The Glamour of Being a Writer

It always defeats me how anyone can imagine writing to be a glamorous profession. I spend six to eight hours a day at the computer, sometimes longer when a deadline looms, five or even six days a week. I take far too little exercise and miss out on sunny days, even when in Spain. And generally wear my scruffiest, most comfortable clothes while working, so don’t look in the least bit glamoroous.

When called upon to do a talk I get to put on a business suit. Could that be considered glamorous? The event is often somewhere difficult to park and I struggle with my box of books, and I end up looking slightly harassed by the time I arrive. Or else it’s out on some distant hillside miles from the village it’s supposed to serve and my shoes are muddied by the time I get there. However, it’s always pleasing if the audience enjoy the talk and laugh at my anecdotes. Can that lady on the back row hear? Oh, she’s asleep, so that’s all right.

Is there glamour perhaps in playing at being a media star? In this, one is either interviewed live on the telephone, which is daunting but at least the interviewer doesn’t realise you’re wearing your slippers. Or else you get to go into a studio which is generally over-stuffy and rather shabby and you’ve got ten minutes at most in which to tell your life story, say what the book is about, why you wrote it and one or two funny anecdotes to fix it in the listener’s mind between the weather and the travel news.

Television is worse. The crew, usually one interviewer and a cameraman, spend hours in your house, filming you turning the pages of your book, or have you walking into your study again and again so they can film you from every possible angle, or up and down the street outside, or standing in a gale of wind to answer their questions. This endless toil results in a thirty second slot, mainly comprising a close up of your hands on the keyboard and a voice-over which might be yours, saying something inane about how important it is for you to write. At least they panned in on the row of books on the shelf, or added a bit of film connected to the period of the story.

In-depth interviews with newspaper journalists allows more time, but they often probe into the darker corners of your private life which you’d much rather keep closed. On occasions they start telling me about the novel they’re working on. I’ve even been asked if I mind being classed as a writer of romance, as if that were in some way demeaning. Next comes the photographer to take scintillating pics of you - and where does he choose? In your garden beside the pretty roses? Curled up in your cosy chair reading a book? Nope, at your computer, of course, where else? Not glam at all.

Real celebrities are generally leggy, blonde and beautiful, and sit in smart restaurants in dark glasses ordering lemon tea. So maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong, since I’m none of those things, can’t stand lemon tea and never even reached five foot. 

But who needs glamour anyway, or fame and fortune? I love to write, so nothing else really matters. I’m cosy in my bunker, eyes glued to the screen, engrossed in my make believe world. And no one has come to take me away in a little yellow van yet. I chat with friends and readers on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m always humbled and thrilled when people email or message me to say how much they enjoy what I write, or tell me how a story has cheered or deeply moved them while they’ve been coping with difficult times. What more can I ask for than that? 


Girl Bands in World War II

Girl Bands are not a new phenomena. Long before Girls Aloud, The Spice Girls, or even The Supremes there were girl bands of quite a different sort. During World War II Girl Bands took over and became increasingly popular once the boys joined up. But it was a time when prejudice against women performing was still strong. Female singers such as Vera Lynn was quite acceptable, but many people thought it wasn’t quite proper for women to blow into a trumpet or make a sax sing. 

Ivy Benson was a highly skilled clarinetist and saxophonist who formed her All Girls Band in 1939 playing throughout the war. It is said that she was inspired by listening to the recordings of Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. They became one of the top bands of the era, although not without some resentment from male band leaders, and the worry that some of her prized musicians would sometimes leave to marry.

There was a wonderful movie called The Last of the Blond Bombshells, featuring Judy Dench. It’s the story of a widow who was obliged to confine her sax playing to the attic while her husband was alive, but on his death decides to follow her passion and start her own band. I loved this film, and the idea inspired me to write my own story about a girl band, set in Manchester during the war.
Dancing on Deansgate is about Jess Delaney, a young girl who loves music and discovers she has a talent, thanks to a Salvation Army sergeant who teaches her to play the trumpet. Despite an abusive uncle and a feckless mother, and with her beloved father away fighting in the war, she decides to make something of her life. But Jess doesn’t find it easy to get the band underway. Band leaders and ballroom managers frequently accuse them of not being able to withstand the physical hardships of long hours of playing.

