Strolling along the banks of the Seine on a summer evening, I knew that this scene – the river almost too bright to look at, the lengthening shadows, the young couples sitting on the stone quay, their legs dangling over the water, the murmur of French conversation, the Eiffel Tower a silhouette on the Paris skyline – was one I wanted to capture in my writing.
Of course, these days it’s possible to research a location on-line, but I love travelling, and if I can, I like to visit the place I’m writing about to absorb the atmosphere – the scents and sounds that you can’t get from a video on the internet. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris, one of my favourite cities several times, but when I was writing the Paris chapters of my debut novel, French Kissing, I knew I had to visit it again. In the book, Anna, who is English, accompanies Alexandre, who is French, to Paris so that he can show her the city he adores, and I wanted to see the city through her eyes, and to make certain that their route through the city, could be followed by anyone exploring Paris for the first time – not that I need an excuse to visit Paris!
It was some years since I’d last visited the city, and as I walked the same route as my characters, I realised I’d forgotten the color of the bouquinistes on the Left Bank (dark green), how loud is the roar of the traffic as it circles the Place de la Concorde, and also how beautiful the Eiffel Tower looks when it glitters at night – all things that ended up in the book. And it was only when I was climbing up the steep winding streets of Montmartre, looking at all the typically Parisian apartments, with their French windows and iron balconies, that I knew this was where Alexandre lived.
It was a trip abroad that inspired the location of my current WIP. When I travelled from London to Athens and then on to Santorini, Crete and Kefalonia – my first visit to Greece – I knew I simply had to write a novel set in this beautiful country. I took lots of photos, wrote brief descriptions of white sugar-cube houses and silvery-leaved olive groves in my writer’s notebook, and also made quick pencil sketches – I find that drawing a scene means that I notice all sorts of details that hopefully will give my story a real sense of place when I’m back home in England, writing on my laptop.
Looking now at the sketches I did of the places I visited in Greece – beaches with black volcanic sand, glorious views from a hill top in Athens, fascinating ruins of ancient Greek temples – I can feel again the fierce heat of the Mediterranean sun, and the hear the chirping of cicadas, and this all helps me to recreate the scene in my writing.
Not everything I see on my travels makes it into my stories, but it’s all there in the back of mind, inspiring me as I write.
It was wonderful having you share your inspiration, Lynne! I can certainly understand how these locations were so inspiring. Here’s hoping for many more travels once things have settled. Wishing you all the best! – Camilla
To see Lynne’s interview previously posted, go here:
Lynne Shelby writes contemporary romance/women’s fiction. When not writing or reading, she can usually be found in the audience at a theatre or exploring a foreign city – Paris, New York, Rome, Copenhagen, Seattle, Reykjavik, Athens – writer’s notebook, camera and sketchbook in hand. She lives in London with her husband and has three adult children who live nearby.
Her novels are available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
How does a writer get from illiteracy to writing a cozy paranormal mystery series set in the quaint English village of Sunken Madley?
1. The Trail Begins Here
We are all born illiterate. So before I could read, I was read to, mostly by my brother, some years older than I and the best of siblings. He must have shared his love of the written word with me from my infancy, because I can’t remember a time before he did just that. He would mark the words with his finger as he read. The letters were mystical symbols to me that somehow had the power to grant expression of the story to the one who had the skill. The book I loved the most and asked for again and again was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, first of the Narnia books.
This fired my imagination like no other story. Treasure Island, fairy tales, Robinson Crusoe and the rest, were all set in the past or in a far off land or make-believe. But the Pevensie children existed in both the reality of the present and a fantastical world of magic. Away from the novel, in my mind, I was off on expeditions through the wardrobe that were all my own. I began reinterpreting the stories, changing and what-if-ing the plot. The characters became part of my imaginary world.
2. A Reader
I started school at four. While at what was styled ‘Infants School, I learned to begin deciphering the magic runes. Not that I learned at school. In fact, during the 11 or so years of compulsory education, I recall acquiring only one fact: the difference between U-shaped and V-shaped valleys, which information has, naturally, stood me in good stead.
One day, our terrifying form teacher began reading to us, his hapless class. As he was refraining from bellowing, hurling objects or striking students, we naturally regarded this as a good thing and listened quietly and attentively. The book was a slow starter, but it had a new word in it, a new species and I was enchanted.
(Hobbit House in New Zealand)
JRR Tolkien had entered my life, for good, with The Hobbit. Rather than wait for the laborious read-aloud when my preceptor felt like delivering it to us, I acquired a copy, and the slow start gathered speed. I learned to read the runes on his map and came to know Bilbo’s route by heart. For the length of the story, I took up residence in The Shire and journeyed through perilous lands to the book’s glorious ending.
3. I Discover Treasure
At home, one thing there was a-plenty: books. Among some battered paperbacks, I found the mystery genre: Agatha Christie, with the title that was to become Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None. The ingenious plot assembles a party of strangers onto a remote English island, where one after another is found murdered. I was fascinated and soon was seeking the shelves at home, the library and the bookshop for more and more Christie. I feasted, and over the years repeatedly returned to the table for the banquet. What I did not know was that I had met the writer who would one day be hailed as the queen, the godmother, of a new genre: cozy mystery.
