Archive for July, 2008

Crooked Mile by Ben Beazley

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

ben Can I just finish off what I was talking about yesterday in relation to pulling ideas for fiction out of what on the face of it is basically a simple transcription job. 


Let me first explain what I am doing at the Record office.  From the late 1830’s up until well into the next century, local authorities were required to set up local Boards of Guardians to administer the Poor Laws.  A part of this task involved the setting up of Workhouses for the admission of the more extreme examples of those suffering various forms of deprivation.  Sorry to teach those of you who are clued in to suck eggs … I will move on quickly to the bits that are not such common knowledge.


Whenever a family or an individual was admitted to the Workhouse, the fact was entered into a ledger along with details of age; occupation; religion; and the reason for their admission.  All right, pretty basic book keeping, until that is you have been doing it for a while and start to notice anomalies and wonder about certain things.


After a month or so of  burning daylight on Thursday mornings trying to decipher the different handwritings in the legers, the first thing to point out becomes glaringly apparent.  Everyone in those days was not possessed of the ability to produce the beautiful calligraphic script of popular belief !  Some of the hands are of quite poor quality and leads to the inevitable conclusion that, as in the modern day prison system, there were those of the inmates who were regarded as ‘trustees’ and helped out in the reception process by entering up the ledger.


Having written down the same names time after time on the admission and discharge balances, after a while a second fact emerges. The basic stated premis of the Workhouse was that staying there should be infinitely less palatable than being in prison.  However on a regular basis, and we are not talking about casual vagrants seeking a night’s board, whole families were coming into the house, staying for a few days and then being discharged, sometimes to be re-admitted within hours.  So was it then as now – there are those who know how to beat the system ?  It seems so.


Also despite the fact that numbers were understandably higher in the winter than in the summer, suddenly around 1884 there is a dramatic fall in the occupancy of the Leicester Union house, from around a thousand to just over six hundred.  Why?  I suspect that the Guardians ran a cost cutting exercise, (possibly on a national basis), which allowed them to change the ground rules on admission, and tip out a large number who were considered excess to requirements.


Then there is the social dynamic running through everything.  Pregnant women, abandoned by lovers or husbands were admitted apparently at the onset of labour and discharged within days of giving birth.  So a pretty fundamental form of maternity care becomes apparent.  However, quite often the child – who after it’s birth was admitted to the house and recorded simply as a ‘male or female child’ before on the opposite page being discharged with the mother – was not born in the same parish as the workhouse.  So the conclusion must be that the women were shipped out to other premises – a birthing house some distance away – for the confinement.  This brings up another quaint concept as stated in the house rules that, ‘where a child is born to a woman out of wedlock, no liability for the child shall fall upon the father’.  Try that one on the Child Support Agency.


During the summer months numerous children were admitted having been abandoned by their parents.  It becomes apparent that this is in fact an approved process initiated by the poor themselves, to establish a system of foster care for their offspring whilst they go into the country fruit picking and harvesting.  On a different tack, individual children are often taken out ‘to the service of Mr or Mrs so-and-so, at such-and-such an address’ .  When curiosity gets the better of you and you look up the address in Wright’s or Kelly’s directories, you find that it is a shop or manufacturing premises.


So it is easy to see that, with more questions being posed than answered, for someone whose mind is occupied looking for a decent plot, here are a whole series of snapshots that can be factored into a storyline somewhere.


One thing about characters.  The golden rule for me is as far as possible write about things, places, and people you have encountered, or know about.  In putting together the plot for Crooked Mile I really had very little difficulty in finding the players.  I don’t think I mentioned previously that I spent most of my working life as a serving police officer.  That in itself when putting together a murder-mystery is I have to say a pretty big advantage – especially as my early days were in the 1960s before the advent of modern technology – radios, computers, and street lights, which sort of gives me things in common with some of the characters.  I certainly used people who I knew and worked with over the years as the basis for many of those in the book – Detective Inspector Joseph Langley definitely existed, as did the editor of the Kelsford Gazette, Charles Kerrigan-Kemp.  Others, even down to minor characters, were people who over the years I have met – it is so much easier to bring a figure to life if he or she is based in the writer’s mind on fact.   email:


Crooked Mile by Ben Bealzey

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

 I feel a bit like Scott of the Antarctic, sitting in his tent in 1912 with an icy blizzard howling around outside, scribbling away with a stub of pencil, wondering what to say next …  Captain Oates has just stepped out of the bivvy, having uttered the immortal phrase … ‘I am just going outside and may be some time…  (I have never been quite clear on this one – was he nipping out to take a leak, or have a quiet smoke… I know he didn’t get on with Scott, but what was that all about ?)


