Catching up with M.A. Nichols!

Welcome back, Melanie!

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Since your Sept 2020 interview, when the UK thought Covid was on its way out – we have had two further lockdowns – how did you fare in the States?

I live in a sparsely populated state, so my experience is certainly different from a lot of others. My city had a couple of lockdowns, but at this point, it feels like a lifetime ago.

Did you make it back to the UK for your research trip?

I did! I recently made the transition to full-time author and said goodbye to my day job. A few weeks after that, I flew out to the UK and spent two months traipsing around the country. I’ve visited a couple of times before, but I really wanted to spend a lot of time there, immersing myself in the history. There are so many amazing estates to tour and museums to see, all of which have information and experiences I can’t get from studying books.

Congratulations on making this the full-time day job.  What lovely historic sites did you visit?

I spent one month based in London, but then hopped the train out for day trips to Bath, Bristol, York, Plymouth, and a handful of other places. Then, I spent the second month moving all over the place, spending time in the West Country, the Midlands, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

What in particular inspired you?

If I were to share all the things that inspired me, I’d end up writing an essay. This was my second major research trip to the UK, and every time I find so many details and historical titbits that spark ideas. If I had to list some of the most inspiring things I did, I would say the Plymouth Historic Dockyards, the Royal Opera House Tour (and going to see a couple of performances there), the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane Tour, the London Canal Museum (and tunnel boat tour), the National Railway Museum, and…if I don’t stop now, I’ll end up listing every museum I visited.

And all the amazing ruins… *sigh*

Of course, the historic estates, houses, townhouses, and the like are super important for my research. I took over 11,000 photos and hundreds of pages of notes, most of which are all the little details I find when I’m wandering those historic properties. The sights, sounds, smells, and all the other possible descriptions that can later be used. I’m not a very visual person when I’m imagining my stories and don’t generally see clear, vivid pictures in my head, so I use those photos to help me design and describe my books’ locations.

Oh, and in a very real way, that trip inspired a scene in my latest book, “To Have and to Hold.” I needed a picnic scene, and I had visited quite a few ruins on this trip. I ended up creating a fake one (since the area in which my book is set didn’t have any readily available ruins that suited my needs), which was an amalgamation of two ruins I’d visited.

I love the new cover designs – what was their inspiration?

Honestly, part of the inspiration was that I wanted a style that would be easy to manipulate. Swapping out the model’s head or hands or some other feature can look weird if not done right, so adding the watercolour style over the top makes it easier to Frankenstein an image together from different bits and make it look uniform. Not to mention, finding male historical stock photos can be difficult, and even when you do, I think they often look slovenly or not period accurate. With this style I can use historic paintings for their bodies. For example, on “The Shameless Flirt,” the male torso is actually from a painting and the head is from a stock photo.

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But also, I just really love it. I spent months playing with different ideas and styles, and one day, I stumbled upon some stock photos that someone had manipulated into looking like a painting. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos on how to do it, experimented a ton, and came up with the style.

Have they proved successful?

Depends on what you define as successful. Financially, they haven’t helped my sales, and in some ways, I worry that they may have hurt them a little. While being unique seems like a good thing, a common bit of advice to cover designers is that you don’t want to do that. If a book looks too different from the rest of the genre, it may turn off readers. So, yeah. I worry about it.

Artistically, I love them, and I’m so proud of the work I did on them. It was a massive effort to get them to where they are, and I have no interest in changing them again. And while some fans say they like the old ones better, most love them, too.

And they definitely fulfil the original purpose that inspired me to make the change in the first place. They’re more work, but I have a lot more artistic freedom when it comes to the base photos I use.

I think they look fresh and attractive!

I was recently at the Historical Novel Association conference in the ancient city of Durham and the question of how much time authors spend on social media came up. Do you think of social media as a friend or foe?