4. Golden Heyer
I began a new school where, at the age of 11, the girl I sat next to gave me a priceless gift. She introduced me to works of the historical novelist Georgette Heyer. A romance writer? You may say with surprise. Yes, because here was a new rich seam of literary delight with Jane Austen-style wit. Book after book in her canon filled my shelves, my mind and heart. I even discovered mysteries among her Regency tales in Cousin Kate and The Toll Gate.
About this time, my brother showed me one of the action thrillers of Alastair MacClean. Spellbound, I began reading book after book. However, it was the eerie Puppet on a Chain that became my favourite to such an extent that I studied the Netherlands and began learning Dutch.
6. The Return of the King
It was time. The moment had come to unite me with what was to become my all-time favourite book: The Lord of the Rings. Of course, thanks to my brother. We read it at the same time, working our way through the three volumes, picking up a book when the other was busy. For the days it took us to read from first volume cover to third volume close, we talked and thought of little else. JRR Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth was more real to me than reality.
(Lord of the Rings – The One Ring)
7. Medieval Mystery
I can’t recall exactly who told me about them, but it was definitely a good fairy in human guise: The Cadfael novels, set in the twelfth century and beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters. The writing impressed me in particular because Peters has her monk sleuth solve crimes with only the aid of such technology that was available at the time. On the library shelf next to Ellis was a book by Elizabeth Peters that accidentally checked out one day. A whole new series, this time of archaeological whodunits was now at my fingertips.
8. Sir Terry
Knowing I liked science fiction and mysteries, one day, my brother asked me if I’d heard of the Discworld. No. The what? It sounded rather weird at first, but this was my brother recommending it after all. And so, I read The Light Fantastic. I wanted more mystery and shenanigans in the peculiar flat earth of Sir Terry Pratchett’s imaginings. (Photo by Luigi Novi) Eventually, I had read the back catalogue and longed for the moment when the next novel was released.
The book above all that books that captured my heart was the third in the ‘Witches’ series. Witches Abroad is a road movie of a tale as Granny Weatherwax makes her way through foreign fairytale-gone-wrong parts. These of the Witches series were the stories that were to have an influence on my own yet-to-be-created magical world.
Meanwhile, I became curious about actual witches, I read about witchcraft, and later met two ghostbusters. I heard about experiences with the supernatural. I concluded witchcraft was rather a lot of work.
9. Racing Riddles
I suspect that all avid readers are also avid inspectors of other people’s bookshelves, searching for new and wondrous literary treasures. And thus, with Nerve, I think, I discovered a new pleasure. Dick Francis’ murder mysteries are set in the world of horse racing. This was not a sphere of which I had no experience. However, it was his ability to write in first person of such a diverse variety of characters that struck me. I marvelled at how Francis handled romance and intimacy with such deftness, and the cleverness of his plots.
10. The Unhappy Medium and the Happy Outcome
And then … I began to write …. non-fiction, marketing. I wrote more and more of that until I had somehow convinced myself that I was a strictly non-fiction author incapable of penning fiction. A friend kept telling me I could do it, but it was unimaginable. And then … two novels came into my experience that were to change my life.
I met the now bestselling author of The Unhappy Medium, TJ Brown. We made contact as fellow writers and quickly established a rapport. Interested in what he had penned, I read his first and, at the time, only novel. I was captivated. It had all of the components I enjoyed the most. I was bowled over by the ingenious juxtaposition of suspense and hilarity, either holding my breath or giggling helplessly.
That was the first novel. But the second was the clincher: The Unhappy Medium II: Tom Fool. Tim was writing the next in the series and, as I’d done copious amounts of editing, he asked me to top edit it for him. It was the ride of a lifetime. I went through the edits with him on the phone, frequently suffused with laughter, fascinated by the devices he was using to tell his story. I noticed the emotional terrain, and what worked and what needed tweaking. What a learning experience it was!
Tim’s judgment was: if you can do this, you can write your own novel. I was still not a believer. Then one day, on a couple of pages of a large stretch book, in a pub, Tim revealed to me the secret of plotting a novel. He made it look so easy that I believed it was.
Then came The Call. One afternoon, in November 2017. Tim had been told by a fellow author of a new genre. As soon as he heard the news, he was convinced that I could write for it: cozy mystery, and an even better fit: cozy paranormal mystery.
Soon Tim helped to plot out my first novel in the genre: Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth. I wrote the first draft in three weeks. Tim mentored me through the editing process, created the cover and the logo, and helped me conjure a map of the village. Before I knew it, it was published. Even before then, book 2 was forming in my imagination, that spawned book 3, and later 4, then the most recent, book 5, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidden Depths.
