I am not a number…

Elaine Roberts is talking about a special day spent in North Wales and the thoughts it evokes. How realistic should our writing be? Can it be too realistic? 

I have recently come back from visiting my husband’s aunt in North Wales, just one of many scenic areas of Britain. While we were there, we visited Portmeirion, where the pottery originated from and where the sixties programme, The Prisoner, was filmed. What a fascinating and beautiful place it is.

An aerial photo of Portmeirion

Clough Williams-Ellis purchased the land for just less than five thousand pound in 1925 and it took him fifty years to build Portmeirion. He was a strong campaigner for the environment; at a time when it wasn’t the recognised issue it is today. He was building at a time when owners of mansion houses were struggling, so he used many reclaimed pieces.

The large oval windows are painted on because this is the rear of the property.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about this; well Clough used illusion in his architecture and created a beautiful, tranquil place, which inspired the design of the said pottery.

Patrick McGoohan, the co-creator, producer and star of the Prisoner, who also wrote and directed several of the episodes, was dealing with things that

The Prisoner was Patrick McGoohan’s brainchild, it was a 17 episode television series.

seemed too far- fetched to be realistic at the time. He covered generally unknown subjects such as covert surveillance, cordless phones, credit cards and state control. It warned of the dehumanisation of society.

My question, is society influenced by art? Did Star Trek give us the first design of the flip top phone? There are many films and books that are seen as influential, in the way we live our lives. In our small way, we are hoping to offer escapism in our writing, but are we hoping to influence people as well? As historical writers, are we hoping to bring back good childhood memories?

The garden chess board is a replica of the one used in an episode called Checkmate.

I have read many articles that have put down the writers of romantic fiction, and yet to weave a story into true historical events can be difficult, almost like a game of chess. A modern romance needs to be believable, but not too realistic, the reader doesn’t want to know the mundane detail of our heroes and heroines’ lives.

When I was at the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) conference this year, one of the contemporary romance manuscripts I offered to a publisher was described as too real for her, which I totally understand, but what I find strange is it’s one of my favourites. I wonder if it’s because, despite everything, it all ended well. It’s a lesson for me to learn and reminded me of a job interview I went for, that wasn’t a success either. The panel of interviewers told me they didn’t want to know how things worked, as they already knew what was wrong; they wanted “an ideal world” scenario. So are we all just trying to escape the dehumanisation of our society? Perhaps we should all be influencing it, while escaping.

@RobertsElaine11

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The End of an Era: Fishguard/Caerleon Summer Writers’ Holiday

Francesca waves a fond farewell to the summer Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard and takes a trip down memory lane

During my stay at the Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard this July, I was very sad to learn that it would be the last such summer event. I’ve attended the summer Writers’ Holiday every year since 2008, when it was still being held in Caerleon. It switched venues in 2014. Here, in no particular order, (apart from vaguely chronological) are some photo memories, some of the venue, some of the area, some of trips during the ‘holiday’ (we all used to work jolly hard, honestly!). Some people seem to be missing from my photos, and some years I can’t locate at all, for which I apologise.  I’m not putting names to anybody, but if you spot yourself in a photo, or you have your own memories of the Writers’ Holiday, feel free to leave a comment. 

Huge thanks, as always, to Anne and Gerry Hobbs for all the hard work and devotion they put into the event over the thirty plus years – for all the courses, after-teas, talks, trips out, pick-ups, choir evenings and everything else they and their family organised. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, hwyl fawr. Though of course, it’s not entirely the end…

 

 

…No, it’s not the end of Writers’ Holiday altogether, as the February weekend event will still be running. It will now also  feature the wonderful Cwmbach Male Choir, who’ve entertained us all these years at the summer event. More details here.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

A Little First Hand Research

Francesca embarks on a little seaside research on her way to Fishguard Writers’ Holiday.

[First posted in August 2015]

IMG_6831 sm

Llangrannog, or ‘Môrglas’: the view from the house of my main character, Tori.