‘Women don’t have the stamina that men have,’ said one.
‘Limited scope,’ said another.
‘Women are long on looks but short on talent.’
‘We aren’t in the business of employing young ladies who think it might be fun to show off on stage, however charming and genteel they might be.’
This attitude incensed Jess and she would tell them in no uncertain terms that her girls could play In the Mood every bit as well as they could play Greensleeves.
One manager had the gall to say that women had no real sense of rhythm in a jam session, as they were hopeless at improvising.
Another, trying to be conciliatory, remarked, ‘I see why you ladies are offering to step in, with all the men having been conscripted for service and bands desperate for decent musicians. But we’re looking for professionals, not amateurs. We need the best.’
Outraged, Jess’s response was sharp. ‘We are the best, and how can we ever get to be professional if we’re never given the chance.’
A shake of the head. ‘Women aren’t made to sit on a stage and blow their brains out.’
‘We could blow the men right off it.’

As well as proving they were skilled musicians, they were also expected to look feminine, but finding the right clothes to wear wasn’t easy either, as fabric for dresses was in short supply. Faulty parachute silk was often used instead, and a glamorous look brought its own problems. Slinky gowns, together with sexy swing music, could bring about unwelcome invitations, as if fraternising with the men rather than a passion for music, was their main purpose in life.


Poverty During the War and Depression years

Little remains of the original Ancoats save for a handful of decaying factories and the dark red brick edifice of the old hospital. But this was once an area of row upon row of back to back houses, where Irish and Italian immigrants jostled side by side with fiercely proud Lancastrians; a tight knit community where folk had a loyalty to their particular street and a dread of being accused of ‘getting above themselves,’ or ‘mekkin’ out they were summat.’ For a man to lose his job in the late 1920s was bad, though sadly quite common, but to lose his dignity and pride as well was unthinkable.

In a world with little or no interest in women’s rights over their own children, no free medical assistance or welfare benefits, workers’ long hours and low pay, life was tough during the depression and war years. The laws of renting property, wills and insolvency, the means test, the dole, rationing, being bombed out or evacuated, would all create problems. Even a middle class family could fall into difficulties. If the father lost his job, as frequently happened, or he died leaving a young family, who would support his wife and children? The family might be split up and farmed out to reluctant relatives, put in an orphanage, or find themselves facing the workhouse.

And what if someone in the household was sick, or giving birth? How could they afford a doctor when only the man as the wage earner of the family could be insured? Unmarried mothers suffered the asylum, institutions and reformatories of various kinds, or simply had their children taken away.

Social issues are a vital ingredient of the saga. Readers love to discover how women coped. Even domestic life was hard, doing the washing with a mangle and dolly tub, no central heating, vacuum cleaner, fridge or similar household gadget, and a privy down the yard. Perhaps some look back on hard times with a rose-tinted view, remembering when a community pulled together, didn’t need to lock their doors as they’d nothing worth stealing.

I try to lighten the tragic nature of the tale with a little humour, because that’s what helped people to cope. The Lancashire sense of humour was rarely lost, women stood ‘camping’ on their donkey-stoned doorsteps, arms folded over their apron-fronted bosoms, and there were many such as Old Flo with her own set of morals, as if she’d personally been handed the tablet of stone by Moses himself. Yet despite the hardships, or perhaps because of it, neighbours stood by you, giving you a pinch of sugar or cup of milk because it might be them needing it next week, and when poverty yawned and hungry stomachs ached, even children must learn to live by their wits as Polly’s son Benny learns to his cost.

My family were weavers for generations on both sides of the Pennines. I have vivid memories of my grandmother black-leading her range and donkey-stoning her doorstep. You could have eaten your dinner off her stone flag floors for although she was poor, she was scrupulously clean. Therein lay her dignity. She would tell of how my grandfather, confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t work so in addition to caring for her children, one of whom was scalded to death while in the care of a child minder, she minded her six looms throughout a long working week, sang "I Shall not Want" three times every Sunday in chapel while worrying about what to find to eat for their tea.

