Posts Tagged ‘Writing’


In the V&A


Downton small

Downton …..

I loved my time in London at the Historical Novelists Association Conference this summer. It was great meeting up with old friends and new, along with the inspiring talks and discussions to set the little grey cells racing. I arrived a day early, as I hadn’t been to London for a while and was looking forward doing a bit of research – not least in the V&A. Seeing costumes of a time is so different from a photograph, for one thing you see how tiny they were, and just how constricting some of the dresses. The transition from Victorian to Edwardian were my favourite exhibits, and especially this one. I had to suppress a giggle, though, when two Italian girls arrived behind me, took one glance and announced ‘Ah, Downton!”. And so it is.

It was also a visit to another past. The Conference and the accommodation were a few minutes from Regent’s Park, with Baker Street nearest tube station. Once, long ago, I used to trudge from Hammersmith to an office in Baker Street, escaping each lunchtime into Regent’s Park and my dream of becoming an author. It was very strange walking once again by the lake and between the flowerbeds, and retracing my steps from Baker Street tube up to the offices in Baker Street. After all this time, it looked very much the same. The tube station even smelt the same.

Regent's part small

The flowerbeds in Regent’s Park


Walking among the swans and the moorhens (who also looked very much the same) I couldn’t help but wonder what I might have said to my 23 year-old self, if I had met her coming the other way.

So, with my hindsight of thirty-odd years, what would I have told her? Like most writers, I beat myself up quite enough, so I think I would be kind. I’d tell her not to worry that the manuscripts bashed out on a dusty old typewriter in every spare minute always came winging back. It takes years, and rewrite after rewrite, rejection after rejection, to make a writer. This was only the start. I’d tell her not to worry that she couldn’t quite find a career her heart could follow. She already had one. I’d tell her not to be frustrated by the slightly ramshackled variety of jobs. Each was a learning curve, each a learning experience being stashed away to be brought out later. And I’d tell her that twenty-five was not old. Nor thirty-five, forty-five, even fifty-five. Most of all, I’d tell her to live her life, work her socks off, and make her dream come true. Just dreaming never got anyone anywhere.

Cavalry small


My 23 year-old self (being horribly lacking in confidence and filled with youthful angst, and taking herself so impossibly seriously, I’d probably have wanted to shake her) would not have believed me. Wouldn’t dared to have believed me, just in case. But hey, that’s youth.

Meanwhile, I wandered through old haunts, stumbling across cavalry practice (where else can you say that?), before heading back to meet up with my fellow authors.

My own revisiting of the past made me appreciate the present, big time. It’s been a long, hard journey, and it’s only just begun. I’m sure my 23 year-old self would never have believed me –  but now’s the time I’m having the time of my life!


Covent Garden Small

Buskers in Covent Garden


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In A Foreign Country

Ghana in 1976 with a baby and a suitcase

An interview with Hilary Shepherd

Today I would like to welcome to the blog fellow Honno author, Hilary Shepherd, whose second novel ‘In a Foreign Country’, set in Ghana, was published in March, and is currently in the Amazon Kindle summer sale. 

Hilary 4


I was 23 when I went to Ghana with a baby and one suitcase in 1976. All these years later the experience remains vivid, for the simple reason that I’ve never been back, nor have I ever been anywhere else quite like it.

Hilary 3There is an upside for a writer, writing about distant places, as authors like Peter Ackroyd have observed. However exacting it is to re-immerse yourself in faraway sounds, smells and colours, you don’t have so many decisions to make about what to include and what to leave out because the setting has been pre-edited by the limits of your memory. All you have to do is bring remembered detail to life. And because you are revisiting a place in your head, the detail that does come back is exciting, heart-rending, revitalising. That’s a pretty useful starting place for telling any story!


Hilary 5

As for the plot, I had written already about the trials and tribulations of living in the Sudan with a young family in my first novel and I wanted to write about somebody who thoroughly enjoys Ghana, however challenging she finds it. My character, Anne, is just out of university, keen to put her anthropological studies to good use at the same time as getting to know the father she has hardly seen since she was small. He has been working in Tamale for many years. Like him, she loves the place at once and decides to stay. And like him, she then falls in love awkwardly, perhaps unforgivably, with someone she finds there.

