The next instalment…

 

With the final part of “The Haunting of Hattie Hastings” trilogy published, I caught up with author Audrey Davis in Switzerland. I am really looking forward to meeting my ‘virtual friend’ in September for our writers’ workshop which I am organising here in Tuscany. But, in the meantime, we continued our virtual chat.

 

Now that all three parts of HH are published, what are you working on at the moment, Audrey?
Well, I have written a distinctly underwhelming 1K words or so of my WIP. It was originally titled ‘Untitled Project’ but has progressed to ‘Never Too Late.’ Which could also apply to me, having published my debut novel at the tender age of 53. Now, with five books to my name, I wish I could be lying back on a sun-kissed beach, sipping cocktails and watching the royalties pour in. Sadly, my income at present is less champagne and caviar, more cheap Prosecco and a round of toast. Still, nobody said it would be easy. I had the idea some time ago of a book about an ‘older’ lady who makes a shock announcement ahead of her 50th wedding anniversary. From there, we see flashbacks of her life, and she ends up house sharing with a much younger woman. They learn from each other and form a bond, despite family opposition. I was disheartened when I saw a similar story arc for an upcoming book, but will persevere as everyone has their own way of telling a story. I also have a possible plot involving a bunch of people on a WhatsApp group chat, with the idea of it being a kind of thriller. But I’m not sure that’s my strength, and I believe there’s a market today for books with characters in their 70s and beyond.

I shouldn’t worry about seeing the similar story arc. We all have different voices and, in any case, there are only seven types of story anyway. You have a special style and you always make me laugh.

How far in advance do you know what you’re going to write? Are you a plotter of a pantser?
As I said, ideas have come to me but largely lain dormant in the build-up to publishing Hattie Part Three. I am definitely a ‘pantser’ but hope to at least lay down a clear timeline and well-developed character profiles this time. With Hattie I tended to write and write, then realise I’d messed up and have to go back and make painful corrections.

Do you always write humour?
So far, yes. If you speak to any of my friends, they’ll tell you I’m something of the class clown. Always looking for a witty retort or one-liner. I am essentially a bit of an introvert, very happy to be on my own either reading or writing. When I feel a bit overwhelmed at a social event, I use humour as a defence mechanism. I love reading dark, twisty thrillers but not sure I could ever write one!

Have a go! “Nothing ventured…” Has living in Switzerland helped or hindered you as a writer? I love the photograph of your writing place. How distracting is that view!IMG_1211
It’s a beautiful country with an amazing climate (although I’m not really a snow bunny, much preferring the long, hot summers and the amazing thunderstorms). However, I wish I could participate more in UK-based writers’ events and do feel a bit isolated at times. I went to a reader/writer meet-up in Leeds last March through a Facebook group and felt so energised and loved. People were screaming, ‘It’s Audrey! From Switzerland!’ and it was so nice to meet them in real life. I got ridiculously excited recently when I discovered there was an another author – of YA fiction – living in the same, tiny village as me. We arranged to meet for coffee and I duly sat down and ordered, unsure what this person looked like. A girl, who appeared around eighteen, nervously approached me and – yes – it was Rosie. Actually twenty four, which made me feel ancient (the same age as my son). However, we got on like a house on fire and will definitely meet up again. I am considering getting a base back in the UK where I could spend three or so months a year, both to be closer to my two boys, and to engage more with the writing community. I can only be grateful for social media – FB and Twitter in particular – for enabling me to connect with like-minded people and build my profile a little.

I agree with so much of what you say. I live for six months in Tuscany – which is idyllic. We have only been able to use internet properly for a couple of years. Before that, I had to use a dongle and park up in a layby on the mountain (getting dodgy looks) to find a strong enough signal. Being able to connect with other authors on line has made such a difference to me. I wouldn’t have met you, would I?

Good luck with your next project and also for the publication of the third part of HATTIE HASTINGS. Readers, you can buy it here

 

I have enjoyed all three instalments of HATTIE HASTINGS, and here is my honest REVIEW:

 

In her acknowledgments, the author describes her book as “A journey into the unknown – and the afterlife…” and although I laughed out loud in parts, I also found Audrey Davis’s book thought provoking.
We don’t like to talk about death, do we? As if to deny it’s going to happen. But, of course we all know death is the one certain thing about our lives. Inescapable, despite whacky experiments like cryopreservation that crop up from time to time. Apparently, there are thousands of cadavers frozen at -196 degrees C, in the hope of resuscitation and restoration to life and full health in the far future. But I digress.
Should we take Audrey’s book seriously?  The idea a dearly loved, departed husband returns to help his wife and friends along? I think we should. We can cry about death, but we can laugh too. It’s both a serious and funny business.

