Sunday, 31 December 2017

Happy New Year - lessons and beginnings

Well, 2017 was a crazy ride wasn’t it? As we stand on the threshold of 2018 I’m hearing my friends
At the Society of Authors/Writers in Oxford
party at Balliol College
on Facebook wishing one another better times in 2018, not just on a personal level but a global one. We seem to have spent the past twelve months reeling from one shock to another or feeling threatened by dark possibilities to come.

But the solstice has passed. Days are still dark but we are turning towards the sun. Now is the time of beginnings, of new edifices built on old foundations.

When I look back on my 2017 it is full of dark and light. The first quarter was one of physical disability and a sense that my horizons were closing in because I simply could not walk without serious pain. The knee injury of the autumn allied itself with the weakness in my hip. I couldn’t get up and down the stairs without a stick. I couldn’t get out of chairs without the stick. I felt about 105 years old – and I believed this was going to be my future. You can imagine how depressing that was.

Now, at the end of the year, things are very different. To my undying surprise, I find myself an active gym member. I do resistance training. My muscles are more toned and I’ve lost over half a stone. I have more energy. I go up and down the stairs and up from chairs without a stick. Yay! There is a lot more progress to make but I feel Olympian compared to how I was a few months back.

What is the lesson from this? That your body matters – it’s the vehicle of all your creativity and when it is unwell it is hard to be positive or make progress in any other sphere of life.

The other main aspect of my 2017 was the workload. I am glad to have helped so many students and editorial clients over the past year. It is extremely fulfilling. But when you realise you’ve edited 1.2 million words during the year and none of them were your own, you start to wonder when you will ever match the service you give to others with attention to your own writing ambitions.

The lesson from this is that the balance of elements in one’s life needs to be evaluated, constantly, because it is so easy to let one aspect get out of hand. To that end I will be cutting back on my editing role and launching a whole new Fictionfire activity in January. Wish me luck!

Highlights of my year were the Oxford summer schools, teaching at Winchester, holidays in Cornwall and Provence, the publication of ‘Salt’ in Distant Echoes and my poem ‘Cooling’ in Vine Leaves Literary Journal. I read quite a few books as part of my IGISIRI campaign – but not nearly enough, because of those 1.2 million words of clients’ books. My latest IGISIRI is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, which I have meant to read for years. It was stunning. I’m hoping next year to be more consistent in my IGISIRI reading - for previous posts on what IGISIRI means, go here.

I’ll sign off now with my warmest wishes that you all have a creative, fulfilling 2018 year ahead of you. I’ll be back this week with news of my new Fictionfire venture and historical novelist Anna Belfrage will be guest-posting.

Happy New Year!

Lorna x

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

What's in a name? Author Mari Griffith tells us about a Welshwoman of great spirit.

Mari Griffith
The latest in my series of guest-posts by writer-contributors to Distant Echoes, a wide-ranging anthology of historical short stories, is by Mari Griffith, who sheds light on a little-known episode at the end of the eighteenth century, when England dreaded the invasion of Napoleon's armies ...

Meghan. It’s a name on people’s lips on both sides of the Atlantic: and just wait until the fifth in line to the English throne and his American fiancĂ© are well and truly wed and start producing children! Unimaginative parents everywhere will be naming their babies after the newest, most glamorous member of the royal family. That’s what happens. Just think of all the Victorias, the Alberts and Alices. Now Meghan will be the name of choice and I wonder how many people will realise that it’s a Welsh name – incorrectly spelled in this case but at least it’s correctly pronounced and Ms. Markle won’t end up being known as Princess Mee-gun. That really would make Welsh toenails curl!

I was particularly amused to read that even the royal corgis immediately took to Meghan. I wondered whether anyone told her that she was patting the head of a Welsh dog?  The name derives from the Welsh ‘corach’ meaning ‘dwarf’ and ‘ci’ meaning ‘dog’. And, while we’re on the subject, spare a thought during this festive season for the Christmas song we now know as ‘Deck the Halls’ – yes, that too is Welsh. It was a 16th century carol for New Year’s Eve, or ‘Nos Calan’. Wales is pretty much everywhere, if you care to look for it.

