Thursday 26 October 2017

From old records to human stories

When writer Joy Gelsthorpe decided to do some family research, it was not with the intention of becoming a novelist. However, as she looked into the Parish Records of the village of Reighton on the East Yorkshire coast, intriguing facts began to emerge that made her start to wonder about the lives of these people. The vicar, for example, had nine children. How did his family cope in a tiny vicarage?

Widening her net, Joy read the Beverley Quarter Sessions of the period. Here she came across assaults, disturbances of the peace, smuggling, even the poisoning of a dog. The people of the early 18th century were coming to life in her imagination. She knew she had the material for a novel set in the early 1700s, but went on to spend several years on her research.

When she finally sat down to start on the novel that was clamouring to be written, she notes that it had already grown in her mind into a trilogy, adding, ‘Those three books have now become four.’

The opening to the series emerged when she read about the harsh winter of 1703. ‘It was one of the worst storms in British history,’ she says.

But even with years of meticulous research behind her, she says, ‘There wasn’t much to go on. All I had were the dates of births, marriages and deaths, but I didn’t know any detail, how people died or what motives lay behind their marriages. Court indictments, wills and sales of land provided further information but nothing about people’s personalities and desires.’

Nonetheless, these bare facts gave her both a framework and a time scale around which to build the characters and imagine the problems they would confront. She says, ‘It wasn’t long before the people felt real to me and, if I left off writing for a while, I missed them.’

Joy structured events for the whole period of the four books from 1703 to 1735. ‘I knew, well in advance of my writing, when people married or died. Even so, I did make some mistakes and had to backtrack at times and re-write sections. I found out later that one of my favourite characters, who I thought to be childless, did have one daughter. I was reluctant to alter things and, when there was no further record of the girl either dying or marrying, I decided to use artistic licence and just leave her out. Also, as the Jordan family tended to use the same few Christian names, it is highly likely that I have combined the lives of at least two William Jordans.’

The area where Joy lives is a close-knit community where people tend to know each other. Some of her readers will be people she knows personally but will also be direct descendants of some of the people she is writing about. I ask if that causes her any worries.

‘It’s true,’ she says, ‘the names of the characters are those of some friends, and they may be descendants. I’ve worried from the start whether to use the real names or not. I hope people understand that the characters’ actions and motives are figments of my imagination. I don’t want to upset anyone. After all, the Jordan family are my own ancestors and that has not stopped me from painting a dark picture of them at times.’

And what happens when these books are finished?

‘I have a new writing project, but it’s on hold while I’m working on the Reighton books. It’s based on imaginary letters from a young lady on holiday in Filey in 1819. It’s about a handsome fisher boy that she sees and falls in love with. The idea came after hearing Eliza Carthy sing “The Bonnie Fisher Boy”.’

How far along the road is she with the Reighton books?

‘All four books have been written but are in the process of their second and third re-drafts. I’ve had an encouraging response on book one from a publisher who wants me to change a few things and re-submit, so I’m reworking that.’

That sounds encouraging. I have had the opportunity to read extracts from books one and two. Joy really has done her research and paints a fascinating picture of rural life in the early 18th century. I hope she’ll be back here before too long to share news of publication of the whole series.

Thursday 19 October 2017

A thoroughly modern genre – the eco-thriller

Sue Knight’s second book, Waiting for Gordo, published this year by Fantastic Books Publishing, is billed as an eco-thriller. I’m not entirely sure what that is but I know it doesn’t do justice to the emotional range that this short novel evokes. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in its beautifully observed relationships, but within a paragraph unease has crept up and turned into terror. And all within an incredible landscape.

One reviewer said of the book that it took them right back to the Maldives, and it’s hard to imagine any other setting provided the inspiration and back drop, though the location is never specifically mentioned. I ask about what inspired the setting?

Sue says, ‘It was indeed the Maldives and I am so pleased that was recognised. I did want to convey the beauty of the islands. We had many many dive trips there in our expat days, staying at various small islands. And I wrote and edited quite a bit of it on those trips.’

So what exactly is an eco-thriller?

‘Yes. That is an excellent question,’ says Sue, adding into our live chat interview the line <...looks evasive and tries to change subject...> but she goes on to say, ‘Perhaps because one of the book's main themes is the way we find a paradise destination, go there, in our droves, and in doing so, do we spoil it? And yet we are wanted and needed there. The issue of global warming is touched upon too. But I take no sides politically speaking, and have no political answers to offer.’

I wonder were there things about the Maldives and society there that made her uneasy while she was there or have her misgivings emerged with hindsight? Or indeed are these misgivings entirely fictional?

‘I wouldn't say I had any misgivings really - the tourist islands are very separate from the day to day life of the Maldives and I never even travelled to Male, the main island. My thoughts over the years were mainly about the increasing luxuries tourism requires, and how it weighs with these small isolated islands, so remote and set so low in the beautiful Indian Ocean.’

The story at times is very funny as it charts the different relationships of the group on the island, but there are moments of dreadful unease that become real terror. I ask Sue if she has walked around a remote island at night on her own? And if so, how did it feel?

