Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Researching Regency England

How Mary Wollstonecraft, an about-to-be-demolished shop and an aircraft inspired a Regency time-slip novel.

by Bradley Bernarde.

I had always wanted to write a novel set in the Regency period, mainly because my admiration for Jane Austen, and her remarkable talent, was combined with an intense interest in the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, when women were, very slowly, becoming more prominent, especially in the world of literature.

As early as 1750, Hannah More, Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Carter, were holding literary discussions, while later in the century Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, championed educational equality for women. I have always believed that these efforts, combined with those of other equally talented women, would have helped us achieve advancement, had the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte succeeded to the throne, rather than his niece Victoria. Many of the books written by these determined women, often under pseudonyms, can now be viewed at Chawton House, which has an expansive library of Women’s Fiction up to 1830. The house is, of course, situated not far from the Jane Austen Museum, in the village of Chawton, a building I have visited many times.

I had a vague idea for my plot, and the stirrings of inspiration intensified during an afternoon stroll near Gray’s Inn, when I encountered some workmen widening part of a side road. Seeing my interest, one of the men explained that they had dismantled a very narrow passage running alongside, in order to make a wider thoroughfare. Any shops in the street had fallen into disrepair, and been pulled down, but one of them had, apparently, been very old because, my informant told me, it had had bow windows. As I watched the men working, I imagined the small, squat shop, its bulging windows full of goods unrecognisable to the modern eye, and realised that my story was beginning to take shape.

When, at last, I continued walking, I found myself in Gray’s Inn, just as the occupants of the various offices were leaving at the end of a working day. There were a number of men and women, all carrying the obligatory laptop, and I noticed one girl in particular, as she appeared younger than the others. Although immaculately dressed and groomed, there was a certain element of vulnerability about her; especially when, instead of joining her companions, she appeared to excuse herself and hurry away. With that strange perception that sometimes hit fiction novelists mentally, I knew I had found my heroine but, despite her vulnerability, she still exuded too much self-possession for a Regency girl.

Jane Austen's final dwelling in Winchester
So it took some time for the plot to reach maturity, and in the hope of acquiring more inspiration, I went to Winchester Cathedral and read the words on Jane Austen’s tomb; then I wandered down the street and past the house reputed to have been her last residence. As I strolled an airplane flew overhead, and for a moment I was mentally suspended between the past and the present, and knew exactly how I was going to deal with my heroine. She was going to be a secret (because being a solicitor such an obsession would have been farcical) admirer of Austen, and have a longing to return to her times in order to meet her heroine. Her journey back into the past would be accomplished with the help of whoever had owned the shop with bow windows, and she would have to learn how to adapt her twenty-first century persona in an early nineteenth century world. This meant I would not be writing a straightforward historical novel, but a fantasy, which would have to sound as logical as possible.

Having decided on the plot I launched into the research, which was fascinating. Guildhall Library displayed numerous charts and maps of Regency London; not to mention numerous copies of The Times circa 1816, while Chelsea Library’s many books on period costumes were invaluable in dressing my characters. I enjoyed writing the book immensely because, in a vicarious sort of way, I joined my heroine in her travels and experiences and enjoyed them as much, I hope, as she did.

Bradley Bernade is a member of The Society of Authors, the SWWJ and the Emile Zola Society. Her novel,
Twelve Days to Dream, will be released later this year, published by SCRIPTORA.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

60 Seconds with Gill Paul

By Gillian Hamer

Gill Paul has had six historical novels published, with the seventh coming out in August. The Secret Wife, published last September, made number 4 in the USA Today bestseller list and topped the kindle charts in the UK and US. It’s a love story about one of the daughters of Tsar Nicholas, of the ill-fated Russian royal family, and a cavalry officer named Dmitri Malama. Dinah Jefferies called it “A cleverly crafted novel and an enthralling story… A triumph.”
Gill lives in London with her artist partner, who has not read any of her novels.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.
I write historical fiction about some of the (to me) most dramatic events and fascinating characters of the last 150 years – among them the sinking of the Titanic, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton meeting on the set of Cleopatra, and the fate of the Romanov royal family. I am Scottish-born but now live and work in North London, where I swim year round in an outdoor pond.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?
There’s a feeling when the writing is going well, when the story is just flowing out of your head and onto the page, that is almost better than sex. And I also love the unstructured hours: being able to slip out to swim at the sunniest part of the day without needing permission from anyone but myself is pretty cool.

