Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

What I Did at Stroud Book Festival 2021

Stroud Book Festival describes itself as “a celebration of stories, ideas and community for readers of all ages”, and for six years has been bringing a flurry of events over four days to a variety of pleasant venues at this busy and diverse Cotswold market town. 

Although by chance I was away on a writing retreat at the start of it, I caught up with the Festival on Sunday, chairing the Made in Stroud: Historical Novelists panel in the afternoon, and in the evening attending the Stroud Short Stories event of which this time I was co-judge alongside organiser John Holland.

Three Novelists Inspired by Mid-Century History

I was delighted to have been invited to interview three Stroud authors about their latest historical novels in the delightful setting of Lansdown Hall, laid out café-style with delicious cake generously provided by the local Waitrose. These novels are:

  • Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris
    (German Jewish girl flees to Hollywood and becomes Fred Astaire’s dancing partner before being recruited by the British as a spy)
  • The Girl Behind the Wall by Mandy Robotham
    (identical twins in their twenties are separated by the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall)
  • The Schoolteacher of St Michel by Sarah Steele
    (schoolteacher smuggles Jewish children across the border between Nazi-occupied Vichy France and free France).

(The authors are pictured in that order from left to right in the photo at the top of this column, and I’m in the hot seat on the far right.)

ad for panel event

My brief was to ask chiefly about research. It was fascinating to hear where they’d found their jumping-off point for their novels, from newspaper articles (one of my favourite sources of story ideas) to chance conversations with residents of those areas.

I was also intrigued as to why they took different approaches to writing about real people – Tessa puts words into the mouths of Hitler, Eva Braun, Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, and Fred Astaire, while in Mandy and Sarah’s books, key figures of the age are kept at a distance, for example we hear the Berlin crowd’s reaction to Kennedy’s iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner” address, but do not encounter him in person.

To write my books – contemporary village mysteries, set in worlds I know very well – I need to do very little research, and I am always in awe of historical novelists who must (a) carry out enough research to write convincingly about their chosen era and (b) how they manage to tear themselves away to write their books, rather than losing themselves down potential rabbit holes. Covid has introduced a new challenge: to find all you need online when travel restrictions preclude in-person visits to places key to the story. Each of the three authors had different favourite sources: Youtube for Mandy, Pinterest for Sarah and biographies for Tessa.

When so many fiction and non-fiction books have already been written about your era, I asked them, how did you manage to make your topic your own? What differentiates your books from others? Although their books are very different, they each had the same answer: by holding a microscope up to individuals involved.

Their protagonists Lili Sternberg (“the girl who danced with Fred Astaire”), Berliner twins Karin and Jutta, and French schoolteacher Lucie Laval are all strong, exceptional women with important lessons about survival and resilience amidst enforced separation and deprivation that resonate strongly to readers living through the current pandemic, and I highly recommend all three novels.

Stroud Short Stories Go Wild

After that event I just had time for tea and cake in the Green Room before heading up the hill to The Cotswold Playhouse to greet the ten authors whose short stories had been chosen by co-judges John Holland and me to be read at this twice-yearly event. As all the stories are judged “blind”, ie the judges have no idea who wrote which story until they have chosen the final ten from among dozens submitted, it is always a joy to put the face and the name to the story. A full house in this delightful provincial theatre lapped up the ten very different stories, all on the given theme of “Wild”.

With John a slick, original and funny compere, the ten authors performed their stories to a rapt audience, from seasoned participants of previous SSSs, to those who had never before shared their work in public. They were, in the running order of the night:

Pauline Masurel with Fledglings 
Claire Jaggard with The Wild Woman 
Ali Bacon with The Pig and I
Jasmin Izagaren with Jumping Season
Melanie White with City Girl
Nick Adams with Demolition
Georgia Boon with Johnny Maunder Came to the Well
Hannah Glickstein with Wild Serenade
Rebecca Klassen with Clothed in Sacrifice
Robin Booth with Painted Ladies

Even though I had read and re-read each of the stories as part of the judging process, as is always the way, hearing them read aloud by their authors added to the experience, and I heard more nuances and subtleties and rhythm in the writing than before. All ten authors read brilliantly.

