Sunday, 20 November 2016
The Girl from Simon's Bay has taken her place on a cover that strikingly evokes the setting for my upcoming book. Last year I took a series of photographs from a vantage point above Simon's Bay, on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, to provide inspiration and detail for my publishers' design team. I wanted to show the spectacle of the glittering bay surrounded by mountains, while also conveying a haunting sense of a young woman adrift...
To my delight, the designers also included typical Cape features like the swathe of fynbos with pincushion proteas in the foreground. And for those of you who know the Cape, you'll recognise the ribbon of sea foam as being a well-known sight along the coast, particularly down at Cape Point where the sea can be so rough that foam seems to decorate every rock and inlet.
Now that the cover is complete, the book will be going to print. Pre-orders are already being taken so if you fancy getting in early then do place an order at your favourite online bookseller and await its delivery in the New Year. The official launch date is the 19th of January. I can't wait to feel the pages beneath my fingers! You can, of course, also order the book to read on Kindle, iPad and a variety of e-readers.
In my next blog, I'll be introducing you to Louise, the heroine of the novel, and the enigmatic girl on the cover. But for now, let me leave you with a brief taster...
Infant waves curled towards me over the crystal sand.
I reached out both hands to seize the oncoming water with its lace of bubbles and fell forward. Cold, green liquid gurgled into my mouth, lapped at my forehead and started to trickle into my ears...
Friday, 28 October 2016
Once again I turned to navy records. I looked for actual young men of a similar age who'd gone on to distinguish themselves on similar vessels to my potential hero. I identified four men who filled the criteria. Born between 1910 and 1911, they either went to Dartmouth as cadets or joined the navy after school. Each was a midshipman in 1928/29, and served on battleships (HMS Nelson and HMS Revenge) or cruisers (HMS Effingham, HMS London). All reached the rank of Lieutenant in 1932/33, and pursued Gunnery training at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth. Upon the outbreak of war, one was assigned to HMS Royal Sovereign, one was on HMS Rodney, one was on HMS/HMNZ Achilles and one was on HMS Coventry. All survived sinkings and crucial battles. All continued in the Royal Navy, 3 retired as Admirals.
It was from the strands of these four very different, but real, individuals that my hero sprang. He needed their dedication, their skills, and sometimes their luck to survive. I have not named any of the officers whose careers I researched. But there is one whom I'd like to acknowledge, who provided a particular inspiration. He was Lt (later Rear Admiral) Richard Washbourn, of HMS/HMNZ Achilles. He was awarded the DSO for his bravery at the Battle of the River Plate in 1939. Here is an extract from his citation:
When ... several splinters struck the gun director tower, killing three men and wounding two others, though wounded on the head by a splinter which half stunned him and killed the man behind him, continued to control the main armament with the utmost coolness. He set a magnificent example to the rest of the Tower crew, who all stood to their posts and made light of the incident. Thus the primary control kept working and secured throughout the action a high rate of hits on the enemy.
Of such are heroes made...
Friday, 7 October 2016
How do you create a leading character - and in particular a wartime hero from a time long gone?
That was one of the challenges I faced in my forthcoming novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, due out early 2017.
There were several specific requirements. My hero needed to serve on particular warships that took part in the Second World War AND happened to pass through the British naval base of Simon's Town, South Africa, during the conflict. Some serious research was required plus a large dose of inspiration.
I started - not with my hero - but with the navy in which he was to serve. As I combed through records of Royal Navy ships that had called at Simon's Town for repair or refuelling between 1939 and 1945, I built up a list of suitable candidates. Then I matched them with battles or encounters that were pivotal to the war, especially in the Atlantic. Soon my hero had a sequence of ships in which he might serve, and a series of battles in which he might be involved. I chose Gunnery as his speciality so that he could participate most closely in the battles I'd chosen. So... I knew where my man would be at any time during the war and, in particular, I knew when he'd be in Simon's Town.
That was all very well, but now I had to find a way to link the individual to the action. In order to make him believable on a professional level, I'd have to design a career trajectory that would allow him to start as a midshipman and then move up to being a Lieutenant during the war years and to be in a position to serve with honour on the vessels I'd earmarked.
How do you manufacture a young man, bring him up to be in love with the sea, send him to Dartmouth and then engineer his career and his life to ensure he's in the right place at the right time?
Clearly, a further line of research was needed.
More next time!
Friday, 23 September 2016
You want to write a book, you've got the outline of a story or a character in your head but... where to start?
May I suggest a Mind Map?
Pioneered by Tony Buzan of Use Your Head fame in the 1970s, the mind map quickly won over converts not just among the business community but for anyone facing a project whether it was making jam, restoring furniture or, indeed, writing a novel.
The great advantage of a mind map is that it allows you to get your arms around an entire subject on one piece of (very large) paper. The result shows your project in a format that is truly at-a-glance. So for both of my books, it's been the first step on the way. It allows me to sketch out the action, specify the characters and then - crucially - show the links between them. And that's key: we may have appealing characters or plot lines but we struggle to link them together into a coherent whole.
I often revisit my mind map after the book is finished, and it's interesting to compare the original concept with the final product.
There are casualties!
