The Last Decade – Becoming a Writer

I hadn’t noticed that it was the start of a new decade until social media filled with comments and blogs – and the usual arguments as to whether it should be celebrated this year or next. As someone who experienced the Great Millennium Anticlimax, it was not such a big deal.

Then I thought about it. About what I was doing ten years ago and where I am now, and I realised how much my life had changed. Now I am a writer, ten years ago… I wasn’t. So I am joining in the fun.

Ten years ago, at the start of 2010, I would have called myself a Genealogist, or Family Historian. It was something that I had been interested in for most of my life and by this time it had become an obsession; I was subscribed to all the websites, I read all the magazines and joined all the societies. I was even running a one-name-study, where I researched all occurances of a certain name (Madder), not just those related to me – real hard-core genealogy!

I was a member of the Rugby Family History Group, had become a member of the committee and was in charge of the transcribing projects and ran the website. The only writing I did was articles for the magazine. Perhaps, exactly ten years ago, came the first signal that something was about to change.

To encourage people to write for the magazine, we set up a prize, The Harry Batchelor Award, named after the recently deceased former Chairman of the Society. In December 2009, I won the award. I have won it again a couple of times.

Award for best article in Kith & Kin, magazine of RFHG, 2017

I was also a member of the Rugby Local History Research Group. I have no ancestors in the area where I live and sometimes did local research for Family Historians who lived elsewhere, and became interested in the history of Rugby. This is a small group and we produce books at irregular intervals. In 2005 I had written my first article in one of these books and by 2009 I was editing the edition (on WW2) published that year. Editing included organising and formatting the book, and designing the cover; an experience that would come in useful in the future.

My First Book, and later publications

The last decade has been a time where Social Media came of age, at least as far as I was concerned. Exactly ten years ago, in January 2010, I joined Facebook and in June 2011, Twitter, both to advertise my Family History research. Eight years ago, on 2nd January 2012, I set up a blog, Maddergenealogist. It is still there, but sadly unused in recent years.

It was on that blog that I gained experience in writing; posts about my latest discovery or how to use some new database. They were all strictly fact, until one fateful day, just before Christmas 2012. I had been doing a lot of research on John Madder. He’s not a relative of my Madders, but someone who had a minor impact on history. John was first mate on a ship called The Worcester and in April 1705 he was hanged as a pirate. He was innocent but it was part of the rivalry between England and Scotland that led to the Union two years later.

I had found out a lot about John and in 2011 actually started to write a book about his life; non fiction of course and I managed one chapter before giving up – I am an expert on genealogy, not ships! While casting about for something to write on my blog, I imagined a meeting with John Madder on Christmas Eve – a sort of “Christmas Carol for genealogists.” I found it difficult. Why? I had no problem in knocking off a few lines on finding the burial entry for Nell Gwyn on the same register page as one of John Madder’s possible relatives. What was so different about fiction?

A few days later I was flicking through the PGH brochure. The Percival Guildhouse is an adult education centre in Rugby. It is where the RFHG and RLHRG meet and where I have attended other courses over the years, including art classes. It also runs several writing courses and one caught my eye; Writing Fiction – it was held on Thursday mornings when I didn’t have anything else on. Why not have a go? It was only for one term.

Page of PGH Brochure for Spring 2014.

This is the class listed the following year. I wonder what would have happened if the Creative Writing class had run in Spring 2013? That was what I should have joined, but I picked Writing Fiction. The class is still advertised and starts again this Thursday – I am signed up for it, as I have been since January 2013.

It is a great class and the Tutor, Gill Vickery is an inspiring tutor. She encourages everyone to start writing a novel, so we can use the exercises to explore our characters, develop plot and everything else a novel writer needs to know. It was on 30th January 2013 that I write my first piece about Byrhtnoth. It was an exercise in description: imagine an object that you know well, describe it from a distance, then closer, then the object itself. I picked a statue on the promenade at Maldon, in Essex. This is what I wrote.

The river wound slowly through the countryside. It was not a big river and at that moment not very wide. The tide had retreated into the nearby sea and it would be some time before it returned. All that was left was a wide expanse of mud with a narrow vein of water through the middle. Small boats, which had recently been afloat, were stranded at crazy angles on the glistening mud. The remains of older ships could occasionally be seen, dark ribs emerging from the enveloping mud.
The surrounding land was not much higher than the mud; a wet, marshy land only distinguished from the riverbed by drab grey green vegetation. The whole flat landscape like a camouflage cloak spread out towards the sea.

The town stood on the higher land further inland: a church, a pub and many masts, some pleasure yachts and the tall masts with red furled sails of the sailing barges; once working boats, trading with London, but now used for pleasure as well. All marooned by the mud.
The promenade extended from the town, like a finger pointing the way towards the sea, which had stolen its river. A promenade for promenading – it had no other use. Walk to the end, stare at the river and walk back again. Used by dog walkers and grandparents with pushchairs, passing time.
At the end was a statue; it had not been there long. A modern statue, erected by the town, as towns do, to commemorate any halfway famous local celebrity.