The “Next Realm”, it seems, is a friendlier, more sociable place”, where there are bouncy castles, friends are friends forever and even flatulence doesn’t matter anymore. I love the way Davis attempts to fathom the “ins and outs of the afterlife”. Basically, nobody knows ,in all honesty, what is going to happen to us when we pop our clogs, so why not have a humorous stab at it?
The more serious moments, “grief is something you can drown in, or rise above and learn from,” and comments such as “if I can accept that ghosts exist, I can believe in just about anything,” are followed by down-to-earth silliness. When Hattie realises she’s not going to be able to rely on the appearance of her “rock”, her deceased ghostly husband, she says, “we never got to go on a cruise.”
Her ghostly husband, now flickering on and off out of focus, replies, “… you know you get seasick on a pedalo.”
These exchanges and countless others are endearing, laugh-out-loud, stand-up comedy which soften the basically morbid subject of death.
Once again, I chuckled throughout this book. I wrote about the author’s convincing characterisation in my other reviews, so I won’t repeat myself here.  I’d have given it five stars, but I still maintain the three parts should be in one volume, not standalones. I found it irksome to have to refer back to Parts 1 and 2 to remind myself of events and characters. So, a worthy four stars it is. 
I love this author’s look on life and look forward to her next creations.

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Checking in…

Almost two weeks ago, I flew from Bologna to Manchester and caught the train to Leeds for my first Romantic Novelists’ Association annual Conference.

I didn’t know what to expect and I was apprehensive. Would all the authors be like Barbara Cartland, wearing fussy pink dresses, writing fluffy pink love stories? Would I fit in? Why on earth was I going?

Anxiety was dispelled as soon as I walked through the main doors of Leeds Trinity University and was met by ordinary smiley people and a bag full of goodies: books, chocolates, bookmarks and biscuits.

photo of rna for blog

Can you spot the bestselling author I selfied (managing to block myself out)? Answers in comments…

A huge variety of sessions had been arranged, ranging from conversations with well-known authors, such as Sue Moorcroft and the hilarious Milly Johnson; sessions with the editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, about how to write a synopsis and pitch your novel; an amusing insight into what the editor Maggie Swinburne needs for her My Weekly pocket novels. It was an entertainment in itself listening to her descriptions of characters stranded on Greek islands, Cinderella murder stories, stories set between the wars, with carnage softened by romance and comeuppance  for the baddies. She is looking for emotional rollercoasters that move the reader all the time and needs to be over-excited by the stories she receives. It was a joy to listen to her and she’s certainly tempted me to write an escapist 50,000 novella. We all need a hefty dose of romance in our lives after all.

The talk I enjoyed most was given by two very different historical romance authors: Carol McGrath, whose stories are set in the Middle Ages and Charlotte Betts, an award-winning author of several Regency classics. As I’ve written historical fiction myself, I found their advice fascinating. We were advised that the story is paramount and not to deliver a history lesson in our writing, to never forget the story is an entertainment. The balance between truth and fiction is the secret and how to animate our characters, to make them resonate with the modern reader whilst remaining true to their era. Research should bring texture to our writing to enhance known facts and should always be buried deep within the narrative. I treasured their advice and wrote notes to help me in the future.

A highlight of Conference (apart from new friendships and a delicious gala dinner on Saturday night, when authors scrubbed up and looked glam), was the precious opportunity to have ten-minute slots with publishers, agents or editors. My first was with Emily Yau of Quercus and I had two more with commissioning editors of Bookouture and Harper Collins. This was such a valuable experience, not least because I had to submit a cover letter, synopsis and my first chapter in advance. There is nothing to concentrate the author’s mind better than writing a synopsis. In fact, I learned from the Mslexia editor’s session that many authors use the synopsis as a kind of compass, to keep on piste as they work on their manuscripts.

So, I came away enthused and ready to roll. The process has stalled for a while because I am staying with my very pregnant daughter, who is almost ready to pop, and looking after two adorable but lively grandsons. As soon as they have gone to bed, I flop and claim fatigue. I can’t write when I’m exhausted, my brain tells me.

