I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve signed a contract with The Wild Rose Press to publish my Welsh spy novel, Bound to Her Blood Enemy. I’ve just started the editing process, so I hope it won’t be too long before I have a release date and a cover to share with you.
Until then, I’ll leave you with this picture as a taster. It shows Hawkstone Follies in Shropshire, which is inspiration for the location of the opening chapters. This dramatic cliff just cries out for a castle, and I think it’s a terrible shame there isn’t one. That’s why in my story, I stuck a castle on top and called it Redcliff. Not an easy place to escape from, but that’s precisely what my heroine needs to do. It’s a good thing there’s a gorgeous spy in the offing…
Another castle features heavily in the story, but more on that another time.
Last weekend I went away with twelve other members of my writing group to North Wales for our annual retreat. I’ve been on five retreats now, and they’ve become one of the highlights of my year. Here are five reasons why I keep going back.
1. Kick-starting a project
On retreat, we do our own thing during the day, then get together in the evenings. Because I’m away from home and all its distractions, this time alone enables me to concentrate on nothing but getting words on the page. This year I was about 20,000 words into the first draft of my WIP. By the end of the weekend I was at the 35,000 mark. Now I’ve got that momentum going, getting the first draft finished doesn’t seem such a daunting task.
I don’t spend all day writing; I also go for walks to explore the local area. We always choose beautiful locations in Wales, and being in such breathtaking surroundings never fails to inspire. It’s amazing how a problem with a plot or character can suddenly be resolved in a flash of inspiration in the middle of a walk. Which is why it’s vitally important to carry a notebook.
3. A change of routine
Working from home, it’s easy to fall into the same patterns day after day, and become jaded. Gradually my writing starts to suffer, sometimes even coming to a grinding halt. A change of surroundings never fails to refresh me, and helps me look at my projects in new ways.
4. Spending quality time with other writers
Writing is a lonely business, and I find it all too easy to get dispirited, sometimes to the point of wanting to give it all up. Getting together with other writers is very important to me. It’s an opportunity to be with like-minded people, get encouragement, motivation and inspiration. I always come back from retreat feeling energised and determined to persevere.
5. Living the dream
Let’s face it, the life of a writer isn’t the glamorous life we’d love it to be. Before I started writing seriously, I used to imagine a writer’s life involved getting up when I wanted, breezing through a chapter of my next bestseller in a couple of hours, going for a walk or cycle ride in the afternoon and maybe swanning off to a glamorous publishing do in the evening. In reality it involves getting up at 6am to write before starting my paid work then collapsing, exhausted, at the end of the day. Okay, so I do usually manage a walk at some point, but the swanky publishing events have yet to materialise. Going on retreat allows me to spend a few days in a beautiful location, providing the perfect backdrop for the fantasy lifestyle. For the duration of a long weekend, I’m a successful novelist, living the dream.
What about you - what’s your idea of the perfect retreat?
Have I gone completely mad? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for the past three days after signing up for NaNoWriMo 2017. For the next thirty days I’ll be bashing away at my computer keyboard, doing my best to add 50,000 words to my WIP.
Actually, I’m excited to be able to join in this year. In past years I’ve either been in the middle of revisions or had too much going on in my life to be able to commit to writing 1,667 words each day. This year I’m 15,000 words into my WIP, so ready to dive in. My routine for the next month will be to get up at 6am, write for a couple of hours before starting the day job, then fit the remainder of my daily word count into the evening. I might even manage a couple of meals if I’m very good.
To get me off to a flying start, I’m off to Wales on Thursday for a writers’ retreat. The only problem is that Wales is so beautiful I’ll be tempted to spend far too much time out walking. For once I won't mind if it rains.
Good luck to everyone else doing NaNo. See you on the other side...
If you’ve seen my Facebook page recently, you’ll know I’ve been reminiscing about my twentieth anniversary of going to teach in Botswana. I’ve been re-reading the diaries I wrote during my three years there, and one thing they’ve brought back is how little I was able to take with me—I had to pack everything into three boxes. Worst of all, I soon worked out I only had room for five books, once I’d packed the guide books and text books I needed. Being an avid reader, I obsessed over this far more than which clothes, shoes or household goods to take.
