Monday 18 February 2019

History, Philanthropy and Ghostly Goings-on
On Wednesday, the February meeting of the RNA South and West Wales Chapter took place in Cafe Zest, House of Fraser, known locally as Howells. Its iconic building has been a landmark in Cardiff for generations and the community was shocked when the department store was earmarked as one of the House of Fraser stores to close. Luckily, in the autumn of last year, there was a reprieve and Howells will remain open.

We met with Sue, who had worked at the store for many years, and she gave us a very interesting and informative talk about James Howell, the original owner of the store, the department store and how it had evolved over the years since his business as a drapers opened in 1860, and the ghostly goings-on she'd witnessed or experienced herself.

As the business became successful, James Howell moved to bigger premises in St Mary Street and continued to expand. The Victorian workers worked long hours but it was good to work there, often putting their children's names down to work in the store. At one time, there were four hundred staff living and working there. Howell was a charitable man and had a modern outlook. He built a non-conformist chapel on the premises and it is still there today. He provided exemplary conditions for his staff, mainly men to start with but by the 1800s, women started working there too. Sue traced the passing of years and, for example, told us about the Beauty pageants in 1909, how the Welsh flag for Captain Scot's ship that left the capital for his famous voyage to Antarctica was made in the store and during the second world war, that parachutes were made on the premises. Uniforms were also made. In the late 1980s, now part of the House of Fraser chain of stores, Howells was targeted along with others and petrol bombed by activists for its sale of furs. The company no longer use any fur products in its clothing. The store has been extensively refurbished but due to its status as a listed building, the 'James Howell and Sons' signs remain even though it was rebranded from Howells to House of Fraser.

As writers, we were fascinated when the talk turned to ghosts and spirits. Our imaginations began to run away with us as we thought of characters for novels or short stories that Sue's tales inspired. Sue reported many members of staff feeling cold areas of the old building not accessible to the public. She has felt taps on shoulders, hair being pulled and someone standing very close to her. Ellen Logan Davies, James Howell's sister-in-law who was housekeeper in the early 1900s, has often been seen on the second floor as has a man in a top hat and wearing a cloak. She told us about a lady in grey chiffon appearing in the corridors. It is thought she'd been evicted from her living quarters and you wonder what she had done to warrant the eviction. As recently as the previous week, in a part of the store closed to the public, the hands on a clock kept spinning round out of control until finally reverting to the correct time and in a lift the lights went on and off. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, listening to Sue and her absolute belief that these things actually have happened, it was an excellent meeting for us all. Thank you, Sue, and to Sandra for organising the talk.
Photo courtesy of Jessie Cahalin
Our photographer

Have you experienced any unexplained goings-on in an old building? Do you believe in ghosts? Perhaps you've written a ghost story. In my novel, 'Whispering Olive Trees', the rustling of the leaves on the olive trees symbolises the presence of Lexi's dead mother whispering to her and reassuring her that she is not alone. Whether this is the ghost of Elin, her mother, Lexi's imagination or just a co-incidence that the breeze starts up at certain times in the novel is for the reader to decide. Is feeling a presence the same as a ghost? I'd love to know what you think. Thank you for reading.

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

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Reflecting back and Looking Forward
As I said in my last post, my blog is now five years old. Happy birthday, Blog! In January 2014, I wrote my very first blog post. I'd spent some time deciding on a name for my blog and in the end, I came up with the unimaginative 'Jan's Journey into Writing'. I suppose there's a bit of alliteration there! But that's what the blog was going to be about - a journey. I only started writing fiction when I retired and it wasn't until I undertook a short story writing course at Cardiff University in 2013 that I even had the confidence to consider submitting my writing to magazines, on-line sites and competitions, let alone write a novel. My first acceptances came from Alfie Dog Fiction and I shall always be grateful to editor, Rosemary Kind, for the helpful advice she gave me back then. 
Some of my goals in that first blog post were quite specific:
  1. to start writing a blog
  2. write regularly and more often
  3. get at least one story published in a woman's magazine
  4. get back on track with my novel and finish the first draft 
I never did achieve number 3. I didn't submit very many stories but it was soon clear I wasn't hitting the mark. I did, however, achieve 1. and 4. Back then, my intention was to write a weekly blog and that is something I haven't managed to do. That first year, I wrote forty four blog posts so, if you allow for holidays, I nearly achieved it. Things have gone downhill since. Last year, there were only eighteen posts so I definitely want to improve on that. One comment on that first blog did make me smile:
I need to set some goals. I think, I procrastinate, I dill-dally and dither so . . . in 2014, I must WRITE, WRITE, WRITE.
Things haven't changed in five years! However, I have completed two full length novels and have written 25,000 + of a third mother/daughter saga, so I have been writing. 

