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Posts Tagged ‘Inspiration’

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When creating characters, they need to be built from their past experiences, from their back-story. Like all of us, it’s those experiences, and the way each individual deals with them, that forms their motivation, grabs (or even repels) the reader’s sympathies, and forms their character. It’s that funny thing with writing, it’s only when the characters start to take on their back-story that they really come to life. It’s also the point where they tend to take on a life of their own. As a writer, you can no longer direct them. You can give them a nudge in the right direction, but if they don’t want to take it, if it goes against their motivation and their character, then it rings false – just as it does in life. Of course characters in books, as in life, also change, and it’s the emotional journey that the main characters follow that forms the heart of any story.

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Feuding families are always effective means of creating emotionally rich back-stories – think Romeo and Juliet and the Forsyth Saga for starters – and where would Eastenders be without a good feud? The central tension is there, danger is there, and there are endless possibilities and machinations to keep the plot zinging. Plus, let’s face it, there aren’t many families where there aren’t any tensions between acquaintances or different branches of the family.

Two feuding families always lay at the heart of my latest historical novel for Honno Press, The White Camellia. When I was first working on the book, I didn’t want to take the route of star-crossed lovers, but the story of two very difference women across the divide who – like so many women do – are the
ones who have to pick up the pieces as the unforeseen consequences rumble down the generations.

White camellia with dewSo while in Cornwall Sybil has fought her way out of destitution with nothing more than her wits, and is determined she and her family will never again face the horror of being out the streets, Bea loses her materially comfortable life, and is faced with trying to support her mother and little sister in Edwardian London, with few opportunities for women to work, let alone support a family.

Of course, at some point they have to meet, when the past catches up with them, and the two women have to decide whether to continue as enemies or make their peace. Strangely enough, it was that part of the story that was both most challenging and most intriguing, and where the back-story really came into its own.

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The White Camellia began as a very simple idea, but in writing the book, the characters of Bea and Sybil, and the obstacles the past puts in their way by their interlinked back-stories, took on a life of their own, so in the end I just followed, and was taken to emotional places I could not have found as a simple puppet master directing the action according to my original plan. What I had not foreseen was that, for both my heroines, the background of the family feud was also one that set them on a path to self-knowledge, to forgiveness, and (hardest of them all) to self-forgiveness. It’s a journey we all take through life, but it’s the intensity of events and emotions surrounding something as extreme as a family feud that really gives them an edge.

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The book I’m working on now does not have a family feud at the centre. In some ways it’s a relief not having the emotional complexities to resolve, but I also miss it as a structure. I have a feeling it’s a back-story I’ll be returning to again in the future – and send a new cast of characters on their own emotional rollercoaster ride!

 

 The White Camellia

UK edition

US Edition

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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!

Giant's Head

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.

Moon Eclipse 4

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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Polytunnel one It was most definitely worth asking for help with my garden this year.

I can’t believe the difference it has made, having someone to clear away the endless weeds and brambles, and rescuing the wildlife pond so overgrowth with yellow iris there was no pond left. The thing I hadn’t expected, and which I’m appreciating most, is help with the organising and the planting, so now I can (with a bit of weeding and watering) watch as the new growth spreads in a way that nothing squashes out anything else, and soon (I’m hoping next year) will become low maintenance.

Garden 3Having the worst done for me gave me courage to tackle the rest, so although it’s still a bit wild, it’s on its way to being a fairly respectable cottage garden. So now, for the first time since I stepped through the gate and fell in love with the overgrowth wilderness that came with a cottage on a Welsh hillside, I can leave my computer for half an hour or so to tackle a few weeds, without getting stuck into a whole day clearing brambles. (Although half an hour does tend to creep into an hour or so. I’m saying it’s good for my eyes, and anyhow I’m thinking about the current book and plotting the next). Garden 1

Best of all, I’ve had my first official afternoon tea (which someone went on until midnight) where I could relax in the garden and enjoy the view. In fact, being relaxed about the garden made me relaxed about the tea, without my usual anxious rushing around to make sure I had wonderful things for my guests. Strawberries, meringue (to be home made next time, ahem) and cream are wonderful all by themselves, with sunshine and good company.

Iris One

As if in celebration, this year, for the first time ever, my grape vine in the polytunnel has tiny little grapes. A bit of Hampton Court has arrived in Snowdonia. That definitely calls for a party!

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Best of all, I can now sit by my pond, watching the wildlife, and the rescued waterlily come back to life, with a book, or my research, and relax about the state of my garden, and focus. In fact, get very excited about my work, which is the very best feeling of all. Even though the characters in the new book have just developed a mind of their own and are up to all sorts of disgraceful antics, including changing sex a number of times without so much as a moment’s warning, and the hero has decided to stop talking to me, despite being warned of the Dire Consequences of his actions.

In fact, I’d better go and give him an ultimatum (‘Remember Matthew from Downton?’) this very minute… 🙂

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Writing my recent post for Novelistas Ink on using storytelling as inspiration led me to think again about the time I earned my living from running storytelling and puppet-making workshops.

