Monday, 28 August 2017

Judith Barrow coming full circle

I have written four novels and each has been independent - different settings, different characters, different themes - but I have begun to feel the allure of keeping a story going, beyond the last page of a book. I have written short stories that accompany my novels, but I've never yet been brave enough to take on a whole series.
That is what Judith Barrow has done, with her Howarth Family trilogy, covering the decades from the Second World War to the late sixties, and she has completed it now with a prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, covering the early decades of the 20th century. I am hugely impressed.

Pattern of Shadows is the first of the Howarth family trilogy. Mary is a nursing sister at Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling, life at home a constant round of arguments, until Frank Shuttleworth, a guard at the camp turns up. Frank is difficult to love but persistent and won't leave until Mary agrees to walk out with him.

Sequel to Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns is set in May 1950, Britain is struggling with the hardships of rationing and the aftermath of the Second World War There are many obstacles in the way of Mary’s happiness, not the least of which is her troubled family. When tragedy strikes, Mary hopes it will unite her siblings. Will the family pull together to save one of their own from a common enemy.

The last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows is set in 1969. There are secrets dating back to the war that still haunt the family, and finding out what lies at their root might be the only way they can escape their murderous consequences.

And so to the prequel: A Hundred Tiny Threads: Winifred is a determined young woman eager for new experiences. When her friend Honora - an Irish girl, with the freedom to do as she pleases - drags Winifred along to a suffragette rally, she realises that there is more to life than the shop and her parents' humdrum lives of work and grumbling.
 Bill Howarth's troubled childhood echoes through his early adult life and the scars linger, affecting his work, his relationships and his health. The only light in his life comes from a chance meeting with Winifred, the daughter of a Lancashire grocer.

For the record, in my opinion, this is a great book, that places two people in the midst of some of the most earth-shattering and horrifying events of the early 20th century but shows it all through their very individual eyes, coloured by their own uniquely troubled situations. And, of course, knowing how it ends in the following trilogy adds a piquant regret to the tale.

Judith, like me, has lived in Pembrokeshire for many years and, like me, came here from a distant galaxy long ago and far away - Well, Yorkshire in her case and Bedfordshire in mine. Here, she tells how she came to Pembrokeshire.

We found Pembrokeshire by accident.
With three children under three, an old cottage half renovated and a small business that had become so successful that we were working seven days a week, we were exhausted. David, my husband, thought we should get off the treadmill; at least for a fortnight.
Pre-children, cottage and business, we always holidayed in Cornwall. But we decided it was too far with a young family and an unreliable van. We’d go to Wales; not too difficult a journey from Lancashire, we thought.
Once that was mentioned, David was eager to see Four Crosses, near Welshpool, where his grandfather originated from.
‘We could stay there,’ he said.
‘But the children will want beaches,’ I protested. ‘And I’ve heard Pembrokeshire has wonderful beaches.
We agreed to toss a coin and Pembrokeshire won. We’d call at Four Crosses on the way home.
I borrowed books on Wales from the library and, balancing our 8-month-old twins, one on each knee, I read as much as I could about the county. It sounded just the place to take children for a holiday. We booked a caravan and, when the big day came, packed the van to the hilt with everything the children would need, remembering only at the last minute, to throw a few clothes in for ourselves.
It took 10 hours.
In 1978 there was no easy route from the North of England to West Wales.
We meandered through small lanes, stopping for emergencies like much needed drinks, picnics, lavatory stops and throwing bread to the ducks whenever our eldest daughter spotted water. I’d learned to keep a bag of stale bread for such times.
The closer we were to our destination the slower we went. In the heat of the day the engine in our old van struggled; we needed to top up the radiator every hour or so. For the last 50 miles we became stuck in traffic jams.
We got lost numerous times.
All this and three ever-increasingly fractious children.

