In the foothills of the Himalayas,
Darjeeling, April, 1919
The early spring sun beat down on the back of the seven-year old girl as she struggled to keep up with the man in a worn safari suit who was striding ahead of her up the steep path. Every so often, the girl slipped and fell on the red earth, picked herself up, brushed the dirt from her dress and hurried more quickly after the man.
But Charles Edwin Lawrence, lines of grief etched deep into his sun-browned face, neither turned to his daughter nor paused to wait for her. His eyes fixed in front of him, he continued resolutely up the narrow path that led between the tiered rows of tea bushes, the tender young leaves of which shone brilliant green in the light of the sun.
When he arrived at the summit, he stood in the cool breeze and stared down at the neat rows of terraces that fell away beneath his feet.
His vision blurred with unshed tears, he turned to face the mass of dark green forested slopes that rose in layers beneath the clear blue sky, and the range of mountains behind them, their gold-tipped peaks linked in a chain of gold above the snow-covered slopes, as if suspended in nothingness.
The girl reached the place where her father stood, slid her arm round his leg and put her thumb in her mouth.
He glanced down at her, bent slightly and gently pushed her thumb away from her mouth. ‘Only babies do that, Charlie. You’re not a baby any longer.’
‘I’m seven now.’
He nodded. ‘That’s right. So you’re not a baby any longer, are you? You’re a big girl, who’ll soon be off to school.’
Biting her lower lip, she stared at the ground and nodded.
She sensed him smile his approval.
Glancing up, she saw tears on his cheeks, and she frowned. ‘You’re crying. You’ve got a wet face.’
He shrugged his shoulders dismissively. ‘It’ll just be perspiration. I suggest you look at the view instead of looking at me.’ Picking her up under her arms, he swung her high up above his head, and slid her on to his shoulders. Her legs hung down in front of him on either side of his face, and he took hold of each foot.
Clutching his forehead with one hand, she ran her other hand down the side of his cheek.
‘You are crying, Papa,’ she said, her voice accusing, and she wiped her wet hand on the skirt of her dress. She pulled the topi from his head, let it fall to the ground, wrapped her arms around his chin, leaned forward, and rested her cheek against the back of his head. ‘Is Eddie ill again? I haven’t seen him today.’
She felt him tighten. He pulled one of her feet closer to the other so that he could hold them both with one hand, and she wobbled as he swiftly ran his free hand across his face. Then once more, he held a foot in each hand.
‘Yes, he’s been ill again,’ he said after a short pause.
Her forehead wrinkled with puzzlement at the strange note she heard in his voice. She inclined herself sideways in an attempt to see his face.
‘But not any longer,’ he added quietly. ‘He’s gone to join your brothers.’
She straightened up and let out a wail of misery. ‘I don’t want him to go. I want him to play with me.’ A sob rose in her throat, and she screwed up her face, ready to cry.
‘You’re not going to cry, are you, Charlie? Remember what we said about you being a big girl. Well, I need you to be big. Kick your foot against me if you’re going to be big.’
She swallowed her sob, and with his hand still tightly holding her leg, kicked his chest with her right foot.
‘Good girl,’ he said. ‘You see, it’s just you and me now. And all of this.’ Slowly he turned in a full circle, with Charlie sitting high on his shoulders. ‘Just look at it all. Sundar is Hindi for beautiful. You can see why my father called it Sundar. We love it here; it’s where we want to be. My grandfather and father both loved Sundar, and so do we, you and me. Isn’t that so?’
‘Say it, Charlie. Say, It’s where I want to be.’
It’s where I want to be,’ she echoed.
‘Good girl. Look around you. I bet you’ve never noticed that tea bushes don’t grow all year round—they’re asleep from late November to early March. They won’t wake up and start growing again until the first rains of spring have fallen and the sun has warmed the air. But then they’ll grow so quickly that they’ll need to be plucked every four to five days. Did you know that?’
She shifted her position.
‘Hold tight,’ he said, ‘and I’ll get you down.’ He raised his arms, lifted her up over his head and stood her on the ground next to him.
Then he knelt down beside her and stared into her face. ‘There’s only you left now, Charlie. There won’t be any more.’ She felt a momentary fear at his serious expression, and put her thumb back into her mouth. ‘But I know that Sundar’s in your heart, just as it’s in mine, and when the time comes I’ll do my very best to make sure you have a husband who’ll be able to run the garden when I’ve gone, and who’ll continue to grow the very best tea that Darjeeling can produce. There’ll always be a Lawrence at Sundar. That’s what we both want, isn’t it?’
She could tell that he wanted her to nod, so she did.