Anyway I think I can empathise with Scott who is no doubt thinking, ‘should I pen a few erudite words for the guidance of those who may follow, or tell the truth and say that I wish I had booked a cruise next month on that new boat – the Titanic’. 


Yesterday I mentioned the occurrence of Christian and forenames during the eighteen hundreds.  As in present times, there was definitely a fashion in which certain expected names seem to appear whilst others are missing.  Just as an aside I was equally intrigued to find that most of today’s surnames were in current use then and remain virtually unchanged.


As I said, over recent years I have spent an awful lot of time in my local Record Office doing research, (the head archivist, a lovely lady by the name of Dr Margaret Bonney gets really up tight when people refer to her domain as the ‘Records’ Office, pointing out that HMV and Virgin sell ‘records’), and of late I have become involved in a volunteer scheme to transcribe various areas of material onto electronic data bases.  


My specific job every Thursday morning is to sit down in front of one of the computers which they have designated for the purpose, (I think that they are a bit short of readies because there are only two machines each of which chugs along on Windows 2000), open the dusty ledger that, on one side contains entries of  those unfortunates being admitted ‘to the house’, on a daily basis, and on the opposite those who are either being released at their own request, kicked out because they are ‘casuals’, or have simply legged it with the workhouse clothes.  (The odd variance is an inmate who has either gone completely mental and been carted off to the asylum or been sentenced to seven days with hard labour in gaol for being rude to, or taken a swing at, the Workhouse Master).


The point being that, like the Watch Committee minutes that first set me off on the trail of writing Crooked Mile, this is another wonderful source of names for anyone similar to myself who is involved in attempting to recreate history.  At present we are working on the late 1880’s – a period that apart from being the setting for my present book interests me greatly, and I am quite surprised at the dearth of what I would have thought at that particular time should have been common names.


Some of those that as yet I just have not come across are: Judith, (biblical); Barbara; Julie; Donald … Matilda – we had a Queen Matilda back when Stephen was lobbying to become king in the 1300s. (As a matter of fact – I haven’t seen a Stephen either).  Another thing that I have picked up is that whilst we now take for granted the option to spell names in more than one way, such was not then the case – for instance Elizabeth was never spelt with an ‘s’, always a ‘z’ – Ann never took an ‘e’ as in present times, and so on.


Doubtless, twenty five years on, by the time of the First World War, (when I get to it), trends will have altered once more, and there will be whole new raft of names to play with.  What I am getting at is, I hate picking up books where the author has made a guess at something, or simply not bothered.  I actually recently came across a new work by a particularly renowned author, writing a tale of the middle ages in which there appeared characters named Dave and Ric – in the 1300s’ ?  So I probably spend as much time on background work as I do writing, because the truth is there will always be someone who says… ‘I don’t think so’.


With Crooked Mile coming out early next year, I have not unnaturally been exercising my mind on what to do next, and helping out in a project such as the one that I am involved in at Leicester Record office is probably one of the best ways to stimulate the imagination.


A couple of weeks ago Caroline made the point that her plot for Kill-Grief began to emerge from many of the intriguing details that she turned up in her research into 18th century hospital practices.  Similarly my plot for Crooked Mile began to take form whilst I was researching the history of a police force during the 19th century.  I suspect that there are two kinds of researcher.  Those who treat it as a means to an end, and those who do it because they like it and find it stimulating.  Fact is that if you want to try your hand at writing historical novels, you have got to fall into the latter group.   email:


Crooked Mile by Ben Beazley

Monday, July 28th, 2008

ben Having taken over the baton from Andrew and left him taking his well earned sundowner, I find myself at something of a loss to know where to make a start today.  One of the first things I should point out is that like some of the others who have gone before me or are still awaiting their first effort to actually appear on the shelf, as yet my jacket design is not ready, so the first problem is what to put up as being relevant to myself and this week’s discussion. 