But back to the name. It’s pure coincidence, of course, that I had chosen it for my short story ‘For the Love of Megan’ which is included in the HNS Anthology Distant Echoes. It tells the tale of Jemima Nicholas, a woman of formidable stature who was the town cobbler in Fishguard on the coast of West Wales when, in 1797, England was bracing itself against the threat of a French invasion. Panic-stricken people withdrew their gold from the banks, forcing the issue of promissory notes – what we now call bank notes – for the first time ever. And yes, some 1,400 rag, tag and bobtail members of the Legion Noire did land - not in England but in West Wales. These undisciplined conscripts plundered farmyards and ate undercooked chickens washed down with bootleg brandy from a shipwreck. Suffering from hangovers and food poisoning, they were hardly in any state to defend themselves against Jemima’s pitchfork as she rounded them up before turning them in. She wasn’t going to let any nasty ‘Froggies’ ruin the life of her brand new niece, baby Megan. Jemima then went on to coordinate the women of the town in forming a convincing ‘defence force’ to intimidate the invaders. A memorial stone to record her achievements was erected outside the church of St. Mary’s in Fishguard and still stands to this day.

Jemima’s is just one of many, many Welsh stories which are totally unknown outside Wales and this has a great influence on my work as a writer. Belonging, as I do, to a nation with such a rich and diverse history, I really want to share it with my readers and if either Megan or Meghan can help, that’s fine by me.

Thank you, Mari!

About Mari Griffith: Mari turned to writing historical fiction in retirement after a working lifetime of producing, promoting and presenting programmes in Welsh and English on BBC Wales. Her first novel, Root of the Tudor Rose became an Amazon bestseller. She followed that with The Witch of Eye, the story behind the most sensational treason trial of the 15th century. Mari's website is here.

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. 

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Previous guest-posts from contributors are here and here.

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Women and war: on the sidelines of the action but on the frontline of drama - with guests Richard Buxton and Jasmina Svenne

In 1980, I remember my late friend Catherine Reilly having trouble convincing academics that the anthology she was working on, of women’s poetry of the First World War, had significance. That anthology, Scars upon my Heart, went on to great success and was on exam syllabuses for many years. The poems she sourced reminded readers that the First World War wasn’t all about bully beef and muddy trenches – it was about the experience of loved ones: the women who wait, who grieve, whose experience of war is very different from that of their menfolks.

For today’s post I have invited two other contributors to Distant Echoes, a wide-ranging anthology of historical short stories, to share with me in exploring this topic – the heartbreak and helplessness of women at times of war in the past.

We’re starting with Richard Buxton, whose powerful story ‘Disunion’ introduces us to an American Civil War situation far removed from what we’re familiar with when we watch Gone with the Wind. His focus is on the poisonous breakdown of trust in the community when people take sides:

Richard Buxton
Civil Wars differ from those between nations inasmuch as the wives and daughters were not only waving their menfolk goodbye, but trying to survive in the midst of the war themselves. Disunion is set in Eastern Tennessee, as several of my stories are. What made it so much tougher for those left behind was that, collectively, Tennessee voted to leave the Union and side with the Confederacy, but a majority in Eastern Tennessee wanted to remain part of the Union. It made this part of America a grim place to spend the war (1861 – 1865). Scores were still being settled, usually violently, many decades later.

The other characteristic of a Civil War is that it’s impossible to remain neutral, which my female narrator comes to learn in the hardest possible way. Others didn’t need persuading. Ellen Renshaw House was an ardent Confederate supporter living in Knoxville who referred to herself as ‘A Very Violent Rebel’. While I couldn’t agree with her politics, I nevertheless found her voice hugely compelling. While Knoxville was under Union control she split her time between looking after wounded Confederates and criticising the military authorities. Her diary entries leave no doubt as to the extreme bitterness felt on both sides in the city. Executions were common and Ellen bore witness to many. She was eventually expelled to Georgia.

There were more than two years of Confederate control before the Union took over. Conditions were every bit as harsh, possibly even more so away from the cities where there was no garrison to keep order. Coves (valleys) in the Appalachians held small scale communities that were relatively cut-off from the outside world and wanted nothing to do with the war. Life scratching a living on a one-mule farm was hard enough even when there was a husband and a wife. That was the story I wanted to tell in Disunion: a woman trying to endure with her husband gone but with others to care for, while all around her was suspicion and antipathy.

As the war went on the age range for conscription widened, particularly in the South, and women lost sons and fathers to the army as well as their husbands. Irregulars, desperados outside the sway of the Confederate Army and often made up of deserters, took refuge in the hills and preyed on the weak and defenceless. The women of Cades Cove were driven to form themselves into home guards to protect property and livestock, their children acting as pickets and blowing horns when the raiders were spotted. There was no escaping the war.

Even after the war the suffering went on. It was a time of great displacement. Families sick of the feuding moved away south or west and new people displaced from elsewhere arrived. The women waited for loved ones to return from the war, not knowing if they were alive or dead. Many would never find out.

Thank you, Richard.

