Posted in Events, Personal life, Travel, Writing

Sophie Sayers and Me

Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.

Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.

Cottage Home

This illustration of the Hector’s House bookshop by Thomas Shepherd is in the same style as Sophie’s ficitious cottage (Copyright Thomas Shepherd http://www.shepline.com)

Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!

Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)

For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.

Writing Ambitions

Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.

cover of Young by Name
You can also read the archive of columns in each magazine in book form

Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.

For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.

Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.

Cosmetic Details

There are many differences between us:

  • Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
  • I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
  • Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
  • Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
  • Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
  • Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.

Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point

But there is one final similarity that unites us:  we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.

Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.

For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.

Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.

How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlings to find out!


Escape to a Greek island through the pages of the sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, now available in ebook and paperback

How to Order Murder Your Darlings


graphic advertising course

How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.

But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire  – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.

My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.

Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information. 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Vasilios: A Tribute to the Man Behind the Name

Bill and me in our graduation photo
At our high school graduation ceremony in Germany – that’s Vasilios aka Bill seated in the front row, I’m top left, with John Harrison, a fellow Englishman, in front of me

In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)

While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.

A Class Act

He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.

photo of school production of Guys and Dolls
Bill in the role of Sky Masterson, with Cindy Arenberg as Sarah Brown (right) and Aaren Purcell as a member of the mission. (I was the mission leader, and Aaren and I got a real kick out of wearing those Salvation Army style uniforms, donning them for our yearbook photo.)

Purely Platonic

Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the  campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.

Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour. 

Separate Ways

Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.

Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.

Catching Up

Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?

Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.

I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study. 

inscription inside the book
We co-founded and wrote for a school literary magazine – my contribution was angst-filled poetry, his was a lyrical piece about a boat returning to a Greek harbour at sunset, a harbinger of his later career in maritime insurance

Too Late & Too Soon

Bill’s loss is felt around the world, by his family, colleagues and friends. (Here’s a link to the tribute to him from his former colleagues on Facebook.) Although many of our teachers from FIS have gone before us, I know he was highly regarded by them, and they too would be saddened by his departure far too soon. 

And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.

Posted in Writing

Why I’m Writing My Books By Hand in Fountain Pen

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
My favourite fountain pen – a vintage classic

This post was inspired by my author and editor friend Belinda Pollard, who posted on her Facebook page recently that she’s trying to write by hand rather than direct on to her computer, and asking for other writers’ experiences. Here are my thoughts on the topic.

“You write your books by hand? Are you nuts?”

That’s the typical reaction when friends discover that these days I’ve reverted to old technology to write the first draft of my novels: fountain pen and A4 wide ruled file paper, as we used at school and university.

Technology – Mightier than the Pen?

In this golden age of technology, when we have so many labour-saving alternatives at our disposal, why am I not typing straight onto my computer? After all, I am a very fast touch-typist. (Most useful skill I ever learned! – read my post on that topic here.)

And why, when I have a digital hand-held voice recorder and Dragon Dictate voice recognition software on my PC, am I not sitting back and dictating my stories? Especially as I have rheumatoid arthritis which restricts the mobility in my hands.

Dictation has its attractions, eg it encourages you to write more fluidly in natural speech patterns – especially helpful when your books contain a lot of dialogue, as mine do.

I’ve tried all of these routes – though I’ve yet to have the luxury of dictating to a real person, Barbara Cartland style! (I don’t have the requisite little dog either!) I dictated my second novel, Trick or Murder? in its entirety, (boy, did that speed things up!) The other novels have been a mix of typing and dictation.

Back to the Fountain Pen

But now I’m writing my seventh novel entirely by hand, and I’m loving it, especially since I discovered some interesting justification: that writing by hand connects with the brain in a different and more creative way.

Why fountain pen rather than ballpoint pen, fibre tip or pencil?

Fountain pen is easier on the hand as you don’t have to press hard. Use a good quality ink and pen and it flows effortlessly across the page, which is a pleasant experience aesthetically, and has a calming, meditative effect, no matter what you’re writing.

Sample of handwritten manuscript with pen
The story so far… the current manuscript for Sophie Sayers’ sixth adventure, Murder Your Darlings.

20 Reasons to Write by Hand

If you’d like to read more about the benefits of writing by hand, click this link for a blog post listing 20 reasons, Although it is primarily talking about handwriting at school and college, many of the reasons apply throughout your writing life, as point 5 in their list makes clear:

In 2009, researchers at University of Washington found that elementary aged students who wrote creative stories with a pen on paper far exceeded the performance of their peers. Not only were the writers able to complete their assignments faster than the typers, they also wrote longer compositions with more complete sentences. Perhaps this is why so many novelists prefer to compose their first drafts in longhand form – that is, with pencil and paper – despite having access to a computer of typewriter.

