In my latest post on the international writing website, Writer Unboxed, I write about physical journeys in fiction, concentrating on how I’m doing that in a historical novel for children that I’m writing at the moment, plus looking at the classic adventure novel I consider to be one of the great ‘road trip’ novels, Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. Here’s an extract from my post:
At the moment I’m writing a historical novel for children, set in the Roman province of Brittania (Roman Britain) in the late first century AD/CE. The novel involves a great deal of journeying, as the main characters attempt to meet up with someone who always seems to be a day ahead of them, and whom they have to chase after from town to town. Eventually they do catch up with him, but not in the way they hoped and it makes matters much worse as they then have to flee cross-country to escape pursuers! This is the part I’m up to, and I know my poor exhausted characters still have a way to go!
Most of my novels in fact involve journeys of one sort or the other, it’s a natural theme of my writing—perhaps because I was brought up between two countries, France and Australia, and we travelled so much as kids. But in this one, the structure and plot of the novel absolutely depend on the physical journey. Now when you’re writing a novel like that, you have to work hard to make sure that the constant traveling doesn’t get boring for the reader (as well as tiring for your characters).
You can read the whole post here–and please do make comments(on the Writer Unboxed site) if you like!
Some years ago, in a little antique shop near the British Museum in London, I bought an extraordinary object–a Roman key-ring, that is, a key designed to be worn as a ring. Made of lead, it was dated to the 1st century AD. It wasn’t particularly expensive, because apparently such rings are not uncommon finds. But I was immediately fascinated by it when I saw it in the window of the shop: it was the kind of humble object that propels you straight into another world, another time. And when I looked at it more closely, I saw that the ring size was very small–on my own hand, it only fitted on the little finger. So either it had been meant for a very small woman or a child, or it had simply been meant to be worn around the neck, on a leather thong or something similar. And what lock would such a key open? Definitely not a door, but probably a box of some sort. A money or valuables box? A medicine box? I had no idea as to the truth of it, but immediately what ifs began bubbling in my head…I began to see, through the mists of imagination, a figure become clearer, a young girl living in the province of Brittania whose widowed Roman father is an oculist, an eye-doctor(they were commonly found in Roman times, especially in Gaul and Brittania). And when he dies, he leaves her this key, a mysterious key that does not fit any of the locks of his boxes. And he tells her not to speak of it to anyone, but to find her uncle, who will know what to do. And so she sets off…
I began writing the story not long after I bought the key. But for various reasons–mostly because I couldn’t get past certain plotting problems with it–it never got finished or even really properly going. I had set it aside and almost forgotten about it until just a few weeks ago, when trawling through documents in my computer, I came across the outline and sample chapters which was all I’d written of the novel I’d called ‘The Key to Rome.’ Instantly, it called to me again. I got the key itself out of the display box in which we keep it and I looked at it for a long moment, and then I knew: I had to write this story! And now I knew just how to write it, and what I had to change to make it work.
So that’s what I’m working on: the unlocking of the story, and the real meaning of ‘the key to Rome.’ And now, somehow, all the plotting problems have disappeared, the story is powering along, simpler, tighter, stronger than I’d originally seen it.
This week, the fully edited final ms of A Hundred Words for Butterfly went off to the publisher, Spineless Wonders Audio. It was an exciting moment, pressing ‘Send’. It’s been a real journey of discovery, writing the novel–or perhaps I should call it novella, given its length(just under 32,000 words)–and at times a bit of a challenge, but so enjoyable!
It’s turned out so well, pretty much exactly how I wanted it to be, and I think it will transfer beautifully to the audio form. I can’t wait for the next stage, as the book moves into production. And by the way, it was lovely recently to see it mentioned for the first time outside my blog, in an interview in Books+Publishing with Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Mehan.