My own story, ‘Salt’ tackles the familiar subject of women watching their men go off to war. As Richard has just mentioned, many would never learn what became of their men. That fear hangs over my main character, Ina, and her sister Mary Bella. What’s more, they are in an unfamiliar place themselves. They are Scottish herring girls – their job is to gut, salt and pack the huge quantities of herring caught by fisherman off Great Yarmouth on the eastern coast of England. For many years this was a tradition in Scottish fishing communities – men and women would travel round the coast of Britain, following the shoals of herring. Ina and Mary Bella are dislocated from what is familiar, the hours are punishing, the work extremely hard and their lodgings basic. But what they have is the warmth of sisterhood and friendship – these young women worked in teams with allocated roles and their efficiency was amazing. That female comradeship counterpoints the male camaraderie over in France, in the trenches.

I wanted to write a story that recorded my own heritage (my grandmother was one of those herring ‘quines’) but as it unfolded it became a tale where emotion was heightened not only by that sense of being in a ‘foreign’ place but by the speed of events. Mary Bella meets a man and their shared passion is intensified by its vulnerability. War stories often lead to scenes of parting – no one knows if or when the loved one will come back. The final scene of the story carried me along on a surge of swift writing and the final word fell into place with an almost audible click.

Since then, I’ve wondered what Ina’s life held for her later – maybe I’ll write about that some day!

Finally, Jasmina Svenne’s story ‘Too Late, Beloved’ jumps us to the end of World War I. Her story and my one act as book-ends, showing us the anticipatory dread and the poignant aftermath. Will my man come back, every woman must have asked herself, and if he does, what will he be? What will he find?

Here’s what Jasmina has to say:

Jasmina Svenne
As a writer of short historical fiction, I find that one of the hardest tricks to pull off is to evoke another era in as few words as possible and that the easiest way to do it is to go for a period the average reader knows, or thinks s/he does. So my other passion – the late-C18th – tends to be put on the backburner in favour of WWI.

The First World War, I think, still has resonance because it’s only a few years since the last of the veterans died and because so many ordinary citizens were caught up in it, in one way or another, which probably makes it easier for readers to empathise with characters that could almost be their (great-)grandparents.

For that reason, a lot of WWI stories tend to concentrate on civilian soldiers – the Pals Battalions and the families they left behind them. I chose not to do so, because it strikes me that sometimes professional soldiers like Edgar in my story – one of the Old Contemptibles who was involved in the Retreat from Mons – tend to be overlooked, as if their sacrifices are somehow worth less, simply because they had chosen the army as a career even before war broke out. (Having said that, I have a sneaky suspicion that, before the war, Victor probably worked in an office or a bank.)

The original inspiration for ‘Too Late, Beloved’ was a story told by one of the 100-and-something-year-old veterans interviewed on a BBC documentary called ‘The Last Tommy’. One of his comrades had been taken prisoner during the war, but had somehow been missed off the POW lists, so neither his family nor his sweetheart was informed that he was still alive. On his return, he went to his sweetheart’s home, only to find she wasn’t there. Instead her father told him that, presuming he was dead, she had married someone else. Devastated, the POW emigrated almost immediately and the young woman’s father never told her that her first love was still alive.

That story, combined with the Vivien Leigh film Waterloo Bridge and contemporary news stories about missing people, made me wonder what it would be like to live with that uncertainty – unable to grieve, unable to trust the spark of hope you would inevitably harbour somewhere in the deepest depths of your heart.

How long would it take before you cracked under the pressure from well-meaning friends and relatives, to accept the unacceptable and try to move on with your life? And what if you discovered you had made the wrong choice – maybe? Because I also believe it is possible to love two people just as much, but differently and for different reasons.

Thank you, Richard and Jasmina!

Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books, in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. ‘Salt’ won the HNS Oxford 2014 competition. Jasmina’s The Beggar at the Gate’ won in 2012 and is published in the ebook The Beggar at the Gate, available here – my runner-up story ‘Reputation’ appears there too.

I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.

Further reading: Wake, by Anna Hope, a moving novel about women after the end of the First World War as Britain prepares its ceremonial funeral for the Unknown Soldier; Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which follows that familiar arc from the pre-war to the post-war experience and which I defy you to read without weeping; The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch – mentioned by Jasmina. I blogged about Harry Patch some years back and you can read my post here.

About my guests:

Richard Buxton grew up in Wales and lives in Sussex. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award. His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, which was longlisted for the 2015 HNS award, was released this spring.

Jasmina Svenne was born in Derby to Latvian parents. Her writing career began with a novel, Behind the Mask, winner of the Katie Fforde Bursary, followed by nine historical novellas. Her stories have also been published in Journeys Beyond (Earlyworks Press), Wooing Mr Wickham (Honno).

