From mountains to seas: writing about different cultures

by Sonja Price

My debut novel The Giants Look Down will be published in April. It is about a Kashmiri girl’s struggle to become a doctor, much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal society she lives in. The story takes place in both Kashmir and Scotland.

From Kashmir…

On the drive to work one day, I was listening to a report on the radio about the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, which killed 86,000 people. Besides the tragic details, it contained an evocative description of the Himalayas and the string of lakes stretching through the Vale of Kashmir. I later discovered that, with its mild climate and fertile landscape, the vale is the green heart of the region and could be a paradise on Earth if not for the natural disasters and political tensions that have blighted its development.

                                                      …to Scotland

I started to imagine the life of a girl who wanted to become a doctor and help her homeland. As the native population is mainly Muslim even though Kashmir belongs to India, which has fought three wars over it, I decided my protagonist would be Hindu. What problems would Jaya and her family encounter, and what would happen if a tragic event were to shatter her dream of a career in medicine and she were transported to the other side of the globe? The idea of the contrasting landscapes of Scotland and Kashmir appealed to me; I have often come across people who love either the mountains or the sea, depending on where they have grown up. What would Jaya make of the sea and the rugged landscape of Scotland? How would the rain and the cold winds that sweep its shores affect her? How would she navigate the differences in culture and religion, especially if she were to fall in love?

I allowed my imagination free rein long before I had a clear plot and my research was completed. I may not have pored over the histories of Kashmir before sitting down to write but I did keep two books of breath-taking photographs open next to my keyboard: for example, at the deep turquoise image of Sheshmag Lake, which is high up in the mountains, or the gondola-like shikaras gathering at dawn on Dal Lake when the vendors fix their prices for market day. John Isaac’s The Vale of Kashmir and Raghubir Singh’s Kashmir, Garden of the Himalayas were wonderful sources of inspiration.

I interviewed Indians about Kashmir and New Delhi, where Jaya spends some time with relatives, and talked to a German doctor who had practised in an Indian hospital. He recalled the rudimentary state of medical apparatus as well as the smell of iodine and coconut oil, and the presence of relatives, who slept in or outside the wards. It was relatively easy to switch to the more familiar Scotland, and a Scottish friend advised me on everything from the name and location of Jaya’s home in Scotland to the characters she meets there. I then placed all this in a 1980s context.

For me, writing about the unfamiliar is an adventure worth embarking on. My imaginary journey to Kashmir seems as real to me as if I had spent years there, and I have grown to love the region and to care about its fate.

The Giants Look Down will be published in April 2016.

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Beryl Kingston on WW1, writing and upcoming book Great War, Little Peace

Beryl Kingston

by Beryl Kingston

Rosie Goodwin, like most working class children in 1909, is sent out to work as a nursemaid as soon as she is twelve years old, and from then on she sees her family only once a year, on Mothering Sunday. She must grow up fast. Intelligent and courageous, she vows to change her life as soon as she can. Life will interrupt, however, and soon she will have to face the horrors of World War One, followed by the crushing poverty of the twenties and thirties – there are hard times ahead of her.

Great War, Little Peace is about World War One and the terrible years of depression that followed. The original spark for it came from a distant but much loved relation of mine whom I called Dardy when I was too young to pronounce her name properly and who, like my heroine, was sent away to work in a great house on her 12th birthday and from then on, only saw her family on Mothering Sunday and Christmas. She accepted it phlegmatically as just something that happened but I thought it was absolutely appalling to do such a thing to such a young child and made a note of it in my diary.

Dardy

Useful things, diaries. I kept a whole series of them from 1935 to 1950, so a lot of the details about the thirties in Great War, Little Peace, were recorded and therefore accurate. I revisited a lot of the places I knew as a child, like the Borough Market, Petticoat Lane, Cheney Walk, the Tate Gallery and the streets in Worthing where the fascists of the BUF strutted and roared,  just to be sure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks and was delighted to find that they were all reassuringly familiar.

I also had two other relations who unwittingly gave me information which I recorded in my diaries and used in this book. Dardy’s husband had served in the trenches in World War One for four years and told me a lot about that. My aunt was a Suffragette and she was a wonderful source of information, too; a lovely, determined, intelligent lady who chained herself to the railings in Parliament Square and was proud to have been part of the movement.

