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Welcome

This book has a bit of everything. The most powerful thing it does possess; soul. Good, old-fashioned, soul. – Margaret Madden, Bleach House Library and Irish Independent reviewer.

Hello and welcome to my website! I write mainly historical fiction, my particular interest being World War One. I have a burning desire to rip through the saccharine, sentimentalised, packaged narratives of this era, and tell powerful stories that will keep any reader enthralled.

Read more about my books here.

Mailing List, Freebie Story and Other Sundries

Well! It’s been a busy and enjoyable few weeks since Margaret Madden kindly hosted the cover reveal for Lucia’s War, a new story of music, motherhood and racial struggle during WWI. During that time I pretty much parked on Twitter promoting the ARC giveaway, now closed. There is more work to be done before the ARCs will be ready, but they should be available in March.

(Book bloggers, if you are interested in an e-ARC and have not already contacted me yet, please comment here, @ me on twitter or facebook, or drop me a mail at contact@susanlanigan.com)

I also started up a mailing list for everyone who would like pre-order info. It has gained a few users, but I made the classic marketing error of not having any gifts available for tempted subscribers. While I am working on another, unrelated project at present, I do hope in the next fortnight to have a free story available from a piece I have already written. It is set during a counter-attack in the Battle of Loos in 1915, in the White Feathers universe, entitled “Finding a Common Tongue”. An injured German second lieutenant encounters a traumatised English lance-corporal on the battlefield; they struggle to communicate at first, and then confess their stories to each other and form a real bond. This will only be available to subscribers on the mailing list so do sign up if you are interested!

Thanks to all here and looking forward to having more updates available soon 🙂

Now You Know: Writing Historical Fiction In a Dangerous Present

Audio of this blog entry available here:

Should we or shouldn’t we? That is the question.

I’m sure I’m not the only author who questions her moral right to create fiction in a world where facts and events are coming at us hard and fast. I am not going to mention any distressing items in this post, but the merest glance at the news sites, or at twitter, will provide sufficient enlightenment, or endarkenment, as the case may be. We are inflicted with “garbage leadership”, to use Elizabeth Gilbert’s phrase, exactly when we need strong guidance at the helm. A particularly unsavoury example among all the muck waded through – and there is a lot of muck – has to be the Prime Minister of Australia, whose response to the plight of his stricken country was to put up a fundraising link that went straight to his own party.

As for me, my inner critic is harsh and relentless, and that’s before I’ve written a word: How dare you, she hisses. How dare you presume to tell escapist fables, instead of squaring your shoulder to bear the load of responsibility that now falls on you? How can you presume to do something as frivolous as write romances, or historical tales, or siren songs to readers desperate for escape? How dare you even consider escapism? You coward. You shirker of moral duty. You waster of time when we need to be alert, ready, fighting the enemy. You switcher-on of electric lights, you skipper of zero-waste meetings, you boiler of water in the kettle, you worthless, car-dependent parasite. How dare you?

Yes, I am Mrs Humphrey Ward in my own head. I belabour myself with endless white feathers. What a lovely inner landscape to carry around.

But another voice, beyond this screaming virago, susurrates gently in my mind. Now you know, it says, now you know. All the more important that you write now. Continue reading “Now You Know: Writing Historical Fiction In a Dangerous Present”

Why We Are Not Done with World War I

Audio of this blog entry available here:

I was at a lovely dinner with some other novelists recently (after a long hiatus from that world) and one of my dining companions, whose sharp narrative style I admire a lot and envy a little, told me: “I can’t publish my Victorian novels traditionally because publishers keep telling me that they only want World War II.”

Not only Victorian novels. World War One has apparently gone out of fashion too. Of course the centenary – the one the Irish Times said I “got out my novel in time for” – has passed. White Feathers did indeed come out in August 2014, bang on almost 100 years after England declared war on Germany for the first time. But now the centenary of the 1918 armistice has passed, as has the 101st anniversary of a post-war snap pre-Christmas general election, which was marked almost precisely on the day by the holding of…another snap pre-Christmas general election, the less said of which the better.

(The first election features in Lucia’s War, btw, as a background detail. I don’t bother mentioning the outcome – Tories lost by a huge margin – as protags are far too busy doing… other stuff.)

So, we’ve all moved on. Readers don’t want all that WWI stuff any more. It’s too long ago. Too irrelevant. Too often repeating the same themes. Is that right?

