Thursday, 17 June 2021

Urban fantasy, King Arthur and Brexit. My interview with Holly Race - Tracy Darnton

This month I’m interviewing fellow SASSIE Holly Race whose book A Gathering Midnight is out this month with Hot Key.

Congratulations, Holly!

Can you tell us a bit about A Gathering Midnight?

Of course! It’s the sequel to Midnight’s Twins, my YA urban fantasy set between our world and Annwn, the alternate reality we go to when we dream. In the first book we meet 15-year-old twins Fern and Ollie, who hate each other. They have grown up believing that their mother died in her sleep when they were babies, but then Ollie is recruited into a secret army in Annwn known as the knights, who protect dreamers from their nightmares – because if you die in your dreams, you die in the real world as well. Of course, that makes them think again about what really happened to their mother, and makes Fern determined to fight her way into the knights alongside her brother in order to uncover the truth.

*Spoilers ahead!*

A Gathering Midnight picks up a few months after the events of Midnight’s Twins. Fern and Ollie have discovered what happened to their mother, but the person responsible for their mother’s death is still at large and becoming increasingly powerful in both the real world and Annwn. The first book introduced some Arthurian legend, and this becomes more prominent in the second book, as the twins embark on a quest to find Excalibur, which they believe holds the key to defeating their mother’s murderer once and for all.

And for those of us who write in other genres, what’s urban fantasy?

It’s a subgenre of fantasy, where supernatural elements are layered on top of a contemporary or ‘recent history’ urban setting. Some examples of urban fantasy novels are Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the genre before I was about halfway through the first draft of Midnight’s Twins – I didn’t set out to write ‘urban fantasy’ at all!

A Gathering Midnight is the second book in a trilogy. Can new readers launch straight into this one or should they start with Midnight’s Twins?

Someone recently said that they felt you could dive straight into the second book, but they had read the first, so I’m sceptical! There’s a lot of world building in Midnight’s Twins that’s important for understanding some of the fantasy elements of A Gathering Midnight, but perhaps more importantly you get a better sense of Fern and Ollie’s character arcs if you read Midnight’s Twins first.

What are the pressures and challenges in writing a trilogy rather than standalones?

I think a lot of authors, myself included, suffer from the shiny new idea syndrome – making it halfway through a manuscript then getting distracted by a totally different plot and set of characters. That’s amplified when you’re tied into writing a series, especially when you’re on tight deadlines as I am, with each book coming out a year after the last. You have to stay very focused on the trilogy, even when other ideas are calling to you to come and play.

A challenge specific to my books is that they have quite high death counts, so coming up with new characters and establishing them within the existing characters’ arcs and affections well enough to get readers to root for them has been tricky!

As a professional script editor working in TV and film do you have a particularly pernickety and harsh inner critic for your own work?

I definitely have the voice whispering ‘this is awful this is awful why are you even bothering’ throughout my drafts, but I’m not sure whether it’s worse than any other author’s inner critic! I’d like to think that it makes me more open to taking notes from my editor, but perhaps that’s my ego talking!

Something that I do have to remind myself to do is to sink into the emotional beats and nuances of my characters in the prose. With scriptwriting you have to be quite sparse; you have to make every line work really hard, push a lot of meaning into subtext and trust that the director and actors will read into the script to make the nuance clear. In a novel, that’s all on the author – in some ways it’s much more of a responsibility than scriptwriting!

Holly Race

I’m in awe of your worldbuilding, Holly. You draw on medieval history and Arthurian legend (I have learnt lots of new words like reeve and veneur!) So have you read loads of non-fiction as research, or used it as an excuse to watch old Merlin episodes, and I’m certainly imagining you dressed up as a knight roaming round Tintagel at the very least?  How do you build up all those layers and keep track of it all?