This was no modern celebrity though but Brithnoth – ancient Saxon warrior, ancient in time and years. His ancestors had been brought across the sea by the Romans to defend this Saxon shore. He had defended it too, a thousand years ago, when Vikings had tried to take his land; He died fighting, not far from here, but had done enough to send them back beyond the river and the sea.
Now he stood again, sword raised, to defend this muddy land from further invasion. The sea? The cold east wind that cut like a Viking sword? Whatever invader came he was ready, ready with his army of dog walkers and pushchairs to defend the river.

Statue of Byrhtnoth at Maldon.

The next week I wrote more, a description of Byrhtnoth on the eve of the Battle of Maldon. Then there came the exercise on describing a door, then take the character through the door. I described a small boy and a large door. The door lead to a feast. It became the first scene of my book, Bright Sword. The rest, as they say, is history.

After much writing and rewriting, moments of despair and crises of editing, the book was published almost exactly five years later, on 28th January 2018. Two more followed, self published last year. I am in the middle of book four, hopefully to be publish in summer 2020, and I already have a rough draft of the next book, thanks to NaNoWriMo last November.

And what about poor neglected John Madder, I hear you ask? I wrote the Genealogist’s Christmas Carol the next year (December 2014). You can read it here. Then for my first attempt at NaNoWriMo in November 2018, I expanded the story. It is sitting there, waiting to be read, just a rough draft at the moment. Perhaps one day, in the next decade, it will be published.

Random Reading

Everyone having a relaxing Christmas? I am. There’s something about the Christmas season that encourages a relaxation of all the rules – perhaps it’s the exhaustion after all the rushing about. The shopping, cooking, the frantic rush for everything to be ready for the big day. It is when time seems to stop. What day is it? Friday or Saturday? It makes no difference. It is also when there are no rules – misrule – when you can do what you want without guilt.

At one time, this would have meant eating too much, gorging on chocolates, long meals with a different wine for each course, then sitting slumped and hungover in front of the television. I am older now, and wiser. I have been binge reading. I would always have spent a lot the time reading but this year I gave myself permission to forget everything else. Anyway there was a precarious pile of books I needed to tackle.

Normally, I would think carefully about what to read next but this Christmas I decided to start at the top of the pile and work down. The books in this particular pile (it is one of many) were ones I retrieved from my mother’s house. We cleared it when she moved to a care home. They are not family heirlooms – she was better at me of keeping things tidy. These were the books that she bought when her memory was starting to fail. The compulsion to buy books remained, but the ability to remember what she had bought and then read them had diminished.

I am not going to talk today about what is in the pile. The first one I read sent my thoughts travelling in another direction. Why do we pick the books we read? Or do they pick us? In the last few months I have read three books, all on a similar subject, the Second World War – a period that I would not normally read about and specifically about Resistance and how the past impacts on the present. I read the books for completely different reasons, not for the connection.

The first book, the one on the top of my pile was Citadel by Kate Mosse. The paperback edition was published in 2013. I, and presumably my mother, had read the first two books in the Languedoc series – Labyrinth and Sepulchre. They are all set in Southern France and involve a certain amount of time slippage – between the present day and the distant past. All involve mystical secrets that must be kept hidden.
In Citadel the present day is limited to an epilogue. The action takes place first in 1942 when Carcassonne is part of Vichy France, the unoccupied area under the control of Marshal Petain and then in 1944, after the Germans have invaded. It tells the story of Sandrine Vidal as she changes from innocent girl to experienced member of the resistance. There is a parallel storyline as Arinius, a monk, travels through the same area in the fourth century, carrying a valuable document for which he must find a hiding place.
As well as the tangled politics of wartime France, people are searching for the same document, some to destroy it, others to preserve it – even use it to fight against the destruction of the local population by the enemy as the Allies land in the South of France.

An exciting book with plenty of tension – setting bombs, evading the enemy and a love story as well. I learned a lot about conditions in France during the occupation, a time I knew little about and the connections with the past added an extra layer of interest.

And the connections with my writing? Earlier this year I was contacted by a friend of a friend, who wanted to find out about how to publish his writing. Originally from Rugby, he now lives in France and had met Kate Mosse – probably a better person to ask about getting published than me!

The second of the three books is The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This is the tenth, and most recent book in the Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The way I found this series is an example of the serendipity of discovering books. One Thursday morning in writing class, we were talking about writing in the present tense. This is something that is frowned upon in certain writing circles. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a famous example – some people find it impossible to read. A member of the class mentioned books they had read that were in this format and easy to read. A detective series, set in Norfolk, in which the protagonist is an archaeologist. This piqued my interest and I made a note of the author – Elly Griffiths. That afternoon, after finishing my weekly shop at Sainsburys, I stopped at the charity second hand book stall. Staring up at me was a book by the same author – I think it was Dying Fall, the fifth in the series. I bought it and later started reading it. I discovered that after the first couple of pages, I was hooked, I no longer noticed the present tense.

