Thursday, 29 May 2014

Hinterland: Location as Character by Juliet Greenwood

Aberystwyth Pier
Watching Hinterland, the new ‘noir’ crime series following in the footsteps of The Bridge, it struck me once again how essential the sense of place is to a story. It’s something I’ve always known, of course. I’ve searched nooks and crannies for the remains of Dickensian London. I’ve sighed over Jane Austen’s Bath and Lyme Regis. I once even had breakfast amongst the swirling mist at Top Withens, near Haworth, and understood exactly where Emily Bronte was coming from in Wuthering Heights.

Like its Scandinavian cousins, Hinterland’s atmosphere, as well as the drama, is rooted in its landscape. Hinterland is filmed around Aberystwyth, on the West Wales coast. It’s a landscape that has so many resonances for me. It’s where my publisher, the wonderful Honno Press, is based, and it’s also the landscape of my childhood – a little further north, but still the same vast beaches, the wide expanses of moorland that are at once bleak and stunningly beautiful, ever changing with the light. It’s strange seeing such a familiar landscape through the lens of a camera, both familiar and transformed.

I’m used to seeing where I live now, in the heart of Snowdonia, on film. But those are romantic fantasies, like First Knight, which even managed to transform a nuclear power station into Camelot. Hinterland is a contemporary, sophisticated take on stories within the landscape. It’s one of tiny, close knit communities, that both pull together and where old hatreds run deep. It’s the shifting mix of people, moving between the urban and the rural, like the natural flow of language between English and Welsh. And its stories link the old and the new, from ancient myths to very modern tales of abuse, obsession, jealousy and murder.

Mist in the Valleys
Even the rain and the late autumn colours give the brooding atmosphere of the ‘hinterland’ that lies beyond the surface of the people and communities where the crimes are committed, and the past, as yet only hinted at, of the main characters.

Seeing a familiar landscape transformed into a power character in a drama has made me think again about the way settings are so vital to a story. And I’m glad that Hinterland has proved such a success, and has now been sold to Germany, America and Canada. The DVDs are out, and a second series has been commissioned. I can’t wait!

Like most writers, I’ve been told over and over again that ‘Wales doesn’t sell’. The village where I live is one you would pass through without a second glance on the way to the mountains. Its high street is shabby and rundown, with nothing to attract the visitors. But step away from that first impression and here, too, is a hinterland of a strong community that is both very traditional, and also accepting of those who have chosen to make their lives here from all over the world. There are seething feuds and resentments. Outrageous characters. Life in an intensively-lived microcosm of humanity, within a landscape that is both wild, and scared by industry that, in the Stone and Bronze ages, once made this coastline an industrial powerhouse and vital centre of trade, whose artefacts are found all over Europe.

I’m taking notes …

Sunday, 25 May 2014

My WW1 Garden by Juliet Greenwood

This year, I’ve loved seeing the gardens commemorating WW1 at the Chelsea Flower show.
Having read newspaper reports from the time, and lived so long in a WW1 kitchen garden in my head, it was touching to see them in all their Chelsea glory. I loved the whistles that became fountains, and the stories of the men interned in Germany creating flower gardens, with even their own strictly-judged show.

My favourite of all was the potter’s garden.

With its cottage garden flowers and path of discarded pots, it caught a real sense of the potter having left everything to volunteer, as so many men did in the first year of the war, unable to imagine the unprecedented horrors they would soon be facing, and many never to return. It had the same atmosphere as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, that first sparked my fascination with the gardens of WW1, abandoned at the moment the intricate hierarchy of gardeners left for the front, and generations of expertise were lost forever.

But, as I learnt in my research, that was not the whole story. Many gardens were abandoned, but many new were created. Before WW1, the Edwardians had lived in a brave new world of luxurious imports and the novelty of canned foods. As imports were threatened by the dangers of new-fangled submarines, necessity sent the population at home growing once more. Land girls took over the roles of agricultural workers, and schoolchildren grew vegetables wherever they could. Like today (and in the 1970s of the BBC’s ‘The Good Life’), the expense of fresh food led to a huge upsurge in allotments and self-sufficiency.  Tips appeared in the newspapers for the best ways to preserve tomatoes and beetroot for the winter ahead, and arguments ranged over the best way to grow, and where allotments should be placed.