I didn’t want to write about northern Ghana outside the rainy season I experienced because the dry season is so different, so something had to happen to Anne within the same short time-scale of seven months. Hospitals I knew a bit about, having spent an unscheduled day in one in Tamale. I threw in some of my maternal experience in scenes with a secondary character, and drew on a brief trip we made to Burkino Faso, and horse-riding in Kumasi. But schools and teaching, which is where Anne gets to know her priest – that bit I had to shamelessly invent. After all, we’ve all been there, at some stage. It just needs a bit of imagination to go back as a teacher and in a West African setting.

As for the priest himself, a friend once told me the merest outline of something experienced by someone she knew, which has fascinated me ever since. What happens to a charismatic man if his life outgrows the framework he imposed upon himself long ago? And if you find yourself emotionally implicated, should you keep away or should you stay?

Hilary 1

 I’m not living in Ghana inside my head anymore. The book I’m currently working on is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Civil War. Writing historical novels is another foreign country in itself.


Currently just 99p in the Kindle Summer Sale, you can get your copy HERE

Even in your father’s house you can feel like an outsider…

Recently graduated, Anne is in Ghana for the first time. Her father, Dick, has been working up country for an NGO since his daughter was a small child. They no longer really know each other.

A few days into her six-month stay, the houseboy Moses returns
from a trip. As the weeks pass, Anne has a growing feeling that she’s surplus to requirements. Dick is grumpy and distant; Moses distinctly put out at her continued presence. She finds respite teaching eager young pupils at a local Catholic school. Then, out of the blue, a terrible accident changes everything.

In its aftermath, Anne’s closeness to a priest in trouble with his superiors at the Mission, reaches a tipping point that endangers them both.

Praise for In a Foreign Country

“intelligent, subtle and sensitive… I was conscious throughout of the author’s deft control and understatement. Less was definitely more, and what she chose to omit, as well as what she included, made it a much greater book… a thought-provoking, absorbing and rewarding read, which I highly recommended.”
Debbie Young (Debbie Young’s Writing Life)

“Will leave you thinking about the characters after you put it down, and wanting more as you read the last words…[Shepherd's future as an author looks bright]“



 After a lifetime of organic farming, and more recently making windows and stairs in oak for a living – and kitchens in all sorts of woods – Hilary Shepherd published her first novel with Honno in 2012. ‘Animated Baggage’ is set in the Sudan, where she lived with her young family for two years during the 80s. It is a wasp-on-the-wall view of the world of international aid but sadly is no longer in print. Earlier this year Honno published her second book. ‘In A Foreign Country’ follows a young English woman as she arrives in Ghana, where nothing is quite as she expects it to be, including the hidden faces of love.

Hilary is married to Nick and they live on a wild Welsh hillside where they spend a lot of time pushing rocks about. They also spend time in Spain, in a remote mountain village in the Maestrazgo, where the book she is working on now is set.

You can follow Hilary on Facebook: 

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Thank you!


Thank you to everyone who downloaded, posted on Facebook and tweeted and retweeted – and took We That are Left not only into the top 10 best sellers on the Amazon Kindle charts, but to the dizzy heights of number #4. Not to mention being #2 in Sagas, Family Sagas and Historical Romance.

One very proud, and slightly bemused, author here.

WTAL full price and movers

WTAL 2 in Sagas









Thank you to my brilliant publishers Honno Press, shouting encouragement from the Hay Festival whenever there was a spot of Internet reception. And thank you to the lovely supportive Novelistas of Novelistas Ink, and especially Louise Marley, who was cheering me on all day, and told me I’d make it to the top 100, then the top 10, and like in the true Oscar speech this is turning out to be, I didn’t believe a word of it! I’m honoured to be up there with real (not just for a day!) best selling Novelista Trisha Ashley.

I have a feeling the next Novelistas meeting is going to involve cake.

The WW1 poppy seed cake from We That are Left seems to be the order of the day!

WW1 Seed Cake small

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Old wellies never die – they become growers of garlic!

Today I’m blogging on the Novelistas Blog about how I’ve loved seeing the gardens in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show commemorating the First World War. You can read the post HERE, and you can find my favourite garden, the Potter’s Garden HERE.

As I learnt in my research, many grand gardens were abandoned during the war, as the men left. But many new gardens were created to grow much-needed food, by women, schoolchildren and conscientious objectors, along with men too old or too young, or otherwise unable, to fight on the battlefields.  As WW1 dragged on, and shortages increased, many discussions appeared in the newspapers of the time, like this one from 1916, expressing a very modern outrage at NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), but with a chilling twist, that brings home the reality of daily life for its first readers: ‘We are living in the 20th century in the time of the greatest war ever known …‘ You can read the original HERE.


