Catching up with best-selling author, Nicola Cornick!

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Welcome back, Nicola.

Thank you very much for inviting me, Val. It’s a pleasure to be back!

How time flies by. You were my guest back in 2018!

Since then a lot has happened – how have you found working during lockdown? Has it been a challenge to stay focused; mentally and physically?

Like a lot of people, I’ve found lockdown very difficult. When it began a year ago, I found the uncertainty and anxiety very unsettling, and couldn’t concentrate. Then my stepfather became ill and died, followed six months later by my mother, which was incredibly stressful and upsetting, and left me mentally exhausted.

I don’t normally talk about my personal life that much but I feel I want to be honest about this in case it helps reassure any other people who have found their life and work so disrupted that their focus has inevitably suffered. I couldn’t write at all a lot of the time; I couldn’t read either. Unfortunately this coincided with me needing to do big revisions to the book I have coming out next month. It took me months and months to do them. Just sitting down at the computer was an effort I didn’t want to make, and each word felt as though it had to be dragged out of me. I managed it in the end but I’ve never known writing to be such a process of attrition. Then, in a bizarre twist, the final revisions to the book were due the week my mother died and I found the reverse was true. I found an escape by losing myself completely in the book and racing through the revisions with nothing else at all in my mind – until I stopped. It’s the only time I’ve ever been able to escape the intolerable present through writing. All of which is to say that if you experience a similar challenge to your focus, accept it, do what you can and be kind to yourself.

You have been through an incredibly trying time and I appreciate your honesty. It is excellent advice and I hope it helps to reassure others who have been struggling with the new reality of pandemic life.

How much has changed in your writing world since we first chatted?

A few things have changed and developed. I’m still writing dual time books and enjoying it enormously. I like to choose as a central character a female protagonist who is probably largely overlooked in history – women from the footnotes, I call them – and explore her story. There’s also usually a real- life mystery in the story as well. My next book deals with the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in 1483. Other than that, I’m enjoying mentoring historical fiction authors for The History Quill site and giving talks on the historical background to my books.

What have been the highlights?

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A recent highlight was when my Tudor-set book The Forgotten Sister was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists Association Romantic Thriller Award, which was a lovely surprise and wonderful recognition. Despite the pandemic – or perhaps because people have been reading more in Lockdown – that book has done so well, reaching the top 10 in the Heatseeker chart and gaining lots of amazing recognition. But it’s not all about prizes and sales, of course – the most important thing is having contact with readers and fellow history fans, so the return of live events and the opportunity of live online ones is a terrific highlight. Just being able to chat with people about all sorts of history and writing topics is wonderful.

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What are you working on now?

I’m working on preparing a lot of online and live events to celebrate the launch of The Last Daughter on 8th July but trying not to let that eat into my writing time too much! My next book is also due in a couple of months so there’s a lot of work still to be done there. It’s a timeslip set in the later 16th and early 17th century in the run up to the Gunpowder Plot, and the heroine is Catherine Catesby, wife of the plot’s ringleader Robert Catesby. When I was researching it, it seemed to me that there is such a big focus on the plot and what happened afterwards, but not so much on events beforehand and the huge influence that Catherine had on Robert Catesby’s life. She is another woman from the footnotes of history!

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What is next for Nicola?

Well it’s an exciting time for me as my Gunpowder Book (as I call it) is the last book on this particular contract with Harper Collins HQ so I’m starting to think about all sorts of ideas for future writing. It always feels like such a promising time when all the potential ideas are there to be explored! Plus I have lots of other projects on the go – the mentoring, which I love, and my involvement with the Wantage Literary Festival, and various history events and talks coming up. I’m very fortunate, I think, to have so many opportunities. Most excitingly, though, we will be getting a new guide dog puppy to raise in the summer!

Now that sounds like a busy schedule, but with lots of potential play time with the new puppy. I hope it passes all its training. Thank you for being my guest!

Meet Regency author, Natalie Kleinman

Author image - Natalie Kleinman

I am delighted to welcome fellow Sapere Books author, Natalie, to chat about her new release.

With publication of The Girl With Flaming Hair only a few days from now, what plans do you have for launching it on its way?

I’m so delighted with the cover image – she may not be Helen of Troy but she’s beautiful nonetheless and I will be sharing her on social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. I’m also lucky in that Rachel Gilbey (Rachel’s Random Resources) has organised a blog tour for me which will begin on 18th June. Bloggers and reviewers are so generous with their time and I’m especially grateful to them, and to you. There will be ongoing news as well with giveaways and competitions for those who subscribe to my newsletter.

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Everyone’s route to publication is different – what was yours?

An unexpected one! I’d finished studying with the Open University and was looking for something to occupy my little grey cells so I joined a ten week creative writing course run by my local council. What a magnet that turned out to be! Fast forward through various interest groups until in 2011 I discovered The Write Place (TWP), a creative writing school not too far from where I live. Up to this point I’d been writing short stories but I was made to wonder if I couldn’t write a book as well. Since then I’ve written fourteen though three will never see the light of day but I’m grateful to them – they were my learning curve. I found out about the Romantic Novelists Association from TWP and joined their New Writers Scheme. You may imagine my joy when my first submitted book, a contemporary romance, was taken up by a publisher and I graduated the scheme in the first year. That was in 2014.

We both share a love of Regency with our publisher Sapere books, but when did your love of the period begin and sustains your interest with it?

I must have been about eleven at the time and I have my mother to thank, as do so many others theirs, for it was she who handed me my first Georgette Heyer. It’s never palled and I’ve had books fall to pieces in my hands, not from abuse but because they just weren’t up to the number of times I’ve re-read them. When that happened they were replaced. Some outstanding productions have illustrated how well stories in this genre translate to the screen. And recently Bridgerton did a great job of raising the profile of Regency romance.

You have written many short stories. Do you enjoy switching between the two disciplines of writing short and long fiction?

I love them both and they are entirely different disciplines. It’s wonderful to create a world in just two or three thousand words and very satisfying. I’m very grateful that my stories have been enjoyed by so many. Long fiction gives the opportunity to develop one’s characters and, as my stories tend to be character-driven, that’s of huge benefit to me and the way I write. I just have to be careful they don’t start writing themselves as they have a tendency to run away with the plot.

