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Category: Writing

Author of the Day – ManyBooks

Just a quick post today to let you know that I have been featured as the Author of the Day on the ManyBooks website today. I was delighted to be contacted and then interviewed for the site. You can read my answers to the questions posed and find out more about my latest book Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace at the link here.

And if you’d like to purchase my book, you can do so here!

How having goals keeps me motivated

Having goals gives you a focus

The UK lockdown began on my 55th birthday – what a way to celebrate… At first, I found it a bit of a novelty to have the rest of my family at home, but I realised pretty quickly that I would need to use goals to motivate myself if I was to get any work done. Thankfully, I had the final edits of my latest book, Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace, to work through and send off to my editor and proofreader. Those deadlines are actually a lifesaver if you’re a full-time author. Without them, I might not have got so much done. But I gave myself those deadline goals, knowing that they would motivate me, and I published my book on 14 July, 2020.

Establishing a routine

As an indie author, I’m very familiar with self-discipline anyway. After reading some good advice from marketing guru, Nicholas Erik, I have always aimed to spend one hour a day writing or editing, one hour a day on marketing, and one hour a day reading non-fiction books associated with my writing. I also work part-time as a freelance proofreader and self-publishing consultant, so I factor in at least one hour’s freelance work every day as well. I’m usually doing some kind of training associated with my writing or other skills, so that adds another hour. And so you can see, I have pretty full days, and that’s what gives my day structure.

The benefit of daily exercise

However, as you’ll know, being stuck indoors all day during the lockdown was very hard. Thankfully, I wasn’t someone who had to shield and so in the beginning, I made sure to go out for my one hour of exercise every day. I started with a daily walk, and often my younger daughter accompanied me. Then one day, when no-one could see us (!), we tried running for a short distance as part of our walk. No-one was more surprised than me when I found I could run for short bursts without collapsing in a heap. So I decided to download the Couch to 5K app and to give it a go, never expecting to finish the 9-week course. But I liked the format of running every other day and building towards that final goal, and I liked the fact that I could do it even more! The last time I did any running was under duress at secondary school (37 years ago!)

After my very first run
My Couch to 5K graduation message

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I write this post, I have just started my 20th week of running. I run three or four times a week now for a minimum of half an hour, sometimes longer as I chase the elusive 5K. I’m almost there but I’m not despondent about it because at the beginning of April, I couldn’t run for five minutes, let alone 5K! After all these years, I’ve realised something that they don’t teach you at school – it’s not about being the fastest. It’s about building your stamina and sticking at it, qualities that have also stood me in good stead as an indie author as well. So I know I will crack 5K eventually because I have the persistence to keep showing up.

Finding new challenges

This month, to give myself extra motivation, I signed up for a Race at your Pace challenge to run 35 miles in the month of August. When I complete it, I’ll get a medal, which is motivation enough for me! Seriously though, it’s about finding interesting ways to keep challenging myself because I really want to continue with this habit and as we still don’t have the full freedom to go wherever we want yet, it’s important to keep finding new ways to motivate myself. I have also been eating more healthily and this has helped me to lose some weight as well, which was an even greater bonus, and certainly helps with the motivation.

Goals = Motivation

So, just like writing a book, I’ve had a goal and I’ve had motivation to achieve it, despite the conflict the lockdown has brought. I still walk on the days when I’m not running and I thank goodness every day for the countryside where I live, and I appreciate how lucky I am to live here. I miss travelling but I’m grateful for all the wonderful places I’ve been in the past that I can look back on. And I can look forward to visiting new places again in the near future, I hope.

I hope you and your families have found a way to get through lockdown, and that you’ve all been keeping well. Let me know in the comments if you’ve found a way that works for you.