Derby telegraph allotments 1916

Derby Telegraph December 1916 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)


By 1918, the arguments had settled down into a dealing with the practicalities. Here,  in 1918, home grown food supplies are discussed alongside home rule for Ireland and the exchange of prisoners. You can read the original HERE


Liverpool Echo allotments 1918

Liverpool Echo May 1918 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Also in May 1918, the newspapers announced that Britain was almost self-sufficient in bread – alongside a report of a recruiting rally for the Women’s Land Army in Exeter – the delicate creatures of the pre-war world (excluding the Suffragettes, of course, who didn’t count as real women at all) have clearly gone forever! You can read the original HERE.

Land army 1918 Western Times

Western Times May 1918 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Where I get my delicious veg box each summer – this must have been a familiar sight in WW1, wherever you lived.


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In The Spotlight Guest Blog Author Juliet Greenwood….

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Interview with




 This week fellow Honno author Lindsay Ashford’s ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ is the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour serial.

I loved the book, and can’t wait to hear the radio version.

And congratulations to Lindsay for winning her Mastermind heat this week. Exciting times, indeed!




This interview with was originally posted in 2011, when ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ was published. 

Today, on December 16th, Jane Austen’s birthday, it’s my great pleasure to interview Lindsay Ashford, acclaimed crime-novelist and journalist, and author of ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’, recently published by Honno Press.  ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ is also the first of Honno’s books to be available for download as an ebook. 

Most appropriately, I chatted to Lindsay while she was in Chawton House in Hertfordshire, the former home of Jane Austen’s brother, and so a place familiar to Jane Austen herself, and now home to a unique collection of books focusing on women’s writing in English from 1600 – 1830. The Chawton House Library also works closely with Jane Austen’s House Museum. So a perfect setting!

Lindsay Ashford is best known for her popular gritty contemporary crime series featuring forensic psychologist Megan Rhys. So I began by asking what had inspired her to delve into the past to write a historical mystery? Lindsay explained that it was when her partner was offered the chance to work for Chawton Library that she began to spend time there, as they divided their time between Chawton and their home in Wales.

 Gradually, she became fascinated by the letters and archive material in the library and found herself being draw into the world of Jane Austen’s family. While reading Jane’s letters, she came across Jane’s description of her final illness: ‘I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.’

For a writer who has studied criminology and researched the symptoms of arsenic poisoning for her Megan Rhys books, alarms bells immediately began to ring.… But it was only when, not long afterwards, she met the former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, who told her that a lock of hair which is now in a nearby museum had been tested for arsenic by its former owners and come up as positive, that the kernel of a story began to stir. The writer’s mind began working on ‘what if’. Just supposing Jane Austen had been murdered rather than died of ignorance of the effects of arsenic in treatments for rheumatism, then who in her immediate circle might have wanted her out of the way, and why? And so ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ was born.

I then asked Lindsay what she found as a challenge in writing a historical fiction book rather than a modern urban thriller and was this research process very different from when she is researching her Megan Rhys books, such as ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Killer Inside‘?

 Lindsay explained that she found it more relaxing in one way undertaking the historical research. Keeping up with all the latest forensic tecniques, when so many people are so knowledgeable about them nowadays (thanks to all the police ‘procedurals’ in print and on TV) is demanding when researching her Megan Rhys books. On the other hand, writing a novel in a historical setting meant making sure every detail of setting and language rang true, which meant checking everything to make sure there were no glaring mistakes.

Lindsay tells ‘The  Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ very much in her own style. As Jane Austen’s own writing is so much a part of our psyche, I wondered if Lindsay had found it difficult not to imitate her style, or unconsciously lift bits from her books, especially as there are shades of so many of her well-known characters in the novel. Lindsay explained that she had not really read much Jane Austen since she was at school, when she had really been too young to appreciate the perceptiveness and humour. When she first arrived at Chawton, she read all of the novels and so came to them with a fresh eye. Something she feels was definitely an advantage when she began researching Jane Austen’s family for ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’.

