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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Hooked on family history, and a writer who can't stop writing

Two more writers share the journey of their books. Harry Nicholson tells us the story of how he came to write of a humble farmer caught in big events. Celia Hayes tells us of how once she starts a story, she can't stop.

Tom Fleck by Harry Nicholson

Why I needed to tell the story of an unknown man.

Do we ever wonder about our distant forefathers and mothers, those who lived before our great-grandparents, and even before their great-grandparents? What can we know of them? Beyond even our parent’s parents there is sadly just white fog - for most of us.

We can penetrate the fog a little. Family history research has never been more popular. Folk beaver away through the mass of data now on the internet. But what does it yield? Seldom more than the bare bones of names and the dates of baptisms, marriages and burials, and those only if you are lucky and persistent. Personality is not found; we don’t see tears or hear cries of joy, there are no flushed cheeks and beating hearts. No whisperings in the night time.

A few scraps of bone we might find here and there, as we search back through time – but then we reach a solid wall. That barrier is the darkness before the start of parish registers (in England, 1566). This is the end of the search for our ancestors - unless they were aristocrats or notorious rebels.

I’ve trodden this way, back to a mysterious ancestor: Lancelot Horsley (probably a fisherman). In 1573, he buried his first wife and two infants, then remarried and had two healthy sons. That is all I’ll ever know of him; his beginnings are on the far side of that barrier, so there is not a single mark on parchment to show that his parents ever existed.

But what if I write a story? A story about the life and times of people perhaps two generations before Lancelot? I can research how the ordinary folk of his district lived, how they spoke, what they believed to be true, and how events beyond their control swept them along. Why not? So I went for it!

One rare name stepped forward from the Hartlepool records and caught my attention – a little family called Fleck. I imagined their great-grandfather as a Thomas Fleck, a humble farm labourer. He would be a young man in a formative year. 1513 was the year of the Battle of Flodden, a conflict that gave rise to the haunting Scottish lament: "The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede away". Fine – so how could I contrive a situation where the humble Tom Fleck would have to leave his kindred and re-discover himself in the midst of international struggles beyond his comprehension?

First, I built his world from scraps of social history and old maps, gave him personality and a family, gave him troubles and yearnings, gave him turning points, cross-roads, helped him deal with enemies and make hard choices. His struggles with love across the boundaries of race and religion took me into fascinating areas of research. All this in order to try to understand how some of our ancestors might have walked the land.

It is done. A whole generation has come alive. They walk and run through the pages and I love them all - even the villains.

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Daughter of Texas by Celia Hayes

Very early on – by the time that I could actually read easily, I was particularly drawn to accounts of the American frontier in the 19th century. This, to judge by the inscriptions in books that I was given as gifts and recalled reading as soon as the ribbons and wrapping paper was off them, would have been about the age of eight or nine. It started with a deep and abiding love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, about her family experiences as her parents moved between Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and was refined by my mother’s perspicuity in having a subscription to American Heritage Magazine (in the days when it was a hard-bound quarterly and without advertisements) and leaving it around where I could read it. Which I did, repeatedly, and from cover to cover; I was particularly drawn to stories about the westward immigrant trails – of families who packed up everything they owned in a covered wagon and headed west, on barely-explored paths into two thousand miles of howling wilderness.

After twenty years in the military, and twelve years of that spent assigned in Europe, I came home. My last assignment was in San Antonio, Texas – where I stayed, for various reasons, one of which was that the place began to grow on me. Texas turned out to be . . . well, a much more complicated and nuanced place than anyone would think from having watched movies. It’s more than just the Alamo – which everyone knows about in a superficial way, but there is so much more than that. Texas is kind of a demi-glace, a boiled-down reduction of the frontier – and by extension of the American experience –where a good few different cultures clashed and mingled. I discovered this dramatic and eventful – and relatively unknown history just by living a short distance away. After my first novel – about a practically unknown wagon train party on the California Trail, I was casting around for the next project; had to be the frontier, had to be 19th century and relatively unknown. And then I thought – why not the German settlements, in the Hill Country north of San Antonio? It’s a terrific historical anomaly, which hardly anyone outside of Texas knows about. Slap-dab in the middle of Texas are several counties and several towns which were settled almost exclusively by German immigrants in the mid-19th century. I thought I would do a single novel about that: an entrepreneur scheme, thought up by a group of well-meaning and well-financed German noblemen, the Mainzer Adelsverein (or the Society of Noblemen of Mainz) to bring over settlers from Germany. This would reward them with lots of land and acclaim for having done a very good deed; helping farmers and craftsmen settle in a new land, with lots of opportunities. Unfortunately, the Mainzer Adelsverein went bust after two years – but not after dumping 7,000 immigrants onto the Texas frontier.