He gave a dry laugh, and stood up. ‘You’ve no idea what I’m talking about, have you?’ he said, his voice relaxing. ‘But one day you will.’ He gave a playful tug on the long auburn hair that hung from under her topi.
She stared up at his face, and saw that his eyes were red and he still looked sad, even though his mouth was shaped into a smile.
‘It’s where I want to be,’ she repeated.
His smiled broadened, and this time his eyes smiled, too, and she felt a glow of happiness spread through her.
She was very sad that Eddie had gone to join the two older brothers she’d never met. She’d loved Eddie and had been looking forward to him being old enough to play with her, and now she was left with only the servants’ children to play with and her ayah. But she was happy that her father thought that she and he were alike. She wouldn’t have wanted to be like her mother, who always seemed angry.
‘I want to grow tea, too, Papa,’ she said.
Her father laughed. ‘Like I said, you’re a Lawrence through and through, Charlie.’ He leaned down and hugged her. Then he straightened up and stared again at the terraces that lay below them and on either side.
His gaze drifted across the verdant bushes to the house where the last of his sons lay, silent ever more, and his smile faded.
Writing Tips with Historical Fiction author, Liz Harris.
I hope that the following tips will prove to be helpful to you.
Because I think in twelves, and I’m a great one for making lists, my writing tips will be twelve in number, and I’m presenting them in a list.
1. Read as many books in the genre in which you’re writing. By doing this, you’ll understand the conventions of that genre.
2. Take your curiosity with you wherever you go. While presentation is very important, what matters above all is the content. Your story is the content, and much of that will develop from your curiosity.
To get a story going, you could ask yourself What if? For example, in the film ‘Sliding Doors’, we’re shown the situation that follows the wife missing the train, and also the situation that follows the wife catching that train. The film maker had asked, What if she’d caught the train, and not missed it?
Ask what might happen if a character unexpectedly overhears something, or sees something untoward, or arrives unexpectedly, or misunderstands something that’s just been said, and so on. The answers to those questions will help you to develop your plot.
Ask yourself why a character did what they did. Everything one does is done for a reason, and that reason may further the plot. And everything that’s done will have an effect on one or more of your characters. How each character responds to what’s happened will give you further material for your story. And don’t forget the minor characters! They, too, may have a role to play, albeit a slight one.
3. You’ll need to keep track of your thoughts and ideas, and what you see and hear, so keep a notebook and pen at your side, day and night. You might think that the following morning, you’ll remember the brilliant idea you had in the wee small hours, but you probably won’t. Write it down at the moment of inspiration.
When you’re out and about, be alert for snatches of conversation. If you’re on a train, for example, and you overhear an intriguing remark, jot it down in your notebook. You can then build on it in your mind, thinking about the sort of person who might have made such a comment, and in what circumstances, and why. It could even, one day, be the opening sentence of your novel!
Take note of everything in the environment around you, and jot down the colours of the sky at differing times of day, the sounds of the birds that come alive in the night, the scent of the earth and grass after rain, the aromas that emanate from different types of restaurants, the dry dusty air that sticks in your nose and your throat on a hot day, the feel of the wet ground beneath your feet as you head up a muddy track. Record all of your impressions as they will help you to engage your reader’s senses.
4. Be careful when it comes to your characters’ names.
Years ago, a copy editor told me that readers skim. To prevent confusion, therefore, one should avoid having names that start with the same letter. Write two lists of the letters A to Z - one for your male characters, and the other for your females - and cross each letter off whenever you select a name that starts with that letter. Remember surnames as well as first names. And think also of syllables. It’s wise to vary the number of syllables in your names.
Make sure you choose names current at the time your novel’s set. Parish lists will help. If using the internet to find names popular in 1900, for example, make sure you have the correct link for your novel’s setting. US names, found in .com links, differ from those in the UK.
If you’re writing historical fiction, make sure you get your titles right. Know when the title first came into existence, and how such characters should be addressed, and whether the title is for life only or will pass to the younger generation.
5. Try to work daily on your novel, if possible.
I said ‘work’, not ‘write’. If you have a manic day, anything you write in a few snatched moments will probably have to be completely rewritten when you return to the novel on another day, more relaxed and with time to think. Better than write when you lack the time for thought, do a bit of research, or make a note of where you’ll be going next in the story. Everything you do towards your novel keeps you on top of it.
6. At the beginning of each new writing day, read carefully through everything you wrote the day before. By the time you come to the end of the previous day’s work, you’ll be back in the heads of your characters, in the action, in their locations and in the period during which they lived.
You’ll also, almost certainly, have tightened your prose as it would be hard to avoid tweaking it as you read through it. This means that you’ll have less to do when you reach the end of the novel and start to edit it as a whole.