 

Counting my blessings as another year/decade comes to an end

The book that started it all

Looking back over the decade

We’re just a couple of weeks away from the end of 2019, and also from the end of another decade. When you’re in your fifties, these years and decades seem to pass more and more quickly. But when I look back to 2009, I hadn’t even started writing at that point, so it’s been a particularly eventful decade for me from a professional point of view. I started the decade as a full-time teacher and I’ll be finishing it as a full-time author. This gives me a lot to be happy about, and it proves that persistence can pay off.

Next year, it will be five years since I self-published my first book and I have just written the first draft of my 9th! (You can see all my published books here). I never expected writing to become a career for me, but I’m very glad it did. Being able to work full-time as an author, doing what I love, and making a decent living from it, is something I’m truly thankful for. I’m looking forward to publishing my next book in 2020 and also to starting work on the one after that.

A Big Adventure

And… I have an idea for the one after that! Here’s how it came about. Every year since 1996 just after he first set up his business, my husband has gone to Los Angeles in January to attend the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. That was the first and last time I went with him before we had children and now that my eldest daughter has properly left home and my youngest is taking a year off before going to university, I get to go again! And I decided that if we were going to fly that far, we ought to go to San Francisco as well – we’re not getting any younger! – which means we’re off on a very big adventure in January 2020.

We fly to San Francisco first and spend a few days there before driving down the Pacific Coast Highway (a long held dream) and stopping off midway before going on to Los Angeles. I was showing my daughter the place we’d booked for the midway stop. It’s on a beach and looks amazing. And she said to me, ‘Well, that’s your next story sorted. An inn right next to the beach. What could be more romantic?!’ I’m sighing now just thinking about the possibilities. And so it begins 🙂 Look out for lots of fab photos on my instagram while we’re there.

Ever The Optimist!

This year has been a funny one for me in personal terms what with having to have major surgery in February, but I’ve come through it. You really do have to count your blessings when there’s so much sadness in the world. I’m lucky to have a wonderful family, and I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with them all. I also have friends who have looked out for me through thick and thin, and that makes me even more grateful. As you can tell, I’m an eternal optimist and I often feel that it’s my hope that keeps me going.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers for their support every year, and the wonderful writing and blogging community as well. Thanks to all of you, I’m still writing and publishing many years down the line. Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and all the very best for 2020!

2009
2019

 

Why storytelling is so important to us

As human beings we have an essential need to tell and listen to stories from the minute we’re born: from reading stories to our children, to describing our day to family and friends, from listening to music, especially songs, to writing letters, or the modern day equivalent of using social media. Storytelling is integral to who we are.

I was thinking about this when I went to a Fado evening with my husband last month in London. We’ve always loved Fado, the traditional Portuguese folk singing, since we first heard it on a holiday to Ericeira, north of Lisbon in the 1990s. Characterised by often melancholic singing accompanied by guitar, it has a soulful nature all of its own and is well worth a listen to if you ever get the chance. It’s not all melancholic though. This is one of the classics and one of my favourites too: uma casa portuguesa sung by Amália Rodrigues.

We’ve always loved listening to folk music and we’ve been lucky to see some great singers performing it over the years, including Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon. I even used to sing folk music myself when I was younger and some of those songs are still among my favourites even now. Through Bushes and Through Briars sung here by Isla Cameron and made famous in the Julie Christie version of Far from the Madding Crowd, is just one of several folk songs I used to sing many years ago!

So why do we love folk songs, and other songs that tell stories so much? I think it’s another way of passing something on of ourselves to the generations to come, which is why every country has its own form. Before education was available to all, singing was a way of telling stories without writing them down and folk songs filled that gap. Thankfully, many folk songs have now been written down to make sure that the legacy is protected for future generations.

Similarly, some of us write down recipes to pass on to our children. I know I have recipes that my grandparents used to make, although sadly, they’re not written down. But now my daughters are asking me how to make things they’ve loved from their childhood so we’re passing it on through the generations. It’s all part of our culture and our family history.

