The Year the Swans Came - The Series I had to write

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I first visited Amsterdam early in 1960s when it was a quiet sleepy city bursting with flowers and charm. Everyone pretty much spoke English - at that time German was never heard in the streets. We stayed in a B &B which, incidentally, appeared in the novel Turning Point, a futuristic thriller and the sequel to Running. Still there was nothing futuristic about our visit; my sister bought great armfuls of flowers and each day we visited the cake shop in Splot. In the evening we strolled the streets leading to the Blue Note, a Night Club, where the vocalist sang Yesterday, and other Beetles Classics, and very sweetly replied he was married to any of us teenagers, including me, who gazed at him with adoring eyes. There, I also fell in love with a student I met at the club, who took me back to my B & B on the back of his bicycle. His name was Gerard Bader (only a single r) which I coopted for my novel.

I always wanted to set a book in Amsterdam, and the idea for Children of Zeus series began right there when I took my granddaughter for a visit in 2010. (Incidentally, we were celebrating the publication of Running at the time. The storyline for that took three years to evolve, and  wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t dropped into the local garage and spotted a Suzuki 1000cc motorbike.)

There are so many strings that led to the writing of The Year the Swans Came and the trilogy Children of Zeus. Agents played a large part because it was an agent who suggested more, which ended in my writing The Click of a Pebble, (Bk 1 of the trilogy, Children of Zens : July 2019). No wonder it took so many years to evolve. I gathered all the memories of my first visits, very few motor cars, the dark furnishings of the B & B, push-button light switches on its stairway that gave you just enough time to reach the top of the next flight before clicking off, cobbled alleyways and decorative bridges, and added them to the souvenirs of my visit in 2010. 

These memories included the Keukonhoff, a bus ride into the country, where windmills were obligatory, and a tiny island where fishermen lived, the passageways between its houses no wider than rat runs. We saw furniture being lofted up the outside of a house because its internal stairs were too narrow, and of course we dawdled over old bridges, visited the flower markets and ate cream cakes, although not from same cake shop in Splot. We also visited the Anne Frank House, where we learned about the plight of the Jews in the war, and the crippling starvation meted out to its citizens; also museums, where scenes of windswept barques dominated, and I noticed a painting of Zeus, dating from 1610 and another of Leda and the Swan. Lastly, I read the myth of the Angel of Mons. 

The finishing touches - it just happens my favourite book is: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier which is set in 17th century Delft.

So what is the Year the Swans Came really about. Certainy an introiguing mix of fact and fantasy with a tag line: Love is a precius work of art on a damaged canvas. 

If I had to say which of my books is it closest to, I would suggest Time Breaking, because both are first-person. It is also fantasy but set in England in1648. The big difference is the style of writing, The Year the Swans Came is not for teens. I think twentiees or thirties plus.

This is the review from Catherine Kullmann who explains it far better than I ever could:

*****As Maidy Bader anxiously awaits her sixteenth birthday, the day on which ‘overnight girls become adults, eligible to be courted, and to marry’ her thoughts return to the past and most importantly to her elder brother Pieter’s sixteenth birthday, the last he spent with his family. No one speaks of him or why he vanished. Life goes on as it always did in the unnamed country. The unnamed invaders have left and those deportees who could, have returned. Among them are the Bader’s neighbours, the Endelbaums. Their beautiful daughter Ruth, who is Maidy’s best friend, has had to give up her hopes of marrying Pieter. Slightly older than Maidy, Ruth is the belle of the college the girls attend while Maidy stays more in the background.
On Maidy’s birthday, everything changes. Maidy begins to emerge from her chrysalis. Pieter returns as suddenly as he departed, but gives no explanation for his long absence. Ruth immediately claims him, but she is also intrigued by the four strangers, handsome young men, who suddenly appear at the college. She takes their attention and interest as her due but Maidy is surprised to find herself sought out both by gentle Jaan and the strangers’ leader, the charismatic and mysterious Zande. And Pieter is desperate to marry Ruth and complete his apprenticeship with his father, a maker of mirrors.
But all is not as it seems. This is not a college romance. Unimaginable secrets swirl beneath the surface of daily life and all too soon the unwitting Maidy and Ruth are drawn into the vortex of an ancient tragedy that threatens them all anew.
I was blown away by this book, enthralled by the beautiful writing, the slow build-up of the mesmerizing story and the wonderful characters. Magical realism of the highest order.