We arrived at the caravan site in the middle of the night so were relieved to find the key in the door.
The owner, a farmer, had given up and gone home.
I woke early. Leaving David in charge of our exhausted and still sleeping family, I crept out.
The sun was already warm; a soft breeze barely moved the leaves on the oak tree nearby. Skylarks flittered and swooped overhead, calling to one another. 
Although the caravan was one of four in the farmer’s field, we were the only people there. It was so quiet, so peaceful.
I walked along a small path. Within minutes I was faced by a panorama of sea. It seemed so still from the top of the cliff, but the water blended turquoise and dark blue with unseen currents, the horizon was a silvery line.
Faint voices from two small fishing boats carried on the air.
The sandstone cliffs curved round in a natural cove. Jagged rocks, surrounded by white ripples of water, jutted up towards the sky.
I fell in love with Pembrokeshire.
I’d always liked living so close to the Pennines. The moors, criss-crossed by ancient stone walls, were glorious with wild rhododendrons in summer, heather in the autumn. Even when brooding under swathes of drifting mist or white-over with snow, I was happy there.
But Pembrokeshire has a powerful glory of its own.
Within months we’d thrown caution, and our past lives, to the wind and moved here, much to the consternation of our extended family; as far as they were concerned we were moving to the ends of the earth.
But it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Up the Amazon without a paddle

My first novel was published as a paperback in September 2012 and a few days later it appeared on Amazon in a Kindle edition, which was, apparently, the way things were going now. I didn’t have a Kindle, but to show my appreciation, I downloaded the free Kindle reader on my laptop. I didn’t really want an electronic version of anything at that stage, but an encounter with Hilary Mantell finally persuaded me to invest in a proper Kindle reader. A hefty hardback edition of Bring Up The Bodies smacking you in the face when you fall asleep, reading, causes serious concussion, whereas a Kindle reader merely bruises the nose. And you don’t lose your place when it slides to the floor and shuts itself.

So yes, I converted to an e-reader and now I use it all the time, at least for fiction. And as an author, I have really learned to appreciate its value. My books have been on Kindle deals and sold A LOT, as a result. I mean, a serious lot. Enough to keep me afloat and writing.

Other e-readers are available, to coin a phrase. I have been on Kobo deals too, and have sold… several. Almost into two figures. What I have learned is that Kindle is the only e-reading platform that matters.

And Amazon knows it. If you want to self-publish, use Amazon. Put your book on Kindle. Easy-peasy, give or take the agonies of formatting, and your book is available to the whole world. Let them publish it as a paperback too. It won’t get into bookshops of course, but bookshops are so yesterday, darling.

My latest novel, Shadows, has been taken on by a publisher who markets books solely through Amazon. Even I, as the author, cannot buy discount copies to pass on at book fairs or talks. (You can’t imagine how amusing I find this.) If you agree to turn your back on all other platforms, Amazon and Kindle will offer you all sorts of promotion options. What’s not to love? Amazon, after all, is the leader so far in the lead, that all the others can’t even be seen for dust. No wonder Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos was listed as the richest man in the world, if only for a few hours. His organisation goes from strength to strength. There is no stopping it. It would be idiotic not to buy into it.

But then, this is now, and as Scarlet O’Hara pointed out, so eloquently, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Remember 2001, A Space Odyssey?  Made in 1968. HAL, a computer, developing a mind of its own, takes on the humans it’s supposed to help and tries to eliminate them. It’s the perennial nightmare of out-of-control technology. Lovers of conspiracy theories have pointed out that if you move up one place in the alphabet, HAL becomes IBM. In 1968, IBM was the computer giant that was going to dominate the world. No-one could compete with it. Until, out of nowhere, Microsoft popped up. And now Microsoft rules the world, until…

My third novel, The Unravelling, is set partly in 1966, which I regret to say I can remember vividly, so no research was needed, and in 2000 or thereabouts, which is only seventeen years ago, but I had to research diligently to remember exactly where we were on our hurtling trajectory into a new world.

In 2000, in Britain, broadband was just being introduced. I didn’t get it until several years later. Accessing the internet, for me, meant hi-jacking the phone line late at night or early morning, and waiting in agony as every web page maliciously containing an image took half an hour to download.