I own a lot of non-fiction books on Arthurian legend, medieval castles and jobs and the like, but I haven’t read them from cover to cover. I was worried I’d get sucked into research and lose sight of the story and characters, and that’s a particularly dangerous thing in YA fantasy where the ‘ideal’ word count is perhaps lower than you’d be allowed in adult fantasy. I worked as a researcher for a few years, specifically for the project that would later become the film Mary Queen of Scots, as well as a few other scripts that didn’t get greenlit. The writers in those cases pinpointed quite specific areas that they wanted or needed to explore (for instance, how did women clean themselves in the 1600s?) and asked me to focus on those. That way, they picked up interesting facts that would add richness and truthfulness to their worlds, but they didn’t get too distracted by irrelevant details.

Ooh – I like that tip for avoiding going down a major research rabbit hole, Holly!

I did explore London a lot, though! Like Fern, I love walking around cities without a map, not following a tourist trail. So I let myself get lost in the side streets, to try to capture the ‘scent’ of London for Annwn’s version of the capital. I also visited St Paul’s Cathedral (which is the site and blueprint for the knights’ castle, Tintagel) several times, although my vertigo meant I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb right to the top of the dome!

As for how I keep track of it all? Not as well as I should, to be honest. I have a ‘story bible’ from the first book, which I put together for my editor when we started working together. It outlines the backstory of Annwn (such as the way in which Arthurian legends feed into the world and the history of the knights) and some of the main characters, but I haven’t updated it in years so it’s becoming less and less useful as I dive into book three. I should probably look into that soon…

And I’m guessing that the political tumult of the UK in recent years came in handy too for the rise of Medraut?

Very much so. I’d been playing in this world of dreams and nightmares for several years, not really sure why I was writing the story, and then UKIP started to gain in popularity, Brexit happened and Michael Gove told us that Britain has ‘had enough of experts’. I found myself baffled by the fact that so many people – some of them people I love and care about – were making decisions with huge ramifications for the country, the world and future generations, off the back of emotions, feelings and sometimes prejudices that I hadn’t realised they held. It was deeply upsetting.

We’re now living in a world where personality is more important than policy: a giant reality show contest. That popularity has put these politicians on pedestals where we’re not allowed to question them at all – we simply have to trust that if we vote for them, everything they do is ‘right’. I find that extremely worrying. It made me think about how that might translate to Annwn, and suddenly I had my story: a world powered by imagination, where our imaginations are being manipulated by someone lacking in substance but hungry for unequivocal power and obedience.

I know it all had an impact in The Rules on my plot and characterisation too – it’s interesting how many of us children’s and YA authors have processed it in this way without ever mentioning the B word.  

You’ve been writing and publishing these books in very difficult times. Tell us about your dedication at the front of the A Gathering Midnight.

The dedication is ‘To the 126,000 and counting, and those who cared for them’. I had originally intended to dedicate A Gathering Midnight to my husband, but I ended up writing the bulk of the book during the first UK lockdown. It was… a struggle! I think that a lot of my fear and anxiety, and my anger at the way it was all handled, are evident in the tone of the book.

But of course I’m here, and I’m healthy, when so many aren’t. I’ve been immensely lucky to not lose anyone I love to Covid, but so many haven’t been as fortunate. I think the grief and fear so many of us have felt over the last 18 months will have long-lasting psychological consequences. It felt wrong to not acknowledge that loss and collective trauma somewhere in the novel.

Midnight’s Twins – the first book in the trilogy – was published in June 2020. We were still in lockdown 1 at that stage in England so I’m guessing it wasn’t the launch you’d dreamt of for your debut?

No, it wasn’t quite what most authors imagine when they think of launch parties and book signings! It does feel a little as though something was stolen from me, if I’m honest, but then I give myself a pinch and a headshake because come on, I’m a published author – does it really matter whether I got to have a party? My friends and family threw me a wonderful online launch, so I really can’t complain!

The bigger impact has been on sales, and I think most non-celebrity debuts and mid-list names have experienced this. While online book sales rose during lockdown, people were looking for recognisable and established names. No one was browsing bookshops and coming across new titles and authors, and of course booksellers couldn’t do the brilliant job they do of recommending titles either. It’s meant that it’s been much harder for new authors to get traction.

Very true. And what about this time round for launching A Gathering Midnight? What are you looking forward to that couldn’t happen last year?