The only ingredient in this story that was entirely new to me was the very tiny hamlet of Binderton, just north of Chichester, where I wanted my heroine to be born and bred. In her time it was simply a hamlet, consisting of a farm, half a dozen farm labourers’ cottages and a rather grand manor house. When my granddaughter/amanuensis and I drove off to discover it, it was so small, we’d driven through it and out the other side before we were aware of it! But it was exactly what I wanted as a launch pad for my Rosie and she grew in my mind from that moment on.

Writers are such magpies. We gather gossip wherever we go, picking up unconsidered trifles like Autolycus, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, always a jolly sight too quizzy for our own good. But this is the first time I’ve used information from my family, usually I’m listening in to strangers.

While I was writing this book, I was very aware that national and international history intermeshes with family history. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne said, “it tolls for thee.” If we live in the UK, we are children of our time and our class, whether we are aware of it or not.

Great War, Little Peace will be published in February 2016.

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Back to the beat: Constable Nick returns

Nicholas Rheaby Peter Walker

When ITV’s Heartbeat ended in 2009, I decided to bring a close to my series of Constable books upon which the TV drama was based. They chronicled the work of a village bobby in the North York Moors during the 1960s and the TV series became hugely popular in the UK and overseas – with repeats still being screened.

The first book was Constable on the Hill (1979); the last was, appropriately, Constable Over the Hill (2011) with 35 others in between. In transferring these to the small screen, I became the Heartbeat script consultant, attending planning meetings and production both on location and in the studio. What impressed me was the dedication of the cast and production teams and their attention to detail, which produced a response from a serving policeman who told me he had no idea that ITV made documentaries about the police (I had to tell him it was a drama, not a true story) and another policeman commented, “I wish we had a sergeant like Blaketon.”

This indicated the efforts made to produce a realistic police series. One surprising outcome was that applications to join the North Yorkshire Police soared, including some from urban officers who thought a transfer to such a rural spot would be most enjoyable.

After the series concluded, several viewers and readers told me how much they missed the exploits of Constable Nick, Sergeant Blaketon, PC Alf Ventress and a certain rustic rogue called Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. It seems they also enjoyed the countryside and rural atmosphere. After a time, I decided I could relate more tales, setting them several years before Nick became the village bobby at Aidensfield.

The new series of Constable stories begins with Constable on Trial. As it was the ambition of many young constables to work in the Criminal Investigation Department, I decided to transfer Nick into civilian clothes and have him working as an aide to CID. It transpired Nick had been selected as a potential aide after arresting a thief whom he had noticed wearing a raincoat that had been stolen two years earlier (this was a true tale, it was my own coat!).

In those days – the late 1950s/early 1960s, suitable young constables were offered a short attachment to their local CID, being perhaps a period of three or six months. They were known as aides to CID but their attachment was really a test to determine whether or not they were suitable for non-uniform duties. This provided me with the title of the first in this new series – Constable on Trial. The “trial” was Constable Nick’s test period as an aide.

However, working as a police officer in plain clothes differed greatly from patrolling in uniform. Constable Nick was investigating crimes, not only those occurring in Strensford, but others in the entire Strensford Division which included a large rural area with lots of villages, a coastline and some busy market towns.

Among the crimes Nick had to investigate as an aide were break-ins on an estate near the town centre; car crime which was becoming more prevalent as people regularly parked their vehicles overnight on the streets, often with valuables on display; a thief taking cash from collection plates in a church; a murder in far-off Leeds and the many vehicles that were taken without consent. There were secret files, too, most dating to World War II when traitors were operating in Strensford, and a serious complaint from a householder who claimed that one of his garden gnomes had been stolen. It was all in a day’s work for Detective Constable Nick.

9780719818141I hope to write more tales about Constable Nick’s work as an aide to CID as I enjoy producing them, but whether the yarns will attract interest from TV is not something I can answer. I know my agent will be offering the books to a range of markets in the UK and overseas, but like a detective keeping observations on a suspect criminal, all I can do is wait and see what happens….

Buy your copy of Constable on Trial here.

Another outing for Inspector James Antrobus

Norman Russellby Norman Russell

Next April will see the publication by Robert Hale of my second Inspector Antrobus novel, An Oxford Anomaly. Set in late Victorian Oxford, it centres around Jeremy Oakshott, Fellow of Jerusalem Hall, and an authority on the Crusades, who is urged by the renowned archaeologist Mrs Herbert Lestrange to join her expedition to Syria. His wealthy uncle, Ambrose Littlemore, refuses to help him financially, and is murdered soon afterwards. Detective Inspector Antrobus, who has already investigated the savage murder of one of Oakshott’s old friends, believes Oakshott to be the killer, but the scholar’s alibis are completely watertight. Assisted by his doctor friend Sophia Jex-Blake (of whom more later) Antrobus looks further afield, visiting two criminal lunatic asylums, a remote nunnery, and a quiet country village, where at last they uncover the truth about five savage murders, and bring their perpetrator to justice.

