Monday, 6 August 2018

Guest Interview with Jo Verity

Today, I’m delighted to welcome author, Jo Verity, to the blog. Jo’s sixth novel, A Different Riverwas published by Honno on Thursday 28th June and I’m very honoured that she asked to be featured on the blog.

Jo, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing.
Hi everyone. Thanks, Jan, for inviting me onto your blog.
I’m Jo Verity and I write contemporary, non-genre fiction. (For what it’s worth,  Amazon tags my novels as Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > Family Life.) My characters are ‘ordinary people’ struggling with the ups and downs of the twenty-first century. Like all of us, they make good and bad choices. They succeed and they fail. But mainly they keep trying. In my novels, we spend time with people a bit like us, measuring ourselves against them as they muddle through. Hilary Mantel wrote in her introduction to the wonderful The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. ‘Apart from a war, what could be more fascinating than a marriage?’ I might be tempted to swap ‘a marriage’ for ‘a family’ – but we’re on the same track. So, marriages, families, friendships, relationships – that’s the sort of thing that I write about.   
When did you start writing?
It was March 1999. I’d arranged a rendezvous with an American friend whom I’d met in Prague in 1992 when I was travelling. Ruth (a Jewish Zen Buddhist sculptress) and I kept in touch. I’d visited her in Rhode Island and she’d come to Cardiff. We’d met a couple of times in London. Ruth and I were going to spend a week together in Budapest. At the last minute, she pulled out (she wasn’t the most reliable) leaving me with a week’s leave and nothing much to do.
We’d just bought our first PC so it was the obvious time to learn my way around it, creating and saving documents, changing fonts and layouts, altering margins – that sort of thing. For some reason – I still don’t know why – I decided to write a story and use my flaky friend as its protagonist. This would do as my practice piece. Despite being an avid reader, I had never written anything. Within five days I was hooked. All I wanted was to write. It was thrilling finally and by accident to discover the thing I really wanted to do.
(That story – Think Like a Bee – took five months to finish. It was eventually published in 2006.)  
What inspired you to write your latest novel?
I was mulling over ideas and I happened to re-read The Bridges of Maddison County. Who can resist Robert Waller’s tale of a chance meeting, instant chemistry and the soul searching this causes to its middle-aged lovers?
So I decided to write a love story. Not the juvenile, ‘moon and June’ kind, but something truthful, realistic and yet a little off-beat. A love story which I would like to read and which chimes with the complications of present-day life.
really enjoyed ‘A Different River.  It’s one of very few books I’ve read recently with an older protagonist. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Yes. And my reason is partly answered by your question. When I was writing my first novel, Everything in the Garden, I was advised by a literary agent that ‘no one wants to read a story about anyone over the age of forty’. This horrified me. The notion that no one over forty does or says anything interesting is patently untrue. Maybe it’s easier to market such stories but that’s just lazy and makes for a very blinkered take on the world. Besides, sixty is the new forty, isn’t it?

It’s not uncommon these days for someone in middle age – usually a daughter, I have to say –  to find themselves the unwilling yet dutiful lynch-pin of a four generation family. As daughter, wife, mother and grandmother they are relied upon to support so many people in so many ways. In A Different River, sixty-one year-old, Miriam, is being pulled in all directions. She has lost confidence and self-esteem and is beginning to fear she’s fading into the wallpaper. Her reaction to her loss of self is at the heart of the novel.

Your characters are very convincing and there is a real depth to them. Can you say which came first, the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
The characters. Always the characters. For the first couple of years I wrote only short stories which, by their nature, tend to be character driven. When I plucked up the courage to embark on my first novel, I tackled it as if it were a very, very long short story. It seemed to work and having found a methodology which suits the kind of narrative I write, I’ve stuck with it. I take two or three characters, set them down in a challenging situation and see what they’ll make of it. If they get too complacent, I chuck a spanner in the works. Some kind of a plot will inevitably emerge but it won’t be the kind you can write on post-it notes and stick on a timeline. When I start a novel I have absolutely no idea how it will finish. That’s both scary and exhilarating.  
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
If I’m to stand a chance of making my characters convincing to readers, I have to have total belief in them myself. They must think, speak and act exactly as they would in whatever I throw at them. I find the best way to do this is to plunder the traits and habits of people I’ve encountered, tweaking them enough to conceal my source. I have to know what my characters look like too because when I’m writing a scene I close my eyes and picture it as if I were watching a movie. I see Miriam as a cross between Emmylou Harris and Christine Lagarde, and Paul as the man in the catalogue for over-priced hiking equipment that arrives with the junk mail. Minor characters don’t have to be so precisely drawn – they can be more pencil sketch than oil painting. I can have a bit of fun with these. Exaggerate a little, make them larger than life. 
As well as telling a compelling story, you have explored a number of serious issues in the book. Would you like to tell us why these are important to you?
This sounds daft but it’s only after I’ve finished the final draft of a book that I discover what its themes are. My aim is to tell an engaging and credible story. In the course of this, my characters encounter a range of problems. I’m often surprised and delighted by how they deal with things that their fictional lives chuck at them, what rattles them and what they shrug off. It might be said that A Different River raises questions about responsibility, loyalty, self-awareness, the unreliability of memory but I’d prefer readers to decide for themselves what its themes are.    

