‘Write the First Two Pages of a Novel in an Exotic Setting’
Last night we were very lucky to have as our adjudicator Rebecca Smith. Rebecca studied History at The University of Southampton, and now teaches the undergraduate modules in creative writing, and the MA module, Writing for Children and Young People.
She is the author of 4 novels, her first book The Bluebird Café was published in 2001; her first novel for children, Shadow Eyes, is a story of big wild cats in Scotland and was shortlisted for the 2012 Kelpies Prize.
From autumn 2009 until summer 2010, she was the ‘Writer in Residence’ at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, and continues to work closely with the Museum. Her first work of non-fiction, Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, was published in 2011 by Ivy Press.
Unfortunately, Rebecca was unable to be with us last night but sent her adjudication by email. She said it had been very difficult to decide between the entries as they all had been so good, and selected another highly commended entry because of this.
1st Place: Linda Welch, Frozen
“You have a great opening line. Your evocation of the landscape made me want to read on. You made very good use of sensory detail and imagery. I do hope you will finish this novel. ”
Outside, the pure white of the snow provided a blank canvas onto which Sillitoe projected his thoughts and memories like a flickering home movie. Against the stark background he saw Nina’s tear-stained face as she waved him goodbye on the dockside.
‘I don’t understand,’ she said, over and over again. ‘Why did you agree to go? You hate the cold.’
But six months on a research ship in the Arctic would put him in another league, open doors for him that had been shut for years, give his career the shot in the arm it needed.
‘I’ll grow a beard,’ he teased, ‘to keep my face warm.’
And it would give him six months to decide what he wanted to do about Nina.
He had only been here a week, but already he loved the landscape. It was so crisp and bright that it could blind a man if he stared at it for too long without dark glasses. He loved the peace, no sound at all to interrupt his thoughts, except the wind, often, or the bark of a seal, sometimes, or the soft panting of an arctic fox, seldom. He had found one on his first day here, a fuzzy white mound on the flat white snow. He only noticed it because of the splash of red blood oozing from it. It allowed him to approach, too badly injured, too weak to run, and he crouched on his haunches, watching its breath fog the sub-zero air, listening to the panting grow slower and slower until it stopped.
He had taken the carcass back to the ship. The cook had skinned it and tossed the flesh, head and paws over the side, and given Sillitoe the fur. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it, but he wanted to take a part of this beautiful and cruel wilderness home with him. If he ever went home.
There were cracks in the ice to measure, the texture of the ice to be photographed and samples to be taken. There were polar bears and arctic foxes to count and there were a million snowflakes, each one different, to blow around his frozen face and distract him from everything that called him home, and everything that had pushed him away.
The watch on his wrist, buried deep beneath four layers of clothing, vibrated a warning that he had spent long enough outside. He needed to get back to the warmth of the ship, before his body temperature dropped any lower, but he was reluctant to leave the strange silent beauty of his chosen exile. As he turned to start the mile walk back to the research vessel, something caught his eye, a dark smudge on the clean canvas of white, and without thinking he changed course and trudged towards it.
It, whatever ‘it’ was, was further away than he had thought and it took him half an hour to reach it. As he grew closer he could make out the shape of two gloves, palms together, the fur trim stiffened into icicles. Why hadn’t the gloves blown away in the wind? he wondered. Who would take their gloves off out here and risk losing fingers to frostbite? When he reached the gloves, though, he could see why they had not been blown about by the wind: they were still being worn by frozen, dead hands, attached to a frozen dead body covered by a drift of snow. Sillitoe didn’t dare clear the snow from the face, didn’t want to see who it was or how he had died, or why the hands were pressed together in prayer. He fumbled with unsteady hands for the flare in his back-pack and lit it, holding it aloft for the researchers on board the ship to see. Several men had been on deck, their binoculars trained on him, since he had changed course to investigate the black speck in the snow. The flare was only to give them an indication of what he had found.
Orange smoke streaked the pale blue sky, orange for distress, orange for assistance, even though it was far too late for whoever lay beneath the frozen snow.
2nd Place: Laurel Wingfield, No Place for a Woman
“This is convincingly done and was an excellent response to the competition brief. You established the setting deftly and introduced your characters and themes in a pacy and interesting way.”
