Friday, 21 November 2014

An Indomitable Bill

Towards Little Spitmarsh
My fellow Choc Lit author and friend, the delightful Liz Harris, has invited me to join in a series of blog postings which began with Australian readers and writers of rural romance and has grown to include lovers of the great outdoors everywhere. Liz introduced us to handsome rancher Will Hyde, the hero of her novella, A Western Heart and a man more than one young lady would like to saddle up with. Liz's passion, not just for her hero but also for the American West, is evident in this novella and in her lovely novel A Bargain Struck. Both are set in 1880s Wyoming so it's not surprising to find that Liz has stayed in a working ranch in Wyoming herself, although, as she states, rather more recently.

Liz's evocative covers 
You can find out more about Liz and her varied and interesting books here where you’ll quickly notice that there’s no shortage of material for her novels. Most recently, Liz’s travels took her to Australia and having seen some of her beautiful photos in and around Sydney I’m hoping there’ll be a novel from Liz featuring this stunning location. 

If you can’t wait for some armchair travel and would like a little ‘me time’ this Christmas, Choc lit have put together a trio of mini treats in a collection which features, Liz’s A Western Heart, Angela Britnell’s What Happens in Nashville and my novella, Only True in Fairy Tales here.

Only True in Fairy Tales is set in a little village on the edge of the Downs which is very like the place where I grew up. That sense of living in an ‘in-between’ place beyond a small suburban town and close to somewhere that felt like proper wild space has stayed with me and influenced my writing. All my novels are set in locations off the beaten track because I’m so drawn to those places. Little Spitmarsh, the faded fictional seaside town that is the setting for my novels Turning the Tide and Follow A Star, is an amalgam of some of the down-at-heel resorts and sleepy harbours I fell in love with sailing round the British coast. Penmorfa, my fictional Welsh village, is influenced by where I live now, on the very edge of Cardigan Bay.

My sort of inspiration!

Today though, I'm going to talk about Bill (we Choc lit authors seem to love a good William!) the hero of Follow A Star. When May, my heroine, meets Bill it's not long before they're both at sea, not just with their emotions but also in a little boat offshore...

1. What is the name of your character?
Bill Blythe, a builder with fierce red hair who looks as if he could single-handedly wrestle bullocks to the ground. Bill's a proper bloke; strong, dependable, someone to rely on, the kind of man who'd take the stars right out of the sky for you... but first you've got to get past that rough, tough exterior!

2. Is Bill fictional or a historic person?
I suppose I have to admit that he's fictional but he's real to me. I really enjoy meeting the heroes of all my novels, but I do have a particularly soft spot for Bill!

3. When and where is the story set?
The story is set in the present day. May Starling, the heroine, has had enough of her demanding career and even more demanding ex. Responding to a ‘crew-wanted’ ad, she follows her dreams of escape only to find herself at sea with Bill who isn’t quite what she was expecting ... 

4. What should we know about Bill?
Bill's got so much on his plate he's nearly tearing his red hair out: he's got too much work, a very sick uncle and he needs helps to get a little wooden boat from the south coast round to little Spitmarsh fast. He's intensely loyal to his friends, fiercely protective of his uncle and will do anything for his loved ones.

5. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?
Ah, that would be May, the woman who's not exactly coming clean about why she's running away to sea. Initially it’s May’s peachy bottom that’s so annoyingly distracting, then it’s the boiling pot of emotions aboard a small boat, but it’s when they reach dry land that Bill’s problems really begin.

6. What is the personal goal of the character?
All Bill wants is to bring his beloved uncle’s wooden boat home so that the old man has a reason to carry on living.

I’m now passing the baton to another friend and Choc Lit author, the very amusing and hugely talented Jane Lovering whose latest book How I Wonder What You Are is out – drum roll – on 1 December! Jane lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire and if you haven’t discovered her blog yet, you’ve got another treat in store. Over to you, Jane!