It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I fully understood why it’s called Different River. How long did it take to come up with such a wonderfully apt title?
It seemed cold blooded to refer to work in progress as ‘Novel number 6’ so I had a couple of generic-type titles in mind but I was on the lookout for something more pertinent. As I wrote on, the story began taking unexpected turns. The way in which Miriam’s past, or rather her recollection of it, related to the present became the driving narrative thread. I recalled reading something that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (apparently!) said: ‘No man steps twice into the same river, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’ Hence A Different River.

Jo reading from A Different River
at the launch in Rhiwbina Library

How much planning do you do for your novels?
I don’t plot in the conventional way but I do need to be sure that I’ve chosen my protagonist/s well and that they have the potential to generate a multifaceted story. I need to be clear in my own mind whose story I’m telling.
The structure of the book has a lot to do with how the reader gets to know the characters but it mustn’t get in the way of the story. If you’re going to employ tricky time shifts and changing points of view it must be done skilfully or you are going to irritate and confuse your reader. In my long fiction, I have stuck with third person, past tense, limited to one or two points of view. (One in Everything in the Garden, Not funny, Not Clever and A Different River; two in Bells, Sweets from Morocco and Left and Leaving.) When we were children, stories invariably began ‘once upon a time there was…’ Third person, past tense. Simple. Direct. Honest.  
What are you currently working on?
It depends what you mean by working! I have two ideas and I haven’t yet decided which one to pursue. I’m making lists of pros and cons, possible characters, mentally meandering down various highways and byways, seeing which appeals, which has the most potential. I’m a slow writer. If I’m to spend years with my characters I want to be sure that, even if I don’t like them, I believe in them and understand what makes them tick. They must hold my attention.  

You must view every novel differently as you progress along your writing journey. How does A Different River compare with your other novels?
It took longer to write, for one thing. Four years from start to publication! I made several false starts. It was perhaps six months before I was confident I was on the right track, striking the right tone. The more I write, the more critical I become of what I’ve written. This makes for slow progress but it’s consistent with the organic way my narratives develop.
My novels are standalone yet, with the publication of the sixth, it has dawned on me that, without realising it, I have been creating a patchwork quilt of story-lines, covering many of the facets of contemporary life.

What is the biggest compliment a reader could pay you after reading your book?
There’s a great deal of truth in what you’ve written.’ That’ll do for me.
Thank you so much, Jo, for taking time to chat to me. I wish you good luck with your book.

My thoughts after reading A Different River - 5 stars *****

I thoroughly enjoyed A Different River. The novel appealed on a number of fronts, not least because it’s one of very few books I’ve read recently with an older protagonist. The main character, Miriam, is sixty one years old and her role falls between being a dutiful daughter of elderly parents and a grandmother to her daughter’s young children. The book deals with her torn loyalties and unconventional decisions in her private life as she gains in confidence and her self-esteem is raised. The novel is beautifully written and the story of Miriam’s journey is a compelling one, keeping you turning the pages. The characters are multi-layered and authentic with traits and characteristics that we can recognise in people we know. An excellent, satisfying read! I look forward to reading more novels written by Jo.
A Different River is published by Honno Press 
You will find more about Jo and her latest book on:
Twitter: @jo_verity
Jo's FB Author page

**STOP PRESS: Since the interview, A Different River has been nominated for the 'Not the Booker' prize 2018. If you have read the book, you have until 11.59 p.m. this evening, Monday 6th August, to register your vote. Please click HERE. Good luck, Jo!

Thank you for reading. What are your thoughts about what Jo was told by an agent that 'no one wants to read a story about anyone over the age of forty’? 

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

RNA Conference 2018
Arriving at Leeds Trinity University 
It's over a week since I returned from a very enjoyable, informative and rewarding weekend at the annual RNA Conference at Leeds Trinity University. This was my third conference and each year I've come away inspired to get back to writing and to keep plugging away with submitting my two novels to publishers and agents. Some members have said that this year was one of the best and I do think there was something in the wide range of talks and workshops to appeal to everyone, whatever stage you were at as a writer.

There were so many excellent talks over the weekend but here are a few of the events I went to and enjoyed:

Romance and the Brontes at The Leeds Library

The event, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the library and 200 years of the Brontes, proved to be an excellent start to the conference on the Thursday evening. A panel of RNA members, Alison May and Janet Gover who write as 'Juliet Bell' and Kate Walker discussed modernising the Bronte classics and the enduring appeal of Bronte themes. It was chaired by Nicola Cornick. It seemed so right to start the weekend in such an iconic building and, for me, looking through a giant book of reproductions of Yorkshire born David Hockney's paintings was just wonderful. 