The gritty northern saga usually concerns a strong woman fighting against the poverty of her surroundings, as well as the trials and tribulations of the times in which she lives. Disasters abound, but the heroine must win through against all odds, stronger in spirit than before. I seek out stories of the social under-classes in towns and rural backwaters. I’ve interviewed so many old folk with fascinating and deeply disturbing stories. That, to my mind, is what history is all about. People.

Living in the deprived area of Ancoats, Manchester, Polly Pride feels luckier than most … until her husband, Matthew, loses his job and her life is thrown into turmoil. In a desperate act to save her family from starvation, Polly sells all the family goods and buys a handcart from which she sells second-hand rugs and carpets. But struggling to deal with poverty and her husband’s hurt pride are only the start of her problems. For when tragedy strikes, Polly must summon all her courage to keep herself and her family from falling apart.


Winners will be announced here on Sunday 6th September.

  a Rafflecopter giveaway


RNA Conference-2015

Just enjoyed the latest RNA Conference held at Queen Mary University, London. Inspiring, as always. I even found time to do a little research of my own for my latest WIP. It began with an industry panel about agents on Friday, then an excellent talk by Matt Bates from W H Smith travel. He’s a really sharp and very helpful guy, full of interesting information on how to choose a good cover for your book, and sell it. The next talk I went to was by Sarah Broadhurst who took us through the changes in the book trade. As an ex-bookseller myself in the 70s and 80s, I could relate to much of what she said, and remember reading her articles and reviews in The Bookseller at the time.

This was followed by an editor’s panel, of which I couldn’t hear much of what they said as the lecture theatre was huge and I was near the back. Or maybe I’m going a bit deaf. Later in the day was an excellent Skype talk from Jim Azevedo from Smashwords who took us through the process of setting up pre-orders. Brilliant and most useful as that seems to be an excellent way of raising your ranking. All about discoverability.

On Saturday I enjoyed an excellent talk by the Harlequin team. It was good to meet them since I’m currently writing for Mira Books, and enjoying working with them. They told us how they were looking out for page turners rather than brilliant prose, and how they channel them into the retail market either by ebooks, Indie stores or supermarkets, if you’re lucky.

Hazel Gaynor, author of A Memory of Violets, gave an excellent talk on promotion. I've read this book and loved it. A great read I can highly recommend. She writes about 30 articles for each book, in addition to loads of signing sessions and interviews, on top of a huge amount of social networking. There seemed to be so much involved that I almost considered retiring. I needed to remind myself that your best promotion is writing your next book. She gave us loads of useful advice but made it clear you do what suits you and what you have time for.

Took a siesta in the afternoon before listening to a fascinating talk by Jenny Barden and Joanna Hickson on historical research. Brilliant. Then spent a wonderful evening at the Gala Dinner. Great to meet up with old friends and chat, chat, chat about writing and books.

Sunday morning I gained some useful tips from Rhoda Baxter on Blog Tours, and then thoroughly enjoyed Jean Fullerton’s talk on the perils and pitfalls of writing 20th century fiction, which was great fun and so true. Finding the right details, dates and attitudes is not easy, but always fascinating. I’ve interviewed some amazing people in my time. I left to catch my train after that but the conference continued for the rest of that day. Anyone, who missed it look out for the next one at Lancaster University on 8 – 10 July 2016.


Inspiration for Luckpenny Land

Inspired by my own efforts at living the ‘good life’ on the Lakeland Fells, Luckpenny Land was the first saga I ever wrote. We were living on a small-holding, out on Shap Fell in Cumbria. And as I trekked up the fellside in the dark of a freezing night to check if our sheep were about to lamb, or to feed a pet lamb, I’d be thinking: ‘There must be a book in this. But who would want to read about a middle-aged mum, with arthritis, being so stupid as to choose to live in a place where the pantry was colder than her wonderful Zanussi fridge? Where the winter snows freeze the mains water supply in the field below the house every winter, as well as the battery in her car as it stands buried in snow in the yard.

So I used those wonderful two words that writers love: What if? What if I wrote about a girl who wanted to be a sheep farmer. It was World War II and her very Victorian father thought that it wasn’t women’s work. I could then use many of the amusing incidents and anecdotes my family had experienced living this life, but write it as fiction.