I made a family saga, so that readers could relate: I created the Steinmetz family; parents, three daughters, two sons and a son-in-law, who come and settle in Texas. I also needed to create another character, a Texan German-speaker. He was intended to serve as a bridge to the new life they must embrace and as a heroic and romantic interest for one of the Steinmetz daughters. That led me to create another family, the Beckers; German by heritage, but long established in Texas. Almost in passing, I gave the hero-character an older sister. I described her as being a woman who kept a boarding house in early Austin, married twice, and who knew practically everyone of consequence in Republic-era Texas. In the first chapter of the Trilogy, her brother says in passing to another character that his sister had been left to raise four sons when her husband died of tuberculosis. I should emphasize that she started as a fairly minor and secondary character – but when I came to thinking about what my next book was to be, I thought, why not write about Margaret Becker?

Do the whole story of her life and her experiences: coming to Texas as a young girl, marrying the schoolteacher, and seeing the beginnings of the war for Texas independence from her home in Gonzalez. And then the whole of that war, the ‘Runaway Scrape’ – where almost the entire Anglo civilian population evacuated back to east Texas under horrific conditions – and what she did to rebuild her life. That story could be a gripping account of a woman meeting the challenges of that time. Tell the story from her point of view, move her experiences from just something mentioned briefly to front and center, write of the people that she would have met and known over the years of her life, from the age of twelve in eventful times and a special place?

Like the Adelsverein Trilogy, Daughter of Texas started out as a single volume, intended as a prelude to the Trilogy. But when I had gotten up to about 350 pages of manuscript, the events of the war, the Runaway Scrape, the death of her first husband – and I hadn’t even gotten into the romance with her second, or very far into all sorts of interesting but relatively little-known happenings during the years of the Republic of Texas – I decided that I would save all the rest for a second book about her life. So that’s where that stands. Daughter of Texas is now available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and in Kindle and Nook editions. The sequel, Deep in the Heart should be available in December, 2011. No, I don’t have a problem with writer’s block – why do you ask?

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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Moving house inspires a moving tale

For Mary Sharratt a move to England was just the inspiration she needed, read her story here...

Daughters of The Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

How I Became a Daughter of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

In midwinter 2002, I moved from the Bay Area in California to Lancashire, England. I’ve traveled around the world and lived in many different places, from Germany to Belgium. But what ensued from this relocation was the biggest culture and climate shock of my life. In Northern England, the winters are so dark and oppressive—I felt as though I were trapped inside some claustrophobic gothic novel. My husband and I moved to an old industrial town, our newly built house on the site of a demolished factory. Surrounding all this post-industrial bleakness was a landscape straight out of a fairy tale. In spring the hedges were lacy with hawthorn. Ewes birthed their lambs in the meadow behind our house.

Our house looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But Pendle is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches.

In 1612, nine people from Pendle Forest were executed for witchcraft. The most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Once I read this, I fell in love. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was astounded how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her. She freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, and she instructed her daughter and granddaughter in the ways of magic. Her neighbors called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities turned on her only near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.

Bess’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. I board my beautiful Welsh mare at a stable near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me.

I’m often asked if it was a depressing experience, writing about Bess and her family when I knew very well how their tale ended—on the gallows of Lancaster Castle. Although it was harrowing to write of the injustice they suffered, it was my duty as a novelist to serve their memory and bear witness. And not just that—to me, their story is transcendent rather than purely tragic, and I do hope that comes across in the novel. Death was not the end of these women. The original title of the book was A Light Far-Shining and I believe that theirs was an inner radiance and power that death could not extinguish.