Finding the truth and breathing life into historical characters

This excellent session was presented by Carol McGrath and Charlotte Betts. They discussed finding the balance between truth and fiction, undertaking research and how characters must resonate with the modern reader whilst remaining true to their era. They recommended finding out facts about historical characters from a number of sources and  from these you will get a sense of the times. Above all, the story must remain paramount. 

Self-Editing. How to do it effectively
Although I'd recently been to Alison May's day course on editing, I attended this as a way of revisiting some of the points she'd made. I was not to be disappointed. Alison presented in her customary lively and entertaining manner and I came away feeling more confident about the task facing me in the next few weeks. And I've already bought the post-its!

Pacing - you need more than another dead body!

Liz Harris talked about 'pacing' as the speed at which your story is read. She talked about the novel in terms of layers. She left us with a checklist that included;
- is there a purpose to your scenes?
- is there sufficient conflict?is there sufficient variety of setting, mood, style, action?
Her message was that if a story is worth writing, it's worth writing well. Another excellent presentation, I came away with lots of tips and advice from Liz's talk.

Some events I missed or partly missed while waiting to see publishers in the one-to-one sessions. I've always found industry professionals are very generous with helpful advice, but this year I was delighted that two publishers asked me to submit the whole manuscript to them. I came away feeling very encouraged and am grateful to Elaine Everest who does such a sterling job arranging these interviews for us. Thank you, Elaine! 

And then there was the social side of the Conference! Chatting in between sessions, kitchen parties and the Gala Dinner, all were great fun. It was so good to meet up with friends made in previous years and to make new ones. 
Me, Sue McDonagh, Cass Grafton,
Susanna Bavin
Jen Gilroy, Susanna, Me
Sue, Pat Williams
Huge thanks must go to Jan Jones for her amazing organisation and to Nicola, Alison and the team for an excellent 2018 Conference. I learned a lot, laughed a lot and came home tired but inspired!

Thank you for reading. If you went to Leeds, what were the highlights for you? If you didn't, what conference or writing event have you attended and enjoyed?

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Second Time Around
I apologise to all of you for the lack of posts throughout June. Apart from a week's holiday on the beautiful island of Madeira, I have no real excuse other than to say I've been writing . . . a lot! As some of you will know, the first draft of novel number two has been taking me a long time so I set myself a deadline of getting it written before the RNA Conference and today at 5.41pm, I wrote those magic words 'THE END'

Let me introduce you to my latest 'book':

106,124 words

50 chapters

357 pages

But, of course, all that will change. This one needs lots of editing. I shall put it away now, out of sight, and leave it until I return from Leeds. In spite of knowing that the real, hard work will start then, I still feel a sense of achievement today. Yay!

Perhaps, it's because I know more about the craft of writing - I hope so, anyway! - and am further along my writing journey, I've found this second book harder to write. I was more critical with myself along the way. Although I had the saying 'Don't get it right, get it written' firmly embedded in my brain, it wasn't always easy to do. I have been writing the novel at the same time as submitting novel number one. The rejections for that have been coming through but lately they have contained lots of constructive advice and helpful observations. These have been very encouraging and welcome but, when they have suggested what was needed for an acceptance, I've stopped and questioned whether I've got it right in this second novel. I had to tell myself to keep writing and leave suggestions about how to improve until the editing stage. But I've done it and I can now get on with packing for the Conference! I'm looking forward to meeting up with many of you again next weekend in Leeds.

In June, I attended an excellent editing course run by Alison May in Birmingham. I highly recommend it if you are at the same stage as me. I shall return eager to put into practice what I learned. I've stocked up with post-its and highlighter pens! 

Watch this space and I'll tell you how I get on! 

Thank you for reading. How do you move from first draft to first edit? I'd love to hear if you have any tips. Thanks.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Location Inspiration Day
On Thursday 17th May, I'd driven to the RNA Summer Party in Oxford where my writing friend, Sue McDonagh, had been one of the seventeen contenders for the Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. It was good to share the celebrations of so many writers who have graduated from the excellent New Writers' Scheme to become published authors in the last year. Congratulations to the winner Hannah Begbie with her contemporary novel, Mother, published by Harper Collins. It was great, too, to catch up with friends I hadn't seen since the Conference.

On Wednesday 23rd, Sue and I set off on our second road trip in as many weeks. This time she was the driver and picked me up bright and early to travel to Dulverton in Somerset. We were going to the first Location Inspiration Day run by Alison Knight and Jenny Kane in the beautiful Northmoor House. The impressive Victorian house is set in magnificent grounds and the weather was as hot and sunny as it had been for the party the week before.

