I’m thrilled and utterly elated to be the winner of the 2020 RNA Joan Hessayon award for The Rebel Heiress and the Knight.
I had a wonderful time celebrating over the weekend with my husband, Jack, our three daughters, and lots of lovely messages from family and friends. There was lots of bubbles, cake, a lovely pub lunch, and even a family game of Cluedo!
Going back to the beginning of your desire to write – when did you realise that you needed/wanted to write fiction?
It probably started as a child. I had a fervent imagination and loved nothing better than to escape into the wilds of make believe. The writing bug really caught when I was a little older but to be honest, a lack of confidence and self- belief held me back from pursuing my dream. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties with young children at home, and working part- time, that I began to question what it was that I really wanted to do in life. That itch to be a writer had never gone away and so I decided to do something about it. I have to add, however, that it has taken many, many years to realise that dream!
Were you always in love with writing romance?
I enjoy many genres from thrillers, whodunit, classics, to every kind of historical fiction but I LOVE romance, especially historical romance more than any other and have done so ever since I was a teenager. From Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Anya Seyton, to Daphne du Maurier and many, many others.
How helpful has being a member of the New Writers’ Scheme been to you developing your talent?
The New Writer’s Scheme and the RNA have been amazingly supportive in my writing. The detailed feedback that you get back from an anonymously assigned reader has been incredibly valuable to develop and hone my writing skills.
Was The Rebel Heiress and the Knight your first completed novel?
Yes, The Rebel Heiress and the Knight was my first fully completed novel. Previously, I had written screen & radio plays, and I once started a YA thriller that never went anywhere. I do believe that it’s good to try different things creatively until you find your voice, so nothing is wasted – at least, that’s what I tell myself.
What drew you to the C13?
I love anything historical and once I had created the general outline of my story, it was a question of working out which era would work best. Eventually, I felt that the early 13th century with King John’s turbulent reign was the perfect foil for my story.
Your heroine has a dramatic backstory, did this give her character more depth?
Absolutely. I knew that I wanted my characters to feel ‘real’ within the context of the story, and whilst there was a huge amount of external conflict, I knew I had to explore why they behaved in the way they did, to make the story work. This is especially true of Eleanor, who is a quite extraordinary character for the times she lived in.
Few will know who Fulk FitsWarin lll is – how did the link happen to the legend of Robin Hood?
The life and times of Fulk FitzWarin III ( Foulke le FitzWaryn) was intriguing, romantic, dangerous and pretty incredible. The parallels between what happened to him and Robin Hood are strikingly familiar. FitzWarin was forced to become a rebel and later an outlaw after Whittington Castle and his hereditary lands were confiscated by King John. He lived for many years in woods & forests with his band of outlaws and even his right-hand man was apparently called John. He never gave up the claim of his birth right and did eventually win it back, but only after much heartache and strife. He also won the hand of the heiress Maud le Vavasour, who some believe to be the inspiration behind Maid Marian. There were other real-life inspirations for the legend of Robin Hood such as Herewerd the Wake and Eustace the Monk but in my opinion, no one epitomised Robin as well as Fulk did.
What hasworking with Harlequin Mills and Boon been like?
It has been amazing working with Harlequin Mills and Boon. They have a wonderful, collaborative team who are very supportive and insightful. In particular, my editor, Charlotte Ellis, who has been a pleasure to work with.
What is next for Melissa Oliver?
The Rebel Heiress and the Knight is part of a linked series, The Notorious Knights. The next book, Her Banished Knight’s Redemption, is William Geraint’s story (he’s a secondary character in the first book) and is due to be published Jan/ Feb 2021. I’ve also signed another two- book deal with Harlequin Mills and Boon, so I’m currently writing the next Notorious Knights book.
I wish you every success in your writing career. What a great start!
I am delighted to welcome the new chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Alison May. Welcome and congratulations, Alison!
Before we talk about the RNA I would like to ask you about your own writing life and you’re your lovely books written independently or as one half of Juliet Bell.
What were your first breakthrough moments as a published writer?
I sold my first book, Sweet Nothing, in 2013 and it was actually the very first novel that I wrote. I’d been writing seriously for 11 years at that point though but it had taken me about six of those to work out that I wanted to write a novel. So my biggest and first major ‘breakthrough’ moment as an author was probably realising that I wasn’t built to a be a Very Serious Playwright, but am much happier writing novels.
My second big breakthrough was discovering the RNA’s New Writer’s Scheme, which I joined in 2011. The New Writers’ Scheme gives unpublished authors membership of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and a critique on a full manuscript each year from a working author in your sub-genre. Joining the RNA also gave me access to a whole world that I never understood before – a world of writers, but also editors and agents. I think it takes a village to shepherd a novel from idea to publication and the RNA is my village.
You co-write novels with writer and TV journalist Janet Gover, as Juliet Bell. Does this present very different challenges to writing your own novels?
Completely different. Neither of us are big planners when we’re writing on our own – Janet is probably more of a planner than me but that’s not saying much. Writing collaboratively we have to plan. We hardly ever actually write together in the same room so we have to plan the story to stop either one of us getting over excited and killing off a character the other desperately needs in the next chapter. That makes it a really different writing experience.
Writing collaboratively is also a great way to stop you from being precious about your own work. Having a writing partner who can, and will, just put a red line through your masterpiece is a sobering experience but ultimately a very healthy one I think for any writer.
