Thursday, 1 March 2018

From injustice to insight: Jane Davis guest-posts about what inspired her new novel's powerful examination of resilience after tragedy

My guest today is Jane Davis, who has written an absolutely fascinating range of novels. I do love this, that she doesn't keep stirring the pot and serving up the same old same old: every book has an extraordinary cover and an extraordinary, individual tale to tell. Her latest is no exception: Smash all the Windows tells you by its title that it is about rage and rebellion against injustice. I'm always fascinated by the triggers for story and how stories take hold of us until we simply must tell them. Here's Jane's account of how this latest novel came into being for her –


Write about how Smash all the Windows came into being? It sounds so simple.

The seed of my novel was anger. I remember that quite clearly. I was appalled by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged stunned and blinking from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now that the original ruling had been overturned, they could get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crowd-crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. What was particularly shocking was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms across the country. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame. In that moment, victims became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.

Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exist in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.

The previous year, on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. The escalator I would normally have used was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for how fast it was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

My fictional disaster shared many common elements with Hillsborough. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t posted on Twitter. In both instances, someone in management was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way’ is still the most dangerous sentence in the English language.) Facilities dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Risk assessments hadn’t considered how multiple casualties might be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families and friends, and the police, doctors and nurses who dealt with the aftermath. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones.

But, writing about my fictional incident, new difficulties soon presented themselves. And they came from far closer to home. In May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting of my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.

Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I had to make conscious decisions if I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. This would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, everything I read about accident investigation delivered a clear message. Any finding that an individual is to blame is not only likely be biased, but will fail to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but there are difficulties and dangers holding companies and organisations to account. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in a London Underground station, I picked a prime example of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures. London’s rapidly growing population is the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties of expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these challenges more concentrated than in the City. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.

Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged that suggested it could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now appeared to be commentating on two disasters, both of which were far closer to home! And having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was seriously out of tune with public opinion. 

Fortunately the focus of my novel is human drama. My challenge was translate the emotional fallout onto the page, capturing all of the guarded memories, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who turns his grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. The real story is about human resilience and the healing power of art. It is a story with a beating heart.

Smash all the Windows:

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.

It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Smash all the Windows will be released on 12 April, but you can pre-order (link takes you to a centralised page where you can choose which vendor to visit and pre-order). The special pre-order price is 99p/99c (Price increases to £1.99 on 12 March. Price on publication will be £3.99). The Universal Link is books2read.com/u/49P21p - choose your vendor and pre-order/by from there.

From 13 February to 10 March, US readers can also enter a Goodreads Giveaway for a chance to win one of 100 eBooks. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38447206-smash-all-the-windows

About Jane:

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.

Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.



Jane has also written: 

Smash all the Windows individual pre-ordering/buying links:

Amazon.com                     https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079MBP3WD
Amazon.co.uk                   https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079MBP3WD
Kobo:                                    https://www.kobo.com/gb/en/ebook/smash-all-the-windows
Smashwords                      https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/788752
Apple (iBooks)                  https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1346027779


Press enquiries janerossdale@btinternet.com
High resolution photos available from https://jane-davis.co.uk/media-kit/

Finally:

I, for one, am delighted it's March now! February was not my friend: I'm still ill with a tenacious virus but will be will be launching my first online course, Get Ready to Write, imminently (just as soon as I feel vaguely human again!) If you're not already on my newsletter list and you want to be among the first to know more about my courses and special offers, then you can sign up here. You'll get a free productivity guide too!








Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Self-publishing service shark warning: guest-post by Ann Kelley


You'll know that I have often celebrated the freedom writers have these days to choose between a traditional and an independent route to publication. My guest today is Ann Kelley, who has previously featured on this blog here. I love her writing - her ability to observe the natural world is second to none. She has experienced success as a traditionally published writer, winning the Costa Children's Book of the Year with her novel The Bower Bird, the second in her enchanting and moving trilogy about Gussie, a young girl with a life-threatening illness, who is one of the most 'alive' people you will ever meet in fiction. The first in the series is The Burying Beetle and all are published by Luath Press.

Ann has also published an ebook herself, of her novella On a Night of Snow. She went on to publish it last year as a lovely paperback with her own illustrations - and if you're a cat fan, this book should be catnip to you!

I've invited her to guest-post, though, because she has a salutary tale to tell of the darker side of the self-publishing industry, where, sadly, there are still sharks cruising to exploit writers. I won't name the firm in question here - but if anyone is seeking to self-publish I strongly advise them to join the Alliance of Independent Authors, because they can provide recommendations of good service providers and warn you off the baddies and incompetents.