The book came out last week! It’s been a completely different experience: I’ve been able to celebrate in my garden with small groups of friends, and go into my local independent bookshop (Heffers in Cambridge) to sign copies of the book on the morning of publication. Perhaps one of the best aspects this time round has been finally being able to spend time in person with the brilliant community of authors who have supported each other online over the last year – in the last week I’ve met Katharine and Liz Corr, the authors of The Witch’s Kiss trilogy and A Throne of Swans duology, and Menna van Praag (author of The Sisters Grimm) popped into my garden launch party!

You’re an advocate of UKYA, setting up a supportive Facebook group for us UK YA-ers. I know many of us feel it’s so hard to get any traction or shelf space with all the big YA hitters and US books dominating out there. And now you’ve just set up ukyabooks on Instagram with Kat Ellis. Is there hope for UK YA? (Please say yes!)

I don’t feel particularly qualified to talk about this to be honest, since I’m relatively new to publishing in general! Do I think there’s hope for UKYA? I’d like to think so, but my feeling is that we might be waiting for a while. I get the impression that genre ‘trends’ ebb and flow like the tide, and we just need the balance to pull back in favour of UK-based YA books in the way it did maybe a decade ago. But in the meantime all we can do is be patient, support each other and keep writing the stories we love with integrity.

(Kat Ellis is entirely responsible for the Instagram account, by the way – she’s brilliant!)

Maybe one good thing from this very strange year is that it’s made us connect more as a community of writers?

Definitely! I set up the UKYA group because I desperately wanted to ‘meet’ other UKYA authors during lockdown, and it’s become such a great little community with a life of its own. My hope is that as things begin to open up over the next few years, we can organise our own events both in person and online, across the country and across YA genres.

I do think it’s important to retain online access as much as possible though. Lockdown gave so many opportunities to those who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend physical events – I would hate for us to go back to a ‘normal’ where a huge proportion of readers and writers are once again ‘locked out’ of panels, festivals, and socialising, educational and job opportunities.

We wait to see what will become the new normal...

Lastly, are we allowed to know the final title in the trilogy and when it’s coming out?

I don’t have an exact release date yet, but I think it’s likely to be June 2022. The title (and you’re hearing it here first!) will be A Midnight Dark and Golden.

Fab title! Let's hope we're in a blended world of amazing online events and massive book launch parties and oodles of YA events by then. 

Thank you so much, Holly. Once again, congratulations and here’s wishing lots of lovely bookshop YA shelf space for The Gathering Midnight!

Thank you so much for having me, Tracy!



Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Truth About Lies and The Rules. She’s wondering if she should put some knights in her next book.  You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton. 


Wednesday, 16 June 2021

A Sea Full of Selkies with Steve Gladwin and Co.



For those people a little late to the party, (what kept you!), this is the second in a series of five on the subject of 'Selkies' - the strange, halfshaping creatures that are found in many traditions- half seal and, during their rare ventures on to land, half human. In the first article I talked about the particular selkie story, 'The Woman From the Sea', which, although it inspired me to become a storyteller, also left me with a tricky problem to solve. Kevin Crossley Holland, who has adpated the old tale several times in different versions, will be talking about it and his own meetings with the seals at the end of this month. Then, in July we will be hearing from the award-winning film-maker Sophia Carr Gomm about the inspirations for her acclaimed selkie film 'The Wider Sun', and storyteller and swimming enthusiast Sharon Jacksties about her one particular encounter and her deep attachment to David Thomson's classic book 'The People of the Sea.', which Kath taks about here.

But now it's a quick welcome back to Kath - and it's time to meet Granny Greenteeth!


Second is 'Statue of the selkie "Kópakonan",  Mikladalur, Kalsoy, Faroe Islands','



Singing for the Seals – Katherine Langrish 


Stories about selkies are ambiguous, evocative, sad.