A bit of both. Personally, I’m not a fan of social media. I don’t use them in my personal life at all anymore because I prefer personal contact. But as an author, I use it all the time. I don’t view it as a marketing platform in which I can find new readers but as a place in which I can connect with my readers and fans. One of my favourite things to do is sharing behind the scenes info or research titbits. All those little things that are interesting to me an author but never made it onto the pages of my books.

It is a bit of a chore for me at times to come up with content, but I’ve developed a system that works for me.

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How do you split your time between research/writing/ marketing?

I write every work day. Or I try to. I need an outline before I can write, and that isn’t always ready when I’m sitting down to start for the day. Generally, that takes up 3-4 hours a day. Then I spend the afternoon editing, outlining, researching, and any other prep work so that the next day I can sit down and write.

Generally, I do my marketing in the evening. A lot of it is stuff I can do while watching TV, so I’ll take my laptop down to the couch and relax while I input stats, work on my ads, or create social media content. This isn’t something I do every day. I’ve always heard that the best marketing is putting out a new book, and I ascribe to that mentality. I do a few traditional marketing things, but I try to keep it to a minimum and focus on creating new stories.

Researching is something I try to fit in wherever I can. Sometimes it happens as I’m writing or creating an outline, when I realize I need to know something. But often, I’m just always trying to watch documentaries, read books, listen to podcasts, and learn stuff I don’t know that I don’t know. You can’t learn it all, but I try to keep learning new things because I never know what’s going to spark an idea.

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What are you currently working on?

I’m writing my first Christmas novel, “The Christmas Wish.” It’s part of my Victorian Love series, and I’m outlining my next project, which will be my first novella. I’ve wanted to try my hand at shorter stories because I have some ideas that just won’t work in a longer format, and I think now is the time to do it. I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to be because I have a lot of ideas right now, but we’ll see. I don’t always know what I’m going to write next until right before I need to start writing the 1st draft.

What is next?

Now that I’m writing full-time, I’ve put together a pretty amazing publishing schedule. I’m alternating between novels and novellas, and the plan is to publish 4 novels and 4-5 novellas in 2023. While I am focused on Regency & Victorian right now, I would like to branch into historical western romance sometime in the near future. And maybe a bit of historical paranormal romance maybe…

What can I say? I’m an eclectic reader, and I like writing in different genres. I started off in fantasy and would love to do more with it.

You are certainly inspiring. I wish you every continued success with all your projects.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do the interview.

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“Man traps, beware!”

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Micah, the charismatic hero of Secrets, encounters a man trap and saves a young lad from a terrible fate as the jaws snap shut.

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Godalming Museum

These devices were cruel, vicious deterrents that were set in the ground and when the central plate was pressed the jaws clamped shut, maiming the unsuspecting trespassers. 

Micah swung a leg over a fallen tree trunk, but then, as the metal’s edge caught his eye, he froze. He saw the danger and the notion of his peaceful village suddenly dispersed – man traps, never before had he seen such things around Dibbledale. The woodland had always been open to all.” 

Man traps have been used since the 18th century as the amount of what had been common ground or shared woodland began to be increasingly enclosed by unscrupulous and greedy landowners. 

Private landowners saw no reason to share the game that lived on the land with the ‘common folk.’ The 19th century progressed but so did poverty – rapidly, and many families struggled. Large pieces of what had previously been common land, free for all to graze their flocks and hunt on had been enclosed into private estates.

The Napoleonic Wars with France had incurred huge costs which had been passed on through taxation and by raising the cost of basic foods. Men had left to fight so their homes, wives and children had to cope alone. These were desperate times.

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Man traps were cheaper than employing additional gamekeepers and were perfectly legal. The only proviso being that signs should be posted about the traps, or anyone injured could claim compensation. However, this aspect was not widely publicised, and it was hardly affective when literacy was rare.

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Hunger motivated poaching gangs, breaking the law to feed their own families, and selling excess on. This upscaling of illegal activity meant landowners were more aware of the losses than they would have been with only occasional rabbits or birds disappearing. 