Until Next Time!

When John announced that the next Stroud Short Stories event will take place on 8th May 2022, I’m sure everyone present will have made a mental note for their next year’s diary. My only fear is that the stories were of such a high standard that some writers may be deterred from submitting. Please don’t be: Stroud Short Stories is renowned for showcasing brand-new writers as well as old hands, and with no entry fee, you have nothing to lose by giving it a go. Keep an eye on the SSS webiste, and follow its always entertaining Twitter feed @StroudStories so that you don’t miss out.

Huge congratulations to Artistic Director Caroline Sanderson and her tireless team for staging such an inspiring series of events and restoring a feeling of post-lockdown normality to the remarkable town of Stroud. I’m sure everyone who took part is looking forward to next year’s Stroud Book Festival already!

Coming Soon! (27th November)

Meanwhile I’m busy getting ready for my next public event – the first in a new HULF Talk series, a spin-off from my annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, bringing together four local authors talking about travel and adventure, from filming whales for The Blue Planet to hunting for yetis in the Himalayas! Admission is by advance ticket only, to enable us to keep Covid-safe, and you can find out more and order your ticket via Eventbrite here.

image block with logo and event details

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Let the Holidays Begin!

With my daughter finishing school in June after completing her GCSE exams, our holiday season kicked off early with a week away in the Scottish Highlands at the start of July, showing a visiting aunt from Canada some of our favourite places. Even so, with views like this at the end of our lane, we’re always glad to come home to our beloved Cotswolds.

View of wheatfield full of poppies
Summertime, and the reading is easy… view from the Cotswolds lane in which I live and work

Even better to come home to a relatively empty diary, freeing me to tackle some ambitious writing and publishing deadlines during the rest of July:

  • Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new Staffroom at St Bride’s School series, which will go on sale from the end of July
  • my new short Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, to be distributed free, exclusively to readers who subscribe to my mailing list, also at the end of July (those already subscribed will be sent a copy too)

If you haven’t yet signed up for my e-newsletter and would like to receive the new novella, and to be alerted to the publication date of the novel, just follow the simple instructions at the foot of this post.

I’m also planning to attend some bookish events this month. I’m looking forward to seeing Deborah Moggach in Tetbury next week at an event organised by the ever-fabulous Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. I loved her historical novel Tulip Fever and am looking forward to hearing her speak about her new novel, The Carer. Ticket info here if you’re interested in coming along. And tonight I’m off to the Stroud Book Festival‘s launch party. My good friend Caroline Sanderson, my fellow panelist on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’ Book Club, is the Festival’s Artistic Director, and is putting together an amazing programme for this autumn’s event. I’ll also be catching up with her on 24th July when, with radio presenter Dominic Cotter, our Book Club discusses Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three hundred years old now and still a cracking read!

header advertising Stroud Book Festival 2019

I’ll be rounding the month off with a trip to the fabulous Rain or Shine Theatre Company‘s open-air production of Shakespeare‘s As You Like It at Swinhay House, near Wotton-under-Edge – a beautiful venue that has added literary appeal as being once used as a set for the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series (my teenage daughter’s favourite programme). They’re touring nationwide in a series of terrific venues, and having seen other productions by them – they’re a great company, well worth seeing, so if you’re in the UK and you fancy seeing them, check out their website to find the nearest gig to you.

Highlights of the Scottish Highlands

But while my Scottish trip is still fresh in my head, I’d like to share a few highlights with you.

Staying in Callander, in the Trossachs region, we were on the edge of the Highlands – somewhere I’ve been holidaying for nearly two decades with my Scottish husband as he pursued his hobby of “Munro-bagging“, ie climbing every Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet, of which there are 227. He conquered #227 last year. So now we can pick and choose where we go, whether or not there’s a Munro nearby!