I especially like their final point: that pen and paper aren’t connected to the internet and all of its distractions! Increased productivity is definitely a plus point.

On the Other (Inky) Hand

Of course, there are downsides – not least, if you’re using a fountain pen as I do, inky fingers, and the blue scar on the pine floorboards beneath my desk where I dropped a bottle of ink, having lifted it up by the top, only to discover it wasn’t screwed down tight!

photo of floorboards stained blue with ink
The inky floor beneath my desk

And the manuscript still has to be typed eventually. If you type it up yourself, you can count that as the first round of editing, as you’ll inevitably make a few tweaks and corrections as you go along. As I’m currently short of time, I’m using an author services company, Zedolus.

Over to You

How do you prefer to write whatever you need to write? I’d love to know!

Join My Mailing List & Receive a Free Ebook

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Have You Seen My Latest Novel?

Secrets at St Bride’s – A School Story for Grown-ups is now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a fun, gentle blend of cosy mystery and romantic comedy set in an eccentric English girls’ boarding school. As the series title suggests – “Staffroom at St Bride’s” – it’s about intrigues among the staff rather than the girls, but it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed reading school stories when they were younger, from Malory Towers to Chalet School to Molesworth! Click here to find out more about it and to read the opening two chapters for free.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why I’m Writing Novels Set in Boarding Schools (For a Grown-up Audience!)

Well, what’s not to love about novels set in boarding schools? Most of us grew up enjoying the likes of Malory Towers and The Chalet School, even if we never set foot in a boarding school ourselves.

Although the world of vintage boarding school stories may seem dated by modern standards, to adult readers, they continue to grip young readers and retain the allegiance of those of us who read them as children ourselves

What’s in it for Readers?

For readers, there’s something compelling about the world of the boarding school, with its unique rules and vocabulary that wouldn’t make sense beyond its boundaries. Readers enjoy joining that fantasy world and feeling a part of it – hence the huge merchandise sales for the Harry Potter franchise.

The setting naturally throws together disparate characters with interesting and varied backgrounds, all great ingredients for a story.

The tropes of boarding school life will be familiar to adults who grew up reading Chalet School et al, which means there is plenty of scope for gentle humour built on their fondess for these vintage classics.

What’s in it for Writers?

For the novelist, the boarding school offers a contained community in which characters are thrown together with no escape. They must face challenges and overcome them together, and their characters grow in the process.

To a writer of mystery stories, the boarding school, usually segregated from the outside world by a clear physical boundary, presents a neat device to isolate victim, suspects and onlookers while the crime is solved.

In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (but with more laughs…)

St Bride’s isn’t quite as isolated as Agatha Christie‘s famous stranded train in Murder on the Orient Express (it’s just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, the village in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and there is some cross-over between the two series) – but you get the idea.

(Incidentally, my current work-in-progress, Murder Your Darlings, the sixth Sophie Sayers mystery, is set on an island beset by a storm, from which none can escape, and which the police can’t access – as in Christie’s And Then There Were None, although my body count will be much lighter.)

St Bride’s School provides a unique and eccentrica environment for the education of girls

Why Me?

There’s another reason I chose to write about a boarding school. It’s a world I know well, having worked in one for thirteen years, as a member of the office team rather than as a teacher. I loved the sense of community, just as I love the community spirit of the Cotswold village in which I’ve lived for nearly thirty years, so this is in part a celebration of community. The world of St Bride’s is completely fictitious, with all the characters and situations completely invented, but the school I worked at was the springboard for my imagination, just as living in Hawkesbury Upton inspired me to invent the world of Wendlebury Barrow in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.

What’s Different about St Bride’s?

While I have fun with school routines and customs such as the prefect system and school dinners, the focus of the St Bride’s series will be the behaviour of the staff. I remember as a schoolgirl being fascinated by the secret world of the staffroom, and the formal relationship fostered between staff and pupils.

For example, at the girls’ grammar school I attended between the ages of 11 and 14, pupils were not allowed to know the first names of staff. In Secrets at St Bride’s, the girls are running a book on the teachers’ names. One of the younger pupils speculates that Miss Bliss’s initial O in stands for “Obergine” – because she’s heard the Geography teacher, Miss Brook, complain over her moussaka at lunch that she hates aubergine.

