Sunday 30 August 2015

Passion for the Past - Guest Post Merryn Allingham

Today, I am delighted to welcome historical writer and friend Merryn Allingham to my blog. Merryn's third book in the 'Daisy's War' Trilogy 'Daisy's Long Road Home' was published on 27th August. I have all of the trilogy on my kindle and, having read the first and loved it, can't wait to read the rest!

Can you remember the moment you knew you wanted to write?

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment. I think I must always have had a need to write. I do remember lying on the floor as a young child, pencil in hand, and writing myself poems. And at grammar school, writing several strange short stories but never daring to mention it – creative writing was definitely not encouraged. Then there were long letters home when I was working as cabin crew (pre internet and mobile phones) and at least two ten-year diaries. So, in some form or other, I’ve harboured the impulse to put pen to paper for most of my life.

What is it that drew you to historical fiction?

Apart from an enjoyment of history, it was probably the sense of escaping to another world that I loved most. A world that might seem familiar, yet in fact was quite unfamiliar. In historical fiction, I get to live in different houses, wear different clothes, meet different people and confront different choices. And I hear characters from the past much more clearly than contemporary voices. For many years, my staple reading was 19th century novels, I wrote my PhD thesis on Thomas Hardy, and when I began teaching, the 19th century was my special period. It’s no wonder that ‘historical’ comes more easily to me!

You grew up in an army family. What was that like?

It was certainly interesting and gave me a far wider experience of the world than many children my age. But at times it could be lonely – being an only child wasn’t helpful -  and every few years I had to learn to make a new life for myself. Definitely character building! I changed schools frequently – at one point I attended four different schools in two years - so there were always new friends to make. But on the plus side, I could be seen as unusual, even exotic, by my new schoolmates. I remember someone in the Welsh grammar school I’d just begun to attend, commenting on how well I spoke English – for an Egyptian! (my father had just been posted back to the UK from Egypt). But wherever we ended up, and in whatever house, my mother made it a home for us.

What writers have inspired you?

In the 19th century, Jane Austen for her humour and subtle feminism, George Eliot for having a brain the size of a planet and Thomas Hardy for his storytelling magic. Today, I think Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters are my pick – they write popular, page turning books, without sacrificing an inch on style. Sheer brilliance.

If you had a time machine, what period in history would you visit?

I’d go back to the Regency, but only if I were a member of the top one hundred familes in the country. I think I could grow used to a Mayfair town house, six balls a night during the London season, and lazy summers spent on my family’s vast estate. Not to mention the flattering outfits I’d be wearing – I’ve always wanted to own a reticule. But it would have to be a visit. I wouldn’t have coped at all well with the constraints women faced at the time and the lack of freedom to forge one’s own path.

 What would you say is the biggest pitfall of writing historical fiction?

It will vary, I guess, between  writers. I do a lot of reading and research for each book so for me, it could be wanting to tell my readers everything I’ve discovered. When I started the Daisy’s War series, for instance, I gobbled up books on 1930s and 1940s India. The struggle for Indian independence was enthralling, a huge drama played out on a huge stage. But readers rightly want a story and I couldn’t allow my  fascination with the period to run away with me. The story always has to be central, and the research simply a way of fleshing out setting and background to create a deeper interest.

Daisy Driscoll is the heroine of your ‘Daisy’s War’ trilogy. Can you describe her in three words and do you see anything of yourself in Daisy?

Brave. Determined. Loyal.

I doubt I’d be as brave as Daisy, faced as she is with making her way through life as a poor orphan, and constantly beset by secrets and danger. But I’m certainly determined and I hope, steadfast. They are probably the qualities I admire most.

When you wrote The Girl from Cobb Street, had you anticipated it would become a trilogy?

Definitely not. The project started with a marriage certificate – my parents’ - which I unearthed from a pile of papers at the back of a cupboard I was clearing. My mother travelled to India in April 1937 and was married in St John’s Afghan Church in what was then, Bombay. Even now India is exotic, hitting you in the face with its difference. But in the 1930s, the journey took three weeks at a time when most people rarely ventured far beyond their homes. I tried to imagine how it must have been for a working class girl who had never been further from London than a day at the Southend seaside, to travel to what was an alien world, thousands of miles away, and marry a man she hadn’t seen for some time - six years in my mother’s case! And so my heroine, Daisy Driscoll, was born, facing the same hazards in her new life as my mother had - and then far more, with a deceitful and desperate husband who threatens her with disaster. And by the end of The Girl from Cobb Street, I knew I couldn’t leave my heroine there. I was certain she was going to have more adventures, and equally certain that eventually she would reach safe harbour – even if it took three books!
The first two books are set in India and London, respectively. Can you tell us a little about the final book in the series?