First day is pretty obvious – image of one’s self to set the scene and then take it from there, (that particular vision won’t be imposed on you again, I promise). So now that is sorted the next thing is to tell you about my forthcoming novel, Crooked Mile, which is being published in early 2009 – how it came to be, what the story is, and then later on a bit about what makes me tick.


Although I had quite a lot of experience as a non-fiction writer, there is no doubt that the road to achieving publication with a fictional novel is definitely a rocky, uphill, one in three gradient over hot coals, and littered with broken glass.  The task of breaking through the firewalls that agents and publishing houses have built around themselves is monumental – so my absolute message is that if at last you discover a publisher who is genuinely interested in first time fiction writers, you have hit gold – I think that I might save my further thoughts on that one until the end of the week.


Crooked Mile is set in the late 19th century – during the years 1887-8 to be precise – and is basically a murder mystery which on one hand tells the story of a group of  Irish Fenians, and on the other, that of the mysterious ‘Pipeline’, a Jewish network spreading across Europe, whose purpose is to assist émigrés fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. The story begins in Kelsford, a medium sized market town in the north Midlands between Sheffield and Derby.  On a winter’s night, the bungled robbery of the Shires Canal Company payroll, followed by the murder of one of the gang and the loss of the proceeds of the crime, is the first step in a complex chain of events leading half way around the world.  (If you feel like taking a look, the first half dozen pages setting the scene are on my web page).


Thomas Norton, the detective in charge of the investigation soon finds himself involved with Ruth Samuels, the wealthy widow of a local banker who is deeply involved in the activities of the Pipeline.  The reader travels first with Ruth and her irascible maid ‘Mirka’, across Hapsburg Europe and into the snowy Carpathian Mountains on the dangerous border with Russia.  The story then moves across the Atlantic to New York before taking Norton and Ruth into the slums of Whitechapel in pursuit of Eugene Leschenko, a dangerous psychopath who has utilised the Pipeline to make his way from Russia to England.


What is rarely taken into account by the average reader is the amount of work that goes into the detail required to make a story convincing.  A friend of mine, on discovering that I had moved away from writing non-fiction, and had thrown my hat into the ring with a novel, said – with all of the best intentions – ‘well that will be a lot easier, all you have got to do now is sit down and write it out, no more hours in the archives’. He had absolutely no idea how wrong he was, or for that matter appreciated that had I not already spent so much time in Record Offices, I would never have been able to put together any sort of a credible storyline.  This premis holds good in my opinion for any fictional genre – murder mystery, espionage, industrial chicanery – it doesn’t matter, it has to be accurate.


It was whilst I was ploughing through a pile of  Watch Committee books, (heavy hard backed, leather bound tomes weighing twenty pounds each, that in the absence of a reliable jack could quite safely be shoved under the back axle of a Ford Transit), that I came to realize that I was possibly onto something.  If I jotted down the abundance of names spread across the pages, I would by the time I finished have an accurate database of Victorian and Edwardian names, (I was working on the period beginning 1836 until well into the 20th century), and would have a rough idea of when they came into common usage.


Once I had begun to occupy my mind, and I will say it before someone else does – filled the pockets of my anorak – with this process, it dawned on me that aside from the names thing, I actually knew quite a lot about this period.  Very soon the plot for Crooked Mile began to form, and I started to get things down on paper. From start to finish I suppose, the book took me about twelve months to write.  A large amount of time was taken up, first in checking out historical details and then in reading, re-reading and amending.


So, having explained something about Crooked Mile and how it came into being, I will now go off and wonder what on earth I am going to do for tomorrow’s ‘blog’.  Hopefully before too long, some kind soul will e-mail me with a burning question that will show me in which direction to push on.   email:


The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Friday, July 25th, 2008

andrew This is the last day of my blog-week and I would like to thank all those who are still doggedly reading it and those that have commented. And very special thanks to those who, at my personal pleading, have restrained themselves from commenting – you know who you are, only one day left to control yourselves, you can do it.


I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the garden which is in full summer flower thanks to – with a little help from the Almighty – the skills of Marietta, my wife. The truth is that I’ve rather exhausted my blogging repertoire and would like to go out and enjoy the last rays (or rather, first rays, here in the midlands) of summer sunshine; and you should probably be doing the same, so I’ll keep this short.


