Sunday 20 December 2015

December Update

Here's what I've been up to this month ... 

Guest Blog Posts

for Novelistas Ink

Which book would I give for Christmas?

for Becca's Books

How my family and I spend Christmas Day - and how the worst Christmas ever turned into the best one!

for Suze Likes, Loves, Finds and Dreams &
Agi's On My Bookshelf

Did you know I'm engaged to Santa Claus? What my favourite Christmas song is? Favourite Christmas movie? Favourite Christmas book?!! Obviously, I couldn't pick just one ...

Book Launch
and Novelistas Ink Christmas Party

The Novelistas had another double celebration this month - it was the book launch for Anne Bennett's family saga, Another Man's Child, and also our Christmas Party!

Anne Bennett with her new book
Another Man's Child

Valerie-Anne Baglietto (left!) and me!
(photo copyright: Trisha Ashley)

Free Books!

This month's book promotion is A Girl's Best Friend. It will be free to download from 27th December 2015 to 31st December 2015.

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

(Details of all current and upcoming book promotions are always listed on my Freebies and Price Promotions page).

Related Posts:

A Girl's Best Friend: How I became a writer and the inspiration behind the book
November Update

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Sunday 6 December 2015

How Grandma Invented My Family Christmas

My family owe most of our Christmas traditions to my grandmother, who absolutely loved Christmas, even though she had every reason to hate it. She grew up in extreme poverty and her husband was killed two weeks before Christmas, leaving her with a three-year-old daughter (my mother). Instead, she absolutely embraced Christmas and we still carry on many of the traditions she started.

I grew up in a rambling old house with my parents, my grandmother, two younger brothers and several assorted dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. My grandmother would make our Christmas decorations by disappearing off into the nearby woods and coming back with bags of all kinds of evergreen foliage, including the ubiquitous holly and ivy. (I think there’s a law against this now; there probably was then). She would outline the leaves in glue, and dunk them in glitter, and then use them to cover the mantelpieces and the tops of the pictures hanging on the wall. And, while infuriating my mother by leaving trails of glitter throughout the house, she would tell us stories about the old Norse gods and explain why we decorate our houses with evergreens at this time of year.

We always had a real Christmas tree, which had to be so big it wouldn’t fit in the sitting room; so we’d have to bend over the top, meaning the fairy spent most of Christmas hanging upside down. Every year my mother would try to find new ways to keep the tree alive, including spraying it with various ‘miracle’ concoctions. In the end, she settled for shoving the tree in a large bucket of water, but every time the dogs pushed past it, wagging their tails, a shower of pine needles would hit the floor and the tree would be bald by Boxing Day. All the Christmas baubles had been bought individually, some dated right back to the 1940s, and each had its own little story to tell.

My mother began our tradition of Christmas stockings, mainly (she admitted to me later) to get a little bit longer in bed on Christmas morning. She and my grandmother would make three Christmas puddings – one for Christmas Day, one for Boxing Day and one for New Year – but my mother refused to hide money inside them, because she thought it was unhygienic. My grandmother got around this by boiling the coins, wrapping them in paper and sneaking them onto our plates when my mother wasn’t looking. We were allowed to unwrap one present in the morning, before heading off to church, and the rest of the presents would be opened after listening to the Queen’s Speech.

I never questioned any of these traditions until I left home and had a family of my own. I could hardly raid the local woods for holly, so I bought it from the local garden centre instead. Sadly the berries turned out to be plastic and tied on. The mistletoe had been imported from France and was a strange yellow colour and, as soon as I got it home, all the berries dropped off! So that was one tradition which didn’t last long! Because my mother had never let me near fairy lights in case I electrocuted myself (some of them were pre-war, so she probably had a point), I had no idea how to decorate a tree (I still don’t) but I did carry on the tradition of buying each Christmas bauble individually so it has a story to tell.

My husband laughed when I suggested we make our children wait until after the Queen’s speech to open their presents, and we ended up with an artificial Christmas tree after realising my six-month-old daughter, who had just begun to crawl, would end up stabbing herself on the shrivelled-up pine needles. And no one likes Christmas pudding, so now we make mince pies instead.