I’ve recently been clearing out our loft and apart from finding out that my obsession with keeping cards from family members is now maybe getting a bit out of hand(!), it has also been a poignant experience to find cards given to me by my grandparents when I was a child, and to see what they used to say to me. I also found all our wedding day cards threaded together with a piece of the material used to make my bridesmaids’ dresses. Reading through those cards was very emotional especially as we’ve been married for 30 years! I’m very glad that I kept them so that my daughters can see them and we can talk about what a wonderful day it was with both of them.

And writing stories is such an important part of this tradition as well. By writing about our experiences, we’re sharing our culture as well, and describing what our lives have been like in this time and place. Long may we continue to tell our stories to each other, however we choose to do it, whether through music, food, writing or another creative endeavour. It’s all important.

Why it’s never too late to feed your passion

Standing up for what I believe in

Yesterday, I went on the People’s March in London – my first march of my life, aged 54 and a half. In case you’re worrying that this is going to be a political post, it isn’t, honestly. Whether you agree with my view on this or not, the point I want to make is that I believe passionately in this, and I felt that at last, the time had come to be counted, and that’s why I went. There were people much older, and much younger, than me on the march but we all had the same strong belief and the feeling that gives you to be a part of that shared view is amazing.

Feeding my passion

Of course, writing is my main passion in life and I’m pleased to tell you that I’m now in a position to try again as a full-time author. Diehard fans ( 😉 ) will remember that I tried this once before after leaving my teaching job in December 2015. Back then, I had only published 1 book and although it was going well, I was also doing freelance work to top up my income. I was also unprepared for how lonely I felt after leaving my busy teaching job, so when the chance to work part-time for a local charity came up, I decided to take it. So for the past 3 years, I’ve been working part-time in the mornings and doing my writing and freelance work in the afternoons. But now, my writing career has taken off and I’m ready to give it my all. With 8 books out now, and a whole lot more learning about indie publishing under my belt, as well as a strong network of friends and family around me, I hope that this time it will be the right time for me.

Feel the fear and do it anyway!

This week, I was interviewed for the Self Publishing Show’s Spotlight podcast. I wrote in and asked to be interviewed, and was delighted when Tom Ashford, the presenter, contacted me about doing it. The format is that you’re asked 5 questions about your writing, and Tom told me it would be fairly informal. I practised for days, in the car, in the shower etc, etc, but when it came to it, I was still very nervous! Anyway, it all went okay and I don’t think I said anything I shouldn’t have but only time will tell! The show will definitely air before Christmas so keep your eyes peeled for the date.

So I will be working full-time as an author from 1 November, and I can honestly say I’m really looking forwarding to it this time. I’ve started writing my new book and while I’m already being productive in the afternoons, I know I can be even more productive if I have the whole day. Suddenly, I feel energised to make this work for me, and I want to work as hard as I can to keep my momentum going.

I hope that whatever your passion is, you manage to make time for it in your life. It has paid dividends for me to do that for mine. If you’d like to know more about my writing, please sign up for my newsletter here and grab your free copy of my novella, Before You, at the same time if you haven’t already done so.

See you next time!

Podcasts and Promotions!

This month I have news about podcasts and promotions for you, as well as the latest news about book three.

My first podcast interview is now live

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I recently gave my first podcast interview to Paul Teague for his selfpublishingjourneys.com podcast. Since then, I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the interview to go live so I could listen back and see how I sounded (good or bad!). Well, thankfully, I can now confirm that it went as well as I thought it had just after I’d finished speaking to Paul. I am even prepared to give you the link so you can listen to it yourself. You can find it on Paul’s website here. Do let me know your thoughts about it here after you’ve listened 🙂

I really enjoyed talking to Paul after listening to his podcast for such a long time, and it was great to be able to talk about our shared experience of trying to make a living from our writing. I have picked up lots of tips from Paul’s podcast diaries which he releases every Saturday, and sometimes, he has given me the courage to do something which I may have been thinking about for ages but have never got round to.

