Monday, 28 July 2014

Brave New Worlds

It’s strange to think that when I post this blog, my elder stepson, his wife and their toddler son will be on a plane bound for Canada where they are going to live. Last week we attended a family farewell party for them and the next day Tom and I looked after the baby whilst they said goodbye to their work colleagues. It’s been a time of mixed emotions; we all want to keep our loved ones close, but our daughter-in-law is a French-speaking Canadian who can see the opportunities her country can offer their little family and Tom and I certainly support them in their quest to make a good life.

This view was reinforced after our babysitting stint. It was getting late, but we decided to drive home to Wales whilst the roads were quiet. We stopped at the first takeaway we found to buy something quick to eat, a kebab restaurant in a straggle of run-down shops by a dual carriageway. As we waited for our order, a handful of men also waiting struck up a sexist, racist conversation that was painful to hear – not least because our daughter-in-law is black. Did we say anything? Of course, not – we had three hundred miles to travel and didn’t especially want to end up in an even uglier situation. Now, I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that any place is perfect, but being confronted with such casual racism and sexism, I was simply grateful that night, that my stepson and his family were leaving that particular crowded, claustrophobic and narrow-minded part of the world behind

To the secret beach...
We needed to recharge our batteries after our return to west Wales. The weather’s been glorious and Tom’s been trying to persuade me to visit a little beach he and my stepson discovered some time ago. I’ve dragged my heels as the beach is only accessible by boat or down a steep cliff and I wasn’t especially reassured by Tom’s ‘It’s easy! You’ll be fine!’. And, actually, it was fabulous, although quite a slog (even more so coming back) and I managed the cliffs a lot better than a pair of frail-looking Dutch ladies who practically landed on us. The sheltered bay was perfect for swimming (not without a swimsuit, as Tom told Lily, but without a wetsuit!) and we had a lovely day, so it was well worth the effort and just goes to show that sometimes you just have to be brave!

The sweetest ‘brave new world’ story this week has come from a new Facebook friend, writer Tina K Burton, who was kind enough to buy my novella, Only True in Fairy Tales and liked the heroine, Eloise’s rescued greyhound, Gracie so much that she’s hoping to adopt her own Gracie. Tina’s written a blog about the beginning of the adoption process which I guarantee will have you keeping your fingers crossed for everyone involved – especially when you see the lovely photo of the beautiful girl who’s waiting for a new home. You can read Tina’s blog here.

Painting is 'By the Cliff Edge' by Tom Tomos

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Coverage and Uncovered

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell has a new book out in September. I know this because Radio 4’s Today programme kicked off by announcing that the writer was trailing his new novel by putting a short story out on Twitter.  A four-minute interview, not to mention numerous plugs throughout the show, gave David Mitchell lots of lovely prime time exposure so that he could explain why he wasn’t ‘a social media animal’, didn’t want to be seen as a ‘gimmick chaser’ and, er, to promote his new book.

Well, good luck to David Mitchell, or his publicist, for garnering so much attention, but I do wonder what made this particularly story so newsworthy. Twitter fiction isn’t news, as any of Joanne Harris’s followers will tell you (and her #storytime treats are exquisite). And although Twitter used to be about conversations, it’s now overflowing with authors flogging their books prompting me, one morning when I could see nothing but promotional tweets, to write this haiku:

Twitter streams gleaming
With shoals of shiny fishes
Sweeping out to sea.

According to recent figures published by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, authors’ incomes have fallen dramatically, so it’s not surprising that we’re all trying to raise our profiles. Actually, looking at those figures, I can only aspire to even the lower levels of those earnings, so I’m as keen as anyone to come up with innovative and interesting ways to make readers discover my books so that I can keep on writing. Some of these methods, like my Pinterest Boards and Spotify playlists, are useful tools in themselves and help me build my fictional world as I write a novel. Others, like guest blog posts and the occasional short story, are time-consuming, unpaid work which I hope will attract potential readers’ interest or even, perhaps, a four minute pre-recorded soft interview on Today.

Well, you might reasonably say, you’re not David Mitchell. True, I’m a woman who writes romantic fiction, but my novels are far from ‘churned out’ – a label which seems to be frequently applied to genre fiction that’s easy to read. My writing ‘voice’ is often playful, but look beneath the surface and you’ll find plenty of serious issues. There are references to alcoholism, homophobia, neglect of the elderly, rural deprivation, isolation and emotional abuse to name a few, but my personal pact with my Choc Lit readers is never to leave them with the feeling that they want to sleep with the light on and to always end on a happy, up-beat note.