Monday, 10 November 2014

St Jude and St David's

St David's Cathedral in the rain.
‘Can you hear that noise?’ asks Tom.
‘Isn’t it just the road surface?’ I reply because I really don’t want to acknowledge any noise that might be indicative of car trouble, especially not when we’re high in the Preseli Hills where low clouds cast a damp grey shroud across the winding road. After a brief consultation we decide the noise probably isn’t serious and decide to press on. We’re having a day out at St David’s because what is the point of living in such a beautiful part of the world if you don’t get out to see it?

The drizzle turns to rain but doesn’t dampen our spirits. We have a very good, if slightly pricey lunch, at The Refectory in the cathedral where there’s also a small display of local art and crafts. I buy a very pleasing Christmas present from the arty lady at the desk who is no longer young but is lovely to look at with her chic black polo-neck, oversize black glasses and poppy red hair and lipstick. We talk about Coast magazine and the Donna Tartt book she’s reading and I walk away smiling. This lady reminds me of another I recently spotted in the supermarket who’d firmly resisted the pressure to wear beige and turn invisible and trotted past in her high-heeled ankle boots wearing a purple mini-dress which showed off her terrific legs, a short fitted purple coat and purple tights. With her elfin-cut silver hair and a confident smile she looked absolutely amazing.

Towards the town.
A little bookshop!

Precarious pebbles?
And a pretty display.
Alas, one grand dame not doing so well is our car, The Biscuit Tin. For what’s basically a motor bike wrapped in a thin metal shell, it’s served us well but despite lavishing large sums of money on it recently, it still doesn’t seem happy. After ignoring The Noise nearly all the way home we decide to cut our losses. We stop at the used car garage we bought it from and there, in the pouring rain, we choose another. ‘That,’ says the garage owner, ‘is a different beast altogether.’ I just hope it’s a nice, quiet, cheap-to-run beast…

You never know who's looking!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Sunshine and Showers

The view when I returned from my run this morning.

‘So,’ says our postman, handing me a thick wodge of A5 envelopes, ‘you’ve got a good bundle today; all these are for you!’. Smiling weakly, I wait until I’ve closed the door before giving a little sigh at the latest deluge of paperwork. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my two years assisting with the Romantic Novelists’ Association ‘Romantic Novel of the Year’ awards it’s the value of a good postman, one who’ll keep your parcels out the rain when you’re not in, takes a sensible approach to the occasional underpaid envelope and, er, provides feedback on your running times.

And two minutes later!

Last year I was fielding parcels of books; receiving them from authors and sending them out to readers for judging, but it seems I was a bit optimistic to think that taking over as official score keeper for the awards would be any less time-consuming. Every entry is read initially by three readers who award points for all aspects of the books. The totals go to three of us by email and then the paper copies come to me for verification – and my goodness, there are a lot of scores to verify! Still, I suppose I’d be more concerned if I didn’t have a small mountain of score sheets growing in my study; at least this shows just how much interest there is in both writing and reading romantic fiction.

I almost never read horoscopes in the back of magazines, but flicking the Christmas (yikes) edition of Good Houskeeping I happen to notice my glowing stars for December - which is a bit of a relief given that it’s been a ‘sunshine and showers’ sort of year. ‘Right now you’re in a period of discovery in terms of your activities, goals and alliances…’ astrologer Shelley von Strunkel begins. This is certainly true as I’ve been very torn between three writing projects. It’s nice to have lots of ideas, but not very good for productivity to be pulled in three different directions. ‘December is about eliminating what doesn’t work, which enables you to focus on what holds promise and clear the way for new, exciting and worthwhile experiences to come,’ she concludes and given that I’ve finally decided which of my three options to run with, I just hope it’s the right one!