            This is largely because of the way seals themselves affect us. Bobbing curiously up around boats, they seem to show as much interest in us as we have in them, and there is something mysteriously human about their faces and their mournful cries. Basking on sunlit rocks, they are part of our world, yet they’re natural inhabitants of the unseen, underwater world in which we’d drown. Only in imagination can we follow them down there…  

My mother used to sing a song called Song to the Seals (words by Sir Harold Boulton, set to music by Granville Bantock) about a sea-maid sitting on a reef and calling the seals in a long, lilting, melancholy refrain: ‘Hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oirain ee la leu ran…’ The sheet music includes an introductory note: ‘The refrain of this song was actually used recently on a Hebridean island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing.’

            With this two-way fascination going on, it’s not surprising there are so many legends and songs about selkies – seal-people who can cast off their thick pelts and appear in human form. The ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry exists in a number of variants, but the earliest we have was written down in 1852 by Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy: it was dictated to him by an old lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland. The core of the ballad is the tragedy of a woman who has borne a child to a unsettlingly Other selkie man – ‘a grumlie guest’ who brings a waft of salt-sea terror as he appears. ‘I am a man upo’ the land, he announces,

            ‘An’ I am a Silkie in the sea;

And when I’m far and far frae lan’

            My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’


As Lieutenant Thomas explains:



The story is founded on the superstition of the Seals or Selkies being able to throw off their waterproof jackets, and assume the more graceful proportions of the genus Homo… Silky is a common name in the north country for a seal, and appears to be a corruption of selch, the Norse word for that animal. Sule Skerry is a small rocky islet, lying about twenty-five miles to the westward of Hoy Head, in Orkney, from whence it may be seen in very clear weather…

And he tells of coming in from the cod-fishing on a foggy, windless morning, rowing ‘for nearly a mile through the narrow channels formed by a thousand weed-covered skerries’ and hearing the seals’ ‘lullaby’: ‘groans and sighs expressive of unutterable torment… followed by a melancholy howl of hopeless despair’.

A few years ago, wandering the fractured rocky shore of Longstone Island off the coast of Northumberland, I too became aware of this eerie sound. Keening, moaning, huff-huff-huffing – hooting like children who make long quavering ghost noises – a group of twenty or so seals were crying to one another as they lay on a ridge at the edge of the tide.

            The unnamed woman in The Great Silkie loses both her child and its selkie father: the Silkie predicts she will marry a mortal man, ‘a proud gunner’ who will shoot them both as they play together in the bright summer sea.

The Silkie of Sule Skerry is male, but the best-known selkie tales tell of a seal-woman captured by a fisherman who spies her dancing on a moonlit beach. He steals her discarded skin, preventing her from changing back into seal form. Such stories generally end when the selkie bride discovers her hidden sealskin and returns to the sea, abandoning her human husband and children. ‘I loved you well,’ she sometimes calls, ‘but I loved better my husband and children in the sea.’ Unions between humans and faerie creatures rarely turn out well. These are disturbing stories of constraint and capture, power and powerlessness, and they are haunted by loss: the selkie’s longing for her own element, and the heartache of man and children left behind. 


By kind permission of the artist Kate Leiper, copyright 2009



I was thinking about selkie stories while I was writing Troll Mill, the second book of my ‘Troll Trilogy’, and it seemed to me that somewhere within them was a metaphor for post-natal depression. That’s not to pin them down. Folk and fairy tales are open to many interpretations. But the thought gave me the heart of the book. Kersten is a seal-woman stolen by Bjørn, a fisherman. One stormy evening she finds her sealskin cloak, races to the shore and thrusts her new-born child into the arms of the young hero Peer, before throwing herself into the sea. ‘Where are you going?’ he stammers, and: ‘She looked at him with eyes like dark holes. “Home.”’ Left literally holding the baby, Peer cannot catch her; he yells a warning to his friend Bjørn, who runs to intercept her –

And Kersten stopped. She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot. Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps. She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin closely around her. She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown.

‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed.  The body in the water  twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave.