I was able to cheat a bit, because I had an old copy of the complete works of Jane Austen, printed on very thin paper, but it was still an agonising choice. I wanted a mixture of familiar books I enjoyed re-reading, and new books. Here’s what I ended up with:
How about you? If you were going away for three years and could only take five books, what would you choose?
I love a good rant from time to time, and I think it's high time for another writing-related one. For a reminder of my rant on how writers are depicted in film, see this post in my previous blog.
This time it's another matter close to my heart: maths. Or, rather, the perception that an attractive woman can’t be good at maths. I see it again and again in books—romances in particular—and if one thing is guaranteed to make me scream, throw a book at the wall and never pick it up again, this is it. (I see it in films and television, too, but I can’t afford to throw my tv at the wall each time it happens.)
For example, at some point in the book, the author wants to impress upon us how feminine, lovable and endearingly ditzy the heroine is. So the heroine, upon being presented with a problem involving maths, bats her eyelids and says something like, “Ooh, I was never any good with numbers.”
Seriously, I've just caught myself grinding my teeth as I wrote that.
Don't get me wrong, I know some people (men as well as women) find maths difficult, just as some people find reading difficult. There's nothing wrong with admitting it and trying to find a strategy to cope. What I object to is the implication that the ability to do maths is somehow unfeminine. That a woman who can work out the square root of minus nine is unattractive.
I used to teach secondary maths and it broke my heart to see intelligent girls unwilling to show their ability because they thought it would make them unpopular with boys. This attitude is deeply ingrained in our culture, but surely as enlightened members of the twenty-first century we shouldn’t go along with it. Every time a writer describes a woman as useless at maths (unless it’s an integral part of the plot) they are compounding the problem. So please, do women a favour and stop using a difficulty with numbers as a lazy shortcut to demonstrate how appealing your female characters are.
I’m sure there must be plenty of books out there featuring mathematically able heroines. Any suggestions?
With the conference less than two weeks away, it’s time for the final instalment of my mini series on Shropshire literary connections. I’ve saved my favourite until last and chosen a writer who’s had a huge influence on my writing. Thanks to her, I discovered the plots, battles and blood feuds of Welsh history. Thanks to her I was inspired to take one of the most memorable holidays of my life and travel to the mountains of Slovakia. Thanks to her, every time I visit Shrewsbury I can’t help but imagine a twelfth-century monk browsing the river banks for herbs and hunting for clues that will guide him to a murderer.
You’ve probably worked out by now that I’m talking about Edith Pargeter, who also wrote as Ellis Peters. She was born and lived in Dawley—now part of Telford—and wrote and published over 70 books. She is probably best known for her books featuring Brother Cadfael, the medieval monk-turned-detective, which arguably kicked off a whole sub genre of historical crime fiction.
A lesser-known fact is Edith Pargeter’s lifelong interest in what was then Czechoslovakia. She taught herself Czech (having two Czech sisters-in-law, I’ve studied Czech myself, and it’s flipping difficult, let me tell you!) and in addition to her own fiction is internationally recognised for her translations of Czech poetry and prose into English. In 1966 she published a crime novel, The Piper on the Mountain - one of a series featuring Inspector George Felse and his family. Set mostly in the High And Low Tatras of Slovakia, it features George Felse’s son, Dominic, who solves a murder involving a plot to sell secrets to the Soviets and still manages to get the girl. It’s great fun and inspired my own trip to the High Tatras.
However, the first books of hers that I read were the four books comprising The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet: Sunrise in the West, The Dragon at Noonday, The Hounds of Sunset and Afterglow and Nightfall. It introduced me to Welsh history and I was hooked from the start, drawn in by the struggles of Prince Llewelyn to overcome his scheming brothers and build a Gwynedd—and, ultimately, Wales—that might be strong enough to stand against the Norman threat. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. As an added incentive, they also feature my first literary crush: Llewelyn’s conflicted, treacherous brother, David. The ultimate bad boy!
