By BRUCE DENNILL
A Lute of Eleven Strings by Jane Kirsten is published by Porcupine Press and is available now.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
A Lute Of Eleven Strings began simply as a means to capture and immortalise a relevant era of the history of the Western Cape of South Africa. I live in a town that exudes this history. It cannot be missed, because the heritage of those French refugees who fled persecution and death to come bravely and hopefully to an unknown land, is written in street names of my town, in the names of suburbs, hotels and guesthouses, high schools, and most interestingly, in the surnames of inhabitants whose forebears have lived in my town since the 16th Century. I became curious. I began to read, to study, to do full-scale research. And I knew in my heart of hearts that there were wonderful stories to be told here. I knew from the start that this book would span a century.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
Once I had done enough research to begin writing, I created my first fictitious Frenchman and placed him against the backdrop of a specific historical event in Paris. This event impacted his life dramatically. As I wrote, other characters emerged, of necessity. Some, I gave particular roles. There was the scholar; there was the wise and gentle man; there was the delicate but resilient first heroine. Some new arrivals were simply given cameo roles, in order to add interest to the whole. With every scene or event, the characters were honed and polished by my pen. And then something exciting happened to me. The characters themselves began to dictate the movement of the story. And I let it flow.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it? And how much of it is internet-based, given that fact-checking may not be a priority on many websites?
In the case of this book, I did a massive amount of reading and research. It lasted at least three years. In fact, throughout my writing, my research never ceased, because I would come across an unknown event or fact that would send me right back to the drawing board. I am a perfectionist. The historical details needed to be as close to the actual truth as I could manage. I used every avenue available – I gleaned from stacks of history books, from fiction, from pamphlets, from a magnificent scholarly book on the economic situation of a 16th Century city in Flanders, and yes! – I used the internet extensively. The great thing about the internet is that you can study various articles on a certain subject, compare and evaluate – and sooner or later the truth does emerge.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
I knew where I was going and what thoughts and values I wanted to convey, but that was about the full extent of my planning. I was meticulous about the dates of births and deaths of my characters, and made sure that my fictitious story matched perfectly with the history. As I wrote previously, to a certain extent my characters became so formed that they dictated the story.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
Once I begin to write, I do not battle. But I rewrite and rewrite extensively as I go along. I choose every word meticulously. I try not to use the same noticeable word within even the space of 20 pages, and perhaps I even use it once only. This is one of the beautiful advantages of writing in the English language – the huge vocabulary that one has at one’s fingertips. As far as distractions are concerned, I try to handle my household to the best of my ability and to avoid being too selfish in my need to write.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
Every day is different for me. Setting myself a target does not work. I simply get on with what is important. It could be rewriting a specific page or paragraph repeatedly, until I am satisfied. It could be running with an idea and writing a couple of pages without stopping.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
I am a writer first and foremost. The marketing, I prefer to leave in more capable hands. I believe the outer cover of a printed book is extremely important. It should be intriguing and pleasing, or clever. I find it hard to even open a book if that is not the case.