Research and “small discoveries”…

Congratulations to Angela Barton on the recent publication of her #historicalnovel, Spring Breeze , set in France, during World War Two. It’s another triumph for this talented author, artist and friend, whom I greatly admire.

I’m always interested in how authors carry out their research and I shall be blogging about this very soon. Here is a taster: Angela spoke to me about her trip to Paris and a discovery she made.

“I love researching for a story because every small discovery gets my mind whirring with ideas. Who can discover this, or what can I make happen here? While researching for Spring Breeze I went deep below the city of Paris into the miles of catacombs. I knew exactly which character I was going to place there. Absolutely nothing can beat visiting a certain place that will feature in your book. No amount of reading about the catacombs would have made me feel the way I did when I could touch, smell, hear, see and absorb the atmosphere by being there. I’d read about the macabre displays of bones piled high in patterns, but seeing them for myself made describing them so much more realistic. Maybe I should write about a tropical island paradise for my next novel, because research is so important for a story to be realistic!

I remember this scene well. Surprisingly, the conditions in the catacombs turned out to be more comfortable than I imagined. But, goodness, how awful to have to resort to hiding away underground. Angela’s comment about nothing beating visiting the locations we write about, comes up time and time again with authors I speak to.

I gave 5 stars to this important book. Four years earlier, I devoured Angela Barton’s Arlette’s Story and I’ll post both my reviews below.

Keep them coming, Angela! And thank you for the reads.

My review of Spring Breeze (Five stars)

“This was a book I couldn’t put down. It works well on so many levels.

Usually, we read more about the background to the writing in the acknowledgments at the end, but I found the opening lines in the Foreword extremely poignant. And I prefer it this way round because we were immediately immersed in something that we know to be true and shameful. Angela Barton explains early on that Operation Spring Breeze took place in Paris in July 1942, when Jews were kept in the Vélodrome d’Hiver for several days in awful conditions, before being transported in cattle trucks to concentration camps.

So, right from the outset, we know this is not going to be a sugar and spice read.

However, L.R. Knost’s words, also in the Foreword: “The Broken world awaits in darkness for the light that is you”, give a hint of what might come. Will the human spirit triumph? Are we going to read something ultimately positive?

You will have to read this moving book for yourselves to find out, but I love the way we see the heroine, Mathilde, mature from a young woman (who has not really “grown up”) to a character to totally admire because of the road she decides to take. She has worked previously in a Parisian auction house and the Wehrmacht need her for important work. Will she be accused of colluding with the enemy?

The historical detail merges perfectly with the narrative and I was right there in the terrifying world of occupied Paris, where the only people who do not have empty bellies are the Germans and the collaborators, and where fear is palpable.

The hero, Corporal Hans Engel, is an interesting character. And we also see him develop throughout events. His dilemma adds to the tension and conflict, increasing the drama. No spoilers.

The slow seeds of resistance in Operation Breeze grow stronger and stronger and we are presented with conflict and knife-edge moments a-plenty. At the start, we hear that “small victories … [are] victories nonetheless…” The courage of ordinary people is powerfully portrayed in this story. There are also some twists which I didn’t see coming.

Angela Barton is a very creative lady and I liked the way her painterly descriptions fitted one of the main themes of the story: art theft. I highlighted many lines – too many to report here.

“With each gust of wind, raindrops blew like silver beads from trees and hedges.”

“… the sky, the colour of watered-down milk”

My thanks to Angela Barton for giving me the chance to read an early copy. I went on to buy the book; I wanted it in my library. Five stars, without a doubt.

Another gorgeous cover, with a link to my review below

My review, also 5 stars

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Are we obsessed?

The awful recent pictures from Ukraine: images of homes bombed to smithereens, people fleeing to shelter, bodies of civilians, as a result of Russia’s barbaric attacks on Kyiev are heart breaking. Why, oh why is this happening? Will we ever learn?

The whys and wherefores are too complex to unravel here. But it makes me think about our seeming obsession with war. What is it about man and why are our memories so short-lived? There are many books on the market at the moment featuring World War Two. And they sell. I’ve written a few, but why the interest?

