The Hares of Ladywell

My last blog post was entitled: Licet esse beatis It is permitted to be joyful. Well, I think we all know that joy is in considerable demand at the moment, so this post tells how the hares came to be such a vital – and joyful – part of The House at Ladywell and the seasonal sequel, Christmas at Ladywell.

The House at Ladywell combines my passion for history and for mystery. Back in the mid-1990s I wrote a book about a young woman who inherited a very old house in Hampshire and although it got some excellent rejections! I ended up shelving it. Every now and then I would think about it until, in 2015, I realised that the story was incomplete. Instead of a purely contemporary novel, I needed to tell the story of the very old house I’d dreamed up, which is how The House at Ladywell became a multi-timeline novel, combining a modern love story with several glimpses of the history of the house, as well as a few mysteries (because I can’t resist them).

I still had the twenty-year old early version of the story but I only used it as a reference while I re-wrote it completely. About a third of the way into the book, I decided I wasn’t happy with the viewpoint, so I tried writing in the first person, something I’d never done, but luckily the story came alive. So far so good. A month or so later it was clear that something else was lacking. I needed a running theme, something to connect past and present, and that’s when the hares of Ladywell turned up.

Harvest Hare by Nicky

Tentatively, I introduced a hare into the Roman story and felt pleased with it, so from then on the hares of Ladywell became completely real to me and added new depths to the history of the ancient and modern aspects of the old house and its family. I explored the connection again in the follow-up novella, Christmas at Ladywell, and was pleased to expand the story of the hares.

This one’s a tad chubby for a hare but I’m fond of him!

But why hares in the first place? Because I’ve belonged to a local art workshop for years and one day, for no particular reason, decided to paint a hare! It worked so I painted more and sold them – including one at an open exhibition at the Southampton Art Gallery! Now, if I can’t think what to paint, I default to painting a hare, and the more I discovered about these strange and mystical animals the more I was hooked.

It’s been a delight to learn that readers also love the hares, as well as the hints of magic and myth that they bring to the story – and several kind readers have even given me ornamental hares, among them a  sweet little metal hare who sits on my mantelpiece and a tiny silver hare in the shape of a lapel pin! Sadly, I’ve never seen a hare close up, only running rapidly in the opposite direction, but I do have my magical hares at Ladywell!

Tiny hares, 2″x 2″ canvas

I hope everyone is coping with lockdown and isolation. We’re lucky enough to have a garden with a wood at the bottom so we have plenty to do and to see. Here’s hoping we all get through this testing time, and remember, even at times like this, it is still permitted (as often as possible) to be joyful! xx

mybook.to/TheHouseatLadywell

mybook.to/ChristmasatLadywell

 

‘Where do the stories come from…’

…is the question writers are asked time and time again.  Along with, ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’cartoon writer

 I’m rather partial to Terry Pratchett’s theory that inspiration comes sleeting down like rain and it’s just luck if an idea hits a suitable receptacle rather than a camel or an oak tree but as it happens I do know roughly how my most recent novel, A Crowded Coffin, came about, so, inspired by a post on Sue Moorcroft’s always informative and helpful blog http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/  here it is: the genesis of a murder mystery.

 ACrowdedCoffincover

Back in about 1974 I was a young mum with two small children and we lived in Hillingdon, near Uxbridge. I’d just signed a contract for a children’s book – which sadly never got published but that’s another story. What to write next? I had an idea for a teenage-type book about a seventeen-year old girl who lived in a rambling and almost ruined castle with her elderly grandparents. A young man would enter this crumbling idyll and… well, that was about it, really. I knew he would be somehow damaged by Seeing Something Nasty in the Woodshed (or something equally horrid) and that there would be a Roman mosaic pavement. 

Scroll forward to 1979 and we now had three children, lived near Weybridge in Surrey, and had just spent a year living in Egypt. My book had progressed in the shape of a few more scrappy notes. The girl was a bit older, the castle less ruined, the young man still suffering ‘orrible pangs of h’agony (as yet from an unknown cause) and there was still a Roman mosaic pavement. 

By the mid-80s we were living, as we are now, in Hampshire and I was writing stories fairly regularly for The Brownie Magazine, the reason being that I was by now a Brown Owl. My Sleeping Beauty – for that’s who she was really – was still stuck in her castle with no progress on finding out what was wrong with her prince. However, she still had a Roman mosaic pavement.

 Now we’ve reached 1991 and this is when I finally wrote the book – the first draft anyway. This time the girl was in her early twenties, the young man recently returned home from some still unmentionable trauma undergone heaven knows where. The family had taken a step upwards socially and the grandmother was a Russian aristocrat who escaped from the Revolution as a child. The girl, whose name I can’t remember, was assisted by her former headmistress, Miss Harriet Hathaway (she had a name change later) who at that time bore an uncanny resemblance to Margaret Rutherford.  Harriet’s cousin Sam, the clergyman, also made his debut. The Roman mosaic pavement had sadly vanished, to be replaced by rumours of a ruined Roman villa.