Last week I had a wonderful time at the Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard, my second time at that location but my eighth Writers’ Holiday in all. Coincidentally, it was only a few miles from the village I’m using as a basis for the setting of my latest ‘Work in Progress’. Having only looked at it on Google Maps before, it was the ideal opportunity to investigate the real thing. Armed with my camera and my Welsh language/West Wales consultant (otherwise knows as my friend Angela Johnson!), I had a good walk around the place, snapping numerous photographs.

It was very strange being in a place I’d ‘walked’ around many times on a satellite map, as it really felt like I’d been there before. My ‘WIP’ is about a young woman called Tori, who decides to leave the high life of London and settle down in the sleepy village of Môrglas, a name I made up and which means ‘green sea’ in Welsh. When I was looking for a place on the West Wales coast in which to set my novel, Angela wrote a few ideas down for me. Although I didn’t pick one of them ultimately, they led me to Llangrannog, which is what I based Môrglas on.

‘The Green Dragon’ (Pentre Arms), with Tori’s house just showing behind. Her friend, Ruby, has the large house at the top. Angela can be spied leaning against the railings.

I’ve made a few changes to the area – put a hotel where there’s a café, made another café into an Italian restaurant, put a village hall where there are some houses, moved the church from one side of the village to the other and removed a road, for example. I find that picking a place that already exists and changing a few details for the convenience of my story is so much quicker than inventing something from scratch. In a couple of novels I’ve written, I’ve used places I know very well – Worthing and Littlehampton, where I was born and then brought up –  but again have rearranged them and renamed them.

You might have realised by now that these locations have something in common: they’re all by the sea. As I’ve said before on this blog, I no longer live by the coast and do miss it, so I guess setting stories there makes up for it a little. Out of the four novels and two novellas I’ve completed, along with the ‘WIP’, all but one is set by the sea, and the exception is set near a river (which Littlehampton also possesses).

I have writer friends who use real settings with their proper names, either in the present or in the past (which presents its own problems). Other writers I know make up completely new settings or, in the case of sci-fi, new worlds. If you’re a writer reading this, I’d love to hear how you deal with settings, so feel free to comment below.

@FCapaldiBurgess

Link to Writers’ Holiday

Natalie Kleinman Escapes To The Cotswolds

We would like to extend a warm welcome to Natalie and her new novel Escape To The Cotswolds

Thank you for welcoming me to your blog. It’s lovely to be back here.

Photo courtesy of MJE Photography

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

It’s difficult to quantify. It may be that an idea rolls around in my head for some time while I’m still working on another project. It’s in the background but it is there, occasionally making its presence felt but most of the time just simmering away. A plot never arrives fully formed but I always know the beginning and end. It’s how to get from one to the other that’s the problem! That said, once I put fingers to keyboard the actual writing process takes anything from four to six months, which includes editing as I go. I’m very lucky to have beta readers who are ruthless with me and when the manuscript is finished it will be read and reread until we are all satisfied it’s as good as it can be before submission. All in all I would say the whole process takes between six and eight months, depending on how long it takes to complete the first draft.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Finding a plot I’m happy to work with. I know many writers who have a list of works just waiting to be written. I’m just not one of them. As I’ve said above, an idea may occur to me while I’m entrenched in my current project but usually I’m so engrossed there isn’t room in my small brain for any more. If anything does occur to me I’ll jot it down. Having said that, once subbing begins and my mind is clear something usually jumps into my head and that’s always very exciting.

The main characters in your Escape to the Cotswolds are called Holly Hunter and Adam Whitney. How do you select the names of your characters?

A good question for which I don’t have a satisfactory answer. They come seemingly out of nowhere and are frequently changed when the character lets me know very firmly that their name does not fit their personality and they demand it be changed. In Escape to the Cotswolds Holly was Holly from the word go. Adam went through two incarnations before he was happy with his name.

Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured and how many hours a day do you write?

