How I wrote ‘The Sentinel’

Part 1 – The idea

I’ve spent the past (nearly 4 years!) working on this novel but it’s still not easy to put my creative process into words – but I’ll give it a go!

The Sentinel tells the story of a young woman, Kathleen Devine who, in escaping a failed relationship, takes up the Head Teacher position at a lighthouse station off the coast of Victoria, Australia in 1880. There she meets the fearsome Head Lightkeeper, Frederick Johannsson and the other keepers, all of whom have a past that still defines them. She must learn to navigate the intricacies of lighthouse life while dealing with the mysteries that surround the keepers. She is also anxious about the unlikely friendship developing between the Head Lightkeeper and Isabella (one of the keepers’ daughters). What happens to Isabella and why is the question at the heart of the story.

The genesis for the idea came after I hiked to the southernmost tip of mainland Australia with my husband and son in December 2016. It’s a long walk – almost 18km through the undulating and wild interior of the most magnificent, Wilson’s Promontory National Park.

Walking to Wilson’s Prom lighthouse in 2016

We stayed for a night at Wilson’s Promontory lighthouse and I was blown away by the beauty of the place, its dramatic capes and windswept wonders.

Although the light is fully automated, Parks Victoria staff still act as caretakers on a rotational basis and the current keepers were kind enough to give us a tour of the lighthouse station and the lighthouse itself.

The keepers told us the story of the short-lived Wilson’s Promontory state school (No. 2278) which opened for approximately two months in the 1880s. The appointment of a new lighthouse keeper whose large family, along with the children already living on the lighthouse station, meant that the Department of Education (yes, it was called the Department in 1880), agreed to provide a teacher for the children although the keepers were required to raise the funds to pay her wage. When one of the keepers was dismissed and took their family with them, there was no longer enough children to keep the school open and the teacher herself had to leave.

That was the original idea that formed the basis for The Sentinel. What behaviour/action would a keeper have to do to be dismissed, and after only 2 months. What happened to the teacher? Why would she take up a position in the first place, and what must she have thought of the lighthouse life and of having to leave it so abruptly?

The Wilson’s Promontory schoolhouse, #2278, 2nd on the left

I think I was fortunate the genesis of the idea came in the middle of a 3 day hike around Wilson’s Prom. There is something about walking that really aids a writer’s thought process, and we still had two days’ hiking and over 20kms to go to reach Telegraph Saddle. In the hard climbs up and down the promontory’s steep interior, I was able to let the idea germinate and think about how the story might unfold. Somehow the idea just felt ‘right’, as if it had a heart and that I could make something of it.

As I walked I thought about what would force a keeper’s departure and built that idea into a framework – the framework that would ‘hold’ the story in place and give it the narrative drive to keep the reader reading.

When I got back home I found, quite by chance, an article on The Guardian website called ‘How to write a book in 30 days’ (https://www.theguardian.com/books/series/how-to-write-a-book-in-30-days). There are a lot of helpful guides to writing novels but I wanted one I could stick with. I scoured the pages and downloaded the templates and began working in a hard cover journal I picked up from Officeworks.

Playing around with the title and images for inspiration

Somehow the idea of structuring the novel around a letter from my main character, Kathleen Devine, to her father grew, and eventually I wrote the beginning of the book (the opening paragraphs of Kathleen’s letter to her father) in one sitting. It has hardly changed since. I have tweaked it and polished it but the gist of it is almost exactly the same as when I wrote the first draft nearly 4 years ago.

The rest of the novel was not as simple though!

Next time, the pre-writing phase.

See you then,

Jacqui.

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