What has been a member of the RNA meant to you?

The RNA is a place for making friends as well as acquiring knowledge. Writers tend to be pretty genuine people and very ready to help each other. Consequently, having attended numerous conferences, workshops and chapter meetings, I’ve had the chance to meet, to learn and to move forward. Everyone is so kind. Maybe it’s the romanticism in us.

How have you kept mentally and physically fit during lockdown?

Does one out of two count? I loved sports when I was younger but I’ve never been a fan of what I think of as gym-based exercise. I have disciplined myself to do online exercises but I know they are the barest minimum. Mentally though I’m so very grateful for my occupation. What better than losing oneself either in one’s own creation or in that of another author? Other time periods, science fiction, cosy crime, they’ve all taken me to places I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. And Zoom and other video links have been invaluable.

What is next for Natalie?

Exciting times for me. You will know that Sapere recently published The Reluctant Bride. Well, after The Girl With Flaming Hair there are three more in the pipeline so I guess I’ll be pretty busy for the foreseeable future.

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Thank you so much for having me on the blog today, Val.

Natalie

You are very welcome!

About The Girl With Flaming Hair:

While driving his curricle, Rufus Solgrave, Earl of Luxton comes across Sophie Clifford lying unconscious in the road, having fallen from her horse. Not too far from home, he takes her back to Ashby, his country seat, leaving her in the care of his mother, Elizabeth, Countess of Luxton, and his sister, Lydia. Under their kindly supervision, Sophie soon begins to recover.

Upon discovering that Sophie has never mixed with London society, Elizabeth invites her to accompany the family to town for Lydia’s come-out. Unhappy with her home life and eager to sample the delights of the season, Sophie accepts. However, her enjoyment is marred when talk of an old scandal surrounding her birth resurfaces. What’s more, her devious stepbrother, Francis Follet, has followed her to London, intent on making her his bride.

Sensing Sophie’s distress, Rufus steps in to protect her from Francis’s unwelcome advances. And although neither Rufus nor Sophie are yet thinking of marriage, both soon begin to wonder whether their comfortable friendship could blossom into something warmer…

About Natalie:

Natalie’s passion for reading became a compulsion to write when she attended a ten-week course in creative writing some sixteen or so years ago. She takes delight in creating short stories of which more than forty have been published, but it was her lifelong love of Regency romance that led her to turn from contemporary romantic fiction to try her hand at her favourite genre. Raised on a diet of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, she is never happier than when immersed in an age of etiquette and manners, fashion and intrigue, all combined into a romping good tale. She lives on the London/Kent border, close to the capital’s plethora of museums and galleries which she uses for research as well as pleasure. A perfect day though is when she heads out of town to enjoy lunch by a pub on the river, any river, in company with her husband and friends.

Natalie is a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Society of Authors and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists.

Meet Catherine Tinley – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award!

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Welcome, Catherine, and huge congratulations on winning the RNA’s 2021 Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award!

 

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When did a love of books turn into a desire to actually write them?

It was probably when I realised that Georgette Heyer should have written at least another hundred books, and I started to play around with story ideas. I don’t claim to have even a smidgen of her wit, but it was her books that made me fall in love with the whole world of Regency Romance. My very first idea was of a character that was like The Grand Sophy, but different. Like Sophy, she was moving to relatives in London having been raised abroad by an easygoing father. Unlike Sophy though, she was introverted, and her new relatives were less than welcoming. Those initial jottings became Waltzing with the Earl, my first novel.

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When did you get your first break into publishing?

I had no idea about the publishing industry. I didn’t know about competitions, or the RNA, or agents, or writers’ groups none of it. Once I had the manuscript into reasonable form, I simply sent off query letters to four publishers, including Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Three came back with a ‘no’, but the lovely Julia Williams at Mills and Boon picked up my book from the slush pile and, after some edits, offered me a two-book contract! Waltzing then went on to win the prestigious Rita® Award in the USA. It was a finalist in two categories – ‘Best Historical’ and ‘Best First Book’ and it won the historical section, where it was up against some wonderful books by very experienced writers. I went to the US for the awards ceremony, and afterwards Tessa Dare asked for a selfie with me! It still seems like a dream.

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What does being a member of the RNA mean to you?

I love the sense of community and mutual support. There’s never a feeling of competition not even on the night of the RoNA Awards! Some of the women in the RNA Irish Chapter are good friends of mine now, and we’ve been encouraging each other to keep writing during the pandemic. I’d like to thank Ruth Long and Suzanne Hull, our chapter coordinators, for doing such a great job.

Why did you choose Regency as your preferred era?

It kind of chose me! I’ve been reading romance since I was a teenager, but I’ve always been drawn to historical settings. Between Georgette Heyer and the BBC Pride & Prejudice, I succumbed, and have been a Regencyite ever since.

What do you want your readers to have gained from reading a Catherine Tinley novel?

I want them to be carried away by a story, feel all the feels, then feel good uplifted and hopeful by the end. Surely that’s not too much to ask lol? I generally write ‘quiet’ stories set among families and tight-knit communities, rather than action adventures or comedies. Yes, sometimes there are passages or events that are dramatic or funny, but mostly I try to make the world and the people very real to readers.

Your work has been described as ‘unputdownable’ and you have won awards, including this year’s RoNA Award for Best Historical Romance, so what are your future writing ambitions?

I just want to keep writing, and I’d like readers to keep enjoying my books. Everything else is a bonus. I was genuinely shocked when I won the RoNA recently for Rags-to-Riches Wife, as there were nine great finalists. However I do know that many readers particularly enjoyed that book. I deal with class issues, bereavement, and recovery from previous trauma, so I somehow managed to pack a lot in there. Jane, my heroine, is a lady’s maid who visits wealthy relatives and suddenly finds herself sitting in drawing-rooms rather than kitchens. No-one ever asked Cinderella if she was uncomfortable adapting to her new status and surroundings. Jane has a lot of challenges to face before she gets her happy-ever-after!

