I started my writing journey in my sixties, much later than most authors. I think it was about the time I became an empty nester when I decided I wanted to write a novel. At that stage, I had no idea what to write about – crime, fantasy, romance – only that I wanted to see a book through to publication. So when I read George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and an idea for a novel began to emerge, I seized on it.
For those not familiar with George Macdonald Fraser’s work: Harry Flashman, a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays written by Thomas Hughes in 1857, was expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness. In Flashman, GMF picks up where Hughes left off, and at age 19 Flashman is banished to British India where he joins the staff of General Elphinstone, who is about to take charge of the British army camped near Kabul. In my copy of Flashman, GMF refers readers to one or two accounts of the First Afghan War, but in particular to ‘Patrick Macrory’s admirably clear account, Signal Catastrophe’. Macrory, in turn, refers his readers to other sources, including Helen Douglas Mackenzie’s Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life, and Lady Sale’s Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan.
One source led to another and another and so on. I had managed to buy copies of Signal Catastrophe and Lady Sale’s Journal but the other sources were too costly, so I turned to the National Library of Australia or accessed them through the Internet Archive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I spent a couple of years reading and making notes, and writing draft after draft before the novel began to resemble what it is today.
For a long time, my book was going to be called Storms and Sunshine. At first, I presented Colin Mackenzie as the main character, but as time passed the story seemed to take on a life of its own. As I said in my Author’s Note, it really was as if Lady Sale and Emily Eden knocked on the door and demanded to be let in. In an early draft, I wrote (and later removed) a passage that said in part: ‘Lady Sale was clever and questioning, at a time when clever, questioning women were frowned on…’. So perhaps it was her intellect and thinly veiled sarcasm in her journal that caught my imagination and ultimately led to Brigadier Shelton’s anguished outburst in Chapter 19: ‘Begone, woman, and take your benighted opinions with you!’ One of my favourite lines in the book.
Or perhaps it was just that I identified more with the female characters. Emily Eden was an evolution. She wasn’t there in the early drafts and it was only when I realised I needed to continue the narrative about the ‘big picture’ in India and Afghanistan, begun in Chapter 2, that Emily came to the party. She became the conduit through which George Eden expressed his hopes and fears and, ultimately, his distress, while an invented Hetty Eden and her incontinent pug became comedic foils for Emily’s sharp tongue.
Timelines were tricky. I kept spreadsheets to help make sure the chronology made sense and was reasonably accurate. Because the story contains so many points of view (I counted ten), and the scenes moved between the Kabul cantonment, Jalalabad, Calcutta, and wherever the hostages happened to be, it was important to keep track of events, locations and dates. As just one example, the letters written by Lady Sale to her husband often took weeks to reach him, so I had to ensure each letter told only of events that had occurred before the letter was written. I found another challenge of writing historical fiction based on fact was being constrained by the actual dates and widely known facts of the events and having to build the narrative around them.
I used the quotes between chapters to add information and context, to move the story along and for impact – the compelling and poignant words of the actual characters, and the insightful excerpts of Patrick Macrory and William Dalrymple, added a degree of realism that could only come from these sources. I collected these memorable quotes as I researched, and ended up with about three times as many as I could use. It was challenging to decide which ones to use, where to place them, and which ones to leave out.
When I’m asked what I would have done differently, well, I would have learnt more about the craft of creative writing before beginning the novel. I would have understood the stages of the Dramatic Arc, the necessity of first developing a plot and chapter outlines, what is meant by different narrative structures, and much, much more. It all seems so obvious now, but I knew none of this before writing A Very British Disaster. But I know it now, and I’m looking forward to taking a very different approach with my next book.