How would you describe an Alison May novel?
That’s tricky! I started my career writing romantic comedies, and I still love to write comedy. I’m planning a return to that genre after I finish my current novel-in-progress. But, my most recent Alison May book, All That Was Lost, is neither romantic nor comedic. It’s an emotion-driven story about a woman who’s built her whole life on one single lie – the lie that she can talk to the dead.
How would you describe a Juliet Bell novel?
Juliet Bell writes modern retellings of misunderstood classics. She’s a sucker for a Bronte novel with a hero who is really anything but heroic!
What key advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Read lots and write lots. There is no substitute for actually getting words down on the page.
It’s definitely worth investing whatever time and money you can spare in developing your craft. I’m a big fan of writing courses and retreats – I run them myself and you should definitely all come on one – but they’re something to do if you are able on top of actually writing not instead of it.
Each author has their own favoured way of working – would you share yours with us?
I’m currently working on book 9, so you’d think that by now I’d have a definite process, wouldn’t you? Realistically it’s different for every book. There are a few constants though. I write horribly shoddy first drafts, and do most of the work on shaping the idea into an actual novel when I edit and revise. I always hate the book at around twenty thousand words, and regularly chuck out the opening 20k of a first draft and start again. I do very little plot planning and what I do I generally never look at while I’m actually writing. So what process I have is messy and disordered but if I try to organise and plan more and create order then I don’t write at all. It turns out messiness suits my writer brain.
What project(s) are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a dual timeline contemporary and historical novel about witchhunts, both literal and metaphorical. It’s my first novel with a substantial historical storyline – the earliest I’ve gone in time before in 1967, and this goes back to 1695 so it’s a big departure for me from writing contemporary fiction, but I’m really excited about it.
You have just taken over from the lovely Nicola Cornick as chair and next year is very important as the RNA is 60!
What is your vision for the future of the RNA?
I see the next couple of years for the RNA as being about two things. Firstly I want to protect and nurture the things that are already so brilliant about the organisation – the sense of community, the mutual support, and the generosity towards new writers. I’m really keen to ensure that that sense of community continues and to ensure that it’s an inclusive community that welcomes writers of all forms of romantic fiction and from all backgrounds.
Secondly, I think every Chair wants to develop the association and make sure we keep moving forward. We have our diamond anniversary year coming up in 2020 with lots of events planned and lots of online activity to help our members engage directly with readers. We’re also working to develop some new education activities, alongside our existing New Writers’ Scheme, to provide professional development opportunities for both published and unpublished authors.
What has being a member of the organisation meant to you over the years?
So much. It’s almost impossible to overstate the career benefits of joining the RNA for me. I found my first publisher after a recommendation from my New Writers’ Scheme reader. I heard about my agent through a contact I made in the RNA. It’s a genuine privilege to be involved in leading the organisation.
I also can’t overstate the personal benefits. I’ve already said that the RNA is my village in writing terms, but that’s true in life terms as well. My RNA friends are some of the first people I message in a crisis or turn to celebrate good news.
How has the romance genre changed since you joined?
There are always trends and fashions in romantic fiction. I joined the RNA around the time Fifty Shades of Grey came out and kickstarted a boom in erotic romance. At the moment we’re seeing a big peak in sales of lighter, more escapist fiction. Sagas are also selling in huge numbers at the moment, often set in the mid twentieth century, and following a heroine, or group of heroines, through a range of trials in their lives, not just finding love.
Romantic authors are also at the forefront of tackling issues raised by movements like ‘Me too’. It’s absolutely right that we’re thinking about consent as a central part of how we write about sex and relationships.
LGBTQIA+ romance is also finding new readers at the moment which is brilliant to see. We want readers to be able to access as wide a range of romantic stories as possible – every reader deserves to see their own version of Happy Ever After on the page. And if you’re a reader who can’t find that in a book yet, why not join the New Writers’ Scheme and write your own?
Looking forward, how excited or optimistic are you about the future of the romance genre within publishing?
Incredibly excited. If you look at Netflix and other streaming services you can see that there’s a huge appetite for romantic stories. As romantic novelists we’re competing with all of those other forms of entertainment, but ultimately I believe that story is king. If you can tell a satisfying romantic story then there are readers out there desperate to hear that story.
Do you think organisations can stay genre specific, or is there a need for a more open working relationship within the industry, which reaches out to other genre specific organisations?
I don’t think it’s an either/or question. There are no plans at the moment for the RNA to stop being a genre-specific organisation. I think there are genre-specific challenges that it’s good to be able to view as a single group. In romantic fiction, for example, we’re still fighting the perception that books predominantly written and read by women are somehow ‘less than’ and I think it’s valuable to have a strong genre-specific voice to address those sorts of issues.
But I’m also really keen to work across genres with other organisations. We’re really pleased to have a strong relationship with the CWA for example. Some of our local groups have already organised joint events, and I hope more will do so in the future. We also share ideas with one another at a Chairperson level and I think both organisations are stronger for having that relationship.
Alison May is a novelist, short story writer, blogger and creative writing tutor who grew up in North Yorkshire, and now lives in Worcester. She worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, a learning adviser, an advice centre manager, a freelance trainer, and now a maker-upper of stories.