However, at St Bride’s, the secrecy goes one step further: the staff keep secrets not only from the girls, but from each other, with potentially deadly results. With the story told by new arrival Miss Lamb (but you can call her Gemma!), you, the reader, will become slowly acclimatised to school life as she does. Together you unravel the surprising secrets that are putting the community at risk.

What I Don’t Write About in this Series

What I’ve steadfastly avoided in this series is the kind of boarding school scandal that pops up now and again in the media or in memoirs. You won’t find any corporal punishment or abuse at St Bride’s – it’s a gentle, caring environment, but not without perils of a different kind. What are those perils? You’ll have to read the books to find out!

How to Order Your Copy of Secrets at St Bride’s

The first St Bride’s novel, Secrets at St Bride’s, is now available to order online and will soon be available to order from high street bookshops too.

As ever, if you read and enjoy the book, please consider leaving a brief review online, to encourage others to read it too! Thank you very much!

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Halloween vs Guy Fawkes Night? – Sherlock Holmes Helps Me Decide

A quick ponder about the merits and demerits of the way we celebrate 31st October and 5th November

 

Policeman saluting outside Sherlock Holmes Museum
Sherlock Holmes, we salute you – outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street last week

As we were clearing away the debris of Halloween late last evening, blowing out the candles that lit trick-or-treaters to our front door, my thirteen-year-old daughter turned to me and said “So next up is Christmas, then”.

I was taken aback when I realised that 5th November, aka Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night in the UK, was completely off her radar, despite a regular community bonfire party in our village and a family fireworks party at my brother’s house.

My incredulity was compounded when, by chance watching the Sherlock episode in which some children pass Holmes with a guy* in a pushchair calling “Penny for the Guy“, she had to ask what that was.

Badge saying "I am Sherlocked)
Big fans in this house – still trying to convert my daughter to the Jeremy Brett series, though

A Different Era

The last time I felt such a disconnect was when, some years ago, in the PR office in which I worked at the time, I was complaining about something being difficult and said “This is as bad as decimalisation.” Cue a chorus from the pool of young secretaries in whose office I happened to be holding forth: “What’s decimalisation?”

For information, because even fewer people will remember it now, and for the benefit of my non-UK readers, decimalisation** was when British currency changed from the old system of pounds, shillings and pence (20 shillings to a pound, 12 pence to a shilling) to decimal currency (100 pence to a pound).

It makes me feel even older to recall that this was the office in which I first came across that weird new gadget, the computer mouse. I thought it would never catch on.)

A New Beginning

This was a timely wake-up call, because today I’m starting my third annual NaNoWriMo stint to draft 50K words in a month, and this year I’ll be using it to write the first draft of Trick or Murder, the second in my new Sophie Sayers Village Mystery.  This is set in October and November, and in it a new vicar comes to the village of Wendlebury Barrow and tries to ban Halloween and replace it with Guy Fawkes Night – something that most of the village children have never heard of. A vicar inciting parishioners to burn someone in effigy at the stake? As it turns out, all is not what it seems with this curious new addition to my colourful cast of characters.

NaNoWriMo logo
I’m not sure why the viking helmet is up there; it’s not part of my usual writer’s toolkit

But hang on, I hear you cry – if this is your third NaNoWriMo project, how come you haven’t yet published any novels? Watch this space! Early in 2017 I’ll be publishing the first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Best Murder in Show, which was my 2015 NaNo project, and my 2014 NaNo has morphed into #6 in the series, Murder Your Darlings.

Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s a cosy mystery series (or cozy to you, my American friends), and it’ll be packed with what Mari Howard, reviewing my short story collection Marry in Haste, “the Debbie Young brand of sly and wry humour”. More news to follow soon. If you’d like an advance preview, join my free Readers’ Club, as I’ll be sending out a free sample to my mailing list prior to publication. You’ll also receive a free short story to read in the meantime when you sign up.

But now you’ll have to excuse me – I’ve got to dash to write my first daily 1667 words …

Cover of the Ladybird book entitled James I and the Gunpowder Plot
Image: Amazon UK

*For the benefit of those who don’t know what a guy is in this context, it’s an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Ever since, he has been burned on bonfires, amid celebrations with fireworks, on the anniversary of his gunpowder plot, 5th November. More information is inevitably to be found on Wikipedia here

**More about decimalisation here, but not from Wikipedia. Hurrah. 

*** More about NaNoWriMo here: www.nanowrimo.org