I have always had a deep interest in the late Victorian period, its works and its ways, so it was not surprising that for my PhD thesis at London University I chose to examine literary responses to capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. I turned my thesis into a book, The Novelist and Mammon, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.

Over the last fifteen years, Robert Hale have published nine of my Inspector Jackson novels, set in the Warwickshire countryside in the 1890s, and seven thrillers set in the same era, featuring Inspector Arnold Box, who works out of the old Scotland Yard buildings near Whitehall Place. This year saw the first appearance of Detective Inspector James Antrobus, another nineteenth century police officer, this time operating from the headquarters of the Oxford City Police. I spent four very enjoyable years studying at Oxford, and when I conceived the character of Antrobus, it seemed natural that I should place him in that ancient university city, where he can tackle the many sinister criminals thrown up by both Town and Gown. As a further tribute to my alma mater, I decided that all the Antrobus novels should feature the name “Oxford” in their titles.

An Oxford Tragedy (2015) showed James Antrobus, and his petulant but fiercely 9780719816086protective sergeant, Joseph Maxwell, investigating the death of Sir Montague Fowler, Warden of St Michael’s College. He crosses swords with a number of secretive and eccentric dons, uncovers a long-hidden academic fraud, and has deep dealings with the late Sir Montague’s devious family before he brings the truth of this particular Oxford tragedy to light.

However, it is not only the criminal world that Antrobus has to contend with. James Antrobus is a man coping as well as he is able with chronic consumption of the lungs. Throughout the Oxford stories we see him seized with haemorrhages of the lungs and appalling coughing fits, together with periods of hospitalization, where he has to submit to some of the stern and rather terrifying treatments of the day.  Countless thousands of people lived with the many crippling variants of tuberculosis rampant in that era, including a number of prominent police officers, men like Antrobus, who fought valiantly to carry out their duties, often with complete success before an inevitably early death.

Inspector Antrobus is lucky to have a friend and fellow-sleuth in the person of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, who becomes both his ally and, when necessary, his physician. Jex-Blake was, of course, a real person, one of a group of remarkable women who laboured for the right of their sex to become doctors. Given the medical context of these stories, I think the alliance of the fictional Antrobus and the real-life Sophia Jex-Blake works well.

Will we see more of Antrobus and Sophia Jex-Blake? Well, nineteenth century Oxford was a place concealing many dark mysteries, festering professional jealousies, murderous desires, and other sinister proclivities common to the human condition. So if Dr Jex-Blake can keep Antrobus in the land of the living – and I rather think that she can – then there will be plenty of work to keep him busy.

An Oxford Anomaly will be published by Robert Hale in April 2016

Up the winding stair and an affair gone wrong: when love – or lust – becomes dangerous

by Pam Fudge and Millie Vigor

Pam FudgeMillie Vigor 3

In this double author post, Millie and Pam talk to us about their upcoming books, The Winding Stair and Not My Affair. Both novels deal with the themes of obsession and a woman who is being harassed and stalked, either by a man who doesn’t know how to express his love in the right way, or her husband’s mistress who simply won’t let her lover remain with his wife.

NOT MY AFFAIR – Pam Fudge

Unsurprisingly, this is about an affair, an affair that comes to light on Christmas day because of a careless mistake on the part of the adulterer, Fay’s husband Jack. There are two ways forward for the couple at this point. They are that the affair heralds the end of the marriage or Fay and Jack can decide to work together and begin to repair the damage the infidelity has caused to the relationship but, of course, it is rarely that simple, and it certainly isn’t that simple in Not My Affair.

THE WINDING STAIR – Millie Vigor

Trying to get an anonymous suitor to stop phoning her and leaving her red roses, Ginny leaves her hometown for a short break, only to be found again. She returns home and is befriended by local librarian Curtis. When he invites her into his house, she discovers her trust has been misplaced when he traps her inside. Reminded of Mary Howett’s poem, ‘The Spider and the Fly’ in which the spider persuades the fly to walk up his winding stair, Ginny wonders if she’ll walk free or perish like the fly.