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The losing of Lyonesse - Yvonne Lyon guest-posts about the inspiration for her moving story The Hungry Sails

Yvonne Lyon, author of The Hungry Sails in Distant Echoes
Today I'm featuring the first guest-post from contributors to Distant Echoes, published by Corazon Books. All the contributors have won or been shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society's story awards and the anthology covers a really diverse range of historical periods and topics. Readers are often fascinated by how ideas come to writers, so I thought I would ask Yvonne what triggered her very moving tale, The Hungry Sails, set on the Scilly Isles in the mid-nineteenth century. Welcome, Yvonne!

A big thank you to Lorna for allowing me to tell you about my story, The Hungry Sails, which is set on Samson, now an uninhabited island, one of the Isles of Scilly which lie sixty miles off the coast of Cornwall. 
My interest in Scilly is long-lived. In the 1990s I had several holidays there, camping with a friend and her family on St Agnes. One year I took a boat trip over to Samson and wandered around the small hilly island, coming across fallen stones from ruined houses. It was a haunting experience and I never forgot it. 
Circumstances change, people move on. I didn’t go back to the islands until June 2016 when I decided to holiday on St Mary’s. The memory of the unspoilt beauty of the islands had never left me. I’d promised myself, one day I’ll return.
After a week of boat-trips to the off-islands, sunbathing, walking cliff paths in stunning weather, the day before my departure to the mainland I visited the Islands’ Museum. I stood before a display board about Samson with its photos of now ruined houses and knew I’d found something to write about.
All week I’d been looking for a subject, as a break from novel writing. Perhaps, I thought, other visitors I talked to on boat-trips would spark an idea for me. Briefly, I considered writing a piece about a racist visitor and his conversation with another man about Brexit. (It was early June, just before the EU referendum.) Thankfully the world has been spared that!
In 1822 seven families farmed the land and made a living but by the mid-nineteenth century their descendants were starving. The reports about the last two families from 1855 made a huge impression on me. I learnt that the self-styled Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, Augustus Smith, wanted them gone so he could graze deer there. The families were to be re-housed on St. Mary’s. They couldn’t stay. They were deprived, living in poverty. But how did they feel about quitting a place where their families had lived for generations? That was the germ of the idea.
Back home I was unsuccessful in finding any library books about Samson but there was enough information on-line for me to use. I’d taken notes at the museum and seen a large stoneware jug there called a Bellermine, a name I’d never come across before. It crept into the story as a way of cheering up a small boy. 
The names of characters are actual Samson names though unfortunately I know nothing about the real people. I think of my story as paying homage to their endurance and love for their home.
On a final note of irony, once the Webbers and Woodcocks had left, Augustus Smith built a deer park on the island but the animals did not like the environment and escaped from their stone-walled enclosure, some attempting to wade across to Tresco at low tide.

About Yvonne:
Yvonne Lyon is from Lancashire and now lives in Oxford where she studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. She dips in and out of periods depending on what catches her eye for a story so The Hungry Sails, set in 1855, feels modern compared to her current book, The Burning Road. The period is the late Iron Age and characters believe in the old gods, Epona and Lugh. Her first novel was Edgeburn, a YA timeslip story set in present-day Lancashire and late Anglo Saxon times.

Learn more about the Scilly Isles here.

Distant Echoes is published as an ebook here and as a paperback here.

Interested in writing? Visit my website to download your free guide to launching a productive writing life.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

IGISIRI catch-up - my latest reads

A quick post today about my IGISIRI programme – you may have wondered why things have gone a bit silent on that front! If you remember, IGISIRI stands for I’ve Got It So I’ll Read It and it’s all about tackling those books on your TBR pile, at the rate of two a month. You choose them from your shelves quickly, without too much thought – because if you dither for too long you find you want to read everything you own all at once and you make no decision at all!

I was doing well until the summer. Summer, for me, is all about teaching. So my focus is on useful-sources-for-illustrative-passages for my creative writing students rather than damn-fine-reads-I-can-escape-into.

Here, then, is an update of books I’ve read for pleasure since my last IGISIRI post, taking us through the end of summer and the autumn.

On holiday after the teaching gigs ended, I read a couple of thrillers: Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, which was in the holiday rental we were staying in and Peter Swanson’s Her Every Fear, bought at the airport. The former was, I found, well done but far too long and pretty distasteful, even though I have a strong stomach for the gory end of the thriller market. Peter Swanson’s novel was OK but curiously flat and I was irked by the errors of ‘British’ thought and expression when he was narrating from a British character’s point of view. Both books, I felt, could have done with better standards of editing.