Man traps were an inhumane method of control, which could maimed and sometimes killed their victims. Easily disguised by putting leaves, twigs, or grass over them so that any foot, hoof or paw would spring the trap shut.

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Ryedale Museums

They generally had a central plate with toothed jaws that would be held back by a spring until triggered when they would come together with considerable force leading to a bloodthirsty and gruelling result.

They were made illegal in 1827. Following this ‘humane’ man traps were created. A hole was dug, and the trap placed in it. These were then covered with suitable undergrowth. They still had a central plate, but the jaws were no longer toothed. No doubt it was not without pain, but it did not maim as it would previously. These had to be unlocked by the gamekeeper who had the key, but I imagine, extraordinarily little sympathy was given to the poacher who was then caught and sentenced. 

The Friends and Foes series, for lovers of romantic adventures is now available on Amazon and #KindleUnlimited. Just click here to take a peek!

The ‘Wise-Woman’ and her place in history!

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In the days before communities were served through the NHS with a local doctor or even before that with a doctor who had to be paid for his services there existed ‘Wise-Women’ otherwise known as folk-healers, or what we would call early midwives.

These women became synonymous with ‘witches’ and many suffered after the renaissance through the persecution of witchcraft. This in part was justified by their use of lucky or healing charms, amulets and crosses made of Rowan, to ward off evil. Ironic really as they used natural, God-given cures that they should have been accused of dancing with the devil.

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 “…she never was a witch. She never traded potions, poisons, or spells; she was just a wise woman who knew how to survive off the land. She believed in a god, whether it was the God or a greater spirit, or a mother of all the earth, but her instincts were acute.” Mary Underwood in ‘Secrets’

However, ‘Wise-Women’ deserve a place of their own in history. They aided their communities since the Middle Ages and could often be held in some regard and notoriety. Which is perhaps why they were so heavily hunted by radicals in the Reformation. When their ‘patient’ died opinion could turn against them quickly. Mary Underwood describes her grandmother’s life in Ireland to her daughter Imogen:

“She lived in a small cottage with a peat fire. It was not as comfy as this one, but I loved it. She was full of tales, and she knew how to read the seasons, use the plants, see beyond the obvious and I so wanted to be like her. The local folk used her potions, asked about what they should do – she was wise and kind. She even knew her letters and taught me as I have taught you.” Secrets

Medicine, in its early development took place in cities and towns and was purely the province of men. The term ‘doctor’ was not used for people who healed outside of universities until the 19th century.

In the rural parts of the UK, healing was down to these ‘wise-women’. They were people who would create remedies from things in the local landscape: plants, animals, water and minerals such as salt.

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Hence, vicar’s wife Ruth Arrow’s comments, that lingered with her son Micah:

“Micah’s mother had forbidden him to ever go near the Underwoods, the ‘wise woman’ who used plants to heal. They were considered ungodly ways…”

Traditionally the cures were passed down from mother to daughter and the results shared with the local community.

As scientific knowledge of the human body was very limited, these cures sometimes became known as charms or spells. Terminology that later became very dangerous for these women.

Even when being a ‘doctor’ became a paid job, in the rural areas the citizens would still turn to the local ‘wise-woman’. She could be paid through a barter system and was trusted – until something went wrong!

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These practises continued into the rural areas until into the twentieth century and the advent of the NHS to varying degrees. The practitioners ran the risk of being turned upon by those they treated. This could mean being isolated or being physically attacked.

Just as in today’s homeopathic treatments, many of the old ‘cures’ would be able to help common ailments, particularly when diets were much more limited than they are today.

You can read Mary’s story in Secrets, available on Kindle and KindleUnlimited.

Catch up with Sunday Times bestselling, award winning romance author, Sue Moorcroft!

Welcome back, Sue!

Thanks very much for inviting me, Val.

The last time we chatted was back in 2016 when you had made some monumental decisions as to what you were doing with your writing/tutor time.