What advice would you give your younger, unpublished self?

Just keep writing, I guess. I was never particularly hung up on the idea of being published, although of course I hoped for it. For me, the pleasure is always in the writing itself.

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How have you coped/worked through lockdown?

I work full-time in the NHS, so the past year has been challenging in many ways. My colleagues are amazing, but we’re all bone-weary at this point. I manage a large maternity service and neonatal unit, and those babies just kept coming, pandemic or no pandemic! We’ve adapted to PPE, social distancing, covid testing, and a million other things, and we’ve tried to be flexible and responsive to women’s (and partners’) needs.

When not writing what do you do to relax?

Writing is my relaxing. I’m usually too tired to write in the evenings after work, so my writing is done on weekends and days off. I find it totally relaxing to return to my created world and my beloved characters. It’s mindfulness on stilts! I also love walking with my family (and our wee dog, Carey) in local beauty spots, including the Fairy Glen and Kilbroney, CS Lewis’s inspiration for Narnia, apparently.

What is next for Catherine?

My next book, Captivating the Cynical Earl, will be out in July, plus I’m half-way through writing the one after. It’s set in the Hebrides in 1810 so lots of research involved. I’m going to keep writing, for as long as readers want to read my books. Simple as!

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My sincere thanks to you and your amazing NHS colleagues who have worked so hard to look after us throughout the pandemic.

I wish you every continued success!

Meet Clare Pooley – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award!

Congratulations and welcome to Clare, a worthy winner of the RNA’s 2021 Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award!

What was the inspiration behind The Authenticity Project?

The Authenticity Project was inspired by my own experience. 

Six years ago, my life from the outside, or on social media, looked fairly perfect – happy, healthy, organised and photogenic. The truth was very different. 

I was struggling with a terrible addiction to alcohol that was badly affecting my mental and physical health. I decided to tell the grubby truth in a blog which I called Mummy was a Secret Drinker. 

That blog saved my life, and transformed the lives of thousands of other people who read it. So then I started thinking: what would happen if other people were really honest about their lives with the strangers around them? That thought was my starting point.

What do you hope that people will take away from reading it?

There’s a Leonard Cohen lyric at the beginning of the book: 

Ring the bells that still can ring, 

Forget your perfect offering, 

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

That quote seemed like a perfect summary to me, as when I finished writing the book I realised that each of the characters have a central flaw, but it’s those flaws that make them human, loveable and unique. 

I hope that people reading the book will decide to embrace their own imperfections and, maybe, to be more open and honest about them. When we pretend to be perfect, all it does is help make the people around us feel worse about themselves. When you make yourself vulnerable by sharing the truth, magical things can happen.

The Sober Diaries has been a very well received book that deals with a serious subject in an accessible way. How has having a keen sense of humour helped in dealing with life’s challenges?

The Sober Diaries covers the year I got sober, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. I honestly don’t think I’d have made it through that year if I hadn’t had a black sense of humour about the whole thing. Luckily my husband and my kids never let me take myself too seriously!

 

What has winning this award meant to you?

For so long, the characters I created in The Authenticity Project just lived in my own head and on the pages of my manuscript. 

I am constantly blown away by the fact that they are now out in the world and that other people have embraced them and loved them like I do. This award is really the epitome of that. 

And I’m particularly happy to have won the award this year – the year of the pandemic, as I believe that we all need fiction more than ever right now. At a time when we can’t travel, when we’re isolated and missing ‘real’ life, stories provide such a valuable escape.

I was also thrilled that the award was sponsored by Katie Fforde, who I’ve admired for so long.

Are you a meticulous planner or do you like to write in a more organic way?

I’m somewhere in between! 

I have a rough plan – a beginning, middle and an end, and some sketchy characters, but I like to allow the characters to develop as I write, and then to help direct the action. I believe that the best writing happens when your characters surprise you! 

There’s a big twist towards the end of The Authenticity Project, and I think the reason no-one ever sees it coming is because I didn’t know it was coming as I was writing. I was as surprised as anyone else!

The house that inspired Julian’s

What key tips would you give an as yet unpublished writer?

My best tip is the same for unpublished writers and for people wanting to get sober: take it one day at a time. If you think about the whole task in front of you – writing 90,000 words – it can feel overwhelming. But the truth is, if you can write just one paragraph  you can write a page. If you write a page you can write a chapter. And if you can write a chapter, you can write a book…

Secondly, you need to show up. Writing is a muscle. You need to exercise it. Try to write every day, even if you end up deleting the whole thing once you’ve finished. It helps to have a regular routine. I’m a member of the 5am writer’s club. I find very early mornings, when the world is asleep and nothing has yet intruded on your day, the most creative and interesting time to write.

Thirdly, remember that all first drafts are AWFUL. Just get the story down on the page, then once you know what you’ve got, you can go back and edit it. It’s a bit like painting a landscape: you do a rough pencil sketch first, then you go back over and over again adding light, shade, depth and colour. If you worry about making it perfect as you’re writing, you’ll end up paralysed my fear and doubt – I’ve been there!

 

How have you coped/worked throughout lockdown?

I have a husband and three kids who’ve all been working or schooling from home, plus two terriers, so it’s been chaos! 

Trying to find the physical space and the headspace to work has been really hard. Sometimes I end up working from the bathroom! 

 

In early lockdown, I completely lost the ability to read or write, for the first time in my life. I spent my whole time doom-scrolling. Luckily, as the news improved, my reading and writing mojo returned. 

What have been the highlights of your career to date – other than winning this award? 🙂

The Authenticity Project was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks, which was a real dream come true. I’m also thrilled that the book has sold to thirty-one different territories. I love seeing all the wonderful covers popping up, with titles in various languages, all over the world. 

What are you working on now?

I’m up to my eyeballs in the structural edit of my second novel. It’s not a direct sequel, but there are a couple of cameo appearances from characters you might recognise!

What is next for Clare?

You know, I would write every day even if I weren’t being paid to do so, so the fact that I am able to earn a living making up stories is a dream come true. That’s why I’m so hugely grateful to the RNA, and everyone who has bought, read and recommended my books. Thank you!

