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Spring flowers

This last Bank Holiday weekend I did a between-books clear out (generally known as procrastination). Okay, my excuse was that I was building up to promoting ‘The White Camellia’ and needed a little headspace before diving into Edwardian ladies’ tearooms (the hotbed of revolution and the freedoms we have today, but more of that another time). Oh, and the first glimmerings of the first draft of the next book were seriously doing my head in (as they do).

So, I cleared out drawers that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, happily sorting through memories, and plain junk, with the aid of re-runs of ‘Columbo’ and ‘The Great British Bakeoff’.

In the middle of it all, I finally (as you do) recovered something that had been put in a Very Safe Place, and so had been lost for ages.

What is it? A postcard. A simple postcard, no picture, written in a hasty, slightly shaky, scrawl in pencil.

Postcard date

And its significance? Well, there are two. Firstly, there’s the date. September 5th 1939. Two days after Britain and France had declared war on Germany. You see, without this little postcard, I, and my brother, would never have existed. The scrawled note is from my mother, to let a friend, who would one day be my dad, know that she had safely arrived back from a terrifying journey across France, including surviving a channel crossing. What she didn’t say until later, was that her boat had been pursued by a submarine at one point, and she was lucky to survive. And if she had not been able to get away from Paris? I dread to think what might have happened to a teenage girl, totally on her own in a strange land, with little money, and certainly no connections to bring her home.

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I’ve known this story all my life. I’ve written about it earlier in this blog, and the letters we found that had passed between my mum in France and my dad, who was working in London. I remember finding the postcard among my dad’s things, along with the letters. It was one of those eerie moments when the past, that that has been familiar as a story, suddenly becomes real. At the time, I couldn’t deal with it, it was so real.

It’s only been recently, and while I was writing ‘We That are Left’, that it has struck me just how much that postcard, and the stories that lie behind it, have made me the writer I have struggled to be, all my life. You see, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the versions of the war you saw in films and on TV were the gungho, shoot-em-up heroics, with Clint Eastwood finishing off a few hundred German nobodies in one sweep of his machine gun.

What my mum saw in that terrible journey through a country swept up into war for a second time in living memory, and therefore with the additional anguish of knowing what lay ahead, was the saying of final goodbyes. Of lives broken up, and families about to be extinguished. The story of ordinary women and men caught up a horror that could, in this uncertain world of ours, engulf us all.

Postcard

That is why, when I came to write, ‘We That are Left’, I wanted to write about the experience of ordinary civilians, from all walks of society. And I wanted to reclaim the stories of the women, who in all warzones are the survivors, the ones holding it all together, and who, in the films from my childhood, never appeared. The odd dollybird whimpering in a corner, maybe, not the ordinary, the unglamorous, and the middle-aged, who kept on going, whatever was thrown at them. Who kept the world turning.

It’s also, I’ve come to realise, why it’s those women, too, who are always at the heart of my books. In ‘The White Camellia’, Mrs Pankhurst makes only the briefest of appearances. I’m far more interested in the ‘ordinary’ women, who are, in the end, utterly extraordinary, and, against all odds, changed the world.

And sorry, Clint. It’s not a fairground game. That is some mother’s son, brushed casually into oblivion, who most probably never asked to be there in the first place – any more than those French boys wanted to die, when my mother’s train made way for them, as they were swept off to war.

The little postcard is now back in a safe place, where the pencil won’t fade. But I shall print the scans and frame them, and place them on the wall of my writing room, as a reminder of the little fragment of history – both global and personal – that will always be my inspiration. The past is indeed a different country – but one that is, after all is said and done, not so very different from our own.

Hellebore

Bodnant Magnolia

Spring is in the air – let the sunshine and the publicity begin!

Over the past few days, I’ve emerged bleary-eyed from editing ‘The White Camellia’, blinking at bright sun that has suddenly appeared amidst the rain (don’t mention rain), with banks of primroses in my garden, and the frogs boldly chirruping in my pond.

