This is the invitation that my Italian mother-in-law used to get into a dance organised by the British army who were in Urbino in 1944.
She was not officially invited but tagged along with another young girl and met her future husband: Captain Horace Petch of the 8th Army. He was not supposed to be there either. It was out of bounds for him.
They fell in love and he crossed mine fields to visit and court her. It worked!
Love knows no boundaries. He didn’t speak Italian and she didn’t speak English but they managed 🙂
I used a lot of the stories Mamma (as I call her) when I wrote The Tuscan Secret https://geni.us/B07Q38YX7XCover which I am delighted to say is riding at number one in its Amazon category at the moment. It is only 99 pence for a little while longer.
Let me introduce you to Vicki Beeby – an author I have had the pleasure of meeting on line recently. We have a couple of things in common: she used to teach in a school in Suffolk where I also taught for a while (small world). She’s also published a new novel set against the Second World War and as you may already know, I am fascinated by this period in history. Probably because my own parents were only nineteen when the war broke out and experienced those six terrible years. They didn’t talk about it much and research since then has uncovered so much about their war. I wish they had spoken personally about it, but maybe it was too painful for them. I feel it is important to write ordinary people’s stories before they are forgotten.
Anyway – back to Vicki. I have to admit that I haven’t read her new book yet. It’s waiting on my kindle. But I chatted to her about it.
1. Vikki, I love this cover. I feel I want to talk to those three girls. What do you think you would have done as a young woman at the start of the war? (i.e. would you have thought about enlisting? What would have been an ideal job for you?)
I think I would have enlisted. Most likely in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) because they had the best uniform! I’m sad to say I doubt it would have been from any noble sentiment of serving my country but because I had a bad case of wanderlust in my late teens and early twenties. I would probably have seen enlisting as a way of seeing new places and meeting new people.
I would have loved the same job I gave to my heroine, Evie – working in a fighter station operations room. Like Evie, I love maths, so I would have been best suited to one of the jobs that required a good mathematical ability like plotter or filter plotter. I would have loved to have been at the sharp end of the action, although I’m less sure how I would have coped under bombing.
2. Interesting! It’s hard to know how we would have reacted, isn’t it? When we haven’t been in that situation. Can you show us where you write and tell us a little bit about your writing routine.
I usually write on my laptop, so I take it to whatever room happens to be warmest—normally my bedroom! I either sit in this chair in the bay window or, if it’s cold, sit on the bed and wrap up in a blanket.
Because I do other work during the day, I have to make an effort to carve out writing time. As I’m a morning person, I get up at 5am and do my day’s writing between 5 and 7.30. When I’m writing a first draft I try and write a thousand words a day, so if I don’t hit my target in the morning, I pick it up again later in the afternoon. Oddly, if I don’t write first thing, I find it very difficult to write later on, but I don’t have a problem if I already have words down.
That looks very cosy and comfy. I think I might nod off if I wrote like that. I love that we are all so different.
3. Tell us why you chose to include Czech pilots in your fictional Battle of Britain squadron?
Both my brothers have Czech wives. My older brother lives in the Czech Republic, and I usually visit at least once a year. One of my sisters-in-law recommended I watch the film Dark Blue World about Czechs who flew with the RAF during the war. Coincidentally this was when I was starting to research The Ops Room Girls. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to include Czechs in my fictional squadron, to honour the contribution made by the Czechs which, sadly, has been largely forgotten.
The Ops Room Girls Blurb:
When Evie’s dreams come crashing down, she’s determined to still make something of herself in these trying times…
It is 1939 and workingclass Evie Bishop has received a scholarship to study mathematics at Oxford when tragedy turns her life upside down. Evie must seek a new future for herself and, inspired to contribute to the war effort, joins the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an Ops Room plotter.
Posted to a fighter station on the Sussex Coast, Evie befriends two other WAAFs – shy, awkward May and flirty, glamorous Jess. Faced with earning the approval of strict officers and finding their way in a male dominated world, the three girls band together to overcome challenges, navigate new romances and keep their pilots safe in the skies.
But the German bombers seem to know more than they should about the base’s operations, and soon Evie, May and Jess are caught up in a world more dangerous than they ever imagined…
Thank you so much for dropping by, Vicki, and I wish you every success with this new book. It sounds fascinating, can’t wait to read it. Good luck!
We set off for Italy, with a little apprehension, on Monday morning, very aware of safety. It was a legal obligation to wear face masks on the ferry from Dover to Calais and we took our own food and flasks of coffee for the journey.
