Once the seed had been sown I brooded for a long, long time over an idea that had begun some years before. In 2000 my family relocated with my husband’s work to Singapore. It possibly could not have been a worse time in our family life with one son in Year 7 and another in Year 10. The life of an expat may seem extraordinarily glamorous but the reality was for at least the first six months I had never been more miserable. I had effectively walked away from my own identity as a lawyer and an army officer to find myself planted in a strange artificial society where no one cared who you were before you landed on the island and in a surreal kind of way I found myself transported back to the 1950s where my only identity was that of my husband, his status in the company, the car we drove and the condo we lived in. My husband had his work, my sons had school (however much they have hated it) but I had nothing to anchor me. At that time it was very difficult for trailing spouses to get work permits and I don’t know what I would have, or could have, done particularly not while I was struggling to hold myself and hearth and home together.
All I really had was my writing and now I had apparently endless days to write, I had apparently left the fledgling muse in Melbourne.
It was about then that I discovered the ANZA Writers Group, convened by Julie Vellacott … We gathered monthly around the large circular table on Julie’s verandah. As disparate a group of women, let alone writers as you could ever meet. Our writing interests were all completely different and I’m not sure quite how some of the more literary among them took to having a self confessed romance writer in their midst, but for all that we shared one thing in common – a love of words and writing.
Julie would set us monthly challenges and from these challenges, came our first anthology of short stories IN THE SHADOW OF THE MERLION… which was a best seller in Singapore for a whole week. This was followed by a second anthology based on stories of our expat lives… NOT ALL PINK GINS. I remember Julie telling us at one point that she needed SOMEONE to write a cheerful story as we vented on the downsides of being an expat.
The colonel’s lady was dead. Major James Cardew, the Provost-Marshall, looked down at the body on the blood soaked bed and tried to recall what his wife, Annie, had said when Delia Blake had first landed in Singapore.
“Old men should never marry young wives, it always leads to trouble.”
This is not the start of SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE but in the tradition of ‘no writing is ever wasted’, it may be the start of the second Harriet Gordon Mystery which is currently titled THE COLONEL’S LADY. Of course, Major James Cardew, the Provost Marshall of that tentative first draft did become Inspector Robert Curran of the Straits Settlements Police.
So when did Harriet enter my life? I met Harriet in the microfiche room at the newly opened Singapore National Library. I have always found old newspapers a wonderful source of inspiration and I was passing the morning flicking through editions of THE STRAITS TIMES for 1905 when an advertisement jumped out at me (for more about this fortuitous meeting click HERE). With apologies to Mrs. Howell, I simply could not get the idea of “absolute secrecy and confidentiality” out of my mind and slowly the character of Harriet Gordon, frustrated shorthand typist and failed suffragette (failed in her mind) began to take form.
It is probably at this point that I must confess to being a child of the British Empire. My grandparents went to Kenya in the 1920s. My mother was born there and was working there in child welfare when she met my father, who had recently resigned his commission in the British Army. My brother and I would jokingly say that Dad’s military career followed the decline and fall of the British Empire. Wherever he went, it declined and fell and Kenya, of course, gained independence in 1963. Mercifully both my parents were unanimous about one thing – neither wanted to settle back in England so in 1968 our little family came to Melbourne. So, in a way, the world of Harriet Gordon is part of my own DNA and I have thoroughly enjoyed rebuilding the pre World War 1 world of Edwardian gentility.
In November 2011 I wrote the first draft of SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE during the Nanowrimo challenge and over the next 8 years, polished it, pitched it, polished it some more… and of course, copped rejection after rejection.
It wasn’t until 2017 when I made the big decision to walk away from the day job that the universe decided my time had come. I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon and pitched Harriet once more – this time to a literary agent and to my incredulity she picked me up. As she represents a number of historical mystery authors, I had every confidence in her but we gradually worked our way down her list of publishers and were starting to discuss her B list when Penguin in New York said yes.
It is not often that you have the privilege of being able to share what we refer to as ‘the call’ story but it just happened that the day my agent rang me I was meeting with my current writers group, THE SATURDAY LADIES BRIDGE Club and they were able to share the excitement of the moment with me. The Saturday Ladies have long been walking Harriet’s journey with me… they have been beta readers and providers of tea and sympathy as yet another rejection sent me reaching for the gin…
So what began with a writers group in far away Singapore, long, long ago… concluded in the company of writers here in Melbourne.