Monday, 20 August 2018

Guest Interview With Sue McDonagh

Today, I’m thrilled to be chatting to my writing buddy, Sue McDonagh. I first met Sue in 2014 when we both joined a new writing group in Cowbridge. I like to think we hit it off straightaway and, that November, we supported each other through the ups and downs of our very first NaNoWriMo. Sadly, the writing group is no longer but Sue and I still meet up regularly to talk about all things 'writerly' . . . and other things, of course. Sue’s debut novel, Summer at the Art Cafe, was published by Choc Lit on Tuesday 15th May.

Sue, welcome. Can you tell us what inspired you to write Summer at the Art Cafe?

Hi Jan, and thank you so much for having me! The inspiration behind Summer at the Art Café was my own journey towards passing my motorbike test, nearly a decade ago. Was it really that long ago? It still seems like only yesterday. Learning a new skill when you’re, *cough* older, is probably always going to be a challenge, particularly one which exposes you to the constant danger of being squashed by inattentive drivers. It certainly does sharpen up your driving responses though, and I really enjoyed the thrill of learning to control such an exciting vehicle as safely as possible. 
Belonging to Curvy Riders, an all ladies motorcycle club, brought me in touch with amazing women from all walks of life from over the UK, and the seed of the novel germinated. 

Perhaps, you’d like to tell us how you got the book published. 
Having joined the Romantic Novelists' Association under their New Writers' Scheme, I hammered my novel into shape and submitted it for their assessment. ‘Submit it’, they advised, so I began the process of sending to agents and publishers, along with carefully considered covering letters and synopses. During that time, I also sent it to publishers ChocLit, for consideration in their Search for a Star competition. Months passed before I heard from them, and no-one was more surprised than me to hear it had been shortlisted. I didn’t win, but it turns out that I was a mere one point behind the winner. ‘Did I have a second book ready to go?’ they asked. I did, but it was unfinished and I thought, pretty awful. Then my lovely mum died, and I found it really difficult to get on with finishing it. My writer friends urged and kicked me in the nicest way to the finish line, and I’m delighted to say that ChocLit signed me for both books. 
The euphoria of being an almost published writer lasted for a couple of months, until I received the edits. 

I was totally not prepared for: ‘Don’t like the beginning, or the end. Or the middle. Needs a total re-write.’Along with eight pages of closely packed criticism . . .
Put it in ‘the freezer’, I was advised. I did, and it didn’t look any better when I took it out a week or more later. I truly wondered whether I was cut out to do this. Christmas was rushing towards us, and I had a deadline of Feb 1st. I doubted myself. I doubted my editor! What could she possibly know? I’m writing this in complete honesty, because I hope it will help some of you who will most certainly experience this in your publishing journey.
Eventually, I knuckled down to the extensive re-write that was required. Encouragingly, I saw my writing improve as I worked my way through. Until I got to the last portion of the novel, when I became increasingly and horribly aware that my ending wasn’t going to work any more. And the deadline loomed.
You’re too close to it. Have a break for ten days,’ my editor told me. ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Ten days of not writing? I could barely countenance it after almost two months of focused story-building. I gritted my teeth and switched to painting, while in my head I junked the entire shameful mess. I expected the very next email from my editor to say, ‘We did our best, but sorry. Better luck next time.
I was both astonished and relieved to open an email that read, ‘It’s fine, I’ve made a few suggestions, get on with it.
Where I’d flipped into disaster-mode thinking, my editor had actually read more deeply into my characters and what they wanted and my ending was back in position. So clever. I don’t think I could have actually finished that book without my editor!

I was struck by the pace of the writing in your novel. The story line kept me turning the pages yet the characters are very credible, too. Can you say which came first, the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
I’m so glad you found it pacy! I wanted it to mimic the whole excitement of learning to ride a motorbike.  Lucy represents so many of the ladies I met who told me of their learning experiences. Several readers have written to tell me that they felt I was inside their heads as they were reading! Ash is, of course, my utterly ideal hero…

Biking is very important to you and you are very much involved with Curvy Riders. How much of you is in the novel?
Hah, they tell you to write about what you know, and it’s fair to say I’ve certainly
done that with Summer at the Art Café! Lucy’s journey to master her motorbike are very much drawn from my own experiences. Along with countless other new riders, I dropped my bike so many times trying to do a U turn that I very nearly gave up. After kicking a cone over on the first part of the test, and then failing after a perfect second part of the test by dropping my bike in the snow outside the test centre, I can honestly say I have plenty of stories of my own to call on.
Having said that, Lucy developed her own character as time went on, and I constantly found myself surprised by her dialogue, as if I was simply a conduit for her voice. She and Daisy have made me laugh so many times. Writing has been a revelation in that respect. I thought I was the one in charge!