I don’t have a rigid regime although I try to write in the morning, not to get it out of the way but because I become riddled with guilt if I haven’t got something under my belt by lunchtime. If life (yes, contrary to some people’s opinion I do have one) doesn’t get in the way I might be at my laptop from morning to night. It’s not all writing time of course. Social media has to be fitted in and my daily several online Scrabble games with my sister are a must.

Your novel is set, obviously, in the beautiful Cotswolds. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning?

It depends on whether I’m writing contemporary or historical – I write both. There’s a lot of online research if I’m writing a Regency and it’s very easy to get carried away so I restrict myself timewise or I’d never get the book finished. With a contemporary though it’s a different process. I’m lucky enough to live within striking distance of the Cotswolds and have visited the area many times. My second novel, Honey Bun, was also set in this lovely part of England. Google Earth is an amazing tool but there’s nothing quite like being there, so there I go…often. Or as often as possible. While I didn’t ‘lift’ it in its entirety, Cuffingham, where Holly lives, is based on a much loved much visited Cotswolds town.

How did publishing your first book, Safe Harbour, change your process of writing?

It didn’t so much change the process as my attitude to the process. It changed my focus. I’ve been committed to my writing since I began some fourteen years ago. I worked very hard and was lucky enough to have several short stories published before I decided I wanted to write a book. Prior to Safe Harbour being published the notion of having a book with my name on the cover was still a dream. When that was realised it wasn’t the end of the dream, it was merely the beginning. I couldn’t stop now if I wanted to. It’s become part of who I am – a very large part.

Does writing energise or exhaust you?

Both. I think you will probably have grasped from my previous answer that I am pretty motivated and I now wake two hours earlier than I used to (I was never an early riser) because I can’t wait to get at it. That said, it’s often a very tired author who falls into bed at the end of the day.

Give us an insight into your main character, Holly. What does she do that is so special?

Holly deserves better than the cheating husband she got. After accepting her marriage wasn’t the forever relationship she’d always hoped for, she picks herself up, moves from town to country and starts over. It takes guts to do that. So I guess I’d say Holly is a big personality in a diminutive body.

What are you working on at the minute?

I’ve just started work on a book which is again set in the Cotswolds – there’s a bit of a theme going on here – but this time my heroine is an interior designer working on the renovation of an old country house. Like many old houses, this one is hiding a secret.

What a lovely set of questions. Thank you.

Biography: Natalie, a born and bred Londoner, has a not-so-secret wish to live in the area she so enjoys writing about. While this isn’t practical at the moment she stills allows herself to dream of honey-coloured stone cottages, quaint villages and rippling brooks. Maybe one day.

A late-comer to writing, she has two published novels prior to Escape to the Cotswolds and many short stories to her name. She attributes her success to a determination to improving her craft, attending any and every writing event she can. All that and a weekly attendance at The Write Place Creative School in Dartford where cream cakes are frequently on the agenda.

Natalie lives with her husband, Louis, in Blackheath, south-east London – except when she’s tripping off to The Cotswolds in the name of research. Somebody has to do it!

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Escape to the Cotswolds

Artist Holly Hunter is turning her life upside-down! She’s leaving the bright lights of London (and a cheating husband) behind her and hoping for a fresh start as she escapes to the peaceful Cotswolds countryside.

Men are off the cards for Holly. Instead, she’s focusing on her little gallery and adopting an adorable Border Collie puppy named Tubs. Or so she thought…

Because no matter how hard she tries to resist him, local vet Adam Whitney is utterly gorgeous. And in a village as small as this one, Holly can only avoid Adam for so long!

@RobertsElaine11

@FCapaldiBurgess

Welcome to Vivien Brown With Her New Novel, Lily Alone

We welcome back Vivien Brown to talk about her psychological drama, Lily Alone.

Hello Viv, and welcome back to the blog. We’ve known you for years as a short story writer and then a romance novelist. Why the change to psychological drama?                        