Since then I’ve read Liz Jensen’s The Rapture – extremely dark and scary and I hope not too prescient. Then Michelle Paver’s Thin Air – like her previous ghost/horror story Dark Matter, it makes use of a chilly, inhuman location. In Dark Matter (which is one of my favourite ghost stories ever) she set the story in the Arctic – here it’s the Himalayas. It was excellent, though not quite as good as Dark Matter.

This month I’ve finished reading Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu, which I started back in the early summer. I loved it yet almost didn’t want to know the ‘truth’ behind My Family and Other Animals and its sequels. What was lovely was the recognition of the places mentioned such as the White House at Kalami – we had lunch there twice when we holidayed in Corfu some years back (see my post here). It made me want to return to the island with my extra knowledge not just of Gerald Durrell but of Lawrence Durrell. I have to say that this book has emerged as a result of the popularity of the Durrells series on ITV, which I have watched occasionally because of the gorgeous scenery but find irritating in the way it patronises Greeks as ludicrous eccentrics, though I suppose the original books did that too.

Next, Jessica Bell’s memoir Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel. This is a book that shocks you not only with the events it describes but with its degree of honesty. She lays bare what she did and why she did it in such an unsparing, unflinching way you long to dart forward and tell her to be kinder to herself. What is also extraordinary is that her mother, musician Erika Bach, who suffered from psychosis brought on by withdrawal from prescription painkillers and whose relationship with her daughter was intense and love-hate all the way, writes directly to the reader at the end. Jessica ricochets from depression to alcohol abuse to self-destructive melodrama in her quest to reconcile herself to her family, society, the world and her own self. Searing stuff.

Finally, many readers have waited a long time for this treat – Philip Pullman’s long-delayed new trilogy The Book of Dust. I wasn’t going to wait for La Belle Sauvage, the first in the trilogy, to come out in paperback. I bought the hardback at the Book House in Summertown – see the lovely bag that came with it?! Beneath the dust(!)jacket, the book itself is beautiful with little gold speckles of dust on the binding and a lines from the story inscribed down the spine. La Belle Sauvage is proof yet again that Pullman is a master storyteller. Though it doesn’t pack quite the revelatory punch of Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, it is an enthralling read all the same. It is a joy to return to the alternative Oxford he creates and an added joy for me, as an Oxford-dweller, to recognise the landmarks and places he describes, from the Trout and Godstow nunnery all the way down the Thames – a Thames that decides not to flow sweetly in this story, but to inundate the landscape and island the spires of the city. (Not all that unlikely, given that Oxford is very prone to flooding).

Till my next ISIGIRI round-up, keep reading!

Next time, a guest post by Yvonne Lyon, whose story The Hungry Sails appears in Distant Echoes, as does my story ‘Salt’, published by Corazon Books - see the sidebar on the right.

Past IGISIRI posts are here - with links to previous ones at the foot of that post.

Read more about Jessica Bell here: her website is here. Jessica is a musician too. And a publisher and cover designer ...

Are you a writer - or do you want to be? Visit my website to download your free guide to launching a productive writing life. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Where have I been?

Getting ready to start teaching
 at Oxford University
Summer School for Adults
It’s a while since I last blogged so this is a round-up of what was going on and advance notification of what is coming up!

Summers equate with creative writing teaching: no sooner had I finished running a part time course for Oxford University during the spring, but I taught at Winchester Writers’ Festival where my subject was the power of point of view, then two summer schools on two different programmes for Oxford University. This was my fifteenth  year at OUSSA and my fourth at the OUDCE Creative Writing summer school at Exeter College.

As ever, I was blown away by the quality of work I was assessing and hearing. I loved meeting my students and hearing their stories. Summer schools bring together the most extraordinary mix of nationalities, backgrounds, life experiences and writing dreams.

With lovely tutor and writer
Judy Waite, at Winchester Writers' Festival
By mid-August I was just desperate for a holiday, though! I hadn’t had a break since our holiday in Cornwall in early spring. But before I could relish any down-time, I had to face tasks I had been putting off for months – nay, years! I moved my website host, I created an opt-in PDF, I learned how to use Convertkit and moved my mailing lists to it, I got all the elements talking to one another!

Before we left for our holiday in France in September, I set up my new website landing page. I felt tired but pretty damned chuffed. What would be a walk in the park to some people was like climbing Everest to me, but I had done it – I had got that far.

Roussillon, Provence
We went back to Provence, which we had visited last year. And oh, it was still gorgeous. For two weeks I genuinely unwound and it did me a power of good. I even wrote something!

Back home, I soon got all wound up again. Life has been full on since then. I have been editing, mainly, for long-term clients. I’ve also been the co-ordinating judge of the short story competition Writers in Oxford has been running for young Oxfordshire writers. Now, our choices have been made and sent to Philip Pullman, our head judge. The prizes will be announced next week at the Writers in Oxford 25th Anniversary party, held in conjunction with the Society of Authors.
Being interviewed at Radio Oxford
to publicise Writers in Oxford's
Young Oxfordshire Writer competition

And what about the website, you may ask?

