I was slightly surprised when my first novel, A Time For Silence, was classified on Amazon as a family saga. My publisher had told me it was crime fiction and I had thought of it as a simple mystery. Besides, it was a single book and I never expected to add to the series. Surely a family saga has to fill half a shelf on the bookcase, like the Forsyte Saga or the Poldark novels.
But of course it doesn’t. A family saga follows the affairs of members of a family through a period of time and that’s it. It can be one volume or a hundred. It can involve crime, like mine. It can focus on family relationships or it can use the family’s affairs as a means of reflecting changes and events in the world beyond. In fact a family is a perfect vehicle for just about any form of fiction except, perhaps, something like Robinson Crusoe.
So when I thought about it, I agreed that A Time For Silence was indeed a family saga, following the trials and tribulations of the members of one family, from the marriage of Gwen Lewis to John Owen in 1933 to her granddaughter’s ham-fisted investigation in 2008 or thereabouts (it was published in 2012). Now its reach has been extended because its prequel, The Covenant, takes the story of the Owen family back to the 1880s. Well, I was determined never to take the story further forward, but there was nothing to stop me taking it further back.
One thing I have realised is that families are always going to be the perfect material for me to work with because what interests me most about crime or any other significant event is not the event itself but everything that led up to it and all the consequences that flowed from it. Where better to follow that trail than in a family? Just as World War I wasn’t simply caused by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, so a murder isn’t sparked by a simple quarrel. Its origins are found in all the personalities, frustrations, niggles and disappointments that led up to the quarrel. And just as the armistice of 1918 failed to draw a line under the war but had ramifications that led to World War II, so the identification and arrest of a murderer doesn’t draw a line under the consequences of the crime. Survivors carry it with them and even pass it on to future generations. It’s all an endless game of consequences and that’s what families are.
I am in a deadly serious writing group (gossip and howls of laughter over coffee in Debenhams), with two other authors, Judith Barrow and Alex Martin, who have both written huge family sagas engulfing several volumes, and they make full use of everything that a family saga has to offer: family relationships put through the mill, actions whose consequences rumble on through the decades, strands woven and unwoven, and all set against a backdrop of world events.
Judith Barrow’s Howarth Family Quartet extends from the days of the suffragettes through both world wars, the post war era and into the libertarian swinging sixties, all seen through the eyes of ordinary people – the ones who never make it into the history books but whose struggles and endurance make the history happen.
Alex Martin’s Katherine Wheel series follows the fate of two families, one born to landed wealth, the other destined to be labourers and servants. It extends from the early years of the 20th century, through World War I to the end of World War II, and by focusing on two families and their reversal of fortunes, it explores class structure, female emancipation, war work, transatlantic relations, the rise of new industries, the decline of the landed classes, property rights, motor racing, the land army, the German occupation of France and the French Resistance. All of human life is here. What’s not to love?