Why I wrote Swans?


To those of you who listen regularly to my musings I hope over the past three or so months, I’ve managed to keep you royally entertained. Long may it continue – I hear you shout.

Nevertheless, the be-all and end all of a author’s life is to sell books and just at his moment, despite its brilliant reviews and being presented with an Historical Fantasy award my latest novel, The Year the Swans Came is currently playing to an empty theatre – in other words it’s not ringing the tills at either Amazon or Waterstones. My daughter, a totally impartial critic who tells me equally when I write well as when I write rubbish says – but Mother, no one knows about it. 

That is of course true. For the past twelve years my books have been placed in the children’s section or the YA section of the library or bookshop.

And of course I haven’t exactly helped my career by changing genres.

I mean who, in their right mind, with twelve books under their belt, four of which are mystery-thrillers for teens, decides to change both genres and age of readers?

I do or do I mean I did!

Even worse who publishes Book 4 before Book 1? Guilty as charged.

Nevertheless, despite a career liberally splattered with disasters, this week I want to talk about Amsterdam and the writing of Swans.



I first visited Amsterdam early in 1960s when it was a quiet sleepy city bursting with flowers and charm. Everyone then pretty much spoke English - at that time German was never heard in its streets. We stayed in a B &B which, incidentally, appeared in the futuristic thriller Running.

Still there was nothing futuristic about our visit, my sister bought great armfuls of flowers and each day we visited a cake shop in Splot. Then in the evening we strolled the streets leading to the Blue Note, a Night Club, where the vocalist sang Yesterday, one of the Beetles classics, and very sweetly said 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.

I always wanted to set a book in Amsterdam, and the idea for the Children of Zeus series began right there when I visited with my granddaughter in 2010. We were celebrating the publication of Running, and a celebration was badly needed. 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 - w2hich incidentally is the hero of the novel.

There are so many strings that led to the writing of Swans. Agents played a large part because it was an agent who wanted more, (rather like Oliver in the Charles Dickens novel of the same name). This led directly to my writing the trilogy Children of Zeus. And so I gathered all the memories of my first visits, very few motor cars, the dark furnishings of the B & B, the push-button light switches on the stairway that gave you just enough time to reach the top of the next flight of stairs before clicking off; the cobbled alleyways and decorative bridges, and I added them to the souvenirs of my visit in 2010. 

The Keukonhoff, a bus ride into the country, where windmills ruled and where we explored a tiny island where fishermen lived, the passageways between their miniscule houses little 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 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. And museums, where scenes of windswept barques dominated, and I noticed a painting of Leda and the Swan, dating from 1610. Below is the sculpture of the same subject.

Lastly, I read the myth of the Angel of Mons which I used in Book 2 of the trilogy, Children of Zeus - An Ocean of White Wings. 

No wonder the series has taken 8 years to evolve.

The finishing touch - 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 it really about – Apart from all the things I have just mentioned, it's a place where historical fiction and fantasy become entwined. If I had to say which of my books is the closest to it, that would be Time Breaking. A time-slip novel, which switches between modern day and the England of 1648, it is also first person narration, and its genre, magical realism. And which is my personal favourite?  

Time Breaking whilst I was writing it. Then its characters were my constant companions, with me night and day, and I was as equally involved in their problems, their joys and successes, as they are. But after I have written the words The End and sent it out to the publishers, the characters wave goodbye and go their own way as I go mine - towards writing a new book.

However, as regards The Year the Swans Came because of the style, it’s definitely not for teens. Twenties, thirties plus is my reckoning.

What is it about? If I tried to tell you I would stutter and stumble and make a real hash of it. I tried that once when an agent rang asking the story of A Dangerous Game of Football. I sounded like an idiot, no wonder she didn’t offer to represent me.

Don’t worry. I’ve learned my lesson. 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 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.

Of course for me, the most important bit, which had me dancing around the house are the final 3 lines of the review. 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.


But to return to earth: Catherine is quite correct, both the country and the invaders remain unnamed. And as I have said, it is Amsterdam. In itself a problem. If you name a city in your novel, readers will set about comparing their knowledge with your writing; eager to point out any slips in the topography, and no doubt I would be the recipient of a dozen emails: such and such a street runs left not right! 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.

So why is Book 4 now Book 1?

Blame Katie Bowes, the New Zealand author for that. She said, ‘After reading, Swans, everyone will want to know more about Zande and how he got to be Zande.’ 

It’s a very different story although part of the same – my hero Yöst is quite definitely my favourite character. Written in the 3rd person it starts with the massacre of the carinatae, slaughtered for the crime of being different,  in which only Yöst, Zande and a little girl survive. 



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