Monday 28 October 2019

Introducing Polly Heron

Photo courtesy of
Maddie Please
I’m delighted to welcome author Polly Heron to the blog for the first time. Her new book, The Surplus Girls, will be published by Corvus on January 2nd 2020. Polly also writes as Susanna Bavin.

Polly, welcome. Please tell us about your writing. What is the appeal of family sagas to you?
It’s lovely to be here, Jan. Thank you for inviting me. I suppose that, like many writers, I write what I want to read. I love strong, dramatic story-lines peopled by well-rounded, credible characters who develop and are changed by their experiences. For me, the cherry on the cake is the historical setting. I am fascinated by social history. I love to see characters, especially women, having to cope with challenges within the social and legal context of the time. I also enjoy the domestic history – the clothes, food, furniture and so on.
The Surplus Girls is your first book writing as Polly Heron. What is the novel about and what was its inspiration?
The real surplus girls were that generation of young women whose possible husband perished on the battlefields in the Great War. These were girls who had grown up expecting to get married, but now they faced a lifetime of fending for themselves. I have always been interested in the problems women faced in the past and this one appealed to me, partly because it is in living memory. When my mother was at grammar school, her teachers had been surplus girls.
How will the novel fit in with your other books, written as Susanna Bavin? For example, the themes, location and historical period?
Certain themes will be familiar to readers of my Susanna Bavin books – the social and financial position of women in the past. There is a will that causes complications. I once heard a radio programme about wills and a solicitor said, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a war.’ I love that! A will featured in The Poor Relation and there’s another in The Surplus Girls. And I also explore the themes of loss and loyalty, both of which are deeply important to Belinda, the heroine.

As for the period, the book is set in 1922, so around the same time as The Deserter’s Daughter and A Respectable Woman. And I explore familiar territory, as much of the story is set in Chorlton, though Belinda’s family lives up the road in Stretford. My dad was a talented artist and he drew some highly detailed maps of Chorlton as it was when he was growing up in the 20s and 30s, so I know the exact location of various shops etc.

Having been impressed that you’ve previously written detailed synopses of your novels before writing them, I now try to do that myself as part of planning a new story. Did you do that for The Surplus Girls?
Very much so! When you’re writing a series, you can’t afford to take chances. Whatever gets published in book 1, you’re stuck with, even if it turns out to be unhelpful to what happens in book 2 or 3, so it seems to me that planning in advance is essential. I have a mammoth 20-something page synopsis. Planning in detail was a big help in creating the links between the stories. For example, there is a small plot-point in book 1 that turns into a major plot-point in book 3.

Which came first, the characters or the plot?
The characters, definitely. The heroine is Belinda, who got engaged to Ben when she was just 15 and went to live with his mother and grandmother. She was more than happy to do so, not just to be part of Ben’s family, but also to escape from a pretty awful home life with her money-grabbing, ne’er-do-well father and downtrodden, self-pitying mother, not to mention younger brothers running wild. But Ben is killed in action in the final year of the Great War, leaving Belinda in the odd position of being almost-but-not-quite a widow. Four years later, when the story starts, Belinda has laid Ben’s memory to rest, but his mother and grandmother very definitely haven’t. How can Belinda start to make something of her life when the two women to whom she owes so much are determined to keep her swathed in black for ever?

With Belinda and her situation so firmly established in my mind, it was easy to see how her plot would develop. The same is true of Gabriel, the hero.

What are the plans for subsequent books?
The heroine of the second book is Molly. She is very different to Belinda – older, more experienced. If the themes of Belinda’s story are loss and loyalty, then Molly’s are independence and what we would call sexism. Although each book is part of the series, each one will also be a stand-alone novel.

If the book is chosen by a book group, what do you think would make a good discussion question?
What a brilliant question. It so happens that on my Susanna Bavin website, I have a page of book group questions for each of my novels and I am in the process of building a bank of questions for The Surplus Girls.

A general question about the book as a whole would be: In the book, is it preferable to be a wife, a widow or a spinster?
A question specific to Belinda would be: Does Belinda spend too much time trying to please other people?

Great questions. Thank you, Polly. I can’t wait to read your new book and be introduced to Belinda and the other characters in The Surplus Girls.

The Surplus Girls - Blurb
The Surplus Girls is a family saga set in 1922, four years after the end of the Great War. The heroine is Belinda, who got engaged at 15 to Ben, who died near the end of the war. Now Belinda is approaching 21 and, although she will always hold Ben in a special place in her heart, she knows it is time for her to move on. But how can she, when Ben’s mother and grandmother, whom she lives with, are still deep in mourning? As for Belinda’s own family – well, her father has lost more jobs than you can shake a stick at, and her mother, worn down with shame, is clingy and demanding.

When Belinda joins a secretarial class to try to better herself, little does she imagine that it will open up a whole new world to her. For not only does she learn to type, but she meets the beguiling bookshop owner Richard Carson... and falls head over heels in love. But who is this man to whom she has entrusted with her heart, and what does he really want?
Here are the links:
Polly Heron - Author bio
Polly Heron has worked as a librarian, an infant teacher, a carer and a cook. She lives on the beautiful North Wales coast with her husband and two rescue cats, but she originally hails from Manchester. Her writing is influenced by her Mancunian roots which provide the setting and inspiration for her family sagas.

Polly’s saga series, The Surplus Girls, is set in Manchester and explores what happened to girls who, after the terrible death toll of the Great war, faced life alone. Each book is also a stand-alone novel.