My audio novel, A Turn off the Path, is set in the Pays Basque, the French Basque country, in the beautiful Pyrenean hill town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque. I wanted to set it there not only because it is at the beginning of the famous Camino Frances, or French Way, to Compostella, but also for family reasons. On my mother’s family’s side, we have Basque heritage and though they’re not from Saint Jean, but rather from Biarritz (where my uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family still live) and also, further back, from the Spanish Basque side, from childhood onwards we have roamed across the beautiful Pays Basque, including several visits to Saint Jean, like this one to the markets there. As well, my sister Camille, who’s an artist, lives and works in Hasparren, and is a proud member of the Institut Culturel Basque.
Though we were not brought up speaking Basque ourselves, and we had other very important ethnic heritages–French (which dominated), French-Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese–our Basque heritage strand was always a rich and valued part of our family tapestry. It lived not only in our DNA but in our cultural references and lived experience. All of it fascinated me: the gorgeous landscape, the tumultuous history reaching way back into the millenia, the ancient culture whose ancient, non-Indo-European language still flourishes, and people both clannish and dynamic, tenacious and adaptable, traditional and innovative, fierce and businesslike, imaginative and reserved. And it influenced my writing: my first ever published piece was an article in Vogue Living on Basque cooking, which combined glimpses of Basque culture and places with delicious recipes. Over the years, I’ve sprinkled Basque references and characters in several of my novels, but in my alternative history YA novel The Hand of Glory, a Basque character is at central stage: a young undercover detective called Anje Otsoa. Through him, I was able to explore some aspects of Basque folklore, history and mythology. And now, in A Turn off the Path, I am exploring that Basque heritage again, not only through my main character Helen getting to know the region, its history and culture, but also through another character, another Australian, who’s come to investigate his family history and his Basque ancestors.
It’s an interesting challenge, both to include those elements yet not make it into some kind of Basque tourist guide or explanation of Basque culture. And in a novel like this one, where you always have to think of the auditory aspect as well, I have to think carefully about how I can present those important strands without overwhelming dialogue with information or having too much description. It’s very much about glimpses, and also emotion. For example, one of the scenes I’ve written recently has Helen walking through the streets one evening and suddenly hearing music floating from an open window: it’s a local Basque male choir practising. For like the Russians, the Welsh, Corsicans and others around the world, the Basques have a long-standing tradition of male choirs, and hearing a really good one is absolutely spine-tingling. That scene is only brief, but it anchors the action in something that is both concrete yet elusive, and emotional all the way through. (If you’re interested in hearing what such a choir sounds like, here’s the website of one, Gogotik, from Saint Jean Pied de Port itself)
Below is a composite photo of my mother’s maternal side, on the Basque lineage. Going left to right, far left is my mother, Gisele; then her mother, Anna (both born in the French Basque country); her mother Antonina, and her mother Ama (both born in the Spanish Basque country, though Antonina came to live in the French Basque country as a young woman). And below that is me, as a teenager in the late 1970’s in the French Basque country, near the village of Ainhoa. Yes, you could still see the occasional ox cart there, back then!
Alex Patrikios of the wonderful literary group #LoveOzYA interviewed me via Zoom the other day, to talk about The Ghost Squad–she had great questions, and I really enjoyed our chat! The interview is now up as a transcript on the #LOveOzYA website, and you can also see clips of the video, exploring such things as research, speculative fiction tropes, and the writing life, at their You Tube channel. Here’s an extract from the interview, about the inspiration and research behind the book:
Was there a particular moment of inspiration that sparked the idea for THE GHOST SQUAD?
A while back, I went to this little museum in Rome, which is called the Museum of Purgatory. Of course in Catholic doctrine, purgatory is a sort of halfway house between heaven and hell. This particular museum was quite a weird little place, and (I learned) this priest in the 19th Century had tried to show proof that purgatory existed and he did with burned handprints on a piece of fabric, supposedly of people who had tried to send messages from purgatory.
But this is now: people don’t believe a burned handprint on a piece of fabric is proof. So I thought, okay, what would cause a disturbance in the electronic systems — monitoring machines and other things like that in hospitals — so I had a look, and found out about electronic magnetic pulses(note: caused by solar storms). I found out about the Carrington Event, and also that a lot of governments actually have contingency plans for when the next one hits. I read stuff from both NASA and the British Government, about what they plan to do in the event of an electromagnetic pulse.