 

Thank you for such honest and uplifting answers.

Meet Carole Matthews – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Romantic Comedy Novel Award.

Welcome, Carole!Matthews summer days sea breezes author

How long has your road to success been from that first publication breakthrough?

I had my first book published in 1997, Let’s Meet on Platform 8, and since then I’ve written another thirty-three novels. I didn’t realise when I started that I’d still be around twenty-five years later.

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What has being a member of the RNA meant to you over the years?

Friendship and support. It’s lovely being able to mix with a group of like-minded people who are willing to share your successes and struggles. It’s a great asset for authors.

What was your reaction to firstly receiving the RNA Outstanding Achievement Award and now this one?

The Outstanding Achievement Award was wonderful. I shared the honour with Jill Mansell and we were both presented with our awards by Barbara Taylor Bradford which was amazing – what a woman! It’s very nice to be recognised by your peers. I received three nominations – two for Sunny Days & Sea Breezes, plus one for Christmas for Beginners which was a lovely surprise. To receive the award for Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year was such a thrill. Sunny Days & Sea Breezes has already proved to be one of my most popular books with readers and this feels like the ultimate stamp of approval.

Happiness for Beginners was inspired by a real animal farm helping people – how do you balance the harsher realities and issues of life with a lighter touch to convey a heartfelt and serious theme?

That’s something that I’ve tried to do with all of my books and I think they reflect life in general. It’s not all ha-ha-hee-hee, but sometimes we’re able to see the funny side in difficulties. While my books are romantic comedies, I hope they reflect real life too. With Happiness for Beginners, the real farm helps people with behavioural and mental health issues, so that created the darker side of the book. They also rescued troubled and damaged animals and they definitely provided the comedy element!

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Are you a detailed plotter or do you develop your work on the screen as you go and through revisions and edits?

A detailed plotter! As I’ve written two books a year for the last ten years, I don’t have the luxury of wondering what happens next – I need to know! I do, however, change and adapt as I go, but I start off with a definite beginning, middle and end. I spend about two weeks writing out character profiles and that helps me to get into their heads. Each morning, I start by editing what I’ve done the day before and then I have one final pass at the end. I do as little editing as humanly possible.

Your locations vary, keeping your work fresh and inspiring. Are there any that have been particularly memorable?

I have been fortunate to be able to base my books in some wonderful locations over the years. Part of With or Without You was set in Nepal and that was a very memorable trip. I loved every minute – the people and the culture are fantastic. I went to Swedish Lapland and stayed in the Ice Hotel as research for Calling Mrs Christmas and that was wonderful too. We had the most fabulous display of the Northern Lights – one of the highlights of my life. My latest, Sunny Days & Sea Breezes, is set on the Isle of Wight and I’ve fallen in love with the place and plan to visit time and time again. I must have described it nicely as many of my readers – and my editors – booked holidays there as a result!

You are a prolific author, but roughly how long does it take to do the research, writing, editing to final manuscript?

I’ve been doing a book every six months, so research, writing and editing all tends to roll into one. I’m usually researching the next book while writing the current one and editing the last one. I really wouldn’t like to see inside my brain!

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What is next for Carole?

Lots to look forwards to! The paperback of Sunny Days & Sea Breezes is out in May, so I’m looking forward to that. My publisher is re-jacketing and reissuing a lot of my backlist which is quite a job with thirty-odd books to do. The new-look Chocolate Lovers’ Club is out in eBook at the moment for 99p and the whole series will be reissued in paperback in August. This series of four books is among my most popular worldwide, so it’s nice to see them given a new lease of life. Later in the year – October – will see the paperback of Christmas for Beginners which was also nominated for an RNA award and sees another visit to Hope Farm.

Meet Shirley Mann – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Romantic Saga Award

 

Welcome Shirley!

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Huge congratulations on winning the RNA Romantic Saga Novel of the Year 2021!

Hello Valerie, thank you so much for asking me. In the last three years of my mum’s life, I suddenly thought I might like to see, after years of writing factual content, whether I could write a novel and my parents’ wartime romance was so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to get it down on paper. I never thought I could make a career out of it, but it probably came at the right time for me – I was making films for environmental organisations and was running out of enthusiasm for scrambling over stiles carrying heavy camera equipment but the transition has been gradual and completely unexpected. OK, the truth is, there was no conscious decision and there’s nobody more surprised than me about where this journey is taking me.

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Research is obviously something you are very used to doing and experienced in, but roughly how long do you spend researching and planning each novel?

Oh, the joy of writing your first novel when you have years to fiddle around with the words, visit endless museums and wander all over the country finding incredible women in order to get their personal stories to make sure the books are authentic. Now, novel #2 and so on, that’s a different story. I am basically doing one a year and that means I really have to get a move on. I start with a basic plot idea and then just get stuck in. Research can be overwhelming so I do the basics and then the rest takes place as I go through the book but I do get a tad obsessed. My background as a journalist means that I love the safety blanket of facts and I panic until I know that a scene I’m writing actually could have happened so I have to be careful that I don’t get completely side-tracked by research. I once spent two days finding out whether they had ginger spice in 1942 to make biscuits before it occurred to me that my character could make garibaldi ones instead. However, I am astounded how the story starts to unfold as soon as I begin to write. I once wrote the words: ‘She had to think fast’ without realising that ‘she’- my character- meant me. I had no idea where I was going next. So, a cup of tea and a strong talking to and eh voilà, it came to me- no idea where from.

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Bobby’s War was inspired by strong women such as Mary Ellis, ATA pilot. Can you share with us some of the inspiration behind this and your other novels?