I insert exhibit A into my argument for the contrary: Continue reading “Why We Are Not Done with World War I”

Lucia’s War – Dramatis Personae

These people have been populating my head for the past while, so I want to share them with you – I’m looking forward to readers getting to know them better next year, if they don’t recognise them already, that is! For the gentlemen in Lucia’s life, I also have visuals 🙂

Lucia Percival, by the time this novel begins, is an accomplished opera singer, a dramatic soprano with considerable coloratura range, whose talent and ambition are hampered only by attitudes towards her race. But in the late Forties, on the eve of her last performance, she has no intention of going onstage, and she has a story to tell. Thirty years earlier, as a poor, ambitious young Jamaican girl seeking her fortune as a musician in London during the First World War, her life took a wrong turning and has never recovered its course. Her brother Reginald is also overseas, on active service, and bitter about his prospects, to an extent which alarms Lucia.

Her friend Eva is her Irish housemate – and, being white if not of high class, a useful ally, helping Lucia meet people, manage a life in a hostile city, and get herself together again. But can she be relied upon while struggling with demons of her own and cranky a lot of the time? Eva’s friend Sybil, an aristocrat living a dangerous life, is intelligent but has little time for Lucia.

Edgar, a fellow Jamaican, was supposed to study at the Bar, but ended up in a munitions factory then became a private investigator. Lucia seeks him out for certain details.

William Butler Yeats is a rather annoying Irishman in his mid-fifties, whom Lucia encounters at a séance in Euston Square and has to work hard to shake off. Writes poems too.

Arthur, a charismatic and seemingly easygoing African-American composer, is drawn to Lucia and they share an intellectual and emotional bond as musicians. But while he understands her in a way few else can, Lucia is uncertain if she can confide her secrets in him.

Here is a visual of Arthur as I see him, represented by the tenor Lawrence Brownlee:

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Image from lawrencebrownlee.com – who is a lovely singer and well worth checking out

Robin, on the other hand, Scottish doctor and “ginger midget”, who forges a different bond with Lucia during the thick of battle, is blunt, forthright and “Lord Mayors” (swears) far too much – not to mention challenges Lucia to a game of chess with fiery results! But when it comes to his family, he is not quite so courageous, with disastrous results…

Here is a visual of Robin as I see him, represented by the actor Scott Grimes:

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courtesy of imdb.com – and Robin’s the kind of guy who would *totally* have the top button open!

Lilian, meanwhile, is an old woman scarred by the war, and its rules on how she is expected to behave in the face of great loss. Damaged and lost, rejected by society, she falls into Lucia’s life and the fellow feeling between the two women, as well as the secrets Lilian uncovers, galvanises Lucia in spite of herself.

And of course there is the most important character, the centre of Lucia’s life, whom I will refrain from discussing at this juncture, but who absolutely informs her decisions, her life and her regrets…

So, that’s it!

And The Singing Will Never Be Done

11/11/1918

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon

A Legend and an Inspiration: Jessye Norman, Dramatic Soprano

I learned today, with sadness, of the opera singer Jessye Norman’s passing at the age of 74. She was a vocalist who had the power to move mountains, and a deeply serious musician. Her loss is mourned all over the world.

During my research for Lucia’s War I have listened to many singers,  but it’s safe to say the book is deeply influenced by Ms Norman’s sublime work, and Lucia’s later character by the aura she carries. There is an imperial streak to a dramatic soprano, and Jessye Norman always had it in her bearing. Strauss’s deceptively easy Last Songs, heard in my mind as rendered by Ms Norman, feature near the beginning of the book (don’t worry, it’s not an anachronism!)

But if any of her wonderful repertoire stands out for me, it must be her rendition of Iseult’s ecstatic, despairing Liebestod at the end of Tristan und Isolde (which resonates in the fictional universe as the story of an Irish princess who cannot live without her lover) which Lucia, with her temperament, could not but someday sing when at the zenith of her God-given talent.

Thank you for the music, Jessye Norman. The world is a little meaner for your departure. If you can, take part of a morning to have a listen to her works. She was wonderful.

 

 

 

Things You Learn Listening to an Audiobook You Wrote

Today marks five years since White Feathers was launched. Weird to think it was so long ago! In honour of this, I’ve decided to write about the experience of listening to the audiobook that came out much more recently, and what I learned from it. I haven’t read very many accounts of what it’s like for an author to listen to their own work, though this vivid account by Caroline O’Donoghue was very well-observed. (I really really enjoyed her book!) So, here goes:

It’s nerve-wracking.