She won the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge trophy in 2012, and her short stories have been published by Harlequin, Choc Lit and Black Pear Press. Alison has also been shortlisted in the Love Stories and RoNA Awards. Alison writes romantic comedies and emotion driven fiction. Her latest novel, All That Was Lost, was published by Legend Press in September 2018.
She also writes modern retellings of misunderstood classics, in collaboration with Janet Gover, under the penname Juliet Bell (www.julietbell.co.uk & Twitter @JulietBellBooks).
Alison is currently Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
Your writing career did not begin with fiction, but with non-fiction study of historical crimes. Where did this interest in researching and writing about real crime begin?
It began with my mother! She was an avid reader and a lover of history, and she was fascinated by famous trials. We used to watch true crime programmes on television – we especially liked Edgar Lustgarten – and also discussed cases reported in the newspapers.
In all the cases that you have researched did one motive stand out above all others: greed, hate, love, necessity, premeditated or spontaneous revenge?
The foundation of so many murders is financial, but it is not necessarily always greed, sometimes it is desperation. People kill for insurance money, often to extricate themselves from debt. They kill to escape a relationship because of the costs and consequences of divorce. In the nineteenth century, which is the era I write about most often, poor families poisoned their children just to get the money from burial clubs.
It is not surprising that with such a vast amount of accrued knowledge on true crime that you turned to writing fiction. What was it that enticed you to set both your Frances Doughty and Mina Scarletti series within the Victorian period?
Many years ago I wrote about a Victorian case, the trial of Adelaide Bartlett in 1886 for the murder of her husband. The case was so complex that I realised I needed to understand the Victorians in order to discover the truth behind the lies and the euphemisms; I needed to know how they thought, and how they expressed themselves, and what they believed. The more I researched the more fascinated I became with every aspect of that period. It was natural to want to recreate that time in my fiction.
Both of these women have to overcome difficulties and work to make a life for themselves that is at odds with the expectations of their gender within the period. Were they influenced or based on real characters that you had researched?
Frances is not based on anyone, however Mina Scarletti, who suffers from scoliosis was inspired by two people. Eva, who had a very severe distortion of the spine, was the aunt of a friend of mine. I never got to know her well and she died when I was a child.
Annie Jane Fanny Maclean had a curvature of her spine and walked with a limp. In 1879 a scoundrel called Lewis James Paine romanced her and induced her to transfer her property to him. He then plied her with alcohol and withheld food until she died. A court found him guilty of manslaughter and he was imprisoned for life. Annie’s fate highlighted for me the vulnerability of a disabled young woman in the Victorian marriage market. I wanted a heroine who could overcome this and be strong and independent.
How far did you delve into the world of psychics to help Mina Scarletti unmask the Victorian fraudsters?
I have about a hundred books on the subject – so far! These are both contemporary accounts and modern studies. I have read numerous online journal articles and newspapers, both nineteenth century and more recent. I have also read books by Victorian conjurors and illusionists, and attended a Victorian séance workshop. When I describe a séance in my books I always have to know before I write it how the effects were produced.
In the light of all your research would you agree that the truth is often stranger than fiction?
That is often the case, which is why I like to append historical notes at the end of my fiction books. I have just written one for the fourth Mina book because a reference I included was so odd that I felt I needed to reassure the reader I was not making it up.
Are you a detailed plotter when you start a new project?
I always know when I start who the villain is and how and why the crime was committed. I also write what I call the ‘back story’, the details of what has happened up to the point when my book begins. So I know the start and the finish, but what happens between those points has to be natural and organic, as my heroine needs to learn the facts and solve the mystery in a convincing way. That develops as I write.
In all the cases you have studied:- Which real criminal did you most despise and why?
There are so many! When I wrote The Secret Poisoner I was especially appalled by Richard Overfield who cruelly and cold-bloodedly murdered his baby so he wouldn’t have to support it, by giving it sulphuric acid. He was hanged in 1824.
Was there a real criminal that you admired the cunning of even if not their actual acts?
In cases of fraud there are many clever people who misuse their considerable talents for criminal purposes. Harry Benson and Willam Kurr who I wrote about in Fraudsters and Charlatans were extremely able career criminals who overreached themselves through greed.
Was there anyone you empathised with, or at least understood their motive to commit murder?
Of course I don’t approve of murder, but I did feel sorry for Eric Brown. (Essex Murders) He had suffered constant abuse and cruelty from his father for many years and seen his mother being led a life of terror and misery. He dealt his father a fast and merciful death by planting an anti tank mine under the old man’s wheelchair.
Did you come across anyone who was condemned, yet would have been acquitted as innocent if they had been tried today?
I tend to find that most failures of justice go the other way – people who are almost certainly guilty being acquitted due to insufficient evidence to convince a jury. In the case of Holloway and Haggerty, however (Middlesex Murders) two men were hanged for a murder it is almost certain they did not commit, on the false evidence of a man who was trying to get his own sentence reduced.
What has been your proudest author moment?
The publication of The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis. Between forming the determination to write the biography and actually holding it in my hands was eleven years. The first eight were spent trying to find someone who believed in the project as much as I did!
How long ago were you diagnosed with hyperacusis and has it dramatically affected your daily routine?
