What’s in a name?

To those of you who on occasions scan my musings I hope over the past six months, I’ve managed to keep you royally entertained. Long may it continue – I hear you shout.

Nevertheless, the be-all and end all of a author’s life is to sell books and despite the brilliant reviews for ‘The Year the Swans Came’, the series as a whole is still waiting patiently to be discovered. When I moaned and I do that a lot (about everything) my daughter, a totally impartial critic who tells me equally when I write well as when I write rubbish, said – but Mother, no one knows about it. 

That is of course is true. And I didn’t exactly help my career by changing genres. I mean who, in their right mind, with twelve books under their belt, four of which are mystery-thrillers for teens, decides to change both genres and age of readers?I did! And yes, I agree I am lousy at marketing but I do write a good story.

If I had to say which of my books is the closest to the new series, that would be Time Breaking which after ten years is still read in schools and stocked by Waterstones. A time-slip novel, also first-person narrated, it switches between modern day and the England of 1648 and whilst writing the characters became my constant companions, with me night and day, and I was as equally involved in their problems, their joys and successes, as they were. But as always happens, after writing the words The End, the characters wave goodbye and go their own way as I go mine.

Nevertheless, despite a career liberally splattered with disasters, this week I want to talk about the five books that make up the Carinatae Series. Carinatae – what is that? Carine refers to birds with heavy breast bone to which flight feathers are attached. And the carinatae? They are an ancient race of shapeshifters, the boys from the age of sixteen able to change from human to swan and also the celeste … the celestial image of Zeus himself with wings. And more importantly, the novels are centred on Amsterdam. Why … because apart from New York, it is my favourite city and I always wanted to set a book there.

I first visited in early 1960s when it was a quiet sleepy city bursting with flowers and charm. Everyone then pretty much spoke English – at that time German was never heard in its streets. We stayed in a B &B which, incidentally, appears in the futuristic thriller Running.

Still there was nothing futuristic about our visit, my sister bought great armfuls of flowers and each day we patronised a cake shop in Splot. Then in the evening we strolled the streets leading to the Blue Note, a Night Club, where the vocalist sang Yesterday, one of the Beetles classics, and very sweetly replied he was married to any of us teenagers, including me, who gazed at him with adoring eyes. There, I also fell in love with a student I met at the club, who took me back to my B & B on the back of his bicycle. (So romantic – literally dozens of films feature girls riding the back of a bicycle with a handsome young man steering and Gerard was very handsome.)

The idea for the series began when I visited with my granddaughter in 2010. We were celebrating the publication of Running, and a celebration was badly needed. The storyline for that took three years to evolve, and wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t dropped into the local garage and spotted a Suzuki 1000cc motorbike – which incidentally is the hero of the novel. Running involved a computer virus so powerful the bad guys were prepared to kill to get their hands on it and my research took me into the world of computers, earthquakes and guns!

But I digress. There are so many strings that led to the writing of the first book, The Year the Swans Came. A UK literary agent played a large part. Having read and loved the story, she asked for more! (Rather like Oliver in the Charles Dickens novel of the same name). And so I gathered all the memories of my first visits, very few motor cars, dark furnishings of the B & B, the push-button light switches on the stairway that gave you just enough time to reach the top of the next flight of stairs before clicking off; the cobbled alleyways and decorative bridges, and I added them to souvenirs from my visit in 2010. These included the flowers of the Keukonhoff, a bus ride into the country, where windmills ruled and cheese was made and a tiny island where fishermen lived, the passageways between their miniscule houses little wider than rat runs. We saw furniture being lofted up the outside of a house because its internal stairs were too narrow, and visited the Anne Frank House, where we learned about the plight of the Jews in the war, and the crippling starvation meted out to its citizens. Museums were on our list too with scenes of windswept barques, and where I spotted a painting of Leda and the Swan, dating from 1610. Below is the sculpture of the same subject.

The Greek legend of Leda and the Swans is the story of Zeus who falling in love with Leda descends to earth as a swan and seduces her. In the myth, the twins Castor and Pollux are the result of their coupling!

Lastly, I read the myth of the Angel of Mons which I used in Book 2 of the trilogy, An Ocean of White Wings. For those who have never heard the story, it is rumoured that in WWI a group of retreating British soldiers were trying to find their way back to their lines when an angel appeared to them and directed their steps away from the German army.