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. As a writer, I am obsessed with how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the land. Long after her demise, Bess and her fellow witches of Pendle Forest endure. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By delving into Bess’s story, I have become an adopted daughter of her living landscape, one of many tellers who spin her unending tale.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Fantastic Family Saga

Claire Lorrimer comes from an artistic family. Her grandfather was a musician and both her uncle and her grandmother were writers; another uncle was an artist, as is her daughter. Her mother was the best selling novelist Denise Robins. Below she describes the inspiration for The Chatelaine, first in the series of The Rochford Trilogy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Chatelaine by Claire Lorrimer

Of all the many books I have written, THE CHATELAINE – the first of the historical family saga I called ‘The Rochford Trilogy’, is my favourite. The first saga was more or less written to outlines provided by a literary agent hitherto unknown to me. He was aware I had had over thirty light romantic novels published and persuaded me there was a dearth of historical sagas in the States. I said I would have a try!

The trilogy, The Women of Fire, (shortly to be published by Piatkus) went straight into the bestseller list in the States and was reprinted thirteen times in the first year. However, I now found I was enjoying this new genre of writing, and a report in an article about a missing baby started me wondering what had happened to the child. This evoked ideas which led to THE CHATELAINE.

By the time I wrote Chapter 1 of this book, I had learned how to go about plotting these lengthy sagas. I had begun my first effort in the same way I had written the light romances – put a piece of paper in the typewriter, type Chapter 1, and plough straight on to the happy ending. My first effort at a saga came to an abrupt halt when I discovered an elderly retainer serving drinks in Chapter 1, had reached the age of 120 but was still the family butler by Chapter 3! Likewise, a pregnant dairy maid had, poor girl, remained pregnant for two and a half years. Consequently, I devised a working chart and by the time I was writing THE CHATELAINE, I was minus these interruptions to the creative flow, so its creation was a lot less hard work and great fun to do. I’m happy to pass on a copy of my chart to any young aspiring author!

When planning a book, I choose a period of history which suits my story rather than the other way round. Historical data is secondary to the story itself although an historical event may trigger part of the plot. Educated on serials in women’s magazines in my youth, I aim to end each chapter with my reader desperate to start the next! I get so involved with my characters by the end of a book I want to write more about them – hence the trilogies.

Starting a book is always a bad time for me. I want to get on and tell the story in my head, and although I know the major characters, I have to describe them to the reader who can’t see into my mind! Red hair, blue eyes, quick tempered etc, etc. I note these down in a character description book so I don’t suddenly make a man ‘tower menacingly’ above his companion when he’s unusually short and fat. They must also behave in a way true to their character as I’m sure this is the way to make a reader believe in them just as they have become real to me. I have sometimes had serious discussions with my secretary as to whether a character should do or say something, both of us forgetting that a fictitious character can do or say whatever the author wants! They do become very real, even to the point where, when editing a chapter in a book called FROST IN THE SUN, I felt close to tears near the end – silly, I suppose, but that’s how real they seem.

People interest me enormously – far more than what they are wearing, what they look like. It’s one of the reasons I find young children so fascinating. They get to the core of a person and disregard the trimmings. I am impatient when I have to stop the action to dress who someone who I can see in my mind but have to remember the reader needs to be told the facts.

I have been writing books since I was ten years old, probably because my mother was an author and encourage me to do so – partly to divert my imagination into less disruptive channels than was my wont in those early days. It is close on a century ago that she began writing light romances for Mills and Boon and even now, is still read extensively in the libraries. People often say they don’t believe she wrote as many as 200 books, but I myself wrote three of these simple love stories every year, hence my uncompetitive total of 80!

Last week, one of my granddaughters telephoned me to say she had started reading an old copy of THE CHATELAINE which was the only book to hand, and that it had kept her awake most of the night and made her late for work next day. This gave me almost as much pleasure as when a woman came up to me after one of my talks to libraries, and said THE DYNASTY had enabled her to cope when for hours and days on end, she had sat by her terminally ill husband’s bedside. It had, she said, enabled her to escape into another world.

When I am writing a book, I am indeed in another world. I lose count of time and dare not leave anything in the oven lest for the umpteenth time, I ruin yet another casserole or cake. I have a timer on my desk to remind me I am due somewhere and I must leave my world and return to reality.

Do I enjoy writing? I don’t know how to answer that. All I can say is that when I get an idea for a plot, it nags me like a bad headache until I can get it down on paper and out of my mind. I am near completion of a new saga at the moment, and none too happy to set it aside in order to write this when I should be getting my current heroine out of her crashed car before it is too late!

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