Amanda Cadabra’s homicidal witch-clan goes over a Cornish cliff when she is three. This creates what, many years later, becomes the cold case that is the story arc running thought the series. That arc comes to its finale and climax in this, the book I have just written: Amanda Cadabra and The Hidden Depths.
And so the trail has led me home. I love, I adore, creating cozy paranormal mysteries. Nevertheless, since I’ve started writing fiction, reading anything that’s not for research has rather gone by the board. One day I’ll get back to it, but for now, I have a new trail to follow. I can’t wait to see where it takes me … and my readers.
The moral of the story? ‘I could never be a writer,’ you say? The book you’re reading today could be part of your trail of breadcrumbs to the novel that, right now, you’re convinced you could never write. Never say never.
Thank you again, Camilla.
It was wonderful to have you on Friday with Friends, Holly! I very much enjoyed following the trail of bread crumbs to Sunken Madley.
I had the same reaction the first time I read Agatha Christie. I was hooked. I read every single book she had written (may be missing one or two of the rare books), and ended with reading her autobiography.
Deeply grateful to you for this inspiring post. Wishing you all the best, always! – Camilla
To see Holly’s interview previously posted, go here:
Holly Bell is a cat and chocolate lover who lives in London and began publishing novels less than two years ago. After writing reams of non-fiction over the years, a fellow author convinced her she could write fiction. Photography and videography are also things Holly does and has done professionally and for pleasure.
Rainbows, butterflies and honeybees seem magically to show up whenever she’s outside. Holly firmly believes that we are all born storytellers and anyone can write a book, however small.
Camilla very kindly featured me some many months ago on ‘Meeting the Authors’ and so much has happened since that interview, that she suggested I update you all about the two new books I’ve had published, what I’m writing at the moment and a little more about me.
Well, since I was a little girl living in Scotland I have wanted to farm. Having been frustrated in my attempts to attend agricultural college by my parents, I never gave up my dream, but got on with the business of life and put it on the backboiler for many years. After marriage, kids and a string of interesting but not riveting jobs, I divorced and met the most wonderful supportive man. Since we married he has quietly encouraged me to finish my university degree, and then to live my dream, and in 2005, we bought a run-down agricultural bungalow in Cornwall and began smallholding.
Then, I retrained as an agricultural lecturer and landed the most wonderful job, putting together training courses for smallholders and farmers. Still smallholding, I began a small, but successful commercial cider making business on the smallholding, won a prestigious Sustainability Award in Cornwall in 2014. My first book, The Sustainable Smallholders Handbook was published in 2019, my second, How to Live the Good Life in France, in March 2020, just as Covid was beginning to dominate the world, and my third, Living off the Land: My Cornish Smallholding Dream, was published in June 2020.
I began writing as a teenager, but had my first article published in Smallholder Magazine many years ago, when I was living in Cornwall. The thrill of seeing my words in print was matched when readers got in touch directly. I realised there were so many interested readers that I’d be stupid to miss the opportunity of writing a full length non-fiction book. There were so many other smallholding based books, all aimed at teaching people how to keep animals that I wanted to do something different, and the idea of helping people to look at their smallholding or rural business as a business seemed to be the way forward. Yes, it’s a ‘Good Life’, but aspiring smallholders need to appreciate it’s a hard life too. I’m delighted with the success of the book, but as a non-fiction work, realise that updates and coverage of many new situations need included, and so I’m currently aiming to make the new version even more popular.
My book, Living off the Land is autobiographical, and with an introduction of my early and teenage life, quickly moves to Cornwall, and the highs and lows, debt and final success we had on our smallholding. This was a very difficult book to write, as previously non-fiction never really touched on the personal. In this book I lay bare my stormy relationship with my mother, who developed dementia and came to live with us, eventually setting fire to our house one night as we slept. Whilst some members of my family have found it disturbing to read, I have to admit that the process really helped me move on from this incredibly hard period of my life. I have no regrets, and hope my experiences can help anyone else in similar circumstances.
Here in France, lockdown was at first frustrating and to channel my boundless energy, John encouraged me to set a strict pattern of writing every other day. The discipline has been fruitful and has become the ‘norm’ for me now. Current projects are a new and expanded version of my first book, and I’m thoroughly enjoying writing a black comedy set in an agricultural setting in my native Scotland. Who knows what my future career as a writer holds? Meantime, I haven’t given up the ‘Good Life’. Here in SW France I have a small apple orchard, a few walnuts, an acre of woodlands and a field where I keep my beloved sheep. I’ve just started to grow pomegranates, have far too many apple trees, and am trying very hard to resist the idea of getting some ducks.
It was wonderful to learn more about you and your background, Lorraine. Thank you for sharing with us. I’m adding ‘Living off the Land’ to my reading list. It sounds like a great book! Wishing you all the best! – Camilla
To see Lorraine’s interview previously posted, go here:
First, I’d like you to understand something very fundamental and important about me; unless it’s a box with a new pair of shoes (preferably swanky boots or trainers), chocolate, or better still, some bling, I hate boxes! Metaphoric boxes that is. I hate the labels, but more than that I despair that mankind still believes in categorising people into them.
