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Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

It has been a cold spring this year, here in Snowdonia. I’ve been keeping my head down, getting on with the next book. Okay, wrestling with the dratted tome. It’s got to that point, just before it all falls into place, when it feels like nothing will ever make sense, and why did I start the thing in the first place, why did I ever think it was a good idea, but it’s too late to back out now. ARG!  Having been through this before, I should know this always happens, and you just keep plodding on until it works, but somehow, this point in the process  never seems to get easier!

Then, over the last few days, spring has burst into flower. It’s been so sudden and unexpected (I think we’d all given up), it’s been a magical experience. A real reminder of just what a miracle it is. The green of leaves has grown brighter and fresher, changing day by day, and my garden is growing more colourful every time I look. Finally, my baby beetroot and the broccoli, the peas, beans and salad leaves have been set out on their journey in my veg patch and the polytunnel, and the vine is showing signs of life.

Just before I did my back in with too much enthusiastic digging and weeding (okay, mega-procrastination), I snuck away from the computer and the dratted tome and went up to the coast with friends to visit one of my favourite places, Bondant Garden.

The last time I was there, it was autumn, when there were red and crimson maples and the final glory of the year. This time, it was all about the vibrant, wonderfully clashing colours of azaleas and camellias  – including some beautiful white camellias, to celebrate my rebellious Edwardian ladies’ tearooms of ‘The White Camellia’ , with Millicent Fawcett’s suffrage movement battling for equal pay for equal work, women’s right to education and financial independence, along the dignity of all men and women having the vote.

We were lucky, it was a clear day, with bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. In the end, we walked for miles, between the azaleas, and down to the dell, following the river and around the pond to the wilder part of the gardens, with banks of wild garlic, and then back past bluebells.

Finally, there was the trip to the garden centre, where I did my best to be restrained. (ahem)

My plan to spend the evening deep in wrestling my characters into submission didn’t quite work, I was far too relaxed to get the brain back into gear. But the next morning, I was fired up and raring to go. I hadn’t thought I’d been thinking about the tome while I was in Bodnant, I’d been too busy enjoying the sights and the scents and time relaxing with friends. But strangely, the bits that had been bothering me began to fall into place. The possible became possible. And that ginormous hole in the plot that had snuck up on me without me noticing (as they do) had a perfectly sensible solution, the facepalm, why didn’t I think of that before, kind of solution.

The trouble with wrestling, as I should know by now, is that the characters always win (it’s their story, after all), and you just end up going around in circles getting crosser and crosser until you can’t see a way out.

There’s nothing like a bit of perspective to make the impossible work, and beautiful gardens in springtime are the best way.

Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it. And those rebellious characters of mine had better agree, or else …

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I love Bodnant Garden, near Llandudno on the North Wales coast. It’s the kind of place you can spend all day, and never grow tired of revisiting. There are winding paths through different plantings, formal gardens, wilderness gardens, and a steep dell with a lake and a river below.

 

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Living so near, it’s easy to not make a special time to visit, and so to miss the changing of the seasons. I’d been meaning to go with a couple of friends for weeks, but you know how it is, with three busy jobs, busy studying and busy lives. Then, this Monday we all happened to be able tobodnant-trees-5-small take the day off. So rain or shine, this was it.

At it turned out, we were incredibly lucky. The day dawned with perfect autumn sunshine, and stayed that way all day, while the late summer flowers were still going strong, and the trees were at their most spectacular. Because it was so unexpected, it was a truly magical day. We wandered around for hours, exploring this way and that, chatting and catching up with news and gossip, and pausing to talk to complete strangers who, like us, were marvelling at the vivid red of the leaves, and bodnant-trees-2-smallthe beauty brought out by the sunshine. And of course I couldn’t resist the opportunity of having a few author pictures taken in such lovely light and glorious surroundings.

 

It was only looking back at the photos afterwards that I realised just how relaxed we’d been, and how great it had been to take time out from our lives and have fun. I didn’t get a thing done on the next book that evening, the intentions didn’t last beyond a cup of tea and falling asleep in the chair, much to Phoebe the collie’s disgust (related to lack of squeaky duck action, rather bodnant-4than her human finishing the next chapter). But then the next morning, that particularly knotty bit in the middle of the soggy middle of the next book (ha!) that I’d been bashing away at for days, de-knotted itself without fuss and neatly fell into place as if it had always been there. Which just goes to show.

bodnant-2-smallI shall definitely be making my way back to Bodnant before long to enjoy another changing of the seasons, to return refreshed and invigorated, and ready to go. Here’s to precious autumn days, good friends, and the deep creative power of sharing the beauty of our world, and pure, unadulterated, fun.

