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!
Friday, 8 July 2016
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 Library in St Pancras.
And the characters?
More next time...
Wednesday, 22 June 2016
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...