So I guess that's what Christmas traditions are all about. You keep some, you adapt others and finally you create new ones to suit your own family.

Now, where’s that glitter …

This post was previously published on the Novelistas Ink blog.

Never miss a post! See that little box in the left-hand column, near the top, that says 'Follow by Email'? If you add your email address, you'll receive my latest blog post almost as soon as I've written it.

Related Posts:

Let It Snow  
Tales of Smugglers and Seaweed
Things That Go Bump

Sunday 22 November 2015

November Update

Details of what I've been up to this month ...  

Guest Blog Posts

As well as working hard to finish my latest book, I've written guest blog posts for other authors. Are there any you've missed? 

for Terry Tyler

Does my star sign influence my writing process?

for Elaina James

I love visiting Conwy because of all the fabulous history. In this Halloween special, for Elaina James, I talk about the various ghost stories associated with the town. Some may have been faked to attract the tourists. But others ...

for Daniel Riding

In which I talk mainly about myself, as usual ...

Book Launches!

The Novelistas had a double book launch with A Christmas Cracker by Trisha Ashley and The Captain's Christmas Bride by Annie Burrows.

Trisha Ashley and Annie Burrows

Books and Goody Bags!

The cake!


Finally, did you know you can now read both my mini-novellas for free? Head to my Freebies and Price Promotions page for all retailers' links - not just Amazon!

Never miss a post! See that little box in the left-hand column, near the top, that says 'Follow by Email'? If you add your email address, you'll receive my latest blog post almost as soon as I've written it.

Sunday 15 November 2015

How I Write (or, how I learnt to be a planner rather than a pantser)

I hadn't intended to write a blog post this weekend. I'm putting the finishing touches to my latest novel and I'd already skived off on Friday to meet up with Novelistas Ink for Trisha Ashley's and Annie Burrows' joint book launch. But when we did our usual 'round robin' where we talk about what we've been up to over the past month, I mentioned my writing method and the whole room went silent.

OK, to be a little more truthful, one Novelista interrupted me mid-flow (which is very hard to do) and said, 'Does anyone else write like that?' And then the room went silent.

So, how do I write?

Well, to backtrack a little, with my first novel, A Girl's Best Friend, I just sat down and wrote it from start to finish with no planning whatsoever. I had a full-time job, so I wrote it during my lunch break and at evenings and weekends. In fact, I still remember one of the guys at work leaning over my shoulder, reading what I'd written and saying, "That will never sell."

A Girl's Best Friend took eighteen months to write. Books 2, 3 and 4 were written in  much the same way, but by then I was at home looking after my children and each book took a year to write.

With book 5 (Nemesis) I hit a snag. I'd always had trouble getting started on my novels and had lots of half-written stories in my drawer. From my second novel I'd got into the habit of writing a brief synopsis and writing from that, so I knew where I was going and what was happening, and who the bad guy was - although he/she often changed! But I wanted to speed up. It was still taking me over a year to write a novel and I wanted to write faster. I have a bad habit (I know it's bad, all the writing guides tell me so!) of writing each chapter, and polishing it BEFORE moving onto the next one. So I thought, 'I'll write a first draft, very quickly, without pausing, without looking back, until I'm finished.'

It was a disaster! I got halfway through (about 50,000 words) and it wasn't the story I'd envisaged at all. Because the heroine was fifteen when the story started, and I'd just written 50,000 words of her being fifteen, it was turning into a Young Adult. I had to scrap the whole lot and start again. 

OK, so when I say 'scrap' here's another tip for you. When I delete huge chunks of text I start a new file called 'outtakes' and paste them in there, in chronological order so I can find them again. (The 'find again' bit is important, because occasionally I change my mind and need to put some text back again.)

Nemesis was eventually re-written, in  much the same way as I'd written my previous books. The 50,000 words I'd cut out wasn't wasted, as about 20,000 of them made it back into the book as flashback scenes. And, despite all that angst, it remains one of my favourites!