I was so lucky to get to meet Mary Ellis about two months before she died at the age of 101. I couldn’t help but come away inspired, awe-stricken and to be honest, with a little bit of a girl crush! She was just fabulous. My mum was my inspiration for ‘Lily’s War’ and I now realise how lucky I was that she was a WAAF in Bomber Command doing a glamorous job. The fact that my dad was in the 8th Army meant I was able to use his war time experiences as inspiration as well to tell his side of the story. I like to learn something in books I read so I want to emulate that and love giving something in the books that is unexpected so I like to look at the war from the viewpoint of a Tommy in Africa and Europe for example, or explore the shadowy world of an enigmatic civil servant or maybe even ( plot spoiler) a German POW. However, when my parents died, in a panic, because I hadn’t asked them enough questions, I raced around the country to find other servicewomen including Land Army girls, explosive workers and plotters etc and every time, I just found myself completely overwhelmed by what they had achieved- and put up with- at an age when I was having fun in the Uni bar. I loved imagining walking down the street with them in the 1940s and finding out those little details that aren’t in the history books. It made me determined to help readers walk down those streets too and make sure the women’s legacy was recorded so it would inspire future generations.

Shirley Mann with ATA pilot, Mary Ellis

What tips would you give your younger self about becoming a novelist?

Don’t give up your day job! It’s such a slow burn to establish yourself, get people to know and hopefully, like your work at the same time as writing enough books to establish credibility. I’m in my 60s and I honestly don’t think I could have done this earlier when, of course, I needed to make a living and there are certainly no  financial guarantees with novel-writing. Working for the BBC and running my own media company on top of having a family didn’t leave me much head-room to be able to think a story through, write it and deal with the social media and publicity to make my books stand out amongst all those other millions of books out there. I naively thought you just wrote a book!  I think the one advantage I had at this age was that I wasn’t afraid to fail, I just wanted to see whether I could do it, so maybe the answer to this question is, certainly take the writing seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy the ride.

What have been the highlights of your professional life: as a journalist and as a novelist?

I’ve been so lucky in my careers- I just didn’t mean to have this many of them. As a journalist, I’ve met a huge array of famous people and can out-bore any dinner party guest (when we’re allowed to have them again) with insider gossip but it was the real people who left me humbled, the ones who strove against adversity and triumphed quietly- like the woman who worked to help the mothers whose children had been snatched by estranged husbands or the family who moved to a remote hillside in India to try to save threatened tigers. I suppose the same applies with the novels. I still talk to my lovely servicewomen- now in their late 90s- who talk in matter-of-fact tones about how they were young women living every moment despite bombing raids, being constantly hungry and  being asked to do things that would terrify a super hero. On days when I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t been able to see friends or go on holiday, that common sense pulls me up sharply- these are the highlight moments of all of this for me.

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What has the RNA meant to you over the years?

I’m such a newbie at this, ‘Lily’s War’ was only published last year so I’m only just finding out what an amazing organisation the RNA is and how incredibly supportive it is of romantic fiction writers. I’m about to start a course with them to find out how to use social media to promote my books and my daughters, who are on a hotline Whatsapp group, are incredibly relieved that someone else is taking me in hand and teaching me what NOT to press. Added to that is the fact that the RNA has just amazingly given me an award for only my second novel, so hell, yeah, I think they’re incredible! 

 

What is next for Shirley?

I’m just finishing Book 3 which ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and I did struggle with this to begin with because both Lily and Bobby were such strong characters doing exciting jobs and I wanted to make Hannah a different sort of girl, one who was shyer and less confident of her potential. I soon realised that these LA girls were every bit as heroic as the ones like Lily and Bobby. They toiled in all weathers, in all circumstances and often, deprived accommodation to feed the country. Hannah’s journey is perhaps even more admirable because, without the war, she was one of those girls who would have remained tied to their mother’s apron strings and would, I suspect, never have discovered how strong they really were. Then it’s straight onto Book 4, which is set in the Isle of Man where they had internment camps, housing everyone they didn’t know what to do with- so Germans lived alongside Jews, Conscientious Objectors, gypsies and Italians. What a fantastic melting pot for a novel!  My parents lived their last years in the Isle of Man and are buried there. I love the island and as a next step, it seems a perfect way to complete the circle from ‘Lily’s War.’ I just need to be able to get over there to start the research.

Oh, and what else is next? ….I want to get my hair cut!

 

Meet Louise Douglas -the RNA’s 2021 Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller Award winner

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I love the description of ‘contemporary gothic mysteries’ – where and when did you first discover your desire to write novels?

Thank you, Valerie and thank you for inviting me to your website, it’s a treat to be here 🙂

You are very welcome!

I’m one of those people who never wanted to do anything but write. When I was a child and people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I always answered: ‘Bookmaker!’ I still love that word now!

I was a dreamy child, often in trouble as I never listened to instructions, struggled to concentrate in school and was always getting lost. This was because I was imagining alternative lives in my head and not paying enough attention to the real world. I loved fiction books; loved the pictures, the feel of the pages, the way the stories unfolded. I was often told that writing was all very well but I needed a ‘proper’ job too. Which was fine, as long as it was a job that I could do while I was day-dreaming.

What is it about this genre that attracts you?

I’ve always been drawn to the dark, but that’s because it’s necessary to accentuate the light. I like pre-Raphaelite paintings, epic Gallic poetry and music with a mysterious edge to the lyrics (Nick Cave, Massive Attack). From a young age, I liked exploring old graveyards, because of the way nature takes over, and because of the inscriptions on the gravestones, the stories they tell and the stories they hide. I love that these sad places inevitably evolve into magical and joyous havens for wildlife. It was inevitable I’d be drawn to the kind of books that meld death and love and wild countryside places and big old abandoned houses with secret doors and love letters hidden between the pages of novels.

The night is darkest before dawn; that’s what makes the sunrise so glorious.

Your winning novel was inspired by a real place – is it place, character, theme or another inspiration that triggers most of your plots?

It is usually places that are the inspiration, I can’t say exactly why. But that’s another habit that has carried through from childhood – finding a certain place and knowing that I have to write about it. I remember being about nine years old and riding in the back of my dad’s car, going past a massive old building that was completely derelict and (I know this will sound weird) although I’d never seen it before, I recognised it. It was somewhere in the East Midlands – that’s all I could tell you about it now, but it’s always stayed clear in my mind. That building has become the asylum-turned-reform school that’s at the centre of the novel I’m writing now.

Are you a meticulous plotter or a more organic writer?