I did self-publish a novel called Losing Lucy under the name of Vivien Hampshire some years back, which looked at the trauma and emotional impact on three women when a baby gets kidnapped, so harrowing tales involving young children have been lurking under the surface for a while! Lily Alone does have a couple of romance threads running through it but it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s me getting older, or having children and a grandchild of my own, but I felt it was time to explore the deeper aspects of family relationships and take on more serious issues. Lily Alone has also allowed me to explore a different and more complex structure for a novel, as alternate chapters are told through the eyes and memories of a confused woman in a coma.

Lily Alone covers some traumatic material. Was it difficult to write?

Surprisingly not! I have a grandchild coming up to Lily’s age, and it would be horrible to imagine her having to cope at home by herself, but the novel was always fiction to me. None of it ‘got to me’ or upset me, even though parts of the story brought tears to my editor’s eyes and might just unnerve a few readers. It’s that ‘This could so easily happen to me’ aspect, I think.

What kind of research did Lily Alone entail?

I had to do a lot more research than I would for a romance novel, looking at what a very young child can and might do if left alone for a lengthy period of time, what happens to a head trauma/coma patient in hospital, and how the Social Services system works when a child is found abandoned, but luckily I have friends and family with all the right expertise to guide me.

Viv’s romance novel

Tell us about your writing day. Are you a night owl, a morning lark, or neither?

For years, I had to fit writing around a day job and my family, so I would always head upstairs to write at around 9pm, after the children were asleep, and dinner/chores/my fix of TV soap operas were out of the way. Since giving up my job at the end of 2013, in theory I have all the time in the world, but often still find my natural writing instincts kick in during the evening, although it is really handy to have time in the day to get all the non-creative aspects of the writing life, like emails, social media and admin, sorted. When I am heavily into writing or editing a novel, I will write at any time, putting everything else aside, for hours at a time and often without a break, but that is at peak times, and it’s tiring. It is not the norm.

What do you find is the hardest aspect of being a writer? Or is it all good?

I am not very disciplined. When there is a deadline or I am caught up in a story, I will want to write above all else, but on other days I do sometimes have to force myself. Being at home full-time now does tend to throw distractions in my way, whether it’s a sunny garden, food, something on daytime TV or having my granddaughter over for the day. Mostly, I love being a writer – creating something complete and that I feel proud of from just an initial idea, meeting other writers, seeing my stories and articles in print, and receiving the occasional royalty cheque! I can’t wait to see Lily Alone in paperback later in the year, as my previous novels have only been published as ebooks, and I want a ‘real’ novel to hold.

Viv with her cryptic crossword book

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have always loved cryptic crosswords. I rarely get through a day without tackling at least one, usually in a newspaper so I can try for a prize. I have had a book published helping others learn how to crack them, and I also compile personalised and themed crosswords on a commission basis which people can then give to their loved ones as unique gifts for birthdays, Christmas, etc. I read an awful lot (mainly women’s fiction), go to see boy bands in concert, follow horseracing, and have two adorable cats.

You’ve been in the writing game many years now. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Yes, I have been writing women’s magazine fiction as Vivien Hampshire for twenty years, and professional articles for childcare and nursery magazines for around ten. It took me a long while to move into novels with any success, so I would have to just tell her ‘Don’t give up!’ Keep writing as much and as often as you can, experiment with all types of writing ( I have also had success writing poetry for children, wrote a monthly column for Writers Forum magazine for two years, and I’ve won a few competitions), join writing groups and meet others in the same boat, listen and learn. Perseverance is the one thing writers need above all else. You cannot just rely on luck.

What’s next for Vivien Brown?

Lily Alone is the first in a two-book contract with Harper Impulse, so I will now be talking to my editor about book two, which is more or less written but not yet accepted and a long way from being edited. Although limited time means that I have given up writing my nursery articles for now, I will still be writing short stories for the magazines whenever I can fit them in. It is what I am good at, and I still very much enjoy telling a story in just one or two thousand words, and the satisfying feeling of getting a sale and payment so soon after it is written! Novels, unfortunately, don’t work that way. I have recently been commissioned by two women’s magazines to write stories for their October issues to tie in with the paperback version of Lily Alone coming out, and those will run alongside short interviews, book reviews and giveaways, so my long association with magazine fiction is now paying off when it comes to promoting the novel. I have also tentatively started another romance novel, but I have a feeling it may stray into darker territory as I get further into the story. And, yes, there is a baby involved – again!

