What came first in Song of the Sea Maid - the story idea, or Dawnay as a character?That's a really interesting question. One never knows what will come first, but in this case it was the idea behind the story. I was walking through Oxford in my twenties, looking at all the beautiful old buildings in the college sector, when it suddenly occurred to me that all the history books that get written are indeed that - written - and written by fallible humans who are liable to get things wrong and at least be biased. It was a revelation to me, as I'd not really considered before that books might contain versions of truth. I just assumed that if it were published in a book it must be true. Then, it occurred to me that history itself - or what we're taught happened - would be biased according to whose version you heard or who you asked. I realised that there must be lots of people out there throughout history who had something to say but were never heard. Over many years - and mixed with my life-long fascination with science - this became the seed for Song of the Sea Maid i.e. what if a lone voice in ages past came up with a brilliant scientific idea but that person was lowly in society - a nobody? Would they ever be heard? Thus, Dawnay Price came to life! She was a poor orphan and female to boot and in C18th society, she really was a nobody. Once I started researching into the lives and minds of scientists, Dawnay's character started to form and then she started talking to me. And then we were off...
What research did you do as it's a very historical novel?
Oh, all sorts! It all starts with reading. I start reading around the topic, looking at the era itself i.e. C18th society, streets, clothes, transport, food, attitudes etc. Also, topics associated with the story, in this case: orphanages, evolutionary theories, female scientists of the period, the Seven Years' War etc. I also read texts written during that period e.g. novels and essays by Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding - this helps me get the feel for the language of the time, the lilt of their sentences and typical vocabulary. I watch films set during the period and documentaries on the subjects e.g. I watched loads of programmes on early humans and palaeontology. I also visit locations, such as Dr. Johnson's House, an C18th town house in London, in order to get a visual and spacial sense of the period. It all takes a good year or more. There's a lot to do! But it is endlessly interesting.
|The Square Staircase at Dr Johnson's House|
Did the story end up where you thought it would?
With this novel, yes, it mostly did. My first novel The Visitors ended up a bit differently than planned, in particular, the central romance which didn't end up as I'd planned at all! That was a case where the characters decided what they were going to do and I had to go along with it! You have to listen to your characters, I feel, as they know who they are and you're just finding out, like getting to know someone you've just met. With Sea Maid, I knew more or less where she was going to go and what she was going to do. I think she was so determined, she basically told me that was that and she set out to do it. I didn't predict everything she'd feel though, and that was surprising, the way she responded to love, for example. So, your characters do have the knack of surprising you and it's all part of the lovely process of writing fiction.
As some of the story is set overseas, was it written on location or through your imagination?
I have visited Portugal and Spain in my twenties and spent quite a bit of time travelling around the Iberian Peninsula. I have quite vivid memories of my time there and much fondness. Obviously, I was writing about it from 250 years before, so much of it was based on research into the period e.g. Lisbon in the 1750s. There was a lot of trade between Britain and Portugal in the C18th, so luckily there are plenty of English-language accounts of Lisbon from that time, so I was able to read those and base my characters firmly within that setting. However, the mood and atmosphere of the places were very much based on the feelings I had of being there in my twenties, and I absolutely adored it, and so writing those sections was just a joy. I was drafting through the winter months, so It was delightful to go into my study, with the winter winds battering the window, and in my mind and on my computer I was paddling around in the azure shallows of the Mediterranean or looking across the bay of a Portuguese island. Lovely.
Thanks so much for your questions, Georgina! And for letting me visit your blog again. :-)