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It was clearly time to get out from behind the desk, and back into the world again. Writing, and especially editing, is an all-consuming business, which I love, but I also always have to remind myself the importance of taking time off afterwards, and letting the jumbled, scrunched, and tumble-dried brain take in some much-needed stimulation that has nothing to do with words at all. Taking publicity photographs is a perfect way of coming down from the editing intensity without that empty feeling of having nothing to do (housework, however dire the post-editing house, doesn’t count).

White Camellia in Bodnant

My first mission was to hunt down as many camellias as I could find while it was still the blooming season –which given the oddities of this winter in the UK, was definitely urgent.

So on the first fine day, I twisted a friend’s arm, and away we headed to Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy Valley. It was the last few days of dogs being allowed in every day for a while, so Phoebe, and her elderly collie friend, Lucy, could come with us, on best behaviour, of course.

Bodnant gardens

I love Bodnant Gardens. There are formal bits, and a valley with a lake and a rushing stream, and whatever time of year, there’s always something to see. Being sheltered and near the sea, it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s north of Snowdonia, except for the snow capped mountains in the distance. I’d gone to photograph any camellias I could find, but there were also snowdrops, banks of daffodils about to flower, pretty irises and crocuses, and so many different varieties of hellebore it seemed there was another delight around every corner.

Hellebore

It was a wonderful surprise to be reminded of just how much life there is out there, even at this time of year, and, with the azaleas about to bloom, with a promise of more delights to come.

I love my own garden, but I could never grow the variety of plants, or the sweeps of snowdrops under the trees. It was an unforgettable day, wandering in the (sometimes) warm sunshine, watching new life begin to unfurl.

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I have a feeling that I shall have to go back on the next fine day, to see how it has all progressed. For the purposes of publicity, of course. Or, with the next book brewing, a little research…

Stop press: ‘We That are Left’ is currently on Amazon UK for £0.98! 

Amazon US at $1.36

 

 

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Shell at llanf

 

Spring is definitely (if a little tentatively) in the air.

Time to emerge from finishing a book, followed by embarking on the edits for ‘The White Camellia’, which will be published by Honno Press this September.

The Hellebores take a bow

I love editing. Well, that is after feeling impelled to clean the bath, de-flea the dog, and other glamorous pastimes to avoid getting down to it at all. Followed by the ‘I can’tdo this’, ‘who do I think I’m kidding’, and ‘maybe the day job isn’t so bad after all’. Then I grit my teeth, ignore the washing, and get down to it, and we’re away, on the rollercoaster ride of coaxing and tweaking this book into the book I’ve always wanted it to be.

This is my third experience of working with my wonderful editor, Janet Thomas. This time it has been both different and the same. Different because there are not nearly as many edits as for ‘Eden’s Garden’ and ‘We SnowdropsThat are Left’. I’ve learnt the lessons and developed my inner editor, which feels like the moment you take off those stabilisers and soar off on two wheels.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t need an editor. However experienced I get, I will never, ever say that. This time is just the same as before – an editor is the link between the writer and the reader, and all those bits that, as the writer, you just can’t see, because the story is alive in your head. There I was, worrying and fiddling over all kinds of aspects – and totally missed the one that wasn’t there, because I thought it was. It was in my head, but my readers don’t read inside my head. And, as ever, the moment it was pointed out, I knew exactly whatmy editor meant, and that she was right.

I’m not saying that I always obey: I often go off on a tangent and find a new solution that neither of us have thought of, and that makes for a much better story. I’m glad to say the buzz of editing is still there, big-time. I have loved every minute of it.

Winter sun

So I shall now crawl out from the emotion ride of my writing life (so far), blinking into the light of day, and my miraculous transformation from an Edwardian Cornwall to twenty-first century Snowdonia, into a house that is a tip, a garden best not mentioned, and a dog tapping her dainty little paws, demanding normal walkies service to be resumed instantly, or else.

And somewhere out there, is a cover for ‘The White Camellia’ all ready and waiting – and it’s gorgeous. And top secret, for now.

I can’t wait for the next part of the journey!

