I usually get the initial inspiration for my novels from their settings. Location is a critical factor – there is something about a place that gets me curious – who lived here before? how different would it have been eighty years ago? Then I thrust my characters into the location and see what happens. While I usually have a rough outline of the plot, the characters mostly have different ideas – so they lead and I follow.
I write a lot about displacement – taking characters out of comfortable and familiar surroundings and transferring them into the strange and unfamiliar – completely outside their ‘comfort zone’.
My first novel, A Greater World is set in Australia, but opens in England. Two characters, Elizabeth Morton, a middle-class woman approaching her thirties, unmarried after the death of her fiancé in the First World War, and Michael Winterbourne, a lead miner and war survivor, jilted by his fiancée, are each forced by personal tragedies to take a passage to Australia and a new life.
Elizabeth, used to a world of tennis matches, orchestral concerts and tea parties is dropped into an isolated and squalid homestead in the midst of the Australian outback and left to fend for herself. She’s probably never had to make so much as a cup of tea back in England, having had servants to do everything for her, but is soon scrubbing floors, sewing curtains and baking potatoes over an open fire.
‘Elizabeth Morton, you’ve led a cosseted life: servants to wait on you; agreeable friends to amuse you; nothing too onerous to do, except teach a few charming but talentless children to play the violin. Now let’s see what you’re made of!’ She jumped to her feet.
‘I won’t let him reduce me to living like a wild creature. I’ve never done housework before but by God I’ll do it now. I’ll make this hole a fit place to live if I die in the process!’
An hour later, the contents of the primitive dwelling were stacked on the ground in front of the veranda and Elizabeth, hair piled under a scarf, was at work with a broom. The dust was thick and the broom missing half its bristles. Her throat burned as she laboured, pausing every few minutes to cough.
Michael, uses his skills as a lead miner and his natural leadership qualities, to work his way up to managing a coal mine. Life in Australia was unfamiliar and offered many challenges but both characters learn and grow from their experiences and lead lives which, while tougher than the ones they left behind, are infinitely richer.
Ginny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, a London debutante, is destined for a ‘good marriage’ when an abusive relationship makes her the object of a society scandal. Rushed into a marriage of convenience, she is soon on a ship bound for India and a new life as a tea planter’s wife. India has a big effect on Ginny. She has nothing in common with most of the other expatriate Brits and their shallow lives which revolve around the club – tennis, bridge games, gossip and gymkhanas. She is fascinated but fearful of the indigenous Indian population and so is caught between two cultures – until a love affair and a growing passion for painting change her life.
I wasn’t keen to get to know any individual Indians, but I was interested to find out more about their customs and culture. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was slightly afraid of the local people. Not that they would do me harm—despite the constant rumblings among people at the club about the independence movement—all I ever saw were smiling, happy faces. No. I was afraid of their difference from me. The dark brown of their skins, their glossy, raven hair, the little wooden hovels they lived in that were pitch dark inside, and their strange alien smell: slightly sweet, pungent and spicy with a base note of sweat. It was fear of the unknown. Fear at an atavistic level. I hesitate to say this now but, despite my protestations against the bigotry of the rest of the British, I think then I also felt superior to the Indians, viewing them, as many of my countrymen did, as people of lower intelligence. People to feel sorry for. I had absolutely no basis for this judgment as I rarely spoke to any of them, apart from Thankappan and Nirmala, and I knew nothing of their lives. It was blind prejudice and ignorance. My admiration for Gandhi was theoretical—based on his moral certainty and strength of purpose—and the fact he had yet again been slung into prison; it had not been put to the test by a close encounter with a real Indian.
My latest novel, The Chalky Sea, is set in England in a small seaside town on the Sussex coast. For Gwen Collingwood, her home town becomes an alien place with the advent of World War 2, when the peaceful backwater becomes the front line in the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns. Gwen’s life transforms from that of bored housewife into a woman with a purpose. By the end of the novel she has discovered love, friendship, self-reliance and self-respect.
For several minutes she was rooted to the spot. How many times had she stood here before, looking down at the town spread out before her? It had always been a beautiful sight, the sea peppermint green under a blue sky, the pier stretching out into the water like a slender finger, the elegant Edwardian hotels lined up along the front, the town houses in their neatly regimented boulevard-like roads and the flat stretch of grassy fields dotted with cows and sheep stretching out to meet the marshes around Pevensey. Today she looked out over an unfamiliar, dystopian world. Meads, the area where she lived, was on fire. The spire of St John’s church, a familiar landmark, was a flaming beacon, the roof below it already collapsed. Through the thick cloud of smoke over the town, fires blazed everywhere. In a matter of moments her peaceful seaside home had been transformed into a battleground.
My last extract is from Letters from a Patchwork Quilt. Jack Brennan is dragged off a ship as he is about to sail to America and instead finds himself in what feels like a hell on earth in industrial Middlesbrough.
The sky in front of him was washed in the deepest purple with moving vermillion clouds of smoke overlaying it, twisting and writhing in saturnine patterns. Plumed lines of fire cut horizontally through the red clouds in bright yellows and oranges. He stopped and stared. The black bulk of buildings, chimneys and cranes were silhouetted against the multicoloured sky. It was the gateway to hell. The mouth of an angry volcano. Boom. Boom. Bang. Bang. Relentless movement of machinery. The stench of sulphur and smoke clogged in his throat. He saw it as a metaphor for the life that was ahead of him. He was a soul condemned to eternal damnation among the blast furnaces of this god-forsaken town.
Unlike Elizabeth in A Greater World, this trial by displacement proves too much for Jack. Life in a Victorian slum, separation from the woman he loves and easy access to alcohol as a pub landlord sets him on a path self-destruction.
In writing all of my novels I have tried to get under the skin of my characters by immersing myself in the physical places where they interact with each other. From the hill towns of India to the smoke stacks of Victorian Middlesbrough and the breweries of St Louis, location plays a central role in my novels and significantly shapes the fortunes of my characters.
Thank you, Stephanie, for inviting me to participate in this series.
Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director, who has marketed global brands from diapers to chocolate biscuits and has lived and worked in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney. After spending most of the last fifteen years running her own strategic management consultancy in London, now most of her time is dedicated to writing her novels. She has wanted to write since she was four years old.
Clare has won BRAG medallions for her first two novels, A Greater World, set in the Blue Mountains of Australia in the 1920s and Kurinji Flowers set in colonial India in the 1930s and 40s. Her latest novel Letters From a Patchwork Quilt was published in September. The book is set in the late nineteenth century and moves from industrial towns in England to New York City and St Louis.
Clare loves to travel – usually with her watercolor paints. She even went to live on a tea plantation while finishing Kurinji Flowers, staying in a tea planter’s bungalow from the 1930s and blagging her way into the incredibly snooty High Range Club to research the Planters’ Club of the book. The original idea for the novel came to her during an earlier trip to Kerala, during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar, on which the fictional town of Mudoorayam is based.
The idea for Letters From a Patchwork Quilt came from Clare’s genealogical research. She stole Jack’s jobs and the English towns he lived in from her own great grandfather. All she had were names and places so she changed the names, kept the places and made everything else up.
Clare is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Historical Novel Society and is on the organizing commit for HNS Oxford 2016.