Millie Vigor: One of the questions an author is often asked is, ‘What inspired you to write that story?’ The inspiration for The Winding Stair came first from an item of news about a young woman who had gone missing without trace, and secondly from the content of a book I had read. ‘The Spider and the Fly’ by Mary Howett also plays a part. “Will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly” and “the way into my parlour is up a winding stair”. That is just what Ginny had done; she had walked up the steps and into Curtis’s house to borrow a book.

Pam Fudge:  I think we’ve all met or read about someone who is quite scary in their determination to get their own way – no matter who gets hurt – so it was a compilation of remembered snippets from real life and fiction that were my inspiration. Not My Affair came to me, as my ideas often do, from the kind of problems that beset even the best of families. I knew that Jack’s affair was going to come to light right at the start – on the first page as it happens – but I hadn’t planned much more than that when I started to write. I am not a meticulous plotter, but like to see how the story and characters develop and I absolutely loved the way that Not My Affair really took off in ways that I hadn’t imagined.

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MV: ‘What if?’ questions began. What if Ginny, my main character in The Winding Stair had been abducted and imprisoned by Curtis, a young man who had fallen in love with her and wanted her for himself? What if he lacked the social skills required and thought that if he locked her up, but was kind to her, that she would grow to love him? But what if the trauma in that young man’s early life had warped his mind to such an extent that his personality had split and divided into many others? What if he had developed Multiple Personality Disorder?

PF: The ‘what ifs’ that Millie mentions are such a great writer’s tool and it was a very early ‘what if?’ that determined Iona was going to be one mistress who had no intention of simply fading away. I didn’t so much choose Iona for the role she was to play, as have her present herself to me at quite an early point in the story and give an indication of what she might be capable of.

MV: I found the idea of a person morphing into another personality fascinating so to research the condition, I read all I could about it. Consciously or not, we all tend to present different faces to whoever we are with, but that’s where it stops. Not so with Multiple Personality Disorder. The condition is believed to be brought on by serious mental or physical abuse in early childhood. When Ginny defies her captor, Curtis changes dramatically into the violent character of Mikhail and she is forced to adjust her attitude towards him. Then Angel appears who says that she is the protector and that there are others. From then on Ginny never knows who will come through the door of her cell. In an odd sort of way this is a love story, for Curtis is genuinely in love with Ginny, but is mistaken in the way he pursues her and instead of drawing her to him he repulses her.

PF: I feel that reading Not My Affair would make women – and men, too – a lot more alert and aware of the possible dangers that can be the result of thoughtless actions. My research opened my eyes to what constitutes stalking/harassment and hopefully it will open the eyes of my readers, too, because some may be suffering in a similar way to Fay and realise there are laws in place to protect the innocent.9780719817625

MV: I hope my readers will sympathise with both main characters. One was not given the guiding hand of loving parents as a child. The other did not look deeply enough into the character of her friends. The meeting of Ginny and Curtis was a recipe for disaster.

PF: After reading Not My Affair, I would like my readers to feel they have been on a journey that has kept them on the edge of their seat at times – though there are lighter moments, too.

MV: The message overall is to not be too quick to trust ready smiles and sweet words. Honey means bees and bees can sting.

The Winding Stair will be published by Robert Hale on 31st October 2015, and Not My Affair on 30th November 2015.

For more information on the prevention of harassment and stalking, you may find the following links helpful:

http://www.stalkinghelpline.org

http://www.supportline.org.uk/problems/stalking.php

https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/help-victims/ive-been-affected/stalking-and-harassment

The dark side of the author: James Raven talks about upcoming novel Dying Wish

Interview by Esther Lee

Dying Wish is one of many crime books published by Robert Hale. What keeps you writing this genre and why? 

I became an avid reader of crime novels when I was in my early teens. My mother was a big fan of Agatha Christie and the great Mickey Spillane, and she got me hooked. Crime appeals to me because as a writer, you can really let your imagination run wild. I love to develop plots and create characters who are either good and honourable or incredibly evil and vicious.

Where do you find the inspiration for your books?

I’m a news junkie so many of my ideas come from the papers. I also draw on my years of experience as a journalist. Every day there are stories in the news that can be turned into a plot for a book. I have a folder full of cuttings that give me inspiration.

Do you think you have a bit of a dark side?

My friends tell me that I must have a dark side because some of the stories I come up with are so twisted and disturbing. In fact, more than once I’ve had to tone down my manuscripts before Robert Hale considered them suitable for publication.

There has been quite a surge in crime and thriller novels over the past few years. How does Dying Wish stand out from the rest of them, and what have you been doing to market this book?