And finally, talking of new and exciting experiences, my work appears not in one but two new titles this week! Tomorrow sees the release of Me Time this Christmas a collection of three novellas by me and fellow Choc Lit Authors, Liz Harris and Angela Britnell and on Thursday Kisses and Cupcakes, a new selection of short stories by Choc Lit authors goes live. Mine’s called Melting Point and opens with a slightly saucy beach scene. You can find it here

Monday, 27 October 2014

Walking Pace

Traeth Bach
Eye worries apart, I decide I can’t sit around like Chicken Licken waiting for the sky to fall in so I take myself out for a run. It feels good, so good in fact that I discover when I check my watch that I’ve run my fastest 5k ever. 
Hmm, so much for taking it easy. 
But I also make time for plenty of reading; some new fiction and some old favourites too, like BB’s Little Grey Men and Down The Bright Stream, prescient depictions of a fragile English countryside irrevocably changed by human activity. Non-fiction draws me back to another comfort read, Roger Deakin’s Waterlog which is now on my Kindle so I can revisit the secret world of wild swimming whenever I like and his Wildwood which is a treat in store.

The weekend brings a visit from Rose and her husband Si so we decide to take a slow walk to the secret beach. Although the weather’s grey there’s a wealth of autumn colour along the way.

Mr & Mrs Fitz prepare for rain.
A precarious coastal path.

And an even more precarious descent!

But you do get the beach to yourself.

Well, almost!

All you have to do is climb back up.
Then it's a slow walk home for a well-deserved cup of tea and a big slice of home-made cake!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Flashing and Dashing

‘And this,’ the A&E doctor tells us showing us into a treatment room at the end of a corridor, ‘is also our ebola room!’ There’s comfort of a sort to be had in the fact that I’m not actually surrounded by staff in protective clothing, and also that I’ve been fast-tracked through casualty … although that in itself is rather worrying. I’ve had to seek emergency treatment for a flashing light show in my right eye which could be a posterior vitreous detachment – like the one I experienced in my left eye – or it might be the start of something more sinister like a retinal detachment and the only way to know is to seek expert medical help. Fast.

The ebola room, it turns out, usually serves as The Eye Room, and after a couple of basic eyes tests, further help is summoned. After a nervous wait, I’m thoroughly and efficiently examined by the on-call ophthalmologist who declares my eyes to be in surprisingly good shape for someone so short-sighted but to seek help immediately if the symptoms get worse … and breathe. Except, of course, I now have a few more anxious weeks hoping everything will settle down. I am, however, hugely grateful to the A&E staff at Aberystwyth's
 Bronglais General Hospital who showed me such kindness and dealt with me so efficiently.

With all the excitement of the Cardiff Half Marathon, Tom starting his PhD, my poor mother-in-law facing a round of medical treatment and a whole heap of Romantic Novelists’ Association committee work, we’ve barely stood still. And although I’m disinclined to agree with a couple of lay opinions that Too Much Running and Too Much Looking have contributed to my eye problems, I think I probably have been squeezing quarts of activity into a pint pot and it may well be time to take a bit of a rest.  On a more cheery note this arrived today – a very pretty sight for both my eyes!

The painting is Sea Monoprint by Tom Tomos.

Monday, 6 October 2014

What a Difference The 'Diff Made!

Medal and T-Shirt!
The last thing I do, before leaving the car to make my way to the start of the Cardiff Half Marathon, is to tell Tom that I love him. The horrific attack on ordinary people at the Boston Marathon in April 2013 has added an unspoken, ‘What if?’ to the pre-race nerves and the Cardiff Half Marathon is now the biggest half marathon in Britain after The Great North Run. It’s a chilly morning and the rain starts to fall as I walk to Cardiff Castle and find my timing pen. The atmosphere’s subdued; not quite so much of the banter which often marks the countdown to the start. I wrap my bin bag round my shoulders to keep warm and let go of all those nagging thoughts and fears leaving a clear calm space where I can focus on the race. A klaxon sounds but it’s almost six minutes before I cross the start line – and then we’re off!

The first mile’s over before I know it. I check my watch; 8.59. 8.59? My head tells me I’ve gone out too quickly, but my body feels fine. I settle in and just keep running, enjoying the rhythm of my own pace and enjoying being part of this colourful sea of runners where the waves eddy back and forth. At mile 4 we reach Penarth Marina then the Cardiff Barrage where crowds line the route, cheering and really raising the atmosphere. I’m so used to running alone in deserted country lanes that I rarely consider what a difference spectators can make. As the race winds up through the city, that crowd support sustains and energies my race; it’s exhilarating to see so many people clapping and cheering us on. There are snapshots in my mind that will stay with me; the little boy in the crowd on his dad’s shoulders, nearly asleep but still holding up his ‘Come on, Mummy’ sign, the elderly residents sat in chairs outside their care home waving at us, and a Muslim lady and her daughter offering water to the runners in plastic cups on a silver tray.