The Unravelling involves a woman, Karen, trying to trace someone from her past. In 1990, what would she have used? Phone books? A trip to the records office in London to trawl through marriage indexes? In 2000 she did have the internet if she could get at a computer. She could try a search engine. The big one was Yahoo, or Alta Vista if you wanted to be really serious. Everyone on the internet used Yahoo, little thinking that a search engine called Google, dreamed up by a couple of Californian students in 1998 would soon sweep Yahoo into the gutter.

There was a new social networking website Karen could use in her search. It was called Friends Reunited, created in 2000. Still a very small thing in the period when my book is set but it grew and grew. It grew huge. So huge that by 2005 it was bought up for £120 million. Nothing was going to stop it. Except that now it no longer exists, because in 2004 a bunch of students including Mark Zuckerberg launched a thing called Facebook. Then there was Twitter. Then there was Instagram. And then, and then, and then…

So, in the publishing world, Amazon is top dog today, but who knows what will pop up tomorrow and leave it as a small smudge on history? Self-interest tells me, as an author, to take whatever it has to offer, because I and other writers, traditionally and self-published, would be fools to resist. But where will we be when the wheel turns and we are left dependent on a company that no longer matters? We need a strategy, to prepare. The trouble is, I have no idea what we should do. Any suggestions?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Short and Sweet

The appeal of short stories.

Many, many years ago, when I did O level English Literature, we studied a Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel, a 20th century novel, poems – oh, and a book of short stories. I wasn’t at all impressed with the idea of having to plough through a bunch of short stories. At 16, my idea of a good read was something at least as long as The Lord of the Rings, something so huge that I could disappear into it and not surface for at least a month. Why would anyone want to read a snippet with no meat on it whatsoever?

Years later though, I discovered that it was the short stories that had stuck in my mind and made the deepest impression. Phrases, images and ideas had burned into my brain in ways that Dickens and Orwell failed to achieve. Perhaps it is because they can shine a blinding spotlight on a single moment, thought or character, in ways that a novel, with its elaborate lighting display, cannot.

I enjoy writing short stories. The first piece of work I ever had published was a short story, flattering me into thinking that maybe I could make it as a writer after all. It was The Accountant, which is the first in my collection of short stories, Moments of Consequence.  I have come up with images and ideas that I have toyed with making into novels, before realising that I don’t want to write an entire novel, I just want to concentrate on that one image or idea. Short stories don’t have to fit neatly into a genre, which is wonderfully liberating. My collection includes histories, comedies and tragedies.

But although short stories can occupy a different dimension to lengthy novels, they can also walk beside them. The moment you finish writing a novel, there’s a huge rush of triumphant relief, but that is rapidly followed by a wail of empty desolation. It’s very hard to shut the door on a world you have created, and nail down the coffin of characters you have lived with for months or years. Short stories, I discovered, offer a way of keeping that door open.

Moments of Consequence contains three short stories that stand as companion pieces for my first three novels. I had no wish to write sequels, or create a series, but I did want to dabble a little deeper into the untold stories merely hinted at in the books. So A Time For Silence, which deals with the murder of John Owen, is paired with A Time to Cast Away, which tells of the aunt who brought him up. Motherlove, which includes the story of lost waif and fantasist Lindy, is paired with Hush Hush, a story of Lindy’s lost brother. The Unravelling deals with the desperation and dreaded bogeymen of children’s imaginations, and it is paired with Green Fingers, Black Back, which glances at the same events through the eyes of an adult on the side-lines.

Judith Barrow, author of the Howarth Family Trilogy, shares my love of short stories as a means of keeping our created worlds alive and kicking. She is also holding a workshop on writing short stories at the Narberth Book Fair, 23rd September. Over to Judith.

Thanks Thorne.

Unlike my friend here I cannot for the life in me remember what I studied for O levels. But I do remember writing short stories in school from a very young age (well, they were supposed to be ‘short’. Looking back I remember them going on and on and on because I couldn’t decide on the ending…pity the poor English teachers back then wading through tedious narrative).

