Posted in Reading, Writing

Inspired by Stained Glass

In this week’s post, I’m interviewing my historical novelist friend Clare Flynn about her new historical novel, The Colour of Glass, which celebrates the art and craft of stained glass in a story set just before the First World War.

I’ve always loved stained glass, and for a long time making stained glass was one of my father’s hobbies. These days when I visit churches, stately homes or public buildings featuring stained glass, I take a special interest, whether it’s the ancient medieval kind, in modern abstract style, or anything in between.

photo of Burne Jones stained glass in Rye
The Pre-raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones is one of my favourite stained glass artists – this is Clare Flynn’s photo of one of his windows from a church in Rye. (Photo: Clare Flynn)

I was therefore excited to learn that my author friend Clare Flynn was inspired by our writing retreat in the autumn of 2021 to set her next historical novel around an early 20th century stained glass artist. The resulting novel, The Colour of Glass, will be published on 1st June, and Clare’s joining me on my blog this week to tell me more about it.

Welcome, Clare! Can you please kick off by with a brief summary of your new novel.

headshot of Clare Flynn
Clare’s new novel was inspired by our writing retreat at an Arts and Crafts house

The Colour of Glass tells the parallel stories of Alice Dalton, from an aristocratic family facing hard times, and Edmund Cutler, an apprentice stained glass artist, from a wealthy family keen to scale the social ladder. Both become estranged from their families. Edmund and Alice meet when she is briefly engaged to his brother, but their paths diverge. Five years later they meet again.

The book tackles themes of art, women’s suffrage, personal fulfilment, family conflict and parental expectations.

Why did you choose to write about stained glass?

The initial idea was quite random. I was “stuck” trying to write a different book and was staying with a group of writer friends – you included! – in an Arts & Crafts house. Lorna Fergusson opened a book off the shelf at random and read me some cues in the hope something would spark. One was “stained glass window”. The idea of an Arts and Crafts stained-glass artist intrigued me and I began to research it and fell in love with the craft.

Stained glass panel from All Saints' Church in Marazion
This panel is from All Saints’ Church in Marazion, Cornwall, just down the road from where Clare and I took part in another writers’ retreat in March.(Photo: Clare Flynn)

How much did you know about stained glass before you started writing, and how did you go about researching all you needed to know for your story?

Virtually nothing. I’d had no interest in it at all. But as soon as I started digging I was hooked.

I went to stay in a hotel that had a former chapel in its grounds with the most magnificent windows I’d seen in years – made by the Irish artist Harry Clarke. I bought two magnificent and lavishly illustrated books – one on Harry and the other a comprehensive study of Arts and Crafts stained glass. Soon I came across Christopher Whall, the most renowned A&C stained glass artist. I tracked down a speech he gave in Liverpool and then a wonderful handbook he wrote explaining everything a student or apprentice would need to know. Christopher had to go in the book!

That led me to the Central School (now Central St Martins) where Whall taught as did Karl Parsons, also mentioned in the book. The school then was in Southampton Row, Holborn, and I managed to track down the floor plans. I also watched videos online on glass craft.

stained-glass window by Harry Clarke
Stained glass window by Harry Clarke (Photo: Clare Flynn)

What surprised you most about the world of stained glass artists?

Before I got into this, like my character, Alice, I’d believed it was about cutting up and sticking together bits of coloured glass. But the true craftsmen achieve all kinds of effects by painting, acid etching, using different types of glass and many other techniques.

I’d also been rather dismissive of it – just old saints in dusty churches – but soon discovered how rich were the imaginations of some of these artists and how talented they were at their craft.

I loved the way it was a fusion of artistry with craft in a way that’s probably not true of a lot of artforms.

To what extent are your characters in this book based on real people?

The main characters are all entirely invented but there are walk-on parts for several real people including Christopher Whall.

Stained glass is clearly a very old art – why did you pick the Edwardian era for your story?

As I mentioned above, I started writing it while staying in Goddards, an Arts and Crafts house in Surrey. It felt as though all the pieces came together. I based Bankstone, the house in the second part of the book on Goddards. I also love that period. The joyous innocence of it just before the horrors of the First World War are unleashed has always struck me as incredibly poignant.

You’ve clearly become very engrossed in the world of stained glass – are you tempted to write about any other period or aspect of it? You’re an accomplished painter – are you tempted to try your hand at this medium?

