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The range at the Squatters’ Cottage in Blists Hill

I loved the BBC’s ‘The Victorian Slum’. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a reality TV series in which a group of twenty-first century families and individuals were sent to live the lives of the inhabitants of a Victorian Slum, in the conditions of the 1860s to 1900.

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The Squatters’ Cottage

I was initially interested because of my research for ‘The White Camellia’, which included the campaigns to improve the lives and working conditions for women, which was part of the suffrage movement’s struggle for women to have the vote. I’ve also been researching the Victorian period for the book I’m working on at the moment. It’s all very well reading about conditions, and the struggle to pay the rent each week in a system stacked against you however skilled and hardworking you might be, but watching the struggles – and the anger – of people you get to know as they live the reality week by week really brought home what it must have been like.

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

 

It also reminded me of the inspiration for my own fascination with history, which came from stories of my Victorian great-grandmother, forced, like so many, from a rural life to the industrial heartland of Lye in the Black Country near Birmingham, and who rocked the cradle with her foot while hammering nails to keep the family afloat. This wasn’t a side of history I’d heard from anywhere else, and brought home vividly the realities of women’s complex lives and complex roles at the centre of a family’s survival. Ever since, I’ve loved visiting living history museums like Blists Hill in Ironbridge, and the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, where I stepped inside a nail-making workshop just like my great-grandmother’s, where women supplemented the family income, being paid half the rate men were paid for making exactly the same nails (unless you could say they were made by the men, of course). You can see the nail shop HERE

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The pantry of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like the inhabitants of the Victorian Slum, this wasn’t the unfair practice stacked against my ancestors, paid the lowest possible piece-rates, so that however skilled, and however hard you worked, you could never make any more than the rent and, if you were lucky, enough to eat. Even in the 1920s, when my father started work at 14, he wore his mother’s shoes, as there were no others.

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The bedroom of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like many such families, mine survived against the odds, and with the help of campaigners, libraries and adult education (not to mention the protection of the welfare state), broke free of the tyranny of the weekly rent. To be honest, I spent much of ‘The Victorian Slum’ in tears, at the unfairness and the total lack of understanding by many of the prosperous, made rich by perpetuating grinding poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. It also gave me added respect for social campaigners like Josephine Butler, who gathered the facts to prove that the true price of cheap hats was paid by the milliners who, even on a 70 hour week, could not make enough to survive, and were forced into part-time prostitution to keep a roof over their heads.

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Blists Hill

Most of all, ‘The Victorian Slum’ brought home the strength of family and community to overcome the odds. It reminded me of my mother’s family, the nail-making side, centred around my aunts, and the slightly eccentric great-aunts who lived in the house with the nail-making workshop at the bottom of the garden until they died.

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The garden of the Squatters’ Cottage

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The pigsty

Many of my memories as a child are sitting in a garden while the menfolk tinkered with their cars and their vegetable patches, and the women ‘gossiped’. What I only began to understand later was that this exchange of conversation between a group of closely-knit women was, as it had always been, the invisible and unheralded glue that held the centre together. And they were making sure that we, the next generation (even the girls), were part of the small percentage at that time who got to university, so we would never dread the rentman’s knock on the door.

 

The Victorian Slum can feel like ancient history, but it’s not. The grandmother who held me in her arms was the baby rocked in that cradle as her mother hammered nails to survive. That close.

I’m not sure I’d have had the stamina to live through the conditions of ‘The Victorian Slum’, and I have the greatest admiration for those who did. And I shall be keeping the DVD at hand in case I ever feel my life is uncertain or hard as a reminder – along with the Victorian nail found when my cottage was being repaired, and which still gives me goose-bumps.

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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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This weekend I went to beautiful Tenby in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, for the annual Tenby Book Fair, organised by fellow Honno authors Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore. It was very exciting for me this year, as the Fair came just days after the publication of my latest historical novel for Honno Press, The White Camellia. It was definitely a case of one proud author holding her book and not letting it out of her sight!