Fortunately, after living with Jane Austen as a character in her head, Lindsay can switch off from all her research and still very much enjoy all Jane Austen’s novels now. Lindsay’s favourite is ‘Persuasion’ and Anne Elliot is her favourite heroine. When I asked Lindsay if she had a favourite hero, she confessed to having a soft spot for Greg Wise as the caddish Willoughby in Emma Thompson’s film version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’. And I’m definitely not going to argue with that!

Lindsay says she would like to tackle another historical mystery at some point, possibly set in the Regency period – but probably not with real historical characters so closely involved. Which sounds intriguing.

And lastly, I asked Lindsay about her experience of working with the wonderful editors at Honno Press, and if she had any tips for aspiring writers. Lindsay confessed that – like most published writers – she has a draw full of rejections for her work, alongside novels that will never see the light of day. Again like many published writers, it was only when she began to work with an editor that she began to truly perfect her craft. For her, she says, an editor is an impartial eye that will tell you just as it is. It will not be kind, like friends and family will be tempted to be, but a good editor will give a new writer the benefit of years of experience. Lindsay’s advice is to listen and learn. Even an experienced writer still needs the input of an editor, as every writer gets so close to their story it’s quite impossible to see it with a clear eye. Even for ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’, it took about four drafts to get the book right and the best it can be. There’s always room to learn!

And so thank you to Lindsay Ashford for being interviewed for my blog!

About Lindsay:

Lindsay Ashford became the first woman to graduate from Queens’ College, Cambridge in its 550 year history. She gained a degree in Criminology. Lindsay Ashford was then employed as a reporter for the BBC before becoming a freelance journalist, writing for a number of national magazines and newspapers.

 In 1996, Lindsay took a crime writing course run by the Arvon Foundation. Her first book, Frozen, was published by Honno in 2003. ‘Strange Blood’, also featuring forensic psychologist Megan Rhys was shortlisted for the 2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. She wrote The Rubber Woman for the Quick Reads series in 2007.

 ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ is published by Honno Press.

You can find Lindsay at her website:

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Today I have great pleasure in welcoming fellow Honno author, Jo Verity, to the blog.

5 novels

Jo is an award-winning writer of short stories, novels and poetry. Her stories and articles have been  broadcast on Radio 4, and she has been a finalist in the Mslexia International Short Story Competition . In 2003, she was the winner of the Richard & Judy Short Story prize.


A very warm welcome to the blog, Jo.  Can I start by asking how you began writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always been a reader but, until 1999, it had never crossed my mind that I might be a writer.

That year, I’d planned to fly to Budapest to link up with Ruth, an American acquaintance – an eccentric Jewish zen-buddhist sculptor whom I’d first met in Prague when I was Inter-railing several years earlier – but, at the last moment, she cried off. At the time I was working as a medical graphic artist at the Dental School in Cardiff. I’d booked a week’s leave and I decided to use the week to get to grips with my new PC – a daunting task for a non-techie in those days. I needed a document to practice saving, copying etc. and my husband, bless him, suggested I ‘write something’. I was cheesed off at missing my trip, cross with Ruth for letting me down, and I got this off my chest by writing a story with her as my central character. By the end of that week I knew I wanted to write – but I never dreamed I would get ‘stuff’ published.

2. Do you feel there were advantages to not having your first novel published until you were older? Did you feel you benefitted from more life experience, or were you afraid you had started too late?

My first novel – ‘Everything in the Garden’ was published in 2005. I’d been writing for 6 years by then which is probably pretty average for novelists. The fact that I started writing late (I jo-verity-656477782was 54) seemed like no big deal. It certainly didn’t cross my mind that it was ‘too late’. And there were many advantages. My free time was pretty much my own to do with as I pleased. As a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother, I’d seen life from lots of angles. Having first-hand experience of the events that shape everyone’s life has enabled me to write (perceptively, I hope) about birth, death, marriage and parenthood. All that ‘ordinary stuff’ that becomes suddenly extraordinary when it affects us.

51E3FaUFqUL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_I choose my protagonists carefully. It’s horses for courses. For instance I would be crazy to attempt to write a novel from a teenager’s point of view. On the other hand, if you want to know what it’s like being responsible for a teenager, you might like to read ‘Not Funny, Not Clever’.

There is one disadvantage to being an older writer. I don’t want to sound bitter here but I’ve come to the conclusion that some agents and publishers are age-ist. To them the author is a commodity. And it’s easier to market a glamorous young thing than a ‘more mature’ person.

3. Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? Or do you enjoy the different discipline each brings?