After introductions and an explanation of the format of the day, we were encouraged to explore the house and gardens seeking out inspiration for our writing. We were given a pack containing information about the history of the house and the families who had lived there in the past. It also had a series of challenges and picture prompts of things we could look for as we explored if we wanted to use them.

I spent the morning exploring and taking photographs of anything I could imagine being part of a setting for future stories or when editing existing ones. Greystone Hall in my first novel is based on Abbeycwmhir Hall. When I visited it as part of my research, I was able to get the proportions of the rooms and look at staff photographs to see what the place was like in 1946 but the house is now a very smart tourist attraction and for me lacks the authenticity I needed. However, the owners of Northmoor House, although much smaller in proportion, have retained many of the features I described in the book. It even smelt old in some of the unlived-in rooms and I was transported back in time. For example, the ancient copper could be the very one Rose toiled over when washing the household's bed linen, pummelling the boiling soap suds with a wooden tongs. 

The chamber maids had already brought down the sheets and bolster cases to the scullery and all Rose had to do was get the fires under the coppers going and fill the drums with buckets of water and soap flakes. She carried over bucket after bucket until her arms ached under the weight of the water and the metal pails. The grates were laid with rolled up newspaper and sticks of wood from the day before and Rose lit the fires underneath each copper in turn. . . The fires under the coppers blazed to a roar and the heat soon caused the soapy water to bubble and boil. Rose emptied in the two equal loads of dirty linen and stirred the tubs with the wooden tongs until the bedding was fully submerged. 

Rose and her friend, Maisie, would have a black-leaded a range like this one and scrubbed floors similar to this, perhaps.

The whole place inspired you to want to get writing. In fact that's what many people did. Wherever I wandered, there seemed to be people writing away. When we stopped to have coffee and the delicious cakes provided or eat the packed lunches we'd brought with us, people were talking about what they'd seen or how much they'd written. 

This rocking horse got me planning out my third novel (oops! Haven't quite finished novel 2!) Another mother daughter saga had been forming in my head for a while and I knew it was going to be about a foundling, a little girl. However, immersing myself in Northmoor made me ask so many 'What Ifs?' What if the rocking horse started rocking on its own in the middle of the night? Had the Lord and Lady of the manor lost a child? What was the significance of a horse? I won't say anymore  apart from to tell you that I wrote pages of notes and the idea I originally had is evolving into a definite plan.

Thanks, Sue, for being my chauffeur for the day. It was a long way to go but very enjoyable and worthwhile. . . and we chatted non-stop there and back! A big thank you, too, to Alison and Jenny for organising the aptly named Inspiration Day. I'm sure they'd like me to tell you that they are holding an Imagine Writing Retreat in October at Northmoor House.

Thank you for reading. What place has inspired you? 

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page. 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Llandeilo Lit Fest 2018
Llandeilo is a town situated in the beautiful Towy valley and at the end of April, it hosted a four day literary festival. The festival had a full programme of literary events running from Thursday 26th to Sunday 29th April. There were readings, discussions, workshops and literary talks taking place in venues across the town. As well as a picture quiz and guided tours, the Lit Fest also hosted a two day book fair in the Civic Hall. Here are some of the excellent talks I attended and just a few points about each one:

Genre, Ghosts and the Gothic by Carol Lovekin.
Carol talked about genre as a 'descriptor', a tool for marketing and finding where  books fit. Not something she thought too much about when she started writing her novels, at the launch of her second book, Snow Sisters, her writing was described as being Welsh Gothic and more recently as 'lyrical Gothic'. There is a poetic quality about her work. Her writing fits into magical realism where there's a blurring of the lines between the possible and the factual, yet it remains firmly rooted in reality via her female protagonists. Through a temporary suspension of disbelief, the ghosts in her books are real, having characters of their own. The highlight of the talk for me was hearing Carol read excerpts from Ghostbird and Snow Sisters.

Dysfunctional families in Contemporary Fiction by Sara Gethin.
Sara's debut novel Not Thomas is a story of one such family where a five year old boy, Tomos, lives with his teenage mother who is a drug addict. Having taught in areas of poverty and extreme deprivation, Sara explained that Tomos is based on a range of neglected children, and it was his character that came first, before the plot. She'd been told of a child waiting at a window watching other children leaving for school. He knew then that was his time to go, too, and that image never left her. The character of Rhiannon, his mother, was based on a girl who died of a heroin overdose in her teens. We were treated to Sara reading excerpts from the novel, taking us right into the world of Tomos.

Crime and History by Thorne Moore.
Even though 'crime fiction' is relatively recent, there has always been crime in literature. Thorne made the point that where there are laws, there will be crime when those laws are broken. Often in stories, there will be moral lessons about human nature, too. She outlined the crimes in some well known novels. Crimes that happen in a moment can impact on events to come. There is often a domestic side to crime. Setting in a novel is important and houses, especially, often bear the footprint of the people who lived there. There is often a touch of the past on the present. These latter points made me think of Thorn'e's wonderful book, A Time for Silence, where Sarah seeks to unravel the dark secrets of Cwmderwen.