I’m often asked, sometimes asked – well, was asked once, what type of book is The Ghosts of Eden? Is it a thriller – should beta-blockers be taken before opening? Is it a romance – will my mascara be ruined?  Is it a crime novel – must I look for clues? Is it humour – will it make me laugh out loud on a train? That would be embarrassing. Is it literary fiction – will I look erudite if I pretend I’m reading it? Is it a coming of age novel – is there a Kevin in it? Is it horror – must I only read it during daylight hours?


I like reading novels with a little of all the above and I suppose The Ghosts of Eden has some elements of some of those. It’s probably a little difficult to place in the middle of a particular genre. That might present a problem to booksellers: what shelf do they put it on? In Leicester: local author, I guess. Elsewhere? The shelf reserved exclusively for Picnic Publications of course!


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off and, as they say in southern Africa, have a sundowner on the stoep, and so should you. Have a good weekend and get ready to welcome Ben Beazley and his historical detective novel, Crooked Mile.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Bahima people - Uganda

This photo was taken over fifty years ago and shows a Bahima woman from western Uganda sitting next to her milk pots. The staple diet of the Bahima people in those days was milk from the cattle that their lives revolved around. A man might drink up to eight litres a day – that’s about fourteen pints of full cream milk for those of us who still get milk delivered to our doorsteps in glass bottles. The cattle were also bled in order to make a delicious soup.

 Pictures such as the one above are favourites of coffee table books showing ‘vanishing worlds’ and usually depict white clay and ochre painted bodies, long-shutter photos of dancing by firelight, along with a few naked bosoms. A brief digression here: a friend visited a remote place a long time ago and on meeting the women of the village at the market had her breasts thoroughly palpated to assess her fecundity. Don’t try that in your local supermarket.

Whilst coffee table books are attention grabbing in showing the diversity of human cultural life, I have often wondered what it really feels like to be one of those dancers, what was going on elsewhere in their lives, who was annoying whom, what crises were going on in their lives, what hopes they held. My characters Zachye, Felice, Kabutiiti and Stanley, are Bahima. Can a writer from one culture really get inside the head of a child from a different culture, in a different era? We absorb the intricacies of our own culture, its viewpoints, what it takes note of, the way it sees the world, so that it heavily colours how we see. How can a writer see with a different eye? How can the writer be credible? The writer Metter Newth has pointed out that this is a problem shared by all writers writing outside their own personal (private) experience.

For The Ghosts of Eden I started with the premise that everyone, everywhere, in any era, has common human feelings: apprehension, pride, caution, jealousy, love, contentment; we share common predicaments even if they occur within a different cultural world. So the reader, although seeing in a photo a person made mysterious by a white shroud, squatting outside a grass house surrounded by unfamiliar objects, can find themselves thinking: yes, I’m rooting for them, because I’ve also felt those emotions, experienced those dilemmas. If the writer has done their job, the reader can make a ‘leap of empathy’.

Then there’s research to try to recreate the cultural environment, a voyage of discovery that is fraught with the danger that the sources may have been written by people of one’s own culture, and so be selective in their observations. Searching the memoirs and memories of surviving members of the tradition is a necessity but oral literature also helps. In the case of the Bahima this included their poems. These poems are in the form of the ancient traditions of heroic epic literature – particular cattle-raiding, found also in the Greek Iliad, the Irish The Cattle-Raid of Cooley and also texts from India. In my novel, the ‘heroic recitations’ of the Bahima provide a means for one of the characters to cross from the old world of their childhood to the new world of their adulthood.

So a writer trying to write about a culture far removed from their own must use universal human emotions and be inquisitive about the culture they are attempting to show. At the very least, writing about another culture should alter perceptions of that culture in the writer’s culture. It should also inform in an entertaining way (a novel should not be an anthropological treatise).

I’m off to have a glass of milk now. I think I’ll skip the blood soup.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I asked the herbalist at this stall at a market in southern Africa what he could recommend me. He looked me up and down – with what I realised later was pity – pointed to a jar, and said, ‘This one.’
‘And how will it help me?’
Without hesitation he said, ‘It’ll make you become a strong man.’
The rest is history.