I always loved short stories because I could read them quickly and, being a day-dreamer, treasure the instant images they evoked for days afterwards So, from a precious copy of Enid Blyton’s Six O'Clock Tales and stories by Hans Christian Anderson I progressed to such diverse authors as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and V. S. Naipaul. I’ve enjoyed them all.

And I’ve written and had published short stories in the past, mainly because I didn’t think I’ve be able to hold all the threads of a novel together.

 But thirty-five years ago I became a mature student (by accident but that’s another story) and took an A level in English Literature, then gained a BA degree and then an MA in creative writing.

It was time to face the facts; was I a writer of small tales or could I tackle something longer?

Purely by accident (I’m sensing a theme to my writing career here) I discovered the setting for my trilogy (an industrial  town surrounding a German prisoner of war camp, found by  researching the first POW camp for Germans in the Second Word War).And then a protagonist developed that I couldn’t get out of my head; Mary Howarth.

I’ve lived with the Howarth family for the last seven years.

Which now brings me to the reason Thorne invited me to her blog post. Secrets.

 Like Consequences, Secrets is an anthology of short stories; of the lives of eight minor characters in the Howarth Family Trilogy. When I closed the last page on the prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, I felt stunned. What to write next? And then, daydreaming as usual (these days I call it being creative!) some of the characters started shouting at me; I was leaving them behind and they didn’t like it. So I wondered what they would have been like before they came to live in the gritty northern mill town of Ashford. In Secrets are the stories of their earlier lives; the secrets they carry with them.

 So, Edith Jagger, the nosey gossiping next-door neighbour to the Howarths, holds close her secret of being a young abused wife and the desperate measures she took to escape.

And Stan Green, the publican of the local pub, The Crown, desperate to leave home at fourteen, signs up for the army with his friend, Ernie, unaware of the horrors that face them in the First World War and the terrible consequences of their decision.

And then there is Gwyneth Griffiths, Mary’s quiet and helpful neighbour in Llamroth, Wales, whose whole life has been on the run from an abusive husband.

And more: Hannah Booth, Doreen Whittaker, Alun Thomas, Hilda Lewis.
 All have secrets - for you to discover.

If you'd like to dabble in our short stories, find them here.

Secrets               Moments of Consequence

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A sense of Entitlement

Choosing titles can be a tricky business but for me it owes as much to instinct as to careful thought. For my first novel, I went for a Biblical reference (not quite a quote), A Time For Silence, because it seemed appropriate for a story that involves a pious chapel community. And besides, the King James version, like Shakespeare’s works, sometimes seems to have been produced for no better purpose than providing really good titles. I toyed with using the correct quote: “A Time to Keep Silence”, but the rhythm was just wrong, so I adapted it and once I’d settled on it, I thought that it couldn’t be anything else.

My second book called itself Motherlove. That was its working title because motherlove, in various guises, is what it’s about. When I had finished it and sat down to think about what it should really be called, I couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate, so I stuck with it. I did discover, after publication, that there can be issues with some titles. Search issues. Search for “A Time For Silence” on Amazon, without automatically narrowing it down to “books” and you’ll get my first novel. Search for “Motherlove” and you get a nipple cream.

My third book had no title, while I was writing it, other than “the next book.” Once finished, I sat back, groaned and thought ‘now come up with a title,’ and hey presto, it appeared. It’s about a character mentally unravelling and a forgotten story unravelling, so The Unravelling presented itself and all possible competitors slithered away into the undergrowth.

My latest novel is called Shadows. Kate Lawrence is psychically sensitive – she can feel the echoes of past deaths embedded in the masonry and woodwork of old houses. She can feel death happening across many miles. She doesn’t like it. She refers to her unwanted feelings as shadows. Somehow, it seemed obvious to call the book Shadows.

