Saturday, 20 August 2016

Shipboard Romance...

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

Cape to Cairo? No, Karoo to Cape!

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

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 Library 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!