Running a smallholding with a few sheep and a couple of dozen hens didn’t qualify me to write knowledgeably about running a proper sheep farm, let alone during WWII. I would need to do considerable research. When writing about a time within living memory it’s essential to get it right, and that includes the weather and state of the harvest.

I began by interviewing Cumbrian farmers, who are stoic, strong, taciturn, and a tad distrustful of
strangers, particularly of people who have not lived in the Lake District for three generations. It’s not that they are unfriendly, only that they’re more used to the company of themselves and their animals rather than a nosy, would-be author. At this point in my career having published only short stories, articles, and 5 Mills & Boon historical romances, the prospect of a full-length saga was daunting. And I’d never done an interview in my life.

When I rang the first name on my list, a farmer out in the Langdales, I spoke first to his wife to ask if he would see me. ‘Happen’, she said, which I took as a yes. To be on the safe side I took my husband with me. As a local solicitor he was used to dealing with Lakeland farmers, and it worked like a charm. I asked the farmer a question, and he told David the answer. I was so nervous I didn’t even dare to switch on the brand new recording device I’d taken with me. I scribbled notes like mad, and even more later.

But he was marvellous. He took me through his farming year, explaining everything most carefully, and showed me pictures of his dogs. Not his family, his dogs. All the farmers I interviewed did that. It’s a nonsense to say that farmers don’t care about their working dogs. Mr G’s dog appeared in the book, much to his delight, although the accident the fictional dog suffered was far more dramatic to that of the real dog, even if it had the same outcome. And no, I can’t say anymore without spoiling it.

Some of the farmers I spoke to were women. Although farming was a reserved occupation during the war, many men opted to join up and leave their wives to run the family farm. I learned from them how to kill and scald a pig, how to wring a chicken’s neck and pluck it. (my hens all lived to a ripe old age) Plus all the various wangles they got up to during the war, such as dressing up a pig as a person in the car so they wouldn’t be caught out selling one. This was at a time when such things were strictly rationed and controlled. Talking to these women inspired many plot incidents and ideas, some based on real life, including the most dramatic and painful which takes place in Luckpenny Land. And I won’t spoil it by telling you that either. Armed with the research, I started to weave a love story and plan the lives of my characters.

I also spent ages reading the newspapers of the period, finding out what was on people’s mind and how they coped. But then I love research, and talking to the people who actually remember what it was like back then is what inspires me the most.

I was fortunate enough to meet an agent at a weekend conference and told him all about my idea. He asked to see the book when it was finished, which took nine months, just like a baby. Just a few weeks after I’d delivered it, I was so excited to get The Call. There were offers from three publishers and I went with Hodder & Stoughton, now part of the Hatchette group.


Luckpenny Land turned into a mini-series and it has been an absolute delight to be able to revisit these stories. When I gave them a new life as ebooks I split the book into two as the print edition was far too long for an ebook, the second part becoming Storm Clouds over Broombank. Followed by Wishing Water and Larkrigg Fell.



Just returned from a wonderful holiday in Rome. What a fantastic city it is. Very noisy and busy but filled with amazing Roman relics around every corner. We stayed at the hotel Capo d’Africa near the Colosseum. Very friendly and excellent service. There were also a number of good restaurants close by.

We visited all the important places, including the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums and St Peter's, the Pantheon, Castel Sant Angelo, and much more. A 3 day ticket from Omnia bought online covered the cost of entrance to the most important places, which included an hop-on-and-off bus. There was still some queuing involved but not as much as buying one ticket at a time.

We thoroughly enjoyed a guided tour of the Colosseum, hearing all about the horrendous games and spectacles that went on there, amounting to something like 700,000 human deaths, plus hundreds of lions, tiger, bears etc killed every day. It was damaged by an earthquake many years ago, but is still amazingly strong and absolutely huge, built to hold about 80,000 people, the aristocrats on the lower sections and the poor on the highest level. A portion of floor has been built in to show how it looked at the time, with a morass of channels and rooms beneath where slaves, animals and gladiators were held and trained. It is believed that around a third of gladiators survived, looked upon as celebrities because of their skills and bravery.

