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Anatomy of A Novel: Part 14: Theme

For some reason I’ve always been drawn to stories about what the past brings us. I love reading books set in two or more time-frames, where the present-day protagonist uncovers the secrets or mysteries of a previous generation. Favourite writers on my bookshelf include Kate Morton, Hannah Richell and Kate Quinn. I love to lose myself in the writings of these wonderful story-spinners.

It’s no accident that I have chosen to write my own novels along similar themes. The protagonist in my first (unpublished and semi-autobiographical) novel wanted to discover what made her ancestors leave England in 1880 to embark on an ill-fated settler scheme in Africa. (Of course, I still don’t know why my own ancestors did this, and maybe this is why that novel will never be completely finished. Or published.)

When I started to become a writer, I read every book on writing I could get my hands on. I later subscribed to blogs and saved writer websites as favourites, eager to amass as much knowledge about writing as possible. Along the way, I have become confused about theme. Some writers say that theme is the first thing you should consciously decide upon, and others say it should be left until a later draft, when you as the writer discover exactly what it is you are trying to say with that particular work.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is the way that works best for me, but there is always an initial historical theme through all my books.

My novella From Daisy with Love delved into the First World War diaries of my grandfather and the scrapbooks, letters, autograph books and drawings of my grandmother. What was in them is also somewhere in me, and I don’t just mean the shared DNA.

In my novel The Epidaurus Inheritance my protagonist wants to know the history of an ancient, ornate knife she inherited from her Greek father. She gets more than she bargained for when she realises that she’s not the only one tracing her knife, and some are prepared to kill whoever stands in their way of obtaining it.

In fact, my overriding theme could be “be careful what you wish for” except that some of my characters come into possession of something they didn’t wish for, an object that has nothing to do with them or their family history. In Benicio’s Bequest an art teacher on holiday in Italy encounters a stranger who leaves her a parcel to deliver to an address in Venice. She doesn’t find the parcel in her handbag until several hours after she has witnessed the bloody murder of this stranger, Benicio. The object that Benicio sends to his brother, through her, leads them both on a trail of stolen art, excellent forgery and – of course – several bodies along the way.

In The Trojan Legacy my modern-day protagonist immigrates to Australia with her parents, but finds it hard to adjust to her new life. Sorting through the boxes of things her mother couldn’t bear to leave behind, she uncovers references her grandmother made to an Australian friend. The girl sets out to find this person or their descendants. She also gets more than she wished for, but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t already read the book.

I have gone into most of my life’s endeavours in an eager but open-minded state, and have worked things out along the way. Sometimes it takes me longer than others, but I like to think that I get there in the end.

And so it is with theme. Now that I’ve written several novels, I can see that my main theme is about what we or those close to us inherit, but each novel has its own unique version of that inheritance or legacy. Variations on a theme, to use a musical term.

For example, The Epidaurus Inheritance also touches on the economic crisis in Greece, and the need for ancient Greek artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles to be returned to their country of origin. Benicio’s Bequest touches on the ties that bind members of the same family, and how the shared DNA doesn’t always point brothers in the same direction. The Trojan Legacy teaches its two modern-day protagonists that sometimes what is eventually uncovered needs to be laid to rest, assigned to the past where it belongs, so that new life can move on.

As for my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage, the inheritance theme is present once more, as is a side theme on the difference between two brothers, but there are deeper loyalties and issues about the choices we make, especially in times of war. I’ll let you know how that changes as it goes along…

Readers out there, what draws you to pick up a particular book? Is there a common thread that runs through them? And writers, how do you find your theme?

Flowers for ANZAC Day

One hundred and four years ago, at dawn on the 25th of April in 1915, the combined forces of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. There followed one of the bloodiest conflicts of the First World War. The following year, it was decided that the anniversary of that landing date would forever be remembered in both countries.

This day has become known as ANZAC Day. Every year on this day, services are held in both countries, usually at dawn, or slightly later in the morning, and all businesses remain closed until the afternoon, out of respect.

A few months ago I wrote about how, last Remembrance Sunday, I had placed a lone poppy at the cenotaph which serves as a war memorial in my neighbourhood. Last week, on ANZAC Day, several floral tributes were laid at the base of this cenotaph. Beautiful wreaths from the local Fire Brigade and the Girl Guides, a posy of poppies in the name of two soldiers – probably placed there by family members – and one anonymous bunch of red roses, tied with a pink ribbon.

