Thursday, 12 July 2012

How I came to write The Captain's Daughter by Leah Fleming re the aftermath of the Titanic

NOTE  : In many ways this leads on from Mary's blog on research
While I am writing a novel I rarely ready a book in a similar genre in case I subconsciously absorb another writer’s voice. I choose shorter lighter books, usually something different, but as soon as I have finished writing my own book, and it has been accepted for publication, there is nothing I enjoy more than relaxing with a good novel. I like strong, well rounded characters, a good plot which maintains my interest to the end, and if I’m lucky I discover a few new facts about subjects I have not considered before.
I found this is The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming. I even tweeted it, which I don’t do often. I had several questions which intrigued me and Leah has very kindly answered them here.
How did you come to write a book about the Titanic when so much has been written and films made?

I was asked  by my editor at Simon and Schuster to write something for the anniversary of Titanic sinking 1912. Not a subject that would have been my first choice but then I realized the Captain Smith’s statue was hidden in the bushes of a Lichfield park when I lived there about 30 years ago. There was a controversy over it being sited in this city at the time and later his home town wanted it back. Why was this? I knew then my story would start in Lichfield and be about the aftermath of the sinking. The meeting of two different women in the lifeboat was important. They gave me their names and back stories and I knew there was a big story to come. These are the magic words that send a novelist off researching. What was it about the captain’s last hours and his role in the tragedy? My Titanic trail had begun.
It is an absorbing story with three different threads which are skillfully woven right through the book but they do not come together until the very end with “the truth”. One of the main settings is Lichfield and the life around people connected to the Cathedral. I felt I was part of it. I also learned about stone masons and statues. Did you know it well?

I have written about it in Dancing at the Victory Café and The Heart of the Garden. I lived there for 13 years. I knew there was a famous stonemason’s yard close to Lichfield Cathedral and I knew about the Sleeping Children statue as I used to sing in the cathedral community choir.

Lace plays an important part in the story from the moment when Angelo Bartolini finds a baby’s shoe and recognizes the lace pattern. I still have a beautiful Maltese lace collar and cuffs sent to me many years ago so I was interested to learn something of the history and making of lace patterns.
 I was hanging over a ferry from Italy to Greece and looked down at the foam and it looked just like lace. I saw May on her journey home doing just the same thing. That’s how it started and I just happened to have a brother in law with a house not far from one of the leading lace making centers of Italy. So a trip to the lace museum provided some wonderful ideas. You will find a short article about this on the blog page of my website:

Your choice of names fit the characters well. May Smith for the plain woman from below decks, Celestine from first class. Where did you get the others?
The one character I hadn’t bargained for was Angelo Bartolini. The surname came from the back of a lorry on the motorway out of Rimini!. He appeared unannounced on a balcony in Crete just as I was writing the big scene when the rescue ship Carpathia arrives in New York. I was daunted by him, knowing nothing about Italian immigrants but thank goodness for Google and I had been in the Italian Quarter of New York once.
As for the American Chaplaincy, I had researched this for a novel that never saw the light of day ( nothing is ever wasted) I was lucky enough to find an original account from a book stamped with a New York Seminary in that wonderful repository of second hand bookshops that is Hay on Wye.
Luckily my son lives in the States and we once followed him to Akron, Ohio for a week so on the strength of this fleeting visit, I used it as my base for the Parkes family. I’ve made several visits to Washington. D C and used a detailed map to get my facts right there.

 You can see I grow books from a spark of an idea and places I know. Then I just write out the story as if it’s happening having done most researching beforehand and go where it leads. The story comes out of the research and locations. Details jump out from the page and I just know they will make a good scene and move the narrative along.
Do you have any advice for writers who are at the beginning of their career?

 I think beginning writers need confidence in using research details but as flavourings. Beware of getting bogged down in too much detail. You don’t need to put it all in, just let the reader sense you do know your subject. You can give talks on the research later. Don’t let the research become padding. My editor is ruthless in cutting out wordage if she thinks there’s too much.
Thank you Leah. This is a long novel but the chapters are short so it is easy to read and there is never any confusion regarding the different characters and their points of view. I like that.


  1. I've rally enjoyed reading the 'insider' account on how you went about research, Leah - thank you for coming onto our site. I can't wait to read this now....and to be more diligent in my research.

  2. Linda I am pleased you enjoyed reading about Leah's book. I am just back from the RNA Conference and my head is full of ideas which will probably never materialise.

  3. Hope this doesn't appear twice as the first one disappeared into the ether! What a lovely interview, Gwen. Your book sounds fascinating, Leah, and I love the period!

  4. Thank you Rosemary. I think Leah is on holiday in a much warmer place thank this - can't remember where but hopefully gathering material for another good story.

  5. Fascinating Gwen (and Leah). Now i want to read the book!

  6. I hope you manage to find time eventually Gill.