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Monday, 14 August 2017

A Stitch In Time

There were two sessions about using fabric as inspiration at the Romantic Novelists' Association's Conference. Carol McGrath spoke about Fabric, Embroidery and Tapestry as inspiration for historical fiction, while Elizabeth Chadwick spoke about going beyond the dressing-up box to explore daily life in times gone by. Both were very different in tone, but equally fascinating.

Elizabeth suggested immersing ourselves in the period by studying the depictions of daily life in embroideries. Fashion, musical instruments and  hunting are shown in detail, created by the people who saw all those things every day. It all helps to bring authenticity to your fiction. Then there's the potential romance contained in how the pieces were made: the lives of silk-workers, the dyers, weavers, the times in which they lived and loved, and the people for whom they worked  And that's before you've considered the object of the craftwork.

Carol McGrath recounted the story of how she had been intrigued by a figure of a woman worked into the Bayeux Tapestry. There are only three women depicted in the whole 70 metre (more than 231 feet) long embroidery showing of life before and during the Battle Of Hastings in 1066. Carol has woven a series of books around the possibility of them being Harold's intended queen, his sister, and his "handfasted wife", who is shown fleeing with Harold's son from their burning house. It was a brilliant idea for a series, and the novels make compelling reading.

I'd love to be able to create a piece of beautiful needlework, but I don't have the time, the patience, or the skill. Do you do enjoy craft work? What craft are you most proud of completing?

Monday, 7 August 2017

Agents, and How To Find Them...

Felicity Trew. Photograph by John Jackson.
The first session I went to at the Romantic Novelists' Association's Conference this year was Felicity Trew's presentation about the work of an agent and how to write the perfect submission letter. Felicity works for the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.

A good agent will be your supporter, cheerleader and confidante. They will create a publishing schedule for you, spacing your books out so you aren't releasing them too close together. They'll guide your career, and help you create a "brand", or rework one that isn't working

When it comes to writing your submission letter to an agent, keep it calm and professional.  Begin with the word count, and the intended audience for your book. Bring all your skill as a storyteller into play, but keep all the information you include concise and relevant. Distil your plot into about three lines, and put this at the top so your prospective agent knows what to expect. Show that you've really researched your agent, and your market. Give a brief history of your writing history, and your inspiration behind the book you're pitching. Give links to your online presence. Keep your spell checker on, and make sure your letter is as perfectly laid out as your manuscript.

Which do you find harder—writing fiction, or writing the letter that goes with it?

Monday, 31 July 2017

Going Wild In The Country— The Romantic Novelists' Association's Conference 2017

It's taken me two weeks to recover enough to write about this—yes, it was that good.

Around two hundred and fifty members of the Romantic Novelists' Association converged on the Harper-Adams University in Shropshire for three days of talks, workshops, networking and fun.

There were sessions on the role of an agent and how to write the perfect submission letter, using images from embroidery and tapestry as inspiration for historical fiction, how to make social media work for you, how to revive your backlist, how technology can help writers and many more. The Gala dinner was the social event of my year so far, and the bookstalls were packed with new titles.

I'll be posting notes here about some of the sessions I attended, so subscribe to my blog by clicking top right to catch them.

The food (one of my favourite areas of study!) during the conference was fantastic. Harper-Adams are used to catering for healthy, country appetites so we began the day with pastries, toast and toppings, a choice of about a dozen cooked items from bacon and eggs to hash browns, plus porridge, fresh fruit, yoghurt and cereals. The lunches and evening meals were all great too. The amazing gala dinner on Saturday Evening of Beef Wellington was particularly good.

The Amazing Raffle-Prize Quilt 
There was only one disappointment. Two members of my local chapter of the RNA, Joanna Maitland and Pia Fenton, were each offering sessions. They were scheduled at the same time, but in different lecture theatres. Joanna, along with Sophie Weston, showed how to add sparkle to your writing. Pia and Anna Belfrage talked about how to make Timeslip work. I wanted to go to both talks, not only to support Marcher Chapter members but because I was interested in both topics. In the end I had to toss a coin because I genuinely couldn't choose. The Sparkle session won! Luckily, Pia offered to give us a quick run-down of her session at a future Marcher meeting.