Here's Ann's experience: 


My novella ON A MOONLIT NIGHT was first published as an Ebook (On a Night of Snow) a few years ago under a different title. My editor, Jennie Renton, who had worked on several of my published novels offered to set up the ebook for me. 

But, I had started to draw, and was given encouragement by my teachers and others to illustrate my own writing.  I remembered the novella, and set to work producing as many drawings of cats as I could.

ON A MOONLIT NIGHT is the first book I have published myself, having had over twenty books published by mainline publishers in the past.

Self-publishing is an exciting project. I had an excellent, helpful designer - Peter Bennett, who had worked with me on several other productions. He helped with choosing the correct paper and card as well as designing the entire book, cover to cover. And what a cover! That was fun! We couldn’t decide which cat to place on the front cover, and in the end he  presented me with the image of all the cats I had drawn! I particularly asked for the end pages to be visually exciting with flaps. Having complete control over the design was wonderful. I recommend it.

However, when it came to finding a printer things started to go very wrong. I got quotes from several local printers but decided on X (London based) as the price was considerably lower. A mistake! 

The designer sent the pdfs to them and they approved them. I ordered 250 copies. I was offered a 10% discount if I paid upfront. I took up the offer - second mistake! March 2017 I paid the discounted  price of £1530. 

The printer kept promising that the courier was on his way. We had house sitters to answer the door if they arrived when we were on holiday in Scotland. The books failed to arrive, more promises and excuses, no books. By June  I had given up hope. The printer wouldn’t give us the courier’s tracking number. We failed to reach the courier on one or on the phone.

He said he would  use another printer. I thought X was a printer, but not so. He was just a middleman, it seems. Again no books.

The printer promised to pay the full refund if the books didn’t arrive by that weekend. No books. I phoned and politely said that I felt stupid, duped, that it was a scam.

And now, no refund apart from little dribbles of £10 and £20 - adding up to £150. So I went to the Small Claims Court. What a palaver! Had to send them three copies of all emails or correspondence between X and myself and pay court costs. Quite stressful even thinking about it. 

We attended the court just before Christmas. No-one from X attended the court. The judge went through the details carefully and found for me. She did say thought that didn’t necessarily mean that I would get my money back. Was X a limited company? No idea. I was naively expecting them to be honest with me. A lesson learnt.  PAY ON DELIVERY, NOT UPFRONT.

I eventually went to a more expensive local printer, who delivered the beautifully printed books for free. I don’t know if I will get my money back. I don’t want to pay for bailiffs. But I won my case. Have kept all the copies of emails, just in case…

Ann's book is a delight, in spite of all the travails! If you are interested in it you can email her to receive a buying link (contact me at info@fictionfire.co.uk and I will forward your message). You can also find out more about Ann and her other books, by visiting  her website at www.annkelley.co.uk  If you'd like to read the original story in ebook form, here's the link

My 2014 interview with Ann, discussing the spirit of place, is here.

Here's the link to the Alliance of Independent Authors again:

Alliance of Independent Authors /

Finally, though a virus has derailed my plans temporarily, I will be launching my first online course very soon - if you're not already on my newsletter list and you want to be among the first to hear, then you can sign up here. You'll get a free productivity guide too!


Friday, 2 February 2018

When is being faithful being faithless? Anna Belfrage guest posts about a wife's terrible dilemma


With Alison Morton on the left and Anna Belfrage on the right
 at the HNS conference in London 2014
Yikes, where did January go? It may have been a long, dark month, but it went in the blink of an eye - probably because I've been working full-tilt on a project. All will be revealed soon and if you want to be the first to know, then join my newsletter list at www.fictionfire.co.uk

After this post-Christmas break, I'm delighted to welcome Anna Belfrage to Literascribe, to talk about the inspiration for her story, 'The Sharing of a Husband', which appears in Distant Echoes. Her story shows us a husband and wife who love one another but are in an absolutely impossible situation - I'll let Anna explain why:

In 1984, the Swedish Herrey brothers won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song named ‘Diggiloo, Diggiley’. The Herrey brothers were somewhat exotic in Sweden: they were practising Mormons. At the time, most Swedes would equate Mormons with young men in dark suits who would knock on your door and politely ask for some moments of your time so that they could introduce you to their faith. Those of us who’d watched How the West was Won (a TV series featuring the Macahan family who set out due west in the aftermath of the US Civil War that was a HUGE hit in Sweden) had been presented with a somewhat more sinister version of Mormons: dark clad men who practised polygamy and enticed young gullible girls into plural marriages.

Obviously, this was a gross simplification. There was much more to the Mormons than their take on polygamy.

