Today Francesca is popping in to answer a few questions
Tell us about your setting and why you chose it?
The setting came out of the initial idea. Since that was to do with a miner being discharged from the army, it seemed likely he’d come home to a mining area. And since it was based on my own great grandfather Hugh’s experience, and he was from the Rhymney Valley, that seemed like the perfect choice. However, I didn’t even consider Hugh’s actual place of residence at the time as the basis of my imaginary village. He was living in New Tredegar. I immediately knew I wanted to set it in a village based on one up the road, Abertysswg. This is where my other great grandparents were living, along with my great great grandfather. I’d visited it a couple of times, once with my mother, who was born there, and later with one of my children, so had a better idea of its layout. It was built around 1900 as a ‘model village’, according to newspaper reports, for the workers of the McLaren pit. The houses were placed on the hillside overlooking the colliery in the dip of the valley.
As I researched the village, largely via the Welsh local newspapers which can be accessed online, I discovered there was quite a community here. The funds for both the hospital and the Workmen’s Institute were raised by the villagers themselves, through subs. Health care continued to be paid for by subs, a kind of early national health system. The Workmen’s Institute, far from being just for the men, laid on all sort of talks and social activities. It also contained a library. Studying the village was like researching my own past, knowing that my grandparents and some of their family members would have partaken of these activities.
Abertysswg with red outline showing roughly where the colliery was.
I took the decision to rename the village Dorcalon (which literally means ‘heartbreak’) because I wanted to be flexible with some details and dates. For instance, there was a mining disaster in Abertysswg in 1902, but I needed one in 1915. Where real places are concerned, I do try to be as accurate as I can. My village does sit in the same spot on the map though, with Rhymney up the road and New Tredegar down the road. The other useful aspect of picking somewhere real as a basis is that it’s easier to be consistent with places like chapels or shops.
The pit itself was closed in 1969 and is long gone. I’ve never seen it in reality, but have seen plenty of photographs which give me an idea of what it must have been like to live with such a brooding presence. It’s a character in itself.
Where do your ideas come from?
As with Heartbreak in the Valleys, quite a few of my ideas have been sparked by my family, including a serial I wrote for The People’s Friend and several short stories. A few have come from my own childhood, living on the Sussex coast. Often something will occur that makes me think, there’s a story there. Stories in the media and overheard snatches of conversation are good too.
Do you have a favourite writing place?
Whitstable – where I’ve often sat to write
If I could, I’d sit by the beach for ever, writing, but since I don’t have a seaside shack at my disposal, I tend to sit in the dining room at home so I’m overlooking the garden. I go on week-long writing retreats with writing friends every now and again, and invariably a seaside location is picked by us all. On occasion the house will overlook the sea, which is marvellous. I’m the one most likely to take my notebook down to the beach or to a café overlooking it, to write. There is something soothing about the water and the lapping of the waves.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished the second Valleys book, which is now with the publisher. I’m not sure yet whether they’ll want a third in the series, so I’ve gone back to another saga I was writing, again set in the First World War. This time it’s set by the seaside (surprise surprise!).
How do you select the names of your characters?
For Heartbreak in the Valleys I looked at the 1911 census, a list of top names in different decades and an online list of Welsh names. I think there are possibly more Welsh names in my novel than there would have been in that area at the time, judging by the census, but I’m unrepentant! The local newspapers were also handy for this.
ABOUT HEARTBREAK IN THE VALLEYS
The world was crumbling, but her love stayed strong
November 1915. For young housemaid, Anwen Rhys, life is hard in the Welsh mining village of Dorcalon, deep in the Rhymney Valley. She cares for her ill mother and beloved younger sister Sara, all while shielding them from her father’s drunken, violent temper. Anwen comforts herself with her love for childhood sweetheart, Idris Hughes, away fighting in the Great War.
Yet when Idris returns, he is a changed man; no longer the innocent boy she loved, he is harder, more distant, quickly breaking off their engagement. And when tragedy once again strikes her family, Anwen’s heart is completely broken.
But when an explosion at the pit brings unimaginable heartache to Dorcalon, Anwen and Idris put their feelings aside to unite their mining community.
In the midst of despair, can Anwen find hope again? And will she ever find the happiness she deserves?
“Heartbreak in the Valley is a fabulous debut. Rich with well drawn characters, twists and turns, sense of history and place… it was hard to put down. I loved it!” Author Rosie Hendry