After hours, the campus came alive with people socialising at the students' bar, The Welly Boot. It's a great opportunity to meet up with old friends and make new ones. I'm very shy and find socialising difficult, so I spent every evening in my room writing up my notes. I'd been a member of the RNA for years before Ann Ankers persuaded me to attend my first conference, which I did on a single-day ticket in 2014.  I was hooked from the minute I arrived. Everyone is so friendly. For every conference since then I've been one of the first to arrive, and almost the last to leave!

I enjoyed every minute of The Romantic Novelists' Association's Conference 2017, and got 110% out of my attendance.  There's no doubt I could have made it 200%, if I'd spent more time socialising after hours.

I've made a resolution ahead of #RNAconf2018 to join in more of the fun, and spend less time writing up my notes. Why not join the RNA, then you can hold me to my resolution!

Monday, 24 July 2017

Too Much Of A Good Thing!

A pre-natal courgette!
Back in the spring, I had a gardening disaster. Not one of the four courgette (otherwise known as zucchini) seeds I sowed came up. We all love chocolate courgette cake, so disaster loomed. There were four more seeds left in the packet I'd used, so I sowed them. Then I bought a new packet and sowed four more seeds just in case. Of course, all eight germinated!

When that happens, you're supposed to save the best plants and throw the rest on the compost heap. I couldn't bear to do that. Keeping all those seedlings was a dangerous move.  I usually grow only three plants each year. When they get the hang of producing courgettes I have trouble keeping up with the harvest. At least one hides under those big, beautiful leaves until it's grown to marrow size.

Yesterday, I picked the first courgettes of the season. The plants are bright with dozens of flowers, so there will be plenty more to come. I've been gathering recipes in advance, so it was time to try the first one. The weather was so wet and miserable, I made courgette and cheese soup. Luckily, it was lovely. Given the poor summer weather and the prospect of wheelbarrows of courgettes to come, we could be enjoying it several times a week!

I always make soup in large quantities as it's cheap, easy, most sorts will freeze, and this one is just as good to eat next day. Making two meals at one time is a great time-saver, too.

COURGETTE (ZUCCHINI) AND CHEESE SOUP—serves four, twice.

3 tablespoons olive oil
6-8 courgettes (zucchini) unpeeled, but washed, dried and cut into big chunks.
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
5oz/150 grammes of cheese- I use whatever's in the fridge. Feta or blue cheese are both good.
A handful of fresh green herbs, chopped finely. I used mint and chives.

Heat the oil in a large, deep pan. Add the courgettes and garlic. Stir, then cook over a medium heat until everything is soft and beginning to colour.

Pour in the stock, then simmer for five minutes.

Cube or crumble the cheese, according to texture, and add to the soup along with the chopped herbs. Stir over a low heat until the cheese is almost melted.

Remove from the heat, blend, check seasoning and serve.

In a perfect world,  each bowl of soup would be topped with a swirl of cream and a pinch of chopped fresh herbs reserved from the ones that went into the mixture. We didn't have any cream to add last night, and I forgot to keep back any herbs for decoration but the soup tasted delicious all the same!


Monday, 10 July 2017

Fruit and Fibre

I've been so busy with my non fiction project, the time has slipped by and I haven't had a chance to post any blogs here for ages. One day has melded into the next and before I knew it, here we are: the week of the RNA conference. Getting ready to leave the family to fend for themselves for four days means even less time for non-writing work.

I've been trying out some new recipes to make sure there are plenty of nibbles in store while I'm away. Neolithic bread was the first thing on the menu. Einkorn flour is what kept the builders of Stonehenge going. Einkorn is a primitive grain that doesn't have much gluten, so it's made into a no-knead bread which needs a delicate touch. The texture is almost like cake, as the dough can't support air holes, and the taste is wonderful—helped by our home-produced sweet chestnut honey! It goes very well with Cheddar cheese. Here's the recipe I used: http://livesimply.me/2016/08/30/how-to-make-einkorn-bread/.

