27.6.15

Inspiration for Luckpenny Land

Inspired by my own efforts at living the ‘good life’ on the Lakeland Fells, Luckpenny Land was the first saga I ever wrote. We were living on a small-holding, out on Shap Fell in Cumbria. And as I trekked up the fellside in the dark of a freezing night to check if our sheep were about to lamb, or to feed a pet lamb, I’d be thinking: ‘There must be a book in this. But who would want to read about a middle-aged mum, with arthritis, being so stupid as to choose to live in a place where the pantry was colder than her wonderful Zanussi fridge? Where the winter snows freeze the mains water supply in the field below the house every winter, as well as the battery in her car as it stands buried in snow in the yard.

So I used those wonderful two words that writers love: What if? What if I wrote about a girl who wanted to be a sheep farmer. It was World War II and her very Victorian father thought that it wasn’t women’s work. I could then use many of the amusing incidents and anecdotes my family had experienced living this life, but write it as fiction.

Running a smallholding with a few sheep and a couple of dozen hens didn’t qualify me to write knowledgeably about running a proper sheep farm, let alone during WWII. I would need to do considerable research. When writing about a time within living memory it’s essential to get it right, and that includes the weather and state of the harvest.

I began by interviewing Cumbrian farmers, who are stoic, strong, taciturn, and a tad distrustful of
strangers, particularly of people who have not lived in the Lake District for three generations. It’s not that they are unfriendly, only that they’re more used to the company of themselves and their animals rather than a nosy, would-be author. At this point in my career having published only short stories, articles, and 5 Mills & Boon historical romances, the prospect of a full-length saga was daunting. And I’d never done an interview in my life.

When I rang the first name on my list, a farmer out in the Langdales, I spoke first to his wife to ask if he would see me. ‘Happen’, she said, which I took as a yes. To be on the safe side I took my husband with me. As a local solicitor he was used to dealing with Lakeland farmers, and it worked like a charm. I asked the farmer a question, and he told David the answer. I was so nervous I didn’t even dare to switch on the brand new recording device I’d taken with me. I scribbled notes like mad, and even more later.

But he was marvellous. He took me through his farming year, explaining everything most carefully, and showed me pictures of his dogs. Not his family, his dogs. All the farmers I interviewed did that. It’s a nonsense to say that farmers don’t care about their working dogs. Mr G’s dog appeared in the book, much to his delight, although the accident the fictional dog suffered was far more dramatic to that of the real dog, even if it had the same outcome. And no, I can’t say anymore without spoiling it.

Some of the farmers I spoke to were women. Although farming was a reserved occupation during the war, many men opted to join up and leave their wives to run the family farm. I learned from them how to kill and scald a pig, how to wring a chicken’s neck and pluck it. (my hens all lived to a ripe old age) Plus all the various wangles they got up to during the war, such as dressing up a pig as a person in the car so they wouldn’t be caught out selling one. This was at a time when such things were strictly rationed and controlled. Talking to these women inspired many plot incidents and ideas, some based on real life, including the most dramatic and painful which takes place in Luckpenny Land. And I won’t spoil it by telling you that either. Armed with the research, I started to weave a love story and plan the lives of my characters.

I also spent ages reading the newspapers of the period, finding out what was on people’s mind and how they coped. But then I love research, and talking to the people who actually remember what it was like back then is what inspires me the most.

I was fortunate enough to meet an agent at a weekend conference and told him all about my idea. He asked to see the book when it was finished, which took nine months, just like a baby. Just a few weeks after I’d delivered it, I was so excited to get The Call. There were offers from three publishers and I went with Hodder & Stoughton, now part of the Hatchette group.

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Luckpenny Land turned into a mini-series and it has been an absolute delight to be able to revisit these stories. When I gave them a new life as ebooks I split the book into two as the print edition was far too long for an ebook, the second part becoming Storm Clouds over Broombank. Followed by Wishing Water and Larkrigg Fell.





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