There is something about hearing your own words read back to you that’s difficult to handle. I wrote a nice polite tweet to the actress about the audio of White Feathers back in March but the truth was, I had hardly listened to any of it. I was way too nervous. Only when I saw the chapters guide on Audible and chose to listen out of sequence was I able to start getting stuck in, and her reading blew my mind completely. I would go on periodic binges then get scared again then go on another binge. I got almost a high listening to it, especially when Amy de Bhrún did such a good job getting me engrossed in the milieu.

Things you wouldn’t expect to work so well, really do

Long action scenes work very well in audio. I was not expecting that. The battle scene where Joseph Cronin makes his stand (of sorts), as well as the later butchery of the Somme depicted behind the lines, were really vivid when I listened to them in the car and the tension did not drop. I learned anew that this is where research excels – binding the narrative together with confident knowledge of the facts behind the fiction, without pushing itself forward too much.

Good dialogue is great too, with medium attribution by the writer being best for listening. No attribution is infuriating, but too much slows the pace down. It’s something I will bear more in mind now when I write longish exchanges between characters.

Pitch variation matters, especially with romance

With a novel that unapologetically foregrounds romance as White Feathers does, it is absolutely vital for a sole reader to be easily able to use the lower register for male characters (or the higher, for female, if the reader is a man.) You do not want to be listening to a conversation where both characters sound the same! The writer’s job, I think, is to help the actor by writing dialogue that creates such unmistakable sexual tension (or whatever dynamic is required) that it will be a matter of natural inclination to drop or raise tone for the other protagonist.

I’m delighted to say that the pitch variation here is perfect, and as for sexual tension? I reckon I needed to stick the phone in the freezer on occasion to cool it down 😀

Accents, accents, accents

I really didn’t appreciate the importance of accents until listening back and realising how many there were. And my God, the very narration of the story is a political act (which suits me fine: the entire damn novel is political) because it’s close 3rd person from Eva’s point of view, and she is a second generation Irish immigrant, a disrespected group in 1910s England. There is a line somewhere early in the book which says that Eva tries to suppress any trace of an Irish accent but it comes out when she’s angry or impassioned and when you hear this being done, it introduces a political context which was not always on my mind when writing, but is inescapable in the context of recent anti-Irish sentiment expressed by parts of the British media.

(I felt particular joy at the line where she’s so furious with Christopher that she calls him an expletive, and I forgot to clarify that her accent slips, but the actress leans in with such enthusiasm that there could be no doubt of it – hurrah!)

There’s also a matter of versatility. Fitting in Lucia’s Jamaican and Robin’s Glaswegian accent in two lines of dialogue takes a lot of vocal flexibility, I’d imagine. I really really liked how Lucia’s accent is portrayed so sensitively, the requisite Caribbean lilt without ever forsaking real emotion or being parodic. For such a volatile and emotional character, this is perfect. (And that scene invoking the goddess Erzulie was way creepier than in the book!)

Minor Characters

THE POOR CANADIAN GUY! Sniff! This fellow has probably max four lines but when he’s brought into the operating theatre during the Somme horror and he’s begging for a drink, in her reading he does it in this really soft Canadian accent and hearing him plead, I was heartbroken for him. I definitely did not feel that emotion writing the scene, to be honest I hardly thought twice about him once it was written. But that’s the thing about hearing people speak. They might not have much to say, but there’s something distinguished about it. Roma was a particular revelation: everything she said had cool authority, poised and perfectly pitched. You are going to get back in that van, Sybil, and there’s an end to it.

Also, a late, dishonourable mention for the odious Breedagh Stewart and her prurient perving over Eva’s stash of banned D.H. Lawrence novels. In the middle of some horrific scenes she provided much-needed, if grim, levity. Humour can be tricky, but here it works.

You Learn Stuff About Yourself

That nasty line from Christopher to Eva about how she fills up a space with talk? Delivered with such a blood-chilling, malevolent snarl that it quite shocked me? I realised why a little later. Being forced to hear it like that made me realise: it’s my own damn inner critic again. In the novel, he’s being an a**e, and he apologises. I guess my inner critic owes me an apology too. Or at least my turned back and a book of poems chucked out the window.

The Isle of Wight Scene

Because, just listen to it. It has everything ::beams::

Right, so that’s it for the audiobook. Many thanks to Amy de Bhrún for doing such a sterling job and giving me hours of happiness listening to it. Now, roll on the film, or Netflix series, whichever comes first 🙂