Ten days ago, I was in Abruzzo, revisiting places that inspire me for my writing. Many of the locations appear on the pages of The Postcard from Italy  .  We stopped off in Ortona, a pretty coastal town, but scene of a bloody World War Two battle. Here, the culmination of Adriatic fighting that came to be known as “Western Stalingrad”, was played out. Brutal house-to-house fighting in late December 1943 razed 80% of the town to the ground as the Canadian Light Infantry (Princess Patricia’s) fought with elite paratroopers of the German First Parachute division. The evidence, seventy-nine years on, is still there. And left deliberately as a reminder. Gaps in rows of houses left derelict; shelves and fireplaces still visible, where relatives of the dead refuse to allow rebuilding because these gaps are where their uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and siblings perished. The lady in the tourist office marked all the spots for me on a street map and it was like visiting graves as we walked to find them.

Still in evidence on the side of a shop wall 79 years on: a note about curfew

My theory for our obsession about war is grounded in not a morbid curiosity (although that is also one aspect), but fear. Fear that the last world war is really only a fingertip away from many of us and these scenes can repeat so easily. I am a child of the early 1950s and my parents did occasionally talk about their war. They glossed over the awful parts because they didn’t want to traumatise their children or rake up bad memories for themselves. Maybe they believed that what they had lived through was no different from millions of other’s experiences and so why did they have the right to talk about it? I wish I could ask them now. I can’t. So, I write my questions in my books.

The dreadful thing is that we are once again only a fingertip away from what could easily escalate into another Great War. And we should never forget what war is about. Those images on the television news, on our phone feeds, on the front page of our newspapers are not entertainment. They are reality.

Primo Levi, a holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in If this is a Man

urges us:

“All those who forget their past, are condemned to relive it” and “If understanding is impossible, knowing is necessary, because what happened can return, consciences can be once again seduced and obscured: even our own.”

This morning, I feel guilty for not engaging more; for failing to act on my conscience. I could have done so on Saturday. Sipping a cool drink in a park in Arezzo, I was served by a Russian waitress. I asked her if it was difficult for her being in Italy. Her response was unexpected, but maybe that was naïve of me. She said, ‘Yes, it is very difficult when the president of the United States is causing this war. Look what he has done now: bombed the bridge to Crimea.’

There was my opportunity to reason with her, but I thought it futile: she was so convinced of the propaganda she’s been fed. And I thought to myself, what is the point? She won’t listen to what I have to say. She will simply retort that I am brainwashed… Talking to friends last night, they said they would have got up and left. What would you have done? What can we do? It made me question what I might have done seventy-nine years ago. Would I have had the courage to join up with the brave women who fought in whatever way they could as partisans for the freedom of their country? Fighting is not simply about wielding guns; it is about reasoning and diplomacy too.

To sum up, I believe one of the reasons why we should concern ourselves with war – made accessible through as much information as we can glean, (which includes our novels) – is so that we educate ourselves with the memories – and don’t repeat the same mistakes.

I would love to hear your feelings.

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Getting away from it …

We needed a break after a difficult summer. “A change is as good as a rest,” they say, so we decided to return to a favourite destination two days ago: beautiful Abruzzo in the south of Italy, two hours’ drive from Rome.

It’s a change, but not totally. The area where we are staying for the second time is a special village: Santo Stefano di Sessanio, very near the stunning Gran Sasso d’Italia, a mountainous range that soars to over 9,550 feet (2,912 metres). The highest mountain in Great Britain is Ben Nevis (4,411 feet or 1,345 metres). So you can imagine how stunning the views can be when the skies are clear.

We are attempting Monte Aquila tomorrow on foot – approximately 2,494 metres – over 8,000 feet. Even the lowest part of the plateau we shall start from is 1,460 metres. We will visit Campo Imperatore where Mussolini was imprisoned for about two weeks, before being rescued by German paratroopers. (Ten gliders were involved).

STOP PRESS: the weather was too bad, and bizarrely, the road was blocked anyway for a while by a BBC team, filming for Top Gear. We had to pull over in our shabby estate car to watch a £2,000,000 latest model Ferrari race up and down beneath the mountain range. Mad world. When we eventually reached the peak, fog obliterated the view and Mussolini’s prison looked very dismal. Which is probably what Badoglio wanted and King Vittorio Emanuele III all those years ago on the night of 25th July 1943, when he was arrested and eventually banished (after several moves) to this hotel one month later.