Running my first free promotion

One of these was running a free promotion. In the beginning when you self-publish your first book, it’s so hard to contemplate giving it away for free, and so although I had often thought about it, I’d never actually taken the plunge. But I finally decided to put From Here to Nashville  wide on all platforms and then to offer it free for a short promotion. Well, it’s actually ended up being free for quite a while now as I struggled to get Amazon to price match the other sites it was already free on.

Anyway, I got there in the end and finally, the week of promotion via various email lists arrived last Monday. I chose to promote it via five different sites, starting with the smaller sites first and rising to the biggest one on Friday. As I write this, there have been over 6000 free downloads of From Here to Nashville most of which came through Amazon but there were also a good number through Apple Books and Barnes and Noble. I have also seen some good read through purchases of my other books, especially the two sequel novellas. However, these sales have not yet been enough to cover my costs although this may come in time as people finish reading the first book in the series.

I was very glad to have given the promotion a try and the greatest thing about it was that I really improved my rankings across all the main Amazon sites but especially on the US one. By the end of the promo, I was at number 49 in the whole of the free Kindle store which was amazing. Even better than this though, I was at number 3 in the women’s fiction category, number 5 in romance and number 14 in contemporary romance. This felt amazing, especially because I had managed to achieve this all on my own. It will hopefully be a huge benefit to my overall visibility.

*****

Latest News

Apart from that, my other good news is that I’ve finished editing my third full-length novel, otherwise known as my Bistro book. This book is now with my editor and I’m taking a short breather while I wait for it to come back to me. Hopefully, I will have more to tell you about all that very soon!

Thanks for reading as always. By the time of the next blog post, it will be nearly Christmas!

My First Indie Author Podcast Interview!

MXL Microphone for my first indie author podcast interviewAs some of you may have seen if you’ve liked my Facebook page, this week I gave my first indie author podcast interview. Paul Teague from the Self-Publishing Journeys podcast invited me a few weeks ago and I said yes before I could talk myself out of it! If you click on the link above and scroll down the page, you will see that my interview is coming up on 5 November. When it goes live, it will move to the top and you can listen to it there on your computer.

Subscribing to Podcasts

Alternatively, you can subscribe to Paul’s podcast on your phone or other mobile device to listen to it while you’re on the go. A couple of people told me they weren’t sure what a podcast is so I hope this makes it clearer for you.

You can listen to podcasts on all kinds of topics these days, anything from comedy to politics (you may consider these to be the same right now!) It’s so handy for the commute to work or even to while away the hours (!) spent cleaning, gardening etc. My husband listens while he’s at the gym but the thought of the gym just makes me shudder 🙂

Podcasts I listen to

I mostly listen to mine on my commute and while driving here, there and everywhere. I tend to listen to writing podcasts only – apart from Paul’s, I listen to the Self-Publishing Formula and The Creative Penn. If you already listen to podcasts, which are your favourites? Do let me know in the comments or by sending me an email to julie@julie-stock.co.uk. I’d love to hear your tips.

Preparing for the interview

And so, to the interview. Well, I was delighted when Paul asked me to be a guest on his show. I’ve listened to his podcast diary and his interviews for a long time now. So it was a real badge of honour as an indie author to be invited to chat with Paul about my self-publishing journey. However, I was also quite nervous. Paul is a former BBC man with lots of experience so I wanted to make sure I came across as professional and not like a bumbling idiot! (Only time will tell…)

Anyway, Paul was very organised and I didn’t have to do much beforehand except to make sure that my Skype account was all set up properly. (The last interview I did over Skype was in February 2016 and you can read that post here). My husband sorted me out with a decent microphone from his own supply at his business, and once I had my earphones, I was all set. I did spend a bit of time thinking through the questions that Paul might ask me but not so much that I would sound rehearsed when it came to it. Paul advised me to think of it as a chat between us rather than an interview so I tried to focus on that.

