I love reading books that transport me to another place—a country I’ve never been to, a city I once lived in, or a beach, mountain or stretch of countryside that is entirely fictional but is described so eloquently that I can see, smell, hear and touch it. Perhaps even taste it if it is by the sea.
My novel just published, A Drop in the Ocean, is set for the most part on a tiny coral island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Writing the story was a joy because the location, fictional Turtle Island, was modeled on a similar island where I once-upon-a-time spent some summers. The easy flow was also helped by the experiences Anna, my protagonist, had whilst there—learning to snorkel, becoming involved in the sea turtle research, falling in love with the island and its wild inhabitants. Anna’s personality is almost the opposite of mine so her story isn’t mine, but we share the island environment. Before I wrote each scene I would close my eyes and return to the first time I floated above the coral and bright fishes in the warm lagoon, or sat motionless as my first turtle stuck her head out of the water before rowing up the moonlit beach to dig her nest and lay her eggs. Here are a few lines from Chapter Two as British-raised Anna, fresh from a cloistered existence in a neuroscience lab in Boston, arrived at Turtle Island.
The smell hit me first as I stepped off the small wharf and onto the brilliant white sand. A hot, dry, musty smell. Not unpleasant but definitely not lavender. Then the sound of birds, hundreds of them. I looked over to the green rim of trees bordering the twenty meters or so of sand; black-and-white birds were flying in and out, busy as bees. The heat rose up from the sand, and I was glad I had put a pair of shorts in my bag. I nearly hadn’t, as my legs hadn’t been exposed to the elements for at least twenty years.
If I had never been on an island like this I probably wouldn’t have known about the smell, very typical of islands where many thousands of birds nest and leave their droppings to dry. This description shows the reader the location through the use of multiple senses; what Anna smells, sees, and hears as well as the heat she feels radiating from the sand. Much later in the story Anna travelled to Unst—the farthermost island of Shetland—to visit the mother she never felt close to. So the remote island theme is repeated, but on the opposite end of the earth. My husband and I spent ten days in a shepherd’s croft on Unst shortly after I began writing Anna’s story. I had a yen for combining my travels with my fiction—the best sort of research—and knew I’d find a way to get Anna there! That is the glory of writing fiction; you can do anything you want. I took numerous photos and jotted down impressions, and as a result the croft Anna stays in is the croft we stayed in; the cafés where Anna and her mother exchanged regrets and memories are the cafés where we sipped our cappuccinos; the hike to gannet colony on the northern-most tip of the UK—that was a special day for us too.
The acrid smell of guano transported me back to Turtle Island as I gazed at the countless thousands of screaming gannets crammed onto every stack and into every crack in the glistening rock. They turned the sky white, lemon heads shining in the sun as they soared on their slender wings nearly two meters across from one blue-black tip to the other, diving and dancing like skaters on a crowded Boston lake. Aggressive, dive-bombing great skuas added to the ear-shattering noise, and Magnus pointed out other seabirds almost lost in the gathering—fulmars, guillemots, and gulls. Many of the twenty- five thousand puffins that returned to the same mate and the same nest site every summer had already fledged their chicks and left, but there were still hundreds of late breeders nesting precariously in nooks and crannies on the sheer rock faces. Never had I been so charmed by a bird as they entertained us with their clown-like masks and quaint waddling gaits while we ate our lunch in the sun. Oh, magnificent day!
And without me even realising it as I wrote it, there it was, the reflection of Anna’s beloved Turtle Island.
A Drop in the Ocean is my first published novel but before that I wrote another: one that stumbled through many revisions as I learned how to write fiction. It is in three parts, each set in a different country. It begins in London, Part Two is set in New Orleans during Hurriane Katrina, and Part Three on the spectacular island off the northern coast of New Zealand where I now live.
I have visited London but don’t know it well, yet setting Part One there wasn’t difficult as the location was almost irrelevant to the story—it could have been set in any big city. Part Three was fun to write as I knew that location intimately. And then there was Part Two—I set it in New Orleans because I had spent some holidays there and loved it, and a blues singer was a crucial part of the story. When I first wrote Part Two, Hurricane Katrina hadn’t happened, and when it did, I decided to re-write it to make the most of the drama of Katrina. I read everything I could find on it, watched documentaries, and through Georgia, my neurosurgeon protagonist, lived and breathed it for weeks. Part Two turned out to be the one section that required almost no revision. “I was on the edge of my seat” and “I read through the night” were comments I received from agents. Lesson learned: knowing your locations intimately through research can work as well as being there physically. I’ll end with this paragraph from a scene in which Georgia pushes the bed of a rather significant patient up through the flooded, pungent and dark Memorial Hospital to the rusty tower on the roof, where the last chopper is flying a few fortunate patients to safety.
Georgia watched as it rose in the air and circled once before whirring off into the black sky. Below her she could see fires burning randomly around the flooded city. The numerous choppers that had been flying above New Orleans all day, rescuing people stranded on the tops of buildings and evacuating other hospitals as well as theirs, had vanished from the sky, taking their racket with them. The air was bereft of the normal tropical noises that made the nights here so enchanting. No cicadas chirping or owls hooting. No cars on the streets, no music in the French Quarter, no voices raised in laughter as lovers wandered hand-in-hand by Old Muddy. As the tired staff on the roof dispersed, desperate for food and sleep, the eerie silence was broken only by a lone gunshot.
(c) Jenni Ogden
About A Drop in the Ocean
On her 49th birthday, Boston neuroscientist, Anna Fergusson, arrives at an unwanted crossroad when her long-standing research grant is cut. With no jobs readily available, Anna takes a leap and agrees to spend a year monitoring a remote campsite on Turtle Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What could be better for an introvert with shattered self-esteem than a quiet year in paradise? As she settles in, Anna opens her heart for the first time in decades—to new challenges, to new friendships, even to a new love with Tom, the charming, younger turtle tagger she sometimes assists. But opening one’s heart leaves one vulnerable, and Anna comes to realize that love is as fragile as happiness, and that both are a choice.
New Zealander Jenni Ogden is the author of Fractured Minds: A Case-study Approach to Clinical Neuropsychology and Trouble In Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist’s Casebook. Her first novel, A Drop in the Ocean, published by She Writes Press, won the Gold medal in the 2016 US Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYS) for Best Regional Fiction–Australia and New Zealand. Visit her at www.jenniogden.com and subscribe to her monthly e-newsletter.
A Drop in the Ocean is available in print and e-book formats, and can be purchased from all good bookshops and online retailers, or click here for purchase from Amazon.