Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.
My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…
Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be too conscientious about avoiding this severe illness and about working civically to help contain it. (Here’s the follow-up, and here’s after that. and here’s the latest.)
Deciding on setting and histories and all that goes into storytelling is chancy no matter what an author chooses to create. There will always be fans and foes. To be a novelist requires enough passion to outrun the discouraging thoughts that can torment us.
Chris Hall has been wonderfully prolific over the last few years. She’s published three novels and a short story collection! Originally from the UK, she describes herself as “a compulsive story-teller, cat slave and hen keeper.” To sample her short fiction, fan fiction, mini-series, and poetry, as well as to follow her on her various social media, check out her website.
“Song of the Sea Goddess,” her most recent novel, is set where she lives now, the Western Cape of South Africa. Here she describes why she decided to depict a South Africa different from how it is in real life…
“From the Writer’s desk” by Chris Hall
Writing a novel is not just about telling the story. There are other considerations that come into play. I’d like to share with you why I was motivated to write a book set in South Africa. In particular, why I chose to paint an idealised portrait of the place and why I drew on the overarching theme of environmental destruction, rather than dealing with the gritty issues of race and poverty in my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess.
When it came to writing this, my fourth novel, I was determined to set it in my adopted country, South Africa. I’d been living near Cape Town for almost ten years and the time had come to give voice to the people around me. I’d also decided it was time to transition from historical fiction. It was time to write in the moment, but at the same time include elements borrowed from the ancient lore of the African continent, which are written on cave walls and embedded in the landscape.
I knew I needed a setting to match the story I was about to tell, although the story hadn’t really even begun. Then, at the beginning of 2019, while staying in a small town on our very beautiful west coast, while I sat by the banks of the Berg River and watched the little boats going past on their way out to sea, I was moved to write a story about a fisherman with a little boat.
I’m a lazy novelist. I let my characters emerge and develop and play around in my mind. Even before they are fully formed, they are always desperate to run to centre stage and act out their parts.
But there has to be a starting point.
A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. People whose backgrounds were unfamiliar to me; people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ (as if their communities are not still disadvantaged in this country, which has the most polarized society on the planet).
I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity that characterizes their communities, of how they’d suffered under apartheid, but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.
So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.
I mixed them up a bit, taking a little bit of one and blending it with another, but their voices are true and their characteristics mirror real life in many respects. There’s a nod to some of the darker side of people’s lives with Sam’s flight from the Cape Flats’ gangland and in the history behind Jannie’s tattoos from the notorious ‘28s’ gang.
On the lighter side, several of the comical incidents, like when Auntie Rose loses her false teeth down her pants’ leg, are little events that actually happened. The food that the Aunties make and sell in the novel is based on recipes that I tasted and talked about with people. The love of food and the common ground we found over cookery has cemented several friendships in my new town.
Concern for the environment is a theme I continue to return to in the short fiction and poetry, which I write on my blogsite, and while watching a TV documentary about water pollution, an idea began to form in my mind for the backdrop to my novel’s narrative. Water is in short supply in our country anyway, but what if the rivers were threatened? And what would happen if the forces of nature were moved to fight back? Soon my emerging novel would take a new and interesting turn.
My love of the landscape and ancient lore of the country that I now call home will continue to feature in my work. I’m already embroiled in a sequel to Song of the Sea Goddess, where myth and magic will once again be awakened in the little coastal town where the great river flows from the purple mountains into the southern ocean.
Have you ever created a new world?