The White Camellia

My alter ego, Heather Pardoe, on learning the craft of writing novels through writing novellas

Heather Pardoe

Snowdon 1 Snowdon from Llanberis

It’s quite strange seeing my novella ‘Finding the Snowdon Lily’ out as an ebook. You see, it was first written when ebooks were just a whisper and before the whole social media thing took off. (Yes there was life before Facebook and Twitter!)

Snowdon 3 Dolbadarn Castle, with Snowdon rising up behind

It may be small, but, like all my novellas, it is very dear to my heart. My novellas are where I cut my teeth as a novelist. At the time, I’d had a couple of short stories published, and I was in the RNA New Writers’ Scheme, floundering away at trying to finish my great Tome of a novel that was going to win every prize going and make me rich beyond my wildest dreams.

Ferns 1When a friend suggested that a 30,000 word pocket novel was a good place to learn my craft, I dismissed the…

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I never expected to find myself in ‘Good Housekeeping’.

I’ve been published in magazines before, but it has almost always been fiction. So when I was given the chance through my publishers, Honno Press, to pitch for an article in the Christmas edition, my first reaction was that it wasn’t for me. The article was about ‘How we remade Christmas’ after a family change, or the dead of a loved on who had been central to family Christmases. What could I write about? My Christmases are very quiet and ordinary. I had nothing to say.Tynysimdde in the snow


DSC_1677By a strange coincidence, I was joining up with my family in the cottage in the wilds of Snowdonia where we used to spend Christmas. Being there, I remembered all those Christmas, fourteen vegetarians sitting down to (a very delicious) Christmas dinner, cooked by my dad, who was always the centre of Christmas. It wasn’t that we were just all vegetarians. The cottage really is in the wild and for many of those Christmases had no electricity (candles were not just for Christmas) and a loo in the pigsty at the bottom of the garden (in an isolated valley with no lights, surrounded by forest – just the thing to develop the imagination …) and several times were snowed in and had to be rescued.

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Candles (and oil lamps) were not just for Christmas

 

 

 

 

 

In the Snow

The cottage is there somewhere!

In fact, it was one of those times were were snowed in at Christmas when I was very small, and were down to our last handful of coal and tins of baked beans, and having to break the ice over the spring to collect water, that became the very first story I ever had published, the story that made me a professional writer. It was something I’ll never forget, following the rest of the family, clutching my doll as my mum clutched my baby brother, making my way through snow that was nearly higher than me, as we made our way over the fields to be sledged down the steep hill to my uncle, who had battled his way along treacherous single-track roads in a battered Landrover.

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The old fireplace with the remains of the range

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Mum at the cottage at Christmas in the 1950s

So, in fact, it turns out the Christmases I thought of as ordinary, were not really ordinary at all. And the way we remade Christmas after my dad died, in Swedish style, reindeer sausages and all, was about as different as you can get. And then there was the fact that this Christmas would have been my dad’s one hundredth Christmas. The Christmas he was born, was in the midst of the horror of the First World War. History is that far away, and yet so close.

 

I’m delighted my article was chosen to be in ‘Good Housekeeping’. I’m not sure what my dad, the child of working-class Victorians, brought up in a level of poverty unimaginable in Britain today, and a proud, stubborn, Yorkshireman to boot, would have made of it all. Although I rather suspect that secretly he would be chuffed to bits, and (as a non-drinker) might even have raised a small glass of wine to the occasion.

And the Swedish bit? Ah, well you’ll have to read the article to find out!

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Finding the Snowdon Lily

Today, I would like to introduce my good friend Heather Pardoe, who writes serials and short stories, and is now published by Endeavour Press.

Heather’s first book with Endeavour, ‘Finding the Snowdon Lily’, (if you are in the US click HERE) is a historical adventure sent on and around Snowdon during the great Victorian fern-collecting craze (yes, there really was such a thing) is published today.

Dolbadarn Castle with Snowdon behind

I was going to celebrate the occasion by interviewing her, only this might be a little predicable, as, er, (as most of you will already know), she is, in fact, me.

