Author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries – and much more
Author: Debbie Young
Author of warm, witty and gently funny fiction and non-fiction, including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, beginning with "Best Murder in Show", inspired by her life in an English Cotswold community, short stories and essays about country life. As Commissioning Editor for the Alliance of Independent Authors' Advice Centre, she writes guidebooks authors. She speaks at many literature festivals and writing events, and is part of BBC Radio Gloucestershire's monthly Book Club broadcast. She is founder and director of the free Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival which takes place in April, a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, and an ambassador for children's reading charity Read for Good and the Type 1 diabetes charity JDRF.
Feeling depleted by the snowy weather, I decided to follow the advice of my friend Orna Ross, a teacher of creative thinking, to “fill the creative well”.
It felt like timely advice for me because my latest novel, Murder by the Book, begins with a murderer shoving the victim to his death down a disused village well.
I know Orna doesn’t mean that kind of well. Instead she is referring to the mental reserves that need regular boosting if you are to sail through life, contented and creative, rather than stumbling like an automaton on auto-pilot.
To replenish those reserves, she recommends a weekly “create-date” – an outing to be spent entirely on your own doing something fun. It doesn’t need to be an overtly creative activity, just something you expect to enjoy.
My Create-Date in Clevedon
So last week, on the slim pretext of needing to research a stretch of the M5 mentioned in my novel (the rest of the book is more exciting than that makes it sound), I made a solitary trek to the coast to visit Clevedon Pier.
The only Grade I listed pier in England, it’s an elegant, minimalist Victorian structure much more to my taste than the over-hyped high-tech one in Weston-super-Mare. It even met with John Betjeman’s approval: he described it as “the most beautiful pier in England”. Might a decent pier have saved Slough from the Poet Laureate’s famous condemnation? Oh, and a seaside location, of course.
At the pier’s admissions office, I asked the young man on the till the entry price. With the sweetest of smiles he told me: “As it’s International Women’s Day, to you it’s £1”. I assumed that was a concession, not a premium.
Water, Water, Everywhere
On my gentle, sunny stroll along the pier’s wooden boards, I especially enjoyed reading the tiny brass plaques embedded in its walls, conjuring up back-stories of the citizens they commemorate.
Afterwards, a wander around a charity shop in Hill Road resulted in my acquisition of some beautiful vintage piano music. I was beginning to feel as if I’d travelled back to the nineteenth century, especially when, walking back to my car, I spotted the most spectacular Art Nouveau drinking fountain I’d ever seen. Not quite a well, but I was pleased to see it was full to the brim.
Four days later, my personal well is overflowing, and I’ve been working like a demon ever since my return.
So I think these solitary create-dates may become a habit. And at least I’ll know I’ll always be in good company.
Murder by the Book, which begins with someone plunging down a well to their death, and which is set partly in Clevedon, will be launched at the free Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April, and can be pre-ordered as an ebook already here. The paperback will also be available very shortly .
In 2010, realising that no matter how hard I worked in my day job, it was leaving me unfulfilled, I made the radical decision to walk away from it without a job to go to. I intended to refocus my life on my writing ambitions.
Reading Between the Lines
It felt like a miracle when I almost immediately landed a part-time job with a wonderful children’s reading charity, Read for Good, which served two purposes for me (apart from giving me an income, that is):
It reinforced the importance of books and reading not only for children but for all ages, which in turn validated my ambition to write books myself.
It gave me space to explore different ways in which I could write what I wanted to write – and indeed to discover exactly what that was.
Using commissioned non-fiction projects and experimental short stories as stepping stones, I gradually gained the confidence and competence needed to achieve my long-term goal to write a novel.
Now I’m hooked, with three novels published in the last year, the fourth due out next month, and my planned series of seven, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, now starting to morph into a series of ten.
Planning for Success
But as in all of life, the things that you don’t plan are often some of the most exciting.
Here are five serendipitous things that have happened to me over the last few years while I was making other plans. Not only is my writing life is the richer for them, but it turns out they’ve helped other people too.
