Today’s guest author, Patricia Leslie, was inspired by an unsolved real-life mystery – the origin of the huge fire which destroyed an impressive and important building in 19th century Sydney, Australia. Here’s the intriguing story of how Ms Leslie’s second novel Keeper of the Way (Crossing The Line, book one) came into being. It’s due to be released on 24 February.
I have always been fascinated by hidden history – the side of stories we don’t learn about at school. The people who are written out of history because they weren’t on the “side” in power. Past cultures that form the basis of later ones but appear to have been “forgotten”.
My first novel The Ouroboros Key came from madly devouring everything I could find on early Christian history and the sometimes wild links between human cultures and intergalactic cultures. Give me a whiff of the purposely hidden and conspiracy, and my imagination is off and running.
In 2015 I read a news story about Sydney’s Garden Palace and its fiery demise, and I was hooked. For a start, I’ve been a Sydney-sider for fifty-plus years but I’d never heard of this building. Intrigued after finding out that they still don’t know how the fire started, I set about a little digging.
In 1879, Sydney gained an international exhibition building known as the Garden Palace. The building, located in the Royal Botanical Gardens beside the Governor’s stables (now the Conservatorium of Music) was nothing less than extraordinary. It was massive! A beautiful stained-glass and copper dome was designed and built to allow daylight to shine on the head of Queen Victoria, who stood perpetually observing the goings on in the nave and galleries. Under her feet was a magnificent fountain. Packed to the rafters with art and museum collections from around Australia and the world, over one million people passed through its doors, sampled the local and international fare at the many café pavilions and tapped their feet at regular concerts and performances. Culture had come to the colony!
How could I not have known about this?
Then on September 22nd 1882 the Garden Palace burned to the ground. Everything inside was lost and the cause of the fire a complete mystery. The nightwatchmen on patrol in the wee hours had completed their tour of the building when they realised that the ornate fountain was engulfed in smoke. Queen Victoria and her antipodean palace were doomed to a fiery death. In the following days, newspapers reported a mysterious figure seen jumping from a first-floor balcony. Could this have been the arsonist? This figure disappeared like smoke into the gardens and wasn’t seen again.
In those days, Macquarie Street was lined with Georgian sandstone mansions. The Garden Palace had blocked their views of Sydney Harbour. Could it have been an irate neighbour with a fire fetish? Also, the government officers were reported to hold a lot of valuable information on who was who, who they were before, and what they were up to in the colonies. Did someone have a secret to hide at all costs?
It’s been 135 years and we still don’t know – we probably never will. But what, I wondered, if it was something more shadowy than espionage? Less devious than a disgruntled fire-bug? Further research into the social history of the period led me to the rich history of my ancestral roots (Scotland and Ireland) and the entirely plausible possibility that ancient traditions would be easily brought from one country to another. Emigration from Scotland and Ireland was high in the mid-1800s and many of those people came to Australia. It’s a natural presumption they would keep their stories and cultural practices. We can see evidence of this today in the cultural enclaves surrounding our cities.
I started threading in stories of canny folk, the demonisation of wise women, and the necessary custom of women’s history staying under the radar, hidden from those who would rob and destroy in a quest for power. With Queen Victoria as a covert symbol of female power, the stories and voices of Victorian-age women and traditional women’s magic, I wove a story that journeys from a ruin on the Isle of Skye to bustling cosmopolitan Sydney of the 1880s and beyond. I wrapped a mystery in mystery and came up with Keeper of the Way.
We cross many lines throughout our lifetime: my characters crossed the line that is the equator, the line between traditional gender roles, acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, old traditions and modern religion. Keeper of the Way is the first of the Crossing The Line series, due out 24 February 2018. It blends magic, myth and monsters with history (my favourite subjects), reality with the supernatural, and the normal with the paranormal.