Hyperacusis is a condition usually resulting from noise damage or physical accident, in which everyday noises, especially if high pitched are painful. The sound of laughter, squeaking brakes, babies crying, electronic beeps, clattering dishware, are all examples. I have had hyperacusis for over twenty years but it took several years to get a diagnosis because it was not well understood or known about. At the time I was working in an office and general office noises and daily travel were hard to tolerate. I can’t wear earplugs all the time as over-wearing makes my tinnitus worse. Since I retired from the day job I have worked from home and been more in control of my daily environment, so life is better. If I go out I carry hearing protection, but even with that, social gatherings are difficult and some locations, especially noisy restaurants, are impossible. I wrote about hyperacusis in one of my novels, The Children of Silence.
What do you do to relax away from the world of writing about crime?
I love cooking, and in the last few years have taken up baking sourdough bread. The scent of a crusty loaf baking in one’s oven is magical!
What is next for Linda Stratmann?
I am near to completion of the fourth Mina book, The Ghost of Hollow House, in which she is asked to investigate a haunting. I have also been commissioned to edit a new volume in the Notable British Trials series, which is a huge honour.
Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to do the interview and I wish you every success with your ongoing and future projects.
‘The CWA is constantly expanding. So are the benefits we offer our members. Writing is a solitary occupation but we offer the chance to join regional chapters, attend our national conference, and receive an excellent monthly newsletter, Red Herrings – plus much more besides. Members value our various social media platforms, and the chance to promote their work to the large subscriber bases of the very popular Case Files and Crime Readers’ Association newsletter. But it’s the collegiate ethos of the CWA that remains its most valuable asset and benefit. In my 30 years of membership I’ve met many wonderful people, and made some very good friends. And their support, through good times and bad, is beyond price.
The CWA has changed a lot in the 64 years since it was founded by John Creasey. Although it is UK based the membership is international and is open to published crime writers, with provisional membership to writers who have a contract but whose book is not yet out: Full or Provisional Membership cost from £55 annually. There is also an option for associate membership for those in the publishing industry.
This does not mean that the aspiring crime writer has been forgotten.
We are keen to encourage new talent within the genre. The CWA is a professional organisation for professional writers, and others in the crime writing business, but – to take just two examples – the CWA Debut Dagger for unpublished novelists and CWA Margery Allingham Prize for new short stories both play an important part in encouraging and developing talent. We also have the CWA Criminal Critique service where, for fees beginning at £87 writers can receive professional feedback on, as yet, unpublished work.
The Crime Readers’ Association, which is free to join, was set up to make the authors, their works and events accessible to their readers. However, the new writer can pick up advice and tips, such as the Do’s and Dont’s when approaching a literary agent.’
Martin is very optimistic about the way the crime genre continues to evolve.
‘Digital publishing is changing the industry fast and nobody knows exactly what the future holds. But crime writing (fact as well as fiction) is as popular as ever. I’m a contemporary crime novelist, but I’ve been delighted by the revival of interest in classic crime fiction, and the truth is that the genre is a very broad church. So is the CWA.’
In light of all the changes that have happened in recent years within the publishing industry Martin views the future of the crime genre and the organisation in a very positive light.
‘I’m confident about the future of both crime writing and the CWA. Despite the fact that we have been around so long, today we have more members than ever before – and the number is rising all the time. That’s genuinely exciting. Writers face many challenges, not just when they are starting out, but throughout their careers, and the CWA is doing more and more to support them. I’ve also just appointed our first Libraries’ Champion and our first Booksellers’ Champion as we seek to collaborate with others for the benefit of all.’
Although the organisation is genre-specific Martin is keen to establish mutual links with other writing organisations within the industry.
‘Whilst the CWA is by definition genre-specific, I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and since becoming Chair I’ve initiated dialogue with a range of groups both here and overseas. A good example is our developing links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association, at both local and national level. Again, these relationships are mutually beneficial, and have great potential for all our members.’
Martin is a relatively new chair but he has already set many new goals to achieve during his tenure.
‘My aim is to oversee the modernisation and professionalization of the CWA, whilst remaining absolutely committed to its core traditional values of collegiality. Achieving this requires action on many levels – local, national, and international. We are modernising our infrastructure, strengthening our finances, recruiting more members here and overseas, and developing relationships with sponsors and other like-minded organisations. What we are seeing really is a quiet revolution, a radical one in some respects, but a process of making sure that the CWA and its members thrive in a challenging environment, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We don’t neglect our past – for instance, we’ve just launched the British Crime Writing Archives at the wonderful Gladstone’s Library, near Chester, with a weekend festival, Alibis in the Archives, that was such a success that we plan to repeat it next year. But we also look to the future – for instance, we’re starting to work with the ALCS, and looking at how we might contribute to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group. A huge amount remains to be done, but our continuing growth illustrates vividly that writers see a real need for the CWA, and are keen to be part of a forward-looking association that always strives to support and promote crime writing in general, and its members in particular, as well as encouraging new writers into the genre.’
When asked what advice Martin would give to new writers of crime he explains that he is a planner.
‘The great thing about writing is this – you can always improve what you have written. A plan works well for me – not everyone is the same, of course. But even the best laid plans are sometimes capable of being changed for the better. So far, I’ve never changed the original solution to any of my novels, but I’ve tinkered with many other elements of my stories.’
Martin Edwards’ eighteen novels include the Lake District Mysteries and the Harry Devlin series, and The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. He has edited thirty five crime anthologies, and won the CWA Short Story Dagger, CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and the Poirot Award. He is series consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, President of the Detection Club, and Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. His The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books was published in August.