However this morning I read author Louise Jensen’s latest blog and felt the teeniest bit ashamed of myself. Despite suffering from chronic pain and disabled by clinical depression, she has written four novels recently and decided to turn to full-time writing. She wrote her first… “on the sofa, at the dining table, in the bedroom, at my son’s desk in his room. Anywhere I could carve out space in our busy house.” Click for details about Louise Jensen’s debut novel

She has just gone over the 1,000,000 English language sales mark and was obviously born to write.

I met another young author at conference who has young children and she writes every morning from 4.30 a.m. until the household stirs. What dedication…

I might attempt a few lines this evening when the children are in bed.

Are you an author? What is your writing routine?

p.s. You can tell I’m tired – I can’t work out how to make my font uniform on this borrowed pc.

 

 

 

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“Go to another place…”

The River Marecchia has its source near us in our Tuscan hideaway. We enjoy a daily, summer plunge in its fresh waters as it flows past our watermill.  From here it flows through the valleys to Rimini, where it gushes into the sea.

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Rimini is not a city we tend to visit often. It’s hot and crowded in the summer months, the beaches are packed, and it takes us one hour and a half to drive there.
But many of our visitors ask us what there is to see, so two days ago we went down to research.
“Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the corner, beyond your town, beyond the edges of your own known country”, advises Colum McCann in his excellent “Letters to a Young Writer.”

We are lucky. We have a wonderful Italian Riminese friend and Antonella was our guide for this flying visit. Together we wandered around the two main squares. It was market day, so there were plenty of people about, including groups of youngsters celebrating their degrees. In Italy, a new graduate is crowned with laurels and a pretty girl allowed me to take her photo. IMG_5840
The covered market was a palette of colour and aroma, with arrangements of fruit and types of fish I’d never seen before.
The day was intended as an appetiser and we’ll definitely return to savour the beautiful cathedral, Malatesta fortress, library, surgeon’s house and municipal art museum.

 

 

But I especially want to take my time to return to take in the Fellini Museum.
Why? Because Federico Fellini, the renowned film maker, made Rimini his own and one of his famous films, AMARCORD, although not filmed in Rimini itself, is packed with memories of this place.
“Rimini is a mess, it is confused, frightening, and tender, with the airy, open, empty space of the sea.” (Fellini).
Rimini isn’t a mess anymore. Andrea Gnassi – mayor since 2011 – embarked on a programme to tidy it up and the results are palpable. The famous Fulgor Cinema has been cleaned up and AMARCORD is screened frequently, the theatre has been re-opened and there are routes for the tourist clearly marked out by pinkish paving stones.

Amarcord

The word ‘amarcord’ comes from the Romagna dialect for ‘mi ricordo’, meaning I remember. Fellini borrowed the title of a poem, “A m’arcord”, written by his good friend Tonino Guerra (who lived not far from us). I’m not going to analyse the film here, but Fellini packed his creation with fascinating, dream-like characters and when we crossed the Roman Tiberius bridge (which is still a vehicular access) into Borgo San Giuliano, I found myself looking out for the shopkeepers, the blind musician, the buxom woman in search of her husband, the hairy-lipped women on bicycles, the fascists, anti-fascists, the pre-pubescent boys and the mad uncle.

 

It was a great day, packed with new experiences. Sightseeing is tiring, and I was ready for my bed. I thought of Fellini as a little boy; how on his visits to his granny in the country, he would bless the four corners of the bed before he went to sleep, giving each corner the name of a cinema in Rimini: the Fulgor, the Savoia, the Sultano and the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro.
Thank heavens for creatives and the treasures they leave behind.

 

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Perspective

 

I’m at that stage when my writer’s draft is being scrutinised. It’s a vulnerable time. You think and hope your work is done, but it isn’t.
You need perspective from the words you’ve been jotting down. In the case of my present novel, “Mavis and Dot”, it has taken me ten years to complete, from idea to story. But, I used the word complete. It is not!
I’m resorting to my favourite manual to guide me. In Chapter 10 (Revising) of The Creative Writing Coursebook, Paul Magrs writes: “It’s often necessary and important to have other people look at your work during the revising stage. You can look at your own writing from all sorts of points of view, but the things that other members of a writing group can tell you will always surprise you… You can’t let yourself become precious about your work… or retrospectively defend its weakness.”
Within the same chapter, Julia Bell in her passage, Feeling the Burn, says, “To revise your own work you need to be able to look at it as if you were not the writer.”
Easier said than done and I was definitely feeling the burn this morning after a couple of pieces of (useful) feedback from beta readers, which nevertheless hurt and confused me to some extent.
I was at the tantrum stage: fighting my own corner, stamping my feet like a sulky toddler over opinions about my main characters – the stars of my story. What to do?
As always, if I am in a quandary, I walk and sort my thoughts.
I started along the tangled hedgerow of the old road to the town, where cow parsley, campanula, vetch, orchids and poppies competed with one another, smothering the grass verges.IMG_5398

I waved at Lino, who used to live in our watermill, as he cut hay in his field. Half was sorted into rows to be raked up, the other half was still to be done.