This year’s high points (ho ho) included a cruise in the century-old steamship SS Sir Walter Scott on peaceful Loch Katrine, a setting that inspired not only Scott but also, more surprisingly, Jules Verne to write a novel set there. Although Verne being Verne, his novel The Underground City was set beneath these peaceful waters!

Photo of SS Sir Walter Scott ready to depart for a cruise on Loch Katrine
No other pleasure craft beside the official cruise ships are allowed on Loch Katirne

We enjoyed wildlife encounters wherever we went, from spotting rare ospreys on Loch Katrine to giant pandas and koala bears at Edinburgh Zoo.

photo of giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo has two giant pandas on loan from China
Sign on bear enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo saying "Please don't lean over or sit on the wall. We feed the bears enough protein."
We enjoyed the Zoo’s sense of humour too

We’re always on the lookout for Highland cattle. A tour party guide demonstrated his alarming party trick of sharing a carrot with Hamish, pictured below – one end in his own mouth, the other eagerly taken by Hamish. We didn’t take up his offer to try it ourselves!

Photo of Highland cattle

Exploring Stirling Castle, I discovered a recipe topical to my new short novella, The Pride of Peacocks. (Join my mailing list via the link at the foot of this post if you’d like me to send you a free copy as soon as it’s ready – a copy of the novella that is, not the roast peacock!)

Linlithgow Palace and Doune Castle were both fascinating in different ways. We especially enjoyed the guided tour by local twelve-year-old schoolgirls in Stuart costume at Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. They really brought it to life for us.

At Doune, pictured below, we enjoyed Terry Jones’ narration on an audio guide. Doune was one of the sets for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remember the scene where the French hurl abuse – and a black and white cow – from the battlements onto our brave knights below? You can now buy plastic cows as souvenirs from the shop, as well as coconut shells, with which to provide your own horsey sound effects. The first time I visited Doune a few years ago, on a wet, windy day, the only other visitor was a solitary chap surreptitiously filming his own tour, coconut shells in hand.

Photo of Doune Castle from approach
Doune Castle was used as a set for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail
inside the medieval Great Hall at Doune Castle
Picture this Hall full of Pythons – scene of the Spamalot song
photo of sign for shop showing availability of coconut shells
Oh no, forgot to bring your coconut shells? The souvenir shop can oblige.

We stepped even further back in time at the recreated Iron Age settlement at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay.

Photo of Scottish Crannog - a reconstructed Iron Age hut on stilts over Loch Tay
The Scottish Crannog Centre is a fascinating reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement. You can’t go far in Scotland without stumbling across historic curiosities.

We also managed to fit in Glencoe, Oban, the Highland Folk Museum (one of the settings for my planned eighth Sophie Sayers novel – I’m currently writing the sixth), the Beatrix Potter Garden in Birnam (yes, as in Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – two literary references for the price of one, there!) but my camera was playing up so I’ve no photos to share, but here’s the website if you’d like to take a look: It’s a delightful museum all about her childhood holidays spent in Scotland before her family started going to the Lake District, with which she’s more famously connected.

Back at base in our holiday flat in Callander, we enjoyed exploring this little market town, and especially visiting the secondhand bookshop, where I bought Early in Orcadia, an extraordinary novel by Scottish author Naomi Mitchison imagining the lives of the early settlers of the Orkneys, another part of Scotland that we enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago.

The secondhand bookshop in Callander
The unassuming but absorbing and very well-stocked secondhand bookshop in Callander

I’m always glad to bring home a new book about Scotland, but this visit I also returned with a cuddlier souvenir.

Och Aye the Panda’s kilt is in a tartan especially created to incorporate the panda’s distinctive black and white fur; red, deemed lucky in China and auspicious of birth (they’re hoping the Edinburgh pandas will breed); and green to represent bamboo, the panda’s staple diet

Back to the Writing Desk

I hope your summer has started as well as mine, if you’re in the northern hemisphere – and if you’re south of the equator, I hope you’re already starting to see early signs of your spring, now that your shortest day has passed.

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