I am many things these days: a mother, a nurse, a writer, a publisher, and a wife. But this is not the entirety of my identity and neither is the fact that I am dyslexic. It pains me that people believe a diagnosis, skin colour, the language you speak or your country of birth is reason to single another person out, whether to degrade or uplift.
I was diagnosed fairly early in life thanks to my awesome mom. Kindergarten was spent with other kids who had learning disabilities. Missus Zenolli, was my teacher and I will never forget her. Much taller than my five year old self, grey soft short curly hair and round framed glasses with a smile that lit up the darkest room, and life. I clearly remember those years because she filled them with so much fun. Learning was fun!
But as we all know, life is not filled entirely of fun and games, and soon I was old enough to go to Grade 1. My first year of primary school was spent with a teacher whose name escapes me but the memory of her long blond hair and scrutinising brown eyes does not. Grade 1 would be the first year of many where life taught me the gift of adversity. PS adversity is not a bad thing–okay!
Grade two and standard one (or 3rd grade) was spent in a ‘special class’ called the A-Class. We were essentially a part of the school, but separate too, and because of this separation the other kids looked down on us. It wasn’t their fault, nor the fault of the well-meaning teachers who wanted to give kids like myself a better chance at learning and practicing our brains to think, take in, and digest information like everyone elses. It’s human nature, although it did take me a few years to understand this.
Standard five (7th grade) handed me one of the greatest life lessons ever. A teacher, I’ll call her Miss Owl for the purpose of the story, took an immediate dislike to me from the first day I entered her class. Without a “how’s your mother”, she put me in the corner of her classroom and told me I was unteachable, that I should make peace with the fact that I’d end up no better than a street sweep. (PS. Street sweeps are awesome–I once met a lady who drove those machines and loved Tolstoy!). At the time, her words and disdain for my inability to learn conventionally almost broke me. She refused to teach me English, sighed whenever she marked my work, handing it back with huge fat F’s scrawled across the pages and pretty much protected any child who decided to pick on me for being, ‘dumb,’ or ‘stupid’, the list goes on.
Buoyed by the determination to prove Miss Owl wrong, I started writing and printing my own books in primary school. I even wrote a short play based on ‘the washer woman’ from Enid Blyton’s, Far Away Tree, and performed it to my class. My dad’s office Xerox was the most amazing thing since sliced bread, and my friends loved their weekly photocopied and stapled together books of stories and my awesome (not really) graphics. They were always about a little girl and her weekend adventures – no guessing who the lass was, eh?
Miss Owl and her hatred for my dyslexia, I soon realised, stemmed from a lack of education. A fear of, If I can’t teach this child it will reflect badly on me. It took time to realise, it wasn’t me – it was never me! It was her, and the moment I realised this, my world began to change, evolve, and take shape for the better.
Highschool was a blur of hormones, rock bands, boys, and trying to pass math and science. I scrapped by on my bum. Back in the day you did as your folks said. Mine told me I’d take math and science till matric (year12/12th grade). Don’t gasp, they weren’t bullies, they were my parents, and as we all know (and by we I mean parents) it’s not the easiest thing to know what’s good for your kid – now is it? In saying this, if it weren’t for their persistence I’d never have been allowed entry in to Nursing.
Nursing had been one of my passions growing up. To heal the sick and love those who were unloved. I used to perform endless surgeries on my poor Oupa (grandfathers) banana trees and use all my mom’s band aids and bandages on her aloe’s and my tree in the back yard. Even our poor dog got bathed in mercurochrome and bandaged up like a mummy. I wrote quite a few manuals on how to heal a dying banana tree and how to ease an old dogs arthritis – poor things.
After being unceremoniously kicked out of beauty school (my dad’s idea cause I was too much of a tom boy), then travelling Europe and Israel, I decided it was time to begin studying. By this time, I was already at least 4 years older than all the other students and thoroughly afraid of failing but what I lacked in the ability to take in information on the same level as my peers, I made up for in gusto. Also, I was blessed with the most amazing lecturers. But I did fail my first year. I simply couldn’t grasp the complex terms and equations, (pharmacology has equations people) staring back at me from the textbooks and I was sure as hell not going to let anyone in on my secret either. I wish I could explain what it feels like to look at really long words. If you’ve ever watched the first Percy Jackson movie or read the book, it looks like that – where all letters looked jumbled and upside down – and unfortunately I’m no daughter of a god or goddess (though Mom is an absolute angel – which is better). Well that’s what all the medical terms did to me. They jumped and turned inside out. Add math to it and well…
It still happens on days when I am too tired to get my brain in to gear. There’s the odd occasion when I really am exhausted, I battle to make sense of what someone is saying, and I have even been known to talk funny and write upside down – literally.