The novel is a feel-good story that up-lifts the reader yet it deals with a number of serious issues. Can you tell us why it was important for you to explore these?
My own life has been a series of dramatic highs and lows. Treated for advanced stage ovarian cancer aged 24, it changed my life and my career path. My hopes for having a family were dashed, my long term health constantly under review.
I now consider myself incredibly privileged to be owned by a wonderful, loving, extended family that includes my two boys and their daughters, and my three step-children, one of whom is about to pop another little girl into the world, and another of which has with extraordinary generosity of spirit, long-term fostered three very young children. I believe that the way we grow from these experiences shapes not only our own personalities, but also the friends and people we gather around us.
I know people in these toxic relationships, who gradually become subservient to their increasingly domineering spouses, and yet continue to hope that things will get better, that it’s just a phase. Lucy’s friends can see clearly what is happening, but the opportunity of jumping off the Gerry-directed treadmill only occurs because she wins the motorbike. Because it’s not his idea.
Riding a motorbike requires a kind of focused isolation. There is no-one else to ask. Just you, inside your helmet, and your ability to move that motorbike about. There are often scary moments, and you can’t just walk away and let someone else deal with it, because you have to sort it out there and then. With each incident, you grow a bit more in confidence, and this is what I wanted to show Lucy experiencing.
My personal experience of belonging to a big ladies only motorbike club is only briefly touched on in the novel, although I did want to show that camaraderie. Women riders are a growing minority, and although many are just as happy to ride with their menfolk, being out with your girl-friends has a different dynamic. Getting lost just makes it a curvier ride, we help each other move our bikes on slippery gravelly car parks, we find the best places to have coffee and cake, and we’re not above a spot of mooching about in shops, building sandcastles and sightseeing when we want to, either!
Like me, Lucy always wanted her own children, but when she meets Daisy, she begins to realise that long term parenting of someone else’s child is very different from a casual meeting with a little girl on her best behaviour. 
Her life was on full throttle from the minute she sat on that purple motorbike, wasn’t it?

Since the novel was published a few months ago, the reviews have been amazing, both in numbers and ratings. Can you tell us how you felt as the first ones started coming through?
I couldn’t believe how quickly the reviews came in – I wasn’t expecting that! I even had a #BestSeller flag!
I confess I was a little bit anxious as to how it would be received by ‘non-bikers’. To date, I have had over 84 mostly 5 star reviews, and most of them have been from people who’ve never ridden a motorbike. But they’re thinking about it now…
I’m so appreciative of everyone who has taken the time and effort to leave a review. I’ve read every single one, and it’s just lovely that people have warmed to the story that my characters have woven. 
Because Lucy and Ash and Daisy, they’re real people, y’know…

‘Planner’ or ‘pantser’ – which were you when you started writing and has that changed now you are a published novelist (I love saying that!)?
Even though I’m an airy-fairy artist in my other life, I know that really I’m a complete control freak, so I’m a Planner. I have colour coded spread-sheet things with my characters on, each chapter planned, the emotion arcs, everything.
I blimmin’ love a pack of coloured Sharpies, some Post It notes and a massive flipchart! Although that could be another art form, I guess…
But when I’ve planned it all, I start writing and my characters take it all off in a different direction. I go with the flow and see what happens. There’s a magical alchemy about writing, isn’t there? I can fret and worry about plot threads that aren’t working, or stop writing altogether because I over-think something, and then I start writing and somehow the words tumble out and fix themselves.
I’m not going to analyse that in case it stops happening!

You are a busy artist so I’m sure I’m not the only one to wonder where you manage to fit in your writing time. Do you have a particular writing routine?
I don’t watch much TV, and once I start writing I am able to shut everything out, so I write whenever I can. Social media is a distraction though. Also my dog, Scribble, is better than a FitBit, nudging me to take him out for a walk when he thinks I’ve been sitting about for too long.

You have a very distinctive style of painting that is so evident in the cover of Summer at the Art Café, do you have a distinctive style in your writing, too?
I read somewhere that Art is not about what I see, but what I make you see. I’d like to think that my writing makes my readers laugh but also cry a little too.

Many reviewers are saying they can’t wait for your next novel. Can you tell readers when and what to expect?
The second in the series is already written, and should be released in early Spring 2019! It’s based in the Art Café on the Welsh Gower coast, and focuses on two characters who popped up in Summer at the Art Café. There’s a gorgeous little boy, Liam, and a wonderful naughty neighbour who never failed to make me laugh, Beryl. I’m currently writing the third in the series, about a spiky heroine with a tendency to blurt. Can’t imagine who I’ve based that on…

No comment on that! 
Thank you so much, Sue. I’m thrilled to see how well your novel is doing and it’s been a privilege to watch your journey from the start.  

Summer at the Art Cafe is published by Choc Lit.  
Link to the book on Amazon:
Blog and website:
Twitter: @SueMcDonaghLit

My thoughts on Summer at the Art Cafe: ***** 5 Stars
Summer at the Art Café is a delightful read where you'll find humour and emotion. The writing is pacy with a story line that kept me turning the pages to the end. Authentic characters are well drawn with enough layering to show both their strengths and flaws. You care about what happens to them. I particularly rooted for Lucy on her journey from life with her controlling husband to become a confident self-assured woman. The resilience she showed when learning to ride her newly-won motor bike was admirable! Added to the mix was the gorgeous Ash and lovable Daisy. The novel is a feel-good story that up-lifts the reader yet it deals with a number of serious issues, too. These are handled sensitively. A book I thoroughly enjoyed reading, I can’t wait for the sequel and have no hesitation in recommending this debut novel.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed finding out more of the story behind Sue's debut novel.

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

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 café – 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.