I wanted to leave a element of doubt. Is Kersten really a selkie? Or is it only a story the other characters make about her, a way to explain what she did and why? A great part of the book (I realised, after I’d written it) is about motherhood and what it does to you, and how differently it can turn out. There is Kersten, the mother who goes missing, who cannot manage, the mother lost or dead. There is Gudrun – older, capable, hard-working and tired, the nurturing mother. There’s a troll princess, drama-queen mother of the kind of spoiled brat other mothers dread. And there is Granny Greenteeth, my version of the dangerous English water-spirit Jenny Greenteeth. She can shape-shift into an eel; she drags children into the green depths of stagnant water because she wants company, and she claims Ran, the motherless half-selkie baby, as her lawful prey even though the child will drown. She is the destructive mother:  

Peer saw her, or thought he did: Granny Greenteeth in human form, sitting at the bottom of the millpond with Ran in her arms. A greenish light clung around them. Granny Greenteeth’s hair was waving upwards in a terrible aureole and she bent over Ran, rocking her to and fro.

Granny or Jenny Greenteeth is a fresh-water spirit, a nixie not a selkie: her origin in English folklore is likely to have been a sort of bogey created to frighten children away from dangerous ponds. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835) says that the Danish water spirit, the nøkke, wears a green hat and that ‘when he grins you see his green teeth’. Grimm adds that ‘there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness which is not easily found among daemons of mountains, woods and homes… To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: “The river-sprite demands his yearly victim,” which is usually an innocent child.’

            Unlike nixies, selkies aren’t cruel (although sometimes they take revenge). They are not spirits but creatures of flesh and blood like ourselves. The Shetland and Orkney islanders with whom David Thomson talked in the 1940s for BBC radio (later published as his book The People of The Sea) knew this well. One story told to Thomson in the radio age was already over a century old, for it can be found in Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Islands (1822). And it couldn’t be plainer about the physicality of the selkie race. Thomson was told by a Shetlander Gilbert Charleson, how a band of men landed on the Ve Skerries (the ‘Holy Skerries’) to stun and skin the seals there:

‘Ye’d no sooner stun your seal than you’d set to and skin him, you understand, for if you left him there he might come back to life and go back into the sea while you turned around. T’was hard to be sure if they were dead or no, for it’s very hard to kill them…’

Hibbert’s older account is just as graphic:

They … stunned several of them and while they lay stupefied, stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. They left the naked carcasses lying on the rocks, and were about to get into their boats with their spoils and return to Papa Stour, whence they had come.

As they prepare to leave, a huge swell rises. The men all leap for their boats… The Ve Skerries are the very ones though which Lieutenant Thomas RN rowed in the 1850s, coming back from his cod-fishing expedition, and he described them as “almost covered by the sea at high water, and in this stormy climate, a heavy surf breaking over them generally forms an effectual barrier to boats.” No wonder the men are swift to leave, but one too slow is left behind, Unable to get close enough for him to jump, his friends give up and row for home, knowing he’ll be washed away.

            Now the seals return to the skerry, moaning and crying for the deaths of their kin; crying even more for those still alive, for without their skins they can never return to their home in the sea. And the one crying the most is a selkie called Geira in Thomson’s version, Gioga in the older one: for her son Hancie has lost his skin and must now be forever exiled.  



            Then she sees the shivering, stranded fisherman, waiting to die by cold or drowning. She speaks to him, offering to carry him on her back all the way home to Papa Stour, if in return he will find and restore her son’s sealskin. The man is willing, but when he looks at the turbulent waves, he’s afraid. So he asks her permission to cut slots in the thick sealskin of her shoulders and flanks, two for his hands and two for his feet, so that he can hold on firmly ‘between the skin and the flesh’ and will ‘no slip in tae the sea’. So dear is her son to Geira/Gioga that she agrees, and carries the man away through the storm and all the way back to Papa Stour. The story ends:

‘And this man went across the island in the night, when he landed. He walked down by the Dutch Loch and on to Hamna Voe. He made sure his comrades were sleeping. And he went there to the skeo (a little stone house used for the curing of fish). And he chose out the longest and bonniest skin out o’ a’ that lay there and took it to the old mother selkie, Geira. It was the skin o’ her son, Hancie, and away wi’ that she swam.’