The hotel where Mussolini was imprisoned in August 1943 (fittingly dishevelled imo)

I digress. I said this area is not completely a change for us. And similarly, where we live in unspoilt Tuscany, there was much poverty, as there was (and arguably, still is) in Abruzzo. We hear and read about the same fortitude of the peasants in both places: their struggles with the harsh terrain and the inevitable immigration to far-flung places: Germany, North America, to mention a few. We are staying in an albergo diffuso. How to translate? Basically, many of the simple houses of the village have been converted to self-catering apartments and many are furnished with furniture and mementoes of past rural life and administered by a reception elsewhere in the village. A scattered hotel???

Proof of the persistence and strength of character of the local people is the way that some have managed to hang on to their homes in this village, despite the terrible earthquake of 2009.  This innovative idea of the albergo diffuso, is why we can enjoy sleeping in a house hewn from the rocks with views to die for over the mountains and eat local dishes from the past in the couple of restaurants opened.

The village is surrounded by spectacular mountains and pastures and the difficult terrain is apparent. How they managed to farm such rocky land is mind boggling. On our walk today, we picked up a bone lying in the flower-studded grass. White Abruzzesi guard dogs, watching over their sheep and cattle, barked at us as we approached over the meadows: a reminder that wolves are about. Piles of stones heaped up (macere) showed how arid the ground is, strips of farmed fields reminded us of the campi aperti – reminded us of a system where each member of the community should be allowed to own at least a part of the land – a system dating back to the Middle Ages. The mountain folk here (i montanari) have the same indomitable spirit as our Tuscan montanari. They don’t give up.

A picture on the wall of the family’s grandparents in their wedding clothes of the 1930s looks down on us. When we asked the present owner what his grandparents would have thought of people from England staying in their home, he replied: ‘I would probably have my ears boxed by them, but the alternative would be for these buildings to crumble into piles of stones.’

(The above photos show simple cave dwellings that villagers used for their animals and even lived in themselves)

We saw the devastation of the earthquake for ourselves.  Driving along the plain to search for petrol, we spied a mediaeval castle perched on the mountainside, a huddle of houses a few metres below. The ubiquitous cranes dotted about showed yet another victim of earthquake disasters. But we love exploring and so we diverted up the hill. The castle was inaccessible, so we wandered round the semi-deserted town of San Pio delle Camere. A ghost town, with doors giving on to rooms of rubble, where beams had fallen in. It was eerie. What does it take for a town to resurrect itself? (Apart from government aid – which is spread thin). A certain spirit is needed. There were builders working on a few of the ruins but most of the houses had been abandoned.

I enjoyed reading a pamphlet written by the now deceased uncle of our particular house owner. Before he died (and before he could finish writing), he decided to tell stories of Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Thanks to people like him, memories become more than anecdotes, traditions can be revived, recipes from the past cooked again, songs sung in the piazza, children’s games played once again, old songs performed in the local osteria.

We shall visit another couple of villages tomorrow, on our way to Bisenti and the writing retreat where I have been invited to talk.

I’ll report back. In the meantime, here is a collage of photos I took today. Hope you enjoy looking at them.

I loved coming across the shepherd’s refuge when we walked along the dry riverbed, fire laid, his sheep on the bank opposite. And, the free library in another village we explored. Interesting how it was named in English.

I hope I haven’t gone on for too long. It’s a long time since I wrote up my blog. A dopo! See you later.

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Not now…

I have put off writing on my blog for too long.

“Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week”, somebody once said. But the more tomorrows go by, the less I know what to write about on my blog. Will anybody be interested?

It’s not as if I’ve been doing nothing. We drove over to Tuscany at the beginning of May and stopped off in Ferrara so that I could visit the National Museum of Jewish History.

And that was a great help and sent me down other avenues of research.

The book I’m writing at the moment has a Jewish girl as the main character and it is set in World War Two.  Commissioned by my publisher, Bookouture, it is the hardest book I’ve written so far. My husband says I always say that, but it really is. I am not crying wolf. I have to write it from the heart. There is a weight of responsibility hanging over me. The story was inspired by his Italian grandfather: Luigi Micheli – registrar at the town hall of Urbino. As well as reading many books, both in Italian and English, I have consulted the documents he so carefully recorded, which my husband stores in a large orange box.