But how wonderful was it to be relatively free after weeks of lockdown. I drank in every little sight in France – the vines covering the slopes, the little churches, the view from our bedroom window of the pretty hamlet of Zellenberg and its domed church shining in the evening sunlight. After hours of being folded into the car, we took a stroll around the village and came across a war monument. My author-mind wanted more time to research. Alsace was coveted by the Germans in WW2 and I will read up about what went on when I have more time. Next morning we enjoyed breakfast on the geranium-decked terrace, a woodpecker singing in the background and the sun warming up the vineyards. The hotel owners had gone to lengths to be Covid aware and we generally felt very safe.
As you can see our car was jam packed. I think I’ve said it before, but one year I shall sling my leather valise on to the back seat and roar off without all the STUFF that we load ourselves up with for our stay in Italy. Talk about taking coals to Newcastle. You can see the geraniums in the boot – well, I couldn’t leave them to die in England, could I?
Our garden is a tangle and the house hasn’t enjoyed being closed up for eight months, but we will get there slowly and steadily. We have decided not to have any guests this summer – in view of the virus, so there will be more time to ourselves. And there will be more time to write. Back to my WIP tomorrow, but a dip or two in the river Marecchia will be taken as well.
Arrivederci – a presto! I’ll be in touch again soon.
I’ve recently been invited to join a friendly group of authors called Apricot Plots https://www.facebook.com/ApricotPlots/ . At the moment we are running a competition based around our canine friends, so if you are short of reading matter at the moment during lockdown, then check out the link above.
Although this is the first time in my life that I haven’t owned a dog (CHECK: I think that should be the other way round 😉 ), I realise that in all my books, I include a dog.
In my Tuscan novels, there is always a Maremmano sheepdog.
(In my self-published Now and Then in Tuscany, Chicco appears and rescues his mistress from certain death. This book is to be edited and re-published by Bookouture in September as A Tuscan Memory.
There is a half-breed Maremmano in my latest book, The Tuscan Girl (https://geni.us/B083P5XHHRCover) and he is called Freddie. The hero also owns a rescued wolf cub called Lupino for a while.
Sheep farming in our Apennine mountains has all but disappeared due to the abundant presence of wolves. They grow bolder all the time and even take sheep and calves by day, so local shepherds have stopped rearing sheep. It’s so sad when these traditions and practices die, but we can immortalise them in our books.
Here is an extract from my latest book, The Tuscan Girl, https://geni.us/B083P5XHHRCover where my German hero, Florian, meets up with an Italian girl called Lucia:
“For a while he watched through his binoculars as a honey buzzard soared above him. As he stood still at the edge of a copse, a black squirrel darted out and scampered up a holm oak. He could hear the tinkling of bells from the meadow he was aiming for and as he rounded the dirt road, he came across a flock of a dozen, scrawny sheep. They were guarded by a dirty white Maremmano shepherd dog and a girl. The dog started to bark, approaching him, tail in the air, and the girl called out to him to come to her, ‘Vieni qua.’ The animal growled and Florian stood still. These dogs were reputed to be ferocious and he didn’t fancy a bite. The girl walked over warily to grab hold of the dog by the scruff of his neck, pulling him back and shouting something he couldn’t understand. His knowledge of Italian didn’t extend to dialect.
She was dressed in men’s clothing: a darned pair of corduroy trousers held up by string, men’s laced-up boots that were too big for her, a threadbare shirt and a scrap of rag tied in her hair. She looked so unlike the carefree girl he’d seen the other day at the river, but it was her unusual emerald eyes that gave her away.”
And before I forget, in Mavis and Dot(mybook.to/MDot) – on sale to raise funds for research into cancer – there is a naughty, lovable rescue mongrel called Mal. Thanks to illustrator Gill Kaye and editor of Ingenu/e magazine for conjuring him on the page.
Enjoy your dog walks today if you are going on one! And don’t forget to look up the competition.
I’m missing family and friends so much, but I’m enjoying the slower pace of life: the birdsong, unpolluted skies, walks along the sea, baking experiments and the chance to savour the small things.
As I write this, we should be in France, on our way to our six-month stay in Tuscany. Bookings have been cancelled for our holiday business, plans have been changed and we are settling instead into a summer in Sussex. Life could be far worse and I fully realise that we are very fortunate. We are “doing our thing” by obeying lockdown rules, but it feels lopsided that so many key-workers are literally putting their lives on the line for us. Nevertheless, we will enjoy the little things if we can’t enjoy the big things.
Roses, planted by a previous owner of our house bloom each summer on the walls, but we haven’t had a chance to enjoy them before.
They are old-fashioned, highly scented, their intricate folds are velvet to the touch and seem to hide secrets within.
Most of my days in lockdown are spent in writing. I’m about three quarters of the way through the first draft of my next novel and there’s an analogy to be made with the roses and my manuscript. At the moment, I’m telling myself the story. It’s folded in on itself, so how do I get inside the folds of the rose, open the petals in a way that won’t reveal the mysteries too soon to the reader?
