Tag Archive | History

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 5: Timeline

img_5298

I do a timeline for every novel I write. I don’t always do it before I start writing, but when I start to get muddled about where in the first week my characters are, I sit down and work my way through the text, pinpointing which day is which, and adjusting my outline to reflect the timeline. Once that’s done, I find it easier to move forward.

And backward. Into my timeline goes all the relevant historical info that I might use to inform the novel’s backstory as well. Because I tend to be something of a stickler for details, I need to know that every part of my story rings true (at least in my little world), and part of this means that I cannot afford to be sloppy about what one character might have told another, out of context, about some historical event. If it’s likely to be mentioned anywhere in the novel, its dates are found and inserted into the relevant year, month or week.

It may sound rather limiting to have a rigid structure like a timeline, but writing within certain parameters can also help with plot tension. Also, each novel I write has a slightly different format, and once my timeline rings true, the writing can flow better. I don’t want to end up 30,000 words down the line with somebody’s father having told a character in great detail about something he witnessed, only to discover that the father hadn’t been born at the time of the incident.

My historical novella From Daisy with Love was set against the First World War, and was partly inspired by my grandmother’s work as a letter-writer during that war. I also had my grandfather’s war diaries of the same time period, which were useful in that they provided a very real timeline, both for the action he witnessed and for the action he complained of missing.

The Daisy timeline started with the birthdates of both my grandparents, was supplemented by personal events – the death of Daisy’s parents, the marriage of her sister – and world events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru, the start of the war and the battle of Delville Wood in which so many South African soldiers died.

Although it seems that linear tales are told in my contemporary novels The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest, there was more to this process than simply making sure that each day of the week tied up with the action I had planned for the characters. Certainly the timeline for one of these turned out to be more involved than the aforementioned historical novella because it included even more historical backstory than a world war.

The timeline for The Epidaurus Inheritance eventually ran to seventeen pages – I kid you not! – and was extremely complicated. It started with six pages of notes about the various events in Greek and Turkish history which would be mentioned or touched on in parts of the book. Four pages of detailed timeline followed, covering post-classical Greece from 336 BC when Alexander the Great took over from his father who was assassinated, including Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles in 1801, as well as Schliemann’s various excavations of Troy and Mycenae, and ending with the exile of Greece’s King Constantine in 1967.

Here’s where the interesting stuff starts, but the timeline still hasn’t reached the start of the novel yet: the next three pages take me from the birth of my two main characters in 1973 and 1978, through their individual backstories up to the start of the novel in June 2010, when these two characters finally meet during the play festival at Epidaurus.

Only the last four pages of this timeline show the progression of the actual novel itself: a week by week breakdown of the four weeks of action in the novel, noting what happens on each day during those four weeks leading to the novel’s climax and resolution, and the final aftermath two weeks later.

I know it sounds like an epic in itself, but I did promise you an anatomy of a timeline and this is probably the most detailed one I wrote. In fact, I reused parts of it again while compiling the timeline for my later novel The Trojan Legacy, where I used bits of that timeline which I hadn’t used before.

The Trojan Legacy timeline is only twelve pages long. The first six pages consist of relevant bits condensed down from the first ten pages of the Epidaurus timeline. (I have a fascination for this time period and I will more than likely delve into this mine of information in future novels too.)

The next page is character Frank Lyzbarta’s timeline. Most of this is the story that Bobby tells Regina and the others in his bar in the early pages of the book, but it also includes the information that Bobby discovers later in Frank’s prison diary. The next two pages are Marcus and Ellen’s timeline, from their births in 1930 and 1934 respectively, their backstory up till their meeting in 1962, and onwards from that time for the next few months, which is the total of their story in the book.

The next page covers the bridge between those two characters and the two modern-day characters. The final two pages cover the time from the births of Bobby and Regina in 1981 and 1987, to their meeting at the start of the novel, and their involvement in piecing together the story of their grandparents throughout the novel, as well as the continuation of their own story together.

Over the years I seem to have become more adept at filtering out of those giant timelines the stuff I don’t need. The timeline for Benicio’s Bequest is only five pages and most of it centres on the daily activities of the four week period of the novel’s action, but the first page has several important notes about incidents in Florence before the start of the novel (long before the births of its two main characters). Not all of this was used, but I found it useful to know and keep in mind while I was writing.

