writing the weather

Lawyers Bay

Smails Beach & Lawyers Head Dunedin, 29 Jan 2015.  Picture by Paul Le Comte

“It was a dark and stormy night” predisposes a reader to expect dark and stormy action within a story.  As writers, we manipulate the weather – and some might say, the reader – to suit our story.  It’s fiction after all: who is to say what patterns the weather follows in our make-believe world?

But in writing historical fiction, the weather may well be as important to our story as the landscape.  My stories are set in Dunedin in 1877.  Instead of manipulating the weather to suit the story, I made the decision to accommodate the actual weather into the story.  In doing so, I gained an important insight into the spread of Scarlet Fever; evidence to support the charges of cruelty against Martha Reid; and evidence of perjury committed by several individuals in another case before the Supreme Court.

I’d be interested to hear from other writers who have written through the weather rather than dictating it.

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losing the last word: “bloom where you are”

Bloom where you are planted

Image credit: Katie Makes

It comes as no surprise to learn that even the mere possession of a red pen changes one.  With a red pen teachers scribble more comments on papers, and mark more harshly.  With a red pen in my hand, nothing is safe from editorial comment.  Not even “bloom where you’re planted.”  Distilled from the writings of St Francis de Sales in the same manner that “First, do no harm” is distilled from the Hippocratic Oath, “bloom where you’re planted” has been used to encourage individuals not to wait for more auspicious circumstances before deciding to bloom by no less a worthy personage as Mother Teresa.  And yet my red pen itches, even though this aphorism is more applicable to my novel than to most.

All of the characters in Fever: 1877 struggle with having been tasked to become their best selves within the Cemetery where they have literally been planted.  Dr Edward, Dunedin’s Provincial Surgeon, is struggling with the knowledge that he was not buried with the other worthies in the Southern Cemetery; Adeline is struggling to cope with her unexpected death, and her even more unexpected New Life in a country where she know nothing and no one.  For my characters, “bloom where you’re planted” is apt, but they are exceptions.

My red pen itches, and finally strikes.  “Bloom where you are planted” becomes “Bloom where you are”, and in losing the final word gains credence.  Not all of us are planted; not all of us should remain planted.  Opportunities exist to bloom elsewhere, and doubtless some should be grasped.  We do not all need, we are not all required to remain where we are planted to bloom.

Bloom where you are planted.  Bloom where you are.  Bloom as you are.  Bloom: adopt the surface glow of vitality, or open a flower to the sun or moon.  Bloom.

And consider what else might benefit from losing the last word.  Are not “What does not kill you makes you” and “Home, sweet!” improvements?  There must be others, what do you think?

It all starts with…

I’m a New Zealand writer – a Dunedin writer.  The books I write are set squarely in Dunedin, and in 1877, and are told from the perspective of those in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery.

Why the Northern Cemetery?  For the past nine years I’ve been volunteering in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery, working with roses : planting, pruning, weeding, and most particularly, recording the 1,001 roses Heritage Roses Otago have planted there.  I know the Cemetery.  I know the roses, I know the people on whose graves those roses have been planted, and I know their headstones – the stories they tell in both text and symbol.

They – everyone – says to write about what you know.  It’s sound advice, though little of what you know often constitutes a story.  The story I wanted to tell was one that has haunted me for the past five years.  It is the story of Margaret McIntyre, and how she never received any justice for what happened to her.  In March of 2014 I began to write Maggie’s story, from the perspective of Adeline, a young Scots woman who unexpectedly died at sea off the Catlins coast, and Awakens in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery the day after she was buried there, to begin her New Life in a place where she knows nothing and no one.  At this point the story arced from 16 February 1877, the day that Maggie began working for Mrs Reid, to late November 1877.

By August it was clear that the story was bigger than expected, and the decision was made to split the book in two.  The first book was named Fever: 1877 and the second, Maggie’s story, Murder: 1877.   I began working exclusively on Fever: 1877, completing it in September, 2014.

‘Completing’ is a relative term.  Some people are born with a silver spoon; I swear I was born with a red pen.  In late November it dawned on me that it was possible to solve the problem of excessive word length by again splitting the book into Fever: 1877, covering twelve weeks, and Panic: 1877, taking the storyline to the end of April, 1877.

Murder: 1877 now begins in May 1877, and ends in mid-July, although we will find Maggie’s story continuing through…  Yes, there’s more.  Currently I have Unwanted: 1877 sketched out, which will lead into Outrage: 1877.  I’m hoping that will take us up to the end of 1877.

the Adeline books begin:

Some babies enter the world serenely, and some arrive screaming, full of protest at being expelled from the womb. I fear I was one of the latter, though Mother is not here to tell me. But there are plenty here that tell me that my entry into the world of the Dead was marked by more drama and protests than is deemed seemly in the recently Awakened.

Most of the Dead saw death approaching: some even welcomed it. But none were prepared to Awaken in the Cemetery following their burial. Those who first Awoke had no idea how to live their New Life. Perhaps in the old country there are old Dead to teach you, even as mothers teach babies how to live. But New Zealand is a young country: none have been in this Cemetery above five years. The Dead here are undaunted: they left the old country to build new lives in a new land. In their eyes they’ve done it once already.

But I am daunted. I boarded the Auckland in November. We celebrated Hogmanay at the Southern Tropic, and they tell me the ship berthed at Port Chalmers in February, after a fast voyage of eighty-three days, with a body in the hold that had once been me. The last thing I remember is the ship running along New Zealand’s southern coast. Wild weather whipped the surf and sent it crashing against the shore under an inky sky. The sound of waves and the sting of spray on my face are still fresh and vital memories, and with them comes a visceral memory of excitement coursing through my veins. I was alive – gloriously, wonderfully alive, and the future was all there before me. Pain shattered that moment, exploding through my head. Then came a falling, fresh pain, and then… nothing.

So ended my Life.

This is the story of finding myself Dead, and living in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery in 1877.