The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers.
Owen Sheers talked about The Green Hollow, the book version of his film poem of the same name that was aired on 21st October 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. He explained the work that went into the project, interviewing the people of Aberfan, to paint a picture in words of small scenes, small experiences and what each individual went through. The three part structure of the work covers Before  - children then and now as adults reflecting back, During - the rescuers and outside voices, After - the survivors, moving on, Aberfan now. Like the film, the book is written in verse and the rhythm, rhymes and half rhymes came alive as Owen read poignant excerpts to the audience.

The Suffragists by Judith Barow.
Judith explained the difference between the Suffragettes and the Suffragists. Millicent Fawcett was one of the latter and the first woman to recently have a statue erected in Parliament Square. Her campaign for votes for women was through peaceful means. The Suffragettes and Emmeline Pankhurst took a more militant approach. We learned about women as political prisoners, going on hunger strike, being force-fed and receiving horrific treatment. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave women over the age of thirty, and with some property, the right to vote but it was another ten years before the suffrage movement achieved its aim for all women to have the vote. In A Hundred Tiny Threads, the main character Winnie gets involved with the local suffrage movement and Judith ended her talk by reading relevant excerpts from the novel. 

Thank you for reading. I hope you have enjoyed these few snippets of each excellent talk. Have you been to a Literary Festival recently? Who did you see? I'd love to hear about it. Thanks.

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Guest Interview With Katherine Stansfield
© Keith Morris
Today, I’m delighted to be chatting to novelist and poet, Katherine Stansfield. I first met Katherine when I attended her excellent crime writing workshop at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. On the strength of that, I enrolled on her ten week ‘Writing Crime Fiction’ course at Cardiff University last Autumn. Her latest crime novel, ‘The Magpie Tree’, is the second in her Cornish Mysteries crime series. 

Katherine, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing journey to date.
Bodmin Moor
Thanks so much for having me, Jan! So, a bit about me to start. I grew up in a very rural place: Bodmin Moor in north Cornwall. You could see our nearest neighbours across the fields, but only just. It was quite an extreme landscape in many ways – great open tracts of land on which animals grazed, no trees to speak of, huge outcrops of granite, abandoned mine and quarry workings. But it was also beautiful and a place of great freedom for me growing up. I spent a lot of time walking, exploring, being by myself, and reading. I was one of those children who read by torch under the duvet after being told to put the lights out. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to write my own stories and I’ve been scribbling for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until I went to university, which also marked my leaving Cornwall, that I started writing seriously. After my undergraduate course I did an MA in writing, followed by a PhD, and then I went into university teaching while writing alongside. I’ve been living Wales since leaving Cornwall and it’s home for me now, but I can’t seem to stop writing about Cornwall. It’s become an obsession and the roots must be in my childhood experiences.

Perhaps, you’d like to tell us about your road to publication.
My PhD was in Creative Writing and as part of that work I wrote my first novel. I’d been focused on writing poems up to that point and, bar the odd short story, had never attempted any fiction. But I really wanted to write a novel – it’s such a huge challenge! So I had a go and the result was The Visitor – a historical novel set in a coastal village in Cornwall between 1880 and 1936. It’s about an elderly woman suffering from dementia who starts to believe she has the answers to a mystery in her youth: what happened to her lover Nicholas who disappeared in the aftermath of a riot? I was pleased with the book, though it was a steep learning curve to write it, and set about trying to find an agent, with no luck! I submitted to something like fifty-five over a year and didn’t get anywhere which was very demoralising, but the book did eventually find a home with Welsh indie press Parthian who published it in 2013.
I started writing a new book, a crime novel that eventually became Falling Creatures, and I was determined to get an agent. I’d published two books without one but those experiences had only shown me how necessary an agent was for trying to get anywhere with writing fiction. Not everyone feels that way and it’s important to make these kinds of decisions for yourself and your own work. For me it was the next step so once I had a solid draft of the novel I submitted it to one agent, someone I really wanted to work with. He said he liked my writing but the book needed a lot of edits. He gave me his ideas and said see what you think, and I loved them! So I got back to work and went through three more major re-writes over the course of a year, and at the end of that process the agent signed me. It was hard-going, I won’t lie, and very much an act of faith. But I believed in the book and I trusted the agent’s judgement so I kept going, and it worked out!
       I’d planned Falling Creatures as having the potential to be the first in a series, and it was pitched that way to publishers. I was thrilled when Allison & Busby signed me for the book plus the sequel as the series fits perfectly in their list: they publish lots of long-running historical crime series. The sequel became The Magpie Tree, which is just out.