In my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage my timeline is nowhere near complete at three and a half pages, but I can guarantee it will grow more before the novel is finished. It spans three distinct eras: 1955 which is the era in which the main story takes place; the first half of the twentieth century which is glimpsed through flashbacks and references to World War 2, as well as discoveries about the childhood lives of the characters before that war; and the third era concerns important historical happenings that the main characters will uncover about the Tudor and Elizabethan era in England.

Even now, with the first draft of the novel only halfway through at 50 000 words, I am still finding new bits of information that I want to include, and these all involve more research, more fodder for my timeline, and thus endless new possibilities for my novel.

From Daisy with Love – Free on Amazon for 5 Days

IMG_4902

My historical romance novella is now free for the next five days on Amazon. From Daisy with Love is a short read of approximately 25 000 words. It is an old-fashioned love story set a hundred years ago in Africa, during the First World War.

If you haven’t already read it, now is a good time because it’ll cost you nothing more than a minute while it downloads. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app to your computer from the same page before you download the book.

Here’s what this novella is all about:

Life is frustrating for eighteen year old Daisy, living with her sister Nellie in Durban in 1915 while their respective men are away fighting in the Great War. As a volunteer letter-writer at the local hospital, Daisy whiles away her hours of boredom by helping Peter, a young British soldier, to pick up the threads of his life after a serious injury.

When her sister’s life falls apart and the letters from her own beloved Gilbert cease to arrive, Daisy must find the strength to pull her family through their loss and persevere through the war, so that she too can live a full life and leave a legacy to her descendants.

As I’ve said with my previous novels that were free over the last two months, if you enjoy the read, please tell all your friends, and if you don’t enjoy it, please drop me a line via my contact form and let me know what you didn’t like. It all goes towards improving the next book.

You can download From Daisy with Love here from Amazon.com, or here from the Amazon store that serves the country in which you live. It’s free right now, and will remain so until Friday night – 27th May – at midnight if you’re on the Pacific coast of the USA. If you are further east, you will have until later on Saturday – 7 am in England, 8 am in South Africa and around 4 pm in Australia. If you are anywhere else in the world, you can check your time zone against my new favourite tool, World Time Buddy.

Happy reading!

Thoughts on My Own Historical Fiction

I’ve dabbled in historical fiction over the years, but never too seriously. While I enjoy reading it, I have only written one novella in that genre: From Daisy with Love which is set in Durban during the First World War. Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a writing seminar on historical fiction, and now my way forward looks set to expand along a slightly different path.

Back in 2004, my first attempt at writing my own family’s history derailed itself when I ran out of actual facts. My ancestors had arrived in Africa in 1880 from Manchester as part of a somewhat dodgy settler scheme. I found plenty of information in local archives about the Willowfountain Settler Scheme itself, but not much of it mentioned my family. Apart from one or two anecdotes and some letters of complaint that my great-great-grandfather wrote to the Land and Immigration Board, there was nothing else. In the back of my mind I had my father’s own stories about his childhood, his parents and his aged grandparents who lived up the road in a big house, but that was all.

What had happened to change the family’s fortunes between 1880 and 1928 when my father was born? I had no idea, but my mind raced to fill in the possible details. Before I knew it, I had rewritten the family history as a fictional account of what might have been.

I later added this historical piece to a contemporary novel I was writing, and tried unsuccessfully to merge the two stories. It didn’t exactly work out and my attempts to flog it to various publishers and agents was… well, embarrassing really. I eventually abandoned it and moved on to other writing projects which have been more successful.

From time to time I’ve dredged out the old story and tried again, thinking that perhaps it has some merit, but I never get very far with it. I’ve realised over time that it is the contemporary part of the story that is the weakest portion, so I’ve been thinking about re-writing just the historical part into another novella. Last weekend was the inspiration I needed to jump in with both feet and go for it.

Our keynote speaker, historian Charles van Onselen, told us how he had researched his latest non-fiction book about a larger-than-life Irish wanderer. The similarities which that character shared with my own ancestors hit me as Charles unfolded the story. A background spent in Manchester, a voyage to Africa, the small community the man created around him from contacts back in the Old Country who had also left their home in that era of Victorian colonial expansion. There was even a brief sojourn in Australia, which is where I am headed at the end of next month. The coincidences seemed too serendipitous to be ignored. This was a sign for me to get back to re-writing my historical novella.