Book 6 (Something Wicked) was going to be a novella, so I decided it was a perfect time to trial a new writing method. I knew I wanted the story to be 30,000 words long. I looked back at my previous books and checked how many words per chapter I usually wrote, and then worked out how many chapters I was going to need. I then wrote a very detailed synopsis, with a page outline per chapter, explaining exactly what was going to happen. And then I started writing.

It worked! It actually bloody worked! If I realised I'd become stuck on the same chapter, polishing and re-polishing, I just moved onto the next one. If I didn't feel like writing a particular scene, I moved on to one I did feel like writing. There was even one point where I wrote the last chapter and began working my way forward - which is why I call Something Wicked 'the book I wrote backwards'. Now I write all my books this way.

I have learned two things from this: 

(1) Ignore all the 'how to' books and write in the way which suits you best, which makes you happy and gets your story finished. 

(2) Don't tell your friends your weird and wonderful writing ways, because if they don't use the same method, they're liable to think you're crackers.


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Related posts:

Sunday 8 November 2015

Last Orders

The inspiration behind the pub in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Although I now live in Wales I grew up in Hampshire, where every village had a pub—or six! Nightclubs were expensive, so my friends and I would head to a different pub each Saturday night, taking it in turns to be the designated driver. There was The Swordfish (surrounded by pine trees and overlooking the sea) and The Belle Vu, which we loved for the long list of cocktails we never quite got to the end of. The Rising Sun, beside the River Hamble at Warsash, was handily within walking distance but my favourite was The Lone Barn at Bursledon.

As the name suggests, The Lone Barn was a real 19th century barn, which had been moved brick-by-brick from Winchester and relocated beside another pub called The Fox & Hounds. It was very rustic, with farming tools hanging up around the walls, a flagstone floor and a couple of stuffed owls perched up high on the exposed oak beams. At least, I hope they were stuffed—they certainly never moved! The seats were either hacked from wooden barrels or long wooden benches, and every Easter a hot cross bun would be nailed to one of the beams for good luck. Where The Belle Vu had fancy cocktails, with more piña than colada, The Lone Barn’s speciality was fruit wines, with every flavour you could imagine.

The Lone Barn made such an impression it eventually made it into Smoke Gets in Your Eyes as ‘The Stables’. Unlike The Swordfish and The Belle Vu, which were both turned into flats, The Lone Barn is still there, much smarter now, as part of a pub/restaurant chain.

I wonder if the stuffed owl is still there?

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Walking the Walls of Conwy

One drawback to being self-employed is that, if you're not careful, a Saturday or Sunday can be pretty much the same as a Monday or a Tuesday, or any other day of the week. So last weekend I took a break and walked the walls around Conwy.

Walking the Walls!

The walls were built for King Edward I at the same time as Conwy Castle. They took four years to complete and were finished in 1287. They're are about 1.3 km long and can be walked almost in their entirety, although you have to be fairly fit and not mind heights!

Great views!

There are twenty-one towers, placed at regular intervals, as well as three twin-towered gateways. It is not possible to walk on top of the walls for a complete circuit. Think of the route as a giant U, with the top part being the quayside. The route is also in two sections, the other break being by the railway station. At these points you can follow the route at ground-level - which is not quite as hair-raising! The highest point, the Watchtower, is about fifty foot from the ground, with only a single railing between you and a painful encounter with the pavement. So if you are planning on walking the walls, I would recommend sensible shoes, dry weather and a very firm grip!

View of the walkway from the Watch Tower

View of the Castle from the Watch Tower

More steps!

The purpose of the walls was to protect the town, mainly from the Welsh - only the English invaders lived on the inside! In theory, the walls were so strong they could not be breached and anyone managing to scale the walls would immediately be isolated on that section - the only route across each tower was by easily removed wooden planking. However, in one section three narrow windows have been set into the wall, to allow light into a collection of buildings once known as Llywelyn's Hall, which pre-dates both the castle and the wall.

The windows which were once part of
Llywelyn's Hall (outside view)

The hall took its name from Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, who may have held court here. It's not known whether the walls were built against the hall, or if it was knocked down and rebuilt.  In 1315 the hall, which was built of timber, was dismantled and moved to Caernarfon Castle, where it was used as a storeroom - and still referred to as Llywelyn's Hall!

