirror, or blocking the beam with a shutter, flashes of sunlight become Morse code signals that can travel many miles. The record was achieved by US signal sergeants in 1894, when they managed to send messages 183 miles from Utah to Colorado.

Heliographs need clear skies and a line of sight, so you must always choose a mountain or an elevated spot to set up your telegraph. In South Africa, during the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902, the heliograph was crucial to both sides. It allowed roving Boer commandos to stay in touch, and relayed vital information between remote British forts. During the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking, the only way for the beleaguered garrisons to connect with the outside world was by heliograph during the day and Aldis lamp at night.

In doing research for The Housemaid's Daughter, I came across a rather delightful anecdote which predated my story. Try as I might, I couldn't find the opportunity to include it in the book, but it's always stayed with me.
It's often said that war consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. During the Boer war it was no different, it seems. In the mountain forts near Cradock and across the Karoo (perfect helio country - vast distances, clear skies) officers were desperate for distraction.So they turned to their helios. And so was born: heliograph chess!
Now that's what I call long distance entertainment!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Thes, thes, thesaurus!

Some type of dinosaur?

Well... in the sense, perhaps, that it's been around for a while. Over 150 years, actually...
But this is no Tyrannosaurus Rex or any of the multi-sauruses of popular horror movies! There are no claws on this thesaurus!
It's a reference book, and a very special one.
But what makes it different from a dictionary?

Well, a thesaurus helps you find the perfect word or phrase for every situation. It organises words into 6 main classes, composed of 3 that deal with the outside world and 3 that address the human mind, will and heart. For example, if you search the index for an alternative to the word swallow, you will be given a choice of the verbs absorb, drink, eat, believe, be credulous, be patient, and the nouns mouthful and bird! Each of these has its own entry with a further set of words that could help to find the exact sense you want. It could be physical (wolfing down my food) but you could equally be looking for a word to describe someone who is easily persuaded! All these meanings via a single lookup.

For anyone who writes, a good thesaurus is an invaluable tool. And the most famous one was created by Peter Mark Roget. He devised it in 1805, but it was only published in 1852 after he retired from his position as Secretary of the Royal Society and found himself "possessed of more leisure". The task of expanding his early version into a full edition took several years, and it sounds as if Roget at times despaired of finishing.
"An incessant occupation (which) imposed upon me an amount of labour very much greater than I had anticipated."
Once done, he laments that his work might fall short of the excellence he wants and begs his readers not to judge him too harshly.
No need!
Roget's thesaurus has never been out of print since, selling over 30 million copies. I used mine so much in writing The Housemaid's Daughter, that it literally fell apart. So here is my new one, crisp and ready for use, to "facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition."
Thank you, Mr Roget!

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Of Diamonds, Gold, Railways... and ostrich feathers

Shall we start with the diamonds?!

Their discovery in 1871 in a remote part of southern Africa, was a game changer for the Cape Colony. An ambitious rail network was conceived, to connect the Cape ports to the Kimberley diamond fields hundreds of miles away - and thereby put the fledgling colony firmly on the world stage. But this was not a project to be undertaken lightly. There was little infrastructure along the way, a shortage of water, manpower and skills, not to mention the challenge of crossing mountain ranges and semi-deserts.

It took some twelve years of toil but finally the Cape boasted a network of over 2000 km of railway which bored into the interior from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London. Cradock, setting of The Housemaid's Daughter, was connected to the The Cape Midland section in 1881. Beyond Cradock, the line converged with the route from Cape Town at the wonderfully named De Aar, from where it headed for the glittering prize of Kimberley.
But of course, it went beyond diamonds...
Gold was discovered in the Transvaal in 1886, and the stampede to the Witwatersrand eclipsed even the diamond rush to Kimberley some 15 years earlier. The railways boomed, as did the towns along their route, including Cradock. Farming expanded, from merino wool to ostrich feathers which traveled by rail and sea to adorn the hats of the most fashionable ladies of Europe!
These days, the railway is a quieter artery through the countryside. Air travel and road haulage have largely replaced it. But you can still take a train and head to the coast, or follow those avid prospectors across the vast open spaces of the Karoo to Kimberley or Johannesburg.
Ada, the heroine of The Housemaid's Daughter, has a love-hate relationship with Cradock's railway and the city it reaches. Both conspire to tear her daughter, Dawn, away from her, but the railway brings her grandchild safely back home.

Another blast from the whistle, and the train struck out for the empty Karoo.
First to the junction at De Aar and then beyond to Johannesburg where there was gold in the ground and - God protect Dawn - all manner of trouble above it.

And later...

Among the unloaded boxes sat a small boy. He had a label round his neck, on a string. His hand clutched a cardboard suitcase. Dawn's suitcase.
"What's your name, child?"
He looked at me with eyes blue as the morning sky, and fair hair that flopped over his forehead. "Thebo," he whispered.

Friday, 18 March 2016

What are you reading?

What's your book-of-the-season?

Even when I was writing The Housemaid's Daughter, I would take a break and do some serious reading around this time of the year. And there's usually a standout work. Last year it was The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a brilliant, short novel set in the legal community in London. It explores a theme that could touch us all. I enjoy books that make us look inside ourselves and wonder how we would react...

This year has been a tougher choice. My book-of-the-season is a tie! And a strangely connected one, I realise, with the first of my winners set in a modern, chaotic world and the second set over two thousand years ago in a time of equally immense upheaval. Tim Butcher's Blood River traces the author's 2005 journey in the footsteps of the nineteenth century explorer, Stanley (of Dr Livingstone, I presume fame) who traveled through the Congo, discovering the source of the great Congo River and following it to where the river meets the Atlantic, a journey of many hundreds of miles and immense hardship. Tim Butcher's journey some 140 years later is no easier, he encounters poverty and war amid a tropical jungle that will make your hair stand on end.

Now, for my other winner, let's leap back 2000 years to an urban jungle and enter the world of Cicero, the prominent Roman orator, politician and scholar. Dictator, Robert Harris's final book in the Cicero trilogy, follows the great man through the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony and the struggle for control of Rome. But this is no dry history. Instead it brings to exuberant - and sometimes horrifying - life an era that is not as far from our modern world as we'd like to believe...

Both of these books held me captive. Perhaps you may enjoy them, too?
Happy reading!