In practice I was a goddess (still am), it was always the theory which hindered me. But I found ways around this. And yes, I had another Miss Owl. Funny how these super intellectuals sniff a weakness a mile away. I’d barely walked into her lecture hall and she’d sussed me out. She taught nursing Ethics and Research, no images and stories to be had here. Like my primary school Miss Owl, Lecturer Miss Owl went out of her way to try and fail me. I didn’t get flying colours in her subjects but thankfully with Ethics it’s like parrot work – there is only one answer. As for research… got there by the skin of my teeth.
Fortunately, our head of Faculty was an old nurse with the spirit and mind of a twenty year old go getter. It was because of her and her amazing staff that I passed. She recognised the problem—and the solution. The lecturers gleefully accepted their challenge. I was allowed to rewrite my exams after they gave more of their time to paint me pictures. No, art wasn’t involved. We discovered that my brain loves anatomical images and the stories which go with them. By studying the images as my lecturer spoke my brain automatically memorised them. Pharms was as easy. Spending the day with a GP in the community I walked out understanding what was in our textbooks and much more. What was even more amazing is some of the girls would come to me to explain complex case studies. The way my brain digested and regurgitated information, it turned out, was what helped so many of my peers understand their work. I even ended up giving some lectures which in turn taught me more. Cool how a bad thing can be swung round in to absolute awesome!
All this adversity added to my prickliness about being singled out, misrepresented, misinterpreted and mistreated. I got called into more than one disciplinary hearing for speaking down to a superior. Even though I was in the right, I’d had to learn that there was this thing called diplomacy. This was harder to learn than math by the way. I’ve always made a point of advocating for my patients, especially when they could not do so for themselves. I formed bonds others could not, simply because I saw life differently. I was, and still am, focused on uplifting not judging.
If you’re wondering how dyslexia affects me as a nurse these days, please know that just because I am dyslexic does not mean I can’t read and write (you do know I am an award winning author?). But it does cause frustration particularly as everything is computerized and programmed these days. My eyes and my brain take longer to adjust when I am booking in a patient or adding notes to a file.
The fear of failing returned when I decided to write my first book. Fortunately, and unfortunately, in the beginning I ran in to a plethora of Mr. and Ms Owls – at first it hurt and I almost gave up. But as any writer will tell you – your story will never give up on you. Every moment I could spare I used to practice my craft. I joined a thriving online writing community filled with people from all walks of life, many who didn’t care that I was dyslexic, and showed me that really it doesn’t affect my writing abilities one little bit. I’ve come a long way since, and know I have a longer way ahead – but I do look forward to it.
So, through all of these difficulties and the heartbreaking approach of the Mr and Ms Owls of the world, what is the lesson you learned? I hear you ask. Well the lesson was that others do not determine my fate, my destiny, or my future, and nobody will ever tell me I can’t do something.
As you can see. I’m no street sweep, but sure as the sky is blue I am a Nurse, a mother of triplets, and an Award Winning Bestselling Author! (Capital letters are there for a reason.) These days, I am writing stories left right and centre baby! Did I get any special treatment along the way because I am dyslexic? Hell no! Did I want any? Double hell no! And why? Because I have learnt that nothing except yourself stands in the way of you succeeding. I’ve never allowed dyslexia to be my undoing, in fact I call it my super power. I get to see the world from a different perspective. It’s like standing upside down – how does everything look now? Pretty awesome huh?
At the end of the day, if you want to tell the world a story using pictures, or words on paper, or videos, nothing and nobody should stop you – well maybe there are a few rules to be taken into consideration (because ain’t nobody want you spewing drivel and hate), so hey, go for it!
Be kind, be true, be loving to yourself and when you are you will see how easily it flows out of you and into others.
Thank you so very much for this inspiring and uplifting share, Michelle. Wishing you all the best with your latest book, and all future books! – Camilla
To see Michelle’s ‘Meet the Author’ interview previously published on MTA, go here …
Michelle Dalton is the bestselling and award-winning author of three women’s fiction novels. Michelle juggles married life with triplet sons with the demands of a busy nursing career, her passion for writing, and her publishing house, 3 Umfana Publishers. Michelle speaks openly and passionately about the challenges and rewards of dyslexia.
Can Calla acknowledge the truth of her past, accept her gift, and embrace an open invitation to love?
On the anniversary of her father’s untimely death, forensic anthropologist, Doctor Calla Conroy, is thrown in the deep end of a murder investigation.
To complicate the situation, the voice in her head has returned.
With everything to lose and no time for a psychotic break, Calla ends up in the small highland’s village of Lairg. Here she meets the handsome Detective Hamish Bell, who elicits powerful emotions that frighten her.
Can Calla make peace with her traumatic past and the reality of her gift? Or is she simply losing her mind, her heart, and possibly her career?
Welcome to a new series on Meeting the Authors …. Friday with Friends. On select Fridays we will feature a unique guest post/interview with an author that has previously been interviewed on MTA. Welcome to Tom Williams to help kick off this new series.
When Camilla was kind enough to offer me space to write on her blog, I asked if she had any idea what people would like to read about. She replied, “If you want to write about your passion of dancing, that may be fun.”