1) Being invited to join a regular monthly spot on BBC Radio Gloucestershire‘s lunchtime show, in its Book Club slot, alongside its delightful presenters, initially Clare Carter and now Dominic Cotter, and The Bookseller’s Caroline Sanderson, to talk about our chosen book of the month and any other book-related topics that take our fancy – and I’ve discovered I love doing radio.
2) Launching a free local literature festival to bring indie authors, poets and illustrators to my community at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, with no admission charges so that visitors could save their money to buy the speakers’ books instead. This started out as a simple plan to spend a few hours in one of the village pubs with a few writer friends – four years on, it’s somehow morphed into 50+ authors in a packed day-long programme, this year with an art exhibition running in tandem.
3) Being the inadvertent catalyst for a new book by other authors – the panel of authors I’d introduced to each other for the second Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest to discuss writing about difference (that’s politically-correct-speak for disability, to be clear) got together afterwards to collaborate on Silent Voices, an anthology by carers and the cared-for, venting their feelings.
4) Encouragingother writers to grow from nervous debutant to confident published author, either through their participation in the authors’ groups I run in Cheltenham and Bristol or through their participation in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest. (I’ve observed a direct relationship between the most nerves and the biggest post-performance smile at every event.)
5) Helping other people achieve their publishing ambitions through what I’ve learned on my own journey as an indie author, such as enabling a 95-year-old, terminally ill refugee to turn his memoirs into a book before he died, or helping a retired neighbour revive children’s stories she’d written decades ago. Not only was I able to publish them as books, I also sent her into the village school as guest author on World Book Day, where she was very well received.
Is It Karma?
Some author friends swear there is such a thing as book karma: if you’re helpful to others, that helpfulness will come back to you in some other form at a later date.
So is it karma that this week that I spotted the first book in my Sophie Sayers series rising up the cosy mystery charts?
If so, I’m fine with that. When I started self-publishing my books (I’d written stories all my life but hadn’t seriously pursued publication), I thought just writing the books would be satisfying enough for me. And if anyone else benefited along the way from anything I did, I’d jokingly tell myself that virtue was its own reward, or I’d get my reward in heaven, and that wouldbe enough for me.
And if there aren’t any books in heaven? Then I’m not going.
If you’re within reach of the Cotswolds, come along and join in the fun at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival this month, on Saturday 21st April. Download the full programme from its website, www.hulitfest.com, to help you plan your day in advance – but there’s no advance booking required, and no admission charge. Just turn up on the day and enjoy!
I’ll be launching the fourth in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, at the Festival, but you can pre-order an ebook copy here in the meantime at the special launch price of 99p/99c, and the paperback from 21st April, at viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook.
My column from the March 2018 edition of Hawkesbury Parish News
“But Easter’s so early this year!”
With Easter Sunday falling on 1st April this year, the schools will barely have time to squeeze in the spring term before the bank holidays begin. My daughter’s school breaks up on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.
But it could be worse: it’s possible for Easter Sunday to fall as early as 22nd March. No cause for immediate alarm though, as that’s not due to happen till 2285.
Next year, we will have the opposite problem: Easter will be three weeks later, on April 21st. (Latest Easter possible is 25th April, as will happen in 2038.)
At least a later Easter means that Valentine’s Day won’t coincide with Ash Wednesday, as it did this year, causing a dilemma for anyone who’d given up chocolate for Lent. (What do you mean, your Valentine never brings you chocolates?)
Why do Easter dates vary so much?
They are set according to the phases of the moon. Easter Day is deemed to be the first Sunday after the first full moon to follow the vernal equinox. (No, I don’t know why, either.)
When’s the vernal equinox? Easy – 21st March, my parents’ wedding anniversary (impressively, their 65th this year, in case you’re wondering). Or so I thought, until I googled “vernal equinox” and discovered it is just as likely to fall on 19th or 20th March, depending on when the sun crosses the celestial equator, a notional line running from south to north above the equator.
