There are so many ways to write a novel. This is how I did it.
Rejection: it can make you (after it breaks you)
I’d always wanted to write a novel but just didn’t know what it should be about. Like most people, life got in the way and I didn’t apply myself seriously until I was in my 40s.
But the first novel I wrote wasn’t very good – I got several rejections and had feedback from one agent that can be summed up as ‘you can do better than this’. It was heart-breaking after a year’s solid work, while looking after our children and also being self-employed as a freelance journalist, but I knew in my bones that the agent was right. I put that novel to one side (to this day I haven’t looked at it again) and decided to start something fresh.
She also told me that in her experience, many debut novelists already had at least one, if not more, books in a drawer that would never be published. Once this had sunk in, it actually made me feel a lot better and I realised that my first book was my practice run. Now it was time to get serious.
I wrote a list of all her advice (and all the reasons the first one didn’t work) and kept referring to it while writing the second book, so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes. They were simple but important points like: not enough plot, characters unconvincing, think about your genre – what kind of book are you trying to write? – write about issues that matter to you, and so on.
Choosing your era and subject
I’d always been fascinated by the fifties; this was the decade my parents arrived in London from Cyprus, and the stories they told me and my sister, and the black and white photos we had, painted a picture of a life tinged with glamour and uncertainty.
I’d never read a novel about Cypriots emigrating to the UK and I believed that the Cypriot experience was, surely, similar in some aspects to many immigrant experiences – even today. Questions of where home really is, how do we know we belong, who has the right to be where – these are all issues in our newspapers and on our TVs every day. Sadly, my parents had both died by the time I’d come to realise this was what I wanted to write about, so I decided that some in-depth research was necessary.
That’s when I stumbled upon the Great Smog, a noxious, five-day catastrophe in December 1952 that had suffocated the city. Thousands died, hospitals couldn’t cope, factories and shops closed, transport ground to a halt and, of course, crime escalated. This had to be the setting for my book! It was perfect.
Finding your characters and their motivations
It struck me that my mother, in travelling here alone in her mid-twenties, had been particularly brave. She was full of hope and was fortunate that, after meeting my father, life turned out well. They both worked in factories all their lives and were never wealthy, but they had a roof and just about enough to eat. They’d made a success of things because they’d escaped the cycle of poverty and improved the lives of the children they were yet to have.
For my plot, I started playing the ‘what if’ game: what if coming here had been a mistake? What if a character like my mother had got mixed up with the wrong people? What if, instead of this being the best thing she’d ever done, it had in fact turned out to be the worst? These are the questions that drive my plot, and my central character, Dina, who at the start arrives at a train station.
London, and specifically Soho (where she repairs costumes at the seductively seedy Pelican Revue bar) presents all sorts of promises and dangers to newcomers like her. The glittering streets, the raucous jazz bars, the small-time crooks and thugs. Mix that with the unpredictable, deadly smog, and the city becomes a threatening place where you can literally (and metaphorically) lose yourself.
Giving your characters hell
Once I had the idea for Dina (who is loosely based on my mother, my aunt and every other naïve young woman who’s full of hope and arrives here), I had to think of a character to play her against. So I decided she needed a no-good, gambling brother who’s already in London, who’s in debt to other small-time gangsters, and who is a weight around her neck.
I knew I wanted Dina to have some fun, too, and a soul mate, so I created her worldly, mischievous friend Bebba. While the women take on Soho and all it has to offer, slowly Bebba’s secrets start to reveal themselves. Like trying to get home in the fog, what Dina thinks is familiar and safe turns out to be anything but. The trio’s world begins to unravel and before long Dina is fighting for her life.
In a city of strangers, who can you trust?
London 1952. Dina Demetriou has travelled from Cyprus for a better life. She’s certain that excitement, adventure and opportunity are out there, waiting – if only she knew where to look.
Her passion for clothes and flair for sewing land her a job repairing the glittering costumes at the notorious Pelican Revue, It’s here that she befriends the mysterious and beautiful Bebba.
With her bleach-blonde hair and an appetite for mischief, Bebba is like no other Greek Dina has ever met before. She guides Dina around the fashionable shops, bars and clubs of Soho, and Dina feels life has begun.
But Bebba has a secret. And as the thick smog brings the city to a standstill, the truth emerges, with devastating results. Dina’s new life now hangs by a thread. What will be left when the fog finally clears? And how much is Dina willing to pay to protect her future?
Here’s an extract from She Came To Stay (Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, audio and e-book)
It’s the biting cold she notices first. She’s been chilly throughout the journey but now that the train is pulling into Victoria station, she leans out of the window and a gust of wind smacks her face and messes up her hair. She’s spent ten minutes trying to get it just so and now it’s dishevelled again.
As the wheels screech to a halt she feels the bodies of strangers push up behind her, eager to descend. Outside, the world is wrapped in a milky grey shroud that constantly shifts. She’s heard about the fog here but imagined something light and playful, not this thick swirling stew. For a moment she pictures the sunshine and fields she’s left behind and doesn’t feel sorry at all. What is there back home anyway, except faithless men and recriminations?
Despite the cold her hands are clammy as she tugs the carriage handle from the outside, the way she’s seen others do at previous stations, and the door swings open. She steps onto the platform and stares up at the vaulted ceiling. Passengers rush past, some knocking into her, all certain of their destinations. She shivers in her red dress and thin buttoned-up jacket and realises she must buy a coat if she’s to survive the English winter. In her hand is a small case and inside that everything she owns. She swaps it from one side to the other and flexes her aching fingers; she’s been clutching the handle in her fist for the entire journey.
So this is London? Everyone starts again here, so why not her? She pulls the lapels of her jacket together so they kiss at the edges, and steps forward. She considers herself a rational person, so she puts the sudden dread that floods her body down to the strangeness of it all and her utter exhaustion. And she ignores the thought that scratches at the edges of her mind, the voice that whispers that this place will be her undoing.To order:
Eleni Kyriacou is an award-winning editor and journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, Marie Claire and Red, among others. She’s edited national magazines and is now freelance. Eleni lives in London. She Came to Stay is her first book.
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