By mile 10, I know I’m going to finish the race and probably beat my best time … I’d love to come in at under 2 hours 10 minutes, but how much fuel have I got in the tank? At mile 11 I pick two good runners and try to shadow them picking up vital seconds despite a tricky hill. And then suddenly, I’m running for the finish line. The race clock reads 2:07:55 – I’ve beaten my 2hr 10min goal… but that includes the time elapsed waiting to get to the start so when my official chip time is confirmed at 2:02: 25 I’m absolutely over the moon!

But there was always more to this race than just running. This was my sixth half marathon, but my first for a charity, Pancreatic Cancer UK, the cause that’s so dear to my heart. I have to say I’m overwhelmed and incredibly touched by the support I’ve received not just from friends and family but from many strangers whose kindness often moved me to tears. Your stories of loved ones lost far too soon were with me and my thoughts of my dad as I ran. I’m immensely grateful to all of you whose generosity has enabled me to raise over £600 so far (my Just Giving page is still open here) for Pancreatic Cancer UK who do so much to help increase survival rates for this cruel disease. Many thanks to all of you.

Huge thanks, too, to the organisers and volunteers who made the Cardiff Half Marathon possible and to the spectators who came out in droves to create such an amazing atmosphere.

And finally my heartfelt thanks to my husband, Tom and to my family for their loving, loyal support which gave me wings to fly.

Shattered but happy!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Taking Stock

'Sunset Bardsey' by Tom Tomos
We’ve spent two days this week cataloguing Tom’s paintings which were rather haphazardly stored when we moved here three years ago. It’s been a joy to see old favourites, discover forgotten gems and to change the mood of our living rooms with different works. Not everyone has the chance to get a private viewing of a major retrospective of an artist’s work – nearly a hundred paintings - but my pride in Tom’s achievement has been tinged with frustration that he isn’t receiving wider recognition. He’s not alone, of course, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC programme about David Bomberg, whose critical stock rose only after his death from malnutrition, was a powerful reminder of how cruel the creative Fates can be. 

Drinking my tea this morning, I ruefully listened to Radio Four’s Today programme giving author David Nicholls over four minutes of airtime to promote his new book, Us, and to tell listeners how pleased he was that his comedy about marriage and family had been long-listed for the Booker prize. I subsequently tweeted Today telling them I’d be happy to do a soft interview talking about my novels which are also about relationships and marriage, but they have yet to take me up on my offer, so I can only assume that when male authors tackle these subjects they automatically become newsworthy. I’m sure David Nicholls is a good author - don’t all those sales prove it? - yet I can’t help but think that given the same amount of promotion, I could be a 'good' author too. As things stand, my ‘discoverability’ as an author, is mainly due to whatever I can do on social media – short of being really annoying – and on special deals on Amazon (or, last weekend, Kobo). The lower the price, the more willing readers are to take a punt, but it really did make me wonder, standing in the queue for a coffee in the Turner Contemporary café last week about what’s really of value to people when I noticed that the price of a single cupcake there, was higher than any of my ebooks.

Grumbles about relative values apart, driving to the supermarket a couple of nights ago, Tom and I were reflecting on what we’ve achieved between us since moving to Wales nearly nine years ago; paintings sold, novels published, academic achievements etc. Our quiet self-congratulations nearly became our last words as, suddenly, as an impatient van-driver, fed up with waiting behind a bus, sped head-on towards leaving us, so I thought, with nowhere to go but A&E. I still don’t know how we escaped, although Tom’s excellent driving skills had a lot to do with it, but, gosh, I’m grateful to be here. Being alive seemed a good reason to crack open our latest foraging recipe; Hedgerow Fizz made with elderberries, blackberries and a few rosehips. Sometimes you have to take stock and realise how lucky you are. Cheers!