A warm welcome today to Barbara Greig, a fellow 17thC author who has written a poignantly beautiful novel of exploration, in both the geographic and emotional sense. Before we chat, a little about her wonderful book.
Discovery. When Elizabeth Gharsia’s headstrong nephew, Gabriel, joins Samuel Champlain’s 1608 expedition to establish a settlement at Quebec, he soon becomes embroiled in a complicated tribal conflict. As months turn into years, Gabriel appears lost to his family.
Meanwhile at home in France the death of her father, Luis, adds to Elizabeth’s anguish. Devastated by her loss, she struggles to make sense of his final words. Could her mother’s journals, found hidden among Luis’s possessions, provide the key to the mystery?
The arrival of Pedro Torres disrupts Elizabeth’s world even further. Rescued from starvation on the streets of Marseille by her brother, Pedro is a victim of the brutal expulsion of his people from Spain. Initially antagonistic, will Elizabeth come to appreciate Pedro’s qualities and to understand the complexity of her family?
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Tell us more about your life as an author, Barbara. Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down/recharge?
Whether writing energizes me or exhausts me tends to depend on my mood. That said, on balance, it energizes me. I love to write and spend considerable time thinking about what I am going to write before I put pen to paper or fingers to laptop. I have always created stories in my head, from when I was a child, although this did diminish in the face of everyday living as an adult, especially as a working mum. By the time I am ready to write I am usually raring to go.
I find that most ideas come to me whilst walking and some days I have created entire scenes of conversation by the time I have reached town. This is not without its hazards as I live in a small market town with several garths (enclosed yards) served by entrances which cross the pavement of the High Street. Being lost in a reverie is not a good idea! Another activity which lends itself to releasing the imagination is ironing, notably items which need little concentration.
Walking figures strongly in my writing schedule in other ways. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to meet a man at a party, marry him, and come to live where it takes me fifteen minutes to be in the forest and another twenty to be on the wide, open moors. Here I notice the sky more, hear the wonderful sounds of nature, and see trees and wildlife which inspires my writing as well as recharging me.
However my ultimate wind down activity is dancing. For the last ten years I have been a member of a Middle Eastern and Tribal Dance Group which has been a very rewarding experience. Here I have met some extraordinary women, become aware of beautiful, haunting music, and experienced an activity which totally transports me away from all the cares of writing and everyday life.
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
Without doubt I would go to Shetland, the most northerly islands of the United Kingdom. I have already visited a couple of years ago but a return visit has been prevented by Covid 19. At that time I became acquainted with some distant cousins, totally by chance, in circumstances which surpass any coincidences in a novel and I experienced an amazing feeling of homecoming different to anywhere else I have visited. I am now in the process of planning and researching for a novel set in the nineteenth century inspired by my Shetland forebears. The photo is of me contemplating an abandoned croft which could have been my great-great-grandfather’s. A whole year there, experiencing the changing seasons, would be fantastic and such a lengthy stay would enable me to complete archival research so much more easily.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
The first part of this question is by far easier for me to answer than the second part. As a historian I use a variety of sources ranging from archives, museum exhibits, historical scholarship, journals, guidebooks and information pamphlets, to anything which catches my eye – it may not be something I am looking for. I have found museum staff, wine-growers, archivists and guides very helpful in answering my questions and I have found that one comment I have heard or a sentence I have read can send me down a different route. One example I can give is that initially in my novel I had books on shelves. Whilst watching a documentary on television I learnt this was incorrect for the sixteenth century and that they would have been kept in a chest – social history is the one area I always need to do the most research on. I am more confident with the accuracy of the political history in my books as I have often taught those topics.
This leads neatly into how long I spend researching before beginning a book. One of my research methods is to walk in the footsteps of my characters so I like to travel and visit various locations. For Discovery my husband, Mike, and I hired an RV and travelled from Quebec along the St Lawrence River and then down Lake Champlain and into New York State, returning to Montreal.
We combined my research with our annual holiday. I had already started to write Discovery so I could say that I start with the idea and then research as I go along. The whole process of researching and writing would last about two years if I had to put a time on it.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/ spirit animal and why?