However, I was aware that Shadows is a word that has had plenty of use in book titles – my brilliant fellow Honno author, Judith Barrow, claimed it before me for Pattern of Shadows and Living in the Shadows. There are other books called just Shadows, as well as Shadow Reaper, the Shadow Queen, The Shadow District, Shadow Kill, the Shadow Land… and I’m still on page one of an Amazon search. It was suggested to me that I should choose something a bit less generic, and I did struggle with alternatives. In the end I gave up, because the book is so very much about shadows that it would be absurd not to use it. There are Kate’s clearly weird shadows, which make her life a misery, but there’s also the private shadows cast on many of the characters by their own guilt at things they have or haven’t done. Later there are shadows of accusation and suspicion cast on everyone and there are shadowy secrets from the past that come to light. Lots of shadows, like the shadows physically cast by the old house, Llys y Garn.

Shadows are dark. They might make you think of death, night, threatening places. But there’s another side to them. They don’t exist in total darkness. They are cast by a source of light. The brighter the sunshine, the stronger the shadow. As innumerable people have said (I’ve given up trying to trace the original quote), “Turn to face the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” That is what Kate has to learn to do. So I have called the book Shadows and I’m sticking with it.

Monday, 5 June 2017

On the House

My fourth novel, Shadows, is about to be published, by Endeavour Press. Honestly, any moment now.

So meanwhile, about Shadows… I write about crimes that have repercussions down the years and families in crisis, as I always do, but this one has a slightly Gothic twist, and a setting that is slightly more Gothic, to match. I have returned to North Pembrokeshire, my home, having had a ramble out to the Home Counties in Motherlove and The Unravelling and once more I am centring my story on a house. Not a derelict cottage, as in A Time For Silence. No, no, this time I’m doing something entirely different. This time it’s a derelict mansion, Llys y Garn.

In fact, the story features several houses, because, in case you hadn’t noticed, I really do like houses and all the history wrapped up in them: the mystery under the wallpaper.

Llys y Garn, the house at the centre of the book – in fact you could call it the main character in the book –is mostly a Victorian house that has slowly decayed around its former owner, an elderly recluse. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, in the 1980s, the countryside was littered with such slowly decaying mansions, hidden from view, just off the road and lost in deep woods. They conjure up a lost world of squires and county society with hunt balls and croquet on the lawn. A world where peasants doffed their caps and respected their betters. That’s a world long gone, and the grand houses are now either totally derelict or have been put to new uses as nursing homes, hotels or art centres. One that was just up the road from me back then, empty after a serious fire, was Rhosygilwen, which has now been transformed into a thriving centre for cultural activities, weddings, concerts and the Penfro Literary Festival.
There were dozens of others around me – Coedmor, Cilwendeg, Ffynone, Cilgwyn, Glandovan, Llwyngwair…

They may appear to be Georgian or Victorian, but study the records and they all have roots going back to the Middle Ages. Here and there, among more modest houses in the area, you still find relics of older times. A farmhouse still has a massive Tudor door. Another has Jacobean panelling and plasterwork. A youth centre has a barn that was once a Tudor gatehouse.

My fictional Llys y Garn has a past too. Adjoining the Victorian house is a Mediaeval great hall, with panelling (oh, definitely panelling), and an undercroft that might, just might, once have been a dungeon.

There’s also a lodge cottage. Well, Llys y Garn is a mansion and all mansions have lodge cottages, where one of those cap-doffing peasants can usher the master safely back to his property, and slam the gates on the great unwashed outside. The lodge cottage I really had in mind is somewhere in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire. Mini-Palladian – I used to pass it on my way across country to Aberystwyth university. But round here in Pembrokeshire, there are plenty of them, usually quaintly pretentious, or just quaint.

And then there’s a roundhouse in the book. A reconstructed iron-age roundhouse, which I can envisage without any trouble, because there happen to be some reconstructed iron-age roundhouses just around the corner from me, at Castell Henllys. It is my firm belief that they move around at night, when no one is watching.