Writing and practicing medicine can look horribly incompatible. By that I don’t mean that it should never be done simultaneously, like cleaning your teeth and kissing, or that if you practice one, you should not attempt the other – there are many well-known novelists, ancient and modern, who’ve combined both. I mean that they require two polar opposite forms of brain activity. Medical work requires a flitting, rapid, decision-making type of thinking. It requires moving, alas too quickly, from one patient to another on the wards or in a surgery, stethoscope on a chest one moment, phone to the ear the next, fingers on the computer keyboard the next, mouth to the Dictaphone the next, then your pen scrawling on a form, then a hand in a glove…, then a needle in a vein (apologies – I hadn’t intended to make you feel queasy). Writing, in contrast, requires stillness, a space for drifting thought, what Doris Lessing calls ‘that empty space, which should surround you when you write … into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words …’

However, as in other areas of life, one endeavour can inform the other. There’s the useful insider’s knowledge that any writer has from their other work – yes, there’s some medicine in The Ghosts of Eden although it’s mainly confined to an emergency operation where the surgeon has got more on his mind than the patient – but an awareness of the importance of storytelling can also inform the practice of medicine.

When we fall ill or life treats us rough, certain events occur, we take some sort of action, we feel emotion. But when we tell others, and ourselves, about it at a later time, we construct a story which is selective – we choose which events, which actions, and which feelings, will go into the story. We create a narrative. Psychologists and academics in medicine have long been interested in this – they talk about narrative based medicine. There are people who write dissertations on it. Narrative, they say, provides meaning, context and perspective on our situation. Sustaining fictions (the word fiction being used in the sense of a story rather then a falsehood) underlie the way we present our symptoms or problem to the doctor or therapist. Knowing this, the doctor can see their task as making a contribution to the patient’s narrative plot; a contribution that we, as patients, will find useful. The doctor can become a co-author, an assistant autobiographer, helping us to re-invent our story, to reframe it. The doctor can also tease out the wider story; find the fuller narrative. We all know that stories can accommodate suffering and difficulties, giving them meaning, but if the story is allowed to become fixed then we, as patients, can become trapped within the narrative. A rigid story can close off choices relating to how we react, what we do about our situation. However, with help to reformulate the narrative, we may emerge in the story as a principal character who has found some peace of mind, or is vindicated, or has renewed determination, or perhaps is just heroically coping or, not infrequently, battling through to a cure.

Narrative may have importance beyond our immediate situation. Many have suggested that narrative is fundamental to who we are. Oliver Sacks writes, ‘We have each of us a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs, and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identity.’ Personhood and narrative are inseparable. Jeanette Winterton wrote recently ‘it’s better to read ourselves as fictional narratives, instead of a bloated CV of chronological events.’ A musician (the subject of a BBC documentary) had a brain haemorrhage that deprived him of the ability to remember anything except the previous few seconds. He’s lived a constant battle to discover who he is. He’s a man with no internal narrative.

This is all getting away from The Ghosts of Eden (for masterful digressions see Michael Bollen’s blog below); or perhaps not: schoolboy Michael’s, and herd boy Zachye’s internal childhood narratives, as far as they are concerned, end up destroyed. To achieve redemption/peace of mind they have to re-write their narrative, attempt to reformulate their story to encompass the before and the after.

Hope that doesn’t sound too abstruse – fortunately stories can also be read as entertaining and distracting yarns, although never when you’re a doctor in the consulting room.

Tomorrow: blood and milk for breakfast.

The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
H-M stanley

 This portrait is not of myself (although it’s an improvement). It’s Henry Morton Stanley and the reason it’s there is that herd boy Stanley, one of the principal characters in The Ghosts of Eden, was named by his father after the controversial explorer, for reasons that are revealed in the book.


Yesterday I found myself writing what might have looked like a rather bloated back-cover blurb for The Ghosts of Eden … which got me thinking about back-covers. I’m as suspicious as anyone else of those book-jacket pitches and recommendations – ‘if your life isn’t changed for ever by this book, you’re a corpse,’ sounds like a threat – and yet, when browsing the shelves, short of speed reading (and here one is likely to end up with the same superficial impression that Woody Allen had when he speed-read War and Peace: ‘it involves Russia’), there’s not much choice but to turn the book over and see what lavish adjectives the publisher has coughed up. Don’t misunderstand me: I’ll strangle myself with my stethoscope if the blurb on the back of my own novel isn’t purple with hyperbole – Picnic please note! – although Chris Power, writing at

says that for him the most useful back-cover text is a quote from the manuscript itself. To paraphrase him: it’s not the setting, it’s not who it’s about, it’s not even the plot, it’s about being stimulated by the writing.