Ah. Ahem … a work in progress still, but progress is being made!

Well, do go and visit: you can download my free PDF on leading a productive writing life!

In other news, I got published!

More of that in my next post too …

Download your free guide to launching a productive writing life by visiting the website here

Thursday, 6 July 2017

History on the Doorstep - author Clare Flynn and the inspiration for The Chalky Sea

Today I'm welcoming Clare Flynn to Literascribe. Clare has just published her fifth novel, The Chalky Sea, set during World War II, and I invited her to tell me how she drew on local knowledge and local history when she wrote it. The result is a fascinating article, reminding us that we often don't know the details even of the recent past, in the places familiar to us. If you're a writer and you choose an exotic location, you're all set to research it thoroughly, whether in person or on the internet. But even if you're writing about home, you need to look at it with a fresh eye and delve into records and old images - you will be amazed by what you turn up, as Clare proves here!

I recently moved to Eastbourne, on the Sussex coast. I lived here as a teenager and because I love the sea and the Downs decided to move back after twenty years in London. I get very cross when people have a go at Eastbourne – describing it as “God’s waiting room” and the like. Someone reviewing my novel Kurinji Flowers referred to the fact that the main character honeymoons here in the 1930s with the comment “I suppose someone has to”. There is so much more to this town as I quickly discovered.

During my school days in the late sixties/ early seventies, no one spoke of Eastbourne’s pivotal role in the Second World War. It was as if the town had put its past behind it and wanted to focus on the present. So it was a big surprise when I moved back and discovered that it was said to have been the most heavily bombed town in south-east England.

Walking the streets the evidence was there – I just hadn’t noticed it. There is the ugly 1960s extension tacked onto the Victorian Cavendish Hotel on the seafront, built to replace the original east wing bombed in May 1942; the Central Library is a modern building, opened in 1964 to replace the red brick structure that was destroyed in 1943 and there are post war buildings to replace Marks & Spencers – bombed while people were doing their Christmas shopping in December 1942, Barclays Bank (1943), and the central fire station (1943), St John’s church, Christ Church junior school, to name but a few – as well as four hundred and seventy four houses. For years I had walked unknowingly past an unmarked spot, where a blast shelter sustained a direct hit, killing everyone inside during a raid that across the town centre claimed thirty-two lives with ninety-nine injured.

One hundred and ninety-nine people died in the bombing raids on Eastbourne – one hundred and seventy-two of them ordinary civilians. The raids began in July 1940 and continued until the last bombs fell in March 1944. As well as being bombed out of their homes, the townspeople endured being strafed in the streets by machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers. The early raids were doubtless to soften up the town ahead of Hitler’s planned invasion, Operation Sea Lion, which was expected to take place along the Sussex coast. But the bombing didn’t stop when the invasion was called off. Eastbourne suffered from bombs dumped on the return leg from London and the Midlands but, being just a short hop across the Channel, it was subjected to “tip and run” raids with bombers coming in low under the radar then, as they reached the coast, climbing up over Beachy Head to the Downs, banking and swooping down to attack the town before nipping back across the Channel. These attacks were not aimed at strategic targets – there were none – they were designed to cause terror and damage morale.

Another factor that may have made the town a target, especially in the run-up to the catastrophic allied Dieppe raid, was the presence, from 1941, of thousands of Canadian soldiers until the D-Day preparations of 1944. They were essentially the allies’ reserve army and thus an attractive target for the enemy.

The town also witnessed the loss of German life. The first “kill” over Eastbourne of a German fighter plane happened at the end of my road. A twin-engine Messerschmitt Me110 was shot down and crashed into the grounds of the Aldro School – now part of Brighton University’s Eastbourne campus. The pilot, Hauptmann Ernst Hollekamp, already dead, landed on the roof of another school half a mile away, while the rear gunner parachuted into the sea and drowned. For years, the people of Eastbourne believed the crashed plane to have been a Henkel bomber until the pilot’s widow visited the town and confirmed he had flown a Messerschmitt.

With the heavy bombardment of Eastbourne, which began a month before the London Blitz, the vast majority of the population evacuated, so that the local MP described the place as “Ghost Town on Sea”. The arrival of the Canadian army must have been welcome to the pubs, cafes and retailers who remained open throughout the war.

With all this history on my doorstep, it was impossible to resist the idea of setting a book here. It was not in the plan when I moved, but within two months of arriving I had started writing The Chalky Sea. The book is set mostly in Eastbourne, but also in Aldershot, where numerous Canadian regiments were garrisoned throughout the war years, and a little bit in Ontario, Canada.