            David Thomson: The People of the Sea

So there’s a tale of co-operation between human and selkie, even though the man was part of a team slaughtering and skinning the seals. The relationship between the two races is not equal. The men prey upon the seals in order to live – to sell the skins, to make shoes and garments from them. They use the seals, but also they depend upon them: they owe them. And they are uneasy about it, uneasy about killing these creatures who seem so much like – people. One more quotation from The People of the Sea, from eighty year-old Osie Fea:

‘It’s no wonder they were thought to be like us,’ he said. ‘For the seals and ourselves were aye thrown together in our way o’ getting a living, and everything we feel, they feel, ye may be sure o’ that.’

            ‘I wouldna care to be near them,’ said Margaret Fae.

            ‘I have watched them,’ said Osie, ‘as near as I am to you. I have seen a mother out by the Seal Skerry when the sea was full o’ wreckage. There was a ship wrecked out by and it was rough, and this wreckage was tumbling her young one about so he couldna win ashore. I could see the anxiety gazing out o’ her eyes like a woman’s. The very same. The very same as a woman’s.’

It is surely from this sense of identification – empathy, recognition, responsibility and guilt – that the stories were born.    


Many thanks, Kath. And on the 28th June I'm pleased to be welcoming back another regular contributor, Kevin Crossley Holland, who will be talking about selkies, 'The Woman From the Sea', and the story of St Cuthbert and the seals.








Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Two steps forward, one plotline back - by Rowena House

Two steps forward this past month with – potentially – big implications for the seventeenth century work-in-progress.

One step was serendipitous, the other came during to a two-hour Zoom discussion with a great writing friend about Maggie O’Farrell’s prize-winning and best-selling Hamnet, a story inspired by the childhood death of Shakespeare’s son.

Naturally, with Hamnet, we talked about the story as readers first, sharing our favourite bits and which scenes we found to be less successful. The breakthrough came after we analysed Chapter 2 as writers: what had the author done with this text; how did she do it, and what could we learn from it as historical fiction writers?

I’ll add two caveats here: a) I haven’t yet finished the book, though my friend has, and b) we’re going to continue our discussion, analysing a favourite scene each, therefore these observations are both broad and tentative.

Please do add your comments; it would be lovely to widen the discussion.

Anyway. Our first big takeaway was is how light Hamnet is on historical context compared with (for want of a better term) mainstream historical fiction. 


In not naming William Shakespeare, who is variously ‘the husband’, ‘the father’ or ‘the Latin tutor’ etc., O’Farrell boldly and explicitly puts his wife, whom she calls Agnes, centre stage.

This is a domestic story about complex family relationships, rich in history but not the familiar sort about events, particularly events that involve kings and queens, battles and dates.

Apparently, O’Farrell never even names the location of the story as Stratford, though she names streets and describes Shakespeare’s house in great detail. The historical event at its heart is a private tragedy: devastating yet commonplace.

The boldness of this exclusive, penetrating focus on the personal felt remarkable as I re-read Chapter 2 with an analytical, writerly hat on.

As a technique, it is effective and genre-bending. Indeed, reading the whole opening again reminded me of the first time I came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a slow burn, then boom! And I got it.

It may be that this sense of surprise reflects a dearth of recent historical fiction reading, which has suffered from the amount of non-fiction research I’ve done in the past few years, plus life’s demands in general.

If anyone can point out contemporary examples of novels like Hamnet, I’d love to hear about them.

The other big thing that struck me from the Zoom discussion was the ease with which my friend accepted Agnes’s powers of fortune telling and mind reading as a natural part of her character, without seeing them necessarily as magical.

Like Hilary Mantel’s ghosts, O’Farrell’s use of the supernatural seems to glide by reviewers and readers alike. [I accept this is a huge generalisation, but these are preliminary thoughts yet to be tested.]

Both these observations have relevance to my tale about a witch trial.

First, how much ‘history’ do I include beyond the immediate events of the story?

For example, I have been trying to develop a secondary plot which is heavy on historical context, with a viewpoint character who spans the social divide from my protagonist, a courtroom clerk, all the way to the Courts of James I and VI and his Queen Consort, Anne of Denmark.