It’s hard for any book to stand out in the current marketplace, especially in the crime and thriller genre. Competition is fierce. I like to think that Dying Wish will be noticed because the premise is somewhat unusual and some of the sequences are quite shocking. My agent described it as ‘a powerful book that’s not for the squeamish’.

I’ll be doing what I can to market Dying Wish by running online promotional ads, trying to secure reviews and sending out specially-made flyers. Hopefully there will also be a couple of book store events.

How do you want your readers to feel after reading Dying Wish?

Dying Wish is actually a pretty dark story and I’m hoping that readers will find it thought-provoking as well as entertaining. If when they finish it they feel it was time well spent, then I’ll be happy. It’s also the fourth in the DCI Jeff Temple series and it’d be great if readers are encouraged to check out the other three – Rollover, Urban Myth and Random Targets.

Tell us a bit about your next novel.

My next book is entitled The Blogger and also features Jeff Temple and his Major Investigations Team. It’s just been accepted by Robert Hale and is due out next year.

The idea came to me after I read about the huge growth in the number of online blogs and how some prominent bloggers have been murdered in recent years for running controversial campaigns.

It’s about a social justice activist who runs an online blog that has millions of followers. He promotes worthwhile causes and often criticizes governments and global corporations, which means he has some very powerful enemies. So when he dies in a mysterious fall from his balcony, there are more than a few suspects…

Dying Wish will be published by Robert Hale in June 2015.

Anne-Marie Vukelic talks to us about Caged Angel, Charles Dickens and Victorian novels

For those of us fascinated by Victorian history, who has not been educated, enlightened, and entertained in some way by the works of Charles Dickens?

During his lifetime he wrote fifteen major novels, drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the injustices of child labour, and the absurdities of the legal system. By raising public awareness of such matters he contributed to a number of social reforms.

My own interest in Dickens was sparked by a visit to the city of Rochester in 2005, where the author spent his final years. With its cobbled streets and crooked houses it is a city in which time appears to have stood still, and Dickens drew both characters and settings for his novels from this place which was very dear to his heart. My own time in Rochester motivated me to begin examining the author’s life in greater detail, and wondering how much of his work was biographical.

How vividly the story of Oliver Twist came to life when I learned that at the age of twelve, Dickens worked alongside other boys in a ‘Blacking’ factory under the guidance of a man named Bog Fagin. I discovered that in this same time period Dickens’s father was being held in the Marshalsea Debtors prison and the proud, solitary figure of William Dorrit came to my mind.

And what of Dickens’s heart? As a young man, it had been crushed by his first love, Maria Beadnell, who coldly referred to him as ‘Boy’. While standing in the shade of Restoration House – the inspiration for Miss Haversham’s Satis House – I thought of poor Pip cruelly spurned by Estella in Great Expectations. Yes, there is much of the pain and rejection that Dickens felt he had suffered in his youth that spilled from his pen onto the page.

By his own efforts, Dickens rose from humbling circumstances to author of great acclaim, but in studying his life I found myself curiously drawn to the shy, clumsy and somewhat disorganized wife who lived with this talented, impatient and restless man.

Little has been recorded about Catherine Dickens and yet, within the numerous pages that have been written about her famous husband, her voice appealed to me and so began the random jottings which eventually became my first novel, Far Above Rubies. Dickens’s world is traced from the perspective of a Victorian wife – the mother of ten children – who struggled through life quietly at the side of an exacting husband. When Dickens cast her aside in later years, he wrote a statement for the newspapers and, creating his own fiction, inferred that it was because she had some ‘peculiarity of character’. It was she who was to blame and not him.

My second novel, The Butterflies are Free, followed the fate of the Dickens children, the legacy of bearing the Dickens name and how their father’s secret affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan influenced their own relationships. The title is a quote taken from Dickens’s novel, Bleak House, and for me captured his wish to escape the life he found himself constrained by in his middle years.

Caged Angel, my forthcoming novel, was written as a result of my enduring interest in Dickens and the discoveries I made about some of his lesser-known contemporaries.

Caged Angel relates the story of the banking heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was considered a remarkable woman for her time in that she largely ignored what society expected of someone in her position, and chose instead to immerse herself in social issues of the day.

Dickens’s own interest in such matters made their friendship a natural one, and he was an ambassador for many of her projects, one of which was a home for former prostitutes.