The trilogy traces ten years in the life of Daisy Driscoll and in the final book, Daisy’s Long Road Home, we meet her in 1948. The war has been over for several years and she is now a qualified Sister, nursing in Brighton. India meantime has suffered a blood-stained partition of the country. Daisy is convinced that the roots of her identity lie in the East and is desperate to find the truth. She leaps at the chance to leave her lonely life behind when her old lover, Grayson Harte, travels back to India to find a missing colleague. In a series of adventures, she gradually uncovers long hidden and dangerous secrets about the family she never knew, but eventually wins through to find the happiness she deserves.

What next for Merryn Allingham?

The next project will be a two book series – a duology? –this time linked through place rather than a character. The first novel is set in the long, hot summer of 1914 and the second in the summer of 1944. Both were crucial moments in this country’s history. The setting is Summerhayes, a large house and estate that includes an amazing garden, situated somewhere in Sussex. The gardens offer a rare beauty and should be a place of calm and tranquillity, but the estate is riven with conflict – between neighbours, within the family itself, and, of course, there is conflict on a far larger scale with the rumblings of war in Europe growing louder every day. A Dangerous Summer follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Summer family, particularly my heroine, Elizabeth, from May 1914 to September of the same year, when thousands of men walked into recruitment centres to volunteer, signalling the real start of  the bloodiest war ever.

The second book links with the first, through theme and character as well as setting (to say why would give the plot away), but in 1944 Summerhayes is a shadow of its former glory and is being used by the military in the Second World War as a training ground and jumping off point for the invasion of Europe. It’s also the setting for more nefarious deeds. So plenty more drama!

Thank, Merryn for being a lovely guest.

Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. She’d taught 19th century literature and grown up reading Georgette Heyer, so it seemed natural to gravitate towards the Regency period. That was over five years ago and in that time, she has published six Regency romances under the name of Isabelle Goddard. It has been a splendid apprenticeship but it left her wanting to write on a larger canvas and more mainstream fiction. In 2013, she adopted a new writing name, Merryn Allingham, and a new genre. Daisy’s War, a suspense trilogy, is the result. The books are set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s and the first in the series, The Girl from Cobb Street, was published in January this year. Books two and three followed in May and August, 2015.

Buy Daisy’s Long Road Home from Amazon:

Sunday 23 August 2015

Judge for SWWJ John Walter Trophy Short Story Competition

I am delighted to announce that I have been asked by the Society of Women Writers and Journalists to be the judge for this year's John Walter Trophy Short Story Competition.

Let me tell you a little about the SWWJ. It was founded in 1894 by newspaper proprietor Joseph Snell Wood, and is the UK's longest-established society for professional women writers. It has since become an international association affiliated to women's associations worldwide. Victoria Wood is its president and Sir Tim Rice and Simon Brett are among the patrons.

Viv Brown (who writes as Vivien Hampshire and who kindly suggested me as a judge) has been a member for ten years and is on the council. She has written an excellent blogpost about the SWWJ here. She says that the society is always looking to welcome new writers of all ages who might be novelists, journalists, playwrights, poets, article writers and writers of non-fiction books.

It's not the first time that I've judged a short story competition. Last year, the Chiltern Writers Group kindly asked me to judge their annual competition and I enjoyed it so much I was more than happy to say yes to this new request from the SWWJ.

I've already started to think what I shall be looking for once the stories start coming in but my mind is open to any genre, emotion and style. Without giving too much away, I will just say that the winning entries will need to entertain me but also move me in some way - be it through hope, sadness, joyfulness, humour or tragedy. 

Good luck to all the entrants!

In other news, I have had my first response to my #PitchCB submission. You can read last week's updated post here.  