Fired by the idea of hunter gathering, we finally remembered to take a container with us to collect wild raspberries on today's dog-walking expedition. We walked a mile and a half, searching all the way, and this is our haul. I think we need a smaller bag!


Monday, 19 June 2017

The Good Old, Bad Old Days...

It's easy to imagine that all Victorian women did was needlepoint until either consumption or childbirth carried them off. That's not true. Frances Prideaux is an example to us all, as I discovered during research for the Pen and Sword book Women's Lives in Bristol, 1850-1950, which is due for publication next year. 

Frances Helen Prideaux, M.B, B.S. Lond. and Licentiate of the King and Queen's College of Physicians is a fantastic role model for all women. When she was at the height of her powers in 1885, she was a phenomenon. 

At a time when schooling for girls was often seen as a waste of money, Frances had the best possible start in life. She was born into a family living in Clifton, which is an affluent part of Bristol. Bright and inquisitive, her potential was spotted straight away. In an age when women were treated like children and seen as chattels, Frances had the twin benefits of high intelligence and a support network few other women could boast, even today. She sailed through her education getting top grades, and took medical school in her stride. 

Frances had the work ethic of Noel Fitzpatrick, TV's Supervet. She was always busy, and in the rare moments she wasn't working, she was thinking about work. No job was too difficult for her. As a student, and then Professor Scholar at Queen's College between 1869-73, she was respected and liked by everyone. In 1884, she gained honours in obstetric medicine, and was placed third in the list of candidates at the examination for Bachelor of Medicine.  There's no doubt she would have gone on to even greater things, but she died at a tragically early age.

Photo by Frederick Hollyer,
by courtesy Wellcome Library
In October 1885 she was elected House Surgeon to the Paddington Green Hospital, and started work on November 2nd. On Saturday 21st, she woke up with what she thought was only a sore throat. She went into work and insisted on carrying out all her duties as normal, but she obviously wasn't well. By Monday 23rd, exactly four weeks after she'd started her new job, her condition made one of the senior surgeons at the hospital think she might have diptheria. 

Despite her protests, Frances was sent home from work. Where she could have contracted the disease was a mystery, as there were no known cases in the Paddington Green area at the time. These days, vaccination programmes reduce the incidence of diptheria to a few thousand cases per year worldwide, but in 1885 it was widespread. The glands in your neck swell up to a massive size, while a thick grey membrane blocks your throat, making breathing and swallowing almost impossible. Today, sufferers are put in isolation,  then given the miracle cures of antibiotics and anti-toxins. In the nineteenth century, those vital drugs didn't exist. 

A team of medical experts did everything they could to save Frances, including a laryngotomy to enable her to breathe. Despite their best care, she died within a week, "after terrible suffering". It was Advent Sunday, and the day before her final medical exams.  

The doctors who tended Frances were devastated, especially as she was fully aware of what was happening almost to the end. Despite barbaric-sounding treatments such applying corrosive lotions to her already inflamed throat, she stayed calm and brave. A glowing obituary was published in the British Medical Journal on 8th December, 1885, and a scholarship in connection with the London School of Medicine founded in her memory.

This is part of a longer piece on Frances which appears in Women's Lives in Bristol, 1850-1950, to be published in 2018. To find out more, follow this blog using the button above.

Monday, 12 June 2017

From Slaves To Sisterhood—Women's Lives In Bristol, 1850-1950

Last Friday morning, I did a couple of hours work on my computer, then drove Son Number One twenty miles to his consultant's appointment at the hospital. After collecting a bag full of free prescriptions, we came home. He went up to his room to do some private study before his exams, while I went back to work on my current work-in-progress. 