So much was learnt in WW1 that was taken on to the organisation that swung into place in WW2, and beyond. Some of my earliest memories are of the gardens of aunts and uncles, who had no doubt absorbed memories of the First World War from their parents, and then lived themselves through the Second World War. Their gardens were full of flowers, but there was always a vegetable garden at the back, filled with peas and beans and raspberry canes. They still preserved what they could, even though this was the 1960s and another brave new world of seemingly endless plenty.

I also remember those WW1 allotments in my own garden, which originally was a long strip, like many of the quarrymen’s gardens in this part of Wales. Amongst the thin, rocky soil, I’ve a patch that is rich from generations of vegetables being grown to supplement subsistence wages. Unlike those previous generations, I’ve the luxury of a polytunnel for extra protection against the wind, and additional warmth halfway up a mountain. There’s a very strange thing about my polytunnel. It’s the only place I can grow red poppies. I’ve tried so many times in the garden, but only the yellow Welsh ones appear. Then last year, when I was trying to find poppies to photograph for the update of my website, there they were: a little patch in amongst the rocket. It gave me tingling feeling. I’m keeping my fingers crossed they reappear this year.

So this is my WW1 garden. Not a potter’s garden, but a quarryman’s garden. With it lie the memories of those who were lost, and those at home who kept the nation and the soldiers fed, and who, like the act of faith that is the essence of all gardening, found the strength to carry on amidst so much loss, and build the world anew.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

My Writing Process by Anne Bennett

Thank you to Valerie-Anne Baglietto for tagging me to take part in this blog tour. Valerie-Anne writes contemporary fairy tales set in the Welsh hills. Once Upon a Winter was an Amazon bestseller, reaching #1 in both contemporary fantasy and fairy tales. You can read about Valerie-Anne's writing process here.

So here goes:

What Am I Working On?

I am writing a book at the moment, which will be my nineteenth, and as it is the initial stages, it has no official title as such though, on reading the synopsis, my editor suggested Another Man’s Child. I like it, but I don’t really stress much about titles. I am not much good at thinking them up anyway and it is really down to the marketing team at Harper Collins to have the final say anyway. That doesn’t usually bother me either because I always think that they probably know what sells better than I do. Very occasionally I will insist on a title I have chosen, as I did with Danny Boy because it was the only title for it. It sold very well and I’m sure the title had something to do with it.
My last book was called If You Were The Only Girl. Again it was suggested by my agent, backed up by my editor, and I didn’t like it one bit. I belong to a really supportive writing group, the Novelistas, and at our monthly meeting I ran the title past them and not only did they love it, we all sang it with gusto, much to the surprise of the hotel staff. I too grew to love that title and was very glad that I was overruled in that instance.

So titles are very important and so are jacket covers, as one or the other will cause a potential reader to pick your book from the shelves and read the blurb and perhaps go on to buy the book. But the title and cover, however attractive, do not make a book. A good story is the main thing, with strong, believable characters that the reader will care about to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them. And if I can describe what is in my mind’s eye so well that the reader gets a similar picture in their head, I feel that is true communication between us.

I have a new book out on 22nd May called A Girl Can Dream. Meg Hallett’s mother dies in childbirth and, before her death, Meg makes her a promise to keep the family together. It proves more difficult than she anticipates, for her father turns to drink and then brings home a new wife. Eventually, when the looming war becomes reality, the children are evacuated anyway and Meg joins the Women’s Land Army to do her bit. She meets the farmer’s son, Stephen, at the farm she is assigned to. Stephen has joined the army but is convalescing after an accident at the camp. The two are attracted to one another and Meg agrees to write to Stephen when he returns. Life takes on a more even keel before news reaches Meg that her evacuated siblings have gone missing and no one knows where they are. Meg is worried to death about them and consumed by guilt, feeling she has failed her mother. Despite Stephen’s love, she knows her happiness will not be complete until she finds out what has happened to the children.

There is another of my books out in August. This one is called A Strong Hand To Hold. This book is different in that it’s what’s called a backlist - that is, a book released first in 1999 and published by Headline. It is now being re-issued through Harper Collins, who bought the rights from me, and the book has a brand new cover, although the title is the same. In this book Jenny, in her work as an ARP warden, has to crawl into a tiny space in bombed terrace of houses to reach Linda, who is only twelve, and who is trapped inside. It took me ages to write this passage because I live with the characters so much that as I wrote it I was finding it difficult to breathe and had to keep taking breaks. Linda is in thrall to Jenny after this, especially when, as Linda’s family are all wiped out, Jenny takes her into her own home and looks after her. So when years pass and the war continues and Linda, falls in love with a man that Jenny cannot help but hate, Linda is prepared to give up her chance of happiness for the sake of Jenny, until fate takes a hand.