Also, I'm very excited that my new serial, Life at Babcock House, will be starting in the September 5th issue of the The People's Friend. I was thrilled with the response to my first serial, Charlotte's War and am hoping readers will like this one just as much.

Finally, if you'd like to find out more about the SWWJ, the contact details are below:

Sunday 16 August 2015

#PitchCB - Go On Have a Go!

Two weeks ago, on Friday 24th July, I was sitting at my computer writing a magazine story when I decided I could do with a break. A cup of coffee and a few minutes on social media would be just what I needed to recharge my writing batteries, so I clicked onto Twitter to have a look at what was going on in the writing world outside my living room.

It wasn’t long before something caught my eye. Someone had shared a tweet from literary agents, Conville and Walsh, advertising a new initiative called #PitchCB. I had read about it before but hadn’t looked into it further for reasons I will go into later.

I expect you’re wondering what #PitchCB is.

It’s quite simple really. It’s an event for unpublished novelists, hosted by agents Rebecca Ritchie and Richard Pike, which is held on the fourth Friday of every month. You have 24 hours to pitch your novel idea in 140 characters or less, using the hashtag #PitchCB and during that time, agents from both literary agencies will be online to read each pitch. If they like yours, they will ‘favourite’ it, allowing you to submit the first three chapters of your novel in the usual way to that particular agent.

Sounds great – so why had I left it so late to consider submitting my pitch? Basically, it was because my novel wasn’t finished and I hadn’t planned to submit to agents until it was. So what changed my mind that Friday morning? It was the fact that I’d been thinking about a one-to-one meeting I'd had recently with a publisher while I was at the RNA conference. She'd told me she loved my novel idea and first chapter, and thought it very marketable - the only problem was they only accepted agented submissions. I needed an agent, and I knew I would be silly to miss this opportunity, so I sat down and wrote my 140 character pitch and tweeted it.

Once I'd done that, I tried to distract myself. Oh, how hard that was! Luckily, I only had a short while to wait, for within ten minutes I had received two ‘favourites’ – one from each agency. I can’t tell you how excited I was but, once I’d calmed down, I realised that the pitch was only the start of the journey… I would need to perfect my first three chapters, re-write my synopsis (based on advice given at the RNA conference) and write a covering letter that would hopefully make me look like a professional, enthusiastic, creative, and fairly normal person.

The next day, I emailed everything to the two agents and then set to work getting my novel finished. If the agents liked my first three chapters, and wanted to see more, I didn’t want to have to make them wait for months.

So here I am, two weeks latet, feeling very proud of myself for taking that big step. Not because I have heard anything yet but because the whole experience has focused me and given me confidence. It’s proved that I can write a catchy tag line and that my novel idea is interesting enough for agents to want to see the first three chapters at least (apparently the agents chose 100 out of 2,000 pitches). It’s also got me well on the way to getting the novel finished (I have only about another 15,000 words to write) and it's now with my RNA New Writing Scheme reader awaiting its critique.

So, if anyone out there is looking for an agent from a quality literary agency, I would highly recommend you have a go. The next #PitchCB is on August 28th.

Go on… be brave!

You can find out more about #PitchCB  here


Since writing this post, I have heard from one of the agents from Curtis Brown. Unfortunately, the book wasn't their taste so it was a no but they said my writing was engaging, the idea appealing and that I write with real energy and enthusiasm. They also said it was a difficult decision to make as they were impressed with my submission. 

I can only be happy with that!

Monday 10 August 2015

Bikers, Truckers and The People's Friend

I am delighted to have not one but two stories in The People's Friend Holiday Special and thought I would give you the inspiration behind one of the stories, One Big Family. 

Bikers and The People's Friend magazine - not something you would expect to hear in the same sentence, I know!

In my story, we are taken out of the cosy café people might expect to see in the magazine, and into a transport café. A different setting maybe, but one where the story remains true to the magazine's values of hope, friendship and loyalty.

One Big Family is a story about Janice, who has never married and has no children - she hasn't time for a family as Woody's transport café, which she bought five years ago, takes up all her time. When the café is threatened with closure after a bypass is built, she realises that her loyal customers have become, essentially, her family.