The Mill Gate was where the King's Wardrobe was located. Contrary to what the name suggests, the wardrobe was the department through which war and works were administered. These curious protuberances are actually communal toilets! The King had them built for his Wardrobe staff at a cost of £15 - about £45,000 in today's money.

Yep, medieval loos

In 1827 a new coastal road was built and a new gateway created  through one of the towers, and in 1847 an entire section of the wall was demolished to make way for a railway line, although it was then rebuilt with a huge archway and imitation battlements.

The 'new' railway arch
A tunnel for the same railway passes almost directly beneath one of the towers on the opposite side of the town. When it was built it caused partial subsidence and a large crack to appear in the masonry. 

The crack caused by the
building of a railway tunnel

Beside the quayside, the wall extends into the river in a kind of spur. It was probably originally designed as a breakwater. There was once a tower at the very end, although it disappeared into the river centuries ago. 

The spur wall
(there was once a tower at the very end)

It is free to walk Conwy Walls, although Conwy Castle, under the care of Cadw, is also well worth a visit. There are also plenty of coffee shops in Conwy, although after all that walking you may need more than a slice of cake!

Carrot cake from Anna's

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Related posts:

A Grave Obsession (about  St Mary's and All Saints Church, Conwy) 

Monday 5 October 2015

Castles, Ghosts ... and Knights in Murky Armour

In which I cross another of those 427 Welsh castles off my list - but unfortunately don't get to meet the princess who haunts it.  

As much as I love living in Wales the default weather setting is usually wet and windy, so when we had a blast of unseasonal hot and sunny weather in September, I decided to get out and explore. (Translation: stand by for a lot of castle-themed blog posts!)

This is Rhuddlan Castle, located next to the River Clwyd in Denbighshire. The name means 'red bank', from the colour of the riverside soil, and there has been a settlement here for many centuries.

Rhuddlan Castle
(the west gate house)
The River Clwyd and its surrounding marshes created a natural  barrier to anyone wanting to invade Wales. As this was the best place to cross, it was an important position strategically. King Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, established an earth and timber fort at the mouth of the Clwyd as part of his defence against Scandinavian raids. And in 1063 it was also the base from which Gruffydd ap Llywelyn carried out his raids on England, before having his palace burned from under him by Harold II (the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who lost his throne to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings).

The River Clwyd

It was William the Conqueror who commanded Robert of Rhuddlan to build a motte-and-bailey castle on the old site of Gruffydd's palace in 1073. Known as Twthill (lookout hill), the remains of this Norman fortress can still be seen as a great earthen mound close to Rhuddlan Castle. At the base of the mound would have been the original Norman town; it even had its own priory. 

Twthill: The remains of a Norman fortress
(There would have been a wooden tower on top)

Two hundred years later, King Edward I chose this area to build Rhuddlan Castle, which became the base for his invasion of Wales in 1282. It was built at the same time as Flint Castle (which I've blogged about here) by James of St George, an architect from Savoy, who was also responsible for designing many of Edward I's other castles, including Caernarvon, Conwy and Beaumaris. As well as the castle, a new town was also created. 

The Inner Ward
(looking back at the west gate house)

The remains of the north tower

While the castle was still under construction, over 70 labourers were employed to straighten the River Clwyd, and deepen its channel, providing a way for Edward's ships to keep the castle supplied. At high tide the lower part of the castle moat would flood, forming a dock protected by Gillot's Tower (possibly named after Gillot de Chalons, one of the masons). The remains of the river gate can still be seen within the walls of the castle.

Access to the dry moat

The Dock, guarded by Gillot's Tower

Gillot's Tower gave protection to the castle's supply ships
approaching from the River Clwyd
According to legend it was at Rhuddlan, not at Caernarfon, that Edward proclaimed his son the first English Prince of Wales. And his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was born here. Edward's wife, Eleanor of Castile, had a lawn laid out in the inner ward, as well as a small fishpond, and there were seats around the well for her and her ladies to sit.