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I love Tenby, with its wide sweep of coastline and the bright colours of its houses. This is the second dsc_0176time I’ve been, so I’d got my bearings and was able to explore a little more of the winding streets and the sheltered harbour. Tenby is small, bustling and friendly, held inside ancient town walls and overlooking Cardigan Bay, with Caldey Island on one side, and the distant view of the Gower and Worm’s Head on the other. Cornwall and Pembrokeshire share a similar wild coastline and sheltered coves – there are even palm trees on the sea front at Tenby, thanks to the Gulf Stream bringing in a mild climate this far north.dsc_0109

The Book Fair itself is part of Tenby Arts Festival, and was a real buzz. Not only was the hall packed with authors of all different kinds of genres, but quite a few were from my own publishers, Honno Press, and authors I’d met last time. And of course all those lovely friends on Facebook dsc_0098and Twitter who it always great to meet up with in real life – or meet for the first time, finally putting the real person to the photos online.

 

 

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My lovely friend and fellow Honno author Carol Lovekin and her breathtaking debut novel ‘Ghostbird’

The day itself went by with in a blur. I always love meeting readers and chatting about books and stories and the enthusiasm for reading that we all share. It was also fun to have a get together with fellow authors and catch up with news, and the inevitable struggle with the this book or the next. I’m always glad to be reminded it isn’t just me who struggles with the logistics of writing and housework adsc_0178nd not feeling guilty that the housework never wins! It was also good to have a relaxed meal together. Writing is such a solitary business, it’s always a buzz to be sociable, and simply have fun.

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I had a great time at the Tenby Book Fair, and come home tired, but also feeling refreshed, replenished and ready to go. So thank you everyone at Tenby Book Fair – and see you next year!

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p1090718I love visiting Erddig, near Wrexham. It’s a big old house with gardens, set in a green and rolling landscape. It’s also beautifully preserved, not only the formal rooms for the family, but also the bedrooms and sitting rooms under the eaves that were inhabited by the servants, and to be honest look a great deal cosier than the equistitly decorated and furnished bedrooms below, in which I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have dared to sneeze for fear of damaging some priceless wallpaper or ornament.

p1090712The servants’ rooms, although plain, give a sense of the less visible members of the household, the ones who made it actually function, making themselves comfortable with what little time they had free, of friendships, rivalries and the ebb and flow of a close-knit community.

It’s that sense of community, and the distance, yet proximity, of very opposite, separated, and intertwined lives that I love in ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’. And it’s what makes the big old house, seething with secrets and an unknown past that raises all kinds of possibilities.

Like my first book for Honno Press ‘Eden’s Garden’, ‘The White Camellia’, published this week, starts with a big old house, this time on the wild cliffs of North Cornwall. Tressillion House was once as grand as Erddig, but is now ruined, the family dead, or forced to leave in such haste their belongings are still scattered around, like ghosts of a past that had once been.erddig-car

Into this ruin of lives comes the woman who, many years ago, set in motion the perfect revenge that has broughtp1090722 the family to its knees. Sybil has no intention of taking on the ruin she has created, let along falling in love with the dilapidated house and garden. But revenge is never that simple, and for every human being, life changes us. As Sybil stands among the remains of the past, and the lives that once lived there, a new story begins, one that can heal, or destroy, her.

p1090705That beginning of the story was one that sparked in my brain several years ago, when I first visited Erddig. It was strange going back, with the story completed, the book itself about to arrive from my publishers, and the publicity ready to begin. It reminded me too of just how much I loved watching ‘Downton Abbey’ and that sense of upstairs and downstairs lives intertwined. Like Miss Marple, it’s possible to see all life in a small village – including the tightly-bound village of a large old house and its inhabitants.

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I can’t wait to visit my next old house and gardens …

PUBLICATION DAY THIS THURSDAY!

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The White Camellia 2

A few days ago, copies of my book arrived from my publishers, Honno Press.

It’s beautiful. I tore open the packet and lifted out the top one, and sat down and stared. I couldn’t quite believe it was real. Of course, I’ve been looking at the White Camellia 1cover of ‘The White Camellia’ over the past months, and I’ve been working on story for over two years, and this is not my first book – but it still has that punch-to-the-stomach astonishment that it’s there at all.

Holding it lovingly in my hands is a reminder that the creation of a book is such a long, intricate, and at times agonizing process. I love that first moment when an idea hits, like an explosion in the brain, sometimes apparently out of nowhere, and you just know it’s going to work. Then comes the long, hard slog of getting that story down, revising, and revising, and revising until it works. I always find the first rush of enthusiasm inevitably turns to despair at some point, as the whole thing begins to feel like a seriously bad idea, and it just becomes a slog to get to the end, because I’m stubborn like that.