Many years ago there was less back-cover lather: a simple statement on the genre, what to expect in general, and perhaps a straightforward opinion on who would find this novel of interest. I’m not suggesting that opinion was quite as forthright as Dorothy Parkers’ ‘This is not a book that should be cast aside lightly, it should be thrown with great force’, but there was a little more restraint and honesty, which allowed the potential reader to form a less suspicious opinion on the contents. For example, there’s a book, long out of print, titled In Search of Paradise aimed at retirees looking for an Eden. The back cover reads: ‘Much of the book is written in his usual flippant way, but …’


That brings me, by a curiously circuitous route, to one of the triggers for the setting, that Aigen asked about yesterday, for The Ghosts of Eden. The place, in all the world, that the author of In Search of Paradise judged (and I can detect no flippancy here) most akin to his idea of paradise was an island on a small lake in southern Uganda. Carried over the water in a dug-out canoe, the island appeared ‘through a light opalescent haze. The house was there, beautifully shabby, as though it was a natural part of the island. The green lawns, cropped and velvety, swept down to the water’s edge. It was like seeing a ghost, so faithfully did it tally with my dream picture.’ The island happened to belong to my grandparents (who started a leprosy treatment centre on another island – but that’s a different story). I remember the surging strokes of the oarsmen and the rhythmic splash and suck of the paddles when I visited the island as a small child.


So I too was entranced, but not just by my grandparents’ island but by the dramatic landscape of volcanoes, lakes and mountains. The eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley is well known – think Out of Africa, White Mischief – but the western limb that divides the savannahs of East Africa from the great forests of the Congo basin is less frequented, but even more spectacular, and was the scene for the search for the source of the Nile by those iron-jawed Victorian explorers.  


I always knew I wanted to set a novel there but a big landscape requires a big story with strong themes so The Ghosts of Eden has been a long time in gestation while I’ve mused on the characters and their lives. Most stories worth reading, and worth writing, attempt to open new windows on universal human experiences such as loss, the struggle to survive it, the courage necessary to overcome, or the sacrifice that might be necessary to find love. I can only hope that mine is not too many thousands of miles away from that type of story. Similar themes are found in stories from every culture throughout history. They also find their way into the story of our own lives. Which, in this meandering blog, leads into the stories we present to doctors. Something about that tomorrow.


The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Monday, July 21st, 2008

cattle and boysHello, I’m Andrew Sharp, and am next to walk the plank into the Picnic blogosphere. My first novel, The Ghosts of Eden, will be out with Picnic’s 2009 list.

Let’s jump straight into the world of The Ghosts of Eden. We’ll start in the 1950s, two hundred years on from the grime, pox and mud of Caroline’s intriguing novel, Kill-Grief. Go south to picture yourself under a wide blue sky in the grasslands of East Africa. Sit yourself on some rocky vantage point, feel the warmth of the equatorial sun on the back of your neck and hear the susurrus scratchings of insects in the dry grass. Nearby, you see two young herd boys tending their father’s long-horned cattle. It’s a way of life their ancestors have followed for generations. The boys are playing, twisting strands of grass to make toy cows and bulls, but every now and then they look up and call out the name of one of their charges. The cow raises its head or moos.

On the horizon, way beyond the boys, you see a column of dust that marks the passage of a vehicle on a new road. The boys turn to look and you hear them murmuring to each other; you sense the younger boy’s excitement, but the older boy turns away. You can see his eyes. There is fear, as if he has seen a portent.

Now you’re spirited away just over the horizon to hill country where you find yourself standing on the lawns of a school for missionaries’ children. It’s an idyllic location by a lily-fringed lake. You watch as the children set off on an outing – you overhear that they are going up Crystal Mountain behind the school. A seven year old boy with a beatific face is telling his friend what he will do with the diamond he finds on the summit.

