Thursday, 1 September 2016

Under the influence

Fellow writers of a certain age will remember the 1980s children’s TV programme, Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Do Something Less Boring Instead? It was a great show, possibly a little low-key for today’s audiences, but in a roundabout way it led me to become first an avid reader, and then by natural evolution, an avid writer. Because, as a child, when I switched off my television set, I would dive headfirst into a book. 

I’d spend hours in my local library, browsing the shelves with a mixture of envy and adoration, wanting be immersed in the worlds that would open up for me as soon as I selected a book and took it to the counter to be stamped out. Who can remember those lovely old-fashioned library tickets? Lounging on my bed with a bar of Galaxy and a brand-new novel or big fat reference book was an absolute treat. And today, just wandering around a bookshop will conjure all sorts of ideas and nuggets that feed my imagination.

This long-standing love for books was ignited in my childhood by seeing my mother and older sister constantly reading. I was able to dip into novels beyond my reading ability (broadening my mind and so pleasing my teachers no end). There was nothing more comforting than seeing a stack of hardbacks from the library by my mother’s chair waiting to be explored. From Jackie Collins to Jean Plaidy, and Wilbur Smith and Mazo de la Roche (we didn’t have particularly literary tastes), we would devour them, our reading list peppered with the odd classic here and there. And almost by some sort of intellectual osmosis, I found myself wanting to create my own stories, my own worlds just like the ones I had been drawn into. 

I began to make books, prime little examples of juvenilia, from folded up pieces of paper, stapled and scruffily illustrated. I progressed, as I reached my teens, by investing in a typewriter (manual of course, this was the 1980s!). It was at this point that I read the Brontes and knew that my course was set. I began tapping away at bodice rippers and dreadful gothic romances that would make me blush today if I hadn’t shredded the lot in the early 2000s. 

My first book, A Season of Leaves, was published in 2008, so it was a long haul. Before this, I’d spent many years attempting to write what I thought were reasonably mature contemporary novels. These early works, I see now, were all part of the steep learning curve that writers must navigate. A kind of really hard apprenticeship, if you will. When confidence was high I’d trawl through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for names of suitable agents and publishers, send off submissions, enter ‘first novel’ competitions and then sit back to wait for the inevitable rejections to roll in. When confidence was low, I’d escape into the private world of other people’s books – my list of favourite authors includes Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver and Mary Wesley – become inspired and the cycle would start again. 

It was hard to face these setbacks, but I like to think I rose above them and allowed the harsh experiences to make me more determined. And I’m sure this is what most writers find hard to pinpoint: where does this drive come from and why do we keep going? I guess we must live to write, not write to live, and tap into our creativity whenever and wherever we can. And, first and foremost, switch off that television set!

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Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Unfolding the Map of Stars

Set amid the turmoil of the Second World War, my new novel Map of Stars explores secrets, lies, espionage and, of course, love. And, just as I did with my previous novels, I tapped into characters living through a terrifying war: the ordinary people doing extraordinary things in such dangerous times. And, in Map of Stars, characters live in Kent, near the coast and so are right on the front line. But where did the first spark for my story ignite?

I have known and loved the Isle of Thanet for a half a lifetime. Having visited this eastern part of Kent so often in the last 25 years, I began to feel that it was my second home. So much so that last year, I left the hills of Buckinghamshire to settle ten minutes from the sea at Margate; it felt like a homecoming. And, already, Map of Stars was taking shape.

Kent has ancient roots, sleepy charm and a pretty landscape of orchards and hop gardens, with the sea lapping at its toes. I love that I can stand on the cliffs at Dover and see France in the haze across a stretch of water that looks, in some lights, entirely swimmable. I was fascinated by what it must have been like to live here during the 1940s, in plain sight of the enemy and under the flight path of the bombers heading for London. 

The germ of the idea for Map of Stars crept up on me like a spy. It was sparked by a recent news report about a mummified homing pigeon trapped in a Kentish chimney, complete with war-time message strapped to its leg. So far, so intriguing. Then I discovered that, during the war, pigeons were taken on every mission leaving our air fields so, if the crew were shot down, they’d be used to send home their co-ordinates. I found out that carrier pigeons were also dropped from planes in little boxes with parachutes over the French countryside for the Resistance. By now, my mind was racing.

And then I unearthed our very own British Resistance: a top-secret guerrilla fighter network dotted around the Kent countryside in foxholes ready to scupper the dreaded invasion. They were the Dad’s Army with bells on and I was entirely hooked on their little-known story. And so the story of Map of Stars began to form - and it is not just about pigeons!
It’s 1967, the Summer of Love, when my heroine Eliza and her grown-up daughter Stella pluck a mummified bird from a pile of soot that falls down the chimney of their home, Forstall Manor, an Elizabethan country house deep in the Kent countryside. The note sent with this pigeon is written on a secret coded war-time document (the ‘map of stars’) and is a desperate scribbled message of love for Eliza, delivered more than twenty years too late. 

The sender is Lewis, Eliza’s lover who went missing in the war and who she believes is dead. Reading his words takes her straight back to the time when she was newly married to childhood sweetheart Nicholas, when the manor, commandeered by the War Office, was buzzing with Morse code and when talk was of rations, spies and invasion. And, in the midst of this, Eliza struggles with her loyalty to her husband, obligation to her country and her secret love for Lewis. 

My novels may be unashamedly romantic, but I always like to weave in a darker side. When the message from Lewis falls into Eliza’s hearth, as well as reviving painful memories of loss and sacrifice, it leads to the uncovering of her own, terrible secret from those dangerous war-time days. In fact, it is her inquisitive daughter Stella who delves into the past, in a bid to mend her relationship with her mother. But what is Eliza hiding? 

Discover Map of Stars and my other novels at