I write slowly, waiting for the characters to reveal their inner natures and carefully, mentally listening to the rhythm of the words as I form each sentence. Oh, and my characters happen to have sex. I’ve had a couple of comments about Follow A Star being a bit saucy, but I never include a sex scene for the sake of it but because of what it says about a couple’s relationship. Cathy, for example, the heroine’s mum in Follow A Star, has been terribly hurt in the past. She’s miserable about ageing, hates the thought of losing her looks and sees sex as an affirmation of her youth and vigour so likes to show off a bit. For me as a reader, explicit sex scenes with graphic descriptions of bits and bobs are a bit of turn-off and potentially disrupt the flow of a story unless they’re written very skilfully. As a writer, I try to make those love scenes all about the characters’ hopes, fears and expectations – albeit, with a sometimes seaside postcard dash of humour. I may not be a ‘literary’ author - so I’m never going to get that Radio 4 interview - but I work hard to make sure that every one of my novels is as good as I can make it.

And as literary writers are forced to mingle with the rest of us on social media, they might even find it a rewarding seam in terms of engagement with their readers. I’ve had some wonderful comments from people who’ve enjoyed my novels. But it would be nice to hope that one day I’ll earn a living from my writing too.

The painting is Bad Moon Rising by Tom Tomos

Monday, 14 July 2014

Visiting the OU and Coventry Cathedral

Official Publication Day for Follow A Star found me at the OU in the Hub while Tom presented a paper to prospective PhD students. 
It’s been a busy time for both of us so rather than travel all the way back to west Wales we stayed at a Premier Inn overnight then went off to see Coventry Cathedral. Like the Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral a few weeks ago, it’s one of the places we’ve always meant to see … I’m so glad we finally made the effort. It was a profoundly moving experience, marked throughout by poignant reminders of the horrors of the Coventry blitz on 14 November 1940 yet tempered by all the love, care and craftsmanship poured into the building that rose from the devastation. 

We arrived early and wandered round the remains of the ruined cathedral before crossing over to the new building just as it opened. Here are some of the places where I paused for reflection.

Ecce Homo, sculpted by Jacob Epstein

Detail from the West Screen in the new cathedral.
Designed and etched by John Hutton, it links the old and new building

The font in front of the stunning Baptistry Window

Detail from the Baptistry Window

One of the eight Tablets of the Word

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane

The Charred Cross

The Tapestry of Christ in Glory, designed by Graham Sutherland,
 it's the world's largest tapestry

With those images still flooding my thoughts after we came home, I posted a photo from my visit on Twitter which prompted a response from a friend who knew the cathedral well. She was kind enough to send me the link to her poem about the place which I invite you to read.  You can find it here

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Sailing By

“The wind has howled all day and I now know what hailstones look like when they hit the sea. I’ve also seen phosphorescence, not splashing over the stern in fluorescent spangles, but rather less romantically swirling round the loo! I got up for a wee in the night and although I’d been forewarned by Tom that the sea water flushing the loo was full of plankton, it was still a little eerie seeing the bowl come alive with sparks of coloured lights. Impressive, though, despite the setting. We have been on the mooring for 27 hours with no sign yet of being able to move on…"

Extract from my sailing diary. Walton-on-the-Naze. Waiting to cross the Thames Estuary.

Today sees the paperback publication of my third novel, Follow A Star, the second to feature Little Spitmarsh, a faded seaside town trying to reinvigorate itself. It’s also the second of my novels set around boats. In fact for much of the beginning of the novel May and Bill, the heroine and hero - neither of them whom need any more complications - are trapped together on a very small boat! I knew exactly how each of them would set the other off, and had a lot of fun creating sparks and misunderstandings between them. It was a hugely enjoyable novel to write and like, Turning the Tide, draws heavily on the days when I was a sailing ignoramus who happened to fall deeply in love with a keen sailor.

When I first floated the idea of writing a vaguely nautical novel (Follow A Star’s my ‘naughty’ nautical novel, according to Ma) I was discouraged by a friend in the know who told me ‘women don’t do boats’. I suppose the reason I couldn’t let go of the idea though is because I don’t do boats either – at least not carbon fibre go-faster yachts with seventeen-man crews clad in the latest offshore gear. But I do ‘do’ new experiences and sailing’s given me those in abundance, from shaking with fear in huge seas off Land’s End to watching basking sharks in flat calm seas, being accompanied by a pod of dolphins playing in the bow waves or seeing puffins skittering across the water. I’ve been challenged and inspired by every moment I’ve spent at sea, so I hope even those of you who think you don’t like boats might reconsider and not be too put off.

