Tuesday 10 March 2020

#HistoricalFantasy author, Barbara Spencer, is talking about the inspiration behind her fabulous book — The Year The Swans Came #mustread #Fantasy @BarbaraSpencerO

An Author’s Inspiration
By Barbara Spencer

Why did you become an author? That question has me floundering, the reasons too numerous to set down on paper. Perhaps, it was a return to some sort of normalcy in the UK – which I found deadly boring – after years living and working in different continents. But write what? Fiction, non-fiction, romance, historical. I dabbled with ghost stories and then popped a toe into historical fiction. This was a fictionalised story about Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, whose epitaph in the form of a carved-stone obelisk, rises over Butleigh, in Somerset. The novel in two volumes was described as, ‘beautifully written’ by those to whom I sent the first draft, and suitable both for YA’s and adults. Sadly it never got finished; there was just too many Hoods, all of whom it would seem possessed first names of either Samuel or Alexander, although there was an Arthur but he was only a purser. (Incidentally, did you know the word hoodwinked comes from Alexander Hood, Sam’s uncle. In the meantime, a series of unsettling relationships drove me away from adult romance and so, the safe option was to write for children.

That’s when my alter ego, Barbara Spencer took to the stage and after my first books, Scruffy and A Fishy Tail, which was set in Barbados, were published, I embarked on books for the 8 – 12 age group and then embarked on mystery thrillers for teens.

I might well have continued along that path had I not read, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and decided I had to write a book – a real book – an adult book.

After that, a whole series of pointers drove me to Amsterdam, a city I had first visited in the 1960s, when it was a quiet sleepy place bursting with flowers, cake shops and charm.


Now I saw it as a possible background for a novel. But not yet. I’m not one of those amazing authors who diligently take a notebook with them when they leave the house, making notes and writing descriptions of scenery. I’m one of those who wake up in the morning and say ... that sounds interesting. And then I brood over the idea for a while. In the case of Running, my teenage thriller, it was three years, the final piece of the jigsaw – a motorcycle – not slotting into place until 2009.

And it was not until 2010, on a visit to Amsterdam with my granddaughter, that I stumbled upon the legend of Leda and the Swan. I was not alone in my interest; artists of all persuasions have been intrigued by the legend of Zeus, who comes down to earth disguised as a swan, even Michael Angelo, and in the many museums of Amsterdam hang these glorious paintings.

In her review of The Year the Swans Came, Catherine Kullmann, the novelist, refers to an unnamed country and the unnamed invaders.

This was a deliberate ploy on my part, wanting only to drop clues. If you need to blame someone, blame Daphne du Maurier, who I read and read, whilst writing my time-slip novel, Time Breaking. In the novel Rebecca, although du Maurier names the county, she is more than cagey when it comes to her heroine.

So, wanting to create more mystery, I simply loaded the novel with clues, setting the house where the Bader family live overlooking a river, with cobblestone alleys, bridges and canals, and referring to the neighbours as Meneer and Mevrouw, the Dutch equivalent of Mr and Mrs.

Nevertheless, this created a furore among my readers and become a talking point. Because it’s possible to change an E-book, that has been done, and I have admitted the novel is set in Holland.

And, yes, the unnamed invaders are the Germans.

I am told they came at dawn. People stayed in their homes with their curtains drawn, yet still the sound of marching feet ransacked the silence, unending, unendurable, day after day, until even the sun ran away and hid behind the dark clouds of war. And in the dead of night, people ran away too. Deserting homes that had given them shelter through storm and tempest, to place their trust in a rickety old barge or sailing yacht that had never slipped its mooring in twenty years, praying it would carry them to safety. And in the early dawn, when the boots began thudding across the cobbles, hundreds of houses were left with their front doors open, almost as a gesture of welcome

Strangely, it was a biopic about the film actress Audrey Hepburn that originally focused my attention on the plight of the Dutch during the Occupation; and of course, the terrible tragedy that befell the Jews. And in 2010, when my granddaughter and I visited and did the museums, the canals, and the Anne Frank House, I knew that had to form the background to my story.

And it does, Ruth, Maidy’s best friend, is Jewish. Can you have an anti-heroine?

Bizarrely, it was the burgeoning eBook market in which I wanted to participate that proved the final decider, since 99% of my book sales of children’s and YA novels are in paperback.

Oh, and I forgot. I changed my style of writing too:

Growing up amongst the ruins of war, four siblings use the bridges and cobblestone walkways of the old city as a backdrop for their games. Pieter Bader, the eldest, wants to follow in the footsteps of his family, designers of mirrors for royalty since the 17th century, while Maidy, the youngest, dreams of becoming a writer. Around the smallest bridge in the city, she weaves stories of swashbuckling pirates and princesses, who wear sandals made from the silken thread of a spider web. Her best friend Ruth lives next door. She dreams of marrying Pieter, only for him to vanish from their lives late one night.

Is his disappearance linked to the arrival of the swans, feared as cursed and birds of ill-fortune? What will happen when they return six years later, on the morning of Maidy’s sixteenth birthday?

And who exactly is the charismatic and mysterious Zande?

Follow Ruth and Maidy’s cursed tale of love as they discover what happened to Pieter, and how the appearance of Zande will affect both their lives, unleashing events as tragic and fantastical as one of Maidy’s stories.

Nevertheless, it was another few years before the first draft of The Year the Swans Came was completed, and encouraged by Felicity Bryan, the agent, I began the series Children of Zeus, intending for it to be published first.

That hasn’t happened either because of the secret that hides among the pages of The Year the Swans Came:

I felt the words ticking away inside my head like an unexploded bomb, ‘One that involves you all.’
Zande got to his feet in one graceful move. ‘Oh, that secret.’
‘You don’t play fair, Zande,’ I burst out.
‘Why would I possibly change the habit of a lifetime and play fair?’ I watched his face; grim, his eyes hooded.
‘Because we’re friends.’
‘So be satisfied with that.’ 

The Year the Swans Came
By Barbara Spencer

Ruth and Maidy have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Stunningly beautiful, rich, and wilful, Ruth has always insisted she will marry Pieter, Maidy’s eldest brother, only for him to vanish from their lives late one night.

Is his disappearance linked to the arrival of the swans, feared as cursed and birds of ill-fortune? What will happen when they return six years later, on the morning of Maidy’s sixteenth birthday?

And who exactly is the enigmatic and mysterious Zande?

Follow Ruth and Maidy’s cursed tale of love as they discover what happened to Pieter, how the appearance of Zande will affect the rest of their lives, and just how much destruction Ruth’s beauty can cause.

Pick up your copy of
The Year The Swans Came

Barbara Spencer

In 1967, Barbara Spencer hi-tailed it to the West Indies to watch cricket, the precursor to a highly colourful career spanning three continents, in which she was caught up in riots, wars, and choosing Miss World. Eventually, she settled in Somerset to bring up a family. In 2010, the publication of Running, her new teenage thriller, has taken Barbara countrywide. Passionate about the importance of books in today's society, Barbara is happiest working with young would-be writers and is frequently invited into schools to talk about creative writing.

Connect with Barbara: Website • Facebook • Twitter.

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx