#100daysofbfotc Day 35: The Western Front

Fromelles German Federal Archives This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

German Federal Archive Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license

As a significant proportion of Barefoot on the Cobbles is set during the First World War, it needed to contain a scene from the Western Front. This was a challenge. I write by researching my characters’ geographical and emotional backgrounds, not in a vacuum. For the rest of the book, which all takes place in Devon, understanding the physical landscape, albeit with a twenty first century slant, was straightforward. Many of Barefoot’s main characters are female and although I am not a young female, I was once, so I can get inside their heads. I have never visited the battlefields, I have no experience of being on active service and I am not a young male. The thought of composing the battle scene was daunting.

I had already chosen the character, Abraham, that I would use for this part of the book and was interested to discover that he lost his life in one of the lesser known battles, a least from a British perspective (this particular battle has much higher prominence in Australian history). I had already formed an impression of Abraham’s personality but how would he respond to a war zone? I was unable to go to France while I was writing this novel but I read diaries, letters and memoirs written by those who took part in the battle. This gave me a much greater understanding of the landscape and help me to empathise with Abraham. I hope that I have created a believable character and a realistic environment. Despite having serious misgivings about my ability to think and therefore write, from the point of view of a First World War soldier, this is the chapter that I am most pleased with.

There are so many, oft used, words and phrases to describe the Western Front: horrific, damaged, muddy, bloody, terrifying, boring, a tragedy, ravaged; all those things. I think I will leave you with some words from chapter 8. ‘Across the plain where the purple clover once bloomed and the swallows used to dive, men prepared for death in a blood-stained ditch. The lurking mist that accompanied the persistent drizzle obscured the view but the deathly crumps of falling shells resounded as the wire-cutting party were sent into the abyss. From the vantage point of the higher ground, the Germans were set to defend the salient without thought for the cost in human pain.’

Barefoot on the Cobbles will be published on 17 November 2018. More information about the novel can be found here. Copies will be available at various events in the weeks following the launch or can be pre-ordered from Blue Poppy Publishing or the author.

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Hardback or not Hardback that is the Question? With Additional Travel Updates

With the end of Barefoot on the Cobbles almost within touching distance, I’ve been thrashing out details of print runs, prices and other such mundanities. I need to make a decision about a hardback edition. Now, personally, I am not a great fan of hardbacks. They are, after all, just that, hard. I read in bed, lying down. It is how I get to sleep. This means that, when I do doze off, whatever I am reading inevitably falls on my nose. This makes hardbacks somewhat of a health hazard. I am aware that there are those who read in a more conventional manner, sitting in chairs for example – how radical. Perhaps these folk would appreciate a hard back version? Can I canvas the opinion of one or two of you who are eagerly anticipating the publication of my magnum opus? Would you pay perhaps an additional £5 for a hardback version? There will be a ebook option for those who prefer reading on an electronic device. Publication and launch day is set for 17 November and the opportunity for pre-publication orders will be available shortly. I am not prepared to commit to how shortly but I am aiming for the end of March. Anyway, please let me know if you are a hardback lover, so I can judge if a hardback run is viable.

Some of you will know that this year is set to be a whirlwind of overseas travel. Planning these trips has been beset with irritations and anxieties and at one point I was heard to exclaim that I was going no further than Cornwall in 2019. So much for that idea. It looks possible that I will be working overseas twice next year as well. With all this trans-continental travel, you would think I could get myself to and from a rural village about fifteen miles away without incident wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t? – Ah, you know me so well. I set off in thick fog yesterday morning, fog that became ever thicker, to the extent of being impenetrable. By some quirk of fate the powers that be have got it wrong. They have inexplicably decided to shut the main holiday route at a time when tourists are not in evidence. This is a radical policy change but I digress. I was thus obliged to go ‘the back way’. ‘The back way’ gave me an opportunity to post a parcel. When our village post office was arbitrarily closed we were reassured that we could use the next nearest post office (in a village 6 miles away, which you wouldn’t want to go to for any other purpose – perfectly pleasant village and all that, just not much reason to go there). Inevitably that post office is now also shut. Never fear, we have a post van that visits our village daily, except when it doesn’t, due to there being a mechanical failure/operator illness/lack of internet access/two flakes of snow/an ‘R’ in the month. So the non-appearance of said van on Friday meant I had a parcel to post yesterday. I visit a fog bedecked post office, what can go wrong? I kid you not, the post office was closed for a computer upgrade. Onwards through the fog to my destination, parcel unposted. I arrive unscathed.

LucetteI spin away for a few hours. Well, actually I was plying and lucetting but I don’t want to get too technical. I set off home, deciding on a slightly different ‘back way’, in order to avoid having to execute a three point turn in a road barely wider than a car, at a time when several other cars are also manoeuvring. The fog had lifted, this should have been fine. Except that the other ‘back way’ was also closed for repair. The council are obviously using up their meagre road mending budget before the end of the financial year. I use a combination of common sense and sign posts before realising that I have no clue where I am, I haven’t seen another vehicle since I set off, the last building was two miles back and that was a barn. Do I have my ‘emergency’ phone? Well, no – how did I know there might be an emergency? I do however have a sat-nav. I unplug my cosy seat heater in favour of the sat-nav and follow the directions. Now I am more than comfortable with narrow, winding muddy road but I do like them to actually be roads. I bounce along muddy tracks that could not with any stretch of the imagination be described as roads, even by rural Devon, pothole laden, grass-in-the-middle-of-the-road terms. I idly wonder what would happen should I get a puncture. Even the emergency phone would be useless as I would be incapable of describing where to find me. Fortunately, I eventually arrive home. Forget going to Cornwall, I don’t even want to leave the house.

In a Spin with Adverbs, Idioms and Procrastinations

This week I have discovered that it is not only possible to waste time counting how many words you have, or perhaps that should be have not, written; there is a refinement to this. There are some nifty websites that will tell you how many unique words you have used. In other words (there’s a pun in there somewhere) how many of your words are different from any other. It also counts the number of times you have used a particular word. So, I have already used ‘words’ four times in this post, not that I needed a website to tell me that. So now I know that my 75,394 words contain 9273 different ones and that 7% of my book is ‘the’ – only 1563 ‘and’s though but I do have a weird writing style that tends to dispense with ‘and’.

I have also been doing some market research aka wasting time on writers’ forums (fora ?). This is encouraging and depressing in equal measure. Having spent my infant years in a decidedly antiquated educational establishment, the words ‘lots’, ‘nice’ and ‘got’ were frowned upon. Now it seems that ‘just’ and ‘seems’ are equally taboo. Cue a swift search through my manuscript to identify these gremlins and decide if they need an equally swift eradication. Then there are adverbs, the gratuitous use of which is high up there on the list of cardinal sins. Now, I am a great fan of the adverb; blame the antiquated educational establishment. Don’t get me wrong, I get the ‘lazy verb’ school of thought. Yes, it is preferably to write ‘he hurried’, rather than ‘he walked quickly’ but there are cases when the more descriptive verb is not enough. What is wrong with ‘he hurried anxiously’? (Not the best example perhaps but give me a break, it’s 6am). Again, I can see that the anxiety can and in many cases should, be conveyed by the context but I do believe adverbs have their role. If you don’t like adverbs please don’t read my work in progress, it won’t be for you.

As part of my one woman mission to eradicate anachronisms (now their use really is a cardinal sin) I have been checking on my use of idiom. Are the phrases I’ve used, often through the mouths of my characters, appropriate to the period I am writing about? It turns out they are and for example, I can tell you that the expression ‘good riddance’ was used in the late eighteenth century and to ‘lord it over’ someone is fine for the late sixteenth century onwards.

Spinning WheelJust as I thought my confidence in my own ability could not get any lower, I go spinning. This is not the extreme gym activity, that really would be depressing but the crafting variety. I manage a business called Swords and Spindles for heaven’s sake (sorry can’t find a date for that one). I live in the seventeenth century. I need to be able to spin. So, having been given a spinning wheel for Christmas, off I go to an unbelievably friendly and helpful local group to learn how to use it. I should at this point explain that the kind of co-ordination that spinning requires, is not really my thing. I can’t even control an electric sewing machine. Then there is the perennial problem with my feet, which are square. This means my shoes are at least two sizes larger than my foot. Add to this my double-jointed toes and the point at which I have any control over what I am pressing on, is relegated to half way down my shoe. This makes controlling the pedal difficult. If you’ve tried patting your head and rubbing your stomach, spinning is more complicated. You have two hands and one leg all doing different things at the same time. Well, I don’t but that’s the principle. My very patient instructor made minor adjustments to my wheel and coped admirably with my incompetence. Despite going too fast, serious over-spinning and trouble with my backward drawing, I did manage to complete a whole bobbin of what is kindly described as ‘designer’ single ply. For ‘designer’ read full of lumps. I even started a second bobbin and did seem to actually be sort of getting the hang of it (mid nineteenth century) a bit by that point. I was already suffering from wool carders’ arms in preparation for the spinning. It is incredibly hard work, now I have added ‘spinners’ back’. Appropriate then that I am off to deliver a talk on ‘occupational hazards’ tonight.

Coincidences, Conclusions and Car Parks

dscf3202This retreating writers thing seems to be a good idea. At 5am on day one I wrote a fair draft of the end of Barefoot. Although my slightly weird body clock does not regard 5am as being ridiculously early, I am not often in full writer’s flow at that hour. The words came, they needed to be captured before they evaporated. I began by scribbling on the margin of the handy TV paper until the pen ran out, then I upgraded to pencil and paper. Perhaps I should keep the TV paper; if only anyone could actually read what I wrote on the pale parts of the page, nestled between Coronation Street and the Jeremy Kyle Show, it could be worth a fortune when Barefoot turns out to be a best seller. I can but dream. This sleep inspired ending, is not the last part of the final chapter that I have been struggling with, that remains an ominous blank page but the epilogue is on its way to being done. Of course, it will still be pulled apart and put back together again, especially when I let it loose on readers but I am pleased with my initial efforts.

Before all this muse striking lark, having established ourselves on our caravan site, we decided to drive into Torquay in the hope of buying ancient persons’ coach cards from the Tourist Information Centre here, our local one having been closed. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when I could not find the opening times anywhere online. I did establish that they were closed at weekends, hence not waiting until the following day. We paid a small fortune to purchase a plastic disc that enabled us to park. We walked to the tourist information shop. It was closed, had we arrived too late in the day? It turns out we were several months too late and the office does not reopen until February! To be honest, having been there, I can understand why the powers that be subscribe to the theory that there will be few tourists in a freezing January Torquay but I resented the wasted couple of hours and the significant investment (well, £1.50) in unnecessary parking.

As we were in south Devon, we decided to take the opportunity to support the south Devon group of Devon Family History Society. Having looked at the online programme, we were expecting a talk on the territorial army. I was surprised and delighted to find that the talk was actually about Newton Abbot workhouse and I had been looking at last year’s programme by mistake. One of my reasons for visiting the south was to investigate Daisy’s time in this very workhouse; what a coincidence, or is it something more?

Now to type up my epilogue while I can still decipher it.

Madness, Mania and Melancholia: the mental health of our ancestors

The fact that I have begun the new year researching madness says it all really. One of my new presentations for 2018 is about the mental ill-health of our ancestors; it will have its first outing next month. By co-incidence I was invited recently to submit an article on the same topic for the journal of The International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. I have really enjoyed researching this important topic, if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word. I did touch on mental illness in my booklet ’Til Death Us Do Part: causes of death 1300-1948 and it also gets a mention in my Pharos online course In Sickness and in Death – researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors but preparing the talk and article has given me the scope to investigate in more detail. As usual, what interests me most is people’s behaviour, both the reactions at the time and how we view our mentally ill ancestors now.

So what else has been happening since the season of goodwill and family gatherings was relegated to the attic for another eleven months? Pretty much it has all been about Daisy and of course mental illness threads its way through the pages of her story too.  This week has seen me focus on endings and beginnings in respect of Barefoot. I have been struggling with the final chapter. Sadly this is not the final chapter in the sense that it will be the last I write but it will be the end of the book, which is probably why I am finding finishing it so difficult. I also sent the prologue out to my lovely writers’ group and a couple of other beta readers. Well there was some good news, overall the reaction was favourable and they felt that they wanted to read more. That’s a relief. The downside is that they all suggested different minor ‘tweaks’. In each case, I can see the points that they are being made but if I take them all on board, it will be unrecognisable as the passage that I originally wrote. I am putting this passage away for a while and will come back to deciding how to deal with it later.

Torquay Town Hall HospitalShortly, I am off for what I am laughingly calling a ‘writer’s retreat’ aka three days in a caravan in the soft south of the county. Part of Daisy’s story takes place in Torquay, which is not a town I know very well, hence the need for a field visit. I spent yesterday researching the back stories of some of the minor characters she encounters during this part of her life and needless to say, found others I would like to include. A newspaper article mentioned that Daisy shared a house with six others whilst in Torquay. The identity of three of these was obvious. I had the task of pinpointing plausible candidates for the other three. I am happy to report that I have positively identified one and have come up with two others who are consistent with the information I have. Google earth suggests that the house they lived in was a three bedroom Victorian terrace and I cannot work out who might realistically have shared a bedroom with whom but perhaps, when I see the property in reality, it may look larger. A servants’ attic would be handy! I’ve also immersed myself in stories of VAD nurses and located routes I need to retrace. Hopefully this visit will enable me to write two middle chapters of the book then I really am on the home straight – yippee!