In all of this mayhem, you’ll be pleased to know there is still one absolute certainty: that wherever Easter falls on the calendar, there will always be Easter eggs in the shops from Valentine’s Day onwards – and often even earlier. But not to worry: in my opinion, there’s no such thing as too much chocolate.
Happy Easter, folks!
The timing isn’t all bad news, though – it’s just right to get me in the mood for starting to write my fifth novel in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Springtime for Murder, which kicks off with someone thinking they’ve found the Easter bunny dead in an open grave.
Don’t worry, though, all is not what it seems… he’ll still be delivering chocolate this Easter!
It seems appropriate to share my post for the March issue of the Tetbury Advertiser on the first official day of spring – also my beloved parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Such a romantic and positive day for them to have got married, I always think.
Admiring the green shoots of daffodils popping up in my front garden, I’m struck by their similarity to post-hibernation grizzly bears. Both spend the winter tucked away, hidden and forgotten, in a kind of cocoon: bulb and cave, respectively. Seeing them emerge in spring is enough to warm the heart of any mortal, though round these parts you’re more likely to spot the former than the latter.
A friend advises me that narcissi contain a natural form of antifreeze. I bet hibernating bears would like some of that, but unfortunately it’s not in a form that’s accessible to them or to us. Otherwise I could have offered a bunch of daffodils to my husband for his car radiator when its burst hose deposited all his antifreeze on the M4 yesterday.
Further signs of spring at Young Towers are the little tufts of white, orange and black fur scattered throughout the house. Unlike me, Dorothy, our calico cat, takes no heed of the maxim “Cast not a clout till May be out” (or, possibly may with a little m, as in the flower, depending on which version of the saying you prefer). Dorothy starts ditching her winter coat as soon as the days are noticeably longer. By mid-February, she’s kitten-skittish, despite her middle age.
I know the feeling. A single day of forget-me-not blue skies and bright sunshine is enough to infect me with spring fever even in stubbornly sub-zero temperatures. That is, until I stumble across an article identifying this notional affliction as a tangible, physical and serious illness. Common around March in pre-industrial times, “spring disease” was characterised by muscle weakness, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and loose teeth. It could even prove fatal.
Although the article is hardly ideal reading the night before a dental appointment, I brace myself to investigate. The disease turns out to be scurvy, caused by a winter diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables. By early spring, the only sources of Vitamin C were vegetables that didn’t rot during storage, such as leeks and cabbages, and, once we’d discovered them, potatoes. Given my impending trip to the dentist, I concoct a supper consisting entirely of all three vegetables, just to be on the safe side.
Confident that I can now enjoy my spring fever without losing my teeth, I step out next morning into a crisply cold but sunny day, ready to visit the dentist. But unlike Dorothy, I keep my winter coat on.
You’ll find a further taste of spring in the fourth novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, to be launched at the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. The ebook is already available to pre-order at a special earlybird price of just 99p/99c here: viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook
I was delighted to be invited to launch the new Hawkesbury Upton Village Library yesterday, and I wrote a short speech to mark the occasion. A number of people afterwards asked me for a copy of it, so here it is for anyone who would like it.
After I’d spoken, local councillor Sue Hope added her thanks on behalf of the community to the Hawkesbury Village Hall Committee, the Parish Council and the Hawkesbury Writers for their support and funding for the new facilities, for which the books and services will be provided by South Gloucestershire Libraries. A team of eight wonderful village volunteers will staff the library and open it for two hours every fortnight.
My Opening Address
It’s a pleasure and an honour to be invited to open what is going to be a wonderful new resource for our community. It feels like we’re at a little bit of Hawkesbury history in the making.