You were setting out new goals for the future. Now the future is here: what has worked and, if anything, what did not?

Things have gone very well. I have to pinch myself, sometimes. Since I began working with my agent, Juliet Pickering of Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, everything has taken off. I’ve been with Avon HarperCollins for ten books, with more in the pipeline, and I’m published in about fourteen other languages and territories. I’ve been to number 1 in the Kindle UK chart, I’m a Sunday Times bestseller, and I’ve been in the Top 100 US Kindle chart and the Top 50 in Germany.

There have been challenges and setbacks along the way, of course, but I can’t think of anything that ‘didn’t work’. Although I continue to write a few short stories and two-parters, I’ve achieved my ambition of living on the earnings from my novels.

Huge congratulations, but also it is success that is well deserved!

Covid has affected everyone, directly or indirectly. How have you coped with lockdowns and keeping healthy?

I’m lucky that I have a garden and I live near a park. I’ve been able to continue writing because it means going to another place in my head every day, where people hug and kiss and mix freely. That’s not a bad state of mind in which to spend fifty or sixty hours each week. I’ve stuck to the guidelines and kept healthy, thank you. On the downside, my classes at the gym have collapsed, I haven’t seen some of my best friends for ages and I haven’t been able to go abroad. But I’ve been much more comfortably circumstanced than many so I live the best life I can.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed the edits for my winter book, Under the Mistletoe, which is set in ‘my’ village of Middledip and features Laurel who left the village when she was sixteen but now has to go back. The reason she left is still living in the village. I’m also in the middle of the first draft of my summer 2022 book. It’s set in France, which I chose because I’ve set a book there before and have my photos and memories for reference. A big park features heavily which, funnily enough, bears quite a resemblance to the one I walk around several times a week. The book’s about blended families and cybercrime. The cybercrime element is stretching my powers of understanding …

What goals do you have for the next five years?

Keep writing, keep selling – and hope I can sell more!

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Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times bestselling author, has reached the #1 spot on Kindle UK and top 100 in the US. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Published by HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by other publishers around the world.

The beautiful abbey ruins of North Yorkshire… 

The beautiful abbey ruins of North Yorkshire 

Henry VIII is perhaps most infamously remembered for his treatment of his six wives. However, this king changed a nation by separating his country from the power of the Roman Catholic church and proclaiming himself head of the Church of England, in 1534.  Two years later the Reformation in England took a more profitable turn for Henry as a destructive and brutal phase began with the dissolution of the monasteries.  

North Yorkshire has many majestic reminders of the magnificent abbeys that once served and dominated local rural life: Rievaulx, Whitby, Fountains, Byland, Ampleforth and Mount Grace Priory to name a few. 

These are fascinating ‘places of interest’. They inspired many during the years they were inhabited and – in a non-pandemic year – are visited by many people now who soak in their history and sense of peace that their lovingly tended sites exude. 

Life in days gone by can be easily imagined; both harsh and cold and yet their lives encouraged selfless devotion whilst supporting their local community.   

Often constructed in beautiful rural surroundings of agricultural land, woods and moors. They would grow crops and raise animals to feed themselves and create profit from a trade, the land they owned and tenancies. The monasteries owned a quarter of the cultural land within the country – a vast wealth and Henry was a man who needed to fund his own lifestyle and wars. 

Their majestic ruins have influenced and inspired some of the scenes with in my novels such as Georgina’s escape in Betrayal, Beth’s and Willoughby’s earnest discussion under the arches of Whitby Abbey in To Love Honour and Obey or Wilson’s hiding place in Dead to Sin. 

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In my most recent novel ‘Betrayal’ Lydia Fletcher is part of a rescue of her friend within the grounds of one such building: 

 The monastery’s stone walls slowly emerged before her – a testament to their ancestors’      achievements and faith. This sanctified place once filled with holy praise, was now losing the fight against the ravages of time as they crumbled back to the earth. Encased within the lush undergrowth it had not been revered for centuries. 

