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!

Thursday, 25 February 2016

How time flies!

It's five-and-a half years since I began blogging about publishing my first book!

126 blog posts later (whew!), The Housemaid's Daughter has reached further around the world than I ever imagined in those early, nail-biting days when I posed for this picture with the first paperback edition. Would it sell, I remember wondering. Who would read a story about rural South Africa? Would anyone care about Ada and her tumultuous life?

It turned out that lots of people have. And they've used many different ways to tell me so. It happens that my publishing journey has taken place at the same time as the explosion in social media. This has had a huge impact because it allows readers to be in immediate contact with the writer of the book they've just read. I remember, as a youngster, longing to speak to Daphne du Maurier about her wonderful book, Rebecca.
Well, in today's world , I could have done so.

Whether it's via facebook, this blog, Goodreads, Instagram... readers have been in touch with me from all corners of the globe - and in a variety of languages. Some have asked questions, some have voiced opinions, others have simply posted a picture of the book alongside a cup of coffee. And in contacting me, I hope they've gained some answers or insights. What they may not realise is what I've gained: an enrichment that has lifted my writing experience immeasurably.
I think I'll keep going!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Write what you know - Part 2

In my last blog I talked about finding Ada's voice as The Housemaid's Daughter. An equal challenge was to delve into my personal history to learn about an uncle who would become the inspiration for the character of Phil, the young son of the Ada's Irish employers.

My uncle died in North Africa at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in 1941. His particular battle took place within Operation Crusader, the Allied effort to relieve Tobruk which had been under siege for most of the year. Four thousand men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner at Sidi Rezegh. And, as was was the case for many families who lost loved ones in North Africa, there was little hope of a grave or a monument in that harsh desert environment.

But... some seventy years later, thanks to the South African War Graves Project, I discovered that my uncle does actually have a grave. He lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Knightsbridge Cemetary in Acroma, Libya. I don't believe that my grandparents ever knew. For them, he simply vanished.

In The Housemaid's Daughter, the fictional Phil survives the war, but returns to South Africa with post traumatic stress - what used to be called shell shock. The local doctor is unsympathetic, and his family are bewildered. Ada believes that talking about what he went through will help to heal him. So she encourages him to confide in her as a means to dispel the horror. And she succeeds... partly.
In the book, Phil's words are inspired by the accounts of men who did return and wrote about their experience. From their stories, I learned about desert warfare and my uncle's sacrifice.
So did Ada.
I realised, then, that it wasn't only the sights of war that return to soldiers, but the sound and feel of war as well.
Perhaps the closed bedroom curtains that I'd thought were his way of blocking out the light were also necessary to deflect the remembered rip of bullets over his head, and to expel the grit under his fingernails as he scratched desperately to deepen his trench...

Friday, 22 January 2016

Write what you know...

At the start of on my career as an author, I wanted to write a crime novel. Something gritty, like Prime Suspect - remember that? Then, after a period of alarming research including a conversation with a former policeman who described his underground work, I decided that perhaps criminal activity was not my thing.

I had, of course, been mulling over my family's history for many years, particularly my grandparents' epic migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900s... could this be the inspiration for a novel about a family making a new life in rural South Africa? There was only one way to find out: get started.

I'd like to say that the project proceeded smoothly, but of course it didn't! A first novel, an unknown author... was never going to be easy. It took me 6 years of research and and many revisions before The Housemaid's Daughter finally made it into print. During that time characters came and went, the plot expanded and I took the risky decision to write in the voice of Ada, my young black heroine...
I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.

Many readers have asked me how I managed to get into Ada's character, into her head and heart. Using all my experience of growing up in South Africa and drawing on the many women I'd met like Ada, proved not to be enough. I began to fear I would never understand her, that there was too much that separated our lives. And yet, when I changed tack and began to think about what Ada and I shared, I found that it was more than I'd realised. For example, we were both mothers and, as mothers, we would do anything to nurture and protect our children. Once I started to focus on what drew Ada and I together rather than what kept us apart, I began to find her voice.

It was still early, this first morning with my daughter. The moon hung luminous in a sky streaked with rising smoke. A rim of sunrise showed orange on the horizon. I walked along the dirt road, holding my child in my left arm and a bucket for water in my right. A girl child, not a boy.
I would call her Dawn.