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Then, just as you get it to where you think it’s right, its time for the first outside view. In my case, it’s my editor, the wonderful and totally perceptive Janet Thomas, and the whole process starts all over again. I’ve said before how much I love the editing process. With each book, I’ve also found that each time is different. Each time, I’ve learnt a little more, but also I’m stretching myself, trying something new, and so with something new again to learn. I might pretend to myself that I don’t, but I usually find that the bits that are picked up are the ones that were niggling at me, along with the bits I haven’t thought of at all, and Cadnantwhich are usually down to me still living in the story, and forgetting my reader. Which is where an editor comes in, as a mediator between writer and reader, so that story gets out there just as you want it to be.

I get such a buzz from the to and fro of refining the story, ironing out the glitches and the bits that don’t make sense, and being pushed and pulled and prodded into going places (particularly emotional depth kind of places, where your very soul is ripped apart and hung out to dry) I never thought I’d dare. Then finally, after the line edits and the copy edits, at the point where you loath the story and wish you’d never started this writing lark in the first place, this miracle appears. A real, beautiful, book.

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It’s quite strange, glancing every now and again at the copy of my book propped up on my Welsh dresser to be adored as I pass. At the moment it’s in limbo, waiting for publication day. Very few people have seen it, even fewer have read the story. It hasn’t met its readers yet, so it stands there, in a curious kind of existence, both exquisitely real and not yet quite real at all.

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When I saw my first book, ‘Eden’s Garden’, I couldn’t believe it was so small. After all that blood, sweat and tears, it felt it would be at least size of a building. It still felt a bit the same with my second, ‘We That are Left’. With ‘The White Camellia’ it just felt beautiful. It wasn’t any less hard work, but it wasn’t such a totally overwhelming experience. I’ve grown in my writing journey.

 

Juliet in Cadnant

So, while I wrestle with the soggy middle of the next book, and wonder why I ever though this was a good idea in the first place, while making notes for the one after that, which is in the totally pure inspirational state (as in, I haven’t started writing it yet), I’m getting ready to send my latest baby out into the world. I’m enjoying having ‘The White Camellia’ all to myself for a couple of weeks, before she sets out to find her own way in the world, in her rightful place among her readers, and doesn’t really belong to me any more.

Because, in the end, it’s readers who make each book really live – and that, I’ve realised, is the whole point of the editing process, after all.

I can’t wait until September 15th – publication day for The White Camellia’, when Sybil and Bea, and all my beloved characters (even the ones that make your skin crawl) finally become real.

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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.

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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.

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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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Keyboard

This is my keyboard. Or rather, my ex-keyboard, as, after years of faithfully being bashed to within an inch of its life on almost a daily basis, it finally gave up the ghost. Well, at least the comma did, which, for a writer, is a state of terminal decline.

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So there was nothing for it, but to change it for a shiny new white keyboard to take over being-bashed-to-within-and-inch-of-its-life duties. I know it’s an inanimate object, but it was still quite sad removing it. This keyboard has seen numerous versions of three (and a bit) novels, and more tweets, Facebook postings and blog posts than I could possibly remember. It filled out my application form for my Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary (lots of them, in fact, before the successful one for ‘We That are Left’). It’s bashed its way through my day job as a freelance proofreader and enough emails to sink a battleship. And it was upon these stained-beyond-cleaning keys that I was scowling ferociously when my email pinged,and I looked up to learn that Honno Press were going to publish ‘Eden’s Garden’, and that my life had changed.

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And so farewell little keyboard. And I would have buried you under a rose bush with a tenderly inscribed headstone, if your demise hadn’t caused quite such an upheaval. I’m no Luddite, and I love my iMac, which, after my house and car, is my most expensive possession. But it is now classed as old. So fitting a new keyboard meant first upgrading to Snow Leopard, which then meant upgrading my browser, at which point Twitter had a nervous breakdown and Facebook lost the plot, and my old (but still perfectly functioning) laser printer (even after upgrading its software) has decided to print only every other page, and the scanner has gone terminally AWOL.

I know a writer will seize on any excuse to procrastinate, but this is ridiculous!

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Hey ho. Everything will get slowly sorted out, and it has been a reminder of just what amazing, miraculous, mind-bendingly wonderful things computers are. Although I am frustrated at the built-in obsolescence when, for this particular machine at least, all I want is to type with as few interruptions as possible. Nothing fancy. Just bashing the keys and letting the imagination flow.

The new keyboard has been warned …🙂

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