Oh, I wish I could plot! I’ve tried everything to turn myself into a plotter, I’ve got a bookshelf full of ‘How to plot…’ instruction manuals, I’ve asked other writers for advice, scoured the internet for tips, I’ve tried and tried and tried and I just can’t do it! Even if I start with a plot within about 500 words it’s all gone to pot and the characters are doing their own thing or turning into different characters altogether and everything that started off clear in my mind has become a mess.

‘Organic writer’ is a lovely phrase but it doesn’t really describe the chaos that I go through every single time. And the not-plotting is so wasteful. I end up deleting tens of thousands of words because I’ve written myself into a dead end. It’s annoying and frustrating and I wish I could be different but it’s the way it is.

You have a love of nature, creativity and the outdoors, does this shine through your work?

Thank you for this question. I do love nature, plants, animals, the moon and stars, the countryside, urban foxes, the oceans, birds, all of it. I hope it shines through in my work because nature is so important to me. One day I really want to write a book about how the outdoors grounds, inspires, heals and calms. Climate change and the threat to the environment terrifies me.

What has winning this amazing award meant to you?

It means the world to me. Being shortlisted gave me a huge boost; it’s done wonders for my confidence. I’m incredibly grateful and proud to have won. And also… to have my name mentioned in the same sentence as the wonderful Jackie Collins is just.. well it’s amazing! Thank you so much to Simon and Schuster UK for sponsoring the award in her name. #BeMoreJackie.

Has your road to success been long or short?

It’s been a long road, with plenty of steep hills, bumps and potholes and I’ve got lost many, many times and had many a flat tyre but I’m still on that road and still enjoying the ride.

What tip would you give your unpublished self-looking back, or would you not change a thing?

I’d tell myself to learn to plot.

How important has being a member of the RNA been to you as a writer?

It’s been important to me both as a writer and as a human being. Through the RNA I met my first ever writer friends; we used to meet once a month in a pub and we laughed and encouraged one another and I realised what a warm and wonderful community it is. It’s a superb organisation run by incredible people.  I admire and respect the way it promotes romantic fiction in its myriad guises, challenges the sometimes patronising assumptions that appear in the press, supports both new and established writers and helps those of us in what is effectively a solitary profession feel part of a collective.  I’m incredibly proud to be part of it.

What is next for Louise?

Book number eight, The Scarlet Dress, has just been published and I’m currently working on the asylum-turned-reform-school book which is my first ever full-on ghost story.  

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Congratulations and I wish you every ongoing success!

Comments, likes and questions can be left below.

Meet Julie Houston – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Sapere Books Popular Romantic Fiction Award

Hi Julie

In your shortlist interview you wrote:

I was inspired to write SING ME A SECRET after taking part in a musical production of Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar in Leeds Town Hall several years ago. In the actual book, a family secret held between four sisters is played out, and eventually revealed, while rehearsing and performing in their village’s own production of this fabulous musical. I’d loved every minute of taking part in the show, especially as we all fell in love with Jesus. And what a Jesus…

You revealed the source of this novel was a musical – how did this come about?

I’ve sung in a choir for the past twenty-five years or so and, on one occasion, we were lucky enough to be given permission to perform JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group. This was performed in Leeds Town Hall and it was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. We all fell in love with Jesus, who was an extremely talented – as well as rather good looking – young man, and taking part in the production was really fantastic. Our choirmaster, Gary, who I’ve acknowledged in the book, Sing Me A Secret, surprised us all by donning a yellow suit and purple wig and taking on the part of Herod. This was my inspiration for Juno’s love object – Dr Scott Butler – when he took on the part of Herod in his own yellow suit and purple wig.

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Can you share some of your journey from unpublished to published author with us?

I’ve always read, as surely all authors must have done in order to write a novel themselves, and really wish – again as all authors probably wish – I’d started writing much earlier. However, I started writing Goodness Grace and Me when my children were small and I suppose it took me many years to not only write it but have the confidence to submit to agents. Then came the usual rejections. I joined the RNA and submitted this first book into their New Writers’ Scheme which was extremely helpful in pointing out where I was going wrong. (As well as going right, thank goodness). Eventually my lovely agent, Anne Williams at KHLA, took me on and we did the round of submissions. This was back in 2014 when publishing was still all about paperbacks and the Romantic Comedy genre seemed to be losing popularity As such, the main publishing houses rejected it. I decided to go independent and worked with Ebook Publishing to get Goodness Grace and Me up as an e-book with Amazon Kindle. The book did well, reaching 64 in the UK charts. I then wrote The One Saving Grace and Looking for Lucy and was taken on by White Glove which was an arm of Amazon publishing for agented writers. I don’t think it exists any more. They were brilliant at promoting and Looking for Lucy reached Number 1 in Australia. Anne submitted A Village Affair to a round of publishers and I was taken on by Sarah Ritherdon who was then with Aria. Aria took all my back numbers as well as offering a new three-book deal and then, with Hannah Smith as editorial director, was given another three-book deal. The team at HeadOfZeus/Aria have been fabulous to work with. Sing Me A Secret won the Sapere Books Popular Fiction prize in March this year. A Family Affair will be published in June and I’m just about to complete my tenth novel, A Better Life.

What advice would you give to your younger unpublished self?

Write that book now!! Don’t leave it until you think you have time. Read everything, even books outside the genre in which you want to write. Also, go with your gut instinct: if you really think people will enjoy reading what you’ve written, don’t listen to anyone who might try and put you off. Persevere, don’t give up. Plod on. You’ll get there if you really want to.

Are you a very organised plotter or do you write from a specific starting point and then let the characters evolve and take you on a journey?

By the time I was writing my fifth book and had been taken on by Aria, I knew this was a serious business and I had to see this as a job, rather than a hobby! I’ve never been asked to write a certain plot – sometimes I think it might be interesting to be given an idea – so it’s now a matter of sitting down with a brand-new exercise book and creating characters, time lines and family trees. I hate that first page of writing a new novel. In fact, I probably hate the first few chapters as I am homesick for my old characters and not yet in love with the new ones. Once I’m in love with them, I let them write themselves. I know this sound utterly daft, and I’ve certainly ridiculed the idea that characters can write the stories themselves, but give them their head and they will. I love writing dialogue – I’d love to do some script writing – so I suppose my books are very much character, as opposed to plot, driven.