The great thing about fiction is that, unlike historians, we can rearrange the facts to make it more interesting, especially since this isn’t a work of great historical significance. The even greater thing about historical fiction is that it doesn’t date, because it is already dated – by choice.

Sometimes when I’m writing a contemporary work, and trying to make things difficult for my characters to contact someone, it all becomes too easy with a mobile phone, e-mail, the internet or Skype. Contemporary novels have a new set of parameters every few months, as the technology of the world changes around us so fast. If you’re anything like me, novels take time to write and it’s a terrible blow after you’ve struggled through a particular plot point and worked it all out, only to have some technological boffin invent a shortcut that takes away the credibility of my plot’s tension just weeks after my novel is published!

It’s annoying to say the least, that there is a GPS on every phone – how is a person supposed to get lost in a modern book? If you haven’t seen someone you love in a while and are wondering what they currently look like, all you have to do is click on Facebook and browse their latest photos, or follow them on Twitter and look at their Instagram pics.

There’s just no mystery for us mystery writers any more…

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate technology in my real world, but not in my world of fiction where things keep getting too easy and too instant for my characters. Just thirty years ago people had to work a lot harder to find a call-box or look up something in an archive or library that might have had the added frustration of being closed when they finally got there. Let’s face it – we writers need to make our characters suffer a little, so that you – the readers – can sit on the edges of your seats, willing them to succeed. Historical fiction gives us the chance to go just a little way back in time to where it all cost the characters much more in terms of effort.

I’m not sure how my historical novella will pan out yet, but this time I will definitely turn it into something readable. Of that I am sure. I just need the time to do it, and I should have plenty of that once I reach Australia.

For those of you who follow me on Scribbling Scribes, my piece about King’s Grant Country Retreat – the beautiful venue we used for the above-mentioned seminar – will be up on that blog next Wednesday, but in the meantime you can enjoy the photos below or take a look at their website here. How could one fail to be inspired in such a beautiful place?

So What Was 2014 All About?

It’s that time of the year when everyone looks back on the previous year and weighs up what rocked and what sucked. If 2013 was the year I moved house twice because of the ants, then what will 2014 be known as? Probably the year that I made two trips to Australia. And let me tell you, that was a lot more fun than moving house twice!

I was lucky to fit in both trips to Australia last year – one in January and one in October – and both of those rocked. The first trip included a whirlwind visit to New Zealand as well. I spent time with my sister and her family and had two fantastic holidays. You can read all about my day in Hobbiton and one of my scary plane trips.

In between those two trips were several things that sucked, but I’m sure you don’t want to read the horrible bits, so I’ve left them out. For the positive bits, read on!

In January 2014 I joined 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day and began knitting, to the detriment of my finger joints. This wonderful blanket drive is ongoing, has spread internationally and to date has gathered over 6000 blankets for the poor and homeless. My first blanket took me nearly five months to knit and left my fingers swollen and sore.

IMG_1810

My second blanket is being made on a hand loom and is progressing well, minus the painful joints. I’m hoping to have it ready to hand over soon.

In March last year I finished the seventh draft of my latest novel, and gave it to five beta readers to work their way through it. Early in April I had a car accident, and between that and a really nasty thing that happened to one of my best friends, things went downhill. I felt not only worn out but blocked creatively, so I looked around for a new project.

In May I enrolled in an online course to learn a little more about different ways of writing online and increasing one’s online presence. It’s all very well to write in a vacuum but if no one knows you’re there, how are you supposed to find readers – for your blog or for your novels? After much thought, I migrated my quiet little writing blog from Weebly (which still hosts my website) to WordPress.

As the blogging world opened up to me, I discovered several things:

  • It’s really hard to keep blogging about only writing;
  • It’s much more fun to write about almost everything else;
  • Writing about other things (even knitting a blanket) is less dry and boring;
  • People seem to be fascinated by my life in theatre;
  • Some readers would far rather read about my life in theatre than the books I’ve written, or how I write them.

So I started my second blog, called Beginning, Middle and Entertainment. It’s about theatre, of course.

Well, technically, it’s my third blog because my writing blog is actually my second blog. For the last few years I have been contributing monthly to the Scribbling Scribes blog, and some of those posts I mentioned earlier are from there – also on WordPress. We’re all writers but we don’t always write about writing. Also, there’s a group of us so there is variety. That’s a good thing, we think, and variety seems to have paid off on my own blog too.