Oh, and there’s a yurt, because this is Pembrokeshire and it’s the sort of thing you might find in a wood round here.

I haven’t included a castle, of which Pembrokeshire has many, some still lived in, but as Llys y Garn stands on the slope of a valley adjoining the Preselis (totally fictional, but picture the Gwaun valley if you like), there are, naturally, ancient standing stones on the hills above.

Seriously, anything could happen here. And probably has.

Monday, 1 May 2017

It's a crime

I took part in an interesting crime-writers panel at the Llandeilo LitFest last Saturday, which inspired me to ponder on the strange appeal of crime in fiction. Why do people, who have no intention to commit crime and no desire to fall victim to it, choose to read about it in fictional settings?

Of course there’s crime and there’s crime. Fiction tends not to dwell on crimes like parking on a double yellow line or shop lifting or tax evasion, and the reason is not just that such crimes are boring. Many people would feel that the law might make such action criminal but, well, you know, if there were an absolute guarantee of getting away it, maybe they might, just might, park on that line,  Pay by cash to avoid something going through the books, or even walk off without paying for something that slipped through at the till.

The crimes that feature in fiction are different. Murder. Rape. Abduction. Child Abuse. They are more than crimes. They are taboos. Even if the Law had no opinion on them, most of us would shrink from committing them because we understand at the deepest level that they are wrong. How the taboo develops is open to debate. Some people might say they are forbidden by God and that is written in our DNA. We apply words like Sin and Evil. Others might say that they are instincts drilled into us so deeply from birth by parents, schools, church and society in general, that we don’t question them. Whatever the source of the taboos, we know that to overturn them is to overthrow all security. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you could commit a murder and not be punished, would you do it? I suspect that 99% would say NO!

And yet murders happen. People do break that taboo. Perhaps, if you found yourself pushed over the edge, you too could break it. Maybe our fascination in fiction is something to do releasing the dark waters that swirl in us, deep down below that taboo. It’s there in all of us. Murders are committed by sociopaths and psychopaths and the mentally disturbed – people who simply fail to share in that taboo – but the majority of murders are committed by very ordinary people who probably never dreamed they’d ever do such a thing. The majority of murders are not carefully planned but are a desperate result of a string of wrong decisions. Any of us could find ourselves in that position. So could everyone around us. It’s a scary thought.

That scariness is the appeal of crime fiction. We want to live secure and safe and happy, without worrying about what might lie around the corner, but we need to treat ourselves to a dose of scariness that won’t really put us at risk. Somewhere under our civilised veneers are primitive people whose survival programming needs to keep adrenalin on tap, ready to run like Hell when something growls in the undergrowth. Crime fiction is an adrenalin switch, that gives us a nice healthy jolt occasionally, without seriously disturbing our sleep. Because, best of all, it is fiction. It may be, should be, True in a literary sense, but it’s not actually real.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Interview with Juliet Greenwood

Here is another of my interviews with my favourite writers. Today, it's Juliet Greenwood, a fellow Honno author, whose books are set in Cornwall, London and Wales in Victorian and Edwardian times, following the lives of strong, independently-minded women struggling to find freedom and self-fulfilment. Her novels have reached #4 and #5 in the UK Amazon Kindle store, while ‘Eden’s Garden’ was a finalist for ‘The People’s Book Prize’. ‘We That are Left’ was completed with a Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary.

Juliet’s great grandmother worked as a nail maker in Lye Waste, near Birmingham in the Black Country, hammering nails while rocking the cradle with her foot. Juliet’s grandmother worked her way up to become a cook in a big country house. Their stories have left Juliet with a passion for history, and in particular for the experiences of women, so often overlooked or forgotten. Juliet lives in a traditional cottage in Snowdonia, in the UK, and loves gardening and walking.

Juliet's Books

Eden’s Garden
When Carys returns to her childhood home in Snowdonia, to look after her mother, she finds herself drawn back too into her family history, an old romance and the mysteries of Plas Eden, the decaying great house and its mysterious statues.
Her story runs parallel with that of Ann, a gifted artist at the end of the Victorian era, who discovers the hard way that a woman can have a rich husband, a beautiful house and a place in society, but she’s still just property, to be disposed of as her husband wishes… unless she fights to regain her own identity.