The challenge in writing fiction based on actual events is to be respectful to those involved while also being accurate. It is probable that relatives of victims of the bombings still live in the town. I have used real bombings, but all the characters involved are completely fictitious. I have tried to ensure that I stuck closely to the dates and places that were actually bombed, beginning with the first attack on the town in Whitley Road at 11.04 on July 7th 1940 – a Sunday morning. If people die in the book, then people actually died in that raid at the time. Sadly with so many raids there was no need for invention.

The book follows two main characters – Gwen, an Eastbourne woman, alone and refusing to evacuate the town after the departure of her officer husband to an unknown destination for what we now know as Special Operations; and Jim, a young Canadian farmer, who joins up in a fatalistic effort to escape from a broken heart. The Chalky Sea follows their individual journeys and examines the impact of war on them and how it changes them profoundly.

Clare Flynn writes historical fiction with a strong sense of time and place and compelling characters. Her books often deal with characters who are displaced - forced out of their comfortable lives and familiar surroundings. She is a graduate of Manchester University where she read English Language and Literature.

Born in Liverpool she is the eldest of five children. After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting business for 15 years and now lives in Eastbourne where she writes full-time – and can look out of her window and see the sea.

When not writing and reading, Clare loves to paint with watercolours and grabs any available opportunity to travel - sometimes under the guise of research.


Want to be a writer? Visit my website to download your free guide to living a productive writing life.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Triskele book launch: the power of writing communities to create connection, promotion, celebration

Jill Marsh and Catriona Troth
of Triskele Books
We’re stronger together

Phew! As I look back at June, I wonder what happened – it went by in the blink of an eye. What I want to do with this post is celebrate the power of friendship in this often challenging world (see the heading above this paragraph). Whether we’re writers or readers – or, indeed, both - it’s an absolute joy to make connections and discoveries, to support and celebrate one another’s successes.

Alison Morton, Antoine Vanner,
Anita Chapman and you know who
My June started with a book launch in London on the 3rd, at The English Restaurant in Spitalfields. An amazing group of writers got together to send their books out into the world. After my rather hermit-like winter it was good to see so many old friends all gathered together.

The party had been organised by the Triskele book collective (see my blogpost on the last launch of theirs I attended). A nicer, more professional, more sickeningly productive bunch of women you are not likely to meet!

Jane Dixon-Smith aka JD Smith
Here’s the list of their new books:

JJ Marsh was launching the last in her successful Beatrice Stubbs series of crime novels, Bad Apples.
Gillian Hamer – the latest in her Gold Detectives series set in Wales, Sacred Lake.
JD Smith – The Rebel Queen is the fourth in her series about Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (exotic or what? Who could resist such names?)
Liza Perrat – who sadly could not be with us on the day – was launching her suspense novel, The Silent Kookaburra
Gillian Hamer

Jessica Bell
Plus, the Triskelites had invited two more writers to join the launch. Alison Morton had just published Retalio, the latest in her Roma Nova series of alternate history thrillers, which have been a huge success. Jessica Bell was launching her powerful memoir, Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel.

Every single book looked absolutely gorgeous, with excellent production values and brilliant covers. 

Readers, we had a ball! Catriona Troth very ably compered a series of readings and interviews, there was fizzy wine, lots of food, and the chance to meet other friends again – Roz Morris, Rohan Quine, Clare Flynn, Glynis Smy, Anita Chapman, Jane Davis, Helene Halme, Antoine Vanner, Debbie Young (who had just published her latest, the brilliantly named Best Murder in Show), Carol Cooper and Karen Inglis - plus Jessica Bell’s amazing mother, musician Erika Bach.
Erika and Jessica

After such an afternoon of fun on a very hot London afternoon, I took the train home and came back to earth heavily when I heard the London Bridge terrorist attack had just taken place, so the end of the day was spent checking Facebook to make sure everyone was OK and texting my son to make sure he hadn’t been in the area (he wasn’t – but he had been just 22 hours earlier …)

It was a salutary reminder of the preciousness of friendship and of celebrations on warm, free summer days, of the freedom to write what we want and share it. Let’s cherish it all.

Glynis Smy and Clare Flynn
I’ll be blogging again soon about this year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival, but in the meantime, Clare Flynn will be guesting on Literascribe tomorrow, talking about her fifth novel, The Chalky Sea, an exciting wartime drama – don’t miss it!

You can visit the Triskele website and their blog here, Alison Morton's amazing Roma Nova website here and Jessica Bell's multi-dextrous website here. Is there nothing these people can't do?!