My move to WordPress wasn’t easy, but it certainly wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning. The more I find out, the more I realise how little I know. I’ve just enrolled in the latest WordPress Blogging 101 course so I’m all set and ready to learn lots more.

By the way, about that latest novel – I’m hoping to get it back from my sixth beta reader soon, then I’ll do one more edit and hopefully get it up on Amazon within the next month or so. I promise to keep you posted…

Wonder-Filled Inspiration

As a teenager I dreamed of overseas travel, yearning to see not only the scenery, but the artworks and architecture of the world.

I was fourteen when television started in our country, and one of my most vivid memories is of watching Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. The series was almost ten years old by then, but it didn’t matter. Each episode fascinated me, and there was plenty of time to mull it over before the next because they were broadcast every alternate Sunday evening. During the weeks between, I searched the school library, looking up the artists and the buildings, hoping to see colour pictures, because our television was – of course – black-and-white!

Yes, if you’re wondering how I was able to appreciate such things on an ancient monochrome television (of if you’re baffled by why I took the trouble to page through actual dusty books to see tiny reproductions), let me assure you, it wasn’t a chore!

Six months after I graduated from university with my arts degree, I went to Europe with my boyfriend – a man I met soon after graduation, and with whom I shared a passion for theatre, art, literature, old churches, galleries, castles and in fact, anything of historical interest. We did the whole Grand Tour, just like the Victorians but in different clothing (and in slightly more modern transport). We also fought a lot, but the good memories outweigh the bad…

Anyway, back to the art. We walked around Michelangelo’s magnificent David, saw his Pieta from a distance across the crowd, and were able to get up close and personal with his Moses on that first trip. Together we stood beneath Juliet’s balcony in Verona, took a gondola ride through Venice and watched the glass blowers on the island of Murano. We picked our way across the stones of the Acropolis, gawped up at the Parthenon and saw a modern day performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Later, in the Louvre, we craned our necks to see the Mona Lisa and walked unimpeded around the Venus de Milo. We crammed a lot into six weeks!

A few years ago when I found Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series on DVD, I bought it immediately. Didn’t even check the price. I took it home and wallowed in the luxury of the entire thing once again – bit by bit, usually on a Sunday night, and with my own collection of art books and overseas photographs to hand. It’s a toss-up as to whether the most striking thing was the ability to rewind, pause, zoom and relive the best bits, or the fact that I could now see it all in glorious colour, and on a bigger, clearer screen!

IMG_1906

Much of the series I had forgotten in the intervening thirty years so I was able to feast on its delights anew, but I also realised just how much had remained in my subconscious during that first trip to Europe, guiding me through the Uffizi gallery and the Louvre, up the leaning tower of Pisa, and past Michelangelo’s timeless works.

Six years after that first trip, I took a second one and I’m not ashamed to say that I revisited many of the same places with my three travelling companions – even managed to drag two of them up Pisa’s leaning tower, back in the days when one could still go up it and stand in front of the huge bells on the top. Something about those incredible, old places fired me up and inspired in me all sorts of romantic and creative dreams. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of the roots of western civilisation. In retrospect it was just as well that I stored all the memories up inside me because I’ve never since been able to afford to go back.

After twenty years of not venturing beyond the borders of my own continent, my family’s circumstances changed a few years back. I’ve now been to Australia three times. On my first visit I feasted on Shakespeare under the Stars, drank in Melbourne’s unique architecture, mosaics, domes, arcades and bridges, and shed tears at the Shrine of Remembrance. In Federation Square I visited Melbourne’s monument to film: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and later sampled the culinary arts of Lygon Street.

IMG_0311

I gazed at bronze and marble sculptures all over the city, contemporary graffiti in the lanes and sand sculptures in Frankston.

IMG_0143

On my second visit to Melbourne two years later I listened to local pianists tinkering on the keys of brightly decorated pianos left out in the open for an initiative called “Play me, I’m Yours.” IMG_0999

I drifted around the Tyabb Packing House with its acres of antiques, wore down my shoe soles in the Melbourne Museum and both venues of the National Gallery of Victoria. In the larger of these, I found myself gazing in wonder at Impressionist paintings, as well as sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore. Two visits to this gallery weren’t enough to see everything so two days after arriving back in Melbourne on my third trip, I legged it down St Kilda Road in the pelting rain for another drool!

