A writing starter by Beverley Birch

Song Beneath the Tides is a weave of narratives – love story, ghost story, thriller. There’s Ally, from England, on her first visit to Africa, overwhelmed by sights, sounds, places, people; Leli, a local boy from a nearby fishing village who enthusiastically sweeps her into his life; and there’s a mysterious third voice that threads in and out of Ally and Leli’s story.

The idea for the book took root years ago, when, as a child, I wandered ancient Swahili ruins on the East African coast.  One in particular, was deep in a primeval forest: it was a place of strange moods and sudden silences, when birds, monkeys, animals all seemed to hold their breath and wait. There was a great fig tree with aerial roots twisting to make a door through its middle, as if to another world; that was the inspiration for my first novel, The Keeper of the Gate. I was fascinated by the stories about the life of those places, and their deaths, centuries ago, when the first European ships reached that coast. I also saw peaceful, purposeful communities along that coast struggling against the inescapable blast of uncontrolled modern tourism from Europe.

The two ideas came together, and SONG BENEATH THE TIDES emerged. I imagine that ancient past echoing into the present and future, the present mirroring that turbulent past. I wanted to portray the eye-view of people buffeted by these tides of change, then, and now, and the awakening understanding in a modern girl from Europe, confronting those realities for the first time.

Of course, the multi-voiced, multi-layered narrative gave me a few headaches! How to make that weave mysteriously, not mystifyingly, and to work for Ally and Leli’s story, not against it, how to bring everything together at the right moment. Research – lots – historical records, inspirational legends, modern news reports, my own experiences and memories – and as with all research, how to use it to drive the story, not drown it!

But if I say too much, I’ll ruin the mystery. The reader only finds out the answers right at the end!

WRITING TASK

Place is always a character in my novels, helping to bring my human characters to life. The environment – place, weather, climate – all affect how the characters behave, move, feel.  

 Song Beneath the Tides, opens with ‘It begins with a forest,’ and that really is where I began writing.  I wandered into a wood, and was overwhelmed by a sense of someone else there, close to me, though logic told me it was only the wind in the trees. Later, at my desk, I dived back into that feeling and the fear, using all my senses, and began writing.

  • So try this: aim to write just an incident, a single scene, and develop it so richly that your reader feels they’re actually there.
  • As you do the stages of thinking I describe below, scribble notes of ideas quickly, even just single words, to remind you later.
  • Choose a location you’ve never been to, one with potential danger. For example, a cave, underground tunnel, forest, deep water, a big city street – it can be anything you want.
  • Then close your eyes and imagine stepping into that place. Use all your five senses: what can you hear, touch – under your feet, with your fingers – smell, taste, see?
  • After each sense, imagine how that makes you feel emotionally. For example, excited, eager to go further?  Or terrified?
  • How might that feeling show in your body? Sweaty palms, wobbly stomach? Clear-headed, decisive? Or confused, panicky, wanting to run away.
  • What do you do?
  • Begin to write: avoid using obvious words like afraid or excited. Show your reader by giving clues, using those images and ideas you’ve noted down. Here are some examples: if the place is cold, and your character shivers, that could suggest fear or nerves. Saying someone blinked at the bright light, stretched, breathed deeply, could suggest pleasure, happiness, lightness, without using the word happy.   
  • As you write, keep going back to the imagining, closing your eyes, recreating the feeling of yourself stepping into that place, the sights, smells and sounds.
  • Keep asking ‘what do I do’? What happens then? What next? When you get stuck, go back to where you stopped, close your eyes, conjure up the imagined scene.
  • And trust yourself: it’s all there in your imagination! I’ve used this task with many young writers: I’m always amazed and thrilled by the writing they create.

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Song Beneath the Tides is a haunting novel inspired by the author’s childhood and young adulthood growing up in Africa, exploring important themes for our times: the scars left upon a country by its history; the horrors of animal poaching; and the effects of uncontrolled tourism on people and places.

Publication date 3rd April 2020 by Guppy Books