I just had to ask you back when I realised that it was Alfie’s birthday, Rosemary!
It is now five years since I started the short story download arm of Alfie Dog Fiction. Over that time I’ve had the privilege to work with many hundreds of talented authors and read quite literally thousands of stories. For some well-established authors we are the publisher they turn to for republication of their stories, but we have also been responsible for launching the careers of many new writers and I don’t say that lightly. It has been a privilege to work on stories for talented authors who have gone on to be very successful, either with their stories or novels. Many have told us that we have helped them on the way, giving them direction in some cases and in others simply the confidence that their work is good.
We realised with the resources we had available that it was not possible to grow the site exponentially and, in reality, that wasn’t what our readers wanted. What readers wanted to see was new stories regularly, but in place of, rather than as well as, all the old ones. We’ve worked with authors to achieve this and in the recent submission window selected around 60 new stories which are going live on the site over the coming weeks. It will give us a current total of around 325 authors and 1600 short stories to choose between.
Another more recent development has been a number of our book titles being made into audio books. So far this has included four novels and one short story collection, but we’re looking at further titles being added to the selection shortly.
Over the five years, we’ve brought out quite a significant number of book titles and there are currently 34 out in paperback or ebook.
What will the next five years hold? It’s always hard to say. One of the beauties of being a small organisation is that we can change easily and take opportunities that are presented. We have more books due out in the coming months and more short stories. At the outset we created the site because we believed in the medium of the short story. That remains as true now as it did five years ago.
If you would like to help us celebrate then this is what will be happening:
June 11th: You are very welcome to join our fifth birthday then you will be very welcome to join our ‘On-line birthday party’. We will be having party games and there will be prizes. You may need to bring your own cake as that’s harder to send out over the internet! The party is on Sunday June 11th from 7pm to 9pm UK time and you can find it HERE
In previous blog posts I have looked at how to keep yourself fit for the task of writing thousands of words and then how to set realistic goals to achieve them. Before moving on to looking at the actual writing of the fiction, two factors play an important part in beginning and completing the process: inspiration and motivation.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
What motivates you to write fiction?
These two questions are asked to many authors and the answers may be as varied as the individuals who the questions are posed to.
I am constantly inspired by anything from a name, a newly learned and intriguing little known fact, a place that sparks an idea or a simple overheard statement. Inspiration is all around us, we just have to be open to it and use our imaginations to ask that simple question: “What if?”
Once inspired to write, then motivation kicks in to drive our effort so that the idea turns into a real manuscript. We can be both inspired and motivated at the same time by reading our favourite author’s work.
Here are a just a few common motivators:
To escape from reality into a world of our making that we may or may not share with others.
To earn money (realistically, this is not an easy industry to break into or make a liveble wage from.)
Whatever your inspiration, you need the motivation to keep going, learning and growing as a writer; going beyond rejection to reach that place of acceptance and becoming a published author.If you choose to write for your own enternment that is fine. Once published there are always those who will look upon your work negatively and leave reviews to say so. This should not stop you writing what you want to, but the choice and opportunity to become published does mean that you have to accept the positive and negative reviews alike. Ultimately we have to believe in what we do.
Learn from those who have done it and also from any of their early mistakes, so that you can avoid some of the common errors yourself. Accept that it is all part of undertsanding the business and put rejection and destructive criticism aside, which is why I share author interviews, whilst taking on board the constructive advice.
Once you are keen to begin your project, then set your realistic goals and be determined!
You can network at conferences, online and in local writing groups. Or invest in a reputable course, join in schemes such as The New Writers’ Scheme run by the Romantic Novelists’ Association and seek professional feedback.
Writing is a lonely business. I am often asked how can you teach a person to write a novel or short fiction. My answer is simple: imagination can be encouraged not taught. It has to spark from within the writer. However, there are common errors new writers make as they learn their craft that can be corrected. Every person, every student that I have had the pleasure of teaching over many years has been unique. Therefore, my feedback is always tailored to the individual. If you have a manuscript that you are working on at the moment, or have finished, and would like constructive, professional feedback on, then please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for a quote.
It is with great sadness and total shock that I have learnt that Carole died last night. She was an amazing lady and inspiration to many, myself included. My sincere condolences to her family, her many friends, colleagues and authors that she represented and respected so much. She will be greatly missed.
My guest this month is Carole Blake, a lady whose amazing career has taken her from working as a secretary in a packaging company to forming the incredibly successful London literary agency, Blake Friedmann. This journey involved becoming the first Rights Manager for Michael Joseph, then Marketing Director at Sphere, before starting up her own agency in 1977. Five years later she merged with Julian Friedmann’s Agency.
Throughout this time Carole has worked tirelessly to develop the careers of her authors and yet still found time to serve on many boards and institutions to contribute to the industry she loves so much. In 2013 Carole was the recipient of the Pandora Award for her ‘significant and sustained contribution to the publishing industry’.
Welcome, Carole! Did your childhood inspire and nurture your love of books?
My childhood home didn’t have many books, but I was always focussed on them & asked for them as presents. I can remember my first ever rag-books (made of a linen-like material) that I used to ‘read’ in the bath before I could actually read. I loved turning the pages and pretending. Once I could read, my early favourites were the Rupert books, which I still have, with my parents’ messages & dates written inside. When I was 8 I asked for a bookcase for my Christmas present. I got it (& only relinquished it when I moved house 8 years ago). I then set out to catalogue and categorise all the books I owned. I worked out a complicated system of letters and numbers and wrote them inside each book, then listed them all against their titles and authors. Very proud of it. Some years later when I discovered the Dewey System I was crushed. I had thought I was being entirely original!