So what does this have to do with writing? Nothing on the surface, but it has everything to do with inspiration. I am well aware that not everyone shares my passion for European history or western civilisation (or whatever other name you choose to call it, particularly in my home country where anything western is now regarded as the work of colonial devils) but it has always been – and will always be – a part of my long-ago heritage, my current mental make-up, and my inspiration for the novels I write.

History evolves as fast as it’s created, but some things linger longer in our subconscious than others. Certain stories resonate or touch us more than others. My great triggers are the Trojan War, related tales by Homer and the Greek playwrights, ancient Rome, the bittersweet romance of Romeo and Juliet, Renaissance art, the First World War and absolutely anything to do with theatre.

The list is long and should provide me with plenty of ammunition to conjure up stories to write for the rest of my writing career, but for anyone out there whose triggers are gratuitous violence and destruction, chemistry or science, corporate banking or politics, the wonders of accounting, mathematical skills, motherhood, babies or courtroom drama – well, I think you’ve probably guessed by now how I feel about those. Everyone has their own favourite corridors in the library of life, so you won’t find too many of those subjects in my book bag.

If everyone loved the same things I do, I’d be a better-selling author by now because more readers would be as enthralled with my subject matter as I am. I’m old enough to know and accept that this will never be the case, and I don’t write the type of high adventure favoured by Dan Brown, John Grisham and James Patterson so my mysteries are more whimsical, more romantic and consequently a lot less popular.

For those loyal readers who worry that I might change my style and jump on bandwagons that include fifty shades of erotica, sci-fi or fantasy, police procedurals or vampires, fear not! I will always be here with my own peculiar brand of history-soaked, romantic mysteries.

Following hot on the heels of my three previous works (the stories of a South African set designer and a Greek inspector of antiquities; a World War I letter writer and the two soldiers in her life; an art teacher and an Italian sculptor) comes the story of a romance in Melbourne between a travel agent and a Lygon Street pianist.

Watch this space…

Research and the Art of Procrastination

I’m between novels at the moment. The last is written but still being read before new edits, and the next hasn’t yet been thought up. For the last two months I have dabbled with the idea of dredging up my two long-lost trunk novels and rewriting one of them, but my interest has waned somewhat. Why is this? Possibly because all the research I did for them at the time when I first wrote them has already been done. Boredom has set in and if I’m bored, I don’t want to pass that on to my readers.

For me, there’s something tremendously exciting about doing research for a new novel, and in many ways it may rival my enthusiasm for Setting. I’ve always said that a good story is a triangulation between three things – Characters, Plot and Setting – and that all three are equally necessary because two out of three will not do the job.

A strong triangle forms a good base, but if you want it to be a worthwhile structure, it needs a fourth element: Research. This addition doesn’t turn it into a square, but provides the extra dimension that makes a flat triangle stand up in 3D.

But what happens when you don’t yet have the first three elements of that golden 3D triangle? Where do you start the next project when you are totally, blissfully clueless and purposeless? Why, with research of course!

One way I like to research is to watch movies. This is my favourite form of procrastination and allows me to soak up the atmosphere of the time, whether in terms of place, period, clothing, music or language – it doesn’t matter which, all is grist for my mill.

Another way to research is to turn to my own bookshelves. Back in high school I received a book prize – A Newspaper History of South Africa by Vic Alhadeff. Recently I dug it out for inspiration. Among the many landmark historical incidents that make up South Africa’s chequered history, it is the smaller, bizarre stories that have always appealed to me, and right now I am enjoying exploring these in the hopes that something may spur me on to write a novel based on – oh, I don’t know – the phenomenon of Dr James Barry; the infamous Foster Gang; the shooting of the racehorse Sea Cottage; or the poisonous crimes of Daisy de Melker.

Dr James Barry was a female surgeon who lived her life as a man. She practised medicine in the British army in both India and the Cape Colony in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, during that infamous period of British colonial expansion. The Foster Gang perpetrated their crimes in Johannesburg around the time when South Africa was divided about whether to support England or Germany in the First World War. Sea Cottage was shot on the Durban beachfront by a petty criminal paid by a syndicate of gamblers in June 1966. And Daisy de Melker poisoned two husbands (allegedly) and her son (definitely) in Johannesburg between 1923 and 1932.

I’m researching all of these at once. Who knows – a connection between them may pop up somewhere before I have to admit that I might just be suffering from writer’s bombardment. That’s the opposite of writer’s block, by the way – so many stories, so little time to tell them.

What to do next, what to do…