Nonno’s box

Nonno Luigi was a meticulous man, keeping notes of almost everything. When his daughter married an English army captain and left Urbino to live near Peterborough in 1947, he copied every single letter she wrote to her family on his typewriter. and filed them in order. It is an amazing social record of the time and I dipped into these letters when I wrote The Tuscan Secret . We have found a letter he wrote to Mussolini during the war about his pay and conditions, another pleading for help with funding for his sickly wife. There are shopping lists, copies of underground newspapers and postcards written to a friend in prison in south-west Austria.  And then there is the medal he received post-war from the Italian government for his courageous help in the liberation of Italy. I am not going to share those details with you here. That is for my book, to be published next spring.

It is because this story is so personal and so important, that I must write it from the heart. And I’ve had several moments of self-doubt throughout its creation; Add to this the fact that I was brought up as Roman Catholic. Until two days ago, I had never set foot in a synagogue. I knew little about Judaism. How could I write a book seen through the eyes of a Jew? What right do I have? Researching through texts is one thing, but I always hunt for personal stories if I can.

Sitting at signora Moscati’s desk in her beautiful study

Last Monday, I arranged to meet a wonderful historian who, now that the Jewish community in Urbino is so reduced in numbers, looks after the little-used 17th century synagogue in Urbino. The building was restored and modified in the 19th century after an earthquake. On the ceiling are the same design of lunettes as in Urbino cathedral – a symbol of the friendship and respect in the city between the two faiths and a reinforcement of a theme I had thought about while writing my first draft.  I had to apply for permission in a completely different city (Ancona) to visit. Signora Moscati sat with me most of the morning, patiently answering my questions. She invited us afterwards to her home nearby to talk more and show me her own documents and old postcards – so useful for details of what Urbino used to look like.  She and I will keep in touch. (I have study envy – she has written several books). Her beautiful palazzo home was requisitioned first by German officers and subsequently by the British (who burned her encyclopaediae as firewood. I apologised!).

I know Urbino well. We married just outside this stunning city forty-five years ago (eek!) and we visit regularly as there are still relatives in this beautiful place I wandered around with a list of questions about locations that I had to ensure I had right in my mind. I want descriptions in my books to be accurate. I hunt for details, jotting down as I go.

Making notes in the shade beneath the twin towers of the Ducal Palace

I had another serendipitous meeting yesterday when we wandered round the tiny hilltop hamletof Castel Cavallino where we had exchanged our marriage vows. I want to use this village for an important scene in my book and I needed to firm up more details. The church was closed and we went in search of a keyholder. He was out but we bumped into an elderly man who had just bought eggs from a neighbour. Tonino was more than willing to chat and we spent over an hour listening to him. He was nine when Castel Cavallino was occupied by German soldiers in 1943. Several of them were very homesick and missing their children. They were good men, he told us, busy with building fortifications on the Linea Verde (a section of the Gothic Line). They were not like the SS who were to come later. Before these troops arrived, their particular soldier friend warned the family to hide their olive oil, chickens, rabbits – anything the SS could purloin. He took us to his house and he showed us a tin of old photos of that era: including one of the  German soldier who often came to eat with them and sleep under the cherry tree outside. Tonino also told us that this friend allowed him to shoot his machine gun at some trees. He was shocked at how the branches shattered. Just imagine!

Tonino also filled us in with a couple of accounts of partisan activity. To me, these anecdotes are gold dust. Knowing they truly happened tops my confidence when I write. All my books have been inspired by true events. That is the way I like to work, bringing the past to life. At the end of our conversation, out came a vintage bottle of home-brewed Vinsanto and we toasted each other and promised to return to visit.

‘The problem with our village’, he said, ‘is there are only a couple of elderly folk living here now and we get lonely. Please come back and spend an afternoon with us. You’ve helped pass the time of day and made it different from yesterday.’

It is important to me to share these stories from the past before it is too late and we lose our precious elderly. Afterwards, I sat on a bench to write up my notes, the warm wind gusting about me. Forty-five years earlier, I had sat on that same wall behind me with my newly-married husband and sister (my bridesmaid) on my September wedding day. All of us slim and young, ready to embark on our adult lives.

I could only dream then that one day I would be a published author. We don’t know what is round the corner, do we? All the more reason to get on and do what we know we have to. Thanks for reading my scattered thoughts.

