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.