How did my first indie author podcast interview go?

When we finally did the interview, Paul was so easy-going that my nerves melted away and soon we were chatting like we’d known each other for years, which in a way we had. The time passed very quickly and we had a short break after the main interview where I breathed a sigh of relief. Then we carried on chatting about all sorts of things. We recorded another short interview of quick fire questions afterwards, which is for Paul’s Patreon supporters first of all but will be available generally at a later point. And then it was time to say goodbye. I was buzzing for a good hour afterwards because it had been such a great experience. I did then start to worry whether I’d said anything I shouldn’t about anyone or anything (!) but I’m reasonably confident I didn’t…

Should I start a podcast?

As you can see from this link, my husband now offers a podcast bundle of gear you’d need to set up your own podcast. It’s professional gear so it is a bit expensive (cheaper options are available) but since he put that bundle together, I’ve been thinking more and more about whether to do a podcast myself. I’ve thought about it for a while but always decided against it because of lack of time and skill, but who knows? Maybe one day I will give it a go.

Anyway, don’t forget to let me know your favourite podcasts and to tune in to my interview on Paul Teague’s Self-Publishing Journeys podcast on 5 November. In the meantime, it’s back to editing book 3 for me!

A Long Hot Summer

Holidays

I’m just back from a lovely holiday in the Lake Garda area of Italy where it was mostly hot and sometimes thundery. It’s a beautiful area though and we explored it to the full, taking in Milan, Verona and Venice, as well as some of the beautiful villages around the southern end of the lake itself.

Back home now in the UK, the long, hot summer we experienced in May, June and July seems a distant memory and instead, apple crumbles, Halloween and Bonfire Night are on my mind. There is no thought of the C-word as yet though so please don’t even go there!

New Boxed Set

I have spent most of the last few months wrestling with the creation of a boxed set of my From Here to Nashville novel and its sequel novellas, and I’m pleased to say I have finally finished it. I now have an ebook and paperback version of my From Here to You series with beautiful new covers ready to go. These will be publishing shortly and I’m going to have a special offer for my newsletter subscribers which I will be revealing soon. However, I thought you might like to see my beautiful new cover for the series which I am so pleased with. I have Mary Jayne Baker to thank for the vibrant new covers of the rest of the series and I think you will agree that she has done a wonderful job for me.

Marketing

I have been concentrating more on marketing over the summer as well, learning how to advertise my books on the various platforms with some success, and some failures of course! But I seem to have got my head round it a bit more now. I have also been steadily building my newsletter list and this has been very successful. When people join, they now get a free download of the prequel novella to the From Here to You series and this has been very popular. If you’d like to get a copy, you can do so here.

Writing

Writing wise, I have been steadily keeping up with my 12 Short Stories Challenge so that I have now written 9 this year and as soon as the year has finished, I will be editing and publishing this collection for you all to read. My next big job though is to get on with the editing of my next book which is long overdue. This is the one set in a bistro you might remember, and I really need to get on with it now. To be fair, I have had a few unexpected obstacles to overcome, including being taken into hospital at the end of June, and subsequently, being off work for a few weeks. I am feeling much better now but I still don’t have a diagnosis as yet so I need to keep myself busy! Being able to go on holiday really helped and was great creative inspiration 🙂

So that’s all for now. Look out for more updates soon!

 

Author Talks, and a Crazy Month of Marketing

Another month in my writing life has gone by, and at times, it feels like I don’t have a lot to show for it. However, all the marketing work I’ve been doing this past month will hopefully yield some results in the very near future.