“In delay there lies no plenty” (Shakespeare)

Sunset in Urbino
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The Postcard from Italy by Angela Petch Blog Tour – Review

As I am away this week on a writing retreat in Spain, I will leave it to Julie B on her Bookish Jottings site, to post for me today. I’ll get back to you after the week is over. I loved it as soon as I stepped through the finca gates, through the first courtyard smothered in bougainvillea and gazed on the view over the mountains…

Bookish Jottings

Italy, 1945. ‘Where am I?’ The young man wakes, bewildered. He sees olive trees against a bright blue sky. A soft voice soothes him. ‘We saw you fall from your plane. The parachute saved you.’ He remembers nothing of his life, or the war that has torn the world apart… but where does he belong?

England, present day. Antique-shop-owner Susannah wipes away a tear as she tidies her grandmother’s belongings. Elsie’s memories are fading, and every day Susannah feels further away from her only remaining family. But everything changes when she stumbles across a yellowed postcard of a beautiful Italian stone farmhouse, tucked away in Elsie’s dressing table. A message dated from World War 2 speaks of a secret love. Could her grandmother, who never talked about the past, have fallen for someone in Italy all those years ago?

With Elsie unable to answer her questions, Susannah becomes determined to track down…

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Training the eye…

I always carry a notebook and pen around with me. I never know when an idea for a story might hit me, or an overheard conversation might inspire me for a writing project. All writers are nosy parkers.

But I also carry my phone in my back pocket to capture locations and details for my stories. As I share my year between England and Italy, I might write a scene set in England whilst I’m living in Italy and vice versa. Yes, I have pictures in my head, but some details will have dropped through the holes of my sieve-brain. So, it’s good to have photos as well as notes to refer to. I print out the pictures that are most relevant and pin them to my noticeboard, so that when I am writing a scene, the images are next to me. Looking at them helps me remember sounds and smells, textures and tastes, so that I can conjure the most realistic scene I can.

In two days, my latest book is published by Bookouture: The Postcard from Italy.

Allow me to share some photos that helped me whilst piecing together my story: pictures of Puglia and Hastings. They were not taken with a photographer’s skill, but they helped me flesh out my story.

“Physical details become metaphorical in the writing… the physical becomes metaphorical and allows the reader to connect in a more profound way.” [Alicia Stubbersfield in Keeping Your Eyes Open.]

A grey sky can mirror a character’s mood, the sound of waves can bring calm to a scene, descriptions of food can add to a sensual moment.

“Everyone is drawn to look at different details. You have to learn to be confident in your own view. Let your eye wander and take down what it is you’ve picked out. There’s nothing more compelling for a reader than seeing the world through the unique view of somebody else.” [Paul Magrs from What Are You Looking At? – both quotes taken from The Creative Writing Coursebook from the UEA]

I am delighted that early reviewers of The Postcard from Italy have appreciated the details in the book and have felt they were transported to Puglia.

“Petch takes us to the easternmost point of Italy, Puglia, on the Adriatic coast and helps us envision the wild coastline, dotted with stone trulli and masseria. She almost enables us to bask in the sunshine, smell the salt air, taste the variety of fish, and see the multitude of trabucco where the land meets the Adriatic Sea.”

“I forgot about my own life and was immersed in the world created by the author.”

“The Italian setting was so vividly and gorgeously described I felt that I was there. Highly recommended.”

“I also revelled in being lost in Italy, both in the 1940s and in the present day. Angela Petch has a fantastic knowledge of the country and that means both her settings and her research are impeccable. The wonderful descriptions of the landscape, the people, the food… it drew me in in a way that meant I could feel the sun on my back and a visit to Puglia is now definitely on my bucket list.”

Thank you so much to these bloggers and reviewers, for taking the time and trouble to leave feedback.

I do hope more readers will enjoy my new book. I’ll leave you with some more images that you might find written into the pages of The Postcard from Italy.

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In nine days, my new book, The Postcard from Italy will be published.

It was inspired, in great part, by black and white photos in my mother’s album of a good-looking, fresh-faced young man, dressed in his RAF uniform and my mother’s fond memories of her little brother.

 My Uncle William, affectionately known as Billy, was a rear gunner, crewing on Lockheed Liberators for the RAF. The last mission he flew had a mixed crew, including Canadians. They were shot down over what was then known as Yugoslavia on November 5th 1944, on a mission to deliver supplies to partisans. Billy was only twenty.