How do my stories differ from others of their genre?

I suppose they differ in the way that most of them link Birmingham and Ireland, usually the North, as that is where both of my parents were born, though I was born and raised in Birmingham. Therefore I am an Irish Brummie (there are plenty of us) and I write what they used to call Sagas but are now called Historicals. Whatever they are called, the premise in the same in that they are definitely placed in an area and historical period. Mine often have two or sometimes more places of equal importance in the story and my fans seem to like that.

Why Do I Write?

This is the easiest question in the world to answer - I write because I must. When I was a child I wanted to do two things in my life, one was write and one was teach, not that I ever thought for one moment that I would earn my living by writing. I thought it would be just a hobby. I did eventually get to teach and it was as wonderful as I thought it would be and I felt privileged to take charge of those little minds. However, an incident at school damaged my spine and, despite two minor and one major operation, I ended up in a wheelchair and was there for 16 years.

Because I taught young children, my career came to an abrupt halt. I had to find something to fill the unlimited time I suddenly had on my hands, so I began to write. I first tried chronicling the origin of nursery rhymes, something I’d always had a yen to do. Then I tried books for children, followed by short stories, and I began my first adult novel when I joined the RNA and found out about their New Writer’s Scheme and its fabulous critique service. They advised me to cut 40,000 words from the second manuscript I sent them and then send it straight to Headline. I did and Headline accepted it. It was called A Little Learning and that came out in in 1997. So although I changed agents and publishing houses four years later in 2001, I’d had a fairly gentle ride into the publishing world and had achieved both my goals in life.

To put the icing on the cake, I began to walk again in 2006, took part in a charity walk six weeks later and walk 5 to 6 miles with my dog every morning. Life doesn’t get any better.

How Does The Writing Process Work?

This varies slightly with the seasons. In the spring, summer and early autumn, I wake early, have a shower and take the dog for a walk for approximately one and a half hours. Once home I feed her, feed myself, go up to my study and weld myself to the chair in front of my computer. When the dark mornings are upon us, I still wake early and shower but, as I can’t venture out till eight o’clock or so, I will put a couple of hour of work before I walk the dog.

Because like all writers I work alone a lot, I value my monthly meetings with the Novelistas, my odd flurries to London to go the author events and meet up with my editor, agent and fellow writers. I also enjoy spending time giving talks around the country and connecting with my readers, but I never like to be away from my desk for too long.

Monday, 19 May 2014

My Unexpected Lessons from a Literature Wales Writers Bursary by Juliet Greenwood

This time last year I was a few weeks into my three-month Writers’ Bursary from Literature Wales. It was the first time I’d even been given the chance to be a full-time writer, and I was still pinching myself with glee. I still am.

It wasn’t the first time I’d tried for a bursary. In fact, all in all, I’d been trying for over ten years. I’d been short-listed a few times, but I’d always been left – well, let’s be honest – intensely jealous of the fortunate few who were successful, and feeling more than a little frustrated. If only…

But, when I came to it, I’m glad it took that long. All those years were a long, hard apprenticeship in what it really took to be a writer. I’d had the endless rejections and critiques over those years. Each time plunged into the deep, dark night of the soul, wondering if I was just fooling myself after all, followed by picking myself up again, dusting myself off, squaring my shoulders and starting all over again with new determination.

Also during those years, my alter ego, ‘Heather Pardoe’, had written stories for magazines and novellas, learning to work to a brief while still retaining her individual voice and not to be precious about it all. In fact, to become a professional. So that when I finally had the call from Honno Press to say that they liked the novel I’d submitted to them, but didn’t think it was quite ready for publication, I was prepared to jump at the offered chance to work with one of their editors. All that experience told me that, even though there were no guarantees that the then-named ‘Blodeuwedd’s Garden’ would ever be published, I was being offered a rare and precious chance that would take me nearer to my dream.