As for my sailing diary, well, we finally crossed the Thames Estuary but were driven by bad weather into Ramsgate where we met another couple, Margaret and Richard Masson who were also sheltering from the gales. Margaret and Richard had the most beautiful old wooden yacht, Hephzibah and were ‘heading south’ to follow their dreams. One dream both Richard and I shared was to get published. My diary entry simply says:
“We left Ramsgate at 3am. Margaret shouted, ‘it’s not a rehearsal!’ as we left.”

Richard died last year, at far too young an age, but he did see his dream come true and you can find his book, Boonie here. As for me, I’m so glad I followed my star – as the tagline of my novel states, ‘sometimes your heart’s the only navigator you need.’

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Fairy Tales and Elderflower Fizz

Thanks for visiting the 'start the week' edition of Home Thoughts Weekly. This week I'm starting with something to read and a drink to go with it.

I’m thrilled to bits to share the news that my novella, Only True in Fairy Tales, is available now, a week before the paperback publication of my full length novel, Follow A Star on 7 July. And just look at that cover (another stunner from Berni Stevens)!

My stories, long or short, always begin with an image. For many years now, I’ve been watching a black rescue greyhound, Gracie, in my mind’s eye. Add to this image a house, a Gothic curiosity on the edge of the Downs where I grew up. And another house, a Victorian cottage, the house I really did grow up in, also on the edge of the Downs. Go to the front bedroom, the one I shared with my sister, where I would sit for hours staring out the window, watching the thoroughbred babies in the racing stables opposite being put through their paces. And snuffling round the house somewhere is a very naughty miniature dachshund who hunts and destroys discarded footwear, shoe laces, coat buttons, boxes of Maltesers and an entire dolly family. Allow these images to swirl around until they settle, then add a sleeping beauty – who has a very good reason to believe love is only true in fairy tales and a handsome stranger… but is he a prince or a beast in disguise? And those are the foundations for my novella, Only True in Fairy Tales.

And now some fizz to go with it. You can find lots of recipes for Elderflower champagne but here's how ours went in pictures:
Gather elderflower heads

Lemons, water, sugar, yeast

Add the washed flower heads. Do the steeping and fermentation bit.

Strain (the mixture - not yourself) Then add a little more sugar.

Leave for at least a week.

And enjoy!


Home Thoughts Weekly has been neglected this year, left on the shelf while I’ve been busy with other projects both professionally and personally. At the same time I’ve also noticed that the longer I’ve left it, the easier it is to put off writing the next post. Thinking about it, the slump probably means that somewhere along the line, the blog’s gone a bit stale. 
What to do? Well, 'Home Thoughts' has brought me a publishing contract and new friends, it’s served as a mini newsletter for further-flung family and been lots of fun. So, rather than ditch it, I’ve decided to shake the mix up a bit, to blog weekly, on a Monday – a sort of Start the Week blog if you like – to widen the themes and invite some guests along too. The revamped blog begins tomorrow with some news I’ve been waiting to share, please join me when you can.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Seeing Stars

The country lanes have been especially beautiful this year. Despite cool temperatures and frequent heavy showers, we’ve been able to get out and about running, cycling and walking with friends.

A combination of Romantic Novelist Association business and pleasure took us to Hereford last weekend. Our travels were somewhat curtailed by the car exhaust falling apart but thanks to the lovely folks at Kwik Fit who patched us up for no cost, we were able to visit Hereford Cathedral and see the wonderful Mappa Mundi. It’s one of those treasures I’d known about but hadn’t quite put myself out to see – and I’m so glad we did! It’s truly amazing and so touching.

'Beyond Limitations'. John O'Connor's sculpture in the Lady Arbour Cloister Garden

A rather less well-known document also went on view to the public this week. My third novel, Follow A Star has just been released on Kindle before its paperback publication in July. It’s the second in my Little Spitmarsh series, linked but not a sequel as such, to my debut novel, Turning the Tide (which is featured in June’s Kindle Monthly Deals for 99p). I really enjoyed writing this – I know I’ve given it my all, so it’s a case of waiting to see what everyone else thinks. If you’re moved to do so, please leave a review… unless, of course, you don’t like it in which case my family will thank you if you spare me your full and frank opinion – they’re the ones who have to persuade me to come out from under my desk. And with Follow A Star very much on my mind, I’ve started seeing it in all kinds of unlikely places…