Although 'The Visitor' is historical and set in Cornwall, it’s not a crime novel but a love story. What attracted you to change to the genre of crime writing?
Rather naively, I didn’t even realise I was writing a crime novel when I started Falling Creatures. I really should have done because it’s about a murder . . . But it was the story that attracted me rather than the genre. The case at the heart of the book is based on real events that took place near to where I grew up but way back in 1844: a young woman was found on the moor with her throat cut. It was only after I had a really dreadful 150k first draft with a pair of detectives who didn’t do any detecting that I thought, I should probably learn more about crime novels. Once I did, it was eye-opening, and my writing has changed quite a bit. The plotting expectations of crime fiction are quite demanding but it’s taught me a great deal about storytelling.

This is the second in the series. Can you tell us what was your inspiration for ‘The Magpie Tree’?
Clouties left for St. Nectan
When I was a teenager I came across the story of a pair of mysterious women who moved to a wooded valley near Boscastle. The time-frame is unknown – it’s one of those tales that’s been drifting around forever – and I’ve been haunted by it ever since reading it. Nothing is known about the women but strange and unsettling things start happening once they arrive, and they meet a sad end. The valley has long been associated with an early Christian saint, and I’ve been interested in beliefs involving these figures, their holy wells and ‘clouties’ (charms or offerings) left for them, for as long as I can remember. That definitely comes from growing up in Cornwall – there are holy wells everywhere! I’ve wanted to write about the women for years and when my detective duo Anna and Shilly got a second outing, I knew they’d be headed for the woods. The question of why the women were there was a good way into a new detective case. The setting is in north Cornwall again, where Falling Creatures takes place, and I’m enjoying bringing the stories and places of that part of the county to readers. Lots of people know about the south coast and the Poldark re-boot has made the mining heritage famous again, but people don’t know much about the north of Cornwall. It’s become my mission, through Anna and Shilly’s adventures, to tell everyone what an amazing place it is!

Can they stand alone or do they need to be read in sequence?
They’re standalone books in terms of the stories so you don’t need to have read Falling Creatures to enjoy and follow The Magpie Tree. If you’re looking for the background to Anna and Shilly’s relationship, it’s in Falling Creatures.

I’m fascinated by the character of Shilly and her working relationship with Anna. Is there a character in Cornish folk-lore on whom she is based?
I’m glad you’re a fan! Shilly has an unusual provenance. When I was researching the murder case that Falling Creatures explores, I read about a probable error in one of the witness transcripts. The owner of the farm where the murdered girl, Charlotte Dymond, lived and worked is recorded as having said there was a second girl working there at the same time, and that she sent her to fetch some washing after Charlotte had gone missing. But we know that Charlotte was the only women living at the farm then aside from the owner so it’s likely that whoever was transcribing the witness statement made a mistake. When I read the statement, for a heartbeat there was someone else working at the farm alongside Charlotte, someone who could mourn her, avenge her. And that someone became Shilly.

The setting of Victorian Cornwall with its legends is a very important feature of your novel. How much research did you do and how much did you know from having been brought up there?
Trethevy Woods
Both novels started life with something I already knew and had carried around with me for years. In the case of Falling Creatures it was a real murder, and for The Magpie Tree it was more of a legend without a basis in historical fact (to my knowledge). With The Magpie Tree I let the things I did know guide me to the things I found out. For instance, I knew St Nectan is the saint associated with the valley but I didn’t know much else about him. I read up on the stories about him and worked the things I learnt from those into the story of the mysterious women. I did lots of text-based research for the book but I’m also a great fan of old maps and getting out and about. I visited the wooded valley of Trethevy twice (both times in terrible weather!) but didn’t take any notes. I just walked and looked and things, touched the trees and smelt the air, and then trusted my brain would start the alchemical process that transforms those experiences into the world of the story.

The local dialect and vocabulary used by the characters appears to make them more authentic and takes us back in time. Because the book is set so long ago, where did you go to get help on this?
The way the characters speak is actually based on the way many people in Cornwall speak today so the voices of the characters are actually very modern in some ways. I don’t go in for trying to render the accent on the page – lots of errs and zurrs would be really tedious to read. I’m more interested in the actual words people use and that’s where the dialect comes in, and there’s a bit of Cornish in there too.

Are you a planner or a pantser? If the former, how did you set about planning the novel?
For each novel I’ve written since my first, I’ve always been a planner, and the plans keep getting longer. For the new novel I’m working on I’ve got a fifteen page plan which is really a scene-by-scene breakdown and even includes some lines of dialogue that have occurred to me in the planning stages. I can’t imagine starting a novel without a plan now, especially for crime fiction where the plot has to be so tight. When I’m on contract for a book there isn’t usually time to do huge amounts of re-writes if the plot goes wrong so I tend to front-load the work to try and guard against problems later. It doesn’t always work of course and what seems perfectly believable for a character to do in the abstract can make no sense at all once you actually get to the relevant scene. So I plan and then the plans change, but without having a plan I don’t think I’d have the confidence to start. Novels are so daunting.