Thank you for reading. I'm sure, like me, you enjoyed finding out more about Polly and her new series. Do you enjoy reading series of family sagas? What area has inspired your writing? I'd love it if you shared your thoughts. Thank you. 

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

Monday 14 October 2019

The Launch
The Hive
This is the follow up to last week's blog post where I was preparing for the launch of my story collection. It took place at The Hive, Worcester on Thursday evening. My husband, Alan, came with me and apart from the Black Pear Press team, whom I'd met at WorcesterLitFest Flash Fiction events, he was the only person in the audience who knew me. The event had been arranged by Ruth Stacey, a lecturer at the University of Worcester, as part of the Autumn Creative Writing reading series and was entitled 'How To Become a Writer'. As well as the poet Michael Thomas and I launching our books, we each took part in Question and Answer sessions alongside local publisher, Black Pear Press about writing, the publishing process and running an Indie press in 2019. 

There was a good turn out of people and once I'd introduced myself and begun reading an excerpt from the lead story, Smashing the Mask, I relaxed and enjoyed myself. The inspiration for the story was a poem read out at my writing group entitled simply The Mask. It questioned whether we really know what happens behind closed doors and deals with an issue that's very topical at the moment. I took it further by including an actual Venetian mask and used the symbolism of the colours in that and a scarf to hopefully get my message across. It was a great feeling to hold the audience's interest as I read. I'd picked a strategic place to stop with the intention of the audience wanting to know how the story ended and the hopefully want to read the book! 

Michael and I alternated our sessions. My next excerpt from Missing Without Trace was written as a result of reading Ferney by James Long. The novel may be described as a timeslip story where the characters have had past lives.  
'You know that car that cut us up today?' said Lizzie.
'That old blue and white one?'
'Yes. Well, I've been in that when in it was brand new. I had tan leather seats, I remember. He was so proud of it. His first new car.'
Of course. That's why I'd reacted the way I had. More was coming back to me. I knew from Mark's open mouth that this was not going to be easy. 
'You do know that car was brand new about fifty odd years ago? Twenty years before you were born.'
'Yes, I remember the year. 1962. "Brand new car, brand new model," he said.'

Los Gigantes Carnival
The third excerpt I read was from a story that came to me when on holiday in Los Gigantes in Tenerife. We were there at the time of the annual carnival and the Burning of the Sardine ceremony. From our hotel balcony, we had a wonderful view of the procession. Looking down on the hoards of visitors lined up along the route, I thought What if you lost your child in that crowd? The idea for Burning Our Sardine was formed. 

If you like the sound of my stories, you may find them here  at Thank you.

I'd like to give a big thank Polly, Tony and Rod at Black Pear Press for publishing my first collection. It was a good feeling to hold my book in my hands for the first time. 

Thank you for reading. Have you attended a book launch recently as a reader? Have you held your own book launch? I'd love it if you shared your thoughts about those events. Thank you.

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

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Short Stories
On Thursday, I shall be at The Hive in Worcester for the launch of my first collection of short stories, Smashing the Mask and Other Stories. There are twelve in all and although they are short reads, a number touch on serious issues including broken relationships, domestic abuse, grief and dementia. With the problems faced, each one has a hopeful ending that maybe the characters are able to move on from the experiences in the future, not in a simplistic way but with a positive outlook.

While preparing for reading extracts and answering questions about my writing on the night, I have been thinking about why I am so passionate about short stories. I've realised how much I have neglected the genre recently while concentrating on my novels. Here are some of those thoughts:

  • I love the fact that you can read and write a complete story in relatively few words.
    Like poetry, no words are wasted. Della Galton, in her very useful book 'The Short Story Writer's Toolshed', says 'it gives the reader a chance to spend a brief time with
    some interesting characters.'
     She believes, 'writing a short story is like painting in miniature. It should have all the depth and colour that a full size canvas allows, but there is no room for waffle.'
  • In short stories, we don't have time to explore your characters in the same detail as we can in a novel but the characters still need to read as real people, with real emotions and feelings. The reader needs to relate to that person, to like or dislike him or her, to understand the conflict or dilemma that the character encounters. 
  • I enjoy getting inside the characters' heads, tapping into their thought processes. Perhaps that is why many of the stories in the collection are written in the first person. To do that, sometimes I've had to research real life stories just as I've had to do for my novels. 
  • Short stories are meant to be exactly that, short, and read in one sitting. They are precise in their delivery and should capture the reader's attention very quickly. To create a complete tale with credible characters who have overcome some sort of struggle or internal conflict is immensely satisfying. 
  • I also enjoy writing short stories that are outside my comfort zone. Naturally I am drawn to family orientated situations and relationships that I write about in my novels. However, I have been very pleased to have my stories published in specialist anthologies - my first horror story, a highly commended Welsh legend and a cat story. I have written about stalkers and hoarders, ghosts, characters' past lives and several crimes.
  • Novels take a very long time to write, edit, submit and get published. Short stories are an excellent way of honing your writing in between stages of that process. In fact,  publishers often ask authors to keep their names active in their readers' minds by writing short stories or novellas.  
Together with the editors of Black Pear Press, I'll be sharing the event with poet Michael Thomas, whose anthology The Stations of the Day will be launched at the same event. If you're in the Worcester area on Thursday evening, it would be lovely to see you there. The event is free, but you need to book. Please click HERE for details. On the surface, I shall be aiming to appear 'calm, cool and collected', but that will be my mask!

Do you enjoy reading and/or writing short stories? What is the appeal for you? 
If you've had a launch of a book recently, how did you feel as the day approached? Do you have any advice? I'd love it if you commented and shared your thoughts. Thank you.

Thank you for reading. You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.