 In 1992 I sent it off to the Romantic Novelists’ Association for their New Writers’ Scheme, only back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, New Writers were called Probationers. (Ooh, Matron!)  To my surprise the book, at that time called Death and The Dragon Stone, got a second read but wasn’t considered ready for publication.  One of the readers suggested the title and the story were more suited to a mystery than a romantic novel. That was a light bulb moment – from then on I mostly wrote mysteries. I tweaked it according to the various comments from the NWS and sent it off to an agent. She took the unusual step of sending me her reader’s report which basically said the writing was good, the story had merit but it needed a fair amount of work to get it ready.  By this time I’d found out what the hero’s problem was: he’d been held captive in a country unnamed but curiously similar to the Lebanon – in short, I’d been seriously influenced by the British hostages there and the reader’s report justly said: get rid of the John McCarthy rip-off!  The Roman ruins were there still but sadly the mosaic pavement was gone forever.

 In 1993 I had a bright idea, ie that I would write a prequel called Death and the Oompah Band, and do it from Harriet’s point of view. I wrote the bare bones of the novel in three weeks – never before or since has anything like that happened! And I sent it off to another agent. She loved it. I sent the second in the series (formerly the first, if you remember – keep up at the back). She loved that too and took me on. I made Harriet younger and the two books got a fair few ‘close but no cigar’ rejections until the agent gave up on me and I stuck the books into a deep, dark drawer. 

Scroll forward to somewhere like 2009. My first two Victorian mysteries had been published and I was wondering what to write next, so I fished out the prequel. Underneath all the inevitable rubbish I felt the story had legs as they say so I updated it – mobile phones, iPads, etc and sent it to my (new) agent. She liked it and we changed the title to Murder Fortissimo. Bingo! 

The obvious next step was to take a long, hard look at the original story, Death and the Dragon Stone. Again, the underlying story seemed viable so I did the updating thing. This time the castle became an ancient but far more modest farmhouse, the grandparents also more modest – yeoman farmers and definitely no Russian royalty, while Sleeping Beauty was a feisty young teacher who had been working for Hollywood royalty instead. The Prince had now returned from an unnamed Far Eastern country where he’d undergone his traumas (no spoilers) and by now Harriet and Sam, fresh from their triumph in sorting out Murder Fortissimo, reappeared as the stars of the story. The Roman ruins were now integral to the story but no bits of mosaic ever turned up. 

The Dragon Stone of the original drafts became the Angel Stone (a curiously shaped menhir or standing stone) in the published version and the title became A Crowded Coffin – which, I have to admit, is a title I’m rather proud of!  This picture shows part of the avenue of stones at Carnac in Brittany. My fictitious stone is solitary and shaped very roughly like an angel. (Spooky place, Carnac, but fabulous to visit).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA So that’s how it was done:

Murder Fortissimo’ – written in three weeks and from conception to publication a mere 18 years.

A Crowded Coffin’ however, took a tad longer – from conception to publication a mere 39 years.

Easy peasy!

Interview: I’ve been visiting Susan Finlay’s interesting blog, so do go and read her interview with me: http://susansbooks37.wordpress.com

GALLOWS HUMOUR (Dying of Laughter)

The British have always been good at black humour. An older friend told me that when she was a little girl in WW2, there was a litter bin at her local shops. It had Adolf Hitler’s face painted on it and you threw the rubbish into his mouth. When the name of Osama bin Laden began to strike terror around the world, one of the British tabloids rechristened him, Osama bin Liner.

Irreverence instantly defuses anxiety.

If you read the experiences of the Beirut captives, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, you soon discover that their very dark humour was vital to their survival, although I’m betting a lot of it was far too rude to go into the books they wrote. I met a woman once who had been in a Nazi concentration camp; she told me people found it uncomfortable to hear that humour had been a part of her life there. It seemed inappropriate to them but it was a survival strategy to her.

Ah yes, inappropriate humour. Er, I plead guilty to that, m’lud. I’m the woman who cracked jokes all through planning her mother’s funeral and at the service, conducted by a jolly old locum vicar who must have been well over eighty and very doddery, I nearly disgraced myself by thinking how lucky it was that the funeral was at the crematorium and not at a graveside. It was a cold, windy day and I knew mum, wherever she was, would have been on tenterhooks lest he fall into the grave with her. I swear I heard spectral giggles when the image slid into my mind.

Back to the books then. When I was struggling to get published an experienced writer told me to work out what it was that always turned up in my writing. ‘There’ll be something,’ she said. ‘What crops up in your writing however hard you try to suppress it?’
‘That’ll be the jokes then,’ I confessed.
‘But didn’t you say you’re writing a murder mystery?’ she exclaimed.
Er, yes.

Let me get one thing straight. Murder isn’t funny. In my books I don’t trivialise either the act of murder or the effect it has on people. What does turn up though, are the everyday little sillinesses that go on cropping up at the most inappropriate moments. A doddery old vicar who falls into the open grave isn’t actually funny, it’s horrifying, but like the proverbial banana skin, the image provokes a hastily suppressed shiver of mirth.

Humour is an outlet for other emotions because it creates a distance from the horror, almost turning it into a fantasy and this is common in a ‘cosy’ mystery. In ‘Spotlight’ by Patricia Wentworth I found this: ‘We’re talking like this because we’ve got to make it all seem like nonsense. It’s like turning it into a play – it stops it being real – and frightening.’

I tell people I write cheerful murder mysteries; there’s no other way to describe them, really. Not laugh out loud, but sneaky humour that creeps up on you and I’m happy to say that readers have commented on my ‘obviously irrepressible sense of humour’ (thank you, blogger Geranium Cat!)

So there you have it: In the midst of doom, gloom, despair and terror, ‘cheerfulness will keep breaking in.’