On a more general note, do you have a particular writing routine when writing and where do you write?
I try to do 10k words a month and as long as I get that done then I can meet my deadlines. Sometimes I’ll do it in a couple of feverish days and other times it will take longer, with more gaps between stints. I’m constantly getting up from my laptop and wandering off but that seems to help with knotty plot problems so I’ve stopped fighting it. I tend to write at the kitchen table as I haven’t had enough space for a desk for the last few years. One place I absolutely can’t work is a cafĂ© – too much distraction.

Thank you so much, Katherine, for taking time to chat to me about your wonderful book. I wish you good luck with the sales of 'The Magpie Tree'. 

‘The Magpie Tree’ is published by Allison and Busby.
Links to the book on Amazon: 
Twitter: @K_Stansfield

My thoughts on 'The Magpie Tree': 5 stars *****
I loved this book. The second in a series of crime mysteries set in 1840s Cornwall, it has everything to keep the reader turning the pages - an intriguing mystery, fascinating characters, witchcraft, local myths and folk-lore. It gives us an insight into life in Victorian Cornwall. All this is set against an atmospheric Cornish landscape with all its contrasts so beautifully evoked in the author's prose. We are transported into the world of eerie dark shadows and unexplained happenings. As readers, we are right there accompanying the detective duo, Anna Drake and Shilly, as they investigate the crime, based on a real events in Cornish history. The multi-layered character of Shilly is particularly well-developed. She has an empathy with her surroundings and nature and is learning to trust her instincts and judgments. The story has so many twists and turns that the reader is gripped until the last page. An excellent read, highly recommended!

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Katherine and her writing. Have you written or read any novels based on real events? Have you given your novel a sense of place that impacts on the actions/mood of the characters? I'd love to read your comments. Thanks.

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Guest Interview with Jill Barry
My guest this week is no stranger to the blog. She has appeared on a number of occasions before and is my very good writer friend, Sandra Mackness, who writes under the name of Jill Barry. She has had over twenty novels published, as paperbacks, ebooks and Linford Romance large print paperbacks. Her latest novel, Love Thirty was published by Endeavour Media on 16th February.

Welcome to the blog again, Sandra.
It’s great to be back! Thanks for inviting me here again, Jan.

After seeing so many of your novels in print, how exciting was the publication of Love Thirty for you?
My new novel began life in 2009 and went through the RNA’s New Writer Scheme, receiving a positive and helpful response. While in the process of submitting it and receiving rejections, I was of course working on another novel and Love Thirty was consigned to my ‘virtual drawer.’ I was kept so busy writing pocket novels for D C Thomson, and longer length novels for Ulverscroft Linford Romance and Endeavour Press that Love Thirty languished! Last summer, I wanted to submit a book to Endeavour Press (now Endeavour Media) and, luckily, my editor was taken with Love Thirty. So, yes, it was very exciting, after completing a lot of revisions, to see the novel published and I’m now exploring paperback options for it.

Can you please tell us about the inspiration for the novel?
I fell in love with tennis at around age nine and watched every possible moment of Wimbledon’s TV coverage from my teenage years upwards. Having been fortunate enough to attend on several occasions, I’ve observed the crowds and the celebrities in the Royal Box. I’ve also wandered around Queen’s Club and exchanged greetings with tennis stars and personalities plus watched Andy Murray practising when not bantering with his competitors! It’s a fickle world and I knew it would be challenging to create a tennis player hero as athletes are, justifiably, intensely driven and often lead lonely lives on the ATP Tour. I’ve been heartened by some of my reviewers’ comments about hero Nick Pereira and it’s great to know I succeeded in making him ‘real.’ 

Where does the book fit in with your other novels?  
With the exception of The House Sitter, all Jill Barry novels and novellas contain that old thing called romance, although in varying degrees from raunchy to tender teenage love. However, I enjoy giving my heroines a poignant back-story, e.g. early widowhood, although in Georgia Lyle’s case, marriage to Nick (as a tennis wife) causes her to question her own career ambitions as well as the ticking of her biological clock. So, the title Love Thirty reflects not only the tennis theme, which isn’t overwhelming, but also Georgia’s feelings about motherhood.

Something that makes the novel differ from my others is the strong bond between the heroine and her male colleague. They really are good buddies. Photographer Andy eventually falls for an enigmatic character so the plot also follows this rather rocky relationship. There’s also a lot of humour when Andy’s around and when Georgia’s new career catapults her into the celebrity chef zone.

I admire authors like Jilly Cooper and the late, much loved, Penny Vincenzi, so Love Thirty gave me the opportunity to create a longer cast list than I normally provide and to take my heroine to some rather exciting places. Failure to communicate their deepest needs to one another almost destroys any chance of a happy ending for my leading man and lady but…I’ll say no more! 