The well - 50' deep!
The castle was attacked by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and again in 1400 by the followers of Owain Glyndŵr. Although the castle didn't fall on either occasion, the town was badly damaged.

Gillot's Tower and the River Clwyd
(taken from the west gate house)

During the English Civil War, Rhuddlan Castle was  garrisoned by Royalist troops but taken by the Parliamentarians following a siege in 1646. Two years later, the castle was partially demolished (like Flint Castle) to prevent further military use.

The Knight of the Blood-Red Plume

Any ancient building has to have a ghost, although the headless man or a grey lady have become a bit of a cliché. The ghosts associated with Rhuddlan Castle are a little bit more ... unusual - and possibly not all they seem!

An illustration from
The Knight of the Blood-red Plume
According to legend, Rhuddlan Castle was once home to the fair Erilda. Her father had fought alongside Bleddyn ap Cynfyn (the successor to Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and an ally to Harold II). Unknown to her, she had been promised in marriage to Bleddyn's son, Morven. Erilda was beautiful and kind, and loved by all who knew her. One day she became lost in the mist on the marshes and was rescued by a mysterious knight by the name of Wertwrold. He was handsome and brooding, with black hair and black eyes, even his clothes were black - except for a blood-red feather. Erilda's father was so grateful, he asked the strange knight to stay with them at the castle. The knight agreed to delay his journey but, despite various sports being arranged for his amusement, he remained pale and melancholy - and so of course Erilda fell madly in love with him. It was then she learned of her betrothal to Prince Morven.

Being a dutiful daughter, at first Erilda went ahead with the marriage preparations, but then she could bear it no longer and begged Wertwrold to elope with her. Wertwrold agreed, but only if she would swear to be his and his alone, regardless of what her father might do or say. Erilda agreed and they fled the castle, pursued by her father's soldiers. As the men drew closer, Wertwrold gave Erilda a dagger to defend herself but, just as they were in sight of the boat that was to take them to safety, someone grabbed her robe. Erilda spun around and stabbed them with the dagger - only to discover she had killed her own father.

Erilda was distraught but Wertwrold only laughed. He admitted he'd deliberately seduced her so she wouldn't marry Prince Morven. The marriage would have restored Wales to prosperity and peace, and he wanted to start a war. Wertwrold then revealed his true form, that of a water demon who lived beneath the waves of the River Clwyd, and stabbed Erilda with a trident.

Since that night, Erilda has been doomed to haunt Rhuddlan Castle in her blood-stained gown, screaming as she's pursued through the ruins by the knight of the blood-red plume.

Isn't that deliciously gothic? OK, maybe a little bit too gothic. 

First, the dates don't match up. At the time Wertwrold was wooing Erilda, Rhuddlan Castle hadn't been built and Gruffydd's palace had just been burned. Also, Wertwrold is a Saxon name. The Saxons wouldn't want a united Wales, so while having one of their agents prevent the marriage of one of the Welsh princes sounds plausible, having him turn into a scaly river demon? Not so much!

Ann Julia Hatton (nee Kemble) (1764-1838)
aka Ann of Swansea
by Willliam Watkeys
(Wiki Commons)
A version of the story appears as The Legend of the Knight of the Blood-Red Plume in Welsh Legends: a collection of popular oral tales edited by William Earle and published in 1802.  The same story has also been attributed to Ann Julia Hatton (sister of the famous actress, Sarah Siddons), who wrote under the pen name 'Ann of Swansea'. Her version was published by the Minerva Press in 1826 but she may have also written the earlier one anonymously.

This kind of gothic tale was extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th century - bloodthirsty, melodramatic - and with a very strong moral. This one apparently being, 'See what happens when you don't do as you're told!'

Which is a shame, for I quite like the idea of the fair Erilda running away with the broodingly handsome Wertwrold and living happily ever after.

Although if I were writing their story, I'd definitely change his name!

Rhuddlan Castle is managed by Cadw. Their official website is here.

If you're interested, you can read the entire William Earle version of The Knight of the Blood-Red Plume online here (Internet Archive). But I warn you, it is very gothic!