Hopefully this has whetted your appetite for the conference. Of course, there are many more writers associated with Shropshire. If you have your own favourites, I’d love to hear about them.k here to edit.
Did you know that there are four levels of ghostly encounters in Shropshire? First we have “Summat to be sid” [seen]. These are things like ghostly animals, headless pigs, dogs with glowing red eyes—non-human apparitions. If you find yourself faced with a purposeless terror such as a headless ghost or mysterious indelible bloodstains, then you’ve been subjected to a “frittening”. Come face to face with a revenant—a ghost of someone who can’t rest or has unfinished business—and you’ve either met someone who has “come again” or “come again very badly”, depending how malicious the ghost might be. Did you also know that the large hill dominating the area—The Wrekin—was created when a cobbler tricked a vengeful giant into dropping his load of rocks just outside Wellington, instead of using them to destroy Shrewsbury?
The reason we know all this is because of a remarkable woman, Charlotte Sophia Burne, who lived in Edgmond, just down the road from Harper Adams University. If you get the time to go for a walk through Edgmond, look out for this blue plaque on Newport Road, marking her home. Not much is known of her life now, apart from the facts recorded on the plaque: she lived in Edgmond from 1854 until 1875, and became the first woman president of a leaned society—the Folklore Society. Yet she must have been a remarkable woman. At a time when learned societies were dominated by men—and men living in London, to make matters even more difficult for a provincial woman—she not only gained entry to the council of the Folklore Society, but became its president. The work she is most famous for is editing the four-volume “Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings”. As you can tell from the precision with which she records the different levels of ghostly sightings, she not only collected and wrote down folk-lore, but classified it, showing the hierarchy of beliefs underpinning Shropshire society.
As a writer of historical fiction, I’m fascinated by folklore. If anything can give us a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the people of the past, it has to be through the tales they told. Most of my stories have been set in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, so I’ve turned to Burne’s work many times, to help build up the layers of the world my heroes and heroines inhabit. Even though she’s unknown today, many writers are indebted to her, and that’s why I’ve included her in this mini-series on notable literary connections of this part of Shropshire.
With the annual RNA conference fast approaching—this time just a couple of miles from my home in Newport, Shropshire—it seems like a good idea to write a few posts featuring the literary figures associated with the area to whet your appetites. One day—who knows?—people might describe Newport as the home of Tora Williams, the well-known romance author. There’s a space on the wall of my house just right for a blue plaque… But even without my inclusion on the local literary roll of honour, it includes some illustrious names.
If you drive through Newport on your way to Harper Adams, you'll pass a large house on Chetwynd End. It's now been converted into flats, but back in the nineteenth century it was a grand residence called Chetwynd House. It was occupied by Sarah Parker, a spinster who had been jilted on her wedding day. Local legend has it that on hearing the news, she locked the door to the room set up for her wedding feast, allowing no one to enter it again. Sixty years later the door was broken down to reveal the preserved wedding decorations, all draped with cobwebs.
Does that sound familiar? If so, you won't be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Newport, and stayed at the Bear Hotel—now Barclays Bank. It's almost certain he would have heard the sad tale of Sarah Parker while he was there; according to local tradition, she's the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.
On researching this tale, I've discovered that other places also claim to be the home of the ‘real’ Miss Havisham. It seems you couldn't move in nineteenth-century England without tripping over an ageing jilted spinster slowly rotting in her wedding finery. However, call me biased, but I'm convinced Sarah Parker is the original. Have a look for her house as you drive past. Incidentally, it’s now part of Havisham Court, although I think it received that name after the fact. What do you think? Can you see Miss Havisham mouldering away inside, or do you think Dickens’ inspiration came from elsewhere?
As you can see, I've decided to shift my blog to a new site. All my old posts are still available to see on my original Blogger site, however over time I may repost some here.
Coming soon...a series of posts on literary connections in my local area, which also happens to be the location for this year's RNA conference. In the meantime, here's a picture of Goodrich Castle - one of my favourite castles and the inspiration for the castle in the book which is currently out on submission.
My writing, research and any other randomness that seems like a good idea at the time.