Was it challenging for a woman in your early career to progress in the industry as you did?
I don’t remember it as difficult. I answered an advert in the Evening Standard, went for an interview & got the job. I commuted from Mitcham in Surrey to Marble Arch, & found myself – a working class girl, in a cotton dress and a white cardigan – working as a secretary to a team of university-educated art experts working on a multi-volume art encyclopedia. I kept a low profile, soaked up information like a sponge (including which pieces of cutlery to use when we went out to restaurants) and made friends there (50+ years ago) that I am still in touch with. It was literally a life-changing experience.
Who inspired you the most to keep moving forward? Are you naturally self-motivated to achieve?
The lovely people I worked with at Rainbirds, in my first job, were extremely encouraging. Working there for 8 years kick-started my life-long love of art. It introduced me to the classics (I compiled a company-wide order of Penguin paperbacks every few months. We could get a discount if we ordered 30 or more. Soon I stopped asking anyone else to mark up the Penguin stocklists, because I was ordering 30 at a time myself. I read my way through all the Russian and French novelists, and I remember crying on the no 16 bus as it went round Marble Arch because I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and found it unbearably sad. How nerdish is that for a teenager in the swinging 60s?
But later when I was marketing director of Sphere, Edmund Fisher fired me, quite rightly. I was running the marketing, publicity, rights and contracts departments and wasn’t juggling them very well. We were having a row – we had a very volatile relationship over the three companies and 12 years that I worked with him – and I was in the middle of resigning. When I realised he was firing me I withdrew my resignation and sued for wrongful dismissal. I knew he hadn’t followed all the right procedures (indeed he hadn’t followed any procedures at all!) and as I was a director, I was employed by Sphere’s then owners, Thomson Newspapers, so he didn’t actually have the right to fire me at all. I won, they settled out of court, and I discovered I had a list of authors who wanted to be represented by me if I started an agency. So I did. The fact that Edmund fired me was the best thing ever to happen to me. I would never have had the courage to ask someone to stop paying me if he hadn’t. No one in my family had ever started a company. If I hadn’t been out of work for 6 months, dealing with lawyers it would never have occurred to me to do so.
You are also encouraging new blood into the publishing industry through your associations with UCLA postgraduate publishing course. Is this something you feel passionate about as much as discovering new writing talent?
Given my start in the industry, remembering how kind people were, and aware that it’s a much more difficult area to get work in now I think the least I can do is to encourage and help others into a business that has given me such a wonderfully satisfying lifestyle. I’ve been associated with other postgraduate publishing courses as well, and am always happy to talk to people wanting to get into the book world.
I am the only person in my company who doesn’t have a degree; many of my staff have several. I didn’t have to go through the purgatory of unpaid internships, which I think are morally indefensible: we pay our interns properly.
Whenever I can I try to introduce people to others in the industry who can be of use to them. We have actually employed more than a dozen of our interns over the years – it’s so much more successful than a 40 minute interview. We also have an annual get-together of all our past staff, past interns. It’s officially known as networking but we all know it’s a great gossip-fest. So great to see where people have moved on to. You might have heard of the singer Dido? She was my assistant for 4 years and was an ace at selling serial rights!
Her parents were both publishers. I work with her mother at Rainbirds in the 60s, sold books to her father when he was running Sidgwick decades later. He and I used to lunch together and regarded ourselves as in-laws while she was working for me. When she resigned ‘to spend more time on her music’ I gave her a very motherly speech. ‘Can’t guarantee to keep your job open Dido.’ I don’t think she’s ever wanted to come back to publishing again …
I do quite a lot of public speaking – at literary festivals, conferences (I’m an honorary vice-president of the RNA, a member of the HNS) and I teach a course on how to sell rights. I’ve been a board member of The Book Trade Charity, and its Chairman, and President over many years and am now a Patron.
Your guide ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is widely used throughout the publishing industry. How much of a challenge has it been to update it?
An extreme challenge, as you can tell from the fact that I’ve not managed to deliver it yet. It took Boxtree (later to become an imprint of Macmillan) several years to persuade me to agree to write it in the first place. And then I renegotiated the delivery date several times, in order not to be in breach of contract (how embarrassing would that have been for a literary agent?). Same has happened with the contracted update/new edition. My agency is SO much bigger & busier than it was when I delivered the original manuscript – 20 years ago! – and so much has changed. I now know what I want to write, what I need to update, what I need to add … but time is the enemy. My editor at Macmillan (a friend) is understanding … up to a point. I now so want to have this new manuscript behind me. There are so very many more ways to promote a book now (social media?!) and I am now writing it but in such small spaces of time.
You represent many of my favourite authors, but two especially. Could you share with us what it was that you loved so much about ‘Lady of Hay’ and the amazing Barbara Erskine? Likewise, when Elizabeth Chadwick’s first manuscript arrived on your desk did you instantly realise that you had found gold?
Two authors very close to my heart: both are good friends.
