Well, that’s a very good question and at the time I was doing both those jobs, I certainly wasn’t aware of any connection.
However, when you’ve hitched your star to a pilot you’ve met on the other side of the world, the ride’s going to take you places where you have to adapt and seize the adventure on offer, or shrivel away from boredom or lack of usefulness. For me, that meant some unusual jobs in far flung places, working with some very unusual characters…. All filed away for future reference, or perhaps unconsciously finding their way into the stories I wrote in the evenings.
I was a journalist when I first took up a two-month relief management job in the Okavango Delta, so my love of words was already entrenched. My desire to write fiction, however, was still a frustrated one, with a number of dusty manuscripts lying about under beds or on floppy discs.
A year earlier I’d found my grandfather’s pictorial diary, so working in Botswana in the early 1990s was a case of the grand-daughter repeating history with a modern take. In 1916 Grampa had been a young district commissioner, surveying the tsetse fly belt in the Okavango – amongst other jobs – whereas by the time I arrived, tourism was one of Botswana’s biggest earners, together with diamonds. (Several years later I worked in Botswana’s high security diamond-mining town, Orapa, but that’s a story for another time.)
Now, newly arrived in the Okavango in Botswana’s lush north, I was in charge of a remote 16-bedded safari camp, accessible for half the year only by light aircraft due to the annual floods which attract vast herds of game from all over southern Africa.
Communications for both grampa and I were challenging, though I enjoyed better food, since my job was to ensure 5-star meals and accommodation for the high-paying, mostly overseas, visitors to the lodge. This I did with the aid of my dog-eared Women’s Weekly Cookbooks, ordering in the fresh ingredients and the meat – ie, the village cow, always delicately referred to as ‘Charlie’ over the two-way radio for the sake of those who might be listening in. Charlie would arrive in a large plastic bin, and generally not in the company of our guests on account of Charlie’s propensity for attracting swarms of frustrated flies.
I could write a book about this wonderful time in my life, the highlight of which was meeting my gorgeous Norwegian bush pilot who flew into camp and literally whisked me off my feet the night before I was due to fly home to Australia.
For while catering to the needs of the often rich and sometimes famous guests at Mombo Lodge furnished me with experience of a certain type of clientele, my job as a technician in a male-dominated field, working mostly at 250ft above ground on contracts in remote locations, supplied me with material of a very different sort that I consciously, and unconsciously weave into my novels.
Inspiration comes from unexpected places and the more I think about it, the more I can see that my boss on my first contract, and the man who trained me, was the main inspiration for the mother of my heroine, Adelaide, in my latest release, The Maid of Milan.
When the aforementioned handsome Norwegian bush pilot – now my husband, Eivind – started a year’s contract as a survey pilot in Namibia, I found myself based in Windhoek at a loose end. So when Simon the survey company’s chief technician recruited a lad he’d met in the bar for a job as an airborne geophysical survey operator (working the computer equipment in the back of low-flying aircraft) on the basis that the prospective candidate didn’t throw up on roller-coasters at the funfair, and that he was skinny, I put the case to Simon that I didn’t throw up on the roller coaster either, and that I was just as skinny, so as Simon was still looking for another technician, he need look no further.
Unfortunately Simon was not taken by the idea of hiring me. I didn’t have a technician’s background (though this lad didn’t, either) and there were few, if any, women working in this field at the time. However Simon was ultimately overruled by head office. Management liked the idea that as I weighed only 45kg, which was about half that of their other male technicians, more fuel could be uploaded for each 8+ hour sortie, thus saving the company many thousands of dollars over the year’s contract.
Simon was a loyal company man and having been overruled, he bore his cross bravely. Very like my heroine’s mother, he was determined that his protégé would be given the best training in order not to let management or the crew down.
In hot, humid and turbulent conditions, I could not have had a better motivation for learning how to trouble-shoot if the equipment was playing up, or how to dexterously bring in an oscillating ‘bird’ – the torpedo-like data-gathering equipment suspended below the aircraft. For Simon was a chain smoker, and with no air-conditioning or ventilation in the aircraft, and ash dropping over my hands and into the computer and the thick-pile orange carpeting as he showed me the ropes for eight hour stretches, I was determined to master my tasks and so be alone in the air without Simon and with only the pilot as soon as possible.
Simon was just one of the small and colourful crew I worked and lived with for that happy year. Sadly he succumbed to emphysema a few years after this contract but I always appreciated the fact that, like so many of the guys I worked with on these various contracts, even if he made no secret of his reservations in working with me on the basis that I was a woman with limited technical experience, those reservations became irrelevant and forgotten once I’d settled comfortably and successfully into the job.
I’m not a writer who purposefully bases a character on a person but it is interesting to realise that a real-life situation has sometimes had a strong influence, such as Simon’s motivations in getting me up to par, and his methods, which bore similarities to the noble motivations and strong-arm tactics of Mrs Henley, Adelaide’s mother in The Maid of Milan.
Mrs Henley is driven by a higher order to do right, though it goes against the grain. But she’s a woman with a higher calling and she will do her duty. Having been saddled with Adelaide, she goes about doggedly forging what she believes to be the right path for the girl. Her motivation is pure, her methods harsh, and the outcome …unexpected. Many readers see her as a villain but I actually sympathise with her.
And before I really do write an entire book on the serendipitous discovery of real-life characters I know and have worked with, having found their way into my fiction, I’d better stop right there.
The Maid of Milan has been described as a Regency-era ‘Dynasty’ with its love triangle, drug addiction and redemption themes. It has a happy ending but it’s not so much a conventional romance as a psychological study of the insidious effects of guilt, the mental anguish associated with covering up the past; and discovering how far forgiveness and love can stretch when an entirely new reality is laid bare.
Beverley’s latest Choc Lit release is The Maid of Milan, a Regency-era ‘Dynasty’ with its love triangle, drug addiction and manipulation themes.
You can visit her website at: www.beverleyeikli.com and her blog at: http//:www.beverleyeikli.blogspot.com.au or follow her on Twitter: @BeverleyOakley