Rummaging in Research

Sat in the garden, coffee to hand, laptop open, snatches of sun sneaking through gaps in the clouds, and I can hear that familiar sound of summer: someone cutting their lawn. Ah! And here comes cake. This is a lazy, go-slow sort of holiday – just what we needed. This morning we collected daughter no. 1 from a single carriage train that dropped her off on a teeny-tiny archaic Victorian platform. It reminded me of my University days and my father collecting me from a request stop on the Tarka line. She’s been working and has come to join us for a few days. Now she sits playing Connect Four with daughter no. 2, coffee and cake beside her, while an ancient rusty tractor trundles past. Though there isn’t a lot to do around here, I am told we are booked to visit an observatory tomorrow to have a look at their big telescope. We will walk again this afternoon.

My husband plans to walk a long-distance path (135 miles) starting on Saturday. He has more time off than me and has chosen to spend it exploring the ups and downs of country lanes, fields and forest on foot. He will be crossing stunning countryside. No consideration forgotten as he plans the expedition, but I am feeling a little exhausted from listening to all the preparation talk; his need for this and need for that. It would seem that the preparation is as exciting as the walk itself. He has also been eating to gain weight so that he can take less food with him – at least that is the idea – but his habits are placing a lot of temptation on my table. I feel that all I have done this week is eat, sleep, read and rest.

In truth, I have indulged in a favourite past-time. I have been able to do some more research for my writing and have been rummaging through the big old kist that harbours my great-grandmother’s hoards: photographs, letters, postcards, journals, invitations, newspaper cuttings, magazines, all sorts.

The kist

She started a good thing and my grandparents continued it. I am so grateful to them. It has made for a fascinating holiday. I have found two letters from Lord Louis Mountbatten in the 1960s, one inviting my grandfather to join him for a drink. Someone has stuck a ‘post it’ note to them commenting on the colour of the ink. Apparently only the Admiralty write in green ink! I have found the negative for a magazine photo of four leading political figures in the establishment of the Union of South Africa. I cannot think why we have the negative, but I also can’t help feeling it is of some significant historical interest. It would seem to be from the early 1900s. I also found a postcard, which I think is in my great-grandfather’s handwriting (not 100% sure) sent from German East Africa during the First World War and written in German. German, why German? I encountered other letters from my great-grandfather written in later life to my grandfather. My own father always spoke so highly of my great-grandfather. He adored him. I have to say that reading these letters really touched my heart. My great-grandfather does indeed come across as such a lovely, lovely man with a strong faith. There is also a pamphlet written by him about the League of Nations’ Finances. I was most intrigued to see the list of countries that continued to pay their membership fees to the League throughout the war. The name that surprised me most was Afganistan.

There are so many letters to and from a variety of people. One I particularly enjoyed was from 1935 to my great-grandmother. I have no idea who the writer is other than her name is Geraldine and she lived in England. Her letter tells the story of her young daughter bouncing into her bed and bursting a hot water bottle. The poor ‘wee lass’, as the mother writes, was very badly scalded and needed the skill of a privately employed nurse to help her get better. With all the research I have been doing of medical practise at the time, this fits. The letter goes on to complain about the servants! The writer is in quite a dilemma about how to handle them and the temper of one in particular.

My great-grandmother appears to have been very sociable and a great letter writer herself, but why did she keep some letters and not others, I wonder?

My greatest pleasure was to discover some more letters and photos from the protagonist of my story. The two sweetest things are a summer holiday diary from when he was 13 and the log of a road trip he made with his mother across Europe when he was 21. Such beautiful fuel for my fire. I love this puzzling and piecing things together to build a story.

I think the kist could produce many more stories yet, but it will take some time and dedication to sort. In the meantime, we will enjoy this ‘nothing ever happens’ holiday place and relax with the slow tempo of life. Oh! What was that? I have just heard a scrap merchant disturb the peace with a call from his vehicle for “Any old Iron?”. Well, I never! Something does happen here after all.

A New Story to Tell an Old Story

What is it that has pushed aside, yet again, the young adult novel I began all those years ago when writing was merely an idea not a habit? The novel – set in the deep Devon lanes and rolling fields which provide solace for a stressed London musician, as a family saga reveals and heals itself – has been relegated to the back shelf for the umpteenth time. Maybe it will never be done and the sole purpose of it was to act as a catalyst to encourage me to write, perhaps? What about the novel begun about a school teacher who takes a professional break to work for a charity overseas and, in an exploration of what truth is, finds corruption rife in unexpected places? Yes, that too sits gathering virtual dust.