Barbara Erskine: I was already representing her short stories. She wrote many, and magazine editors around the world would line up for them. We had talked about an unusual novel she was thinking about writing. Two time periods, linked. We talked about it for a long time: years. I remember saying at the outset that it would be vital that every time, at the end of each chapter, the reader was required to move from present to past, from past to present, it must be a wrench. Each time period must be equally compelling, and hard to leave or the novel would be broken backed. Oh my … did she deliver. But although publishers and editors always ask for something new, a fresh voice – they always actually want something that is recognisable. I submitted the partial manuscript for 4 years. ‘I don’t know if it’s a contemporary novel, or a historical?’ Me: it’s both. ‘I don’t know if it’s a love story or a mystery?’ Me: it’s both. Every editor who arrived in a new job found the manuscript on their desk. When Maggie Pringle arrived at Michael Joseph in 1983, she read it, loved it, & recognised it as something fresh and new and exciting, and she was allowed to buy it even though it had been rejected twice by other Michael Joseph editors over the years. They auctioned paperback rights back then and it set a record for the highest paperback advance for a British first novel. This summer it celebrated 30 years continuously in print – quite something for a commercial novel. And it’s in print in many other languages too. In 2017 it will be celebrated for its 30th anniversary in German.
Barbara and I are friends. We’ve worked together for so long: we have even been on holiday together. That Nile cruise will never be forgotten. The only holiday that I’ve ever got a holiday-tie-in best-seller novel from – ‘Whispers in the Sand’! Barbara always stays with me at home when she’s in London overnight.
Elizabeth Chadwick: the early chapters of ‘The Wild Hunt’ arrived in the late 80s in a brown envelope – back in the days when submissions were made on paper, via snailmail. And back in the days when I opened my own mail every morning at my desk. I read it as soon as I opened the envelope and knew there was something very special in my hand. A few weeks later I had sold it, via auction, to hardback and paperback publishers (back in the days before publishers always published in both formats themselves.)
‘The Wild Hunt’ won a Betty Trask award, and Prince Charles was the person giving out the prizes for The Society of Authors that year. That was quite a memorable evening!
As with Barbara, this led to publishing success and a long and on-going friendship. Elizabeth stays with me when she’s in London too, and we often talk into the small hours.
I think it is unfair to ask you which are your favourite books or authors, but of all the novels you have read are there a few characters that really stayed with you? If so, why?
There’s no way I could choose between novels by my clients – I represent them all because they are so original, and so special. It would be like asking a mother to choose between her children! Not that I think of my best-selling authors are children for one moment. But the novels – apart from those written by my clients – that always stay with me are Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (I finished it on a no 16 bus going round Marble Arch roundabout in the late 60s, crying my eyes out), and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A haunting work.
You have travelled extensively in your work, but where do you enjoy going to relax and explore?
Italy, always Italy. I go for art, music, food (and Negronis!), shopping. Venice, in particular if I had to pin it down more narrowly. I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical earlier this year and I spent 5 weeks in Italy: Florence, Siena, Padua, Mantua, Venice. Absolutely heaven.
Is it your love of detail that first led you to becoming a collector of dolls’ houses and miniatures (OOAK)? Where did this begin? How is the collection growing?
I’ve always loved houses, furniture, interior decoration. My home is full now so miniatures are the way I buy furniture. I dare not add up the number of miniatures I own … they are stored in many boxes, and I’ve had to forbid myself to buy more until I’ve finished building the 5 floor Regency house which will be taller than me. And I’m forbidden to do any more work on that until I’ve delivered my next book. In addition to that house, I have a Georgian hand made one that I bought already finished. That is fully furnished. I also own an antiquarian bookshop which I made from a kit. Every book is real; they can be opened and read (with a magnifying glass). Most of them are miniature copies of real antique illustrated books that I buy from a particular maker whose work I really admire. I have more than 1000. And I have two more kits to build – they are going to become a row of shops. And then there is the greenhouse, and a conservatory, both full of flowers. My favourite collection though is mouth-blown cranberry glass. Five (miniature) cabinets full so far. The most satisfying thing I achieved myself, was laying a floor of terracotta tiles. Real tiles, 1:12 scale. Laying the tiles was easy: the grouting was murder, the air blue!
What other interests do you enjoy away from the world of publishing?
Early music – I still buy cds because I enjoy the booklets. I’ve got about 5000, all stored on a hard drive and easy to find. But I also like Meat Loaf (that’s Elizabeth Chadwick’s fault!). Art – I always make time to go to exhibitions. I find cooking very therapeutic, and always have freezers-full of home cooked food. I enjoy a variety of crafts – I make greetings cards, keep scrapbooks, make jewellery (I have 1000s of beads, and like to buy them on my travels), and I love taking photographs (check out my 56 Pinterest boards, and my Instagram posts!). I took 8000 photographs during the 5 weeks in Italy. And of course reading. I read a lot of non-fiction for relaxation as a change from the fiction that I work with. I love history, memoir, African wildlife (I’ve been to Africa on safari many times). And I collect books about the publishing industry. I’ve recently taken up knitting and crochet again. But there’s not a lot of time to fit these in around work!
You have achieved a great deal in your career, but what is next for Carole Blake?
I’ve got to make time to finish the new book. Then I can get back to (miniature) house building …
Thank you for the fascinating insight into your career and for sharing some personal photographs of your lovely miniature worlds!
London barrister and gentleman, Jerome Fender, has just returned to England after five years as a Captain in the killing fields of the Napoleonic Wars.