Like many of you, I was sad that funding cuts led to the closure of the mobile library that had served us so well for so long. It brought great comfort and interest to many villages and hamlets beside ours, and it was always a heartwarming sight to see it trundling down our lanes. It was like a tardis full of books, manned by kind, friendly and knowledgeable staff always willing to help us, no matter how obscure our questions, even when we forget our library cards. I don’t know whether the mobile staff realised how much we loved and appreciated them, but on behalf of our community, I’d like to thank them for the pleasure they have brought us – and to congratulate them for their driving skills to manoeuvre that great bus down the lanes to us, time after time.
So a sad loss, but, like a phoenix from the ashes, this new and different kind of library, with its permanent base in our community, is the start of a whole new chapter (groan) in our bookish lives. In a way it will bring us the best of both worlds: access to the entire stock from South Gloucestershire Libraries, not only from Yate’s stocks but from anywhere in the south west. All we need to do is request them online from the comfort of our own homes, and they’ll be served up to us by our fantastic team of volunteers, all trained to give us the help we need at a local level.
You can of course still use the other South Gloucestershire libraries of your choice – in Yate when you’re shopping, or the library nearest your workplace – but just as the mobile library brought resources to those who couldn’t get to those, so will the community library. But choosing books from the Community Library will help you save fuel and time – just as the Hawkesbury Stores makes it possible for us to buy groceries close to home.
For any cynics who are wondering whether public libraries are still relevant to us in the digital age, think again. Studies show that a large proportion of library users are also regular buyers of books. Libraries are for everyone – and not just for those who can’t afford to buy books.
Why do affluent book buyers use libraries too? Library books should not be considered as second-best to buying books. The quality of books in libraries is always high, mostly as new or nearly new condition, and it’s a joy to touch and hold them – these days, with the high production values of modern books, they are an aesthetic treat as well as a literary one. You can get as much of a buzz out of walking home with an armload of library books as from buying them in shops – and you don’t have to worry about running out shelf space at home, either.
Libraries also offer a low-risk strategy to expand your choice of reading matter. Well, I like to think of a library as a tasting menu in a restaurant. Like a tasting menu, a visit to the library offers you the chance to try new things. When you haven’t paid for a book, it doesn’t matter if you don’t much like it or finish it – but at the same time, you might discover new passions and interests in the process.
A library is also like a smorgasbord because it’s an all-you-can-eat menu – only in this restaurant of reading, you don’t end your visit by paying a bill. The only money you will spend here is if you treat yourself to some tea and cake, which you can do with a clear conscience because the takings for refreshments are what will cover the hall hire costs for each session.
But that’s fine too because libraries aren’t only about books on shelves. They are also an important social meeting point, accessible and affordable to all, where everyone may meet on an equal footing. They are hugely democratic and an enormously valuable anchor in our society for all sorts of reasons unrelated to books – the books might even be considered a bonus. What matters is that we connect.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating fly-on-the-wall memoir by a librarian, Chris Paling, called Reading Allowed. He points out that public libraries can also be study centres, play areas, A&E departments, refuges for the homeless and much more – Hawkesbury librarians, you have been warned! I’m sure our library will serve as a brilliant coffee shop too – a safe, warm place to socialise with friends. Fortunately libraries no longer have a silence rule!
I realise not everyone may be instantly persuaded that the library is for them. “I’m not much of a reader,” they might say, or “I don’t have time to read”. I bet they still find time to watch television. In that case, I say they just haven’t met the right book yet.
The book stock has been carefully curated to match the needs and interests of our community, and it will be constantly refreshed to keep it interesting for us.
Who watches “Game of Thrones”? Of course, that hugely popular series is based on books by a very wise man, George R R Martin, who famously said about books and reading:
“He who reads lives a thousand lives. He who does not read lives only once.”
Our new community library gives us all the chance to live a thousand lives. So please do take advantage of this wonderful gift to our village, today and every time it opens, once a fortnight, in future. I’m delighted to declare it now officially open.
If you love libraries, you might enjoy these other posts from my blog archives:
Both of the stories about libraries featured in those last two posts are included in Quick Change, my collection of flash fiction, available in paperback and ebook. Click the image to buy online or quote ISBN 978-0993087967 to order at your local bookshop.