IMG_5401 Sauro’s makeshift green house was next along the way. Inside, tomatoes were still ripening, whilst raspberries were almost ready to harvest.
A neat pile of wood was stacked, ready for next winter. A job nearly done.
Bees buzzed in hives at the edge of a newly mown field. They are such hard workers and I lingered to watch them arrive and depart from their hives. They never stop.
I was three quarters of the way home when I passed through our neighbouring hamlet of San Patrignano. Professor Tocci’s vegetable garden was neat and tidy; evidence of hours of toil. By his daughter’s house, a beautiful rose bloomed.

 

On the last stretch, I gazed at a field of poppies and the hilltop with the village of Montebotolino perched on the edge. I seemed to have found perspective during my walk. I’d concluded that writing is a hobby, but also a job. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, like the tasks I’d come across along my walk.

IMG_5419So, onwards with the revising. I need to listen, but I also need to be independent and, in James Friel’s words: “… in the end … be your own critic, be your own cheerleader, and there are days when you will need to be both.”
My next task is to make an honest appraisal of “Mavis and Dot”, by writing down my own doubts and anxieties. And then to move forward.
How do others cope at this stage? What strategies do you use? I’d love to hear.

 

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Why write?

I set off yesterday morning in the rain. The word obfuscation sprang to mind – the usual view across the mountain range was under cloud and I hoped it wasn’t an omen.

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Would I be able to track down what I was looking for? Or would time have obscured the memories? I’m researching my next Tuscan novel and down in the valley from us, in Pieve Santo Stefano, is the National Archive for diaries, where I was bound. I had requested to see three documents and spent the next three and a half hours poring over the words of two women and one man. They were all accounts of experiences during the Second World War, in occupied Italy. I have to say I felt like weeping whilst reading. But I smiled too at this glimpse of ordinary lives from the past.

There was a poem printed as a poster on the library wall. It’s hard to translate all the sentiment behind Bruno Tognolini’s lines (and I will write it out at the end of this blog in its original form for my friends who read Italian). He conjures a person called Giovanna and asks why she’s written her diary. The answer – “I wrote to wash clean, I wrote to clarify, to do and undo the past that’s yet to come and so that this never-ending world would remember me.”
As I drove home, thinking about the young man who had described his battle at Cassino, where “young men died five times… in this cemetery of men of eighteen to thirty years of age”, about the fourteen-year-old Italian girl who fell in love with her eighteen-year-old German soldier, whose tender kiss she never forgot, about the single mother who was forced into prostitution with soldiers to feed her child, I thought what a wonderful thing it was that these diaries had been bequeathed. Through their words, these people live on.
Then I started to think about the reasons why we like to read and why we write. There are infinite reasons and for me, the two are connected. I think most of us need narrative in our lives. I read to broaden my life, to be swept away, to connect with different places and emotions and to have fun.
Writing isn’t always fun, but most of the time it is. Hopefully, if I enjoy my writing then one or two readers will enjoy it too. If I manage to connect, and to create something worthwhile out of everyday ordinary moments, take readers to places they’ve never been, drag them into my dreams, then it’s worth the times when Amazon remove our reviews and when algorithms, keywords, metadata, social platforms and all that other jazz get in the way of putting ideas down on paper.
Incidentally, when I drove home, the sun had come out and I could see the view.

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Filastrocca del vento dei diari

I diari sono atlanti
Sono rose nei venti
Son brezze silenziose
Di cose, cose, cose
Bianche, lavate
In vento trasformate
Un vento fatto d’anime
Disciolto nello scrivere
Oramai senza traccia
Di colori,di essenze
Che carezza la faccia
Con le pure esistenze
Un vento trasparente
Di ore, di sere
Passate inutilmente
Meravigliosamente
In pagine leggere
Scritte, trafitte
Spianate in righe dritte
Di calendar vivi
Giovanna, cosa scrivi?
Ho scritto per lavare
Ho scritto per schiarire
Per fare, disfare
Il passato a venire
Per dire le mattine
Per capire perché
Tu mondo senza fine
Ricordati di me
Voi scrittori nel vento
O cugini, o fratelli
O perduto da tanto
Adorate sorelle
Quei diari sono un dono
Un perdono di eroi
Perché io so chi sono
Perché io sono noi.”
Bruno Tognolini, 2014

If you have a moment, it would be great to have your theories on why you read or why you write.