He was the only son of five children, born into an Irish Catholic family living in England. My mother was the oldest child. In this photo, there are only three siblings: my mother (the tallest), my godmother Aunty Joan and Billy. They are about to go to a fancy dress party.  My other two aunties were born later.

Off to a fancy dress party – Billy is the little boy in the centre

My youngest aunty is still alive and I dearly hope she and other members of my family will not mind that I have used Uncle Billy as my inspiration. Billy in my book is not the same young man as my uncle. He is half-Italian, half-English and he survives his last mission, but I have used some of my uncle’s details. I borrowed his identity number (1584477) and I made him a rear gunner, or tail end Charlie – having the unenviable role of sitting in the back of the aircraft with the lonely task of scanning the skies for enemy aircraft.

Sergeant William Francis Beary – my handsome uncle

With the present state of war in Ukraine and images on our television screens of brave young fighters and so many displaced families, Billy has once again been at the forefront of my mind. Once upon a time he was a little boy.

I am anxious about upsetting my surviving aunt.

My brother has researched events surrounding our uncle’s last flight and there is a lot more I could have used, but I did not, out of respect for her. We have, for example, a detailed account written by the German pilot who shot down our uncle’s Liberator. Out of respect for my aunt, I did not include any of this.

Some of the detail provided by The Ministry of Defence. I have not shown you everything.

In all my books I research to the best of my ability as I do believe it is very important to record stories from our past, so that we tell the world what it was like. We need to learn from mistakes, understand the tragedies of war, the way ordinary people are affected, in order to protect the future.  My uncle was not just a number. He was an only son, a brother to four delightful sisters. He had a girlfriend and his life was cut short. Far too short.

However, I also have a duty to the living survivors and should not sensationalise history. My aunty will probably never read my book and I am wary of telling her about it. However, I do not want Uncle Billy to be forgotten. He was more than number 1584477.

 I’ve dedicated The Postcard from Italy to him and my father too. They both fought in Italy and they have both passed away.

I would love to hear your perspective on this.

Billy is buried in Belgrade but remembered on the family grave in England
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People and stuff …

I used to think that I could live on a desert island. There’ve been times in the past when I’ve wanted to run away. Last March, I even appeared as a guest about it on A Little Book Problem and had fun choosing my books to take with me.

(my photosof Pangani beach, Tanzania)

BUT… we went to a wedding on New Year’s Eve, our youngest daughter’s wedding. And our coming-away-present was, unfortunately, testing positive for Covid-19.  Fortunately, my symptoms were very mild indeed (I am fully vaccinated and boosted). My husband was asymptomatic.

For the last ten days, we have been isolating. Tomorrow is when we are allowed out. Boy, have I missed being in the fresh air and walking along the sea near our Sussex home. But it’s people I have missed most. Phone calls and Zoom meetings are not the same.

We talk about writing being a solitary business and I suppose it is, when we are pouring out our ideas at our desks, inventing characters and settings in our head. Why we write would need a few more pages than here, but one of the aspects that I enjoy most is engaging with my readers. A few months ago, I received an e mail from an elderly lady who lives in Canada now. But when she was a child she was brought up in an Italian orphanage that I used in my first book, The Tuscan Secret

It was near Parma, in Emilia Romagna, and during World War Two, British POWs were locked up here, before the Armistice of 1943.

Here are some of her words: “I was an orphan at a very early age of one & as the years went by it was more difficult for my mom to look after me. My brother was already in an orphanage & he was 7 years older than me. I googled about my orphanage & it turned out to be the camp where these people were hiding from the Germans & that was built around the era of Mussolini. That brought me back to my childhood where the orphanage was run by nuns & they made me the person that I am today.”

She went on to say that she wanted to write her own story now: “ I always wanted to do a biography of my life so that my grown-up children & my grandchildren would know & realize some of the sacrifices that my mom made & the reality of the post war life that I went through as a child & for them to appreciate what they have & not take things for granted. Just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed the book, because I was able to relate to them & the people in the village where they lived. Brought me back lots of memories of my past. I want to thank you.”

I encouraged her to just start writing and I was thrilled to hear from her yesterday to learn that she is already well into her writing: “ I already wrote 8 chapters and 73 pages. How about that? I think I will reach 10 chapters and maybe 100 pages. Not a very big book. Thought to give you an update on my progress.”