In the novel the ruins are being used by a band of smugglers who dress as the monks of old to keep the superstitious locals away. 

Between the old arches of the ivy clad fallen parapets, moving smoothly through the distant mist, was the distinctive figure of a monk, the ghostly habit covered by a dark hooded cape. Kell looked to see what had caught Jeremiah’s attention.  

“Souls of monks, long gone… they got no truck with us… so dig!” he ordered. Kell stared at him. Both Lydia and Jeremiah watched the monk disappear once more into the forest. The boy’s mouth hung open as the shovel fell from his hand. 

The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 consisted of 30000 strong rebel army from the north demanding that the abbeys be reopened. They were promised a pardon and a parliament on York, but once they disbanded their leaders were executed. In 1539 the larger monasteries also fell. Those monks who would not conform were also executed. 

The abbeys were hugely important to the life of the people in the area. Their battered walls and fallen arches are now preserved for all to discover and admire. 

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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

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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 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 prolific author, Paula R C Readman!

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Welcome, Paula

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I have two projects in the pipeline.  A follow-on novel to my novella, The Funeral Birds, a tale about a failing detective agency run by Dave Cavendish and his side kick, a sixteenth century witch called Granny Wenlock who’s his ancestor. 

The follow –on novel, As the Crow Flies I’ll be exploring more of Granny’s background as well as giving the characters a new case to solve. The novel allows me to bring together two interesting timelines. My problem at the moment is how to make the flow of the plot work as the timelines shift.

My second project is a 7k short story for Black Hare Press Alice 13. It is thirteen different stories, in thirteen different genres all featuring Alice from Wonderland. I’ve written the plot idea, a synopsis and the first four pages. The deadline is allowing me plenty of time to think about it.

As my new novel is flowing nicely I want to focus on that for a little while before finishing my Alice story.       

 That sounds fascinating! Your work crosses different genres. Which came first?

I’ve always loved a good mystery. I think my love of mysteries comes from my love of history. At school I loved learning about ancient history.  We can only imagine how different the world must have been to our ancient ancestors. We know how most things work as science has shown us the key to all life, but to the people in the past it was a real mystery.

A mystery in fiction can cover a wide range of genre from romance to crime novels. I don’t write romance, but I do enjoy writing a wide range of genre from gothic ghost stories to Sci-fi tales.   

 Do you switch from one project to another to stay fresh?

All the time. When one deadline appears on the horizon I will stop and focus on that one and complete it. It gives you the break you need to see any typos, plot failures or weaknesses as well as sparking fresh ideas. When I return to a project I re-read the whole of it before writing more.      

 Do you plan out a story first with a detailed synopsis or work organically, allowing the plot to develop on the page.

A bit of both really. I normally have an idea of the beginning and the ending, so it’s a case of getting from A to B in the most interesting way. With books, I tend to create a paragraph of the overall plot and work out who is the best person to tell the story. My synopsis is written once I’m half way through writing the first draft. You can’t know your full plot until you’ve written the first draft because everything is very fluid when you initially start. 

 Do you begin with an idea of the plot, a character, a setting or does it vary depending upon genre?

I normally write a rough plot idea down, and then work out who my main character will be, along with the setting, timeline whether it is a short story or novel. Once I have the opening paragraph then I’m up and running. As the plot line develops so I add new characters and write up their background. I keep adding important information to a file like the type of car my main character is driving, hair and eye colour etc. I don’t spend time writing a detailed background sheet before starting because none of it may be of relevance to my storyline.   Do I really need to know what school my serial killer went to in my 5k word short story before writing it unless it is relevant to the plot?

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

My best time for writing is just after I’ve woken up. My mind is fresh and sharp and I can get quite a bit written. New ideas flow easier and I can pick up typos too. My husband is normally up early for work, so I’m at my keyboard at 4.00 in the morning.

 That is really impressive! Do you ever write real life experiences into your work?