When the children have gone, you go and sit on a swing under a pepper tree overlooking the lake. A squall picks up from nowhere, agitates the water and envelopes the mountain. You get goosebumps. The same presage of change that the herd boy feared is coming also to the missionaries’ child.

So brothers Zachye and Stanley, friends Michael and Simon, find the certainties of their world crumble away. Soon rifts build between brothers, between friends. Tragedy follows.

Years later, Michael, the child from the mission school, now turned gifted surgeon, returns to the country of his birth for, what he hopes, is a flying visit. But he had not reckoned on falling for a beautiful woman. A married woman. As if drawn by a siren he follows her out west to where the ghosts of his past linger. But Zachye is out there, somewhere in the wild landscape, nursing a serious grudge – and after the same woman.

This is now reading like the longest and most leisurely back-cover blurb you’ve ever seen (is a blogged blurb a blurg?) so I’ll finish with a summary: blackmail, murder, mental breakdown, ancestral spirits, diviners, emergency surgery, buried grief, spurned love. Not necessarily in that order.

And for those who like history and setting there’s: HM Stanley, The Mountains of the Moon, the East African coast where Victorian explorers and missionaries made landfall, Idi Amin (a march on/march off appearance), a Citroën DS, a disease they called Slim, and the Uganda mail train (of Man Eaters of Tsavo fame). Not quite sure now how I joined the dots on all those.

I’d be delighted to respond to questions and comments. Tomorrow: in search of paradise!


Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Write what you know, or know what you write?

mud When I was 14, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to write a novel.

A novel of about 3000 words, that is. This instruction was followed by the perennial advice ‘write what you know.’ I took this literally, picked up my pen, and got completely stuck.

I had always liked writing imaginative stories – such as the tiny goldfish determined to rule the fish tank, and the unicorn warning the world to put an end to war -  but suddenly I felt that I’d been doing it wrong, and that all I was allowed to write about was my own bog-standard life.

If I invented a fantastical plot for this ‘novel,’ surely the teacher would say I was lying. If I gave my heroine a dismal home life, would social workers turn up to arrest my parents? If a character fell in love, would everyone laugh and try to work out which boy I was writing about? So, to complete the assignment, I just wrote an account of my life to date – and got an extremely high mark. It was clear that imagination wasn’t the done thing, and for a while I became self-conscious about attempting fiction at all.

Realising the true meaning of ‘write what you know’ was never a lightbulb moment – it just became obvious as I got older that authors couldn’t really have visited other planets, committed murders or found a caveman living at the tip. They hadn’t made carbon copies of their own experiences, but had extrapolated those experiences to give authenticity to fictional events. If your character gets chased by a tiger, it doesn’t mean you broke into the safari park and held up a sign saying ‘Eat me’  – you just knew what it felt like to be terrified, and could build on that feeling to imagine the rest.

So when I finally got on with a proper novel, rather than write what I knew, I decided what I wanted to write and then make sure I knew about it.

A lot of this was from formal research, but there were also seemingly unrelated experiences that proved useful… and that’s where mud and gruesomeness come in!

Recently I mentioned on a writers’ forum that there always seems to be lots of mud in my writing – this is because I have three horses and so spend much of my life up to my knees in the kind of stuff that coated the 18th-century roads.

I know exactly what the ground will look like in any given weather conditions at any time of year, I notice tiny differences in the smell of the earth, I know what it’s like to fall over and go squelch, and how difficult it is to keep mud out of the house. Having mud as a part of everyday life makes it easy to appreciate the normality – and problems – of the 18th-century level of dirt.

I said there was a connection between mud and gruesomeness – the connection is equine. Horses get things wrong with them. They get skin conditions, hoof infections, wounds, colic – people think owning a horse is posh, but it’s not for the squeamish.

During my final edit of Kill-Grief, I was looking after a horse with an abscess in her jaw. Three times a day for six months, I had to flush the pus out – at a field where there was no electricity or hot water, and nowhere to place anything down without it getting filthy. As it wouldn’t respond to antibiotics, I had first-hand experience of just how interminably long something can take to heal, and how difficult a wound is to manage in a dirty environment – no wonder so many 18th-century patients had to stay in hospital for months. An ongoing wound plays an important part in the book, and as revolting as it may sound, it was handy to have some real-life pus to look at! (The horse is fine now, if you were wondering.)