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As with my more recent work as a writing tutor, I found I learnt as much from the sessions as the children and adults taking part. One of my greatest lessons from the puppet storytelling was spontaneity. I love the fact that I studied English at University, but it also made me excruciatingly analytical and feeling that my own writing needed to be of Deep Significance to Future Generations. Something I rather suspect was the last thing on Mr Dickens’ mind as he beavered away to hit the next deadline for his magazine serial and pay the bills.

Working with children – some of whom had been through some horrendous experiences – brought back the playfulness and the delight in creating that had overwhelmed me as a child and sent me writing endless stories (and one or two novels) in a completely unselfconscious manner. If in doubt, throw on more sequins!

The children's version!

Working with ancient myths, from King Arthur to Japanese folk tales, was also a reminder that even the simplest of tales can hold the deepest truths and touch the heart. It’s still there in ‘Shrek’ and ‘Despicable Me’ – simple tales that look like ‘children’s stories’ but still contain morality tales and poke fun at cultural assumptions. And children’s stories are never simple – the puppet plays revealed emotional conflicts beneath the surface that surprised us all. It didn’t have to be an extreme – one story was of two princesses working out where they were going to live when the kind and queen separated, as two sisters were absorbed for hours in this safe reflection of the intricacies of their own parents’ divorce.

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I suppose what I learnt most from the puppet storytelling was to let go and to have faith in my story. Simply write from the heart and the things that resonate deeply inside. It makes you vulnerable – like the two princesses, the deepest truths that you wouldn’t reveal in an ordinary conversation tend to slip out. But then we are all vulnerable. It’s our fears, our dreads, our strengths and our weaknesses – and yes, our vulnerability as human beings, both emotionally and physically – that storytelling is all about. And, looking back, it’s perhaps no surprise that my first novel for Honno Press, Eden’s Garden, was inspired by the ancient Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers who didn’t remain the passive creature of sugar and spice she was supposed to be …

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You can read my post for the Novelistas HERE

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Letters safe small

There are always two sides to a story. The arrival of Valentine’s Day reminded me of these love letters, sent between my parents when my mum was seventeen and my dad was in his early twenties.

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On the one hand they are wonderfully idealistic and romantic letters, sent between a couple who were to be together for over sixty years. They are also the story of two people born into utter poverty in the first decades of the twentieth century (my dad had to borrow his mother’s shoes for his first day at work at fourteen), who against all odds got themselves an education and made a good life for themselves, able to travel and do the things their own parents could not have dreamed of.

On the other hand, they are terrifying. Why? Look at the postmark. August 14th 1939.

Letters 2 small

Within weeks of these letters, my dad would be watching the barrage balloons go up over London, and know that war had been declared. Far away near Paris, a teenage girl would be setting off on her own in a desperate attempt to get to Calais and a boat to safety, waitisc000e0c54ng for trains carrying troops to pass, watching the families goodbye for the last time, as a country imploded into the inhuman horrors of war that the older generation remembered so well.

My mother made it safely back, but only just. I still have the postcard hastily written in pencil reassuring everyone that she was safe after a nightmare journey and her ship being stalked by a German submarine as it crossed the Channel.

It’s often the smallest things that tell the largest stories. I love these letters, but I still get the chills when I look at that postmark, not only for my own family, but for all those, in all countries, who were both with, or far away, from their loved ones that day.

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Eden's Garden COVER

My first inspiration behind ‘Eden’s Garden’ is based on a family story – but I can’t tell you anything about that because it would give the game away – and then there would be no mystery at all!

My second inspiration was an ancient Welsh myth. It’s the story of Blodeuwedd, the woman made out of flowers to  a perfect wife. Blodeuwedd is beautiful and perfect – until she finds a mind of her own and is turned into an ugly old owl to be cast out and despised. As a woman, I’ve found myself growing more interesting and more human as I’ve grown older. So I have a feeling that, for Blodeuwedd, maybe that’s the point where the real story begins. And if you look at an owl – really look – it has a rare beauty all of its own…..

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My third inspiration was a garden. It’s a place I used to go to when I went to see my father during the last months of his life. It’s on my way home through the mountains of Snowdonia, and was a place for me to gather myself and absorb my own sadness and get back to facing everyday life again.  The gardens are Brondanw Gardens which are the home of Clough Williams Ellis the creator of Portmeirion. They are full of life and eccentricity and a mischievous kind of joy.

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And so that’s where the mystery began to form in my head, of Carys rediscovering the mysterious statues of her childhood and embarking on a journey to find a mysterious woman from the past who holds the keys to the future. A woman who was once bred to be a perfect Victorian beauty, and who has the longest journey of all to make – the journey to becoming truly human.

Brondanw Statue for video

Eden’s garden is on promotion today

In the UK 1.69p click HERE

In the US $2.10 click HERE

 

 Click HERE to join Carys as she unravels the past – finding some unexpected secrets along the way. 

You can watch the trailer for ‘Eden’s Garden’ here

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