How many of us remember our school days, when we dipped our toes into the fascinating world of Greek and Roman myths – and then promptly forgot them whenwe donned our high-heels and stepped out into the real world?
I certainly had until I visited Holland again in 2010. I first visited in the 1960s with my sister, when it was a quiet almost sleepy place (see barbaraspencerauthor.blogspot.com) but this time my granddaughter was with me. And the reason for our visit, to celebrate the publication of the thriller Running. She wanted to see everything; canals, walkways, bridges, trams, the Anne Frank House, the Koekenhoff … everything. Wandering around one of their many museums I was struck by images of Leda and the Swan and on returning to the hotel promptly looked up the legend of Zeus who descended to earth as a swan in order to seduce Leda, a beautiful young maiden.
Even then the idea of writing my version of the story didn’t occur to me. Having written thrillers for both Children and YA’s for the previous decade, why should I suddenly change genres? Not until we took a coach trip out into the Dutch countryside did my mind fill with pictures. We visited a windmill and also a cheese factory and stopped on an island which, twice a day, when the tide receded, became connected to the mainland by a causeway. The houses on it were tiny, wooden buildings separated by narrow alleys, little wider than rat runs. I didn’t understand the guide’s explanation for I found myself, all at once, in a different century, in a place of darkness. I sensed people moving in the darkness and something else … fear!
“They set out in the dead of night. Not the witching hour between twelve and one, when ghouls and warlocks roam, but the hour between three and four, when souls depart their bodies and even monsters sleep. The men have not slept. Gathering together early, they have sat out the hours in a low-beamed room lit by rushes and lanterns, supping at pale gold Jenever and beer that smells strongly of hops, in an effort to keep both demons and fear at bay. Another night and their drinking will lead to merriment and song with an accordion ringing out. Tonight, only a dull confused muttering breaks the silent air.
Around the hostelry, stinking of poverty and superstition cluster close-knit houses, their streets made not of stone but of water. Women wait too, in dark rooms lit only by candles – no one sleeping. Some are big with child. Others, the young and beautiful and innocent, are held captive, screaming into the implacable faces of the elderly to be let free, to be allowed to run … to warn.
Outside, clinging to tiny islands of stone on which houses perch, lurks the detritus of the fishermen; lobster pots and broken nets, oars resting against a wall, small skiffs tied up to the bank or upturned. Boats, their sails neatly furled, await the approach of early dawn before venturing out to sea. Nothing moves in the darkness except fleetingly: a rat scurrying along a gutter pursued by the looming shadow of a cat. Silence falls and with it the sound of death.”
… ‘The Year the Swans Came.’
And on the return journey, ideas stormed in about creating a novel around the legend – a novel which was of this world yet not of this world. And as we drove past stately Dutch homes, so narrow furniture had to be winched up the outside of the building, and crossed fancy bridges over canals, and wandered down cobblestone passageways, I knew where the book had to be set.
Except very wickedly, I didn’t tell my readers! I offered hints but of course it was Amsterdam and the period 1950s.
But not until 2013 was the first draft of the novel written, and submitted to agents – including Tor Macmillan who loved it but finally said no, because it didn’t fit their style of fantasy. (I confess to weeping a few tears of disappointment when I heard.) Eventually publication through Troubador happened at the end of 2018 and expecting to take a break and rest on my laurels, I found myself beset with emails from a friend in New Zealand: ‘You can’t leave it there,’ she wailed. Everyone who reads this will want to know more about Zande.’
An agent (Felicity Bryan) had already suggested a prequel so I pulled out a batch of exercise books, sharpened my pen, and began writing … only one problem, it wasn’t the story I had planned. Yes, I am a plotter not a pantser and only once before has a novel I was writing been hijacked by a character. This happened in Running. The character wasn’t planned, he just walked onto the page and took over. His name was Sean Terry and he was a world-weary agent of the US Government. This time it was Yöst who when the novels open is about twelve years old – but unashamedly I confess as do my readers, he very rapidly became my all-time favourite character. This is the blurb:
‘Born into the carinatae, a race of shape-shifters and magical beings, Yöst believes his life in their island village wondrous – until death comes to call. In the guise of the local priest, who is determined to wipe the carinatae from the face of the earth, only Yöst and two young children, Zande, destined to be the next ruler, and a little girl, survive the massacre of their village. This is their story.’
Okay, so I admit it, authors shouldn’t fall in love with their characters but I did. And as I became more and more involved with the characters, my intention to write a single book – just enough for readers of ‘The Year the Swans Came’ to understand the background of the carinatae – fell away. Instead, I found myself deep into another story … one in which love, death and war jockeyed for pre-eminence and with a canvas that stretched from the Bay of Biscay in southern France where the novel begins, to the northernmost part of the continent – Holland. And at the end of Book 1, I found myself no closer to finishing my story than I was at the beginning. “For war is waiting on the horizon … and with it the arrival of Kapitein Death.” It has taken a third book, The Drumming of Heels, to bring their story to an end. And what an end!
“Yöst listened unsure what had woken him. In the distance, surf stirred restlessly and wind soughed through the tops of pine trees. Yet that wasn’t it. Those were sounds he heard every night since he’d come to live on the island, five years previously. This was more the click of a pebble against a glass window. He and his mother had had glass windows in their tiny house on the mainland and once he had broken a pane throwing a stone against its brittle surface.
He stared into the darkness listening to the quiet breathing of his five companions. Older than him, two were from the great continent of Africa, their skins the colour of aubergines ripening in the sun. Geography was good, Yöst decided, grateful that his mother and grandmother had insisted he attend school, crossing the narrow gap between the island and mainland by boat. ‘Learning will take you places,’ his grandmother’s voice chided him, invading his thoughts as she did almost every night, her voice ringing out as plainly as it had when she was alive. That had been her speciality, nagging, when all he wanted was to play with the other boys. Going on and on about learning how to gut a rabbit and build a fire, ‘so that you can care for yourself when I am no longer about.’
He caught the sharp crack of stone and sat up, every sense alert. This was not the bare feet of cobs returning from the skies or women rising early to fetch water. This was a shod foot. He waited to be sure. Then he heard it. Not a sound, more an absence of sound, as if all the air had been sucked out of a container leaving a vacuum. Close by, he sensed the presence of wild animals standing motionless, awaiting a signal to attack.”
PS: I promised my readers I would finish Zande’s story. I haven’t forgotten. That is told in the sequel to ‘The Year the Swans Came’ which will be published in April.