Author Talks

Firstly, I gave a talk at Flitwick Library at the beginning of May, which I had been really looking forward to. Then on the morning, it absolutely bucketed down with rain. I knew that as the talk was free, this would probably put a lot of people off from venturing out. And sadly, I was right. I had the grand total of 4 people at my talk and one of those was a lady from the library! However, they were a lovely group of people and all very interested in my writing and how I self-publish my books. The lady in the front row was in her eighties and still adamant that she would finish writing the book she’s been writing all her life. She was such an interesting person and asked lots of questions about self-publishing. I wouldn’t put it past her to finally get her book out there now. Having so few people in the audience does at least mean they can stop you and ask you questions when they want to, and the time flew by. I sold a couple of paperbacks to that same lady and I enjoyed giving the talk, so it’s never wasted. But it would be nice to have a few more people at my next library talk.

Then towards the end of May, I was invited by a former teaching colleague and friend, to come and talk to her book club. They’d all bought and read The Vineyard in Alsace before I came, and they were all very keen to talk about it and my writing. This time, there were a good dozen people there and we had a great chat about writing, in general and mine specifically. It was a really good atmosphere, even when they gave me some critical feedback. It was useful feedback though and delivered kindly so I took it on the chin 🙂 One of the book club members was a man, and he made my day when he said he’d read my book in one sitting, even though romance isn’t his preferred genre. He gave me some useful feedback too so overall, it was a great experience.

My next talk will be at Hitchin Library in Hertfordshire on 28 July. My Society of Authors group is running a Saturday Series of talks at the library over the summer and into the autumn. I went to the first one given by Hugh Bicheno, a military historian and fiction writer, and he had a full house in the audience. The talk he gave was absolutely fascinating, all about the Wars of the Roses in Hertfordshire. I even got to try on a sallet, which is a medieval helmet! Here’s Hugh wearing it on the day. I couldn’t even see out when I put it on 😉

 

The full list of talks is very varied and you can see it here on The Society of Authors’ website. If you are nearby or in the area, it would be lovely to see you in July. There’s even a Facebook event page in case you want to show your interest!

Marketing

Over the past month, I have finished off two courses I’d enrolled in from The Self-Publishing Formula team; one was about cover design and the other was a self-publishing 101 course. I took the cover design course so that if I did ever want to have a go at creating my own covers, I’d have a better chance of knowing what I was doing. I’ve worked in marketing myself for many years, either side of being a teacher, and so I have quite a bit of experience of designing things, but it’s one thing to be doing posters and leaflets, or even annual reviews but it’s another to do your own covers so that they look professional. It was a great course, led by Stuart Bache of BooksCovered, and it was very practical so I had a go at making a fair few covers of my own. But, crikey, it is really hard work! Just sourcing the photos could take a whole day. I really learnt a lot and I think I could have a good go at a cover in Photoshop now. However, I don’t think I could ever do as professional a job as the designers I have used to make my covers for me. It gave me even more respect for those professionals, and a better understanding of what they do for me at the other end.

The Self-Publishing 101 course seems a bit crazy for someone who has now self-published 5 books, I know, but after the success of The Vineyard in Alsace, I wanted to be working out how to move myself up to the next level. It was a big investment but it has already proved useful. So this month, I wrote a prequel for my From Here to You series, and I’m offering this free to people who sign up to my email list. Once written, I had to commission a cover for it, and send it round to my wonderful beta readers to get feedback on it. Then I had to advertise it in the back of all my other books and set it up on Book Funnel so that readers could download it. Then I had to advertise it on my website, and set up automated emails for new subscribers to make sure they received it! In the middle of all this, we had GDPR-mageddon (as Book Funnel called it rather wittily) and I also migrated this website over from a free site to a self-hosted one. So now you know what I mean by a crazy month! I’m very pleased with the finished novella though. Here it is in all its glory:

On top of this, I was finalising the last novella in that same From Here to You series which is now up for pre-order here, and updating all my other books with details of this new one, Finding You. The final piece of the plan will be the issue of a box set of all three books in the From Here to You series. The cover isn’t ready yet so I’m thinking carefully about when to release it but it will be soon-ish!

