Please Introduce Yourself
I live in Sussex on the south coast of England. We have the sea a few yards away and the beautiful Sussex Downs behind us. Nearby is the Roman city of Chichester and in the other direction the castle of Arundel, home of the Dukes of Norfolk. The resonance of centuries surrounds me. I have always loved history and wanted to delve into historical research when I was younger. However, I did not realise this ambition until much later in life and I came to it in a roundabout way.
What are the stories behind your books?
The inspiration for my stories came through genealogy. When Ancestry went online, I jumped onto that as a hobby from my day job as a university librarian. I spent many happy hours as an amateur detective discovering my ancestors and also my husband’s. However, his were difficult. I now do a talk called ‘Secrets and Lies, adventures in family history’. There were so many tall tales and subterfuges to unpick in his line. It’s taken ten years, three visits to Australia and three books to tell the story of his mother’s side. I never believed when I began where it would take me and the secrets I would uncover; from convicts to gold diggers and a railway magnate in three generations. But where did all the money go? There was no sign of any when my husband was growing up.
How would you describe the genre of your books?
Apart from being historical fiction and also to some extent biographical, they are social realism. There’s some romance in the first and last but I am pleased to say that men appear to enjoy them too. The books tell the story from a pioneering colonial point of view. I am proud of the guts that it took to survive in these times. When I was writing The Digger’s Daughter, I was sent a document telling the story as recounted by my protagonist’s brother. It was a hallelujah moment. Up until then I had not quite appreciated how early Australia was like the Wild West. Bushrangers, aboriginal massacres, murders, rebellion as well as dust storms and fires raged through the lives of these settlers.
What has been the most satisfying thing about writing the books?
We had lost touch with the family in Australia. Generations had died taking their memories with them. Now we have a whole new family as readers of my books contact me to tell me we are related, often in surprising ways. I worried they would be offended but I have had only positive vibes. They are delighted that this amazing story is being told. Forty years ago, it was a shameful thing to have convicts in the family. Now it is something to be proud of, to celebrate, a bit like having an ancestor who sailed to America on the Mayflower.
How do you do the research from so far away?
When I was writing Search for the Light, I made contact with the Female Convicts Research Centre in Tasmania and they offered me the chance to become a volunteer researcher. They were in the middle of a research project conducted by the University of Melbourne called Founders and Survivors. It aimed to trace the convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania). I was given the convict ship, Henry, to work on and traced all the women on my husband’s three times great grandmother’s ship and any families they had until the outbreak of WW1. This gave me an incredible insight into their subsequent lives. The records of the women, their assignments and their punishments were being digitised at the time. That database is an amazing resource. Another tremendous boon is the Trove newspaper database. Australia decided to digitise all their newspapers and make them free to use whilst encouraging users to correct them. This is what I did for a year. I traced the family through the papers and was one of the top correctors some months. I also asked the family for their stories for my last book which takes us up to the 1920s in Australia. They gave me their parents’ stories for which I am truly grateful.
What has being a writer meant for you?
I began writing fiction late, apart from two novellas I wrote as a teenager and quickly discarded. Knowing nothing other than what I had learned as an avid reader, I joined a creative writing group which was incredibly helpful. They began to teach me the craft, but I also made some amazing friendships. I recently re-edited my first book and although it sold well, on subsequent reading, I knew it lacked finesse. It’s better now, but you grow as a writer and I like to think my latest book demonstrates that growth. While the actual writing is a solitary endeavour, you cannot hope to sell books as an indie author without making connections. I joined Chindi authors in 2016 and am now a director. The group is a fantastic collection of diverse authors who support each other in myriad ways. I am lucky to have had this wonderful group of people to teach me about marketing and promotion and given me the confidence to progress. Writing has given me a new career in retirement, it’s kept me young by making me learn all sorts of new skills.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Readers want a great story and for me the story comes first, if something doesn’t drive the story forward leave it out. There is a fine balance in writing historical novels. You may have done an amazing amount of research, but the reader doesn’t need to know everything only what is relevant to the story, otherwise the plot is pulled out of shape. Also, you have to get the facts right. Someone will let you know if its wrong. Check everything no matter how small a detail.
What are your plans for future books?
I am working on a children’s book at the moment with my 8-year-old granddaughter. She gave the title, Ella Midnight, and the setting, the evacuation of children from London in WW2. We are consulting on each chapter. I am learning that the action needs to be much faster paced and characters larger than life for modern children. There was a danger that she wanted witches and wizards being an avid Harry Potter fan but thankfully, that has now faded into the background. I am also working with my Chindi group on a book of short stories with a theme of a Sussex Christmas. As far as a new novel goes, I am hoping inspiration will hit me when I have a moment to take stock. I have a few ideas in my head, but I need the story to demand it be written before I commit.
Tell us something quirky about yourself.
I’m not really a quirky person. However, a couple of years ago I was persuaded into participating in a short, silent movie with a couple of friends for a book launch. In return, I persuaded them to do a Facebook Book Launch – we had great fun and were totally out of our comfort zones. You can watch the video here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_DfEKPTxEU