I’m two-thirds of the way through writing my audio novel now and it’s going really well. I’m also exploring next steps to make the actual audio book a reality(more on that another time, when plans have firmed up) but something that’s happened recently is a pretty important change: the title of the novel.
A Turn off the Path was a good working title to begin with. It conjured up for me quite a few things: the path literal(ie the Camino) and the path metaphorical(ie the different turns we take as we go along our life’s path). But after discussion with other people who suggested it might perhaps not quite be the right final title for it–not strong enough or memorable enough or unusual enough–I decided it was time to think of something else. For a while, it foxed me–titles can be tricky beasts to catch!–and then quite suddenly it came. It was there all along, hiding in plain sight, in a text message conversation between two of my main characters, Helen and Tony, and Tony tells Helen that there are a hundred words for butterfly, in Basque…
I’d written that quite a while back, and just seen it as part of a conversation, though one that Helen really responds to, as an imaginative artist. But suddenly, I knew that’s what it had to be, the new title: A Hundred Words for Butterfly. It felt right, at once. It was simple yet enigmatic. Memorable yet not overdone. It could conjure up so many images in so many cultures yet was distinctively expressive of something from that place, that setting. I tried it out on other people, especially those who had expressed a certain dissatisfaction with the original title, and they confirmed their immediate affinity for this new one, too.
So that’s what it’s going to be. A Hundred Words for Butterfly…
When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.
You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)
The Ghost Ship
She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…
She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.
And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.
The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.
The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…
Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.
…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….
The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?
This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.
…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….
Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…
Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.
Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.
…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.
The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…
Fitton Howe, Monday
Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.
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!
In the world of The Ghost Squad, named places like New Haven, Ferndale, Hot Springs, and, across the other side of the world, the University of Grantfen, whilst all being imaginary, are inspired by real places around the world which I have visited or know. I thought readers might like to know a bit more about those inspirations behind the novel’s settings.
For example, the steam-wreathed town of Hot Springs, with its mud pools, was inspired by Rotorua, in the North Island of New Zealand, which I visited in 2016. As well, an important inspiration for one of the revelations in the book also came from that same New Zealand visit: seeing, in Auckland Art Gallery, an extraordinary video installation by contemporary New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, Tai Whetuki/House of Death Redux.
Meanwhile, New Haven was inspired in some ways by several small towns in both Australia and New Zealand, while some of the look of the landscape around the entrance to the base was partly inspired by the country around Lightning Ridge, also in Australia (see below).
The look of Bear’s cottage in the woods was inspired by Russian houses I saw on a visit to that country some years ago, while a reference to the Squadder Piper’s mother being from a family of pearl divers was inspired by a visit I made in 2018 to the town of Toba, in Japan, which is home to a famous guild of female pearl divers (see below).
The University of Grantfen, and the college of Gabrielhouse, in the epilogue, is based on colleges in the beautiful University of Cambridge in the UK, where Sophie spent a month in 2017. And Sutton Hoo, an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site near Cambridge, also provided the inspiration for the title of Link’s short story, which is mentioned in the novel, and which is called The Ghost Ship. That’s because the big find at Sutton Hoo was of the very rich burial of a great Anglo-Saxon lord, maybe a king, who was buried in his magnificent ship, for him to set sail on a ghostly voyage into the afterlife.
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’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.
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.
Delighted to be one of the featured creators in the latest episode of Story Scoop, the fabulous joint initiative between the Children’s Book Council of Australia, NSW branch and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ANZ. Story Scoop episodes are in three parts, and in this one, it features author Oliver Phommavanh talking about his humorous middle-grade books in Middle Grade Magic, illustrator Serena Geddes talking about her creative process in Illustrator Corner, and myself, in Picture Book Nook, talking about the inspiration and creation of my latest, very seasonal picture book, Santagram (illustrated by Shiloh Gordon and published by Little Hare). Lots of fun to make the clip and lots of fun to be part of this project–thank you so much, CBCA NSW and SCBWI ANZ, for the opportunity.
In my latest post on the international blog Writer Unboxed, I write about how you can make illustrated video talks using Powerpoint visuals and audio, and use them as part of your author strategy. Hope you might find it interesting and useful!
I’ve made a video presentation about the inspirations and sources behind my retellings in French Fairy Tales, which includes both personal and family connections, as well as information about the tales themselves. Hope you enjoy!
And by the way, on November 7, at 2-4 pm(Australian Eastern daylight saving time) I’m running an online creative workshop for the New England Writers’ Centre, via Zoom, on how to retell fairy tales and how to adapt them for your own fiction. You can check out details here.