How wonderful is that?

People will always need people.

To please
To tease
To put you at ease,
People will always need people.
To make life appealing
And give life some meaning,

An extract from a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah

People need people and stories, so I will not be escaping to a desert island for the moment. Tomorrow we are heading for the Sussex Downs with a picnic and flask and I won’t stop walking all day.

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Strangers who become friends…

Yesterday was publication day for fellow author, Lizzie Chantree

Lizzie and I haven’t met yet in reality and I haven’t been able to read her new book yet but it is on my list. She runs a popular Facebook group: Lizzie’s Book Group and is a very supportive and fun lady. But I’ll talk about that aspect of social media after I’ve introduced you to The Woman who Felt Invisible – only 99 pence at the moment on Amazon.

Have you ever felt invisible? 

Working as a stationery supervisor and a sitter to a pair of internet famous, delinquent dogs, wasn’t how former cyber-specialist, Olivia, imagined her life turning out. 

Working in a tiny cubicle with a decrepit computer and being overlooked had suited her for a while, but now she’s fed up, lonely and determined to make the world ‘see’ her again. 

Old school friend, Darius, wants to fill Olivia’s days with romance, but their love of technology has taken them on very different paths. 

Gorgeous undercover policeman Gabe, is steadfast in finding out if Olivia was part of an online scam, but something doesn’t feel right and he suspects someone else was manipulating her life. 

Can love blossom from the most deceptive of starts? And can someone who feels lost, find a way to flourish against all odds?

Now – many people moan about social media; don’t want to have anything to do with it. I certainly don’t like being approached by dubious-sounding colonels or supposed widowers who want to get to know me better. And don’t talk about hackers… But – and this is a big BUT, I do love to communicate and engage with fellow authors and other interesting people. So a huge thank you to “social” (as Italians call it here).

As you may already know, in Italy I live in a fairly remote valley. No writing groups to join, festivals too distant, but I have managed to remedy this with friends who mostly remain virtual. (Too many to mention here).

Last week in the beautiful city of Siena, I met two in the flesh. One is Chiara Borghesi, a fascinating blogger who teaches Italian in a unique way, bringing in lots of detail about Italian lifestyle. Check her out on Facebook under Chiaras Tuscany Experiences – Language & Lifestyle Experiences.

In addition she runs an online bookclub (Chiara’s Tuscany Bookclub) and regularly posts beautiful and fascinating images on Instagram @chiarastuscany. If you want to learn Italian in a refreshingly different way, then look no further. (Chiara is the lady in the middle of my photo).

Another author was with us who lives in Italy was with us. Fay Henson’s book is set in Tuscany. Headstrong in Tuscany is aimed at a late teen readership. A good idea for a stocking filler? Fay is holding her novel in the photograph.

It felt so good to meet up and we chatted away, with the help of pasta and wine. I would never have come across these ladies without social media. Grazie!

I have found the writing community on social media so warm and helpful. As I have said, I couldn’t possibly mention everyone here, but I have to give a special nod to lovely fellow-author Jessie Cahalin who I met on Twitter initially, when she started off her Books in Handbag blog.

(I was attracted to her handbag icon). She filled me with confidence when I self-published my second book – A Tuscan Memory – which Bookouture later took on. I shall forever be grateful to this lovely friend for her encouragement and shall never ever forget our first meeting – we ran across the room at the RNA conference and hugged each other. It should have been set to music…

Jessie is concentrating on her own writing more now and so she should. There are wonderful moments in writing, but there are downers too, when an author feels very lonely and lost. So to have motivation from like-minded people who understand the peaks and troughs too well, is manna. I also have my super author friends, at Apricot Plots and we zoom when we can. It is such a treat to link up from Italy to other corners of the world and thrash out worries and ideas. And laugh together. Laughter is an important ingredient in the writing process.

A couple of my Apricot Plot friends at the RNA Conference: Carol Thomas and Jane Cable

So, a HUGE THANKYOU to all my social media friends, bloggers and all. You are the tops!