The main character is a forensic archaeologist, Ruth. She specialises to bones, teaching at a local university. She is single, middle aged and slightly overweight – the ideal character to relate to. She lives on the edge of the saltmarsh in north Norfolk – a landscape that becomes a character in its own right. In the first of the series, The Crossing Places, the bones of a child are found on the marsh. Ruth is called in, but body turns out to be more modern. DCI Harry Nelson of Norfolk Police investigates. There are mysterious notes, archaeologists and police and a druid. By the end of the book, after an exciting night chase across the marsh, Ruth and Harry have solved the case and a partnership has begun.
I won’t go into details – I don’t want to give anything away but the series continues. New characters appear, others go (or die). There are old bones and new bodies. The culprit is revealed but at the same time you get to know these people: Ruth and Harry, their friends, relations and colleagues.

Most of the books are set in Norfolk but in the most recent, The Dark Angel, Ruth goes to Italy. In a hilltop village an ancient grave has been found, but the skeleton holds a modern mobile phone. Someone is killed and the answer lies in the past, in the conflict between resistance heroes and fascists during the second world war. I didn’t find it as good as the previous books. The situation was somewhat contrived and the characters were out of their comfort zone. Is the series reaching the end of its life?
The next book, The Stone Circle, is out in February 2019. It returns to the saltmarsh and the case where it all started.

If you want more coincidences, I was intending to buy The Dark Angel (it came out in Feb this year) when I went, on impulse, into a charity shop I had never been into before. There it was on the shelf.
Also, I have only just noticed there is a quote on the back by – Kate Mosse!

The third book I want to talk about today is Tell Me No Truths, by Gill Vickery. There was nothing forcing me to buy this book, unless you could say that sharing a stall at a Christmas Fair with the author counts. The fact that the Fair was in the same building as the writing class I attend and the author is my tutor might also have had something to do with it.

Like the Elly Griffiths book, this is also set in Italy, but whereas The Dark Angel is set in the Liri Valley, south of Rome, this book takes place in Florence and the surrounding villages. The book is Young Adult, and concerns a trip to Italy by three modern teenagers. Twins Amber and Jade are hoping to find out more about their much loved Italian grandfather, a hero of the Partisans in the second world war. They meet Nico who is only interested in discovering the identity of a reclusive writer of detective thrillers about the same period. They uncover secrets that have remained hidden for years.
I don’t know about young adults, but any adult would enjoy it. The story was gradually revealed and I loved the references to plants and flowers. It brought out the heat and beauty of Florence and its art, as well as some of less savory aspects of life during the war.

So, three books on a subject that I wouldn’t normally read but enjoyed. I wonder what else will force its way to my attention, or I will encounter in my mother’s TBR pile, before I plunge back into the tenth century?

On which note, you have only a few more days to read an extract of Bright Axe – to be published next year (or this year if you are late in reading this post!)

Three books about WW2 Resistance

A Change of Genre

I have already mentioned the writing class that I attend and how the exercises we do inspire my writing. Today I want to talk about some of our recent successes.

We are a very much a mixed group, male and female, young and old. Anyone can join and new people arrive. Some stay, others move on.
We also cover a whole range of writing genres. Sometimes this can cause problems.

In a recent exercise we were asked to write a scene set at the seaside. There were jokes about Anglo-Saxons going to the seaside. I ignored them.
In fact I have written a scene in my book of a group of teenage boys, sitting round a fire on a beach, drinking cider. Can’t get more modern seaside than that!
No donkeys or sticks of rock, and the fire is a burning Viking ship, but…

Between us we cover everything from children’s picture books to steam punk, teenage vampires and futuristic YA action stories. There are stories about school reunions and family sagas involving wills. We even have a Glaswegian who writes hilarious short stories that always include a Tory politician suffering some indignity.

Dragon Child

 

 

 

Our tutor/leader/torturer is Gill. She writes children’s fiction

For details see here. She has more books out soon.

 

 

 

 

Railway

 

Another in the group is David, He is our medical expert – we all run our (fictional) injuries past him.

He writes Victorian Railway Mysteries.

His first book is out later this month. For more information go to his website.

 

 

Sunset Cottage

 

Finally, we have our star of the moment, Bella. She’s a Romantic Novelist and her first book  ‘It Started At Sunset Cottage’ was published last year.

It has been quite a success – it was even sold in Tesco! Her next novel is out later this year.

Visit her website to find out more.

She was recently short listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. The awards ceremony is on Monday – we all wish her the best of luck.

 

Perhaps one day all of us will be there – not the Romantic Novel Award, probably, but our genre equivalent.