I was also pleased to see that someone had taken the time and trouble to straighten my single poppy into a more upright position. I wonder if it was the same person who rescued it after the January storm? Either way, my poppy is no longer alone…

The Red Poppy in My Neighbourhood

At the bottom of the hill below my cottage is a quiet shady road called Memorial Drive, named for the cenotaph and a small garden of remembrance to honour those local lads who fought in the First World War. Subsequent plaques have been added over the decades for other wars of the last century: the Second World War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Every day on my way to work I drive past this cenotaph, and somehow the knowledge of what it stands for provides me with a link to the soldiers in my own family history. It makes me think of my grandfather and all the other young men he mentioned in his diaries. Those diaries inspired my historical romance novella From Daisy with Love.

My grandmother Daisy was a letter writer for soldiers during the Great War, helping both injured and illiterate young men to stay in touch with their families and loved ones far away. I am far away now from where both of them were during that war, but the sentiments and memories have not changed with time or distance.

On Remembrance Sunday last November I had been hoping to attend a commemorative wreath-laying ceremony at this cenotaph, but our municipality chose to hold these ceremonies at four larger cenotaphs in more built-up areas instead, perhaps because ours is such a quiet, rural area.

So I attended a wreath-laying ceremony near my church that day, only about ten minutes’ drive away. It was understated but moving, and well-presented by a local scout troop. It was good to see that not only older people attended, but several youngsters as well. In this country, they don’t forget or cast aside their war dead.

Later that afternoon I drove past the little cenotaph in Memorial Drive, but it was bare. Not a wreath in sight, not even a single flower. I went home, fetched some green plant-tie wire, and attached it to the pin at the back of the red poppy from my lapel. I drove back down to the cenotaph. I was the only person there, and I don’t think anyone saw me quietly pushing the green wire stem of the poppy into a crevice between the stones of the cenotaph.

For weeks afterwards, every time I drove past it, that small dot of red near the base of the cenotaph reminded me that my reminder was still there. Early in January it disappeared after a heavy, violent storm. I knew it wouldn’t be there forever, but the two month stretch that it had lasted was longer than I had anticipated.

However, about two weeks later on my daily drive past, I saw a small dot of red on the cenotaph once more, slightly higher than where my poppy had been. I was elated that someone else had done the same thing. And then I began to wonder if it was the same poppy.

On the very next Sunday, I took a stroll around my neighbourhood with my camera. It was a beautiful hot summer’s day, and for some weeks I had wanted to capture the views across the valley, as well as the beautiful trees in the side road leading to my cottage – see the picture to the left. I began my walk with no particular destination in mind, and took several photographs along the way, but as I neared the bottom of the hill I knew exactly where my path would eventually lead me.

Along Memorial Drive the cenotaph was deserted once more, apart from the poppy. My poppy. I recognised it immediately. It was in surprisingly good shape, with its green plant-tie still attached to the pin at the back. Some kind soul had picked it up from where the wind and rain had deposited it, perhaps realised where it had come from, and had wedged it back between the stones.

It gives me a warm feeling to know that someone in my rural neighbourhood thinks along the same lines that I do.

My Endless Quest to Recapture the Magic of Christmas

Last week a work colleague and I discussed how we had spent our respective Christmases this year. She has three sons and she said that they had really enjoyed it, which was the main thing.

It got me thinking about how magical Christmas had been when I was a child, and how we try every year to recapture that feeling, whether for our children or for ourselves. We frantically decorate trees and cakes, bake mince pies, play appropriate music, shop till we drop, overspending and pushing our credit cards beyond their normal elasticity. Working in retail, I’ve witnessed at first hand the frenzy of spending in the days leading to Christmas, but no matter how much effort we put into it, Christmas for adults never quite matches up to the magic it held for us as children.

The cynic in me knows now that the original Christian meaning of Christmas has been warped beyond all recognition, but as a child the juxtaposition of the fables and traditions surrounding this yearly event fell happily into place alongside each other. The birth of Jesus Christ, the story of generous Saint Nicholas, the pagan tree and Yuletide log – all of them snuggled up together, were added to by our parents, and are now coated in the rosy afterglow of our own fondly-remembered nostalgia. I’ve written elsewhere about my own family’s Christmas traditions.

Somehow, the long ago story of the Christ child born in a stable sat comfortably with the notion of a man in a red suit arriving on the roof in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. This strange man from the North Pole who dropped down our chimney with a sack full of toys was perfectly logical at the time, despite the fact that our chimney wasn’t very wide. It was magic, of course.

Once we realised who was masquerading as Father Christmas, things were still great, because we were children, we still got presents, and Christmas was fun. Even through high school, and during my three years at university when I still lived at home, we all loved the season and had a good time each Christmas.

In my early years of working, I enjoyed my first few Christmases, especially a spectacular one in the northern hemisphere, skiing in the Swiss alps with my boyfriend and his family. A magical Christmas-card Christmas that one was, surrounded by snow and log fires in our cosy wood-lined cabin, joined by various family and friends from around the world.