Their backgrounds were completely different: Burdett-Coutts, the daughter of a baronet, had been raised on her family’s country estate. Dickens was the son of an improvident naval clerk, imprisoned for debt. Many of Angela’s equals could only have seen her in the context of her position in society, but with Dickens as her champion she was free to explore opportunities not usually open to women of her time.

Angela’s great wealth brought with it many unsolicited marriage proposals and unwanted suitors, the most persistent of these being the barrister Richard Dunn. Exploring newspaper archives and court records, I discovered how his enduring fixation with Angela became a frantic obsession. In a world largely dominated by men, there were no laws at the time to protect a woman from the term we are now familiar with as ‘stalking’.

The streets of nineteenth century London could not have provided a better setting for such a dark story to take place, and it is one by which readers of Victorian fiction are always excited.

I have an ongoing interest in the Victorian era for many reasons but partly because of its contradictions: the extremes of elegance and squalor, the veil of sexual morality twinned with hypocrisy, the contrast between the lives lived by Victorian men and women, and also experienced by those within the different class systems.

My interest in psychology and human emotions means that I am always curious about what drives an individual. What are their motives, their ambitions and inner thoughts? When writing the journal of Richard Dunn, capturing this aspect became even more challenging as Dunn’s thoughts descended into insanity.

When considering the time period in which to set a novel, the author has to consider the social attitudes of the day and how these will influence their characters. This becomes inevitably more interesting when the novel is set in the Victorian era, as so often an individual will find their own wishes going contrary to such attitudes and expectations.

All of the foregoing provides an author with an array of tools which lend themselves to a setting with tremendous atmosphere, a society from which one can draw intriguing plots and interesting characters. I think this is why Victorian fiction is still being written, and enjoyed by readers.

Folly over passion: what Jane Austen really wrote about

by Beth Andrews

Jane Austen

Like her immortal heroine, Fanny Price, Jane Austen was a spectator of the foibles of ordinary human existence, rather than a participant. Despite the efforts of modern mythmakers, there seems little evidence that she ever fell deeply in love with anyone. This is reflected in her generally cool, detached tone, which both fascinates and repels readers, who often forget that her novels are satires – arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century.

Contemporary reinterpretations of her work seem inspired by a desire to inject something many readers feel is missing from the original: romance. This completely overturns Jane’s intention of deflating romantic pretensions. She took marriage seriously, but romantic love she considered a comic mixture of self-indulgence and delusion. She advised her niece not to marry “without affection,” for the very sensible reason that affection tends to last, while passion – which is now almost universally accepted as the only legitimate foundation for marriage – rarely does. One early critic commented on her ideal of “intelligent love,” and Jane’s six novels consistently warn that, without the guidance of the head, the heart is bound to go astray. Some may call her modified Christian Platonism outmoded, but after Victorian excess and postmodern posturing, I find it refreshing, exhilarating, and eminently sane.

When rewriting Love and Freindship, I chose to celebrate and expand upon Jane’s joyful anti-romanticism, even making fun of the iconic BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. Having written both regency romance and cozy mysteries, I think Jane would find the latter healthier and more respectable. After all, there are many “crimes of passion,” but whoever heard of a murder, for instance, being committed in a “frenzy of reason”?

Women discussing potential matches at a ball in Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995)

Curiously, I think that the lack of sex in her books is one of Jane’s greatest strengths, and one reason for her continuing appeal. Whether a result of ignorance or deliberate choice, the fact that she eschews any explicit physical details – even so much as a kiss – is both unusual and intriguing. By contrast, writers like D. H. Lawrence now seem dated and somewhat facetious, along with their pseudo-Freudian philosophy; and Lady Chatterley’s exploits are about as exciting as a Sunday school picnic, compared with the graphic sexual content of the average Harlequin romance novel. This kind of writing is often more concerned with envelope-pushing than with getting to the real meat of plot and character development. Jane Austen’s work, on the other hand, is like a “lean, mean, narrative machine,” in which extraneous fatty tissue (sexual details, minute physical descriptions) are cut to the bone. The resulting creation is so polished in its presentation that it is easy to miss the wisdom beneath the wit.

Whatever one’s views, Jane Austen provides enough “follies and nonsense” to amuse readers, infuriate critics, and inspire writers for generations to come. The struggle between heart and head will remain relevant as long as humans possess both, and the choices made by Jane’s characters are of universal interest. The ironic zest with which she handles her subject matter will always appeal to writers who prefer to “jest at scars” rather than to weep over wounds.