And the worst?
The rampant insecurity, the lonely terror of watching your Amazon rankings, and the abject fear after you have written a successful book that you will never be able to pull it off again.

Why did you choose your genre?
I inherited a love of history from my late mum. We watched all the historical dramas on TV together and read Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer. I studied History at uni (among other subjects – I was a student for ages) and still love reading historical fiction. It’s a great way to learn about a period without feeling as though you’re back at school. The best historical authors write about ageless human dramas and the setting is incidental.

Do you have a special writing place?
I have an office with bookshelves up to the ceiling and a scary ladder to reach the top ones. There’s a window beside me with a view of trees and overgrown climbing plants and lots of different kinds of birds stop by to distract me.

Which writers do you most admire and why?
I am in awe of literary writers like Maggie O’Farrell, Barbara Kingsolver, Rose Tremain and Paula McLain who conjure up glorious images that take root in my head and create unforgettable characters with a flick of their metaphorical fountain pens. And I love Dinah Jefferies, Lucinda Riley, Iona Grey and Kate Riordan for their great historical page-turners.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?

Contemporary, possibly with a bit of a crime thrown in. But it would be a mystery rather than a police procedural or a gore-fest.

What was your inspiration behind The Secret Wife?
One day I was pootling round on YouTube when I came across a clip of the young James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain” and I was transfixed, because it took me right back to my first love, a seventeen-year-old boy who looked like him and used to play that song for me. Then I heard about the love story between Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana and I decided to try and capture the seismic, all-consuming power of first love that I suspect they felt for each other. And that’s where The Secret Wife came from.

What three tips would you offer up-and-coming authors? 

• Force yourself to keep writing even when you are getting rejections from agents and/or publishers. Don’t give up, because you’ll get better with every single page you write.

• Show your work to a few well-selected readers before sending it out: people who will be constructive but not harsh.

 • Try to pitch your novel idea in one sentence. Is it compelling enough to have readers who don’t know you rushing to buy it? If not, find one that is.

What are your future writing plans?
I’ve got a new novel called Another Woman’s Husband coming out in August (hardback and ebook) then November (paperback) and there’s a contract for another one to come out in 2018 which I have to admit is still in early stages (i.e. still in my head rather than on the page).

See our Bookmuse review of The Secret Wife HERE


Twitter: @GillPaulAuthor

Facebook: gill.paul.16

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Snapshots from... The Dominican Republic

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, Rita Gardner shows us around The Dominican Republic.

Images by Rita Gardner.

What’s so great about the Dominican Republic?

For me, the top four “greats” are: the people, the culture, the land, and the climate. That was true when my family settled there in the mid-1900s, and it is true today. All I have to do is step off an airplane and into the heady scent of the Dominican tropics to feel at home again. It may sound cliché, but there is a friendliness and warmth to the people that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. The nation is rich in history, dating back to before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. It has survived colonialism and dictatorships, but has never lost its soul. A stable democracy for decades now, the D.R. has become a major tourist destination.

It is really a feast for the senses. Nature flourishes and turquoise waters lap against crystal sand beaches. Waterfalls cascade down the mountains, and verdant fields stretch for hundreds of kilometers across the island. The island’s bounty includes coconuts, sugarcane, mangos, pineapples, papayas, and bananas, to name just a few of its crops. I’m happiest with my toes in the sand, drinking from a green coconut, and munching on fried platanos (plantains.)

Tell us a bit about the cultural life.

I think music is the thread that unites past and present and is woven into the heart of the country. It is just a part of the fabric of D.R. life.

I grew up dancing to the beat of merengue, which remains the most popular music today. I’m pleased to see that another old form of folk music, bachata, is more popular than ever.
Family gatherings are important and frequent.