Well, I always love writing about tango, but I also want to encourage you to read my books. And although I keep wanting to write a book about tango, I never have yet. So can I write about my dancing and link it to any of my novels?
Oddly enough, maybe I can.
A very, very long time ago, I used to ice dance. Here’s a photo of a much younger me posing with wife, son and competition cup (we all danced on the same recreational competition team).
One of the other ice dancers had taken up Argentine tango and started teaching it and she persuaded Tammy and me to give it a go. That was over 20 years ago.
It’s fair to say that we got quite enthusiastic about it. In 2003 we made our first trip to Buenos Aires and life was never quite the same again.
We’ve been back more times than I can remember since then. We’ve danced in France, Iceland, Portugal, Turkey and Romania. We’ve tangoed for fun in parks in Barcelona and hotels in the Highlands and semi-professionally in an Army base and on a narrow-boat. Tammy has even gone dancing in Korea. Here we are dancing where we live. (Please be gentle with us – it was 10 years ago.)
As I took up writing, the idea of a book about tango obviously came up once or twice. I even started on one, but I was never able to make it work. Instead I ended up a writer of historical novels.
My first book, The White Rajah had just been turned down by all the major publishers on the grounds (mainly) that it was “too difficult for a first novel”. My agent suggested I write something more straightforwardly commercial.
But what? I started asking around my friends if they had any ideas.
On one of our trips to Buenos Aires we had met an Alaskan woman who was even more passionate about tango than we were and was living there for six months. (The most we have ever managed has been six weeks.) It was her suggestion that there were lots of interesting figures linked to the early history of European colonisation of South America and the struggles for liberation from Spain. So it was that I discovered the real-life British spy, James Burke, and his role in the 1806 British invasion of Buenos Aires. His Argentinian adventures were to become the basis for Burke in the Land of Silver.
I had a lot of fun following his footsteps around the town, exploring the remains of the old fort (now hidden away under the presidential palace) and riding out into the Andes, which he crossed on horseback. Sadly, my research into his life didn’t allow any room for tango. James Burke was active in Argentina early in the 19th century and tango only arrived almost a century later. The South American poet and historian of tango, Horacio Ferrer, writes:
“Nowadays, it is thought that between 1895 and 1900, Tango was born as a musical art clearly predestined and unmistakable.”
(Argentinian poets write like that.)
High in the Andes: not ideal dance conditions
Leaving aside issues of historical authenticity, there is limited potential for tangoing in the snow at 3,000 metres on the road to Chile, though we did get the odd dance in back in Buenos Aires. Poor James Burke, however, doesn’t get to dance at all, though he does join a group of gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina, as they sing after a cattle drive.
The guitars began to play again and everybody joined in singing long, slow songs about the loneliness and loss that seemed an inescapable part of living in this vast emptiness at the bottom of the world. The words were sad and the melodies plaintive but the singing evoked the beauty of the landscape and the passion with which they loved it.
In Argentina, many people believe that tango is principally about the songs and only secondarily about the dancing. The music of tango is the soundtrack of Buenos Aires and the songs are still songs of loss and loneliness; the struggle to find love and the inevitability of its loss. They are sad songs that somehow make you feel happy. It is true, as the great tango composer Astor Piazzolla said, that “Tango is darkness made light through art.”
The real James Burke may never have got to tango, but he did go on spying until well after the Napoleonic wars were over. He carried on in my books, too. In fact, I have just re-published the first three books (starting with Burke in the Land of Silver) ahead of publishing two new ones later this year. I’ve carried on dancing, too: the photo shows Tammy and me celebrating our Ruby Wedding two years ago.
James Burke, spy
James Burke’s published adventures take him from South America to Egypt and, inevitably for any Napoleonic wars hero, to Waterloo. His further adventures will see him up to dark deeds in Spain and Ireland. You can find out more about Burke and his world (and my other books) on my web-site: http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/.
Tom Williams used to write about business but he’s given that up to indulge himself and write historical novels. Besides three books about James Burke he has three others set at the height of Empire in the mid-19th century: The White Rajah, Cawnpore and Back Home.
He lives in Richmond and, when he’s not dancing (or teaching people to dance), he spends a lot of time street skating.
Thank you for this great post! I absolutely love it, as I find it inspiring to learn more about the past and current lives of authors. I adore the video of you and Tammy dancing. You two are beautiful! Wishing you all the best, Tom! – Camilla
Welcome to a new series on Meeting the Authors …. Friday with Friends. On select Fridays we will feature a unique guest post/interview with an author that has previously been interviewed on MTA. Welcome to Derek Thompson to help kick off this new series.