Arco di Constantino                                  The Forum                                                            The Pantheon

We also strolled around the Forum, facing the Colosseum, which is equally fascinating with its temples, basilicas, arches and pillars, the centre from which Rome was once ruled. My imagination told me that it must have looked both regal and beautiful in its prime. Sadly, it suffered considerable damage from an earthquake in the ninth century and eventually fell into decline as did Rome itself. The next day we visited the Vatican.

The Vatican

Swiss guards

A walk through the Vatican museums to see the Sistine chapel at the end takes about an hour and a half, but it is worth it. The art work of Raphael, Michelangelo and others, and ceiling and wall decorations are superb.

There is so much to see so it’s important to concentrate on the essential places, and accept the fact there are crowds of people sharing this experience with you. We planned each day with care, taking into account the stops for the hop-on-and-off bus to help us along our way.

The wonderful thing about the city is that you can come across Roman remains or interesting buildings, around any corner. Quite by chance we found the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, a glorious palace situated on the Via del Corso. It cost only 8 euros to visit which included an audio guide in English telling the history of the building and the family who still occupy it. Absolutely beautiful, it’s one of the finest palaces in Rome.

It seemed to us a fairly safe city, although a bum bag or money belt is safer than a handbag. And do take a hat against the sun, as it is very hot. Street vendors sell bottles of near-frozen water for 1 or 2 euros, as well as hats and parasols, ice cream etc.

The only disappointment was that the Trevi fountain is currently being restored but we did drop in a coin so that one day we hope to go again.


Big Flo’s Favourite Sayings

Big Flo is loosely inspired by my grandmother, who was very much a strict Methodist and a stoic. She would stand in her pew at chapel every Sunday reciting: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, while her belly growled with hunger and she wondered what they could possibly find to eat for their tea.

They were poor because she was the bread winner as her husband had MS. She also lost her baby son while he was being minded by a friend. He was scalded to death with boiling hot water as he grabbed a pan from the stove. Her hardships of life created a woman of strength but with a lovely dry Lancashire sense of humour, and a most tolerant lady. Her second husband was a Catholic, quite a daring thing to do in her day.

Polly’s problems are very different from those suffered by my gran, and in the sequel, the war is as much a family one as attempting to recover from the actual hostilities.

Here is a picture of Clara as a young woman, (on the left) with her sister Sarah, and her daughter, (my mum).

These are some of her favourite sayings:

Stand on yer own two feet.
Be clean in mind, tongue and body.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Idleness addles the brain.
Be stoic - no complaints.
Look the next chap in the eye.

And some others with origins:
Don’t throw the baby away with the bath water. 
Back in the day when the bath was a tin one in front of the fire, the man of the house had the privilege of the first bathing in nice clean water, followed by his sons and other working men in the household. Finally the women and children. The baby was last, and as it was pretty dirty by then, you had to be careful not to lose sight of it and throw it away with the bath water.

Raining Cats and Dogs.
The thatch on houses was a favourite place for animals to sleep and keep warm, so cats, dogs, mice, bugs often lived on the roof. But when it rained it became slippery, the straw might split and they could fall through, thus raining cats and dogs.

Dirt Poor 
The floor of a worker’s house was generally comprised of dirt. Only the wealthy had flagged floors.

Bring home the bacon
Most people lived on vegetable stew from the stock pot kept going over the fire, but sometimes they might be lucky and be able to afford pork which was a treat. It was a sign of god fortune if the man of the house could “bring home the bacon” and they would hang it over the fire to show off.

Upper crust
Bread was divided according to status. The peasants got the burnt bit at the bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and the lord got the top or the “upper crust”.

A wake
It was alarmingly common for someone to be believed to be dead when they were no more than dead drunk. With medical expertise unaffordable they would be laid out for a couple of days so that family and friends could gather round and see if they would wake. Hence the custom of holding a “wake”.

Saved by the bell 
When graveyards began to get full and money was tight, coffins would be dug up and re-used. On reopening scratch marks were sometimes found inside, indicating that the incumbent had been buried alive. So a string would be tied to the wrist of the corpse, fed through the coffin and up through the ground and tied to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell, just in case. Thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer”.

Make do and mend
From a pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information during WWII intended to give advice to housewives on how to cope with rationing. But it became a way of life for my Big Flo, and many others in real life, including my gran.

The Polly Books now republished by Harlequin Mira Books.

Polly's Pride

Polly's War