The following year that same boyfriend and I hosted the big family Christmas at our newly-bought house in Johannesburg. It was enormous fun and I knew that this was the pattern for the rest of my life: we would continue to host big family Christmas meals, enjoying lots of company and laughter, creating magical Christmases for the children we would one day have too…

Not so the next year. My wonderful boyfriend dumped me in August and by December I was barely back on my emotional feet. I think that was when Christmas started to become a little tarnished.

The next year was even worse. My father died in July and my sister got divorced in November. It was a sad, straggly family of survivors who got together on the 25th of December at my mother’s house and tried to pretend that all was merry and bright. It just wasn’t. My mother kept disappearing into the kitchen to “check the chicken” but once there she dissolved into tears, unable to cope with the first Christmas in twenty-eight years without her husband. My sister had reluctantly invited her ex-husband along for the day so that their children could have as normal a Christmas as possible. It was anything but normal and we were all relieved when the 26th dawned and it was finally over.

During the years when I lived in Cape Town, there followed three Christmases of utter loneliness that I still can’t bear to think about. I became a bit of a nomad after that, wandering around South Africa, wherever I could find work – mainly on touring big musicals. Career-wise it was a good move. Christmas-wise it was quite awful.

Things improved vastly when I settled in Durban, able to spend time with my mother and sister again. After my mother died, my sister filled the empty space and we had wonderful Christmases together until she and her second husband and their youngest child left for Australia. The following Christmas I spent with the remaining three of their grown up children, but by the next Christmas two more of them had moved overseas as well.

We still had a good Christmas, my oldest niece and I. For the first time in years we substituted the traditional Christmas pudding with a chocolate fondue instead. We still talk about it to this day. She’s been here on holiday for a few weeks now with her two sons, and we’ve had another big family Christmas in Australia.

So how was my Christmas this year? In the last few years I have come close to actually recapturing the magic of my childhood Christmases. Since I arrived in Australia, my Christmases have been fun-filled and family-filled. This year I moved into a cottage on my own and in December I unpacked my aged, beloved Christmas tree once more, and filled my new home with old memories, new decorations and magical hopes for the future.

I wish all my readers a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2019. May all your wishes magically come true!

Things I Have Discovered About My Mother

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my Mother’s death. Here’s a post I wrote about her back in January 2015, when I started packing to move to Australia. I still miss her…

The Scribbling Scribes

By Susan Roberts

s1I suppose I always took it for granted that I would one day become a mother, but somehow it never happened. This has something to do with the hours that I work, or maybe it’s because I grew up old-fashioned enough to believe that I needed a husband first. Over the years, the right candidate never appeared so I just got on with my life instead.

Not that I’m sorry I didn’t become a mother. My family will tell you that I was never particularly enamoured of kids. When I was grossed out by someone’s wailing brat or a dirty diaper, there was always a well-meaning relative to assure me that “it’ll be different when you have your own one day,” but they couldn’t see that there was a wary part of me that couldn’t imagine going through that with a permanent infant which I couldn’t hand…

View original post 1,236 more words

The Finishing Touches

In my early working days during the 80s and 90s, every time I moved house, it usually took me four or five months to get around to hanging up my pictures. Because I always rented, my choices were limited to where existing picture hooks had already been hammered in by previous tenants.

Only once, when I bought my own flat in Johannesburg in 1997, did I finally splash out on buying a drill and hanging my pictures exactly where I wanted them. Along with shower rails, curtain rods, pot plant holders and anything else that took my fancy.

When I moved to Durban in 2000, it was to rented accommodation again, but the landlords I was lucky enough to rent from in the next fifteen years were quite happy to let me put up whatever I wanted.

Even so, it always took me a while to decide on the correct look and atmosphere of each room before hanging the pictures. I had to be sure that everything else was in the correct place before executing those finishing touches.

In South Africa, you drill holes into brick walls, shove in plastic plugs and screw in screws strong enough to take the weight. Not so in Australia, where the process is a little more tricky. Here the houses are not built of brick, but of timber framing, covered inside with plasterboard, and outside with any kind of veneer you can imagine. This means the walls are hollow, with wiring and piping running through the gap between inner and outer cladding.

Believe it or not, I’ve now been in my new cottage for four months. Lately, I’ve been planning the placement of my pictures. Of course, I didn’t bring all of them with me; only the most significant and precious. Such as a set of five black and white photos of District Six, taken by Jansje Wissema back in the 1960s. After carrying these in a folder through two moves, I finally framed them myself in Johannesburg, before drilling holes in my own wall with my (then) new drill. Where I go, they go.