That exhilarating, eye wateringly painful, breathtaking rollercoaster of a ride, working with my wonderful editor, Janet Thomas, when I was stretched and supported and pushed to dig deeper and go further than I could ever have believed possible, led to the book that became ‘Eden’s Garden’, and finally made me a writer.

That year ‘Eden’s Garden’ was published, I was so busy coming to terms with another new world, that of publicity, Amazon algorithms and social networking, that I flung in my application to Literature Wales at the last minute. So when I had the phone call several months later, I assumed I’d missed out something in my application. I was tired. I was frazzled. I’d just driven for hours along winding Snowdonian roads stuck behind the obligatory tractor, two caravans having a nervous breakdown and a bus. I scowled at the answer phone and almost left it until Monday morning. But then I decided I’d better be grown up about this and deal with it, and grabbed a notepad.

It never crossed my mind as I made that phone call, that this would be the life changing one. Since I couldn’t tell anyone (apart from my day job, who are thankfully amazingly tolerant and supportive, as I hadn’t even bothered to say this time that I’d applied, since there didn’t seem any point) I spent weeks feeling I was about to burst.

After all this, I was almost afraid, when the three months started, that it would be a disappointment. It wasn’t. I loved every minute of my Bursary. The sheer privilege of being paid to write and not having to think about anything else, meant that I got up every morning raring to go. After years of fighting to find a few hours here and there, I went for it.

It was about now, a few weeks in, that I realised the other benefit. I could actually stop for the evening. Switch off (as much as a writer ever can) and come back refreshed. Catch up with my reading. I even took a few days off to paint the house, something I’d resent in normal times for taking me away from precious writing time, but now was therapeutic, empowering and fun. It was the space to think and to plan that was as much a benefit as the time to write.

Perhaps most of all – and something that doesn’t end with the three months – is the validation of being entrusted with a bursary. A few years ago the responsibility would have floored me. I’d have panicked. I’d have run round like a headless chicken quite sure I could never live up to the weight of expectation and, quite probably, afraid to start.

Ironically, it was those long years of rejection and not being awarded a bursary that meant that when it came, it came at the right time. So thank you to Literature Wales, for entrusting me with the time to finish ‘We That Are Left’ – and allowing me to slip into my writer’s skin and know from the bottom of my heart that this is what I was born for. It’s a lesson I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Running Away with the Chauffeur by Juliet Greenwood

I first began using newspapers for research to find genuine recipes from WW1. It was a comment in one of my research books that recipes and advice began appearing in newspapers as shortages began to bite, that led me to the brilliant British Newspaper Archive.

The Archive is a partnership between the British Library and Find My Past to digitise up to 40 million newspaper pages from the British Library's collection over the next 10 years. It means that from a home computer you can search by keywords, name, location, date or title of the subject you are looking for, and the results appear in seconds.

What I loved most was seeing the actual digitised versions of newspapers, just as the original readers would have seen them. However focused I tried to be on recipes, and tips to make tasty meals out of vegetables and the odd cut of horsemeat, the eye strayed to the articles and the advertisements all around. This was when I discovered just how valuable these newspapers are to getting a real feel of the time.

It was eerie looking back with modern eyes at a passing reference to a place called Gallipoli, between advertisements for soap, tips for using the best from your allotment, and the scandal of a divorce. It was heart-breaking seeing the lists of the fallen and obituaries of local men, with a faded photograph of a man in uniform. I began to dread seeing them. How much worse to have been the first reader, waiting and dreading, or maybe already traumatised by grief.

The Mausoleum at Bodnant

What was also strange was the way life carried on, as it does, and how life really is stranger than fiction. Looking at divorce cases hinted at so many stories of both misery, and triumphant bids for freedom. There was the barmaid who didn’t take to running a household (wise girl) writing to tell her soon to be ex-husband in 1911 Don’t be foolish over this, because if I returned I would only have to tell you what I am telling you here. I am not returning,” as she sailed off to America to train as a nurse – and maybe to serve in a field hospital like that of The Crimson Field during the war.

And if you thought Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey was reckless running off with the chauffeur, there is hint of a story of misery overcome by a woman who left a husband she claimed only gave her misery to elope with their chauffeur and finally find true love and companionship. Her husband’s divorce (women weren’t able to do the divorcing at the time) didn’t go through as he had left it too long, claiming he didn’t have the money. All the more cause, in my book, to root for the lady and the chauffeur to live a long and happy life together!
Juliet Greenwood

Newspapers are so much about ordinary life, and ordinary interests, that they made a fascinating insight into lost world – one that isn’t really so very different from our own. I shall certainly keep referring back to the digitised newspapers of the British Newspaper Archive time and time again.