All writers do through their emotions. No experience whether good or bad is wasted as it all feeds into our writing whether we like it or not. For our characters to be three dimensional we need to use all of our life experiences, which have made us rounded people to create them.  

What was your hardest scene to write?

I wrote a short story called The Meetings which tells of two people meeting in a park. The narrator is the park keeper.  Through him we learn about the couple, but there’s a twist. It touched a real nerve with me as I wrote it not long after my father passed away.

The story was rejected by People’s Friend Magazine but went on to become an overall winner in a writing competition.

How long on average does it take you to write a book or novella?

Oh goodness, how long is a piece of string? Too long in some cases, right? I have eight novels sitting on my computer in various stages of completion. Since I have been writing over 18 years and have only had three books published I’m not 100% sure how long each novel has taken to write. Stone Angels took me six years in total and then another eight months of editing.  In those six years, I lost my mum and life got a little crappy too.  My novella took a week to write but sat on my computer for a long time until the right submission call out came along. 

How have you coped with life in the pandemic?

Quite well. I was already in self-isolation as I was busy editing. So I’ve just continued doing what I was doing. My husband and I are missing travelling to Whitby for the Goth Festivals and I didn’t get my book launch I always dreamt of doing. Unfortunately, I lost two dear friends last year which dampened my excitement at seeing my work published.   

I so miss travelling in North Yorkshire and Whitby in particular. I wish you every success, Paula, with all of your projects and look forward to learning of your next publishing deal.

Meet historical fiction author, Elizabeth Bailey

I am really delighted to invite my fellow Sapere Books author, Elizabeth Bailey, as my guest this month.

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Welcome, Elizabeth!

My first question has to be where did your love of storytelling and writing begin?

My father read to us and my older sister made up stories for my brother and me, thus fostering an early interest in literature. I can’t remember when stories were not part of my life. Difficult to recall when I began to write them. In school, for festivals, and for pleasure.

My first fairy tale featured a hero who had to rid the lake of a plague of giant spiders in order to win the princess – hence romance. But the darker side was there too in an epic tragi-poem of a sailor who murders the mermaid who loves him. Shades of the future there?

There is a touch of horror in there for me too – spiders!

Do you find switching between the two very different genres of romance and crime keeps your writing fresh?

To be honest, I don’t switch much. I’m either writing romances one after another, or mysteries ditto, whatever happens to be driving the bread and butter. I contributed to anthologies with five other authors, producing a string of Regencies which became the Brides by Chance Regency Adventures. My Lady Fan mysteries had languished when I lost my first publisher. When Sapere picked them up, I began a feverish assault on those and haven’t swapped back yet. I write the occasional snippet of something completely different when the mood strikes.

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You touch on the paranormal in some novels, is this an area of research that you find fascinating?

I am absolutely sold on the supernatural. Powers above the norm, which I believe we all possess if we can access them. Telepathy is everywhere. You think of someone out of the blue and then they ring you up. Magic. Saying which, I was hooked on the Harry Potter series and I’m a sucker for fairy tales. As for past lives, we have all lived many times before. Far too much proof for doubt. One of my paranormals is based on an incident from one of my own past lives. I have no truck with the prevalent one-life belief!

That is fascinating. I admire your certainty.

In the ‘Lady Fan Series’ your protagonist is a woman who has to overstep the conventions of a lady in her day. This is a difficult challenge for an author and is a factor I also try to balance. How do you enable her to complete her investigations in a credible way for the period?

This is why I gave her Lord Francis. He is both husband and champion, her protector, and he can go where Ottilia can’t. If she does venture where ladies don’t, she is always accompanied by a stout male guardian – Francis or her Barbadian steward. Nevertheless, she still gets into dangerous situations. Her medical lore is gained from helping her brother doctor Patrick, with whom she lived for years before her launch into solving murders.