I have learned all these things from that course, and more besides, so it has already started paying for itself. But it is fair to say that I will be glad to get back to editing my third novel when all this is done, and you never thought you’d hear me say that! It just goes to show though how much more I could have been doing to market myself and my books. I’ll let you know how that all goes next month.

One thing you learn very quickly as an indie author is that there is always something else you could be doing. I just hope that some of this activity will pay off soon!

Thanks for reading, and if you go ahead and download Before You after signing up to my list, do please let me know what you think of it.

Until next time.

Author Spotlight – Sandra Danby

This month, I am delighted to welcome romantic suspense author, Sandra Danby to my Author Spotlight. Sandra’s second identity detective novel, Connectedness, has just been published, and she’s here to tell us more about it and her other writing today.

 

Photo © Sandra Danby Sandra Danby – Connectedness

TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, ARTIST JUSTINE TREE HAS IT ALL… BUT SHE ALSO HAS A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY EVERYTHING

Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.

Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?

This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.

A family mystery for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Lucinda Riley, Tracy Rees and Rachel Hore.

Buy on Amazon.

*****

An extract from ‘Connectedness’.

Prologue

London, September 2009

The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.

1

Yorkshire, May 2010

The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.

Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.

Will I be buried here?

It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.

The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?

‘Amen.’

She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.

In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.

*****

And now for my interview with Sandra:

Can you tell us more about what inspired you to choose the theme of an identity detective for your books?

The concept of the ‘Identity Detective’ series was originally about adoption reunion and how the adopted person, adrift from their roots, gains a sense of identity. Where does this feeling of belonging come from; genes, place, a secure family, life experience? As I started to process these thoughts and put them into Ignoring Gravity, which was intended to be a standalone story about Rose Haldane, I realised there was a whole experience out there that wasn’t being told. We hear about adopted parents and children being reunited but not about how they find each other, the struggles, the failures, the rejections, the awkward meetings, and who helps them. It seemed natural that Rose, a journalist, should evolve into an identity detective helping others to find their families as she had found her own. From there it was a logical step to developing a series of novels, each one looking at a different viewpoint in the adoption experience. Birth mother, father and siblings; adopted child; adoptive parents and siblings. These names are blunt tools, labels that serve a purpose in aiding lost people to find each other.

How do you go about coming up with ideas for your books that work with your theme?

One thing I am not short of is ideas. As a magazine features editor I had a box file of cuttings and scraps of paper, each one an idea for an article. And it’s the same now. I’m a magpie, a collector of facts and snippets, stories on the television news or in the newspaper, good news stories on Facebook. I have a series of box files into which all these cuttings are placed, and the virtual equivalent on my computer. Sometimes I will read a story and know immediately how it will fit into my work; there is an excitement that comes with this, like fitting the last piece into a difficult jigsaw. Each book has to have a mystery at its heart, questions to be answered, anonymous people to be identified. Often an event in history is the trigger, that’s how I found the idea for the third book in the ‘Identity Detective’ series. Sweet Joy will tell the story of an elderly woman seeking the truth of her abandonment; she was found as a baby, uninjured, alone in the bombed out ruin of a house in London during The Blitz. I had a vague idea that I wanted to set my third novel in wartime London and was reading in the library when I came to a passage describing how half of a house was demolished by a bomb while in the other half, an elderly couple slept on, curled up together in their bed, unharmed. What if, I wondered, it was a baby instead? I ask myself ‘what if?’ a lot.

How important is setting to you in your novels? I know this book is set in both Spain and Yorkshire, places you know well. What made you choose these places particularly?

