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The Setting is the Story: Dark Heart by Carole Gurnett

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Carole Gurnett

Carole Gurnett

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Someone famous once said ‘The setting is the story’. I have long since forgotten who that famous ‘someone’ was but those words of wisdom have stayed with me forever. I like the idea that story events should spring organically from the setting rather than being imposed on it. It’s a concept I find liberating. It can lead to all sorts of unexpected adventures and changes of direction and, most importantly, it frees you from the terror of facing that dreaded blank page.

‘The setting is the story’. With these words very much in mind, I have written two historical novels, The Curtain Falls and Dark Heart, both set in the Victorian era.

The Curtain Falls began with a rough idea that I wanted to write about a highly-respected actor leading a double life. And that was all – I didn’t even know what kind of double life he should lead! So, with nothing more than this, I started my research. First, I immersed myself in the theatre world of the time, then London in the 1890s, Victorian houses, clothes, art, literature . . . the works. I read voraciously, found out about the actors, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, the Lyceum theatre where they worked and its manager, Bram Stoker, all of which was valuable. But so far, so predictable. Then I decided that my main character, Edmund Jeffers, would fight in the Boer War in South Africa. My research on that subject uncovered the British policy of slaughtering livestock and burning the farms of Boer combatants in order to cut them off from their supplies. The result of this practice was that many Boer families were left homeless. These women and children were herded into concentration camps where the conditions were appalling – dirty, overcrowded and without access to clean water. Twenty thousand Boer women and children died in these camps of typhoid, dysentery and starvation. Twelve thousand black Africans died in similar camps. Until Emily Hobhouse exposed the cruelty of the system, the British public was unaware of what was going on in their name. This was all news to me and the discovery seemed to demonstrate perfectly one of the themes of my novel – how the veneer of respectability often conceals the ugliest of truths. Before I knew it, these camps became an important element in my story.

It happened in much the same way with my second novel, Dark Heart . This one was inspired by my great grand-father who fought in the Zulu war, who retired at forty years of age and returned to London to make a life for himself. I had no more information than that about him; these were the bones of my story. I read . . .  and read . . . and read. I wanted my character, Walter Williams, to be in the same artillery battery as my great-grandfather and follow in his footsteps in Zululand. That trail eventually led me to Isandhlwana, a place I had never heard of before. Here the British were spectacularly defeated by the Zulus in an epic battle. I knew instantly I would have to include it in Dark Heart. Consequently, Isandhlwana features large in the book and has a huge impact on Walter and the direction of the story.

For the London scenes in Dark Heart, I scoured for details about what life was like then. It seems London in the 1880s was a poor, mean place for a huge proportion of the population. The streets teemed with life, mainly with people trying to scrape a living for themselves. There were beggars and performers and sellers of every description. Among them were itinerant photographers. By the late 19th century, photography had really taken off and developments in the process made it possible for street photographers to take and develop pictures on the spot. They operated from the back of hand-drawn carts. As I read about them, I was fascinated and felt compelled to have a photographer in my book. So, hey presto, Jem Cresswell came to life, one of his photographs playing a very important role in Dark Heart.

I could give countless other examples of how unexpected pieces of information, characters, events, places made it into my books – an asylum in The Curtain Falls, the rookery in Dark Heart among them.

‘The setting is the story’ – all I do, is get the germ of an idea and let my research do the rest. Somewhere in the wealth of material I gather on a subject, I trust there to be a really good tale lurking, just waiting to be found. As I read, I collect interesting snippets along the way. Some captivate me and I make a mental note to try and incorporate them in the work. Nevertheless, this method can at times be overwhelming. It involves gazing down into a seemingly bottomless pit of history, personal diaries, photographs, street maps and manuals and praying for inspiration. But to anyone willing to give it a try, I say, take heart, keep your antennae up and dive in! There is no knowing what treasures you’ll find!

(c) Carole Gurnett

About Dark Heart:

A story of love, loyalty and loss.

It is 1878. British troops are preparing for the invasion of Zululand. Walter Williams is among them, a gunner in the Royal Artillery, who no longer has any illusions about soldiering. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with young Davy Cochrane, a driver in his battery, a friendship that binds them for life.

When Walter returns home to civilian life, he returns to a London that is poorer, dirtier, meaner than he remembers. He wants only a peaceful existence in the bosom of his family. However, the landscape has changed since he was last home. Edie, his mother, a towering figure from his youth, has been shunted off to an institution and Walter’s manipulative sister, Lil, with her husband Art, has plans for Walter that involve a match with Art’s sister, the sullen-faced Agnes.

For her part, Agnes, traumatised by an episode from her past, carries with her a devastating secret that will greatly impact on Walter’s future happiness.

Meanwhile, Walter strives for his ideal. Along the way, he makes a new friend, Jem Cresswell and reunites with an old one, Davy Cochrane. Both men will have a role to play in subsequent events. For just as Walter is close to achieving the life he wants, Grundy, a ghost from his past re-emerges, threatening to destroy everything. Now, more than ever before, Walter must engage fearlessly with the enemy . . .

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About the author

Carole Gurnett was born in England of Irish parents and moved with her family to Ireland at the age of sixteen, settling in County Clare and going to school in Limerick, where she now lives. She studied English and History in University College Cork.
For Dark Heart, Carole mined her own family’s history. Her great grand-father, William, a gunner in the Royal Artillery, was involved in three conflicts – the 9th Frontier War in Transkei, the Zulu War and the 1st Boer War. At the end of his service, he returned to London where he married Margaret Firminger, a publican’s daughter who was sixteen years his junior. From these scant facts, the story grew to become Dark Heart.
Carole won the Molly Keane Memorial Creative Writing Award in 1999. Her first novel, The Curtain Falls, is set in the dazzling London theatre world of the 1890s.
Carole loves historical fiction and for inspiration, reads works by Sarah Waters, Sarah Perry, Joseph O’Connor and Henrietta McKervey.

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