Some action - even some characters - just never survive on the page, and others arrive unexpectedly as the story develops. But the basic framework is still there, and the linkages survive. I guess I could draw the mind map on my laptop, but a physical, paper version is so much easier to use. I have the latest one on the wall above my desk so, as I write, I can look up and see where I'm going. And while the final destination may not be entirely settled, my map makes the journey clearer. And, oddly, it frees me up to be more adventurous:
If I stretch that character beyond the boundaries I've set, what might happen?
Maybe some delicious, unstructured mayhem...
Saturday, 3 September 2016
How does a raw manuscript become a commercial book? With a lot of behind-the-scenes work!
Firstly, there is the content to be checked, and here you need a savvy editor who will check the facts for authenticity and also make sure that you have not made any errors of logic or chronology or, in my case, sprinkled too many ellipses through the text...
For example, in my forthcoming book The Girl from Simon's Bay, I had a rather fraught scene between 2 characters. At one point, the man leaps up towards the girl but... oh dear! I had previously written that they were sitting opposite one another with a low table in between. My hero's leap forward would have ended in disaster as he crashed to the floor, howling in pain from striking a shin on the table. That would certainly have put paid to any frisson of romance...
Once you have rectified any mistakes, the manuscript must be transformed into a recognisable style for publication. And this is where it gets interesting.
Have you noticed that speech marks, these days, are no longer double but single? We may still waggle our fingers into 2 quote marks, but on the page it is simply not done.
"I will never forgive you!" has become 'I will never forgive you!'
And as for paragraphs, well, I could write an entire book on the minutiae of modern indentation.There is indentation for paragraphs, indentation - or not - for fresh sections, indentation within indentation for dialogue...
So, next time you pick up a book, just stop for a moment and take a closer look at the layout of what you are about to read. I think you may be surprised. And this, perhaps, is the key to contemporary style. If we don't actually notice it, that is surely a sign of its success.
Saturday, 20 August 2016
Where a long voyage (ideally several weeks!) allows for the kindling of emotions in a confined space among a limited cast of characters...
A potential liaison hovers - enticingly - in The Housemaid's Daughter. Cathleen Harrington is sailing from the UK to South Africa in the early 1900s. She's due to disembark in Cape Town and marry Edward, her longstanding fiance, on the very day that the ship docks. Her wedding dress is ready. Her chaperone on board is the minister who will marry her. Even so...
Will I still love Edward? she confides to her diary.
Will he still love me?
And here comes distraction, to add to her uncertainty.
The company on board ship is charming. In particular one Colonel Saunders, on his way to rejoin his regiment in India. How strange that I should spend five years serving my betrothal in Ireland and just when I am allowed to go to Africa to marry Edward, I find myself waylaid by another suitor.
As they covertly eye one another, the Union Castle liner wends its way slowly down the dramatic coast of Africa. The sunsets are awesome, the sea breezes are refreshing and Cath struggles to remain unmoved. The colonel is far less restrained.
Stay on board, Cath, he urges, after declaring his love for me. Come with me to India! We'll marry as soon as we arrive.
But Cathleen is a woman of her time, and duty - plus the vigilant chaperone - weighs heavily. But she does toy with the idea.
I could if I wished. For he is considerate and not a rake, and he knows my grown-up heart better, I daresay, than does Edward. I confess I am more than a little in love with him.
Cape Town looms closer. The passengers are encouraged to rise at dawn to see Table Mountain appear on the horizon. Cath makes her choice.
I have refused Charles Saunders, and he understands that I must do my duty.
But I shall always wonder how it might have been to marry a man with whom I felt a quickening such as I've never known before...
A dash of truth gives fiction an extra fizz.
"But why, Granny," I remember my childish voice saying to my grandmother, the inspiration for the character of Cathleen, "why didn't you? If you loved him -"
Tuesday, 2 August 2016
How much does environment influence a novel?
My first book, The Housemaid's Daughter, is set in the Karoo, a great swathe of semi-desert that stretches across the centre of South Africa.
Its clear, dry air lets you see for miles, as you can tell from this picture at the top of Mountain Zebra National Park.
Those dramatic flat-topped mountains, that stark climate - freezing in winter, boiling in summer and parched for most of the year - was ever present in the back of my mind as I wrote the book. And there's no doubt that the harshness of the terrain found its echo in the action. My heroine, Ada, is alienated and alone, and the landscape seems to reflect her pain.
I would walk out of the township to where the sky met the the earth. When the sun was at its highest, I would squat in the bony shade of a thorn tree and watch the air tremble with the heat of the veld stretching into watery mirages far ahead.
Now head south west from the boundless Karoo and you will find Simon's Town, the former Royal Navy base at the foot of the Cape Peninsula. This is where my new book due out in January 2017, The Girl from Simon's Bay, is set. Here, a very different palette of weather/terrain comes into play. Guarded by mountains rich with pincushion proteas and fringed by the glittering sea of Simon's Bay, it is an idyllically beautiful place - and seems to be a softer landscape than the Karoo. But looks can be deceiving. That limpid sea can quickly become a raging torrent, those gentle winds can turn into a black southeaster. Fire is a constant threat in the summer.
A wisp of smoke was spiraling above a clump of trees.
As I watched, there was an explosion. Flames burst through the leafy canopy like orange umbrellas unfurling against the white-hot sky.
So... expect some drama!