Craig Wild’s Desert Island Disc challenge
The radio programme Desert Island Discs first aired on BBC Radio in 1942 and since then it’s become an institution. It’s a deceptively simple format where guests talk about their journey and pick eight songs that have accompanied them, often at key points in their lives. Choices range from classical music to R&B, jazz, 70s prog rock, etc., and aren’t always what you’d expect. At the end of the programme the guest chooses that one special song to take to their desert island (not sure how they’d play it!), as well as one luxury item. Here’s a link for the archive. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr/episodes/player)
As Derek Thompson was previously interviewed for one of his spy thrillers we thought it would be fun this time to have his new protagonist, Detective Sergeant Craig Wild, choose a few tracks and explain how they relate to Long Shadows. (He managed four!)
LONG SHADOWS – A SECRET THAT WON’T STAY BURIED. A KILLER WHO CAN’T FORGET.
Detective Craig Wild couldn’t cut it in London – that’s a long story for another time. Now he must swap the Met for Mayberry, a sleepy Wiltshire backwater where ambition goes to die. It was supposed to be a second chance. Then Wild is faced with the most baffling case of his career.
Eccentric farmer Alexander Porter is found shot dead in his own field. It could be suicide but Wild knows better than that. Determined to uncover the truth, he teams up with PC Marnie Olsen, whose abilities outshine his own, and they set off to navigate a twisting trail of lies and omissions.
Over to you, Craig…in his own inimitable voice…
“My first track has to be Country House by Blur. Why? Because I never wanted to transfer out of London in the first place. I like pubs and darts and nicking people who deserve it. I don’t like cows because you don’t see many of them in the city. I can tolerate sheep as they generally keep to themselves.”
“My second track is The last day of our acquaintance by Sinead O’Connor and I dedicate it to my ex-wife, Steph. I’m not bitter that she remains a favourite at New Scotland Yard while I exist in a rural backwater. No, I’m bitter about other things!”
“Track three is Cool for Cats by Squeeze. I get on with one or two colleagues at Mayberry police station, and I’m not saying the others are savages out of The Wicca Man, but I miss the old team at Kentish Town nick (and West Hampstead for a time). This song reminds me of the banter and the way that the job pulls a team together.”
“My fourth track is Lies by The Black Keys. I’ve been getting the runaround in Mayberry ever since I started on this case. Lies and omissions at every turn. I almost wish I was tracking down stolen tractors or finding vandals instead, like some of the other muppets. Nah, who am I kidding? I like a case I can get my teeth into. Give me a juicy murder any day of the week.
My luxury item on my desert island? That’s easy. A set of permanently sharp darts.
Thanks, Derek, for this fun, imaginative, and unique post. Love it! Wishing you all the best. – Camilla
Derek Thompson is a British writer of novels and short fiction. He believes that all good stories contain a grain of truth, and that sometimes it’s better that way. Long Shadows is his first foray into crime mystery, having written five Thomas Bladen spy thrillers. His first ambition was to be an astronaut, which is a giant step indeed when you’re five years old!
Welcome to a new series on Meeting the Authors …. Friday with Friends. On select Fridays we will feature a unique guest post/interview with an author that has previously been interviewed on MTA. Welcome to Wendy Holden to kick off this new series.
Counting My Lockdown Blessings
It’s not every day that an author finds herself with not one but two books coming out within the space of two weeks, but that’s exactly what is about to happen with me. One is the paperback of One Hundred Miracles, released this week (May 14, 2020), and the other is a special new edition of my international bestseller Born Survivors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
What should have been a double celebration of this momentous milestone in a writing career spanning four decades has turned into something of a nightmare. The coronavirus pandemic has closed all bookshops and massively disrupted distribution, marketing and sales. Up until ten days ago I had a European and Brazilian tour lined up, a television interview, book launch parties, literary festival appearances, radio slots, public speaking engagements and fully booked creative writing courses. Instead, as publishers and publicists, the media and festival organisers decamp to their homes to juggle schooling with the day-to-day running of the business we all earn our crust from, everything has fallen away. To add insult to injury, Amazon has decreed that books are ‘non-essential’ items and are stocking only limited supplies of new titles.
At a time when it seems to this author that books have never been more essential, the systematic amputation of almost every limb that moves the publishing process forward is potentially devastating. No matter how much I try to promote my two new ‘babies,’ the bottom line is that even the most loyal of my readers are likely to experience difficulties in buying them. And by the time the virus has finally burned itself out, those outlets that have survived will be inundated with a tsunami of new titles that will have been held back for that very moment.
I realise that this is a ‘First World problem’ and appreciate that I am far more fortunate than most. Nobody I love has caught the virus or died from it, thankfully. I live in a beautiful part of Suffolk, England, where we grow our own vegetables and can walk the dogs every day. I have worked from home for over twenty years so the concept is both familiar and comfortable, plus I don’t have young children to home-school. My husband is a capable smallholder and occasional builder and can keep us warm, fed and safe. But we still do rely on my income for what we have and after poor health kept me off work, what was going to be my bumper comeback year has the potential to be our worst in decades.
