Wednesday, 19 September 2018

What makes a Quotable Quote?

Do you ever highlight a phrase or copy down a sentence that captivates you?
I know that I do, and so do the readers of my two books, The Housemaid's Daughter and The Girl from Simon's Bay. Sometimes, though, the bits that get noticed are not necessarily the ones that I laboured the longest and hardest over - or was the proudest of! (excuse the tortuous grammar).

Cathleen Harrington, the Irish matriarch in The Housemaid's Daughter, keeps a diary in which she confesses her deepest thoughts. She isn't aware that her young housemaid, Ada, the heroine of the book, begins to read the diary during her daily duties. Ada struggles at first, because her reading ability is poor.
After many times of struggling, I began to separate the words.
Tomorrow I sail for Africa...
The diary became a secret conversation between Madam and me.

Cathleen's diary teaches Ada valuable lessons in life and love.
I remind myself that wherever one finds oneself,
home and love is lent to each of us only for a while.
We must care for it while it's ours, and cherish its memory once its gone.

In The Girl from Simon's Bay, Louise Ahrendts is forced to give up the man she has fallen in love with during the Second World War. He is unaware that she is holding on to a secret. Some twenty years later, faced with eviction from her home, she wonders if she dare contact him again. But what would she say?
Dear David,
You can't have me, but here is our son...

Monday, 3 September 2018

Research, research and no 'fake' history...

When writing historical fiction, there is a tension between setting fictional characters against a history that has already happened...
If you want to ensure the backdrop is authentic, you need to do research - lots of it! You, as writer, need to know much more than you reveal. One chance reflection, one throwaway fact, may be all that is used from days of background checking but it will convey truth to the reader and a sense of what people were going through at the time.

Let me give you an example. For my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, I needed to understand the role of the British government in Simon's Town, a role that ended in the 1950s when the town and the historic naval base were "handed over" to South Africa after many years of British rule. My UK research took place mostly at the National Archives in Kew, in London. Wearing special gloves, I examined original typewritten Cabinet Minutes charting the negotiation of the Simon's Town Agreement and the subsequent handover. How fascinating it was to see scrawled comments in the margins from the key players... (As an aside, it got me thinking that these historical records are so much more interesting than the ones we will leave our children: how can you show the passion of a fiercely-underlined comment when you are viewing it digitally?)

There were many sticking points in the negotiations. On the British side, the Cabinet was divided. Some ministers felt Simon's Town was a strategic asset guarding the Cape sea route, and therefore should be managed by a major world power. There were domestic issues to settle, too, such as the status of the existing non-white workers in the dockyard post-handover at a time when apartheid in SA was tightening its grip. After days of research, I felt that I had a good grip on the arguments for and against, and the reported sentiments of local residents like my fictional Ahrendts family. So, how much of this appeared in the book? Not much, but hopefully enough...

However bright you were, they made you sweat in the shadows when you deserved the chance to be recognised for what you did and be properly paid for it. Like Grandpa Ahrendts used to be, when the Royal Navy was in charge of the dockyard. Even though he drew his pension, so far still honoured by the South African Navy via the Simon's Town Agreement, the financial burden now swung heavily onto my shoulders...

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Meet me at Book Club (II)

A while ago I wrote a blog about Book Clubs, and how they've evolved from their 18th century versions into the sociable occasions we enjoy today. In the early days, Book Clubs provided a way for readers to access a variety of titles without having to buy them individually. A single copy was purchased by the group and then shared around.

In our digital world, we have the luxury of reading on a range of platforms and it means that members can all read the same book at the same time... and then discuss it together at their next meeting. Which brings me to my next point:
How much debate do you have in your group?
I speak at many clubs and I'm always amazed at how engaged most members are. Probably the most diligent was a group of young professional ladies who attacked their reading lists with as much verve as they attacked their In-trays at work. I was with them to discuss my first novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. After I'd spoken, they proceeded to have a lively debate about one particular aspect of the book concerning Phil, the young man who returns from the war with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (shell shock in those days).
If you haven't read Housemaid, stop reading now.

As you will remember, Phil sadly dies after falling from an upper floor window.
Was it suicide, an accident or... was he pushed?
At the end of their debate, they turned to me for the definitive answer. I was the author so I would know! But I declined to tell them and, after a while, they understood why.
One of the great joys of reading is that we each interpret characters differently, we each project a little of ourselves into their actions.
I left Phil's fate to the imagination of you, the reader.
I feel it's better that way, don't you?

(But I wonder what you think is the answer...)

Monday, 6 August 2018

A brave memorial...

Statues and memorials are the quiet adjuncts to our lives. We walk past them, sometimes casting a glance to see what they commemorate but often ignoring them... famous generals from yesteryear, scientific pioneers, great statesman...
But recently they've been at the centre of a growing trend.

Take them down, shout those who believe that old heroes should be judged by modern standards. While many of these fierce-looking individuals did indeed hold beliefs we now abhore, should we erase them from our consciousness - and our history - completely? Or should they stand as a reminder of how far we've come, and how careful we should be never to fall from the values we have won?