How have you coped to keep yourself mentally and physically fit during lockdown?

I’ve just got on and written two books: A Family Affair which comes out in June and A Better Life (title might change.) I started the first last March as Lockdown started and am on the point of finishing the second. If anyone had suggested, when I first started this writing lark, I’d be writing two books a year, I’d have laughed out loud. Lockdown has given me the opportunity to do that. My children are in their early twenties and have basically left home, giving me all the time I need to write. Physically, I run most days as well as walking the dog. (Sometimes I combine the two, much to the dog’s dismay who doesn’t like being on a lead). I was swimming most days until the gym closed for Lockdown and we’ve now just been informed this one isn’t going to be reopening at all. Who needs yet another retail park which, I believe, is going to be there instead? I’m livid!!

What has the RNA and winning this award meant to you?

The RNA has been fabulous. I’ve met so many friendly and talented writers happy to share their time, advice and expertise. Winning the RNA Sapere Popular Fiction award this year can only be described as a dream come true.

What next for Julie?

As we speak, I’m just about finishing book 10: A Better Life. Brand new characters apart from Cassie, Fiona and Clare from A Village Affair who, although featuring only briefly, I enjoyed bringing to life once again. I certainly can’t imagine stopping writing very soon yet. Who knows – in another five years, I may have written another ten books?

I certainly hope that you do and wish you every success in the future.

Please leave a comment or a question in the comments below!

Meet Christina Courtenay – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Fantasy Romantic Novel Award

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The story was inspired by a Viking style ring I own, an exact replica of one displayed at the Historical Museum in Stockholm. When I went to the museum to compare the two, I was struck by the germ of an idea for this book. My agent just happens to be Swedish as well and she encouraged me to explore our mutual heritage, so it seemed like it was meant to be – serendipity!

I am intrigued by the connection between your replica ring and the original – how long did you need to research this fascinating tale?

I can’t say precisely – the ring was the catalyst, and after I’d been to see the original in the Stockholm Historical Museum, I had the story in the back of my mind for many years but never did anything about it. Then all these weird coincidences started to happen – there was a huge Viking exhibition at the British Museum in London, several TV series about Vikings (both fiction and non-fiction), a couple of new books about them and some exciting new archaeological finds. I also managed to go to the Jorvik Viking festival at last, which I’d wanted to do for ages, and then I found my Swedish agent. It was as if the universe was telling me to just go for it – so I did and ECHOES OF THE RUNES was the result. I did some basic background research at first, then continued more in-depth as I went along, continuously reading, visiting museums and travelling to Viking sites.

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What appeals to you about the romantic fantasy genre in particular?

I’ve loved timeslip and time travel stories ever since I first read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier and Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine. I think most history buffs (and I’m definitely one of those) imagine they’d love to travel back in time or somehow be able to experience the past. Within the romantic fantasy genre readers can do that – whether it’s by way of dreams, ghostly apparitions or proper time travel, the past comes to life. And we get to meet the people from the past, especially the heroes. It’s exciting and a great way to learn about history.

Christina in a Viking Longhouse

Will you stay within this or have you other projects in different sub-genres ongoing?

For the moment I’m staying with timeslip and time travel stories. I was writing YA a while back, but that’s on the backburner now. I think I’ve realised that I’m now writing exactly the sort of stories that appeal to me and that I enjoy most, so there is no reason to change that.

How have you coped/worked during lockdown life?

It’s been very up and down. To begin with, I was very enthusiastic and determined to get loads done. There are always so many things we put off doing, isn’t there? I did lots of writing at first and also tackled something I’d been meaning to do for ages – create a website for my genealogy project (on my maiden name). Once that was done, I sort of ran out of steam a bit, and the anxiety of the whole pandemic situation got to me. Now we seem to be heading for more normal times though, so I’m back to writing with a vengeance and actually working on two stories at once!

What advice would you give your younger unpublished self?

Join an organisation like the RNA straight away, go to as many workshops and events as possible and really listen to the advice, network, and find a writing buddy/critique partner. Before I found the RNA, I was floundering because I hadn’t come across any likeminded authors, but once I did, it felt like coming home.

The RNA obviously means a tremendous amount to you as a previous chairman but how much does winning this award mean to you?

It means so much, I can’t even begin to tell you! ECHOES OF THE RUNES was my first book with a new publisher, as well as being close to my heart because of the connection with my heritage. And after the horrible year we’ve all had, it really did feel wonderful to finally have something positive happening!

What is next for Christina?

I have two more books coming out this year with Headline Review in the Viking time travel series:  WHISPERS OF THE RUNES will be published at the end of June, and it follows a hero and heroine who get mixed up with the so-called Great Heathen Army that rampaged through Britain in the 870s AD. Then there is TEMPTED BY THE RUNES which will be out in December, and the couple in that story take the huge step of being among the first settlers in Iceland. Both these are time travel tales, where the heroines are from the present and have to adapt to living in the Viking age. Not an easy thing to do!

I wish you every continued success and look forward to reading your worthy winner.

You can follow Christina at:-

http://www.christinacourtenay.com

https://www.facebook.com/christinacourtenayauthor

Comments, likes and questions can be left below.

Meet award winning author – Val Wood

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Please share with us the amazing route that you took to becoming a published author when you had your first book accepted back in 1993, winning the Catherine Cookson Prize.

1993 seems like a lifetime ago and yet only yesterday. When my first novel THE HUNGRY TIDE was published I was totally shell shocked and astonished that I had won such a prestigious prize as the Catherine Cookson Award. My husband Peter had persuaded me to enter the manuscript, for I didn’t have the faith in myself to consider that it would be good enough, particularly as the competition was open to published as well as unpublished authors. When I was presented with the award by Joanna Trollope on a launch on the River Thames, I had no idea that this was only the beginning.

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You have your own prize now, was this inspired by a desire to also give back to upcoming talent?