PS – three book reviews posted so far this year – get reviewing folks – help an author.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 23 Tips for English Women and not the Booker Prize

E W D M coverToday’s advent offering sits on my bookshelves but is not actually a book. If that sounds like a Christmas riddle, I will explain. It is a bound volume of the twelve issues of The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine from 1854. It was given to me many years ago by a family history friend (thank you Peggy) and is a real gem. There is no better way to investigate social history than through contemporary writing. There are some second hand copies being offered for sale and some issues are available online. It was published, from 1852-1879, by Mr Beeton. His wife’s famous book of Household Management developed out of the supplements that she wrote for the magazine. There is much that the reader of modern women’s magazines would recognise: short stories, recipes, fashion advice, household hints, book reviews, competitions, readers’ letters and the ubiquitous problem page. In the pages of the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine you can discover how to cook shank jelly, how to deal with rats (discharging a pistol near their holes), how to cure stammering (talk between clenched teeth for two to three hours a day) and how to deal with a man who wants to be ‘more than a friend’. The reply to the latter plea to ‘Cupid’s Post Bag’ recommends a different solution depending on the hair colour of the lady so troubled. This magazine was, of course, aimed at more comfortably off, literate ladies but it is nonetheless an interesting insight into life at the time.

Capture25551880_1790284211264807_8636543761465579878_nA few weeks ago, I responded to the challenge, issued by a Devon library, to write a fifty word crime story. I am usually accused of using at least four words where one will do, so this was well out of my comfort zone. I do enjoy reading crime novels, primarily those that are set in the past but it is not something I would consider writing. Barefoot on the Cobbles does involve a crime but I refer to that as a why-done-it not a who-done-it. I summoned all my O level summary writing skills that have been lurking in my subconscious for forty five years. I wrote something. I left it for a few days and tweaked it a bit. I sent it to ace beta reader Martha. I emailed it to the library, in a suitably spooky font and then forgot about it. Yesterday came the news that I had won! Ok, so it isn’t exactly the Booker Prize but it is the first time I have consciously laid bare anything that I have written in a competitive arena. I did wonder if only I and the library cat had submitted entries but no, it turns out there were others. I was invited to collect my prize from library, which is thirty miles and a good hour’s drive away. I debated whether this was worth it and decided that it was. Though my shed-lifting damaged back did not agree. Nonetheless, I am now the proud owner (temporarily) of a bottle of whisky and hot toddy making kit and a warm glow – and that’s before we open the bottle. Thank you Crediton Library.

 

Writers in the Cabin

The seven authors in our writers’ group are eagerly anticipating our forthcoming ‘Writers in a Cabin’ residence. Will we cope with the lack of electricity, phone signal and sanitation? How will we interact with the resident insect life? Will anyone want to come and say hello? As yet, all great imponderables, although some of us have already made up their minds about the spiders. In the hope of persuading you to spend time in a very special place and of course increasing the footfall for us, may I encourage you to read on?

Writers in Cabin flyerNestled at the bottom of the hill in the little fishing hamlet of Bucks Mills, lies The Cabin. This two-roomed hut began life as a fisherman’s store before being acquired by Judith Ackland’s family. Together with her friend Mary Stella Edwards, Judith used the building as an artists’ retreat for half a century. The solitude and spectacular views across the rugged North Devon coastline make it ideal for those seeking inspiration. Now in the care of the National Trust, the Cabin is almost exactly as the artists left it in 1971.

From 29 April – 1 May, it will once again be a setting that encourages creative talents to flourish. Between 10.00 and 4.00, the seven members of the North Devon authors’ group will take it in turns to use the cabin and its wonderful surroundings as their muse. The work of all these writers is rooted the past, in the local landscape, or both. They look forward to discussing their work, both past and forthcoming and signing copies of their books. This will be a unique opportunity, not only to view inside The Cabin, which is rarely open to the public but also to talk to enthusiastic and friendly authors about their writing.

The Writers in the Cabin will be:

Ruth Downie writes crime novels set in Roman times. Ruth’s book Medicus has recently attracted a ‘Discovered Diamond’ award for historical fiction.

Susan Hughes writes books set in the first half of the twentieth century. Her debut novel A Kiss from France was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2017. She is now writing her second book.

Wendy Percival is the author of mystery novels featuring genealogy sleuth Esme Quentin, which include The Indelible Stain, set on the North Devon coast, near Hartland.

P J Reed is a poet and author who writes of the beauty and ethereal nature of the changing countryside. Her latest anthology Flicker was published last month.

Liz Shakespeare’s books are inspired by the people, history and landscapes of Devon. Her latest novel The Postman Poet, which was launched last month, is based on the true story of Edward Capern who composed poems and songs whilst delivering letters in Victorian North Devon.

Pamela Vass writes North Devon based fiction and social history. Her novel Seeds of Doubt debates whether the Lynmouth floods of 1952 were an Act of God or the Act of Man.

and Me!