With the harrowing scenes of battle still haunting his every thought, he sets out to start a new life and to find a wife who will share it with him.
Meanwhile recently orphaned 21-year-old Miss Parthena Munro has also arrived at a North Yorkshire market town.
She has been sent away by her scheming sole relative, cousin Bertram, to be governess to a local family, only to find that the family has already moved away from the area.
Left stranded far from home with no job and no place to stay, Parthena encounters Mr Fender outside an inn, where she takes a chance to steal his money in a witless moment of desperation.
She whispers a promise to return the money one day and makes off across the wild Yorkshire moors.
But it’s not long before Fender catches up with her.
However, on learning of her plight they set out on a plan to seek justice against the wrongs plotted by Bertram.
With Jerome’s help, Parthena returns to her home to the great surprise of Bertram, who, thinking that Parthena, the rightful heir to the estate, was now out of the way, was about to clear his debts by selling the family estate.
Jerome endeavours to hatch a new plan to thwart Bertram, but Parthena’s rightful inheritance can only fall to her if she marries within the month.
Parthena and Jerome discover the flame of love has been kindled between them, but is it already too late?
I am delighted to welcome Jan Jones as my guest this month. Jan is not only an amazing writer of romantic fiction but the organiser of many successful Romantic Novelists’ Association Conferences.
Hi Jan – thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to complete the interview. This year’s conference at Lancaster University was, amazing, as usual. The speakers were from all sections of the industry. How have you seen the event change and grow since you became the organiser?
Since 2005 when I took over as organiser, the conference has grown from just over a hundred residential delegates to over two hundred. We’ve also increased the number of choices, added extra Sunday afternoon sessions and offer a Thursday pre-conference arrival.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association is a very supportive organisation. When did you join it and make your first break into print?
I first joined during the 1980s when I was writing magazine stories, took a break, rejoined in 1994, then made the breakthrough from NWS to full in 2005.
Your career began in mathematics and computing, so when did you realise that you were a writer at heart?
Oh, I’ve always known that, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to live on it. Computer programming was a much more bankable skill.
Do you prefer to write long or short fiction, YA or adult, historical or contemporary?
All of them. I have a dreadfully low boredom threshold. I like the variety and challenge of writing different forms and genres. As to length, I think when you first get the germ of an idea, you know what sort of size the story will be. When writing serials I have to squash the story into a few compact episodes, so it is an immense relief to then expand it to the length it always should have been and self-publish it.
Do you have a strict writing regime and work ethic?
Erm, no. I’d like to, but life keeps getting in the way. I just write whenever I can. Late at night is good, because everything is quiet and I don’t have the sense of having left chores undone. I try to only have one project on the go at one time, but I generally have two or three in various stages. There are very few points during the day when I’m not thinking about whatever the current piece of work is. The worst time for me is during RNA Conference preparations. I can’t keep a book in my head as well as all the conference arrangements, so I have to completely stop writing at the end of April and not pick the book up again until July. The upside is that by then, I’ve forgotten how much I hated it!
That is a long time for preparation. No wonder the conferences are such a success. What was the best piece of advice you were given as a new writer?
That everyone has something useful to teach you and that you never stop learning. What I worked out for myself was to believe in my own voice, to dare to be different, and to never give up.
What inspired The Penny Plain Mysteries?
I came across a strange jigsaw when I was clearing my mother’s bungalow that gave rise to the first Penny Plain story, but as for where the characters came from, I have no idea. I think all writers have people lying dormant in their subconscious, just waiting for the right setting.
What are you working on now?
I have recently got the rights back for the three Regency novels published by Hale, so I am revising them ready to self-publish. I am enjoying it tremendously – it’s just like meeting old friends and falling in love with them all over again.
I love that description. So what is next for Jan?
Keep on keeping on! At the last count I had something like nineteen projects waiting for my attention, ranging from finished novels to be done-something-with to tantalising germs of ideas with half-a-dozen lines of notes to anchor the thoughts in place.
Good luck and I wish you every success with them. Thanks for sharing some of your writing experience and world.
Laura’s story begins fifteen years after the fire that nearly destroyed Ebton in To Love Honour and Obey. 1820 Ebton, England.
Laura Pennington’s parents think it is time for her to marry, but they are concerned. She likes to take long walks by herself, and doesn’t quite fit in. Laura’s father, Obadiah, thinks local mill owner Daniel Tranton is the perfect husband for Laura, so he suggests marriage to Daniel while working on a business deal.
Daniel is not keen, but does not want to lose Pennington’s business. He is not sure what to do, as he has his hands full with disgruntled mill workers. Daniel has always treated his workers well, but that is the exception, not the rule.
A new problem arises, when Jeb, a young boy who works for Daniel’s cousin Roderick, runs away from the mill where he works. Daniel, not wanting to see him captured and beaten by the local louts who enforce the law, tries to track him down. He finds Laura hiding Jeb, who she stumbled upon while out on one of her walks.
Roderick has his henchman Mr Bullman hunting for Jeb as Laura hides him at her father’s boat house.
Checking on him one morning, Laura sees the boat is gone, but it’s seeing her father stepping out from the hotel he owns that shocks her the most.
For all his efforts to make Laura a lady, it seems Mr. Pennington is not a gentleman.
With the hint of revolution in the air, will Daniel and Laura find a love worth fighting for?
Laura’s Legacy is a historical tale of romance and family strife in a past world.