None of that would have been possible in the period covered by my current project for Pen and Sword Books, Women's Lives In Bristol, 1850-1950. I would still be living in the house where I was born—assuming I'd survived the birth of my first child. Without the miracle of medication taken for various health problems since then, I wouldn't have lasted beyond the age of thirty-five. 

The internet, personal transport, antibiotics and many other innovations have changed everyday life so much. Things we take for granted would seem miraculous a hundred years ago. Only a decent lifespan before that, Bristol was famously thriving on the three S’s—Slaves, Smoking and Sugar. Back then those evils weren't recognised as such,  but revolution was in the air. 

When campaigners against the slave trade, including Bristol women Hannah More and Mary Carpenter, inspired the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, it knocked out one cornerstone of the city's economy. 

The Industrial Revolution came to the rescue. Bristol stopped relying on men and women toiling at piece-work in their own homes, and became an industry-driven metropolis. The Kennet and Avon canal brought in raw materials that weren't as exotic as tobacco and sugar, but could be turned into products everyone needed, rather than luxuries. The mechanised manufacture of paper, textiles and soap demanded a huge workforce. Large factories sprang up all along the River Avon from St Philip’s Marsh to Bedminster and beyond, employing the latest technology. The smaller, more nimble fingers of women made them the first choice for jobs needing accuracy and speed on production lines and in operating machinery.  

Life in Bristol improved—at least for some. A steady stream of  employable labour abandoning poorly-paid seasonal work on the farm came looking for steady, indoor jobs in factories. They settled in the cheapest lodgings. These were damp, disease-ridden courts bordering the River Avon far below the heights of the rich, beautiful Clifton area. Boats heading out from Cork, filled with families   escaping the Irish Potato Famine made the Port of Bristol their first destination. Desperate people make cheap employees. Desperate women and their children are the cheapest labour of all. 

Religion came to the rescue of nineteenth-century Bristol. The pioneering Methodist John Wesley’s mission in the city made it a magnet for non-conformists. Like their Anglican contemporaries, Methodist women were subordinate to men, although they were encouraged to take a much more active role in worship. They spread the word, supported the life of their church and played leading roles in education. They were vital to the success of the Sunday School movement, knowing that where children are led, there's a chance their mothers will follow. 

Fry's—you came for the chocolate, but stayed for the social reform...
With slavery abolished, Mary Carpenter’s Unitarian background drove her to open ragged schools for the poorest of the poor. Later, she created reformatories to train offenders as domestic servants. Great Quaker families such as the Frys and Sturges spent their money improving the minds and conditions of the Bristol poor. Businessmen and entrepreneurs followed the money to the city. Its multiple supply routes by road, rail and water made it easy to import raw materials, and export the finished articles. These men brought their wives and children. Many were non-conformists, who bonded with the local Methodists and Quakers to create a wide network of men and women determined to do good.

Knowledge is power. With the introduction of compulsory schooling, and the examples set by intelligent role models such as the Priestman sisters and the Sturge Sisters, Bristol women became unstoppable. Education led to ambition, and the realisation they could find a life beyond overcrowded squalor in the Pithay, or the Dings. 

United in optimistic bloody-mindedness, Bristol women fuelled Barton Hill’s Great Western Cotton Mill strike of 1889, created a major hub for suffragette activities, developed a network of cooperative societies, and helped win two world wars with their work on the Home Front. 

Individually, they were resourceful, inventive and brave. Cobbler’s daughter Mary Willcocks had a ten-week flirtation with royalty which took her all the way to America before she returned to Bristol, and the life of an honest woman. Pauper Ann Howe exposed institutionalised cruelty at the mighty Bedminster Union Workhouse. Bristol inventor Sarah Guppy showed Isambard Kingdom Brunel where he was going wrong with his initial design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Frail, deaf Ada Vachell worked all her life to create opportunities for those even more disabled than she was.

The women of Bristol have proved themselves unbeatable.

You can find out more about the inspiring mix of saints and sinners who have called the city their home in my forthcoming book for Pen and Sword, Women’s Lives In Bristol 1850-1950.

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