Vivien’s Twitter page

 

What sort of mother would leave her daughter alone?

Would you leave a very young child at home on their own – knowing that terrible things can happen in the blink of an eye? Lily, who is not yet three years old, wakes up alone with only her cuddly toy for company. She is hungry, afraid of the dark, can’t use the phone, and has been told never to open the door to strangers…

In the flat downstairs, a lonely and elderly woman keeps herself to herself but wonders at the cries coming from upstairs. Lily’s grandmother frets that she can no longer see her granddaughter since the child’s parents separated. Lily’s father hasn’t seen her for a while. He’s been abroad, absorbed in his new job and his new girlfriend…

A young woman lies in a coma in hospital – no one knows her name or who she is, but in her silent dreams, a little girl is crying for her mummy…

And for Lily, time is running out.

Published by Harper Impulse and available from Amazon

 

To Dream The Impossible Dream…

Elaine Roberts talks about her time on the music trail in America.

I have never been on a coach-touring holiday before, so this was very much a first for me. Twelve days spent with the same thirty or so people, who were very friendly, but for someone who spends her days sitting at her laptop typing away, this was thrusting me into people’s company, whether I wanted it or not. Despite being ill for the whole of my holiday, at times only being kept upright by medication, I was armed with a notepad and pen so I could write any ideas or things people said, for either my current or future novels. Taking lots of photographs and memorising body language also helped. The culture your characters grew up in forms their views on life. As a writer you never stop working or learning.

Chicago Skyline

The holiday started in Chicago, with a skyline not dissimilar to New York. I had my first experience of going to a blues club, Buddy Guy’s Legends. Apparently, the man himself usually only performs there in January, but I had the honour of hearing him sing there in May.

Buddy Guy at The Legends Blues Club, Chicago

He maybe in his eighties, but what a great voice and personality he has. I’ll be honest, I did have to Google him. He is a big name on the blues and jazz scene, having won six Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. The Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 23rd in its list of one hundred greatest guitarists of all time. Eric Clapton has been quoted as saying “Buddy Guy is to me as Elvis is to others”. Having listened to Buddy Guy, I can see why he has achieved so much, despite leaving school at fourteen with nothing. He is an inspiration to challenge yourself and work towards your goals, even if the odds are stacked against you.

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Statue

After Chicago, we moved onto Springfield, and no we weren’t there to see anything to do with the Simpsons cartoon series. We were there to see the burial site, home and museum of Abraham Lincoln. I found this day to be quite emotional as information about the American President unfolded. He started from nothing and taught himself to read and believed in himself. If ever there was an inspiration to reach for the stars, to achieve your dream, here he is. As a writer, there is always a lot of doubt and even the most famous authors have suffered from many rejections. The people rejected Abraham Lincoln when he tried to be elected as a politician and yet he became president. Why? He believed in himself, his wife believed in him, he picked himself up and kept going and he gained a place in American history. As a writer, my aspirations are not nearly so grand, but the belief has to be the same.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Our next stop was St. Louis. We visited the Gateway Arch there and watched a film on how it was built. As a writer of historical novels, it was good, if not scary, to be reminded there was not much health and safety around in 1963 when it was built. It is the world’s tallest arch at 630 feet high and 630 feet wide and to see the builders gripping tightly on to steel ropes, with the wind attempting to blow them off and no sign of any hard hats, safety harnesses or special boots, took my breath away. The film told how they expected to lose thirteen lives in the building of it, but miraculously none were lost.