I’m not tempted to write about Medieval glass – much as I admire it. I’m very much a twentieth-century writer. It’s kind of you, Debbie, but I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an accomplished painter! More of a dabbler. But, yes, I’d be tempted to give stained glass a go.

photo of stained glass window in Winchelsea
Stained glass window in Winchelsea (Photo: Clare Flynn)

What makes stained glass particularly interesting to write about – is it an art or a craft or a blend of both?

It’s exactly the fact that it’s a perfect blend of both. Until Christopher Whall came along most stained glass artists would hand over their cartoons to glass manufacturers to make. Whall was horrified at what he perceived as the butchery of his design and set about learning every single step so he could handle the entire process himself. Naturally, my Edmund, as his pupil, did the same. One of the contemporary specialists I have been following via YouTube and their newsletters also deal with every single aspect.

Where does this book fit into the canon of the rest of your work? – it made me think particularly of Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, which was the first book of yours that I read.

Interesting! That book was about a poet rather than an artist, but like Edmund, the main character, Jack, is a very driven man who makes some life-changing mistakes with the best of intentions. I love writing about art so perhaps there’s a fit with Jasmine in Paris and A Painter from Penang – oh and Kurinji Flowers. All of those involved painting, whereas The Colour of Glass required me to learn about a completely new medium for me. Many of the characters in my books tend to be involved in some form of artistic, musical or literary endeavour. I suppose it’s also a counterpoint to The Gamekeeper’s Wife and A Greater World, both of which are set in the period immediately after the First War. (Find out more about all of Clare’s books on her website at

cover image of The Colour of Glass by Clare Flynn The cover for this book is quite different from that of your previous novels. Where does the image come from – is it a real piece of stained glass somewhere? 

Jane Dixon-Smith, my designer found it. No idea where it’s from but I love the colours. I wanted to try a completely different approach. I was also trying to avoid religious imagery as while much stained glass is ecclesiastical there’s a risk if it’s on the cover that readers may think the book is religious. We shall see if it works! So far people seem to love it.

Once you start noticing stained glass, you realise just how much there is of it surviving from a very long period in history – what’s your favourite period/ aspect/application of stained glass?

There’s nothing to compare with the scale and majesty of the Medieval windows and it’s incredible to imagine what must have been involved then when they were literally inventing the techniques as they went along. Anyone whose been to Chartres, Notre Dame, or York will know exactly what I mean. But I can also marvel at the quirky intensity of Harry Clarke’s work – or that of Marc Chagall.

The great thing about it though is that you can walk into what might otherwise be an insignificant parish church in a village and find stunning examples. It’s great to get up close so you can actually see the paint strokes and effects.

Another key theme of this novel is feminism in the era of the campaign for women’s suffrage – how were female artists of that era affected by the politics of the age?

Many artists were in the front line of the suffrage movement. I mention one in the book: Mary Lowndes established a glass studio, Lowndes and Drury, and made numerous outstanding stained glass windows – she was also responsible for producing posters and propaganda for the suffrage movement and was the founder of the Artists Suffrage League and became leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Arts and Crafts stained glass has a good representation of women – including also Whall’s daughter.

The Colour of Glass ends as the First World War begins – what’s next for your characters, and how will the war and its aftermath change their relationship and the challenges that they face?

Aha! You can’t expect me to give that away! Suffice to say I am about 25k words into a follow up so watch this space!

Thank you so much, Clare, and best of luck with the launch of your new book on 1st June! 

Like to read The Colour of Glass by Clare Flynn?

Click the image below to pre-order an ebook of The Colour of Glass now via Amazon UK.

Also available on Amazon stores worldwide.

The paperback will be available from 1st June.

Posted in Reading, Writing

New Novel, New Cover – and a Peek into the Design Process

This post introduces the cover of my next novel and shares the story of my long-term working relationship with its cover designer Rachel Lawston. 

I’m delighted to share Rachel Lawston‘s new cover design for my next novel, Artful Antics at St Bride’s. This fourth book in my Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery series will be published by Boldwood Books on 29th July, and the ebook is already available to preorder online. To whet your appetite, here’s the official blurb:

cover of Artful Antics at St Bride'sWhen English teacher Gemma Lamb’s school flat is wrecked by storms, maverick headmistress Hairnet insists the girls must fund its repair by setting up their own businesses – the start of a series of hilarious unintended consequences.