I would choose a swan for its fidelity, its grace as it apparently glides effortlessly along whilst often paddling furiously beneath the surface, and its ability to metamorphose from an ugly duckling into a magnificent creature.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Wow – this is a thorny issue and one I find quite personal. As a historian I have concerns about writing about historical figures, portraying them by giving them fictional speech, by giving them emotions and characteristics which may not be true and thereby presenting an inaccurate depiction of them. My feelings about this used to be very strong with my daughter accusing me of getting on my ‘high-horse’ and reminding me of William Shakespeare!
However as a novelist I can see the counter-argument. By its very nature fiction is what it is. It is not historical scholarship and despite all my training in the need for objectivity in a historian, I can see that writing about historical figures opens up the past to a wider audience. I do try to minimise my use of historical figures. For example, in Discovery I obviously needed to include Samuel Champlain but I tried to stay faithful to the man by only giving him actions described by himself in his writings and by using reported speech in preference to dialogue. Another historical figure in my novel, Etienne Brûlé, does have dialogue and I have tried to be true to the historical records in this.
The ethics of writing about historical figures is an issue which will continue to rumble on and I feel that, as a person with a foot in both camps, I am obviously giving you a compromise answer. Sorry!
Are your characters in Discovery based on real people you know?
The short answer is no. I have never based a character on a real person although I am aware that my characters are the sum of the many characteristics I have observed. One of the great joys of teaching is the number of people you meet. Over my twenty plus years of teaching 16-19 year olds I have come to know about a hundred new youngsters every year, which added to meeting their parents on consultation evenings and my fellow teachers, adds up to a lot of people in my working life alone. Then there is my social life and all the diverse people I have met by being a member of a church, a book club, a dance class etc. In addition, I belong to a large extended family so there are probably bits of everyone I have known jumbled up to make my characters. For me, part of the enjoyment of writing a book is to make the characters my own.
Interestingly, I have found my created characters grow organically and they start to decide how they will behave. In one case a minor character clamoured for a greater share in the narrative and I found that I included him more than I had planned. Sometimes I fantasise about one of my characters coming to life as in the film Ruby Sparks but as yet I am undecided about which one in Discovery.
Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
My writing buddy is my husband Mike. His support is invaluable. We travel together for my research which so far has included France, Canada and the USA as well as many places at home. The narrative of Discovery sees much of the action in France and the province of Quebec in Canada. I can speak school-girl French but Mike is much more able and confident, in my view, so it is much faster for him to chat to guides and read information boards accurately. I usually understand the gist of things but he makes sure I have definitely understood the nuances. He also keeps a journal of all our travels – a log which details sites, mileages, weather etc. which is great for me to consult when I am back home writing and it neatly supplements my copious notes. Mike also reads my manuscript chapter by chapter as I write it. He makes suggestions and recommendations and he is vital in giving me an inkling into how the ‘regular reader’ (his words to describe himself – not mine) might perceive some aspects of my work. We don’t always agree but have lively discussions and then I have the final say! One disadvantage we have found is that as the novel progresses Mike becomes more involved in the story and does occasionally miss typos and mis-placed commas as he is concentrating on what happens next.
Barbara Greig was born in Sunderland and lived in Roker until her family moved to Teesdale. An avid reader, she also discovered the joy of history at an early age. A last-minute change of heart, in the sixth form, caused her to alter her university application form. Instead of English, Barbara read Modern and Ancient History at Sheffield University. It was a decision she never regretted.
Barbara worked for twenty years in sixth form colleges, teaching History and Classical Civilisation. Eventually, although enjoying a role in management, she found there was less time for teaching and historical study. A change of focus was required. With her children having flown the nest, she was able to pursue her love of writing and story-telling. She has a passion for hiking, and dancing, the perfect antidotes to long hours of historical research and writing, as well as for travel and, wherever possible, she walks in the footsteps of her characters. Discovery is Barbara’s second novel. Her debut novel Secret Lives was published in 2016 (Sacristy Press).
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