Birth of a novel – Catherine Law

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By Catherine Law

While you are writing your first novel, you have the one thing published authors crave: the luxury of time. It’s as if you’ve had the whole of your life leading up to that magical moment when you type ‘the end’. Inspiration ebbs and flows at its own pace; you pick and choose your ideas, dreaming up plotlines. And all the while, honing your craft.

Before my first novel, A Season of Leaves, was published in 2008 (re-issued as an e-book as The Secret Letters on 6 October 2016) I went through a very steep learning curve indeed. Ever since my childhood, I’ve had a compulsion to write and in my teens produced all sorts of stories, from gothic romance to bodice rippers – and all of them bound for the shredder. But as time went on I finished two contemporary novels. The first of which, via my agent, was rejected by publishers, while the second one was not even good enough for her to send off. I was scrabbling around; I needed a great story to tell. And I didn’t realise that it was there, right under my nose.

When I was a child, my mother once told me about great-auntie Ginge. In her nineties, with her hair still a delicate shade of red, she lived quietly in her non-descript bungalow, but had had an adventure that came straight out of a novel. During the Second World War, working as a land girl, Ginge met and married a Czech soldier, Jan. She followed him to Prague once peace was declared but then both of them escaped when the Communists took over. As a young woman, she experienced such a dangerous time and saw devastating things, and then simply got on with her life.

This compelled me to write her story and I went to visit her to find out more. Ginge’s sons had commented that she never opened up to them, that she was stoic and didn’t like to make a fuss; a trait of her generation. But I approached her as a journalist (in my ‘proper job’ I’m a magazine sub-editor) and kept a professional distance. She told me what happened, and A Season of Leaves (The Secret Letters) was born.

Although my novel is based on events in Ginge’s amazing life, to create a better story arc, I racked up the tension and embroidered the truth by inventing Will Bowman, the menacing fiance for my heroine Rose Pepper.

The writing of A Season of Leaves was a long journey and it all began with the telling of a family legend. It took me many years to get there, battling through an inevitably hard apprenticeship, but gaining self-confidence and courage along the way.

In the autumn of 2007, I told the incredibly frail auntie Ginge that my novel, inspired by her own life, was to be published. A few weeks later she passed away. The timing was poignant and tinged with sadness; stranger than fiction.

Catherine Law was born in Harrow, Middlesex, and now lives 10 minutes from the sea at Margate in Kent. She has been a journalist for over 20 years, specialising in glossy interiors magazines and writing in her spare time. Last year she took the plunge to leave her day job to concentrate on finishing her fourth novel, Map of Stars (published by Zaffre in May 2016). Her fifth novel will be published August 2017.

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