The Mormon religion saw the light of the day in the early 19th century. The first prophet, Joseph Smith, purportedly had a vision where an angel guided him to discover a number of tables in gold, upon which was inscribed the story of a lost people, the Nephites. This people were the descendants of one Lehi who, inspired by God, had his extended tribe build boats and sailed west, away from the land of Israel and to Central America. Joseph Smith translated the golden plates into what became the Book of Mormon, so named after the angel that pointed Joseph in the direction of the golden tables.
At the time, the world was a restless place: in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the economy was generally unstable. The future looked anything but pink and rosy, and more and more people turned to religion to find some sort of hope. The Awakening was upon us, a period when preachers of all denominations tried to grow their flocks by promising salvation. The young Joseph Smith was so confused by all these preachers, all of them insisting their interpretation of the Christian faith was the right one, that he went into the forest and prayed, hoping for divine guidance. God delivered, telling Joseph to seek guidance only in Scripture, not in charlatans.

Simultaneously with all this religious fervour, the world, and in particular America, saw a number of Utopian movements. These were movements aimed at building a better, fairer world. People traipsed off into the wilds to build a brave new world, aspiring to societies built on equality and freedom.
The religion Joseph Smith presented to the world in the 1830s was to a large extent influenced by Utopian thought. He wanted to build a brand new way of life in which no one went hungry or homeless. Obviously, this appealed. And as Joseph Smith was a charismatic and very handsome man, he was especially appealing to women. 

So far, so good, one could have said. Not so. The Mormons were viewed with scepticism by the established churches, and when Joseph Smith had the vision that had him urging his Mormon brethren to embrace polygamy, he indirectly handed his enemies a loaded gun with which to shoot him. At the time, polygamy was not expressly forbidden by American law, but it was definitely frowned upon. Persecution of Mormons increased, Joseph Smith was arrested and murdered in his prison cell, and the new leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, saw no choice but to lead his people even further west, all the way to present day Utah where the tenacious Mormons would carve out a garden in the desert and establish a new city, Salt Lake City.
Brigham Young was a firm believer in polygamy and considered it to be the duty of every Mormon man to take multiple wives and of every Mormon woman to accept having sister wives. But surely it can’t have been that easy, can it? Jealousy between wives must have caused strife and disharmony, and many men would probably have preferred having only one wife—because they loved the one they had.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Salt Lake City on several occasions. I count many LDS-members (Church of Latter Day Saints is the official name for the religion founded by Joseph Smith) among my friends. And when I ask them what they think of polygamy (which, BTW, is no longer permitted by the Church of Latter Day Saints, hasn’t been since the late 19th century) and what might have driven Joseph Smith to promote it, I get varied answers. No one questions the validity of Joseph’s vision – as the First Prophet, he may not be flawless in the eyes of present-day Mormons, but criticising him is not really on. However, both men and women talk about the sacrifice a plural marriage required: from the man, who had to distribute his time fairly among his wives, from the women, obliged to share their husband.

One of my Salt Lake City friends lent me a biography of one of his ancestors, one of the founding members of the LDS church. This man would end up with three wives, but it was his first wife whom he truly loved, thereby afflicted by guilt because he couldn’t quite summon the same feelings for his other two wives. In his case, he set up separate homes for his wives and spent his life ambulating from one home to the other, fathering close to twenty-four children. He was extremely proud of all his children, and he did his best to be a devoted husband to all his wives – but he only called one of them “my love”.

All of this inspired my short story, The Sharing of a Husband, the story of a young couple in Deseret. The husband is under severe pressure by the elders of the church to take more wives, but his present wife won’t hear of it. But poor Ellie is one lonely voice and Joshua ultimately caves, betraying Ellie to comply with the requirements of his church. Not, I imagine, an easy situation to resolve.

Thank you, Anna!

About Anna Belfrage: Anna is a financial professional with two absorbing interests - history and writing. She has authored the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her ongoing series is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer's rise to power. The latest Graham saga novel is There is Always a Tomorrow - her loyal fans are, no doubt, already looking forward to the next! Anyone who knows Anna finds it impossible to understand just how she manages to be so incredibly productive - but then, she has an ultra-dynamic imagination that never seems to switch off! Anna frequently guests on history blogs and her website is at http://www.annabelfrage.com/, her blog is at https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/ and you can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annabelfrageauthor/ 

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 herehere 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 and be the first to hear about my new online courses launching in February!
www.fictionfire.co.uk


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.
www.fictionfire.co.uk

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. www.richardbuxton.net

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.
www.fictionfire.co.uk

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. 
www.fictionfire.co.uk