Combining Fact and Fiction in the Writing of ‘The Dance of Love’ by Angela Young

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Angela Young c Jamie Lumley 2013

The Dance of Love is my second novel, so I’m a novice. I’ve written since I was a child but it’s one thing to write in a notebook you keep under your pillow, quite another to know your words will be read by other people, let alone people you’ve never met. I learnt so much in the writing of this novel and I hope I’ll always learn, but next time perhaps the curve won’t be quite so steep.

My agent, Heather Holden-Brown, suggested the idea for The Dance of Love. My great-grandmother, Noël Rothes, survived the sinking of the Titanic and Heather thought her story would make a good novel. It had never occurred to me to write her story but, when Heather suggested it, I couldn’t think why it hadn’t. And so I researched the era, the customs and the mores and, of course, the Titanic.

There weren’t many letters or photographs in the family: it was the way, then, to keep silent about tragedy. But there are a plethora of press cuttings and websites and I found more than enough information to underpin the novel. But try as I might I couldn’t fashion a story that worked. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a character who was a wife and a mother, a daughter and a friend and a survivor of the Titanic, would provide the beating heart of a tragic, page-turning story. But, in my hands, it wouldn’t come together.

I rethought and replanned. I rewrote and rewrote. I cut and I edited. I began again, and again. I tried different narrators: the protagonist; her husband; her son; her almost-lover. I tried beginning in the middle and then at the end. I tried a modern frame story. I tried a straightforward beginning-to-end narrative. I tried parallel stories in which a twenty-first-century journalist discovers a personal connection with the Titanic survivor. I began work in 2008 but by 2012 – the 100th anniversary of the sinking – I still hadn’t written a story with a proper beating heart.

By that time I’d worked with two editors, and with Heather, and they’d all done their best to help me find the heart of the story. I’m sure other writers would’ve succeeded: the editors asked searching questions and made excellent suggestions, but I couldn’t make it work. So I sent the manuscript to The Literacy Consultancy for assessment and, in August 2012, Melissa Marshall wrote this:

At [the novel’s] heart is a complicated love story. But then it steers hugely off course with the Titanic episode. This is a massive story in itself and rather dilutes the impact, importance and credence of the main storyline, which is the story of unrequited love. I think the Titanic story is an entirely different novel altogether and I would urge you to consider removing it from this story.

You might think I’d cry when I read those words, but I didn’t. I laughed with relief and recognition. I’d been trying to combine fact and fiction without realising that in order to do that well – this is my first historical novel – the two must be seamlessly interwoven and there must be synergy between them. I’d been trying to find a reason for my protagonist to board the Titanic (my own great-grandmother’s reason was quite mundane) rather than asking how the tragedy might affect the course of her life. My writing was governed by facts: I hadn’t let my imagination soar.

So … I sent an email to my agent. I apologised for failing to write the book she’d suggested and then I said I’d like to develop the story of unrequited love, without any scenes set aboard Titanic. I said I’d never have discovered the unrequited-love story if she hadn’t suggested the original idea, but because this book would be so different from the book she’d imagined, I understood absolutely if she no longer wanted to represent it. But she said she hated seeing a thing begun left undone and when I’d rewritten the book she’d submit it to publishers. And so she did. She sold it to ‘buried river press‘, an imprint of Robert Hale Publishers and it will be published this summer.

The Dance of Love Angela Young

I learnt more about the writing of a novel through The Dance of Love than I ever learnt when I wrote my first novel, Speaking of Love. I think many writers would say the same because, to paraphrase Stephen Fry, a first novel takes all the years you’ve lived so far to write: it’s been composting until the moment you begin. But the second hasn’t had time to gather the grass-cuttings and all the other necessary leavings, let alone begin the composting process. There’s very little mulch.

And so it was that I realised, by the end of this serpentine process, why I’d never considered writing a novel about my great-grandmother’s Titanic experience even if, until now, the reason hadn’t been conscious. My unconscious storyteller knew I’d need a compelling piece of fiction to interweave with the tragic facts of Titanic’s sinking: it knew it would be a struggle to discover a story that could hold its own alongside such a leviathan. But Melissa Marshall’s report showed me I could make the Titanic story serve my fictional storyline: I realised my protagonist’s life could be affected, dramatically, by the tragedy of the Titanic. I realised she’d make a brave and heart-rending decision as a direct result of Titanic’s sinking (not as a result of being on board herself) and so I found the emotional heart of her story.

The Dance of Love now tells a story quite unlike the facts of my own great-grandmother’s experience, but I hope it’s become a story with a true and compelling heart.

Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love, is about the sometimes frightening consequences of not talking about love. It was shortlisted for Spread the Word’s Books to Talk About and is now available as an eBook. 

The Dance of Love, about the near-impossibility of marrying for love in a society that considers marriage an insurance policy for the preservation of bloodline, land, title and wealth, will be published by buried river press, a new imprint of Robert Hale Publishers, on 31 July, 2014.

Angela is now working on For the Love of Life, a novel about an angel who accidentally falls in love with a human being. The three pieces are very different in tone and voice, era and setting, but they have in common the difficulties we human beings face when we try to talk about the things that matter the most.

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Read more at Angela’s websitePhoto of Angela Young © Lumley Pictures

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