The mystery behind Murder on the Minneapolis

by Anita Davison

As a reader, I have always loved the cosy mystery genre, the Agatha Christie style gatherings of genteel characters among whom one, or maybe more, turn out to be the villain(s). I like the easy to read formula which works without taking the reader into too many dark corners. Psychological thrillers are compelling but there will always be a place for the lighter crime story where the threads are neatly tied; the villain is revealed, justice prevails and everyone gets what they deserve. Maybe because it’s so different to real life, which is often inconclusive and messy.

When I decided to write a cosy mystery, I wanted to set it in the Edwardian age, mainly because this was a time of great change and also because there are vast amounts of documented and photographic evidence available to help give the novel an authentic atmosphere. I chose the location to be one of the steamships, which became all the rage during the late nineteenth century. The SS Minneapolis, built in Belfast, and was commissioned in the 1890s by the American Atlantic Transport Line. Along with their sister ships, she was a luxurious, seagoing palace designed to ferry first class passengers only between New York and London before the First World War.

The SS Minneapolis left New York on her maiden voyage in April 1900, which is not strictly Edwardian as Queen Victoria died in 1901 – but close enough as her influence had been usurped by the Prince of Wales by then. At 600 feet long and with a passenger complement of under a hundred, I imagined my characters wouldn’t get lost in a vast, floating city.

                       SS Minneapolis

The murder plot was inspired while researching the skyline passengers would see as they sailed up the Hudson into the Atlantic. I came across a report in the New York Times dated December 1899, whose bold headline announced ‘BRIDEGROOM ***** DEAD’. With journalistic straightforwardness, the report said a businessman had died unexpectedly within a week of his secret wedding. The details were brief and factual, with no speculation as to what had led up to the death, or the effect on his bereft bride.

This lack of back story prompted me to invent a scenario as to the possible circumstances of this tragedy, if there was one. My cosy mystery plotline, complete with villain, red herrings and solution was all there in that one, short news clipping. I have not produced it here as I’d like to avoid leaving little for the reader to work out for themselves – which is surely half the fun of this genre.

I was still unsure as to who my sleuth would be. A Poirot type character or a Miss Marple? Or neither? Then, while searching through Victorian photographs in a local antique shop, I came across a gentle-faced girl with light eyes, her hair upswept into a soft bun, and her slender neck encased in a delicate lace collar. Instantly, I knew this girl would be my investigator and gave her the name Flora Maguire. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy the photograph as it was part of a much larger collection, but she’s lodged comfortably inside my head and resides there quite happily.

Flora is an English governess; intelligent, educated, and a striking woman, though her station in life means that her intellect is often overlooked. She’s observant, but not too forward as she is used to keeping to the background.

When a man dies on board ship, Flora isn’t satisfied with the opinions of the crew and ship’s doctor, so she embarks on a personal mission to solve the mystery before the ship reaches England.

I felt Flora needed a confidant on this voyage, a young man to talk out her theories with, but who would also make her rethink her conclusions.  He needed to be attractive, kind and somewhat enigmatic, after all, any one of the passengers could be a killer. Whether their friendship would progress is unclear as he is from a different class, something which would have been a real barrier in the year 1900.

Amongst the usual complement of shipboard characters is one who appears almost as interested in the death on board as Flora, but whether or not he is a villain is not evident.

Flora’s story was fun to write, but more challenging than I imagined when it came to feeding clues and red herrings into the plot without giving too much away. If the outcome is too predictable, the reader will become bored and if too convoluted, they will become frustrated and give up.

I have heard of strange coincidences cropping up during the course of research. Thus far this has not happened to me – except in this case. During the WW1 Centenary celebrations of last summer, I discovered that all the ‘Minne’ class steamships of the Atlantic Transport Line were used as troopships. At the same time, I was also researching my paternal grandfather’s and great uncle’s service records, discovering they both served in the same regiment. The battalion in which my great uncle served was transported to the Western Front in October 1914 on the SS Minneapolis, and took part in the Battle of Ypres. My grandfather survived the war, but my eighteen-year-old great uncle was killed in France in June 1915.

This was something I was unaware of until then, more than a year after I went looking for a steamship on which to base my murder mystery.  Research, mystical connection or simply coincidence?

Murder on the Minneapolis by Anita Davison will be published by Robert Hale on 30 June

Wendy Perriam: ‘Mother’s Day – And we’re all awash with schmaltz’

Wendy Perriam on mothers in fiction.