I’ve grown very fond of this viewpoint character, Lady Beth Knyvet, in the year or so I have spent researching her life, and plotting her goals and motivation etc. But I have a horrible feeling she is tangential to the core story, so [deep breath] I have decided [for now at least] to ditch her storyline.

Bloomin heck.

The second point about Hamnet relates to my ghost. I haven’t begun to write her yet but I know she’s got to be there.

Whether she is an actual ghost or the projection of a disturbed mind remains moot. Maybe it will remain moot in the story. I don’t yet know. But Hamnet and the Cromwell trilogy, among others, suggest that historical fiction readers are willing to accept a certain amount of magic if it is done in the right way.

Fingers crossed.

So what about serendipity?

Before I had set Beth Knyvet’s story aside, a root around the National Archives, as part of an online training course run by archivists and historians at the Public Records Office, threw up a few tantalizing glimpses into the life of another character in the WIP: the judge at the witch trial.

It then turned out that the judge’s wife was a much more interesting woman than I had imagined her to be. Hurrah! As one door closes, a new one opens.

Where it will lead, I have no clue. But instinct and inclination agree that there should be a role in this tale for a powerful, intelligent woman, one who isn't a victim.

Meanwhile, a wholesale edit of the various synopses and texts beckons, with my protagonist morphing from an empathetic young man into a more jaded, worldly, nuanced and less likeable character.

Without wishing to jinx the whole thing, I’ll admit to feeling a bit more optimistic about this project than I have for a while. Happy writing!

Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author


Monday, 14 June 2021

If at first you don't succeed... by Lynne Benton


All writers get rejections, right?  They are never nice, but we just have to get used to them.  But does getting a rejection from a publisher mean our work is no good?

Not necessarily.

I recently came across a list of famous books which had originally been rejected by publishers, and found it quite fascinating.  For example, how could anyone have decided that Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows wasn’t good enough?

Originally Grahame made up stories of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad for his four-year-old son as bedtime stories, but when he took early retirement from his job at the Bank of England, he used these bedtime stories as a basis for The Wind in the Willows.  However, a number of publishers rejected the manuscript before it was finally accepted and published in 1908. 

The public, of course, loved it, and The Wind in the Willows was subsequently listed as one of the Top Ten Books of All Time!

Another book which nearly didn’t make it was Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  This was the first of her many crime novels featuring the indomitable Hercule Poirot, inspired by an influx of Belgian refugees into the UK after the First World War.  The manuscript was rejected by two publishers before being accepted by a third, after she’d agreed to making slight changes to the ending.  It was finally published in the US in October 1920, and in the UK in 1921, and this and many of her subsequent Poirot novels have been filmed and televised numerous times.  In fact, David Suchet has filmed every one of the Poirot stories for television.  Imagine if Agatha Christie hadn’t persisted with her first book in the series, maybe  nobody would have ever heard of Hercule Poirot!

Given the difficulties faced by women doing anything outside the home in the early 19th century, it is good to know that at least Jane Austen’s family believed in her work.  In 1793 her father thought enough of Pride and Prejudice, which she’d read aloud to the family, to ask a publisher if he would like to publish it.  It was, however, firmly rejected by return, and was only published in 1813, after the success of Sense and Sensibility

Later, in 1803, her brother Henry offered the ms of Northanger Abbey to Crosby & Company, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright and promised early publication, but did nothing more with it.  In 1809 Jane wrote an angry letter to Richard Crosby, offering him a rewritten version of the novel if needed to secure its immediate publication.  If he didn’t want it, she requested the return of the original so she could find another publisher. Crosby loftily replied that he had not agreed to publish the book by any particular time, or at all, and that she could repurchase the manuscript for the £10 he had paid her brother, and then she could find another publisher. Sadly she couldn’t afford to buy it back until 1816, so it wasn’t finally published, along with Persuasion, until after her death in 1817.

And these are not the only examples of famous books initially rejected.  Who can forget the story of a young orphaned wizard at boarding school, which was rejected several times before a brave publisher took a chance on it…

All of which I find immensely cheering.  The main message seems to be, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!”  So good luck to all writers out there, keep sending your work out, and just remember those best-sellers which were initially rejected!

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