Looking back, I was surprised at how many topics I wrote about. They ranged from the benefits of writing buddies and belonging to writing groups, how to undergo research, a series on editing with other authors, dealing with rejection to using holidays to give a sense of place to your writing. Often, attending events were recorded - the Tenby, now the Narberth, Book Fairs, library talks or writing workshops. From 2016, these included the RNA Conferences and it was good to look at photos of new friends made and remember the excellent talks I attended. To start, the posts were often interspersed with news of short story acceptances or long-listings in competitions but apart from my pieces appearing in the annual Worcester LitFest Flash Fiction anthologies, these have come to an end. Due to concentrating on novel writing, I haven't submitted short stories for a long time. One feature of the blog about which I was very pleased was the inclusion of guest interviews with fellow authors, especially when a new book had just been published. This is something I definitely want to continue. Watch this space for some interesting guest appearances soon!

Before deciding to start a blog, I had looked at the pros and cons. See the blog post I wrote on February 20th 2014 entitled To Blog Or Not To Blog . . . ?  And so, five years on, is it worth continuing with writing a blog? I think it is:

  • My blog has helped me become part of a community. I have 'met' some lovely writers and it's been a pleasure to support other authors just as they support me. Although I have a loyal small number of people who leave comments - you know who you are and I appreciate every comment you leave! - I'm amazed how far and wide the blog posts are read. To date, the blog has been viewed 51,973 times and yesterday, even with no new post, it was viewed 146 times. 
  • It has given me an added on-line presence about which I've been able to talk with publishers and agents.
  • Yes, keeping a blog does take away from writing but I feel the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I think that if I go back to keeping to one specific day for writing the blog, that may help. I've let things slide to writing a post when I grab the time or when I think I haven't written anything for a while!
  • Yes, it is difficult to think of new topics but by reducing the frequency of the posts to, say, fortnightly, perhaps this will take the pressure off. As my journey to becoming a better writer continues, many of the topics I covered in the early posts will be still relevant but I'll be looking at them with new eyes. I'd like to continue with the guest posts and celebrate the successes of other writers. 
  • Here's to the next five years of blogging!
My goals for the year ahead are much more general than the resolutions I made in the early years of the blog. I intend:
  • to continue to submit to publishers to find a home for my Greek novel. It's at the stage where editors are requesting the whole manuscript which is encouraging to a 'bottle half-full' girl like me! After being passed to another editor on the submissions panel of one publisher for a second opinion, it was finally rejected but the second editor kindly gave me detailed positive and constructive feedback. I was able to act upon that before submitting it again to other publishers in January. (I haven't given up on novel one - more about this in a future post) 
  • to plan and research my new novel set in war-time France. I wrote 25,000 words of scenes during NaNoWriMo. Having re-joined the RNA NWS for 2019, I need to write as much of a first draft as I can by the summer to submit for critique
  • to attend the 2019 RNA Conference in Lancaster
  • to support other authors and invite them on to the blog
  • to continue to enjoy my writing and learn more about the craft.

Thank you for reading and your support throughout the last year. Do you have a blog? If so, how often do you post and do you have a specific day for writing it? I'd love to hear your views on keeping a blog. Thanks.  

Good luck in achieving your goals for 2018. If you have a new book coming out or would like to share some writing news, please message me.

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