When I saw the Carrington Event had happened around the same time you saw this big interest in seances and spiritualism, in the Victorian times, I thought, okay, this is kind of ‘ghosty’ stuff — and maybe in my lifetime, it would trigger something similar.
Everything sort of fell into place after that.
Apart from that kind of research — NASA, government documents — did you also look at popular movies or shows that have that speculative flavour, and try to examine the genre itself?
Absolutely! Also the novel came out of a creative practice Phd, so that was the creative part of it, but the academic part of it was all about afterlife fiction for young adults. Really fantastic books, like Neal Shusterman’s Everlost trilogy, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, and Lynette Lounsbury’s Afterworld.
I watched a lot of films and TV series — things like The Glitch, and the French series The Returned, and even Lost have examples of (afterlife fiction). That was fun! I had so much fun doing ‘research’, reading all these great books and watching all these terrific TV series and films.
I also read a lot of folklore and (material) from religious and spiritual traditions. I had three years to do the Phd, which was fantastic, because it meant I could really develop the book in the very rich and complex way that I wanted to do.
I am thrilled to announce that today is the official release of my new book, The Ghost Squad, published by MidnightSun Publishing and now available in bookshops all over Australia. Hurrah!
As readers of this blog know, the novel, a young adult speculative fiction thriller set in a disconcerting world, was first written as the creative part of my PhD at the University of New England (I was awarded the PhD in 2019) and subsequently acquired by MidnightSun Publishing. It is immensely exciting to see the novel out there in beautiful book form and for that I wish to greatly thank Anna Solding of MidnightSun Publishing, who so warmly and thoughtfully responded to The Ghost Squad from the start, and many thanks to all her great team as well. I am absolutely delighted that the novel has found its perfect home with such a wonderful publisher. Many thanks to my fantastic agent Margaret Connolly, who always sees the potential in my work, no matter how ‘left-field’, and without whose unfailing support my career would never have been as fortunate and enduring as it has been. And thank you to UNE and my supervisors, especially Dr Yvonne Griggs, whose unfailing support, encouragement and thoughtful readings throughout the PhD helped so much in the development of the novel.
I hope many, many readers will enjoy The Ghost Squad, as this lovely early reader did in a wonderful advance review in Books+Publishing. If you’d like to know more about the book, have a look at the dedicated page to it on this blog. You can also read a short interview with me about the book on the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed. And if you’d like to get a taste of the novel’s atmosphere, do check out the fabulous trailer here.
I’m now three chapters into the writing of A Turn off the Path, and already I’ve noticed I’m handling the writing of it a little differently to when I write a novel intended to go to print. For a start, I am reading each chapter aloud as I finish writing it, and go back over it, reading it aloud again to check if the sentences sound right when they are spoken. Don’t get me wrong; I always ‘hear’ the sentences in my head when I write a novel, and very often I’ve read passages aloud to know exactly where the rhythm of a sentence is faltering. But this is much more marked, in this one.
I’m not finding that I’m writing shorter sentences, as I’d half-imagined when I started. There’s a mix, as usual, of short and long sentences, and I’ve always used punctuation, including the dreaded semi-colon(which I think is very much unfairly traduced!) to mark natural pauses in the soundtrack in my head that gets translated into words on the page, or rather screen, at this point. I’ve also always treated each chapter as a mini-story but with a twist, small or otherwise, that carries you onto the next. That’s the same, in this one. And I’ve often used different forms of narrative to carry a story forward and to express different points of view. That’s similar too, A Turn off the Path–the main narrative is from the point of view of Helen, who gets left behind in Saint Jean while her sister Alex keeps to the plan and the Camino, but you also hear Alex’s voice through the blog posts she writes to update family and friends about the walk. It’s working well, so far. I’m also very much a visual writer, and love to paint word-pictures of places and people and atmospheres; but in this novel, I’m also very focussed on sound, not just the way that the sentences sound, but also other things. For example, I’m putting in small references to Basque words in the novel: but I’m very much aware that it’s one thing to think of what you can put on the page, in an audio version you also have to consider how the narrator might pronounce such words, and give extra clues to it. There’s also other sound elements to flag, like saying that someone has a slight accent you can’t quite place, and the sound of bells over the town. It’s not that I wouldn’t include those things in a novel normally, because I do; it’s just that I’m more conscious of it in this one, and more conscious too of how it might sound coming through your earphones.