So to conclude this rather long post, I’m glad I realised that writing ‘what you know’ doesn’t mean sticking to the reality of an average life. There are any number of ways in which experiences and knowledge can transform into fiction – I just wish that teacher had told me.

It’s now the end of my blogging week, and I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m even tempted to set up a permanent blog of my own. I wonder how long it would take before I ran of things to say and resorted to linking to funny YouTube videos? I’ll try to convince myself out of it, but for now it’s time to hand over to Andrew Sharp. Andrew’s modern history novel, ‘The Ghosts of Eden,’ continues the medical theme – I’m looking forward to hearing about it, and even more to reading it when it comes out next year.

Thanks for reading and commenting! Until next time…        




Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Research, real life, and remembering the forgotten

Medical Tools

I’m thrilled that people have been reading this blog and asking questions (even some people I’ve never even met), so this post will focus on the subject that has turned up most often in the comments – research.

Sometimes when I tell people that I write historical fiction, they say it must be difficult because of ‘all that research.’ But no, that’s not the difficult part at all.

I write historical fiction because I love doing research,  rather than feeling that research is a necessary evil towards writing historical fiction. I love the wild goose chases and the tenuous links that just might bring everything together. I love unearthing an engraving of a building; a map or a portrait; a letter in the copperplate of a real-life character whose fictional counterpart has, in my imagination, just flung his pen across the table.

Kill-Grief arose from research I wanted to do anyway. This was in 1998 for an undergraduate dissertation, and I’m aware how incredibly unimpressive that sounds. Going to university is nothing unusual these days and there’s  a popular image of students blindly churning out whatever the lecturers tell them, wanting a degree for no other reason than to get the high-flying job that graduates (other than me) can supposedly walk into. I don’t buy that Daily Mail version of students. It might be considered a disgrace that final-year undergraduates only get four hours a week of formal tuition, but for saddos like me, it’s great – it frees us up to do 60 hours a week of research!

In the comments the other day, Rachel asked how I got interested in Chester Infirmary. I decided on 18th-century hospital care as a subject for my dissertation after my first idea – the medical dangers of the pursuit of beauty – met with a lack of enthusiasm from the tutor. As the essay was never going to be an opus to rival the works of Roy Porter, I thought it best to concentrate on one hospital. I chose Chester mainly because I already knew the city,  and because I could call in to Wirral to see my Grandma and get free food.

The idea for Kill-Grief took a long time to develop. I liked the idea of writing something based on what I’d studied, but my first attempt was very different and, although the setting and character names were similar, the plot (such as it was) was nothing like the book that’s going to be published. So although I sometimes think I’ve been writing Kill-Grief for 10 years, I haven’t really – the first go wasn’t the same book and it thankfully fizzled out unfinished. I started on other stories, but they were all too rubbish even to qualify as the requisite manuscripts under the bed, so I see Kill-Grief as my first-written novel as well as my first-published.

Rosy commented on the gruesomeness of the research – and the mud! Those two things, would you believe, are linked, and this has given me an idea for something to write about next time.

Michael asked whether any of the characters or plot threads were based on real-life people or events. Not really, is the answer. A lot of historical fiction does centre on real-life characters, usually those well known to posterity – the name ‘Boleyn’ is pretty much a free ticket to a starring role in a novel (and perhaps to being on the front cover, according to Sarah’s theory!) I love to read fiction about these fascinating people, but when writing I am more interested in the obscure and voiceless – those who have slipped through history’s net without ever recording their thoughts.

Many of the characters in Kill-Grief are based on staff who worked at Chester Infirmary in the 1750s, but the link is usually no more than a name. Nearly everything about their personalities and what happens to them is completely made up.

The only thing in Chester Infirmary’s records that relates directly to the plot is a sentence from a Board meeting in April 1756, when the Governors noted that the porter had been dismissed for frequent drunkenness. They sent him on his way with the wages he was owed plus an extra ten shillings, and then that’s it – he fades from history forever. This tiny snapshot from the life of an unknown person inspired the alcohol theme in Kill-Grief, and made me consider how many people have existed without leaving behind even so much as that sentence. Kill-Grief is not their real story, but I hope it acknowledges that they did have a story, however much it’s been forgotten.