With all that, it is no wonder the 5-book series has taken 8 years+ to write!

The finishing touch – my favourite book just happens to be: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier which is set in 17th century Delft.

So what is the series really about – If I tried to tell you I would stutter and stumble and make a real hash of it. I tried that once when an agent rang asking the story of A Dangerous Game of Football. I sounded like an idiot, no wonder she didn’t offer to represent me.

The Year the Swans Came is book one and this is the review from Catherine Kullmann who explains it far better than I ever could: As Maidy Bader anxiously awaits her sixteenth birthday, the day on which ‘overnight girls become adults, eligible to be courted, and to marry’ her thoughts return to the past and most importantly to her elder brother Pieter’s sixteenth birthday, the last he spent with his family. No one speaks of him or why he vanished. Life goes on as it always did in the unnamed country. The invaders have left and those deportees who could, have returned. Among them are the Bader’s neighbours, the Endelbaums. Their beautiful daughter Ruth, who is Maidy’s best friend, has had to give up her hopes of marrying Pieter. Slightly older than Maidy, Ruth is the belle of the college the girls attend while Maidy stays more in the background.
On Maidy’s birthday, everything changes. Maidy begins to emerge from her chrysalis. Pieter returns as suddenly as he departed, but gives no explanation for his long absence. Ruth immediately claims him, but she is also intrigued by the four strangers, handsome young men, who suddenly appear at the college. She takes their attention and interest as her due but Maidy is surprised to find herself sought out both by gentle Jaan and the strangers’ leader, the charismatic and mysterious Zande. And Pieter is desperate to marry Ruth and complete his apprenticeship with his father, a maker of mirrors.
But all is not as it seems. This is not a college romance. Unimaginable secrets swirl beneath the surface of daily life and all too soon the unwitting Maidy and Ruth are drawn into the vortex of an ancient tragedy that threatens them all anew.
I was blown away by this book, enthralled by the beautiful writing, the slow build-up of the mesmerizing story and the wonderful characters. Magical realism of the highest order.

Thank you Catherine.

She is quite correct. In the first print run both the country and the invaders were unnamed and I just left clues. But so many asked me so, yes, it is Amsterdam. That in itself can pose a problem. If you name a city in your novel, readers will set about comparing their knowledge with your writing; eager to point out any slips in the topography, and no doubt I would be the recipient of a dozen emails: such and such a street runs left not right! If you pick up a copy of the novel, there is a map. For this is my Amsterdam and although many of its features are similar they all are skewed – welcome to magical realism.

What happened then? I had intended The Year the Swans Came as a stand alone but Katie Bowes, the New Zealand author, told me, ‘After reading, Swans, everyone will want to know more about Zande and how he got to be Zande.’ 

She was so right. Zande dominated the novel and so I embarked on the prequel, The Click of a Pebble, which I wrote in the third person so that I could use broad brush strokes. As we learn in Swans, Zande is born into the carinatae, a race of shape-shifters, peaceable beings, who throughout history have been persecuted … does it remind you of the Dutch Jews in WWII? The book opens with the massacre of an entire village, the only survivors three children: Yöst who is 12, Zande 4, and a little girl Tatania. Set in France in 1934, the story follows their lives and those of the people who want them dead, also their guardian Albert Meijer who was born into the carinatae tribe, and a family of refugees from the Spanish Civil war who offer the children a home in exchange for their working on the farm. I set out to write a single book only to find the story so fascinating, to do it justice it had to be a trilogy.

And it doesn’t end there – after taking my audience through the world seen through the eyes of the shape-shifters, the carinatae, I go back into the human world for the finale.

Again narrated by Maidy Bader, it takes readers on a journey from Holland to New York (my own journey as I lived in New York for several years) and then to Bordeaux in France and the town of Flambeau where we meet Justine, a ballerina. And yes, all the characters you know and have come to love – they are there too.

So read The Year the Swans Came first and if you love it either jump to Sunset on Golden Wings (no, not like Monopoloy, Go straight to jail, do not pass go and do not collect £200) or read The Click of a Pebble – Book 2 of the series and ENJOY!

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Barbara-Spencer/e/B001KDUEFM/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BarbaraSpencerO
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Barbaraspencerauthor


website: https://www.barbaraspance.co.uk

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/barbara_spencer

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