When my friends ask me how I can remain so cheerful in the face of this latest catastrophe, I tell them that the answer lies within the pages of the very books I’m talking about. They are both Holocaust memoirs in which three young mothers and a teenage girl with everything to look forward to suddenly found themselves in unspeakable circumstances and in daily fear of their lives, having lost everyone they ever loved. It is these singular women I look to now and whose experiences have marked me for life. Writing about them so immersively, I feel that I came to know them well and only hope that some of their courage, wisdom and resilience has rubbed off on me.
If three pregnant women can defy the Nazis and give birth in the camps, and if a young piano prodigy with hands broken by slave labour can go on to become one of the world’s foremost musicians, then who am I to complain? The stories of these women are timeless. They will not disappear and both chronicle remarkable lives that are waiting to inspire future readers. As I embark on virtual launches, blog tours, podcasts and whatever I can to tell the world about them, I am confident that the light these courageous women shine on our troubled world will not go unnoticed.
What drew you to help Holocaust survivors write their stories? Why is this important to you?
I feel as if my whole life has been moving me towards writing about war. My father fought the Japanese in Burma and my mother lived through the London Blitz. She also lost her 19-year-old fiancé parachuting into Holland. When I worked for the Daily Telegraph I was a foreign and war correspondent for a while so I saw first hand the cruelty and brutality of war. As a journalist I was always looking for the humanity in the inhumanity and when I gave that up to write books full time, I looked for the same.
Born Survivors came to me by chance after I’d written two other books about war, Behind Enemy Lines, the memoir of a diminutive female Jewish spy, and Tomorrow to be Brave, the true story of the only woman in the French Foreign Legion (soon to be a film). Through these remarkable stories, I became even more obsessed with the subject of war, the Holocaust, and especially the way women had to step up and become something far more than they might have been because of terrible circumstances. This is endlessly fascinating to me.
Have you met the subjects of these memoirs in person, or any of their relatives?
Yes, almost all of them. Sadly, all three mothers in Born Survivors had died by the time I came to their stories, but I worked very closely with the three surviving ‘babies’ and other relatives, one of whom I flew to Nashville, Tennessee to meet. Their gracious contributions to my research made all the difference to that book and helped bring these stories to life.
With One Hundred Miracles, I met Zuzana Ruzickova in Prague and worked with her closely right up until a week before her death at the age of ninety. She was a tiny powerhouse of a woman with twinkly grey eyes and an infectious smile. She was such an inspiration after all she had been through and remained surprisingly positive, thanks to her passion for music. She taught me so much about resilience.
How can those reading this post help you to spread the word about these powerful books?
I spend much of my time talking to children in schools in the hope of educating the next generation about the important values of tolerance, compassion and understanding. Born Survivors has been widely adopted into the curriculum in the UK and the US for Year 9 and above. One Hundred Miracles is also being used widely in classrooms. People can’t possibly identify with 6 million dead but they can identify with three young mothers.
The only way we can combat hate speech and the rise in nationalism is by learning more about these dark times, reading these kinds of books, talking about them, sharing them with our friends and – perhaps most importantly of all – teaching the next generation, especially in this special 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. The events within these pages books happened within living memory and there are still a few survivors left who bear witness to what happens when good men and women do nothing. Within a few years, the three babies from Born Survivors will be the only living Holocaust survivors walking on this earth and that is a very salutary thought. We must never forget.
Thank you Wendy for sharing a powerful post and books with us. I’m thrilled to hear that Tomorrow to be Brave will be made into a movie! I thought it an incredibly moving story. I’ve also read Born Survivors and found it to be emotional, moving, and deeply powerful. – Camilla
One Hundred Miracles: Music, Auschwitz, Survival and Love by Zuzana Ružičková with Wendy Holden. Bloomsbury £9.99
o “[An] extraordinary memoir … A moving record of a life well lived in the face of appalling obstacles” – Nick Rennison, Sunday Times
o “A compelling story of terrible suffering surmounted by incredible bravery” – Anne de Courcy, Daily Telegraph
o “Zuzana’s humanity shines through all the inhumanity …Vivid and moving” – The Jewish Chronicle
o “Through Auschwitz and the brutalities of the early Soviet era, the music of Bach shines like a beacon of hope” – Financial Times, Books of the Year
Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Survival by Wendy Holden, Sphere £8.99 (special WWII 75 th anniversary edition with a conversation with miracle ‘baby’ Eva Clarke added to the audiobook)
o “An exceptionally fresh history, a work of prodigious original research, written with zealous empathy.” New York Times
o “A work of quite extraordinary investigative dedication. Born Survivors is a moving testament of faith.” Sir Harold Evans
o “A sensitive, brave, disturbing book that everyone should read.” Rabbi Baroness Neuberger DBE
o “Packed with harrowing detail and impressively well researched…. intense, powerful and moving… a worthy testament to these three women and the miraculous survival of the children.” Jewish Chronicle
Wendy Holden is a British author, originally from London but now living in Suffolk, three hours north east of London, near the sea. She was a journalist for almost 20 years, including time as a war correspondent, and has been writing books full time for 22 years. She has more than thirty titles published, ten of which are bestsellers.
Follow the link below to read Wendy’s interview of last year …