Meanwhile Gemma’s worries are compounded by the arrival of bossy new girl Frieda Ehrlich, sponsored by a mysterious local tycoon whose wealth is of dubious origins. Fearful for the school’s reputation, Gemma recruits an old friend to help investigate the tycoon’s credentials, jeopardising her romance with sports teacher Joe Spryke.

What is Frieda hiding? Why is her sponsor living in a derelict manor house? Why is his chauffeur such a crazed driver? And what has become of McPhee, Hairnet’s precious black cat? With a little help from her friends, Gemma is determined to solve these mysteries, restore her flat and save the school.

For anyone who loved St Trinian’s – old or new – or read Malory Towers as a kid. St Brides is the perfect read for you!

Each book in this series, set in an English boarding school for girls, takes place over half a school term, and this story runs from late February until the school breaks up for Easter.

For those unfamiliar with the English school system, the academic year begins in September, and we have three terms each year:

  • Autumn, from September to December
  • Spring, from January until Easter
  • Summer, from Easter until July

I like the optimism that refuses to designate any of the terms as Winter, even though we have decidedly wintry weather in the autumn and spring.

Here are all four covers for the series so far, which as you can see clearly convey the season for each story, thanks to Rachel Lawston‘s beautiful designs:

Array of four Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery covers

Working with Book Designers

Book design is a very specialised art. It’s not just about coming up with a relevant picture and adding the book’s title and the name of its author. There are all kinds of subtleties to be considered, for example:

  • With so many books these days book online, the cover design must work just as well at “thumbnail” size, ie the size it’s displayed on the book’s page on any online retail site, as well as making anyone who sees it displayed in a physical bookshop want to pick it up, flip it over and read the blurb on the back cover – on the critical path to buying a copy.
  • The design must create the right expectations in the reader by complying with the current trends for the genre, while making it stand out as being individual and memorable.
  • The spine and the back cover must integrate with the front cover design – these are all important persuaders to browsers, and with most books in physical shops displayed spine outwards rather than showing the whole cover, the spine artwork needs to encapsulate the messages on the cover.

Book designers understand and comply with these and other constraints in a way that more generalist designers, eg of brochures or advertising hoardings, would not be able to do. That’s why it’s crucial that publishers pick a book design specialist.

What many readers don’t realise is that book designers are not expected to read a book before designing its cover. They simply don’t have time. Therefore it’s down to the publisher to provide an appropriate brief, to which the book designer adds their own creativity and specialist knowledge.

My Partnership with Book Designer Rachel Lawston

headshot of Rachel Lawston
Rachel Lawston, author, artist and book designer

I first started collaborating with Rachel back in 2017, when I self-published my first novel, Best Murder in Show, the first Sophie Sayers Cozy Mystery.

As an indie author, I was responsible for commissioning all my cover designs – a task that in traditional publishing is taken care of by the publisher rather than the author. This meant creating a brief of my ideas for the cover, including my likes and dislikes, and then responding to Rachel’s interpretation of the brief, which would include ideas of her own.

It’s really important for the publisher (whether an indie author or a traditional publishing company) respects the designer’s ideas and remains open-minded, as they might come up with something quite different than expected. The best designers often come up with something much better and more exciting than the brief, but if the publisher/indie author disagrees, they work together to arrive at the best solution. For Artful Antics at St Bride’s, Rachel came up with a scene featuring the two central characters, Gemma and Joe, in a rowing boat on the school’s lake, which didn’t actually happen in the original story, but I liked the cover so much that I changed a scene where they are in conversation on a bench by the lake to putting them in a rowing boat, and I’m sure it’s a better scene now!

When you’re self-publishing, the buck for all aspects of the book, including the cover design stops with you, and it’s a big responsibility to make the right decisions. Great covers do sell more books, and a bad one can make the most brilliantly written books fail. It can therefore be an anxious moment when the email lands in your inbox bearing your designer’s draft visuals.

However, I was so delighted with what Rachel did for the first book, and so enjoyed the process of working with her, that I asked her to create the covers for both my series of mystery novels, and also for my series of novelettes in the Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series:

array of covers for Tales from Wendlebury Barrow

(If you’ve joined my Readers’ Club, you’ll recognise the one of the far right as the free ebook I send you when you sign up. If you haven’t got your copy yet, you can sign up here.)

Readers were constantly telling me how much they loved the covers, and I was very proud of how they looked. At least some of the many sales will have been made because readers were falling in love with Rachel’s designs!