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Her background is “the middling sort” – genteel but not moving in the first circles. She observes the aristocratic milieu she is now in with an outsider’s eye, and she is free of the shibboleths governing the behaviour of ladies in that strata. That’s why she oversteps the bounds of convention, relying on her status for impunity. She has married into the elite where eccentricity is tolerated. In other words, she gets away with it!

Writing a series with recurring characters means that they have to continue to grow and develop with each new novel. How do you keep track of their biographies so that this development is consistent?

Wow, I have no idea! Every story has its own “bible” with cast, places, etc and snippets of potential plot, all of which I add to as I go along. The basics are copied into the new bible for a new book. If I’m missing one, I get it from an old bible. I probably ought to keep a spreadsheet, but I know I’d never manage to keep it up! I’ve always written this way – a cast/plot document and a text document, plus research docs, discarded text in a temp doc in case I need to retrieve it.

How I keep track is a mystery, but I do. So far. The characters who keep coming back are a fistful really. When other family members intrude, it’s usually in a minor way and about the only thing I have to figure out is how old they are now. Francis and Ottilia have developed without much help from me. They evolve story by story. I do enjoy their relationship. They have their ups and downs, but I find readers are engaged by their enduring love story.

When I began the series, I determined to marry them off after the first book because a personal bugbear of mine is those off/on romances that persist through a whole series. Why can’t they just get it together? Instead, I decided to give each story a secondary romance, but in the event, it turned out my hero and heroine are still very much the romantic couple in every story. I didn’t plan it. They just are, those two!

You have had some fascinating career roles to date: acting, directing, teaching and of course writing. Has each one contributed something to your current profession of being an author?

Absolutely. Theatre has shaped my writing. Dramatic structure parallels story structure in terms of build-up, highs and lows, climax and denouement, not forgetting cliff-hanger scene endings, “curtain” in drama. There’s also motivation, emotional journey, conflict (inner and external), character, dialogue, sub-text – the spaces between the words and character introspection. As an actress, these things became part of me. As a teacher, I had to dissect them. Ditto as a director, viewing my “staged drama” as a whole moving picture. The difference is that words encourage the reader to watch “the play” in their imagination.

You have been blessed with cross-cultural experience and travelled widely throughout your life. Do you agree that these aspects of life help to deepen an author’s ability to create engaging characters and plots?

I think it has given me a large tolerance of other cultures. Perhaps most telling, an understanding that human nature is pretty much the same, nation to nation. Such cultural differences as there are consist by and large of moral standards and artistic appreciation. But the human condition is what it is throughout. We all run the gamut of emotions and struggle with our personal demons as we try to survive. Observation enables you to engage as you mirror the inhabitants of the world around you.

Who or what would you say has had a strong influence on your life/work ethic?

My values echo my father’s. A true gentleman, he had wide tolerance, liberal ideals, intelligence. Articulate, funny, considerate and kind, he was a big teddy bear to me. As to work ethic, I imagine my mother’s bundle-of-energy personality must have rubbed off on me. Not that I could keep up! But I do have her drive to push through and get things done.

You have been published and self-published. What would you say are the main advantages or disadvantages of each?

Oh, this is a hard one. These days, you can’t talk of leaving promotion to others because both avenues require you to play your part in touting the books. I think traditional publishers help with visibility and take the burden off in terms of editing, proofing, formatting, book cover design and initial launch. On your own, you have to do it all and that’s tough. On the plus side, you have artistic control and personal satisfaction, even if sales are not as easy to promote.

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What advice would you give your younger self if you could as you set out on a life as an author?

Well, this is interesting because I am constantly giving advice to new authors. I’m not sure I would give the same advice to my younger self because things were very different in publishing when I started out. I had also already struggled to make it as an actor so persistence was not new to me. I think I would say: “Just do it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

What is next for Elizabeth Bailey?

Here’s where I reveal the dream! If I get my dearest wish, it will be a TV series of Lady Fan. That would put the icing on the cake of my writing career.

Thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions and I wish you every success in your career and in life. I hope you realise your dream!