I recently attended a birthday there to celebrate a friend’s mother’s 100th birthday. It included everything that I’d describe as typical of the cultural life – great local food, mingling of generations, music, and of course, dancing.

And then there’s baseball – the most popular sport in the country. 

Can you recommend any books set in the Dominican Republic?

Absolutely! The novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Also: any of her non-fiction works as well – I think I’ve read them all. Books by Junot Diaz: Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This is How You Lose Her.

Another favorite is The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner in Literature. His novel is a fictional account of life after the assassination of the dictator Trujillo. Having lived there during and after the dictatorship myself, the book was an eye-opening revelation of the brutality of the dictator’s power and the cost to the country. Thankfully that was a very long time ago!

Who are the best known local writers?

Julia Alvarez, who also has become known internationally for her novels, along with other autobiographical works. I’m grateful she endorsed my memoir, The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms, and Survival in the Caribbean. Another Dominican writer is the Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who has written about young Dominican-Americans who live in the United States and struggle to claim their dual identity.

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

When I’m in the Dominican Republic, I’m absorbing all the time – taking notes, taking pictures, snatching bits of conversations I might use later in my writing. So, it is an inspiration. But I do most of the actual writing after I’m back in the States.

What are you writing?

I recently wrote several essays to two nonfiction collections, The Magic of Memoir, and Wandering in Andalusia. A novel set in the Caribbean is still in the percolating stages.

Sum up life in the Dominican Republic in three words:

Music, family, beaches.

Rita M. Gardner grew up in the Dominican Republic during a repressive dictatorship, and wrote The Coconut Latitudes, an award-winning Gardner’s memoir of that experience. 
Gardner is also a contributor to two other recently published nonfiction books: The Magic of Memoir is a collection of stories, tips, and interviews by memoirists to inspire other writers. Wandering in Andalusia: The Soul of Southern Spain, is a tasty travel anthology about the southern region of Spain. 
Gardner loves to travel, and still considers the Dominican Republic to be her home. Naturally, her favorite color is Caribbean blue.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Baileys Prize

Tonight, the winner of the 2017 Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction will be announced.

Words with JAM contributors and Bookmuse reviewers Catriona Troth and JJ Marsh read every book on the shortlist. Here are some extracts from their reviews and their own tips for the winner. Click on the title to read the full review.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
There is a joy and a terror in imagining irresistible might, accompanied by all the unavoidable decisions as how to use it. Terrifying, fascinating and one to ponder for many, many years.
And then read it again. You might change your mind.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀
“Just wait until her breasts are sweet orange and all the men that see her start standing still like soldiers. Small time, pregnancy will come.”
A universal story set in a richly realised world. A welcome new African voice and a writer to watch.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Thematically, Grant’s tale could act as a commentary on current governmental manifestos. Healthcare and the fallout from military conflict, prejudice towards class and race, alliances under pressure and who appeals most to the fearful – entertainer or reformer, faith or science?

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan
It's not an easy read, often harrowing and dark, disturbing and shocking, leavened with excitement and suspense of the races and some wonderfully entertaining characters; a jockey, a preacher, a chain-smoking neighbour. It's also huge not only in number of pages but scope. That said, it's a book that will stay with you a long, long time and very likely lure you back again.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley
It's precise, bleak and demonstrates the writer's skill at evoking the imaginary but no less restrictive bars of a cage. In one exchange, a character explains that the expression “I fell in love at first sight” translates in Russian as “I fell down”.
At the end of this book, there's a sense of "I fell in and will never get out."

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
A deeply personal story of love, friendship and dedication that nevertheless reveals, in breathtaking panorama, a segment of 20th C history too little understood in the West.
As the author reminds us: “Throughout the world, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things ... have not demanded justice for the victims or offered to help them.”

So which book do our reviewers tip as the winner?

JJ Marsh:
Incredibly tough to pick from such a varied crop but the book that had the most impact on me, and the one I have already purchased for friends, would be Naomi Alderman's The Power.

Catriona Troth:
The books I read were wonderful, but the way that Madeleine Thien wrapped the whole of China's 20th C history within the intimate story of two families was a literary sleight of hand that took my breath away.