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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’.

 

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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!

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The Giant’s Head at Heligan

 

 

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Today I was going to blog about something else entirely.

But then last night I set my alarm for 2.30am to have a glimpse of the blood supermoon eclipse. I live on the very edge of a village, up a mountainside in Snowdonia, with very little light pollution, so this was a chance I just wasn’t going to miss.

My day job as an academic proofreader takes serious amounts of concentration, while sorting out publicity for my next books (yes, books (hurrah!), that’s the blog I was going to write), plus getting the next one (or two) seriously into gear, takes the rest of my headspace. So I was going to step outside and just look at the moon, and sensibly to back to bed again.

Moon eclipse 1Of course, I didn’t. Once the eclipse seriously got going, I was spellbound. Mitzi the cat, who sleeps on my feet, tucked herself into the fleecy blanket I was using to keep warm and purred in a companionable sort of a way, while the rest of the animals gave up and went back into the warmth.

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At first I was a bit skeptical about the blood moon bit. It was very pale and silvery. But as the shadow crept over, it turned orange, and then a deep red. It was quite unnerving looking through my binoculars, seeing the shadow encroaching, in such a very different way from the usual phases of the moon.

Then there was the darkness. I’d thought it would be like the solar eclipse, and last only a few seconds, but it seemed to go on for hours. In fact, I think it probably did. Stars began to appear, taking over the night sky with constellations and the Milky Way, along with shooting stars streaking over the mountains.

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At one point the faint deep red glow appeared to almost disappear, as if floating away, never to return. Despite my rational, 21st century brain, a small doubt arose that the moon would ever return. I could understand our ancestors’ anxiety when the sun and moon vanished, and the need to stoke up the midwinter fires to bring the warmth back again. It was wonderful to see the light slowly return, until there was a brief full moon again, before the sun rose, and the business of the day returned.

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So here I am, having staggered out with the recycling in the odd assortment of clothes I flung on in the middle of the night, and not quite sure how I’ll keep upright for the rest of the day. But it was worth it. It’s something I’ll never forget and feel incredibly privileged to have seen – and to work from home so I don’t have to prop myself upright in an office all day! It was also exciting seeing that some of the photos I’d taken with my ordinary little camera had actually come out. Some wonderful memories too!

Right, time to get the coffee on and get some work done while the adrenalin is still working…

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Portmeirion Wilderness

The Wilderness in Portmeirion

 

And so the end of the year has arrived.

 

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Dolbadarn Castle beneath Snowdon

The end of the ancient Celtic year, that is. Samhain was the end of the agricultural year, when the harvest was in and secured for the winter ahead. A time to relax after months of hard physical work. A time to celebrate, but also to pause and reflect. To take stock and prepare for the new year ahead. It was also a time when the barrier between the living and the dead thinned, allowing the loved, who are always with us, creep in around the fire to join their families once more.

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An autumn walk in Snowdonia

 I love this time of year, with its soft light and vibrant colours, with its fragility and sense of urgency. With its call to enjoy every moment of warmth and sunshine before the dark cold of winter really sets in. And it’s still a lovely time to reflect and plan before the serious partying of Christmas and New Year begins. So I’ve been tidying up my garden, preparing it for next year, enjoying the sun and walks amongst the changing scenery.


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Portmeirion at night

It’s been quite a year, with the publication of ‘We That are Left’ and ‘Eden’s Garden’ becoming a finalist for ‘The People’s Book Prize’, followed by the excitement of the Kindle version of both novels reaching the top 5 in the Amazon Kindle store. I’ve celebrated with finally getting my poor neglected garden under control, and a visit to Portmeirion to spend time with my lovely American author friend, Nadine Feldman and her husband.

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Portmeirion at night

Portmeirion is always a magical place to stay, with its eccentricity and sheer love of life. I’ve come back refreshed, reinvigorated and ready to get back down to the next book – and the unknown adventure that awaits next year.

For Samhain and Halloween I shall light my candle in memory of all those who are still with me, and take a last look back over the fading year, and huddle round the fire to prepare for the unknown year ahead – undoubtedly with a dram or so of sloe gin once the Christmas season arrives!

Happy Halloween!

 

 

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In the V&A

 

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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.

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The flowerbeds in Regent’s Park

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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.

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Practice!

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!

 

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Buskers in Covent Garden

 

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