Ros Morris

Want to be a writer? Visit my website to download your free guide to launching a productive writing life.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

IGISIRI books for May 2017 - what were your reads?

(Photo © Lorna Fergusson)
It's a measure of my life that I'm posting my IGISIRI reads for May when we're coming up to the end of June! This will be a very quick post - next time I'll be posting about Winchester Writers' Festival and the Triskele book launch I attended this month. In the meantime, here we go:

Both my May IGISIRIs are poetry books -

Poems that Make Grown Women Cry, edited by Antony Holden and Ben Holden (Simon and Schuster).
This collection is named to match the earlier collection Poems that Make Grown Men Cry. I have to say I find both titles irritating, as if an emotional response is something to be wrung out of us in spite of ourselves and our adult status. Poetry is more than a sob-fest, anyway. So my advice is ignore the titles and relish the range of poems and, what is more, the short essays written by the contributors describing why they chose the poems they did. Their reasons are both moving and enlightening, sometimes sending you back with new insights to a poem you thought over-familiar. And if no other poem does make you cry, Claire Tomalin's choice will: it's a poem written by her daughter, Susanna Tomalin. 'It is a poem of farewell, clearly stating her intention to be gone.' As I have lost someone from my life too, who wished to be gone, the last verse of this calm, lovely and resolute poem in particular broke my heart.

Alice Oswald, Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape)
Poetry is all about perception and expression of that perception. I bought this book after standing entranced in a shop, reading the first few poems. All too often with modern poetry I feel shut out by the knowingness of it, the archness, the deliberate obscurity or awkwardness. Here I felt that sense of revelatory recognition you should feel when the poet pounces, captures, holds up to the light, the thing, the sense, the perception. It's a blend of the familiar and the utterly refreshed - something I have always loved in metaphysical poetry when poets like Herbert and Donne dazzle with a swift piercing image, like an arrow thocking into the bullseye. Oswald's title poem, written in rhyming couplets, has the deceptive simplicity of a poem by George Herbert, her poem Swan has a fairy tale quality like Angela Carter as the dead swan lifts from the 'plane-crash mess of her wings', the 'clean china serving-dish of a breast bone' and her 'black feet/lying poised in their slippers.'

Poetry is never well-served in reviews, I feel, by short quotations. Somehow the spell of all is lost - so I highly recommend you take up these books and make your way through them, putting them down at intervals to absorb the beauty or the power of what you've just read.

[What is IGISIRI? remember, IGISIRI means 'I've Got It, So I'll Read It!' and it's a simple project where you read two books each month, books already on your bookshelves. You choose them quickly and without too much consideration. And you read them. That's all there is to it! I'd be delighted to hear about your latest reads. You can comment here on the blog or on my Facebook pages, LornaFergussonAuthor and Fictionfire.]

IGISIRIs for April 2017 here: March here; the campaign introduced here.

Friday, 12 May 2017

IGISIRI books for April 2017 - what were your reads?

Here I am with my latest IGISIRI update: remember, IGISIRI means 'I've Got It, So I'll Read It!' and it's a simple project where you read two books each month, books already on your bookshelves. You choose them quickly and without too much consideration. And you read them. That's all there is to it!

For the past two months I managed four books off my TBR pile each month, not two, and last week I was enjoying the first break I've had this year down in Cornwall, so I was armed with several paperbacks and my trusty Kindle. The irony is, I didn't read as much as I expected in April. First, I was up to the wire finishing a client's edit and report before I left. Secondly, Cornwall is just so lovely (as you'll see from the photo here!) I spent far more time gazing at the sea and going out for great meals than reading...

Anyway, here's the latest IGISIRIs for me - and as usual, I'd be delighted to hear about your latest reads. You can comment here on the blog or on my Facebook pages, LornaFergussonAuthor and Fictionfire.

Remember, I list my latest reads briefly here - I'm not writing lengthy reviews.

Two thrillers, this month, then:

J J Marsh, Raw Material - this is one of the Beatrice Stubbs series of novels. I'd read one before (Tread Softly) and certainly intend to read the whole series. Pacy, witty, quirky, yet dealing with dark topics - human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Great use of location. You won't meet anyone else quite like Beatrice in other detective stories! I read it in two sittings - I love J J Marsh's writing.

Tess Gerritsen: Playing with Fire - longterm readers of Literascribe will know she's one of my favourite thriller writers and a lovely person too (I met her several years ago). This is one of her standalone novels, rather than one in the Rizzoli and Isles series. Here she starts with what looks like a kind of Exorcist situation, with an innocent-seeming child and a strangely powerful piece of music. What unfolds is a historical tragedy with a powerful moral message. Extremely moving.