Catherine is quite correct, both the country and the invaders remain unnamed. And as I have said, it is Amsterdam. And there my next problem arose. It you name a city, readers will be on the look out for errors in the descriptions. No, such and such a street runs left! If you pick up a copy of the novel, you will discover a map at the front. Compare it with Amsterdam and you will see it is skewed – welcome to magical realism.

Lastly - In strict chronological order, The Year the Swans Came which takes place in 1951 should be Book 4. The Click of a Pebble begins the series in late summer 1934 and takes us to 1948 or 9.

For that you can blame my good friend Katie Bowes, the New Zealand author. She said, ‘After reading, Swans, everyone will want to know more about Zande and how he got to be Zande.’ So read The Year the Swans Came and then the trilogy, Children of Zeus, when all will be revealed. By which time, with luck, I will have completed Book 5 which brings it all to a conclusion.

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Barbara Spencer
Award Winning Author
Connect with me on:
Twitter: @BarbaraSpencerO

About Barbara Spencer:
In 1967, considering herself to be destined for a life of mediocrity, 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. No stranger to schools and book-signings at Waterstones, after twelve years writing adventure stories for children and thrillers for young adults, Barbara began writing historical fantasy for an adult audience. Her first novel The Year the Swans Came was published in 2018. 

My Guest today is Barbara Spencer

Almost as fascinating as reading a book is the question: how did the writer come up with the story? In the bath, perhaps? According to my daughter, JK Rowling thought of Harry Potter on a train journey, while the idea for one of my books appeared whilst I was walking round a village in Oxfordshire – very dull.
Or was it?

I’d been attending a Cornerstones editing course, staying at Charney Manor in the village of Charney Bassett in Oxfordshire. I have to confess the last session of the day had seen steam coming out of my ears, listening while other members of the group destroyed the most beautiful piece of prose – no not mine.

Ten minutes later, I had the story for a novel. I picked up the pieces, the houses in the village and the manor, transporting them to Dorset to an imaginary village near Blandford Forum, and began writing. But not for a while, because first I needed to learn about first-person writing – thanks to the author Daphne du Maurier – write the book and find a title. 

In those days titles were usually the result of an open telephone line between me and my daughter and a furious number of emails. And so Time Breaking was born. And it is from this book that I will be reading in my live video. 
But why Time Breaking? Because it marks an important departure point in my writing career - the definite break from young children to YA and adult, and it is the forerunner of my current genre of magical realism - The Year the Swans Came and the trilogy, Children of Zeus, of which so far Book 1, The Click of a Pebble is already out, with Book 2 expected in February.

So – that’s where we are heading in a moment. But first as has been my habit during the last five weeks, I want to introduce you to the author, Barbara Spencer, my alter ego.

The name may well be unfamiliar to some of you, although to Mums and Dads with young families, Barbara Spencer is known as someone who can guarantee to keep their children quiet for a few hours, while children remember my stories (not my name, small children rarely remember titles and authors’ names) because they made them laugh or were so exciting they were on the edge of their seats until the last page.

I wasn't like Jacqueline Wilson who knew she wanted to become a writer from the age of siz. When I was a child, the words ' Follow your Dream' did not exist – at least not in our household – both my parents, my father jn particular, throwbacks to Victoriana. (Dads,Daffodils and Victoriana: Age and the Antique Sideboard, published by Troubador.)

There was scant interest in our hobbies or our pursuit of a career, my mother no doubt hoping we would choose something that could easily be cast aside in favour of marriage. Even in my early twenties my mother’s conversation was peppered with gems such as – if you’d really set your mind to it, you could have married him – as if him was the winning lottery ticket; which is odd  considering her own marriage was bitterly unhappy and our childhood wasn’t much cop either. I wasn't the only one. In my generation there existed millions of women who were unable to follow their dream until they had waved goodbye to their youngest child or who had retired.

My mother did me one favour though: she introduced me to cricket.