‘Is this exotic enough for you?’ Alan asked, setting his medical kit on the ground.
Alan – Dr Alan Gardner – was being ironic. He was the first shock. She never expected to see him again, let alone here. If Lucy had known he was here, she would never have come.
At first, seeing Alan, Lucy couldn’t speak. She had had some idea of what she would be facing, but the reality was still stunning. The refugee camp stretched away from her, crammed up against the chain-link fence, for as far as she could see. The noise and smell were unbelievable. Thick swarms of flies and dust covered everything. She knew that living conditions for the refugees would be squalid, but seeing the stinking open sewers and the rubbish strewn around the ramshackle shelters took a lot of getting used to. Lucy felt very out of place in her neat khaki cotton and hijab.
Then there was Alan, like an image in a bad dream. She would have to work with him, and she knew that he would constantly criticize her. Whatever was he doing here?
‘I didn’t come here for exotic,’ Lucy snapped, once she could speak again. Alan had always brought out the worst in her. ‘I came here to work. I came here to save lives’.
‘Yes, well, good luck with that,’ Alan said. He sounded as smug as ever. He added, ‘I don’t know where you think you’re going to stash all that luggage. Living space is at a premium.’
He began to turn away, to walk back into the refugee camp. Lucy called after him, ‘wait! Are you just going to leave me standing here? Where am I supposed to sleep? Where’s the clinic?’
Alan pointed vaguely ahead of him. ‘In the centre of this mess. You can’t miss it.’ He added, still smug, ‘you won’t last a week. This is no place for a woman.’
He could have helped, but she knew he wouldn’t. As Lucy stooped to lift her bulging shoulder bag and begin to drag her suitcase, Alan picked up his kit and turned to pass between two of the shelters – one an old, patched canvas tent, the other cobbled together from pallets and plastic sheeting – and disappeared from view. Lucy was left to negotiate carefully the tiny wheels of her suitcase over the dried, rutted mud that served as the main thoroughfare through the camp.
Lucy was already exhausted by the time she found the clinic, and had drunk the last of her bottled water. From now on, she would have to rely on the water brought in by tankers. The UN was bringing in supplies, but never enough and deliveries were uncertain.
The refugees she passed glanced at her curiously, as one of the rare white women around here, but they were so caught up in their own problems and the constant demands of survival that their interest was only fleeting. She received no offers of help with her luggage. Soldiers armed with rifles patrolled the camp, too. Without them there would be anarchy, especially when supplies arrived.
The clinic was a newer marquee with big red crescents painted on its roof and sides. Here in the far south of Turkey, just over the border from Syria, the population was solidly Muslim. The clinic was crammed with elderly hospital beds far too close together. Every bed was occupied. The screens around each couldn’t keep out the flies, and some of the patients were bound to have maggots. Keeping sanitary working conditions would be impossible. The reek of vomit, waste, sweat and infection filled the stifling space. By the time many managed to cross the border, wounds had become infected and diseases advanced.
‘Hello? Hello?’ Lucy called above the noise, to anyone who might hear. The racket was slightly less in here. There was groaning from all over the tent, and the occasional cry of pain.
A hurrying male doctor in stained scrubs noticed her at last. ‘Hello,’ he greeted her. ‘You must be the new doctor. You are Dr Lucy Carpenter, on a surgery rotation?’
Lucy nodded. ‘From Doctors Without Borders,’ she confirmed.
The doctor nodded. ‘Dr Ahmed Khoury. Can you start work straight away? There will be plenty of work for you here. Plenty of experience.’ His English was accented, but flawless.
‘I need to get settled, first,’ Lucy said, breathlessly. ‘I’ve been travelling for two days. Could someone show me where I’m going to sleep, at least?’
Dr Khoury nodded towards the other end of the marquee. ‘We are billeted nearby,’ he explained. ‘I don’t know where you’re going to put all that luggage. We have dormitory tents for men and women. Make sure you get the right one. There is one bed left in the ladies’ tent, at the far end. We’ll see you when you’re ready.’
3rd Place: Louise Morrish, The Island at the End of the World
“The voice is convincing and engaging and the location was evoked well. The novel is off to a very good start with your narrator’s predicament established immediately. The idea of a journal written in the margins of a family Bible is immensely appealing.”