You can find out more about divorce cases here on Juliet’s blog.

You can find out more about the lady and the chauffeur here on Juliet’s blog.

Juliet's latest novel, We That are Left, is out now!

We That are Left

Monday, 12 May 2014

Every Woman For Herself

It's been a busy week for Trisha Ashley. Thursday saw the publication of Every Woman for Herself, Friday was the day of the launch party with the Novelistas and on Saturday Trisha was signing copies of her book at Hinton's of Conwy.

Trisha Ashley

The cake!!!

The goody bags!

The Novelistas
at the launch party

The Novelistas
at Hinton's of Conwy bookshop

When Charlie’s husband Matt tells her that he wants a divorce she has to start from scratch. Suddenly single, broke and approaching 40 she is forced to return to her childhood home in the Yorkshire moors.

Living with her father and eccentric siblings could be considered a challenge but soon Charlie finds her new life somewhat refreshing. Now that she’s single she’s got no need to dye her roots nor to be the perfect wife and she can return to her first love- painting.

But just as she begins to feel settled, handsome, bad-tempered actor Mace North moves in down the road and starts mixing things up for Charlie in more ways than one …

Every Woman for Herself

Every Woman for Herself
Out Now!

Photos copyright: Trisha Ashley, Juliet Greenwood & Louise Marley

Friday, 2 May 2014

My Writing Process by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of the month, Novelista Annie Burrows blogs about her writing life.  This month, she is taking part in the "Writing Process" blog hop, after being tagged by fellow Novelista Valerie-Anne Baglietto
What am I working on?

I'm collaborating with two other Harlequin writers (Sarah Mallory and Louise Allen) in a trilogy which we're bringing out in 2015 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. So far we're calling it "The Battlefield Brides", but that is just a working title.  It's great fun working on a continuity, like this.  I have two other ladies immersed in my characters' adventures, and we're constantly chatting to each other, via emails, as our work progresses.  We might be checking background research, making sure our timelines match up perfectly, or simply swapping pictures of the actors we'd like to play our heroes.

(Photo:  Major Adam Flint, Hero of Louise Allen's book, brooding...)

How do my stories differ from others of their genre?

Every writer, in fact every person on this planet has a unique personality.  No two of us are alike.  If three people were to write down a description of the same event, each of them would be radically different - because each person looks at the world through a unique perspective.  So my books reflect my take on life, which tends to mean that they keep on leaning towards the more light-hearted end of the Regency spectrum.  If I have a highwayman holding up a coach, for example, it is as likely to turn into a comic scene as a moment of high drama.

(Photo: Major Bartlett, plotting the seduction of my heroine)

Why do I write?

I'm very tempted to quote Valerie-Anne Baglietto's answer here (from previous blog post)  In a nutshell, I can't help it!  Like Val, if I don't write, I get twitchy.  Like Val, I've always had a cast of characters flitting like butterflies through my brain.  When I was very young, I used to think of these people as my "invisible friends".  And nowadays I still feel as if I spend my time writing down the adventures of my invisible friends.

How does my writing process work?

If only I knew!  Well, ok, then.  Basically, I have a set of characters, or a scene, drifting around my mind which I feel a need to write down.  Because I make my living from writing, I then have a jolly good think about whether I could make that scene, or those characters, grow into a fully fledged story.  (I have dozens of notebooks full of snippets which may or may not get used.)  If I think a story will "work", or if the characters just won't leave me alone, I jot down an outline and send it to my editor at Mills & Boon to see if she likes it.  Mostly, by the time I've got to this stage with a fledgling story, I know that it could become a book that others would enjoy reading.

When I get the go-ahead for any story, I launch into it with great enthusiasm, flinging all my ideas down as I go. And then I print out what I've written, so that I can look at it the way a reader would look at it.  And start sorting out the language, making it into the kind of thing someone would (hopefully) get a great deal of entertainment from reading.  This is always the most difficult bit for me - bringing my characters and their predicaments to life on the page.  Imagining their adventures is easy - bringing them to life requires weeks of slog. 

Annie's latest book, "Portrait of a Scandal" is available for purchase from Amazon UK