There is a simple memorial in Simon's Town, setting of my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, that will, I hope, last forever. It was erected by the white townsfolk after the South African government declared Simon's Town to be a white Group Area in the 1960s, under the policy of apartheid. Despite most residents of all colours being against such a move, all non-white residents were evicted from the town. The memorial was put up by the white residents who remained, and, at the time, it was a defiant statement against their rulers. Long may it last, and long may we take the lesson that we should all be equal under the sun.
It is written in both English and Afrikaans.

"To the memory of generations
of our fellow citizens who dwelt
here in peace and harmony until
removed by edict of 1967

Erected by their fellow citizens."

Monday, 23 July 2018

A New Edition

Welcome to the new Spanish edition of La Chica de Simon's Bay!
(The Girl from Simon's Bay)

The first notice I had of this publication was a parcel arriving at my front door with a set of pristine books. I love new books, don't you? They have a smell and a crispness to them that is almost edible. I hope I'll gain more Spanish readers with this edition, which is physically smaller than the original, and is usually popular at airports etc. Easier to cram into carry-on luggage.

And, talking of travelling...
With the current World Cup just ended, it is worth remembering that Spain won the World Cup in 2010 when it was held in South Africa. On the back of that win, Spanish tourist numbers to the country grew substantially, according to official figures. So perhaps the success of La Chica will entice a couple more to head down south? I have had many globe-trotting readers of the English version who've been in touch to say that they included Simon's Town, the setting for the novel, in their travels.
Will I hear increasing numbers of Spanish accents on the streets of Simon's Town? I hope so. After all, they can walk in the footsteps of Louise and David along St George's street, see the historic dockyard, spot the site of the old Royal Naval Hospital, or take a swim at Seaforth Beach like Louise did...

I reached out both hands to seize the oncoming water and fell forward.
Cold, green liquid gurgled into my mouth and just as it started to trickle into my ears, a pair of familiar hands grabbed me around the middle and pulled me clear.
"Lou!" my Pa hoisted me over his shoulder. "You can't swim before you can walk!"
"No quieras nadar antes de saber andar!"

I trust I'm doing my bit for tourism to the country!

Monday, 9 July 2018

Blasts from the past

Take a look at this photo, will you?
It shows two crumbling structures (hopefully I am not one of them!) that probably should be pulled down. But each played a role in Simon Town's rich history, and helped me to anchor my novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, in a time and place that can still be seen.

In the foreground is the guardhouse that once marked the entrance to the Royal Naval Hospital where my heroine, Louise Ahrendts, served as a nurse. The glass in the windows is broken and the interior is festooned with spiders' webs but, during the war, it was in pristine condition and was the first sight of the hospital that thousands of patients would have had as they arrived. Like Louise, they no doubt received a cheerful greeting and perhaps even a salute from the serviceman on duty.

The metal pylon in the background is actually part of an aerial ropeway that was built in 1903 to take supplies - and passengers - to the Royal Naval Hospital and further up to the Sanatorium perched high above Simon's Bay.
The trip took 15 minutes in a small cable car and was therefore faster and easier than making the steep climb on foot. The ropeway even became quite a tourist attraction, as you can see.
I wonder how it coped in a strong southeaster?
And apparently, when the cable cars swung over St George's street, tall pedestrians were wise to duck!
The ropeway went out of service in the 1930s once a road was built up Red Hill but the pylons and landing stages remain to this day.
"I go off duty at four -thirty tomorrow. Would you like to take a walk?" Nurse Ahrendts asked, a faint blush staining her cheeks.
"Thank you. That's very generous."
She glanced around, clearly worried about being overheard.
"I'll be on the path by the old aerial ropeway," she said. "Meet me there?"

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Literary Lunch... and birds of a feather

Recently I had the pleasure of talking to a group of 50 ladies at a Literary Lunch at Foxhills Country Club and Resort, in leafy Surrey. The organiser was raising funds for a charity called Women V Cancer, and she organised lunch in beautiful surroundings, with my contribution coming between courses!

I spoke about the background and setting of my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay. Whenever I do these kind of talks, I'm always reminded afresh of how we are connected despite the seemingly fragmented world in which we live. I invariably come across readers who have a link with my books, in this case the former British enclave of Simon's Town, at the foot of Africa. Whether it is via family members who served in the Royal Navy and passed through the town during the war, or nurses who served at the Royal Naval Hospital or friends who have settled there, somehow we have a point of contact.

And I always get a question about the wildlife in my books! Especially the birds!
It's true: I'm nature lover, and South Africa provides many spectacular flora and fauna to add a little bit of spice to my stories. In The Housemaid's Daughter, I had emerald sunbirds and spiky aloes rising like flames above the veld; in The Girl from Simon's Bay I had yellow pincushion proteas and handsome jackal buzzards.
And seagulls hovering against the wind.
"See?" Pa once said. "It's their air perch!
They work out how strong the wind is, and then they flap just enough to keep themselves in one place instead of being blown away."

I rather like the idea of an air perch, don't you?