In 2017, I developed a grand passion for a doomed expedition. Sir John Franklin, his second-in-command Frances Crozier, and their crew left England in 1845 aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, to find the last 300 miles of the Northwest Passage. And never came home again. Aside from the tragedy of 129 brave men lost, there were also ghost stories aplenty. I had found my fifth children’s novel.
At some point I began writing. The truth is I rarely enjoy a first draft. It doesn’t feel real, as if I am only puncturing smoke with my fingers, instead of a keyboard, with the relentless fear that it will all blow away in an instant.
I wanted to tell two stories – that of the tragic expedition as well as the story of the Coppin family in Derry, caught up in their grief after a child dies. Both stories are true though you may not believe the circumstances of their overlapping.
One morning, I read about Greenwich’s Maritime Museum’s up and coming exhibition of the Franklin artefacts that have since been found, including Erebus’s bell. Within a matter of days, museum and plane tickets were booked for a long weekend in November. I was glad to get away. October had been a busy month of travelling to schools and libraries and I was tired. In particular, my right arm felt strained and oddly cold. I remember missing my bus stop in Trim and having to sprint from Trim Castle Hotel to the library, where two classes were waiting for me, carrying my laptop and two bags of books in my right hand because I wouldn’t waste time stopping to divvy up the weight.
I arrived in Greenwich on Thursday, 23 November, and spent most of Friday in the museum. One glass case held a book, Christian Melodies which had belonged to one of Franklin’s officers. The first line of the page on show leapt out at me: Home, there’s magic in that little word. I had found my theme. Most stories, I think, are about an individual’s need to find a home and this certainly applied to both strands in my novel.
On Saturday morning, whilst showering, I felt a large lump in my right armpit. My mind instantly conjured up a reasonable explanation – a pulled muscle from all the carrying and lifting throughout October.
I returned home in good cheer. Christmas was coming and I had the next three months, at least, to finish the first draft, along with keeping my reluctant promise to see a doctor.
By January I had gotten the ships to the Arctic where they were stuck fast in the frozen sea – as expected – awaiting summer’s return to melt the ice. Captains Franklin and Crozier had planned to be away for two years, no more than three, while I planned to meet my 31 March 2018 deadline. Oh, we all had plans.
And, today, it seems to me that just as I had those men realise that the ice was not melting, and that to stay onboard their ships would end in certain death, I was faced with my own mortality, thanks to an eventual diagnosis of stage three breast cancer. For the crew of Erebus and Terror, some of whom were already dying, they were forced to consider abandoning the ships if they wanted to live. Meanwhile, I pretended that I had a choice about chemotherapy, radiation and more drugs than I had taken in my entire life up to now.
I expected my work to both anchor and distract me from what felt like pure chaos. Hadn’t I written my way through periods of loneliness and divorces etc? But that was me making plans again, trying to retain control. In reality, chemotherapy demolished me in every way. Imagine being snatched from your busy, purposeful life and dropped into a bowl of jelly; that is, you are not exactly frozen in time but something like it. Unable to write, I took to daydreaming about my characters – for the best part of a year. Previously, I had learned to recognise that if I was prevented from writing, it was because some new piece of information was waiting to worm its way into my subconscious thus enabling me to unlock a further truth within my story. It is all about trusting the rhythm of one’s life even when everything is apparently stalled.
Once chemo was done, another operation was necessary before embarking on five weeks of radiation. Michael Palin had published a book about HMS Erebus and this accompanied me every morning of those five weeks down to Beaumont Hospital.
My last radiation was 19 December 2018 and, unexpectedly, I found myself out of sorts that Christmas and was glad to see it gone. At 6.18pm, on Thursday, 17 January 2019, I wrote in my diary that I had just reread the manuscript and deleted the last scene, which I had attempted to build whilst on chemo.
It wasn’t Crozier and his brave colleagues who ‘summoned’ me back but young Ann Coppin in Derry, whose family were grieving the loss of four year old Weesy. That January, I read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and it was, I believe, the sheer vigour of her narrator’s voice that triggered mine back into being. An article by a Reverend Skewes appeared in 1889, about the ghost of Weesy Coppin and her part in the search for Franklin’s missing ships.
The book came out 9 March 2020, mere days before bookshops closed their doors. Launches and events duly cancelled. But I have been here before; staying home, being fearful of infection and striving to remember that this is temporary. Not much different from being on chemo.
This time two years ago, thinking about the unfinished Chasing Ghosts provided me with solace in a time of trepidation. I truly hope that the published book will do the same for the reader.
(c) Nicola Pierce
About Chasing Ghosts:
An enthralling novel of two intertwining stories based on real events in 19th century Ireland and the Canadian Arctic.
Two ships Arctic-bound, HMS Erebus and Terror, leave London in 1845, captained by the aging Sir John Franklin. How long they’ll be gone depends on the ice. Meanwhile, second-in-command, Francis Crozier, worries about their inexperienced crew.
In Derry, little Weesy Coppin dies of a fever but, as far as her sister Ann and brother William are concerned, her spirit returns to haunt them. While an anxious world waits for news of the Artic explorers, the Coppin family try to understand what is going in their home. But, then, one night, all is revealed when the truth literally steps out of the shadows.
Order your copy online here.