Instead, an adventure began with the beginning of lockdown, March 2020. Lots of time to write, I thought, and then a genealogist from Australia got in contact wanting some information on my father’s family. I was reluctant to uncover my files. I get a bit addicted to research, but I did it. Unrelated to the genealogist’s query I asked some of my own questions and step by incredible step a family story surfaced introducing me to some amazing people along the way. This was a story I had never bothered about before and one I felt there had always been a sorry silence surrounding. Now I understand it better I think really the silence was unspoken grief.

Increased information on the internet coupled with lockdown gave me time and sources to research. But the best were the original sources our family archives revealed. These were things we did not know even existed. A bit of a chore to get them copied over to me from Australia, but oh so worth it! What a voyage of discovery! What a story! What beautiful characters! There’s still so much to uncover but the writing has begun.

And another beautiful thing has been who I have met of real people along the way too, people who relate to the story, or who relate to characters in the story. I could not have forged those meetings in any more unique a way. That feels like another story.

While the writing might be a solo act the gathering together of facts to make this piece of ‘faction’ (yes, it is a word) a reality is definitely collaboration. So I am excited to attend a book launch of one remarkable historian whose writing and expertise is in another league and one who has an incredible knack of unearthing forgotten facts. But our paths have crossed and, because of the revelation of this story, we meet. I will finish reading his book before then: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55186698-bletchley-s-secret-source

Holiday Reading

One of the lovely things about being the child of a teacher is that you get to spend school holidays together with your parents. When you are small these feel like loooong, lazy breaks. When you are older they feel far too short! I was reminiscing with my mother, over Christmas, how, as soon as the holidays started, my father (a Chemistry teacher and housemaster) would disappear into the library and sometimes be gone for hours. Then he would come home with a pile of books into which he disappeared again, on and off, throughout the holidays, and in my mother’s words, “no one  could get through to him” while he was reading.

Since moving to the city, my husband and I have enjoyed exploring lots of lovely different things to do that can be classified as ‘Date Night’ , but oddly enough, one of our favourites is a trip to the library. Apparently this library is the only one in the country to stay open until 11pm and it is a mere ten minute meander across the cobbles from what we now call ‘home’  – very convenient. It is a place designed with ‘experience’ in mind. It is well thought out with poetry on the walls, diverse styles of music that never repeat chugging in the background, ever-changing, elaborate displays in the foyer, a restaurant, comfy seats and even a theatre and cinema. It is the hub of artistic culture in the city and buzzes as such, so that even in the evening there is still much going on. It is a pleasant place to go together, husband and I, hand in hand.

I am very picky and choosy about what I want to read and it takes me a long time to make up my mind and decide what to take out. My husband always waits patiently for me. Last night he was extra patient as he wanted to explore the city clocks and find out which chimes a ring of bells every fifteen minutes. It meant positioning ourselves around the city centre at each quarter of the clock and we missed a few while perusing through the books, but he didn’t seem to mind. It is holiday time after all.

The library book options are very up to date and I think I am still a little old fashioned in my taste. But last night, I pulled a book from the shelf that I have already read and turning it over showed the blurb on the back to my husband. It is a book set in one of the schools my father taught in. The author is somehow related to Tolkein – I can’t remember how.  I read the blurb out loud and this time it really jarred me. I think it was because of the location. It jarred me to find it in my local library (but why not, it is a very good read) and to sound out the names of the two main characters who incidentally have names the same as my father.

As writers we write so much from what we know – actual fact disguised in fantasy. We have to. That’s the way it goes. We pinch a little bit of this and mix it with a little bit of that creating a fresh recipe of fiction cooked in the imagination. There is no way I resent the writer using my father’s names. I understand the process, but for some reason yesterday, it jarred. I think it was all to do with the context.

I find myself living a very different way of life, now, to how it was when I wrote Elin’s Air. I’m in a different place, literally, as well as in lifestyle. Though I knew I wouldn’t be able to write for a season I did not know how long the season would last or what it would hold. And now I begin to wonder, is it time to write again? If it is, what shall I write?

The idea for Elin’s Air was conceived in the quiet, creative time after one Christmas. Should I write a sequel; or, as someone recently asked me, an historical novel set in the context of this city we now live in; or should I revisit some old manuscripts and see if they are any good? I realise that one of my old writings, set in Devon thirty years ago, could perhaps be put into historical novel genre for the next generation!

Is there a chime of bells to tell me it is time to write again? Do I have the time? Is it time? If it is, what should the context be that I write about? Or will it jar?

Every musician knows how important it is to get the timing right.

‘Write’?

Another “4 The Love of Books”

This Saturday another “4 The Love of Books” will be taking place at Festival Coffee in Chester.

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It’s a wonderful thing to learn what makes writers write. What were their influences?

These are a few of mine.