I love writing both. I recently finished writing a novel – ‘Left and Leaving’ – and before embarking on the next, I’m writing a short story as a sort of palate cleanser cum brain shaker-upper. It’s a mistake (for me, anyway) to try and do both at the same time because I need to stick so closelyto my characters – take my eye off them for a moment and they might wander off.

A novel is a long haul. You have to like your characters because you’re going to spend a couple of years with them. When I start writing a novel I begin with a character or two and a ‘what if’. (In ‘Bells’ it was ‘what if’ a reliable husband stumbles out of his banal routine and into the life he feels he should be living.) I never plot my novels. I let my characters dictate where the story goes and who we might meet on the way. I definitely have no idea how it will end. This keeps it fresh for me, but this organic way of writing means that my characters often lead me down blind alleys and I have to back-track. It makes writing slow. I’m delighted if I can produce five hundred new words in a day.

Short stories are totally different. You have pretty much to have the whole thing in your head before you start. In a few thousand words you must transport the reader to a different world; give them a glimpse of something that might illuminate their own life. There has to be a point to it. There’s no room for waffle. Every word must earn its place. It can be great fun, too, as it allows you to play around with structure and style.

4. And finally, I have to ask what it felt like to win the Richard and Judy short story competition in 2003, and do you feel it helped your writing career. And on a more frivolous note – did you get to meet them?


 My writing career has been shaped by two pieces of what seemed like bad luck. Firstly, my cancelled holiday and secondly a bout of food poisoning. Were it not for the latter I wouldn’t have been off work lying under the duvet watching the Richard & Judy Show. It was the last call for entries to their short story competition. I happened to have recently finished a story which I thought was okay so I stuck it in the post and forgot about it. Three months later, I got a call saying that my story – ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ – had made it to the last fifteen and inviting me to the show when the winner would be announced. I was thrilled to get that far and had no idea that my story had been judged best (of 17,000!). When Judy read out my name, my only thought was that I was going to have to speak ON LIVE TV. That part is all a bit of a blur. I do remember afterwards, in the green Room, chatting to the judges – Martina Cole, Tony Parsons and Suzy Feay, the then literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. I was incredibly excited to know that three such respected members of the literary world rated something I’d written. I got to meet Richard and Judy, of course, who were EXACTLY as they come over on the TV. Judy would fit in fine with a crowd of women on a shopping weekend. And Richard was, how shall I put it, pretty sure of himself. 


My prize was a trophy and publication of my story in the Independent.

The best thing about winning was confirmation that someone thought I could write. I naively assumed I would be inundated with offers from agents wanting to take me on. But after a few weeks I accepted that that wasn’t going to happen. Around then I received a letter from Honno Welsh Women’s Press. Had I, by any chance, written anything longer? (‘Short stories by unknown writers don’t sell.’) I had, that very week, finished the first draft of ‘Everything in the Garden’ which Honno published in 2005.

Thank  you for your insight, Jo, which was fascinating. And good luck with your latest novel, ‘Left and Leaving’

51yBOE8soUL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_“Humane and subtle, a keenly observed exploration of the way we live now… I am amazed that Verity’s work is still such a secret. A great read
Stephen May, author of Life, Death, Prizes

The fifth novel from Richard and Judy Award winner Jo Verity, author of Sweets from Morocco a “pitch perfect evocation of childhood and sibling relationships
Marcel Theroux

Photographer Gil is on an extended grey gap-year, working in
the London hospital to which Vivian brings Irene for emergency
treatment; together they try to establish calm amid the chaos.
Irene is thrilled with her ‘guardian angels’, they less so with her ongoing interest in their lives.

Gil has a girlfriend, living in the same building as him, and a troublesome family back home. Thirty-something Vivian has a high- flying boyfriend, an irascible father and a demanding job. But they keep finding reasons to spend time together in the run up to Christmas. And still there is Irene, intent on filling the holes in her life…

Marooned in Tooting by a sudden snowstorm, Vivian and Gil are forced to spend the holiday confronting secrets and responsibilities they’ve been complacent about for too long.

Wales Book of the Month January 2014

Praise for Left and Leaving

her best yet. It is beautifully written… both rewarding and inspiring and I would recommend it unreservedly.
Ian Kirkpatrick

Humane and subtle, a keenly observed exploration of the way we live now… I am amazed that Verity’s work is still such a secret. A great read
Stephen May, author of Life, Death, Prizes

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