My very first novel (long ago relegated to a trunk and destined never to see the light of day in that particular incarnation) started out ten years ago as a family history – my own. My great-great-grandparents came to Africa in 1880, from Manchester, with a small settler party destined for the farm Willowfountain, outside Pietermaritzburg. The Willowfountain Settler Scheme was a disaster from inception to final failure, but fascinating to me, particularly since it involved my family and gave me some insight into what my ancestors must have been like.
At the time when I began to write about them, I searched the files of the Killie Campbell Museum and the Pietermaritzburg archives, but there was only so far I could go with the actual facts. Before long my imagination filled in the blanks and I created a frame story set in the modern day to encapsulate it all. This was to be an exciting romance between an actor and a writer who are adapting the historic story into a film.
Sadly, in reaction to my previous academic writing, my fiction writing style of ten years ago turned it into a turgid, wallowing epic. The narrative head-hopped between all the characters and I’m ashamed to admit to some rather embarrassing purple prose. The plot jumped about all over the place with no real focus and in no particular direction. Eventually it all got too much, too big, too long and very definitely too boring, hence its relegation to the figurative trunk in the attic of my computer’s hard drive.
I must confess, however, that every now and then something triggers in me the desire to tell that story properly; to take a few elements and give it my best shot now that I have more writing experience. Perhaps it’s guilt about a niggling duty to my ancestors, but I feel that there is still a story there that is worth telling, and it’s up to me to find it. I don't know any other descendants of this particular settler party who are ever likely to write about them and, even if they did, it would be their story, whereas this particular story is mine. Write the story that only YOU can write, as the saying goes.
Some years back – just after I had finished doing Michael Green's creative writing course at UKZN – I began to re-work my epic family saga about Willowfountain but, following the advice of a journalist friend, I took my newly acquired skills and started another project instead. That became my Greek novel The Epidaurus Inheritance and since then I have continued to apply myself to only new projects.
The other day, I came across the file on my computer in which I had stored the re-worked first 6 chapters of the Willowfountain epic. I started to read the first page with great trepidation but four chapters in I realised to my surprise that – well, this wasn't too bad! Consequently I have been thinking that this might be my next writing project. Treating my original manuscript as nothing more than an idea, I will do a total rewrite from page one, but this time with a properly plotted outline.
First I will have to re-think my going-nowhere story and re-invent those flat, pathetic modern-day characters, but at least there is nothing wishy-washy about the setting. Nothing from the past nor present can alter the fact that the original farm of Willowfountain was the worst possible place to dump a party of English settlers. The facts concerning the hard life of those settlers speak for themselves, giving me a harsh, cruel and very real setting for my soon-to-be vibrant and tormented characters.
Watch this space...!