As well as being a love story, as you say, Love Thirty deals with a number of other issues. Would you like to tell us what they are?
How people can jump to the wrong conclusion plays an important part in the plot. Georgia is convinced Nick can’t possibly love her any more and there are times when I felt like knocking their heads together. But I needed them to go their own ways before bringing them together again, a meeting that resulted in a life-changing situation. A traumatic childhood has made Andy’s girlfriend the person she is and because he’s such a favourite of mine, I wanted to give him a happy ending too. There are also dark issues underpinning Nick’s parents’ marriage and when the full truth is revealed to Nick and his older brother, it makes the two much closer than they were.

Why was it important to you to raise these issues?
People often envy others their lives, simply because they so often watch celebrities moving in exalted company and athletes enjoying adulation. But behind the glitz lie much hard work and failure before success arrives. Tennis players, in particular, are vulnerable to injury and their top ten playing career is usually quite short, unless you’re Roger Federer of course! I think I’m trying to say that behind all the flash photography and the ritzy restaurants, the love and comradeship two people share is the real driving element in a relationship. That’s why I wanted to make Love Thirty into more than a love story.

I know you are a huge tennis fan - and you've confirmed this earlier - so I wasn’t surprised to find that your hero, Nick, was a top tennis player. How much research into the lives of professional tennis players did you have to do?
Fortunately, I had already read the autobiographies of several of my favourites and followed the careers of our most recent top ten British players. After I planned Nick’s rise through the rankings, I contacted the International Tennis Federation to see if it was plausible. So the person who replied to me gets a mention in the acknowledgments. I came face to face with former Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash, a couple of years ago in London at Queen’s Club and on another occasion my courtside seat gave me a great view of Ivan Lendl and David Beckham sitting in the British Number One’s box. I tried to recreate that kind of atmosphere for the Wimbledon scene where Georgia waves to the wife of a well-known player.

And finding out about the world of high-class restaurants and chefs?
Sandra's lemon drizzle cake. 
Working in hotels alerted me to the personality clashes amongst chefs and their colleagues, not to mention the waiting staff. When I needed a menu for the delicious French chef who admires Georgia in the celebrity cooking show, I recreated something I’d enjoyed while travelling through French-speaking Canada a few years ago. I like cooking fresh produce and baking delicious cakes that aren’t loaded with refined sugar. You should taste my healthy lemon drizzle! So Georgia’s aims were close to my heart.

The characters in your book are real and rounded so I felt I’d got to know them very well by the end of their story. Which came first the characters or the story itself?
Heroine Georgia arrived first and I always knew her colleague Andy had more than a soft spot for her. Bringing in Nick offered the chance for her to escape her misogynist boss and, eventually, for her to branch out in a very different direction from the tennis and journalistic worlds.

Would you consider a sequel to Georgia and Nick’s story?
What are you currently working on?
Well, that’s a tempting thought, given I was sad to leave my characters, but I don’t think there’ll be a sequel. Currently I’m working on a Christmas novella (sorry to mention that word) and I’ve begun mapping out the first book of what I hope will be a trilogy, drawing on the lives and loves of three women from the late 1930s until present day. So, mother, daughter and granddaughter. Whether I’m writing a contemporary novel, or going back to past times, it’s always an exciting journey.

What has been your proudest writing moment to date?
I suspect no author forgets the joy of seeing his or her work in print for the very first time. But, after applying to study for my MA in creative writing, decades after I passed my A Levels, I was thrilled to be accepted purely on the strength of work submitted.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me, Sandra. I wish you good luck and lots of sales with your lovely book.
It’s my pleasure, Jan. I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much. Here are some links to me and my books:

Love Thirty is published by Endeavour Media - my author page gives details of my novels and novellas, the themes of which are reflected in my book covers.

Jill Barry also has her own Facebook author page:
It would be great if you could come along and ‘Like’ my page.

Twitter: @barry_jill
It would be lovely if you’d follow me and mention Jan’s blog so I can follow you back.

My thoughts on ‘Love Thirty’: 5*
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Love Thirty. It has all the ingredients of a pacy well-crafted romance story between Georgia and Nick to be savoured for its ‘feel-good’ quality. In it, you’ll find fun, humour, passion and emotion. However, in addition, Sandra explores a number of other issues: the pressures that being in celebrity limelight puts on personal relationships, friendship, developing careers and taking advantage of second chances. She has created authentic well rounded characters that come alive on the page. You are made to feel how they feel, see what they see, and, in the restaurant scenes, taste what they taste!  Love Thirty takes us into the world of tennis, media and food as well as transporting the reader to the romantic city of Paris where part of the story is set. Highly recommended.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed finding out about Sandra and her writing. 

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.