What if there was scientific proof not only that the afterlife existed, but that everyone had an afterlife marker, similar to a genetic marker, that coded them irrevocably for their existence post-life? What if that explosive proof had been hidden from the general public by a worldwide conspiracy of silence, supposedly in order to protect the population from panic, but actually to facilitate secret experiments being conducted to push the boundaries of government surveillance and control, even beyond death itself?
In the world of The Ghost Squad, everything seems normal to most people, the new normal that is, with all electronic communication strictly controlled and social media banned. Twenty years previously, a major solar storm had caused a massive electro-magnetic pulse which not only knocked out all computer-controlled technology and power around the world for quite some time, but triggered what became known as the Anomaly, the first indication of the afterlife markers of human beings. Since then, the followers of Hermes, a secretive whistle-blower, who operate out of an underground network, the Base, have been attempting to bring knowledge of the secret to the population in general. They are locked in a constant clandestine struggle with the forces of the Ghost Squad, who work for secret government research centres known as PLEIFs (short for Post-Life Entity Index Facility) , who are known to abduct people whose unusual afterlife markers show them to be of particular experimental interest.
The Ghost Squad is set in a contemporary/near-future time, in places which have deliberately not been tethered to real-world geography, though several settings are inspired by real-world places, including in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, and Russia.
Readers of this blog may remember that just before Christmas I got some very welcome news: I was awarded a grant by Create NSW, the NSW Government’s arts-funding body, to create the ms of A Turn off the Path, a short novel for adults which I’m writing specifically for the audio format. This will be then submitted by my agent to Audible for consideration for their Audible Originals list.
It’s an exciting new challenge for me and I’m so delighted to be able to work on over the next few months, thanks to the generous Create NSW grant. I’ve been doing a bit of background research for it since early this month but have now started work on it, with the draft of the first chapter begun yesterday. Over the next few months, as I write it, I’m also going to post regularly about the book and what it’s like to write a novel with an eye(or rather an ear!) to the audio format: thought that might be of interest to other writers contemplating the possibility of doing the same. This post introduces that series with a bit about what A Turn off the Path is about, and in future posts I’ll write about the background to it, why I wanted to write it, and how or indeed if the writing of an audio novel differs from one that you intend for print.
Something about the story:
Set in the picturesque French Basque town of Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi in Basque) in May 2017, A Turn oﬀ the Path is centred around twin Australian sisters, Helen and Alex Dorian, who are in the town at the start of their planned walk on the famous Camino, the pilgrim route to Santiago del Compostella. It’s something they’ve wanted to do since they were very young, but it’s only now, as they approach their fiftieth birthday, that they’ve finally found the time to do it. But when Helen injures her leg on the very day of their arrival, she has to stay behind in the town while Alex proceeds with their plans, and a very diﬀerent experience to what they’d hoped for unfolds for the sisters. And when Helen unexpectedly meets an old schoolmate who is in Saint Jean to explore his Basque family roots, events really take ‘a turn oﬀ the path.’
This will be a lively, warm and thoughtful novel, exploring relationships, the past’s eﬀect on the present, and the dream and reality of the modern pilgrim experience. It also has a strong sense ofplace and culture: as my mother’s family is part-Basque and has always lived in the Basque country, and two of my own sisters now live there too, I know the area well and I’ve been to Saint Jean Pied de Port itself many times from my childhood onwards.