I had had great encouragement whilst learning my craft of writing through many years of writers’ workshops, university lectures and discussion groups with other writers. The most pleasing aspect of all, was that most of my fellow writers wanted to write, not with the prospect of being published with a book to show, but to put meaningful words on the page that came from the heart and would interest anyone who might read it. Not forgetting the art of story-telling, which is probably one of the oldest crafts in the world. Most of us, and not only professional writers, have at some time in our lives enjoyed being read to, or have told an impromptu story from our imagination.

Ten years on and being totally committed to my work and with more books under my belt as I became established as a professional author, I began to consider that with the luck and encouragement that I’d had before and during my career, it was beholden of me to inspire others who were as keen to write as I was, and so with the help of an incredible team who organised the detail and with the assistance of the Hull Central Library, in 2013 we set up the annual Val Wood Creative Writing Competition, free to enter and with a prize. We have had many hundreds of entries over the years, we have a good system with skilled readers and I choose the final winners. 

Because of the pandemic the competition has taken longer to organize during this year’s library closures; the winners are about to be announced and we are already planning next year’s competition.

You live and write about a beautiful part of the country but is it the place or a character or a piece of historical detail that triggers the first ideas for your novels?

For me, when beginning a novel, the theme or subject matter is always of paramount importance and because the Victorian period was a symbol of change in industry, science and the women’s movement, I set my novels during this time, often with the background of poverty, injustice, women’s rights or lack of them as in No Place for a Woman, and how they set about righting the wrongs against them. From my imagination I have created women who didn’t want to sit and wait for a husband to claim them and who set out to find their own role in their lives as in Far from Home, and others who found they had made the wrong choice as in my latest novel The Lonely Wife. 

Do you let your characters grow organically on the page or do you plan ahead?

I don’t know my characters until I name them and then I watch them grow into the life I create for them. There are times when I don’t know which direction they will take, or sometimes I know the ending before I am halfway through. It is very important that the characters behave as real people of the nineteenth century would have done and don’t fall into  the trap of twenty-first century manners or speech such as OK or getting sorted, level playing field or even the latest phrase of roadmap! This would totally confuse a nineteenth century character. 

I always give the men in the novels a strong part; my males are considerate on the whole, though some are not and get their cum-uppance! And of course, there is always a romantic element, and I generally fall completely in love with the male protagonist!

Having written so many books based in the region, was it your inspiration to create the Val Wood’s Trails?

Alongside the theme and the characters, I think of the place or setting. I have done this from the very first novel because I need to know where my characters live; I drive out or walk to look at locations in East Yorkshire and I might well have terrified bystanders at some time in the past by standing on the edge of the crumbling cliffs of Holderness; confused others as I stare into space to imagine where a building or street in the heart of Hull might have been before it was blitzed, or clutching a cup of coffee in a café in an East Yorkshire market town that has retained some Victorian element. I place my characters there; this then inspired the idea of bringing those characters to life and allowing readers to follow their trail either physically or online as I did with The Kitchen Maid and The Harbour Girl.

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Pre Covid the libraries were a place that you have supported and being actively involved with so in what ways have you missed this side of your writing life and tried to compensate for it?

During this pandemic, I feel that many people including authors have felt the strain of uncertainty and doubt.  Beginning the present work in progress was difficult; I felt slowed down, uncertain where to begin; this was the first time ever that I have felt this way; I wanted to write a ‘feel good’ story, something to make readers happy and uplifted, but it just wouldn’t come. 

I was sorry to read of your personal loss due to Dementia and understand that you are actively involved in work with the Friends of the Hull Memory Clinic to spread greater awareness and understanding. Have you post-lockdown plans to continue with this?

Since my husband died from dementia in 2009 I have lived alone but haven’t felt lonely; my writing and a loving family saved me from that, but I have missed not being able to meet friends, not feeling safe enough to shop in a store or being unable to visit a favourite historical building. Simple things that we took for granted but won’t ever again.

I told myself to take it easy, to be kind to myself. I have written a book a year since 1993 even through my sad and difficult times, plus several short stories for magazines, essays and lectures and published one ‘long’ short story of 50 pages for a local charity in order to raise funds for a memorial to the people of Hull who died in the Second World War.

So I took a short time out and walked on the green and lovely common land of Westwood here in Beverley and I regained my equilibrium and after a time was able to begin again, deciding that I would continue from The Lonely Wife and write a sequel.

In the past I have been a ‘hands on’ volunteer, being with one charity for almost thirty years; but now in my later years I have changed roles to give support by becoming patron and vice president with charities that I have long supported. I consider that I do very little now but most of us can do some small thing and it is appreciated.

I contemplate that I have been very fortunate in my life, and the schoolgirl who struggled with maths and dates in history, but loved writing stories would not have believed how life could change because of a fertile imagination.

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Which historic figures stand out as inspiring of the women you have researched?

I have learned so much during my writing life and read about some incredible women through my research; Marie Curie who was honoured with the Nobel Prize and under intense pressure from her male peers, went on to invent the first mobile X ray machines and took it herself to the Front during the First World War thus saving thousands of lives.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her daughter Louise Garrett Anderson, both suffragettes and campaigners for women’s equal rights as men had, and Caroline Norton who petitioned Parliament to change the laws regarding Custody of Children, and so many more.

What have been the highlights of your career to date: the Honorary Doctorate, being a Times Bestseller, winning the Catherine Cookson Award – all or something else?

Winning the Catherine Cookson Award opened up a host of other opportunities from becoming a Sunday Times best- selling author to being honoured in 2017 by the University of Hull with an Honorary Doctorate for the contribution to literature, my greatest achievement; and in 2019 an invitation to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace that brought tears to my eyes as I walked through the hallowed portal. All for the love of writing.

What is next for Val Wood?                     

What comes next?  First of all finish the sequel to The Lonely Wife which is running head to head in popularity with The Doorstep Girls. My working title is Children of Fortune and features not only the children from the Lonely Wife as they grow into adulthood but also another child from a different family with a question mark over her parentage. I don’t yet know the ending.

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Charities I support.

Home-Start (Hull) the children’s charity

Sight-Support – Hull and East Riding for people with sight loss 

Butterflies – The Hull Memory Loss Support group.