I’ve written before about the pros and cons of writing under two names for the Novelistas Ink Blog http://novelistasink.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/serials-or-novels-that-is-question-by.html Over the past few months I’ve been in even more of a whirl between my two identities. I’ve been writing the next serial and editing further books for Endeavour as Heather, while at the same time bashing away at the new book as Juliet, trying to get as much done as possible before the edits land for the novel out with Honno next year.

And yes, I have ended Daughter of Conwy 4 smallup talking to myself! Luckily, my four-legged secretary and research assistant takes such things in her stride.

Today, however, I’m going to celebrate as Heather. There I was, taking it all in my stride, telling myself, just another Heather adventure out there – but now it’s come to it, I’m just as excited as when a Juliet book comes out!

And so, what does Heather write? Well, much shorter books, for one. But they are also historical exciting adventures, inspired by the many wonderful women we generally don’t hear about, who never let a crinoline or corset get them down, but were off up mountains and outwitting villains with the best of them. And like her serials, they are set in Snowdonia – including on Snowdon itself.

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Climbing Snowdon in the mist

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Reaching the summit

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The cloud clears – this is what Catrin would have seen from the top!

So this evening Heather and I will be raising a glass of champagne (possibly of the homemade elderflower variety, it being a weekday, and having a hero to rescue from particularly dire straights) to ‘Finding the Snowdon Lily’ – and Heather Pardoe’s future writing career!

Heather’s website is HERE

You can follow her on Twitter HERE

And on Facebook HERE

 

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Mousehole 2

Mousehole

If you follow me on Facebook, you will know that I’ve just spent a week in Devon and Cornwall collecting photographs for the launch of my next book with Honno Press, out next year.

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Inspiration at Westwood Ho!

The novel is still firmly under wraps, so the only thing I can tell you is that it’s based around a mansion with a tragic past on the North Cornwall coast, near St Ives. So when I was invited to be one of the panel of writers at the Exeter Short Story and Trisha Ashley Awards, it was a chance I couldn’t resist.

 

Landydrock

A riot of colour at Lanhydrock

Of course, I couldn’t go straight from Exeter to St Ives without stopping off at St Austell and visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. I’d regretfully decided I would have time for Lanhydrock, but my satnav had other ideas, and I’m so glad she did. The sun came out as I found myself passing by – so of course I had to go in.

The melon house

The melon house at Heligan

I didn’t have time to see the house (next time), but the grounds were a riot of colour, and the views spectacular. I could have gone back the next day, but I had a date with what will always be the highlight of my trips to Cornwall – the Lost Gardens of Heligan, whose flower gardens inspired ‘Eden’s Garden’, and whose greenhouses inspired Elin’s beloved kitchen garden of ‘We That are Left’.

 

Office Lost Gardens

The office at Heligan

PotsI loved every minute of my day in the Lost Gardens. Having lived through the First World War with my characters, it was very moving to see the offices and greenhouses that, with a way of life, were lost due to the ravages of the war.

I’ve been longing for ages to visit the Eden Project – and it definitely didn’t disappoint! I could have stayed much longer, but rain was forecast for the next day, and I wanted to get photographs of Mousehole and Limorna Cove while the sun was still shining. After a day in beautiful St Ives, I made my way up the wild north coast, ending up back in Devon, in Westwood Ho!, where I’ve spent several happy holidays, before making the drive back to Wales.

Wild seas at Perranporth

Perranporth

It was a blast of a week. I drove nearly 1,000 miles in all, and packed so much in, all I could do in the evenings was stagger back to the B&B and just about manage dinner and a bath before collapsing into bed. I had never been to Cornwall so late in the year, so it was a pleasure to see the late flowers and autumn colours. I was very lucky with the weather, with none of the promised rain arriving, and I’ve got all the photographs I could need.

Squash at the lost gardens

I’m still absorbing my week in Cornwall. This blog post has been a whirlwind tour, but there will be many more to come, exploring the sights and the sounds. I’m buzzing with ideas and feel energized and inspired and ready to go. And I shall most definitely be going down again. I saw so much – but I know there’s plenty more to see!

Giant's Head

The Giant’s Head at Heligan

 

 

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