What do we know about sheep?

My journey as a writer continued. I now had sufficient confidence to try for the mainstream fiction market. Luckpenny Land was the first full length historical saga I ever wrote. We were still living on the 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. Snag number one: 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, so I would need to do considerable research.

I began by interviewing Cumbrian farmers, who are a breed apart. Stoic, strong, taciturn, and 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 and Boon historicals, 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 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 tape recorder I’d taken with me, so I scribbled notes like mad, and then even more later. I didn’t make that mistake again, but he was marvellous. He took me through his farming year, explained 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 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. Talking to these women inspired many plot incidents and ideas, many based on real life, including the most dramatic 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.

So how did I go about selling it? I met an agent at a weekend conference and told him all about my idea, and he asked to see it when it was finished. It took 9 months, just like a baby. Weeks later, I got The Call. There were offers from three publishers and I went with Hodder & Stoughton, now part of the Hatchette group. I loved writing this series of books, now available in ebook on Amazon, etc. Selling Luckpenny Land on a fantastic three book contract deal proved to me that persistence pays. I was on a high. What could go wrong? Well, everything, that’s what. It’s called Life.

Now available as an ebook. Buy it from Amazon.


An Ill Wind

I was happily running my book shop but began to suffer from debilitating headaches which were laying me low for two or three days each week. Diagnosed as ‘stress’ I was forced to sell the business and we decided that it would be a good idea to buy a cottage in the country. My husband was by this time well established in his small town solicitor’s practice, so I could take some time off and just be a mum. The ‘Good Life’ was on TV at the time, a comedy about a young couple trying out self-sufficiency, which seemed like a good idea. We bought a half derelict house high on the fells in the Lake District, together with one hectare of land, and doing it up would be a great stress-buster, then I'd write The novel.

However, when the snows came that first Christmas, the truth of my problems finally became clear. I had cervical spondylitis, a form of osteo-arthritis. Since I’d convinced myself that I had a brain tumour, this was great news. However, for several months I was overwhelmed by pain but then, slowly, I began to improve and while doing so, made an amazing discovery. Writing is the best therapy of all. It takes you out of yourself, above pain; a fact which remains true for me to this day. With the help of an electronic typewriter, (still no computer) and propped up by cushions, I was able to type despite a neck collar and one arm in a sling. I must have looked hilarious.

Osteo-arthritis is a condition, not an illness, and a strange one at that. I worked on my yoga, ate what I thought was the right food, took my fish oil tablets and various homeopathic remedies, although I couldn’t say which worked best, gradually I got better. I learned to ‘read’ my body, to know when it needed to rest, when to move and be active. On good days when I felt marvellous, euphoric even when the pain had subsided, I would feed my hens, look after our few sheep and their lambs, grow fruit and vegetables. I even planted a small wood and learned how to make jam. All great material for amusing articles, which I wrote on the wet days when confined to the house, of which there were plenty. The first success was a Cackle of Hens, which was how not to do it. Write about what you know, they say. I wrote about what I didn’t know about running a small-holding, ably assisted by my animal friends.

With my family at work and school, I wrote short stories, serials, a children’s novel, picture scripts, a couple of Mills & Boon contemporaries, and articles galore. The aim was to send them out faster than they were coming back. Unfortunately, my scatter-gun approach didn’t work very well, as most came winging back. Selling short articles was one thing, but I still hadn’t cracked fiction. Postman Pat would bring what he thought to be exciting stuff for me each day in his little red van, but were really big fat rejection parcels. I started taking courses, read everything I could about the art of writing, learned about market study.

I finally sold my first short story to D.C.Thompson. What a red letter day that was, also the name of the magazine, now defunct. Following this breakthrough I seemed to have discovered the knack, or I’d learned to target my markets more affectively, and I went on to sell several more short stories to My Weekly and People’s Friend, also several true confessions for My Story magazine.

Best of all I’d regained my confidence. I’d realised that you don’t have to be a genius to be published. I tried again for Mills & Boon, this time with a historical. Two more rejections came, both with sufficient editorial help to encourage me to keep trying. They accepted the third, Madeiran Legacy. (Now available on Amazon as an ebook) I was jubilant. With my first advance I bought a computer and went on to sell them four more of these.

I'd served a long apprenticeship but during it I’d learned how to build strongly motivated characters, how to structure a story, put emotion on the page and make every word count. But then my romances began to get longer, and more complex, and I knew it was time to move on. I tried my hand at a saga, but that didn't prove to be as easy as I'd expected either.


Is Running a Book Shop good for a writer?

Running a book shop must be every writer’s dream, or at least to be let loose in one to freely enjoy its spoils. It was certainly one of mine. Sitting behind the counter reading the latest hot sellers, or re-reading all those favourite Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy novels was surely an essential part of any bookseller’s life, wasn’t it, if I was to successfully advise customers? I could run my shop, mind my children, and work on my novel in between customers. Of such stuff are dreams made.

It didn't quite work out that way. It was true that at the end of a busy day, in the wee small hours, I could still be found scribbling away, although rarely did I send anything out. Something was happening to me. But something wasn’t quite right. This was the moment I was going to discover the secret of all these famous authors and emulate them so that I could turn into one myself. I gobbled up such delights as Scruples, Hollywood Wives, Lace, The Thorn Birds, Love Story, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The French Lieutenant's Woman. I was like a food addict let loose in a chocolate shop.

These authors were sending out a powerful message. They had brilliant, original ideas, a way with words which proved their skill with prose, their characters lived on in my mind, the stories were compulsive, the settings fabulous and far removed from anything I could relate to in my humble life. How could I ever dream up anything half so good? Why would anyone wish to read anything I wrote? I was intimidated by their greatness, and terrified of copying these masters.
I put my pen away.

Ten years were to go by in this way. The children, and the book shop, grew surprisingly well. We had Richard Adams (Watership Down) come to our small shop in the English Lake District for a signing of Plague Dogs, and sold well over 100 copies. We became school and library suppliers, I gave talks, ran book clubs, and soon became absorbed in reading masses of book catalogues instead of bestsellers, and each night painstakingly wrote out the orders by hand in those pre-computer days. Not to mention unpacking, checking, making up the orders and getting them delivered on time. Those magical days of reading behind the counter were now a nostalgic memory.

As was any writing of my own.

Most of all I helped customers to find just the book they wanted to read, by an author they couldn’t remember but the book had a girl and a child on the jacket. they wanted the War and Peace that was on the telly and not that big thick Penguin edition; and whatever that story was that had been read on Radio Four the other afternoon. It was fun, it was challenging, it taught me a great deal about the publishing industry, about books and people, but left me no time to write. Not that it mattered any more, as my confidence had entirely drained away, and I knew in my heart that I could never join these luminaries that graced our shelves. Maybe I’d get back to that when I was a better writer. Sadly, it didn’t cross my mind that I never would achieve that blissful state if I didn’t practise my craft.

It wasn't until after I'd sold the buisness that I began to take my writing seriously, and yes, I did find that having spent those years in the book trade did help me in many ways. I was aware of what book buyers were looking for, what was commercial, how genres worked, but the craft of turning out a good story cannot be learnt. You can either do that or you can't. So how did I get started? How did I find the confidence? Well, it was an ill wind that blew me some good. I'll tell you more about that next time.