Likewise two of my niece’s paintings which I am hoping to frame; a beautiful water colour painted by a writing friend; a framed pencil sketch that I’ve had for twenty-seven years of a cat drawn by my friend Jackie; and a cute cat-shaped blackboard made by my friend Mandy before she left for Ireland in 1997. Other favourites include my four huge framed movie posters.

One of these bears the legend: “If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones” which became symbolic of my own adventure when I was packing up three years ago. Where I go, Indy goes too…

Last week I retrieved all these and more from the roof of my sister’s garage where they have been stored for the past three years. Some calculations and planning had already been done because I had most of the measurements among my immigration paperwork, but the real fun only began when I was able to unwrap them from their protective bubble wrap shrouds and let them live again.

Yesterday I spent the day putting up the larger ones. My cottage here has quite a lot of hooks in the walls, which was lucky for me because it meant I didn’t have to excavate new territory and risk hitting water pipes and live electric wiring. I also have a neat little device called a Stud Sensor, which detects both timber and metal frames, and has a red flashing light and a loud beep whenever it senses electricity.

Unfortunately, that little beep sounded a lot yesterday as I discovered that several walls which I had earmarked for pictures were more “live” than most power stations. Consequently I have had to keep some of my artworks in bubble wrap until I maybe one day move to a bigger place, or until I work out a way of attaching them to just the wall paint and plasterboard. Or doors, or ceilings. Or whatever.

Either way, for the most part I am pleased with the results. My cottage is starting to look more and more like the home I have visualised for so long.

A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime?

Thirty-three years ago today, I was awakened early in the morning by a persistent knocking on my door in Johannesburg. I had worked later than usual the previous night, and desperately needed that extra hour of sleep, but it was not to be. Whoever was knocking just wouldn’t go away, so I got up and stumbled to the door, bleary-eyed.

There stood an old family friend of my father’s, with her husband, come to tell me that my father had died the night before. My mother had called her so that I wouldn’t be alone when I heard the news. They stayed while I phoned my mother. They made me tea and didn’t leave until they had helped me to make arrangements to fly home.

They’ve been on my mind this weekend, as have quite a few other people.

I spent most of Sunday with a friend who is about to leave Australia to live in New Zealand. She was the first friend I made in Australia. We connected because we were aliens from the same place, albeit via different routes, and we both related to the strangeness of our new situation in a foreign country.

It was great seeing her again on Sunday because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I felt sad afterwards and began to ponder the theory that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Will we ever see each other again? I’m sure we will, but even if it turns out that we were in each other’s lives for a season of only two and a half years, then we will be grateful that we formed our friendship at the time when we both needed it most.

Because I moved around South Africa a lot in my early years of working, I have had many fleeting connections with people. I always found it sad when we drifted apart. So many best friends faded from my life when I faded from their town, or they went overseas. In those days there were no mobile phones so we didn’t keep the same numbers when we moved, and most lost interest in writing letters after a short while.

It took me several years to stop resenting the lost connections, or blaming them. I eventually realised that not all people you meet in your lifetime will be there forever, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Most people come into your life and change it in some way – for better or worse – but either way you learn something from their presence at your side.

Some leave after a few weeks or months, some after a few years. Some you see again; some you don’t. Even our beloved pets don’t live as long as we do, but those seasons they spend with us are remembered fondly for the rest of our lives.

We all make connections, but just because people drift apart doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The short length of time we spend with each other doesn’t diminish the impact of the connection.

The friend who told me to read The Artist’s Way was a musical director I worked with eighteen years ago for the six month season of a particular show. I haven’t seen her since her now grown-up son was a newborn baby, but I do believe that she came into my life when I needed someone to tell me how to change my life’s direction. I’ll always be grateful that she did. And some years later I was in the life of another musician for a long enough season to give him a copy of the same book, because I knew he needed it too.

My father’s friend who came to tell me of his death was once his girlfriend about a decade before he met my mother. It hadn’t been a serious love affair, but they always enjoyed each other’s company and stayed friends all their lives. When I was a child we went to Johannesburg on holiday, and we visited her and her husband in their beautiful old house on the top of the ridge in Kensington, with its glorious view of the eastern suburbs. When they came down to the coast on holiday, they stopped and spent time with us on the way. Birthday cards flew via airmail between all four adults. She kept in touch with my mother after my father’s death, and after the death of her husband some years later. Some friendships really do last a lifetime, no matter the distance.

Today, thanks to email and the Internet, I have reconnected with two friends from primary school. When I was in high school, my friends and I had pen-friends in exotic places around the world. Now my high school friends are my email pen-friends in exotic places too.

Look at the people around you today and ask yourself: Are they there for a reason, a season or a lifetime? And then think about the reason why you might be in each of their lives. What purpose do you fill for them? Are you there for a reason, a season or a lifetime?