A Matter of Influence

To think that people may read what I have written leaves me feeling vulnerable. I can’t see why people would want to read what I have written. Clearly not the sharpest pencil in the pencil case, I now realise I haven’t written Elin’s Air for the reader but for pure self indulgence. I have written because I love words. I have written because I love creative expression.  I have written because I love Wales and people; and people in Wales; and God; and history. I also love children’s literature.
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My love of children’s literature is old fashioned and sublime. I like the tales that are real, redemptive and safe (in the end) and I choose what peril I engage with carefully. I love to read something that will teach and inspire me. This must influence the way I write.

Does what we love, influence what we do? I don’t need to answer that. Instead, let me share some of the authors whose work I love.

Cynthia Harnett – her historical adventures had me entranced by her accuracy and authenticity. She wrote about ordinary people. As a child, she opened my imagination to life in another time that meant wherever I went I was switched on to wondering how things had once been. I wanted to find the places she wrote about and know everything I could about them. She was an artistic historian.

She died before we moved to Thanksgiving Lane (a beautiful address of a home filled with beautiful memories) in Binfield Heath, but it was just up the road from her cottage. Some of her illustrations are remarkably familiar.
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The Wheatsheaf or perhaps The Bottle and Glass, Binfield Heath?

I have found a press release from the Evening Post, Saturday, October 30, 1971 that was photocopied and tucked into one of her books on my bookshelf. The reporter, Linton Mitchell, writes about her publication of The Writing on the Hearth.

“Miss Harnett knows her country and her subject which takes place in the mid-fifteenth century. In fact she never writes about anything of which she doesn’t have exact knowledge.”

She inspired me and I still have a lot to learn from her.

Patricia St John – also an author of local interest but one I only met in adult life. She lived and worked, for a time, on the stately home Estate our cottage belongs to and she captures it all in Rainbow Garden. She too died before we moved here.

Her writing is also about ordinary people with whom she expresses such depth of love and warmth of humanity that I invariably shed a tear or two. Her stories are redemptive and full of tangible faith that is believable. For me, it is a heart connection.

K.M.Peyton – she was part of my “tween” years with the Flambards trilogy. I nod to her “coming of age” influence. She also taught me to consider what life in pre-war, Edwardian Britain might have been like.

In adult years, it was to her that I first turned for advice (found on her author page) on how to manage my time and write effectively while bringing up a family.

Elizabeth George Speare – again, I only met her in adult years. I have looked to her for inspiration in style, structure and pace. Again she writes about ordinary people with sensitive depth and communicates both the resilience and frailty of humanity well. Her books are ones that have had me reading long past lights out, unable to sleep until they’re finished. They too are historical novels in settings I am unfamiliar with except for The Bronze Bow.

Elizabeth Goudge – while I have not written fantasy as she did, she is a master of allegory. She communicates her faith. The Little White Horse is colourful and alive with unforgettable imagery. The reader, immersed in a beautiful place, full of authentic scent and flavour are convinced they are there. Her work breathes and speaks to those who have ears to hear.

New Beginnings – 4 The Love Of Books

I observe that heart-swell moment of being able to leave my coat behind in the morning and step outside to the sound of a sky lark. This month has marched in like a lion and is now gently playing out, like a lamb. Fun new things are springing up. It’s a fresh season.

In Chester, at Festival Coffee on Queen Street, a new event has sprung up with its first shoots breaking the ground last Saturday (March 11th). A somewhat ‘organic’ event, 4 The Love of Books is growing around exciting writing and excellent coffee. The idea was sown by emerging children’s writer, Lee Stevenson from Little Sutton, who approached Festival Coffee asking if he could use the venue for an event that would nurture a love of books and writing. His dream, to have a time and place in Chester for authors to talk, readers to listen and conversation to follow, was sprouting.

As writers, it is so good to be able to share the fruit of our labour. It was a real privilege for me to sit alongside Lee and, seasoned crime novelist, Luca Veste on Saturday and talk. We explored and discussed our inspiration, our stories, how we dug deep into our imagination to create vivid characters and word-scapes. It was comfortable conversation with people listening from the sofas, coffee to hand, in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

The beautiful thing is that Saturday was just a start, a new beginning. Initial anxiety of ‘how will this go?’ has been ploughed back with confident assurance that it will go well and it will grow well. There is an appetite. People like to listen as much as they love to read and write. A sense of community learning from each other to love books is being tended to, in Chester, our very own backyard.

Previously, a lady had been observed noticing the poster on the door.

“Is he coming here?” she asked in surprise. “I’ve read all of his books.” Her excitement was tangible.

Who will be interviewed next, I wonder? Who will it be that we can learn from? I can’t wait!

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4 The Love Of Books with Luca Veste, Lee Stevenson and myself, in Festival Coffee, Chester.