We That Are Left
Elin Helstone lives in a grand Cornish mansion, Hiram House, with little to do but be an elegant wife to Hugo, a damaged veteran of the Boer War. The outbreak of the Great War breaks up their cold comfortable world, as Hugo goes off to fight, but it also opens up the possibility, for Elin, her cousin Alice, and her friend Mouse (Lady Margaret Northolme), to discover what they, as women, can do. Elin ceases to be an ornament. She becomes the manager of an estate responsible for feeding the community. Alice takes work in a hospital and the indomitable Mouse ferries supplies to France. When disaster threatens, Elin rises to the challenge. And when the war ends, and more domestic dangers arise, she will find the strength to deal with them.

The White Camellia
Two women have an intense personal interest in the Tressillion estate in Cornwall. Bea has grown up there, daughter of a wealthy, powerful family whose bankruptcy has left her virtually homeless, seeking a career and self-determination in London. Sybil, who left the area years before, has become a wealthy hotelier in America, and wants to buy it.
While Bea, attempting to find employment as a journalist, becomes involved in the suffrage movement, centring on the White Camellia tearoom, Sybil begins to reopen an ill-fated mine at Tressillion. It’s the mine that killed Bea’s father and brothers, and its secrets will bring the two women together.

Here is my interview with Juliet

Q. Would you call your books, first and foremost, historical novels or romances or mysteries? Or do you think they defy definition?

I think I would call my books historical novels, with some romance, and a touch of mystery! Apart from my timeshift, ‘Eden’s Garden’, which is set in contemporary and Victorian times, my books tend to be set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. I write about independently-minded women finding their own path, which of course includes romance – a particularly angst-ridden subject in eras when women had few other options than marriage for financial survival, when they generally married barely out of their teens with very little experience of life, no contraception, and with no way out if it all turned out to be a terrible mistake. My books are also about families, their conflicts and relationships, and so there is always a family mystery in the background to be resolved. In ‘We That are Left’ it comes as Elin finally understands the reason for her husband’s behaviour, while in ‘The White Camellia’ it is a family feud, rumbling through the generations that threatens to destroy the characters.

Q. You write about women, in different ages, facing different problems, but they are all strong, feisty, independent characters, who refuse to surrender. Do you identify with any one of them more than the others? Which is your favourite?

Oh, my goodness, that is a hard one to answer! I think, like most writers, all of my heroines, although they are all very different from me, have a little bit of myself in them. As most writers know, it takes dogged stubbornness to be published. My Yorkshire dad used to call me ‘occud’ (as in awkward/stubborn) (it was not a compliment), so I suppose that theme runs through my heroines! Growing up in the sixties and seventies, when women were still generally expected to be decorous and domestic (I’m neither), I definitely identify with their struggles to break free from stultifying expectations, particularly the struggle to gain the confidence to realise you are competent and to grab life with both hands. I feel that, largely because of this past, it’s something women are still battling with today.

I love Anne, the Victorian heroine of Eden’s Garden, and Elin, the heroine of We That are Left for their journey from being the women society expects them to be to discovering their own strengths, and their own humanity. Elin, in particular, starts as a child-bride, but, through her experiences in the Great War, becomes one hell of a woman. At the moment though, my favourite has to be Sybil, the heroine of The White Camellia. She’s a woman in her thirties, who has experience, and oodles of baggage, behind her, and has make terrible mistakes that haunt her throughout the story. She’s the most complex and troubled of my heroines, and I love her for all her strengths and her foibles and her dogged determination to keep on battling and protect those she loves.

Q. All the books take place, at least in part, in Cornwall, though you live in North Wales. Why is that? What is its allure? Is Cornwall particularly important to you?