 

Elvis’ Sitting Room at Gracelands

Memphis was the next stop. This obviously involved a tour of Graceland, Elvis’s home and a couple of evening visits to Beale Street, where music-wise it all happens. The police had set up a cordon to enter the street; they checked ID’s and tagged us. They didn’t check my ID, but I don’t know if that was because I was British, or clearly over twenty-one, which is their legal drinking age. The street was full of restaurants and bars, each having live singers/bands. There was a party atmosphere along the whole of the street. Having been there, I can understand how Elvis was influenced by the music of his hometown. Of course, no visit to Memphis would be complete without a tour of Sun Studios, where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all started, to name just a few. What a fabulous tour it was. Our guide was humorous and gave the group so much information. It was also good to know that modern groups still record there; Maroon 5 and U2 have recorded there in recent times.

Paddle Steamer

The trip ended in New Orleans, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina twelve years ago. So many sad stories came from the tour of that city, but also stories of how people have picked themselves up. It has to be said that it’s not the case everywhere, but they are getting there. The French Quarter occupied the daytime and the two evenings there were spent in Bourbon Street, popular for its live music, which could be heard from every club and bar on the road. We had lunch on a paddle steamer and a jazz band played as we cruised up the Mississippi river.

However you spend your time, or wherever you go on trips, there is always inspiration and ideas to be taken away. My trip was based mainly on music and historical events, information and ideas I’m sure will be used in the future. Music obviously played a big part in our tour and it was a reminder that, whatever you are writing, you should add it into your work where possible.

If you don’t wish to be a writer, work out what you do want and start putting your building blocks in place to achieve it. There are an awful lot of people out there that started with nothing, but have achieved greatness in their chosen field.

@RobertsElaine11

Back in Time For a Cup of Coffee at The Criterion

Francesca talks about the inspiration behind her 3-part serial, The Criterion, which begins in The People’s Friend this coming week. 

The Criterion in the 1970s, having gone through a name change

I know I’ve mentioned before on this blog how some of my writing has been inspired by my family history. The very first novel I wrote, a Young Adult called Sea Angel, came about because of my own experience working in the family cafe as a teenager. My short story Far From Home,  published in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome began as my attempt to imagine what it might be like to move to England from Italy as a young widow with a twelve-year-old son, as my grandmother did. The idea for the historical novel I’m currently working on came from a World War One document I found on Ancestry.co.uk detailing the discharge of a Welsh great-grandfather on medical grounds.

The Criterion today, now a hair salon

The first of those is a contemporary, while the latter two both take place in 1915. My serial for The People’s Friend, The Criterion shifts to a different time entirely: 1955. It’s the era of the Ten Pound Poms, and the story begins with my main female character, Gwen Hughes, talking to her disgruntled grandmother about her impending departure to Australia. Renzo Crolla, the male protagonist, owns a cafe in Worthing, The Criterion of the title.

Some of the characters in the serial are based on real people, some are an amalgam, while others are completely fictitious. The story is based only very loosely on that of my family (I might tell you the real story one day). The Criterion in Worthing, however, was a real cafe, owned by my grandmother and father, a kind of character in itself. My grandmother, a war widow, emigrated to England in 1927 with my father. Much of her family were already over here. In 1930 she bought

My mum behind the counter c1958

The Criterion from her brother. I was born in the cafe twenty-eight years later and lived there until I was nearly four-years-old. My father rented the cafe out for a further seven years. Finally he sold it in 1968. It went on being a cafe for a number of years afterwards, known as the Californian, but today it’s a hairdressing salon.

The building itself is Georgian, so what it was originally I have no idea, presumably not a cafe. Perhaps my next project will be to find out something of its history. If I gather enough material I might be able to use it for another story!

Evening trade, c1958

 

The Criterion, a 3-part serial, starts in The People’s Friend in the issue dated 27th May.

7 Food Stories from Rome is available here.

In the story, Renzo was interned on the Isle of Man during World War 2, as was my father. The piece I wrote for The Guardian about it can be viewed here

 

Me outside the cafe, 1959, with Worthing promenade in the background

Mum and Dad in 1955

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@FCapaldiBurgess