She thanks me for finding the book both funny and frightening as that was what she was aiming for. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I have walked on the islands at night, though not all the way round as my heroine does. It was lovely. And felt safe. I liked the evenings and nights there best of all. There are no cars, no traffic noise, just the sea beating and beating against the island edges. The stars are bright and the air smells of frangipani blossom. I wasn't so keen on Disco/Karaoke night blaring out from the bar at the other end, but that was only one night, and it is what many tourists want. I never felt at all uneasy about walking on my own in the dark there. I enjoyed it. But it is nearly ten years since I was there, and sadly things may have changed, as violence seems to be on the increase everywhere.’

Sue’s first book, a novelette called Till They Dropped, was very different in terms of its setting and characters, yet it had that same edge-of-seat tension and was perhaps giving the same message from a very different angle. I ask if she would agree.

‘Yes, “Till they Dropped” could be described as an eco-thriller I guess, as, many many years ago, I began to wonder about all the shopping malls being built, and whether the world would run out of shoppers. So I decided to write the story of the last shopper left alive, and the deadly danger that would put her in. But that was also about the brave new world we tried so hard to build in the wake of WW2.’

Will there be any more Maldives-inspired books?

‘I don't think so, no. So I hope I have done them justice in this one.’

Undoubtedly, she has. Waiting for Gordo perfectly captures the beauty and remoteness of these small tropical islands.

What is next?

‘I am working on another thriller inspired by my childhood family home and another paradise which was my granny's rambling old house and garden - a fairy tale place for us grandchildren. And I am using a Rebecca-ish theme in that my heroine is the second wife haunted by the memory of the first wife. I even have a Mrs Danvers figure. It is nearly finished. And I hope it is scary, but also funny.’

I for one, can’t wait for the next book, and I’ll leave the last word to Sue who, in response to that genre question again, says, ‘I would like to call it a post-modern version of Rebecca, but the problem with that is that someone might ask me what that means. And the only thing I can think of to say with reference to “post-modern” is that it is a phrase that testifies to the foolishness of calling any movement in art “modern”.’

Follow Sue’s blog HERE

Thursday 12 October 2017

Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Elaine Hemingway is a writer with a wide and varied writing CV. Retired now, she spent many years in Africa and was once a regular contributor to a local newspaper with a column called Stille Oomblik, which translates to Quiet Moment. 

‘I had to give up the column,’ she says, ‘when we moved to Natal.’ But clearly the writing bug had well and truly caught her long before then, and her publications track her progress down Africa, with a short story in a Zambian newspaper, an article in a car magazine reflecting the self-sufficient life she and her family had to lead, and her Stille Oomblik column from the Transvaal.

Elaine has long nurtured ambitions to write a longer piece. ‘As we moved down Africa,’ she says, ‘I became fascinated by the history, acquiring the diaries of Johan van Riebeeck and attempting an historical novel based on his time in South Africa.’

Was the book ever completed?

‘Sadly not, because life continued to intrude,’ says Elaine, ‘and I became more adept at procrastination. But it was my religious values that brought me back to my writing. I grew up with Christian beliefs, but only after a particular disaster did I come to full commitment and find my niche. Writing and studying became a real pleasure, to be indulged more deeply. My Stille Oomblik column was a part of it.’

Elaine ran a Resource Centre which demanded a lot of reading and presenting of reviews. She also led a home Bible Study group and Experiencing God courses, all of which left little time for general writing although she managed a couple of articles in Baptist Today and Christian Living magazines. After this and after producing a 40th anniversary brochure and magazine complete with interviews with all the many Pastors, Elaine says, ‘It seemed inevitable that we would start a writing group and that’s what we did.’

This writing group spawned a self-published novel from one of the church deacons as well as many other forms of writing including biblical crosswords. ‘We even started a quarterly Church News mag,’ says Elaine.

Elaine and her husband Dennis moved back to England, after which the group disbanded but the Resource Centre still continues.

Since her retirement Elaine has become an active member of the Faith Writers and has completed the annual NaNoWriMo challenge which she intends doing again this year. Elaine has used NaNoWriMo to kickstart an ambitious project, a Midrashim – fiction based on a Biblical account – in which she interleaves a present-day story of Marla, a young woman struck by sudden tragedy, with the story of another young woman, Shayna, caught up in the Babylonian wars of around 600 BC.

And how does it feel to have her major work well underway? ‘It is really taxing me,’ says Elaine. ‘It’s far more difficult than preparing Bible studies! Juggling two time frames isn’t making it any easier so I waver between perseverance and procrastination.’

I have had the good fortune to have heard some extracts from Elaine’s magnum opus. She has captured her two time-frames exquisitely, portraying the grief and despair of the modern Marla, and the terrifying maelstrom of war in which Shayna is swept up.

Don’t procrastinate too long, Elaine, and please come back here to let us know when the book is finished.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Looking at a few of the oddities of fiction writing

The seven blogs following this will explore a variety of corners of fiction writing, looking at some of the less well-known genres as well as the issues of writing in a popular genre. I have lined up writers whose fiction ranges from factual base to fantasy world; from debut novelists to international best-sellers, some of whom are well-nigh impossible to pigeonhole. The one thing they have in common is that I enjoy their work. I hope you will too. As the blogs are published, the links below will come live, one a week starting one week from today - mark the dates.