That isn’t to say, though, that you should keep going over and over the previous day’s work before you break fresh ground. If you did that, you’d risk never reaching the end of the book. Just one read through, and then move on.
7. Before you go to sleep or get up, lie in bed deciding what scene you need to write next. When you sit down at the computer, if you know what you’re going to be writing, you’ll avoid staring bleakly at a blank screen after you’ve finished reading through the previous day’s work.
If you find yourself at your desk, and still haven’t been able to think of where to go next in your story, do some research. Research isn’t the monopoly of historical writers – even contemporary novels require a degree of research, just not as much. Your research could stimulate some ideas.
8. I’ve mentioned research several times. It’s important to keep track of the information you find. When I wrote The Road Back, my debut novel, I had one online file only for Ladakh, an Indian province in which part of the story took place. It meant that if I wanted to find out about the weather in Ladakh in a particular month, or about the clothes the people wore, or the food they ate, and so on, I had to scroll down through a mass of verbiage to find the information I needed. It was time-consuming and cumbersome.
I now have an online folder for each novel. In that folder, I have documents headed ‘Food’, ‘Clothes’, Climate’, ‘Flora & Fauna’, etc. By doing this, I’ve saved myself so much time.
9. Chapter plan. When you complete a chapter, it’s an idea to record in brief the details in that chapter. You might think you’ll never forget where you placed a particular conversation/action, but you will.
Having a chapter plan will help you enormously when you finish your book and start editing the novel as a whole. For example, as you edit the book, you might realise that you’ve said that something will happen later, but forgotten to put that in. If you’ve a chapter plan, you can easily locate where that missing something should be placed. And having such a plan will also help you make adjustments when you’re sent the edits from a professional editor.
In my chapter plan, I record the page at which the chapter begins, the time and place in which it’s set, a few words about what happens in the chapter, the word count, and, finally, I have a column for notes.
The notes’ column is a reminder to me of what I’ve written. For example, I always forget which is the UK spelling and which the US for words such as ‘whisky’, ‘curb’ and ‘drily’, so the first time I use that word, I record it in the notes’ column. Thereafter, I’ll be consistent, even if I’m consistently wrong!
I also jot down under notes, my characters’ names, age at that time, their physical characteristics, jobs, etc.
10. Remember that your novel will be read on kindles, as well as in paperback. Personally, I find very off-putting if I see a whole kindle screen filled with one paragraph only – it’s all words, and no indentations. Like a plate of lamb stew served up with boiled cabbage and boiled potatoes, it’s colourless. There’ll almost always be options as to where to start a new paragraph, and I now ensure that I take the option that allows me to write in shorter paragraphs.
Dialogue, too, can be helpful. It reveals a person’s character and often develops the plot, but it also breaks up the page and makes it more attractive to the eye. Try to avoid a long list of 'he said' and 'she said', though. There are ways around using too many speech tags. For example:
Tom looked around the room. ‘Where’s he hiding, then?’
11. This brings me to the presentation of your book, which is the spelling and punctuation side of writing.
When people talk, they vary the pitch of their voice and they gesticulate. Their body language communicates their meaning to the other person. A story is a form of communication, but without gestures, vocal intonations or any body language.
Your punctuation, therefore, must show the reader how you want your story to be read. Do you want a short pause, for example? If so, it’ll be a comma. Do you want a longer pause? If so, it’ll be a full stop.
Punctuation can also make the meaning clear. Look at the following two sentences, and see the power of one little comma.
‘Would you like to eat Andrew?’ the woman asked.
‘Would you like to eat, Andrew?’ the woman asked.
If you aren’t sure about punctuation, it’s worth getting a punctuation book to keep at your side, next to a good dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. After all, you want your novel to be the best it can be, and for that, the presentation should do justice to your story.
12. Everything you write should advance the plot or the characters - or do both of those. If a scene doesn’t do either of those, it’s better to delete it yourself rather than wait for an editor to ask you to do so. Much as it may hurt to Kill Your Little Darlings, the hurt will be temporary as the instant improvement to your novel will be visible, and soften the blow.
Store everything you delete in a clearly labelled online document. One day, you’ll probably use the material in a different context. Nothing is ever wasted.
Right, I’ve reached the end of Number Twelve, so that’s it!
Born in London, Liz Harris graduated from university with a Law degree, and then moved to California, where she led a varied life, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company.
A few years later, she returned to London and completed a degree in English, after which she taught secondary school pupils, first in Berkshire, and then in Cheshire.
In addition to the ten novels she’s had published, she’s had several short stories in anthologies and magazines.
Liz now lives in South Oxfordshire. An active member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society, her interests are travel, the theatre, cinema, reading and cryptic crosswords.
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