Cornwall and Snowdonia, both lands of rugged romance

I love Cornwall! I’ve spent many happy holidays there, more often than not with a tent on my back. It’s very different from London, where I lived for a while both a child and an adult, and the mountainous beauty of North Wales. Although from my office in the hills I can see Anglesey, whose coastline is very similar to Cornwall in many places. The combination of mountains and sea is my idea of heaven (with London only a few hours away for a quick blast of city streets, naturally!)

Q. Your novels have delved in depth into World War I, Victorian health care, Women’s suffrage tearooms, recipes, market gardening, mining… How much research do you do, before you embark on a book? How much does it influence what you write? Do you ever find it too painful to use?

I tend to be attracted to the lesser-known stories of women’s role in historical events. Once I get an idea, I tend to do some general research, and then research in more detail once I’ve written the first draft and know exactly the detailed information I need. I find reading the background the most fascinating, there’s so much of women’s history we just don’t know.

Before I began researching for ‘We That are Left’ I had no idea how daring and active women were in the Great War, nursing on the front line while bombs fell, talking their way out of capture by the German army, and even working behind the lines as spies and rescuing soldiers who had been wounded or separated from their regiments, sometimes taking them over the Alps to avoid the border guards.

It was the same with ‘The White Camellia’. I’d heard of the suffragettes, but I knew very little of the suffrage movement that battled for over fifty years to not only achieve votes for all women and men (most of whom were also unable to vote before the 1880s), but also had huge successes in gaining rights for women when it came to property, custody of children, and even the right to earn (and keep) an income, as well as establishing that women fell into prostitution through starvation, rather than to lure virtuous sailors to a minor lapse in behaviour. The suffrage ladies also fought against the trafficking of young girls for the sex trade, and began the fight for equal pay. There are so many amazing women I’d never heard of, and to whom we owe so much for the rights and freedoms we take for granted today. And yes, there is some research I find too painful to use. In ‘The White Camellia’ one of the characters tries to photograph a suffragette march and is thrown into prison. I read some pretty graphic accounts of the violence and abuse women were subjected to, both on marches and in prison, which I chose not to use.

I’m currently researching Victorian trafficking of young girls, some of which is definitely far too upsetting to use. I’m telling a story, not a history lesson, and I feel that sometimes it is easier to simply describe horrors, rather than to take your characters through their survival and out to the other side. I always give a reading list for anyone who wishes to know more – but I strongly feel that women are still underestimated as life’s incredible survivors, and that is the bit that really interests me, rather than rubbing my readers noses in horrors (I find life quite scary enough as it is).

Q. All your books focus on a big house, often decaying, and its grounds, islands complete in themselves, slightly adrift in the heart of the real world. Is that down to a personal fascination with such places or is it a metaphor for the personal dramas that are happening there? They are all extremely atmospheric. Which of them would you choose to live in, if you could?

I love old houses. I spent much of my childhood in a cottage in the wilds of Wales with no amenities (yes, it really was candles, oil lamps, a coal fire and a loo at the bottom of the garden), which was filled with the history of families surviving in the harshness of a remote and mountainous location. It both gave a heightened focus on the family unit, but also highlighted the changes in the wider world. I still love electricity, hot water, and no longer having to run the gauntlet of (imaginary) wolves and bears in a howling gale! I love big old houses, both to visit and as a setting, because they offer similar stories on a wider scale – and they have gardens, for which I have a passion (it shows). I particularly love the crumbling variety of old house, so I think that if I were to choose one of the houses in my books, it would have to be Plas Eden, the fading mansion with the statues waiting in its grounds for their mystery to be resolved. The possibility for stories is just endless …

Juliet at Bodnant Gardens

Brondanw and Gwydir Castle

 Perhaps North Wales and Snowdonia have a lot in common; the gardens of Trebah in Cornwall and Portmeirion in Snowdonia

Q. What are you working on next?

A woman doctor in Victorian times, battling to be accepted in a world where female doctors are almost unheard of, and with her own inner demons to overcome …  And more than that, my lips are sealed.

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