I have in my head that I must put the reader first. I want the reader to infer, rather than me tell them everything. I need to avoid clichés, personalise my metaphors, sort out the logic and understand the conflicts of my characters in such a way that the end result seems effortless…
Margaret Atwood describes writing as “wrestling a greased pig in the dark”.
Ashley Stokes in The Creative Writing Coursebook tells me that “plotting is the underside of the stone that no one sees.”
(missing the Mulino and her stones, but we’ll get there sometime in the future)
James Friel, in the same text book, writes that “the first draft of a novel is allowed to fail.”
And Stendhal said, “Find out what you most want to say and then try very hard not to say it.”
I see each of these points like the individual petals of a rose. When it opens up, it will smell divine and look beautiful. (Hopefully – and if that sounds pretentious – so be it. We have to aim high.). During lockdown I have a lot to do!
And why have I given this blog its title, Juxtapose, Just Suppose? Because I am at that stage in my first draft when anything can be possible in my story. I’m constantly asking myself “What If?” and throwing in curve balls. Julie Cohen in her fascinating talk on writing, on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, answered my query about “saggy middles” in novels, suggesting I think about mid-point reversal. A point in the middle of the novel when, suddenly, everything changes: the goals of a main character shift and change and what he/she felt is no longer the way they now feel. Something flips everything and there is a major protagonist shift. Interesting… She is also responsible for all the coloured post-it notes littered across my notice-board… Check her out: she’s an excellent creative writing tutor.
After all, if somebody had said to me that this time this year we would be going through a pandemic, with all the restrictions and tragedies that are happening in its wake, then I would have responded, “Don’t be so daft.”
So, although truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction, then I’m thinking to myself, fiction can be stranger than truth.
Maybe lockdown is giving me too much time to think.
I’ve been reading so many positive posts about this weird time and I’ve taken something from all of them.
We’ll get through this, but I wonder if you’re feeling like I am today. Truths are niggling at me and I need to share so that you can shake me out of my blues.
“Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune,
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
Be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
No less than the trees and the stars:
You have a right to be here.”
Extracted from Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945)
This weekend we should be entertaining our three Italian friends who were supposed to visit. There were all kinds of plans afoot to share glimpses of the Sussex countryside, take them on visits, introduce them to fish and chips and afternoon tea. We’d also be preparing to return to our home in Italy for the rest of the summer. I’m making do with photos and Facetime instead.
The rug has been pulled out from under us, hasn’t it? It’s a time of uncertainty and questioning. The open door and freedom to travel has been replaced with time to travel within ourselves and to examine our hearts.
Being retired, our daily life is not really radically different. We are lucky to own our own home, have food on the table, a garden to sit in and countryside to walk in each day. Our routine is more or less the same although I ache to cuddle my children and grandchildren.
But I can’t stop thinking of the broken and lonely at this time. And the front-line workers. And the way we have been abusing our planet. It is as if our life is being scoured with a Brillo pad, scratching away at all the tarnished bits and revealing what really lies underneath. We lived in Tanzania for three years. I can’t imagine how they will cope with their medical system, how people living in slum conditions can possibly manage social distancing. How are our own homeless faring and victims of abuse confined indoors?
Let’s share some thoughts on how to go forward and prop each other up with hopeful thoughts, friends. There are glimmers of positive vibes: kindness is blossoming and neighbours are helping each other. The radio Deejays are trying their best to lighten our days, there are amazing people fundraising – including our valiant veteran, Captain Tom Moore, who walked 100 lengths of his garden and raised £23,000,000. Our NHS front-line workers are truly incredible.
I am researching which charities to support and ways of helping others. Your suggestions would be so welcome. We all need help.
In the meantime, I wish you all peace in your hearts.
There’s a lot being written about this strange time. It feels like an episode of science fiction, but we all know it’s reality. I’m trying to concentrate on the positive.
It’s only been one week of semi-lockdown for us here in England and here are a few ideas that have helped me. It would be great if you could share your ideas too in the comment boxes.
• I only listen to the news bulletin once a day and listen to music or birdsong – which is so much more obvious now that traffic is restricted.
• I’ve stuck to a “timetable”, finding a regular slot to write. I am under contract, so I have deadlines to keep. This week, three of us met “virtually” to set aside one hour to write. We used the “pomodoro” method: using a timer to write for one hour and it was comforting to know we were sharing this motivation.
• I usually play tennis at least three times a week and I’m conscious that I’m spending more hours on my laptop. My daughter is a chartered physiotherapist and Pilates instructor and she has set up her on-line Pilates classes Her exercises are designed for all ages and abilities. She is offering the classes FREE to anyone who works for the NHS. Contact here here!
