Skip to Content

Fact to Fiction

A writer's story

Eleni CottonPeople often ask how I start work on a novel.

If I asked 50 authors this question I would probably get 50 different replies because we all work in different ways.

Personally, the first thing I do is write a list of the important points or anecdotes I want to include in this novel of mine that I feel the need to write. Next I draw a timeline to fit these ideas onto and decide where I'm going to start the story. Inevitably, some of it will have to be in the past and I need to watch out for the temptation to "tell about" rather than "show" incidents which can have the effect of taking away the sparkle and immediacy of the moment.

Research is crucial. You absolutely cannot afford to make a factual error because you will lose credibility. I spent seven years, on and off, collecting information from online libraries, descendants of the original characters and even letters home from missionaries and mission records, to recreate in my mind and on paper how Malawi (or Nyasaland) was at the time of " Bertha the Swiss Trader's daughter".

Until then, I had managed to remain fairly objective about the story but, quite suddenly, it hit me that these people I was writing about, whose lives I was describing, were my ancestors - the parents and grandparents of my own parents. For a while, this thought paralysed me. Feelings of loyalty and love strangled the blazing need to tell the story as it was. I was having difficulty tearing myself away from what I knew of the characters and hesitated to plunge into fiction that would enhance and develop what I knew as fact. The true story had me in chains and I needed to break away and fly.

"Forget that they are your ancestors and just write about them as the people they were," suggested my editor.

"You're going to have to wipe out the thought that it's your family's past," counselled a friend and well-known author. "It's holding you back."

I think I managed it in the end and, once I had started, I felt that the world was my oyster! What fun I had with the main characters.

There was Ludwig, a dashing young adventurer recently arrived from Switzerland, an astute businessman and big game hunter who falls in love with Victoria, a gentle black African girl from Portuguese East Africa. He has a serious accident and I had one character telling the story to another until my editor advised me to go with Ludwig and show what happens rather than give the reader a third-hand account. Bingo! It turned into a first-hand, harrowing and bloody account of the actual incident.

So, with my trusty time-line in view I shut myself away, picture that first scene and start to write every detail as I see it in my mind's eye - the people, the colours of the grass, the trees, the sky, the weather, what's being said, the bird song, what people are feeling - everything. I don't stop to correct anything, just focus on writing down what I have seen in my head. Later, I go over what I have written and add, delete and change things. For example, I feel that relevant descriptions of the scene are important if you want the readers to feel that they are there, right in the scene with the characters. Notice the word ‘relevant'! When we are describing Bertha's week-long journey to school on a machila - a sort of hammock carried by four men - we do not at that point, need to know that Lake Nyasa, now Lake Malawi, is three hundred and sixty miles long!

After that initial setting of the scene, the story tends to unfold of its own volition and I sometimes think that there is a limited number of behavioural responses in existence and that, having worked on that first scene, there is a kind of inevitability about what happens next. Or so I have found it to be. But there is always my timeline to keep me in order and heading in the right direction!

There is a downside to this style though, because since you are immersed in the scene that you are describing, you also see and feel what the characters are seeing and feeling. And this can be very painful. There are some truly tragic events in "Bertha the Swiss Trader's Daughter" and many times I have sat at my computer, tissue box on the desk and Sainsbury's bag on the floor beside me, weeping uncontrollably as I wrote down what I was seeing. But then, there are the fun and funny scenes when I could be found at my computer happily chortling away. And, I believe that the readers find themselves totally immersed and living the story themselves. Or, so they tell me.

For me, editing the work is totally indispensable. I was browsing a writer's forum recently and was amazed at how many authors were afraid of plagiarism and how to defend themselves from it. If they had had their work edited, they would have evidence that it was theirs. But that's not the important point. The importance of editing is that it corrects and removes mistakes, particularly in grammar, continuity and fact, which unfortunately label the work as ill-informed and amateurish. I know many readers who will lose faith in what they are reading when seeing these mistakes. Some will actually stop reading because the otherwise delightful bubble of make-believe they are in develops a slow puncture.

The manuscript was ready and I started looking for an agent or publisher. Soon, I had a collection of very complimentary letters from them, each with suggestions of something that I should change before resubmitting to them. Sometimes these suggestions contradicted one another. The final straw came when I got a reply which said that they loved the story, it stood ‘head and shoulders' above the hundreds they receive but there was no place for it on the agent's list. I knew then that self-publication was the way to go.

After contacting printers, distributors and marketing specialists I realised that I was too inexperienced to co-ordinate them and that I needed one organisation to do it all for me. I used one such firm for my first e-book "Straight from the Donkey's Mouth" (a political satire disguised as an adventure story on a Greek island where I used two extremely intelligent and loveable donkeys to demonstrate the action!). The company was very helpful and efficient but I had additional needs for Bertha, which they were unable to fulfil. Following the recommendation of a business colleague I did find a company that would hold my hand through the entire process and Bertha the Swiss Trader's Daughter has just been published.

I hope you've found this article helpful and wish you all the very best of luck and success with your writing.

Eleni lives in Kent, England and visits Greece, her father's homeland, as often as possible. She has a husband, five sons, one daughter and eleven grandchildren (all remarkably good looking), and three Rescue dogs (also very good-looking). She was born in Malawi and forgot a piece of her heart there when she had to leave.

Eleni's website

Her publisher

Her Facebook page