‘“Mothers are angels in human form, divinities on earth”; “God moulded my mother’s heart from gold and put shining stars in her eyes”. Such tributes paid to mothers online are surely only fitting for unbelievable paragons like Marmee in Little Women. Most psychologists agree that the mother/child relationship, and especially the mother/daughter relationship, is often intractable and fraught. According to research, women only finally appreciate their mothers after 183 rows and 164 door-slammings. (Don’t ask me how they record such things!) And serious mother/child disruptions are all too familiar in literature, from Ancient Greece to modern times – think Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, or Lolita’s mother who puts her own sexual satisfaction above the safety of her daughter. And most crass and vile of all mothers must surely be Matilda’s, depicted by Roald Dahl as neglectful, idiotic and tyrannically abusive.

Even some of my close friends are in constant daily conflict with their daughters, or despairing of children who seem distant, recalcitrant or downright bolshie. So we’re faced with a dichotomy: angelic mothers, on the one hand, hymned and praised in treacly Mother’s Day cards and, on the other, the unwelcome truth of slammed doors and family rifts. Last year, I asked my Creative Writing students to write a one-page study of their mothers and was shocked by the number of callous harridans who nagged and scolded from those pages.

And, when it comes to me and mothers, I didn’t have the best start in the world! Born in the middle of the war to a highly anxious mum, who already had an underweight toddler, born prematurely and still giving much cause for anxiety, the last thing she wanted was another child. And who can blame her, with my Dad away, bombs raining down on the family home, and us forced to sleep in the cramped and smelly air-raid shelter under the dining-room table?

Even my actual birth was far from serene. Mum’s labour started in the middle of a horror film, precipitating a mad dash from cinema to hospital, where I emerged in an undignified rush, sickly-yellow from jaundice. One look at my ghastly hue and satanically dark hair was enough to convince my parents to change my name from Angela to Wendy – I was clearly more devil than angel. But, since Wendy isn’t a Saint’s name, the nuns who schooled me from age 4 to age 21 disapproved of it intensely.

Those same nuns constituted a whole troupe of alternative “mothers”– scary forbidding figures with, apparently, no hair and no discernible bodies, just long black gliding robes. Nor could one expect much mercy, let alone mothering, from such strict, judgemental disciplinarians, who regarded touch as dangerous and pleasure as a one-way ticket to Hell. My schoolgirl diaries record how often we were told we were “vegetables”, “hopeless failures” and “miserable worms”, who would never amount to anything.

9780709093862So perhaps it’s little wonder that my latest short-story collection has Bad Mothers in the title. However, I didn’t consciously set out to write about mothers, good or bad, and it was only when I re-read the whole collection that I realized how many bad mothers feature in the stories. The thing about short stories is that they require much less pre-planning and structuring than novels, and seem to arise spontaneously, often prompted by childhood experiences. And, certainly, as a child, I was in frequent trouble both from my mother and the nuns. The latter eventually expelled me and told me I was in the devil’s power – the most frightening moment of my life, since Satan seemed totally real and terrifyingly evil.

In the story A Cuppa and a Biscuit, I recreate a younger version of my troubled schoolgirl self and re-enact her dread of Hell and damnation – still with me at the age of 74! This story is based on a real-life incident, when I was told by Reverend Mother (the most daunting of all mothers) not to keep fainting at Holy Mass. But how could I stop what she called “this pernicious habit”, when it seemed to happen automatically and I’d find myself blacking out and slumping to the floor? Truth to tell, I was probably just weak and hungry, since we girls ate nothing from early supper to post-Mass breakfast the next day.

However, as a counterbalance to punitive Reverend Mothers and cantankerously critical real mothers, there are some benign and gentle mothers in my new short-story collection. The title-story, Mouse, for example, features a kind and decent mother, whose only fault is her fear of mice. (This is an extremely common phobia, judging by the statistics, so I hope musophobics readers aren’t unduly alarmed by the book-jacket!) And Debs’ Mum in Presents is genuinely loving and caring, a supportive figure who cooks her daughter proper porridge in the morning; has her supper waiting when she returns knackered after work; makes her a hot-water-bottle if her period-pain is bad; sews new eyes on her old, balding teddy bear, and offers to make her curtains if and when she moves away from home. And the reason Debs doesn’t move, despite her desire for her own flat, is because of the very strength and solidity of that love, which she now sees as a precious gift – a gift of time, effort and devotion

And talking of gifts, I hope that, despite its title, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers will make an apt and unusual present for Mother’s Day. After all, if a few of the mothers prove alarming, the brilliant lovers may well compensate!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here