• We can’t get to Italy for our six-month stay at the moment. We have a large vegetable garden over there, so yesterday I cleared a flower bed in the front garden of our cottage in Sussex to make way for tomatoes and lettuce. The seeds of my favourite flower, Cosmos, will be planted between and they’re beginning to sprout on my bedroom window sill, like small seeds of hope.
On our daily walk last week we picked wild nettles and made dumplings to go with stew. I’d never tried this recipe before. Try one new thing each week.
• Last night about twenty members of our family held a quiz via Zoom. We had to hand paper, pencil and our favourite tipples. It was great to see each other and we switched off for a couple of hours from the C-word. Maurice and I are also trying to help out with a little bit of home-schooling of our young grandchildren via Skype. Topics so far include a little science quiz. I’m compiling a book with them. We plan to come up with a poem each, a puzzle, factoids, jokes and a story and then self-publish as a memento of their strange time away from school. The idea was inspired by my lovely friend Rosemary Noble who, with lots of input from her own young granddaughter, has written a story set in world war 2. A snip at 99 pence and a useful and fun home-schooling resource. Ella Midnight and the Mystery of the Missing Nose
• I have started to phone up older relatives to whom I usually only send a Christmas card. Old fashioned letters are a good idea too (while the post office continues to allow).
• We’re keeping an eye on our ninety-six-year-old neighbour who is bedridden and we’re suddenly aware that there is tremendous community spirit in our little village. Our vicar broadcast the Sunday service this morning from his living room; our new village store, Rassasy Farmshop, called for volunteers to deliver food, befriend the lonely via phone calls, walk dogs… let’s hope that this spirit continues once this is all over. Because it WILL BE OVER – cling on to that thought.
• Find a place of peace in your house or garden (if you can). Sit and watch the clouds in the sky pass by. Think of the clouds as worries in the distance. As they pass across the sky, think to yourself “these too will pass”.
It goes without saying that we owe the angels in our health service our deepest thanks and respect. I popped a thank you note through the surgery door last week. The politicians need to recognise their ‘amazingness’ not just now, but also when this crisis is over. An increase in wages for nurses and ancillary staff would be a good start.
Tonight, I shall light my Sunday candle in my window, like I did last Sunday, and pray for hope.
On Tuesday night I drove up the A24 to Crawley. I’ve only been to Gatwick airport in that area, so it was great to discover Ifield, a little conservation village in the midst of this sprawl of new town and the tiny barn where I was bound.
I’d been invited to take part in the Crawley Wordfest 2020, a festival dedicated to words. I was part of a panel of three authors, interviewed by Sally, journalist and publisher. My thanks to ChindiAuthors, a very supportive, Sussex-based indie author group that I used to belong to until recently, who put my name forward.
We were all “travelling writers” and I joined in with talented Alice Allan who has written a moving novel based on her midwifery experiences in Ethiopia and intrepid Ben Aitken who travelled to Poland on a quest to find out more! (Read his intriguing book to find out more). I’ve dipped into Alice’s book and am already hooked. And Ben’s awaits me – that is if my husband doesn’t nick it first.
It was my first experience at being interviewed live like this as an author (It’s never too late!) and none of us knew the questions beforehand. We were asked to introduce ourselves. I don’t like talking about myself and I found that hard. My husband was in the audience (lovely chauffeur and all-round supporter) and gave me a kindly post-mortem afterwards, pointing out the things I’d left out.
But I was more in the swing when it came to talking about my books.
• What inspired me?
• Would I consider writing about anything else other than Italy?
• Why did I write a blog? And would it be an idea to write a book about living in Italy, with recipes and traditions?
• Did I consider myself a travel writer? Being able to chat more easily about writing, rather than myself, made me think that writers probably hide themselves within their writing. What do you think?
It was so interesting listening to Ben and Alice, both young and at the start of what I’m sure will be brilliant writing careers. I was really taken by their moving and amusing travel stories and I wish them both all the best.
Sales weren’t huge for any of us, but I don’t think that was the main purpose of the evening. It was an opportunity to introduce ourselves to readers. I am with a digital publisher (Bookouture) and so my books do not appear in shops. When a lady in the audience spoke to me at question time, I was delighted when she told me she was actually reading The Tuscan Secret I receive messages on social media about my books, but to meet a reader face-to-face was a special moment.
Thank you so much to Crawley WordFest, run by a dedicated and small group of volunteers. Caroline told me that she was spurred to put on a festival when somebody said there could never be one in Crawley. But that has been proved wrong. Congratulations to the team for your defiance.
Events run until March 31st, so there is still plenty of time to go along and support them. Events range from Open Mic night, a Crime panel (I spied Dorothy Koomson from #RNAon here), a talk by Phil Hewitt – our very own Sussex Arts editor, a Wordfest quiz night, writing sessions and much, much more.