They call this island Noho Manene. When I asked Jabez what the sailors meant by that name, he told me it was the native for ‘journey’s end’. But I fear my husband was not being entirely truthful with me.
As we left New Zealand, on the final leg of our long journey, I plucked up the nerve to ask the Captain about the place we were headed. He gave me a strange look, and would not be drawn on the subject, except to say, ‘It is not somewhere I normally take young women, Mrs Williams.’ Though I pressed him further, he would only tell me the island was a land apart, a lonely spot. He would say no more, but I thought his sad brown eyes betrayed his judgment of Jabez’s decision.
It is my belief that the island’s name means something altogether different.
But I must be grateful that we are finally here, intact, and with no lives lost. After weeks of constant movement, weeks of sleeping on a wooden bunk that pitched and tossed beneath me, there is now firm ground. Only yesterday, little Matthias looked on in mute envy at the men and boys climbing the rigging, so dexterous and brave. Only yesterday, there were maggots in the last of the biscuits, weevils in the oats, and barely enough water left for a thirsty child.
But those ordeals are behind us now, and new ones must be faced. The ship is gone, and we won’t see it again for another twelve months. I must not think on that too much. This journal I have fashioned from a surplus bible I came upon this morning, as I was unpacking the crates. The margins are marvellous wide and bare, and if I write very small, it will serve me well, I hope. Thankfully, Jabez believes I study the word of God, as I sit here with the book open in my lap. God forbid he should ever know the truth, Elizabeth.
This is my first entry on the island, and I write it solely for you, dear sister, who demanded a promise from me that I would daily record events of import, until our return home, should that time ever come. God grant that it may.
I will start by describing this place, so you can picture it. The patch of land we are now to call Williamston, after Jabez, is entirely alone in this remote corner of the Pacific Ocean. It is two hundred miles north of New Zealand, where the natives hail from, and is the only inhabitable land in a fragile atoll of coral reef. There is a small transient community on the island, made up of seven or eight fishermen, and two native women. They all wear alarmingly little clothing, and their skin is burnished to a deep mahogany. Jabez has spoken with the men, about what I was not party. The two women look quite young, perhaps my age of twenty five or so. But it is so hard to tell, as their faces are like nothing I have looked upon before. They watch us from a distance, shy as deer, and will not meet my eye. I have yet to learn any of their names, but Jabez has warned me that the men speak only broken English.
The islet is wooded with coconut palms and other, nameless trees, and ringed with a pale gold sandy beach. In the centre of the island there is a source of natural ground water for drinking, but we have been advised by the Captain to capture rainwater for this purpose. The heat is considerable, but is tempered by a breeze, and I wear your gingham sunhat, Elizabeth, which provides wonderful shade to see by.
The natives have been asked by Jabez to sacrifice their driftwood huts, so that we may have shelter. This they have done, but no one will tell me where they now sleep. Jabez and I share the largest hut, Matthias and Arehata the second. Charlotte has the smallest hut.
Where I sit this evening, on a fallen palm at the edge of camp, I have an unimpeded view out to sea. The sun is fast departing, and soon night’s shroud will descend. Across the water, a path of gold stretches toward the horizon, so straight and defined I could walk it clear and over the edge. I gaze at it, and dream of home.
Highly Commended: Tim Bancroft, The Ochre Trail
“Great title! You established the setting really well and made good use of sensory detail. The story is set up effectively with a pleasing atmosphere of growing peril.”
Highly Commended: Lou Merlin, The Legacy of Innocence
“Your disturbing novel opening was striking for its originality. There is much to hook the reader with this grisly scenario.”
Highly Commended: Linda Page, Indian Paradise
“An imaginative and enjoyable response to the competition theme. You set the story up well in this interesting opening. The use of point of view was particularly good. I really enjoyed your use of the Portsmouth location.”
The prizes were signed copies of Catherine King’s latest book Her Mother’s Secret, and a Certificate of Adjudication from Rebecca Smith.
The competition secretary, Jim Livesey, thanked everyone who had entered the competition. It had been a good turnout with 12 submissions.