It was a test match between England and the West Indies at Edgbaston. I was 17 and wore a lime green dress. That’s how memorable the occasion was. Of course, ignorant of the game, the sight of Peter May and Colin Cowdrey thrashing the West Indian bowling was so appalling that I immediately and irrevocably became of fan of WI cricket and backed the losing side … unaware it was usually the other way round, the WI thrashing England. 

For almost a decade I followed matches, first on radio, then television, then travelling to the ground, I also fell madly in love with their captain, Gary Sobers, and briefly became his girlfriend. My sister had a restaurant near Reading and driving down from London to Bristol on the A4 - no motorways then - the cricketers sometimes used to call in. Then in1967 devastated by the end of the cricket season, I saved up my money and on Boxing Day travelled to the WI to watch the test series – planning to be away six weeks.

And it was there sitting on a balcony in Bridgetown Barbados that I began to write magazine articles and received my first pay check. £25. Of course I didn’t want to return to the UK, who would? But after an abortive and hilarious attempt to run a hotel, I managed to outstay my welcome – not having a work permit – and was politely asked by the Chief of Police to leave. At which point I was scooped up by an American, Deanie Skinner, who had a serious drink problem, and was sent back to college to learn how to teach shorthand and typing.

I spent the next few years in Grenada as head of a secretarial college, which was the most fascinating and rewarding of periods. If you know the country today, it is a whole world away from that of the late sixties and seventies. In the book, This is Grenada, by Frances Key, I quote:

The islands of the West Indies are many and varied but ask a Dutch mate on a freighter, and his eyes light up, and he says, ‘Ah,yes, but there is Grenada.’ From the northernmost Shetlands, The US, UK, Switzerland or Holland, people on their way to other places came and they stayed. And why do they stay? Grenada is far from perfect. Though it may be just south of paradise it is also just north of frustration. 

And what frustration: The electricity regularly failed on a Sunday, just as I was planning to do my ironing; our water tank on the roof was empty more often than it was full. When that happened, I queued at the village tap, filling buckets and bowls, washed in the sea, rinsing off the salt with water from the bucket. No fresh milk or meat, very little choice of food in the supermarket, except for bananas, bluggo, and yam. And a hospital which, it was well known, you only visited if you intended dying. If you wanted to live, you flew to Barbados.
When our school eventually collapsed for lack of students, I was redirected to New York, where I spent several more years – mostly at the opera when I wasn’t working – and ended up working in Japan, Greece, France and the Middle East.

I think it was about that time my Mother stopped reading the newspaper because everywhere I went, war followed.

And then, following my return to England along came books for children. Which is where my alter ego first made her appearance and I learned to act.
It was the boook 'Scruffy' which brought that about. ‘Write what you know about’ is a good maxim and I had followed it, writing a story about a lost puppy. A huge success with launches and newspaper articles, and press flashing their cameras, because it was illustrated by children. 

Unfortunately, as in science, for every action there is a reaction, so in life for every upside there is a downside. I began to receive invitations to talk at schools and to do signings at Waterstones. Really scared, I'd don my best clothes, have my hair done, and arrive at the school in the early hours of the morning, and head for Reception.

'I'm Barbara Spencer' I'd say.
'Oh yes, You're the scruffy lady.'

Enter one alter ego!


And since this week, I am introducing you to Time Breaking, this is the synopsis.

"I hate my life. Why can't I be someone else?"
But plunged into the nightmare world of the 17th century is not exactly what Molly had in mind when she said this. While staying a 17th century manor, Molly inadvertently triggers a time-chute and re-appears in 1648, to find she has taken the place of Molly Hampton, the eldest daughter of a Puritan family. After suffering a beating, an entire morning spent in chapel, a smelly privy, a muddy farmyard and cold water to wash in, Molly labels the seventeenth century 'barbaric' and is hell-bent on escaping back to her own life. But the manor house, the home of Sir Richard Blaisdale, is now barred to her.
      With England once again on the brink of civil war, Molly discovers in Ann Hampton, the mother, and her new sisters and brother, the family she has always dreamed of. And when she discovers that Richard, the son of Sir Richard Blaisdale, is someone who really cares for her, gradually Molly begins to change her mind, believing that she can stay and take Molly Hampton's place.
      But fate has other plans for her ...