Friday, 12 September 2014

When titles coincide

I mentioned some time back that I invited some of my writer friends to contribute stories of their own writing experiences and so far we've heard from Ruth Miller in her contribution The other side of writing (15 August 2014).  Today I'd like to introduce you to Errol Broome.

I met Errol nearly ten years ago when I first joined the Society of Women Writers (Vic). Errol is a learned and gracious lady who has had a very distinguished writing career. Among many other occupations, Errol worked as a journalist for the West Australian newspaper, and has written and published innumerable children's books - in fact, check out Errol's bio and you'll find she's been incredibly prolific!

Today, Errol is sharing one of her writing experiences with us - this particular anecdote strikes a chord with me because Errol mentions The Briars which is a lovely old homestead near my home on the Mornington Peninsula.

So, without further ado - I'll hand over to Errol!

When titles coincide

Coincidences happen – but only in real life. It’s hard to get away with it in fiction. In life, a coincidence is something over which we have no influence, but in fiction the author is at the controls. It’s too easy to bring about a resolution by coincidence. This is reserved for real life.

  Truth remains stranger than fiction. So I ponder a truth that on opposite sides of the world two novels for children, centred around the same group of characters, in the same setting and timespan and with almost identical titles appeared within months of one another. Coincidence?

   Napoleon died on St Helena in 1821. How could it take nearly two centuries for a children’s novel to be published about the emperor’s time on this island? And then for two books to appear almost simultaneously. My novel Gracie and the Emperor (Allen & Unwin) was released in February 2003. It’s the story of an emperor who saw the courage of a hard-working girl, a girl who saw the other side of Napoleon. My inclination was to use the well-documented Betsy Balcombe as heroine. The 14-year-old daughter of William Balcombe kept a diary of her friendship with Napoleon during and after the emperor stayed at her family home, The Briars. It’s through Betsy that we know Napoleon said ‘Bah!’ rather often, had a fondness for licorice and was kind to slaves and children. I felt Betsy belonged more to the Balcombe family descendants than to me, so I created Gracie, an 11-year-old typical of the island population. Betsy is there too. She couldn’t be left out, but I have kept her true to her diary. If I had built my story around her, my book would have been Betsy and the Emperor.

   Little did I know that the following year Betsyand the Emperor would appear in U.K. and then in North America a few months before Annick Press released Gracie there. Reading Staton Rabin’s Betsy was like a meeting with old friends. Rabin has created a different outcome for Napoleon, but the cast and setting are almost identical. It’s weird and vaguely comforting that while I was getting to know my characters, a man I’ve never met was doing the same on the other side of the world. Neither of us has been to St Helena. 

Only in our imagination.

Gracie and the Emperor - a terrific children's gift.

Lovely Errol in her garden here in Victoria.

Thanks Errol!

That's all for this week so stay safe, happy and keep writing!

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