I’m sure there are many stories to be shared about friends made via social media or events discovered. I would love to hear about them in the comment box. Two weeks ago I met up with a couple of Italian gentlemen (for research purposes… behave, everybody!) One a university professor, an expert who has been able to help me with my next book and the other, a relative of victims in a dreadful World War Two massacre in our corner of Tuscany. Both these people were discovered on social media and we have become friends in the real sense. Liked both ways!

Professor Ermanno Torrico and Giorgio Gabrielli comparing notes

So, back to Lizzie and her writing. She has an impressive record and I wish her the best of luck with her latest publication. I shall review it after I have read it. It looks like another uplifting stocking filler.

International bestselling author and award-winning inventor, Lizzie Chantree, started her own business at the age of 18 and became one of Fair Play London and The Patent Office’s British Female Inventors of the Year in 2000. She discovered her love of writing fiction when her children were little and now works as a business mentor and runs a popular networking hour on social media, where creatives can support to each other. She writes books full of friendship and laughter, that are about women with unusual and adventurous businesses, who are far stronger than they realise. She lives with her family on the coast in Essex. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @Lizzie_Chantree

Book links:

Universal book buy link: The little ice cream shop:

Universal book buy link: Networking for writers:

Universal book buy link: If you love me, I’m yours:

Universal book buy link: Ninja School Mum:

Universal book buy link: Babe Driven:

Universal book buy link: Love’s Child:

Universal book buy link: Finding Gina:

Shh… It’s Our Secret:

The woman who felt invisible:

Social media links:


Author page:


Good luck, Lizzie and thanks for being a friend. Maybe one day we shall meet up too.

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Mists of time …

I’m writing this on Remembrance Day, November 11th. It’s misty and a little melancholy outside. The mountains are veiled, the peaks snagged with clouds. It reminds me of a local saying:

“ Quando l’Alpe mette ‘l cappellovende le capre e compra ‘l mantello.”

Time (when the mountain puts on its hat) for the shepherds and herdsmen to sell their goats and buy a cloak for the ten-day walk down to the coastal plain. I wrote about this in A Tuscan Memory but the shepherds used to leave at the end of September, not November. They are long gone, not only because the practice died down in the 1950s. There are not many shepherds left in our mountains. Too many wolves and youngsters are not enamoured with the harsh working conditions of the past.

It’s drawing close to our departure from Tuscany as well. This year has been a little strange for everyone – the epidemic still clinging on, and there’s been a temptation to console myself with, ‘Let’s hope it will be better next year.’

But a lot of joyful events have happened during our shorter stay here this summer. And it’s wrong to wish life away. I think all of us should live in the now. “Don’t count the days, make each day count.”

 We had three of our grandchildren to stay and the sound of laughter and young voices echoed down the river. They were drawn to the water like magnets and all three managed to get completely wet within five minutes of nearing it: fishing and jumping from stone to stone. They enjoyed old fashioned games that dragged them away from the screen. We visited an ancient castle high on the hill and they found a fascination in the torture implements. Boys will be boys…

There was a Roman project for school to complete and we took Luca to Sestino, an important Roman stopover in the mountains nearby. House building is constantly held up in this tiny town because of Roman artefacts being unearthed. I will gift a copy of one of my books to the first person who can tell me the story behind the photograph below. What was this pot used for in Roman times? (Winner has to live in UK).

Guess the use of this Roman pot.

It was a joy too this autumn to meet up with a history professor from Urbino university. He knew my husband’s grandfather really well. What a shame that our relatives did not share much about their war experiences with us. It’s understandable when you dig deeper and discover what they went through.

Maurice at the foot of the torricini of Urbino, beloved birth-place of his mother

Maurice had inherited a box of old documents kept meticulously by his Nonno over the years and dating back to the 1930s. Professor Torrico has pored over them over the past weeks and this weekend we shall enjoy a lunch here with him and his family while he explains better. He was able to reveal more about Nonno’s courage during the war. A fervent socialist all his life, Nonno hated having to sign up to the Fascist party and neglected to do so for as long as possible. The Resistance persuaded him to stay on: he would be more use to them if he remained (ostensibly) within the party. Nonno’s story has inspired me to write another World War Two book. I hope I can do his story justice. Wish me luck.

Within the next few days we shall say goodbye to the autumn mountains as they start to shed their fiery leaves. It has been breath taking to walk in the forests. Another positive to be taken from the negative, as we are not usually here at this time of year.

A presto! Speak soon – the next time, from Blighty.

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