Never miss a post! See that little box in the left-hand column, near the top, that says 'Follow by Email'? If you add your email address, you'll receive my latest blog post almost as soon as I've written it.

Related Posts:

Things That Go Bump (my real-life ghostly experiences!)

Monday 28 September 2015

I Need a Heroine...

In which I talk about how I create my heroines ... 

In one of those weird coincidences, I'd planned a blog post about heroes - only to see three other posts pop up on exactly the same subject, including this one written by my friend, Valerie-Anne Baglietto. So I had to shelve it! But it got me thinking. A great hero is important to any story, but what about my heroine? Isn't she pretty essential too?!!

My novels are not usually written from a single point of view; I like to know what is going on inside my hero's head; it's even more fun when the heroine doesn't have a clue! But the main part of my story always belongs to my heroine. For me, her most important characteristic is that she's interesting. I don't care if she's not particularly lovable, or even likeable in the beginning, but I have to ensure my reader will understand her motivation. While a reader might be thinking, 'I can't believe she just did that', at least they should understand why she did it - and be rooting for her to succeed.

This might have something to do with the kind of heroines I like reading about. I love tricky, difficult, awkward heroines, such as Katniss from The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), who has no desire to be the heroine everyone wants her to be. Or Scarlett O'Hara, from Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell), who is horribly selfish, always wanting what she can't have and completely unable to appreciate what she does have until she loses it. Or Perdita in Polo (Jilly Cooper), a spoilt brat who has to grow up fast. These heroines are far more interesting than the ones I used to read about in fairy tales - who slaved away for wicked stepmothers, waited for someone else to solve their problems (fairy godmother and/or handsome prince), and who couldn't even leave the house without losing a slipper!

This brings me to one of my favourite quotes, which is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:*
Women are like tea bags.
You never know how strong they are
until you put them in hot water.

And that's how I think of my heroines! They might start off being a bit 'Someday my prince will come', (Caitlin, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) but by the end of my story they should be quite capable of saving themselves - and anyone else who needs it. This doesn't necessarily mean they're warrior princesses! Kat, in Something Wicked, runs a coffee shop and bakes cupcakes - but it's amazing how motivated she can be when she learns someone wants her dead!

I suppose my heroines are also the kind of woman I'd like to be. Strong, resourceful, brave - definitely not the type to refuse to leave the house at the first sign of snow (um, like me). Career-wise, I usually give them a job I have some knowledge of - but please don't ask me to bake you a cupcake or dive on a centuries-old wreck! Although my novels have a large chunk of romance in them, my heroines don't go looking for love; they usually find it by accident - right about the same time they trip over a dead body. And they are far too busy staying alive to worry about whether their bum looks big while they're doing it.

When I begin work on a novel, I always start with a subject that interests me and then create my heroine as someone who is either inside or outside that world. For example, Breathless was about marine archaeology. I could have written about someone who worked inside that world but instead chose to have a heroine on the periphery, meaning the reader learns about archaeology at the same time she does. Lainey takes visiting divers out to visit the famous shipwrecks in the bay but she is obsessed with trying to find one particular wreck, the one her father lost his life searching for. That's her dream. That's also her flaw. How far will she go to find that wreck? Her redeeming feature is her love for her adopted family, the rather eccentric Halfpennys, who took her in when her father died. So over the course of the story I ensure Lainey is forced to choose between them and chasing her dream, at the risk of her own life.

Do I put myself into any of my heroines? Very sparingly! As much as  I love fashion, I prefer to love it from a distance, so my heroines tend to be tomboys like me. Danielle, from A Girl's Best Friend, is very task-orientated, also like me. And I can be a teeny, tiny bit manipulative, like Kat from Something Wicked, or Marina from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes - who believes in giving fate a helping hand, if not a downright shove.

But all writers need to be  manipulative! We know our story is going well when our characters take on their own lives and have their own opinions about how they want their story to play out, and it's up to the writer to ensure they do exactly what we want.

Most of the time!

Related Posts:

*Although this saying dates right back to the mid-nineteenth century, and isn't always about tea bags - or women!

Top photo credit: Shutterstock