Knowing the setting is one of the key building blocks for me, I must know the setting before I can start writing. Until then I will build on ideas, writing exercises to experiment with characters, motivation and personality. Perhaps I need to visualise a character in a particular place before I can write more. It seems all my novels are destined to be set in places I know; so, I will never write a fantasy novel! I found a note to my writing group, written in 2010, when I first started to explore the character of Justine. Even that early in my thought process Justine was born in Yorkshire, like me, though she was heading for art college in Paris not Spain. The Spanish connection happened when I realised it was futile planning to send Justine to Paris to study art, when we live in Spain only an hour from Málaga, birthplace of Pablo Picasso. And so the Picasso link was born and I spent many happy hours in Málaga researching the streets, the art, the parks, choosing the settings for key scenes. I was able to use my own sense of foreignness, alienation and language struggles, experienced when we first arrived in Spain, for Justine’s arrival in 1982. I still write about our life in the Spanish countryside at my Notes on a Spanish Valley blog.

How do you go about doing your research? How do you keep your research organised?

The other side of idea generation comes through research and I enjoy this a lot. I read a lot of non-fiction and history, I visit archives, museums and country houses – this instinct to research comes from my journalism training, the need to search for facts – and from this I will experience ‘light bulb’ moments. Sweet Joy is taking me into new territory and I am relishing it. I have always been interested in World War Two, raised as I was in the Sixties on my father’s diet of war films and Alistair MacLean novels. So my research list involves visits to IWM Duxford, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and ‘The 1940s Relived’ day at the Brooklands Museum.

How long did it take you to write your first draft of this novel? How many more drafts were there after that?

I wrote the first chapters on Connectedness in 2015 though I had been researching and planning long before that, during the time Ignoring Gravity was written and published. There were seven full drafts with ‘down time’ allowed in between; I find it helpful to put the manuscript aside and occupy myself with something else so that when I return to the draft I read it afresh. This does mean that I write quite slowly, but I have come to accept that I will never be able to produce a novel a year, or even every two years.

What do you use to write your books? Word, Scrivener, pen and paper…?

I write on Word on my Mac, on an old wi-fi-free laptop, on the Word app on my iPad with a little clip-on keyboard, and in my writing notebook. Although I use Scrivener to produce mobi files, I haven’t used it for writing and admit to finding it a little confusing. Re-writing is mostly done on the old laptop. I don’t need to be in a particular place to write; I have written in noisy coffee shops, cramped airplane seats, vibrating train seats, and sitting on a sunbed on a beach. I do believe however in printing out each draft and reading it with a pen in my hand, another old journalism habit. I spend a fortune in paper and printer cartridges.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

I am not great at technology. I used to be when I was younger; it’s easy to be proficient when you work in a big publishing company with the latest computers, regular training and a helpful IT department. It’s very different being a company of one. But I have found a group of people who support me in what I do, who can answer my questions and help when I despair. I also find support in various online writer groups; all writers today, I think, sit alone at our computers so are ready and willing to help each other. I find that heart-warming.

What do you enjoy most about the writing process?

As the first reviews come in for Connectedness, each one giving me a little boost of excitement, I could say ‘now’, just before the book is published. But actually I enjoy the process of writing. If I could, I would live on a remote hillside or deep in an isolated forest, alone with my writing. Wi-fi not required.

Are you going to continue writing about this theme in your novels or do you have plans to write something completely different in the future?

I have ten clear outlines for further ‘Identity Detective’ novels and a few more sketchy ideas. I may take a break after Sweet Joy and write a standalone novel. There are a number of options I could choose. I grew up in Yorkshire and would like to return to my roots.

Have you started work on your next novel yet? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

Sweet Joy starts in 1940 as a baby is found alive in a bombed house in Twickenham after one of the worst nights of The Blitz. The house is shut-up and unoccupied, its owners moved to the countryside for the duration of the war. So why was a baby left there, alone, and what happened to her parents? Decades later, when Rose Haldane moves to Twickenham she cannot understand how she has acquired a stalker, an elderly woman who watches from across the road. Except the woman is not stalking Rose.

Thanks so much for being my guest this month, Sandra. Wishing you every success with your new novel.

*****

About Sandra Danby

Photo © Sandra Danby

Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

 

 

 

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