A Magnificent Obsession - The Year the Swans Came

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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. Other than the first person, they are very different Time Breaking is set in England in1648. Especially the style of writing, The Year the Swans Came is not for young teens. This is a top teenj/adult crossover.

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.

My book on Amazon

Barbara Spencer
Award Winning Author
Connect with me on:
Twitter: @BarbaraSpencerO
Facebook: facebook.com/BarbaraSpencerAuthor

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.


In Pursuit of Fame - Part 2




Something with a capital S


My granddaughter is an avid reader of Shakespeare, while I find his prose hard work. Nevertheless, it is the quality of what he says in his stories rather than the storyline, which brought him to the attention of the world. No vampires and aliens for him, rather more the human characteristics of love, ambition, prejudice, lust, envy and greed, set against backgrounds as rich as the prose he used. And whilst not reading each play, I am still able to recognise one of his many sayings: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

       I freely admit I have always hankered after ‘having greatness thrust upon me.’ But only literary greatness and I am not alone in wanting that. No doubt, if you lined up all those who think as I do, the column would stretch at least half-way round the coast of Britain. For me, I did get close enough to touch it with a couple of my YA novels, Running and Time Breaking. And yes, despite my great age, and with the knowledge that even if I did strike gold (a mixed metaphor) I would not live long enough to enjoy the success that came with it, I still dream of writing a bestseller.

       So what does it take to write a bestseller? Thought, hard work, and a whole helping of luck.

Plus, if this applies, the desire to write a bestseller.

       No shame in admitting it, the only difference is the way you pursue your goal.

       Good writing, editing and good presentation are a given if you seek fame and fortune. More and more writers are using third parties to proofread and edit. Yes, it costs but so do mistakes in the text. And get several people to have a go at the blurb – some are really cringe-worthy.

       You must also read or at the least wander into the library and find out what everyone else is reading. Decide what these books have in common. For me, bestsellers today share a writing style that is tight and to the point. Good authors don’t wander off into unnecessary scenes that are irrelevant to the plot … at least the majority don’t. Killing your darlings was the first piece of professional advice I ever received. Just because it sounds good, is not a fail-safe reason to include a particular incident, paragraph or chapter in the manuscript. (My first children’s fantasy I was asked to cut 10,000 words, down from 60 to 50,000. It was a much better book afterwards.)

       And before you send me a message on Facebook and present  me a list of authors whose books are widely read and who do wander about: e.g. Carlos Ruiz Zafon in The Shadow of the Wind is an example. About three-quarters of the way through, I thought he was simply showing off what a good writer he was. Remember, even these writers had first to be noticed: e.g. Tracey Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the perfect first novel with no such lapses.

     Genre has never been as important as it is now. Take current bestsellers – and I am not talking Pulitzer or Man Booker – but mainstream novels. Look through the 1 – 100 bestsellers on Amazon. Lee Child – Jack Reacher, Paula Hawkins – Girl on a Train, B A Paris – Behind Closed Doors, J K Rowling - Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter, plus David Walliams latest. The rest are what I would refer to as self-help, cook books, cook books, and the way I live my life books.

     The first three are thrillers, Harry Potter is magic and mayhem written in the early 1990s of heroes, when everyone still had a passion for reading; David Walliams is comedy for children. The remainder represent the perfect gift for birthdays and Christmas; a book you can dip in and out of written by a celebrity.

     Historical novels remain perennial favourites, although Tudors have rather been done to death, and no one considers the Stuarts, except Bonny Prince Charley, as a heady topic. Fantasy set on a vast canvas which extends over a series, (Game of Thrones) is still hugely popular – you just have to get the characters right. Strong women who formed the background for Dystopian fantasy seem to have had their day for the moment, as have vampires, werewolves and angels, (Lee Weatherley – not bad but I preferred her YA thrillers). Romance never goes out of fashion because we still yearn for a happy ending, particularly we women. Although readers like to know what happens to each of the characters after they march off into the sunset of the last page and as a result Death Comes to Pemberley is hugely successful. There remains an appetite for science fiction although audiences often prefer to get their thrills not from a book but a Box Set or film. (Think about it. Reading is a solitary occupation. If I am to be scared senseless, I prefer to be sitting on the sofa clutching someone’s hand and with a cushion to hide behind. Chick-lit and RomCon – short easy reading - is right up there with the best. Hit on the right story and it really sells. Lastly, outrageous comedy will always sell although mainly for birthdays and Christmas.

       What I am saying is: if you want to be famous, you have to write something the majority of readers will want to read.

       Nevertheless, whatever genre you eventually choose, you still have to promote and work as hard at promotion as you did at your writing. Join groups, use social media, donate your book to libraries. Friends will buy because they want to support you and with luck they will recommend to their friends. Even so, it will take time, trawling the various groups, commenting and blogging, offering promotions and free copies in exchange for a review. And being generous with your time by reading the work of others … very important.

       Yes, it can be soul-destroying and heart-breaking. You will ask yourself a dozen times a day, why am I doing this?

        The answer to that question should be: because I must … it’s a good book and deserves to be read.



First published in Fashion Magazine in 1969, Barbara Spencer embarked on a highly colourful career spanning three continents in which she was caught up in riots, wars, and choosing Miss World. An award-winning children’s author, Barbara is now writing fantasy/magical realism for an older audience.



Barbara Spencer
Award Winning Author
Connect with me on:
Twitter: @BarbaraSpencerO
Facebook: facebook.com/BarbaraSpencerAuthor and Facebook.com/BarbaraSpencerO

Blog spot: barbaraspencerauthor.blogspot.com