The inspiration behind my fictitious Woody's Café is in fact a real transport café on the A281 near Cowfold, called The Chalet Café. It is set back from the road and often has bikers sitting on the wooden benches outside. The funny thing is, I've never actually been inside the café but have passed by hundreds of times on my way to visit my mum, in too much of a hurry to stop. It appears from the outside to be a traditional place: simple, functional and from what I've read on their website, serving the hugest breakfasts imaginable.

Every time I've passed The Chalet, I've thought that it would make a great setting for a story. One day, as I was driving by, I wondered what would become of the café if something happened to take away their passing trade? Would the customers be loyal enough to keep on coming?

It was a light bulb moment. That would be the story I would write.

Now I am imagining walking into the café with a copy of The People's Friend in my hand to show them. I wonder what the customers would think!

Monday 3 August 2015

To Read or Not to Read

An interesting question was posed on a Facebook group recently. How many writers read the magazines they write for?

This was my response:  'Shh... no.' 

As you can imagine, it raised a few eyebrows - so I thought that I would write a blog post to clarify my response.

There seemed to be two threads to the question and I shall address each in turn.

Firstly - Should writers buy the magazines to support the publication that buys their work?

Obviously writers will have their own opinions on this but here is my stance: I do buy any magazine I have a story in but this is so that a) I can keep a copy for myself and b) I have one to show my friends without them feeling obliged to buy one themselves. Funnily enough, this has indirectly helped to support The People's Friend (for whom I write regularly) as one of them liked reading it so much that she has now started to buy the magazine herself on occasion.

At the end of the day, writing stories is my only income (apart from my story collections) and if I bought all the weeklies I write for and all the specials, it would make quite a dent in it.

I feel I support the magazines in a different way - by writing good quality stories which I hope the readers will enjoy and which will, in turn, help to sell the magazine. I also give my support by helping to advertise the magazines on Twitter and Facebook and my blog and a few months ago had an article published in Writing Magazine about writing serials for The People's Friend for Writing Magazine and have contributed to a similar one soon to be published in Writer's Forum.

Secondly - should writers buy the magazines to use as research?

Obviously I wouldn't dream of telling writers trying to break into the magazine market that they shouldn't - but on the other hand (I know my People's Friend editor Alan reads my blog so he will have to put his hands over his ears now!) I have never made a secret of the fact that I never have.

To explain this, I need to give a little background to my writing career. While I was doing an online writing course, we wrote short pieces and stories and when the course finished, my lovely tutor suggested I try sending some of my work to magazines. I chose my favourites, and wrote a few more, then after reading the guidelines for each magazine (very important) I sent them out. I'd never bought any of the magazines and I hadn't ever read any of the stories. The reason for this is I love reading novels too much - I have a whole pile by my bed waiting to be read. I was lucky to sell a story quite quickly, first to The People's Friend and then to Take a Break Fiction Feast, followed a little while later by one to Woman's Weekly. What this did was give me a benchmark to work from for the next story.

What if I had read the magazines first? Well, I think that if you study the magazines too hard there is always a danger that you look at a successful writer's work and think, "I'll write a story like that." But what if you do? It's important to remember that the magazine you are studying already has that writer writing those types of stories in that type of style, so why would they need another writer doing the same?

Recently, I attended the RNA writing conference where an editor said that the problem with suggesting your novel was like someone else's was that the agent/publishers were looking for unique voices - not a clone of someone already on their books. I believe the same can be said for magazines. My style is unlikely to be the same as that of x, y or z because I haven't read their stories. My stories are unique to me... and that's how I want it to remain.

When I was a new teacher, working in an open-plan school, there was a teacher in the class next door who I greatly admired. I loved her teaching style and tried to copy it, hoping it might help me with my classroom management. It was a disaster! It wasn't until I had found my own style of teaching that I knew I was becoming a halfway decent teacher. I think I learnt a lesson from that.

I'd love to have my novel published by one of the top publishers (wouldn't we all!) or be represented by a top agent but does that mean I will read all of the books published/represented by them in the hope of emulating them? Of course not! What I will do, when the time comes, is read the biographies of the agents I'm thinking of sending a submission to, to find out what they are looking for and I will read the submission guidelines over and over to make sure I am doing it in the right way. And my novel? Well, I will allow it to speak for itself... in the same way my stories do.

So there you have it - the reason I don't buy magazines! Please feel free to add your own thoughts.