In 1845 Lord John Franklin led an expedition of two ships to the Arctic in search of the final chain of the Northwest Passage. Franklin captained HMS Erebus, while his more experienced second-in-command, Frances Crozier, took control of HMS Terror. This was the largest and most sophisticated expedition that was ever put to sea—with twenty-four officers, one-hundred-and-ten men and three years of food including plenty of vitamin C. There was no way they could fail. They set sail from Greenhithe, England, on 19th May, believing they would be home before their food ran out. When they failed to return, or send any news whatsoever, the Royal Navy sent out a search expedition. This was the first of over thirty searches made between the years 1847 and 1859.
What happened to the expedition remains a mystery. All that is known for certain is that John Franklin was already dead before that first search was launched and that his was not the first death. By June 1847, the men were dying for no apparent reason. Legend surrounds the fate of Captain Frances Crozier, thanks to some Inuit who reported that he was the last man to survive.
There are stories that you are meant to write, the igniting spark something you read, overhear or see on screen. Yet in order for that spark to flame into life, you must recognise it. The same goes for your characters. And I was hooked on the story of Franklin and Crozier.
On learning that the Maritime Museum in Greenwich was running an exhibition of Franklin artefacts, I booked my flight, and it was there that I found my theme, thanks to a line from Christian Melodies, the book that had belonged to one of Franklin’s officers. It sat behind a glass case and was opened to the first page where I read: “Home—there’s magic in that little word”. I happen to believe that most stories are about finding a new home or returning to an old one. Being lost from home, this would be the theme for my novel. Franklin’s men were lost from a second ‘home’ after they were obliged to abandon the ships and attempt to walk to safety. What should have happened did not—the summer ice did not melt away as it usually did, a phenomenon that had not even been entertained. Similarly, the Titanic might have made it to New York if only Captain Smith had allowed for the consideration that it might not.
I was in my hotel room in Greenwich when I felt a lump in my right armpit. It was big, maybe the size of a Cadbury’s creme egg. I resolved to see a doctor when I got home. I had no idea that what I was returning to would be changed forevermore. The lump set up an impasse between me and the life I had led up to that very moment of finding it; it was my own iceberg. As with Franklin’s expedition and Titanic’s maiden voyage, what should not have happened did—I was diagnosed with early stage III breast cancer.
The deadline for my fifth children’s novel was less than three months away. On the wall of my work-room hung A3 portraits of some of the main players: Captains John Franklin and Frances Crozier and the two ships, HMS Terror and Erebus. I always do this. It is a daily reminder that my characters were once flesh and blood and that I have a responsibility to them. They become my confidants. Whenever something annoys me, I will turn to them to roll my eyes heavenwards.
I remember sitting at my desk, feeling utterly lost.
I had just finished Antonia Fraser’s memoir, which dealt with her husband Harold Pinter’s death from cancer. The day after my diagnosis, I was restless and unable to read, which upset me. I stumbled through that first weekend, feeling as if I was wrapped up in a thick duvet and the world around me was on mute. I picked up one book after another, but I could not be transported by another writer because I was held hostage by my own drama. Like a character pinned to the page, I could not step away from the knowledge of having cancer.
Perhaps the most frustrating element about the Franklin expedition is that, aside from one short note mentioning Franklin’s demise, all their writings were lost: their diaries, letters and, consequently, their voices. Descriptions of their dwindling numbers and final days survive thanks to a handful of Inuit witnesses. I was newly aware of the power of words. Well, here were my footsteps in the snow, my marks upon the ice-white screen. In my diary, I included a description of my efforts to locate the X-Ray department during a hospital visit:
As I walked through a crowded corridor, I clearly heard a line of conversation from two male nurses: ‘It was on the Titanic…there was a little boy…’
I stopped still and stared after them. That one line got me down the stairs until I finally found the waiting room.
My first novel for children, Spirit of the Titanic, was narrated by the ghost of a fifteen-year-old catch-boy (junior riveter), Samuel Joseph Scott, who had fallen to his death two years before the ship went to sea. That possible overheard reference to my book was my sign that I could do this, I was still a writer and not alone in this place. This is the wonderful thing about characters: they are always with you.
Quite unexpectedly, I was haunted by the need to communicate my situation on Facebook. Really, Facebook? I had never used it for personal material before. Was this an ego trip? Would people think I was showing off, about having cancer of all things? I did not want to talk to anyone; no, what I wanted was readers, if only just to know that they were really there, which would in turn mean that I, the writer, was still here.
Apart from anything else, I was hugely gratified for this rare urge to write. I had never felt a passion for the actual act of writing. First drafts were a constant battle against myself. Meanwhile, some other writers talked the talk, that they must write in order to breathe and so on. To my surprise, however, a love for writing is what emerged over the next few months as I provided frequent updates to my story, on Facebook and Twitter, choosing an angle, a tone that incorporated humour and sincerity for my new character: a middle-aged cancer patient. Writing helped me feel relevant, while social media kept me in the reader’s sightline.
I tried in vain to meet my novel’s deadline. By the time I started chemotherapy I had managed 50,000 words by clinging to routine (2,000 words a day) while my usual life began to disintegrate. It took some time to accept that I had to release most of what I held dear. Franklin’s ships spewed out their crew to fend for themselves. In the absence of flowing waters and men, HMS Erebus and Terror were now useless. If I wasn’t writing, was I still a writer?
Certainly, my identity as a children’s writer was being corroded with every email I sent, cancelling events. The life of a children’s writer involves being available to do events throughout the school year and, as a writer of historical fiction, I felt a particular dependence on them. I worried how my books would live without my constant showboating. My last two novels were about 300-year-old battles. What youngster would bother to open them if I didn’t put in a personal appearance to lead them to the first page?
Naturally, I had believed that I could continue working throughout the five months of treatment, but only because I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Captain Frances Crozier was on foot in the Arctic with the remains of his crew, having abandoned the ships to the ice. Well, I had to leave them there as I too got lost in a fog of my own. I lacked the stamina to keep us all buoyant. He and his men were heading towards disaster, but I had to maintain their blissful innocence just as I had tried, initially, to maintain mine, that I might not have cancer or maybe just ‘a touch’ of it. A taxi driver had told me about his wife only needing an operation and she was cured. I stole hope from where I could get it, as Captain Crozier must surely have done. I imagined him at the helm of his ship, gazing at the stars in the sky and believing, like me, that anything was possible. The important thing was to keep moving forward.
My days tumbled over each other with more hospital appointments, more clarification, more cancer than they expected. No, I could do nothing for Crozier. My diagnosis held him fast as surely as the ice did. Guilt propelled me to opening up the manuscript every so often, but I could do nothing with it. To attempt to edit or add anything at all was like trying to lift a bag of sugar with a tea spoon.
It is now October, and I would like to finish the first draft before embarking on six weeks of radiation, which gives me approximately five weeks. I have forgotten much of my research and am nervous about finding my way back to Crozier. I feel as lost from him as he must have felt in that white hell of an Arctic winter. Yet, I think about him every day, which gives me hope as this is how every one of my books came into being before a single word was written.
I must retrace my steps, trusting that my cancer journey will add to my telling of his, that not a single day was wasted. I suppose what we share is the need to believe that one step and one word after another will eventually make all the difference, enabling us both to reach home, wherever that is.