Then two summers ago, on a whim, I wrote a novella that was unrelated to any of those series: a second-chance romantic comedy with a touch of magical realism, called Mrs Morris Changes Lanes. Although Rachel was by now incredibly busy (not least because I kept recommending her to all my indie author friends!), she found time not only to produce a cover, but to hand-draw it for me.

You may not know that most commercial covers use as their starting point stock images, for which the designer licenses the rights, before combining and manipulating them to create unique and appropriate covers for their particular project.

Having unique, original, custom-drawn covers is a privilege usually reserved only for top-selling authors.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when Rachel sent me this beautiful hand-drawn design, which perfectly captured the impression I wanted of a slightly magical purple Mini driving into the unknown down a Cotswold lane in May. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

cover of Mrs Morris Changes Lanes

Rachel Lawston & Boldwood Books

When I licensed the rights for all my novels to Boldwood Books in a 13-book contract a year ago, they naturally wanted to commission new designs to reflect their house style and commercial expertise, and I wasn’t looking forward to leaving Rachel’s covers for my novels behind. So it was a wonderful surprise when my editor told me that she’d worked with Rachel before, loved what she’d done for Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, and wanted to commission her to create a whole new set of hand-drawn covers for my St Bride’s series, which Boldwood planned to rename and rebrand as the Gemma Lamb Cozy Mysteries).

While my novels are doing really well in their new guise, I’m continuing to self-publish Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, and also my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, using Rachel’s original covers. You can buy all my books as ebooks and paperbacks online, or order them from bookshops if you prefer. The novels are also available in audio, hardback and large print.

Designer Turns Author

In the meantime, Rachel has established a new strand to her career as a highly-regarded author of children’s books about the environment, which is one of Rachel’s great passions. in her spare time she is an education volunteer at WWT London Wetland Centre in Barnes, helping children discover nature. Rachel’s love of the natural world has always shone through in her designs for my books too.

Here are all her own books so far, all published by Pikku Publishing and illustrated by Lisa Visirin and Beatriz Castro:

Rachel’s beautiful picture books make perfect gifts for young nature lovers, whether they live in the town or the country. The books have won prizes and accolades from the likes of Chris Packham and the RSPB, and are on sale at environmental tourist attractions as well as in bookshops and online. Rachel has also gained many young fans with visits to schools and children’s literature festivals.

Rachel’s latest venture as an author is a children’s book written jointly with her husband Paul Lawston, Learning Manager at the London Wetland Centre and Environmental Education Consultant to publishers. Paul also very kindly checked the details about birds in my novelette, The Clutch of Eggs.

cover of My Nature Trail book

My Nature Trail will also be published by Pikku Publishing in October, and I can’t wait to read it!

For More Information about Rachel Lawston

To find out more Rachel, visit her websites:


Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

My Talk from the HULF Festival of Words: School Story Slang – with Molesworth, Jennings, the Chalet School and St Bride’s

I don’t usually speak from a script at lit fests, but as I had just had Covid when the HULF Festival of Words* came around, I didn’t want to rely on my slightly fuzzy memory. Having written the script for my affectionate talk about the use of slang in school stories, I hung on to it, so that I could share it with you today here on my blog.

*HULF is the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which I founded in my home village in 2015, and which has been running public events in various venues about the parish ever since. 

Continue reading “My Talk from the HULF Festival of Words: School Story Slang – with Molesworth, Jennings, the Chalet School and St Bride’s”

Posted in Reading, Writing

What Did the Romans do for Readers?

Young woman reading in Pompeii
Young woman reading in Pompeii

Round about World Book Day, I discovered my author friend Alison Morton was about to launch a special tenth-anniversary hardback edition of her  debut novel Inceptio, inspired by her love of ancient Rome, and previously published in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

That got me thinking about what formats Ancient Romans used to read – books? scrolls? tablets? (the wax type, not the digital ones). Intrigued, I asked Roman expert Alison to enlighten me, and this post is the result.



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Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

My Ears Are Alight – and other Mondegreens

Decades ago, when I worked for a PR firm in an old banana warehouse in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral (but that’s another story), my colleague Rob was keen to improve his vocabulary.

Perhaps he was hooked on the old Readers’ Digest column, “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power”, a motto I’ve always admired. He designated a new word to learn every day, which he shared with us all. I worked alongside him for only a few months, but if I’d shared his office for the rest of my career, I reckon he’d have increased my word power too by around 10,000 words.

Continue reading “My Ears Are Alight – and other Mondegreens”