 

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Another Italian lover

Now, did I catch your interest with my title? I’m happily married, thank you, to a half-Italian, half-English gentleman, so I don’t need no lover… BUT, via social media, I have met another writer who has fallen under the Italian spell. Her latest book, “The Silence”, came out a few days ago and I caught up with her for a chiacchierata and a coffee… (work that one out for yourselves). Meet Katharine Johnson, who is published by Crooked Cat Books.

Katy,  both the books I’ve read by you are set in Italy and have a historical slant. How did your interest in Italy start?

In the 1990s I spent a month in Florence between leaving one magazine and starting on a new one whose launch was a bit delayed. While I was there I found out about a wonderful course at the university per stranieri at Villa Fabricotti, all taught in Italian. I went back to England, enrolled in evening classes to learn the language and started saving. A couple of years later my husband and I took a late gap year and came out to Florence to do the course. We had language lessons in the morning followed by lectures on art, architecture, literature, film, politics etc. In the late afternoon we had visits to galleries and at weekends visited other cities. After the course we travelled around the country and eventually bought a cottage near Lucca which we’ve been doing up ever since, but it has enabled us to spend a bit more time in Italy. 33434820_605630503134456_7538828370931351552_n[1]

Katy’s writing spot on the terrace of her Italian house

 I love the sense of place in both your books. How do you go about creating that? Do you carry a notebook around with you? Use photos? It’s always interesting to know how authors go about their writing.

Thank you – I wrote some of The Silence and The Secret in Tuscany which I suppose was cheating really as I had plenty of inspiration around me. I do carry notebooks with me and also get ideas when I’m walking the dog in England or swimming in Italy (I’m the boring person who ploughs up and down the pool instead of joining in the ball games.)

 

I don’t think that’s cheating at all! Are any of the characters in your stories based on real people?

No but I suppose we’re all the sum of our experiences or observations so they’re probably a jumble of bits of people I know and have imagined.

 “The Secret” revolves around a World War mystery. My first book has the same period as the background, so I was really interested to read another book set in war-torn Italy. What sparked off your inspiration for this story?

I grew up with pictures of my great uncle who had died in the war in Italy. All her life my grandmother was deeply affected by the death of her little brother. When she heard I was going to Italy she asked me to find his grave in Assisi which I did and I started reading up about the Italian Campaign. I used quite a bit of that research in my first book Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings which has some scenes where the main character Jack is fighting in Italy. But I was also interested in what it must have been like for the Italian civilians, soldiers and partisans during such a devastating and confusing conflict.

You are with a publishing company. Have you ever self-published? What would you say is the main advantage of being with a publisher?

Yes, my three books have been published by Crooked Cat Books. I haven’t self-published yet, mainly because I’m rubbish with technology but it’s something I’m looking into.

I know the feeling. I feel as though I thrash around, knocking into everything. But it is so necessary for marketing. Do you have a couple of writing tips you would like to share?

I don’t know if this makes the best commercial sense, but I write books I’d like to read. The nicest review I’ve had just said “I wish I’d written this.” I know that feeling – I’ve had it about lots of books but it was so lovely to hear someone say it about mine.

When you start writing you get bombarded by advice and it can get quite stressful trying to keep up with it all. I think it’s really important to engage with people and groups on social media, but juggling writing and promotion is really hard. I’ve found it’s best not to spread yourself too thinly.

Blurb
Love, lies and betrayal in wartime Italy. Two girls growing up in Mussolini’s Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences. Against a backdrop of fear, poverty and confusion during the Second World War friendship is tested and loyalties divided. But a chance encounter changes everything. The girls’ lives diverge when beautiful, daring Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida, the most prestigious house in their Tuscan village while plain, studious Irena trains to be a teacher.
But neither marriage, nor life at Villa Leonida are as Martina imagined. And as other people’s lives take on a new purpose, Irena finds herself left behind.
Decades later a tragedy at the villa coincides with the discovery of an abandoned baby whose identity threatens to re-open old wounds. While Irena’s son is determined to get to the truth, Martina’s daughter is desperate to keep the past hidden.

Secret cover (1)

The Secret is published by Crooked Cat Books and is available in paperback £6.99 and kindle £1.99,  here:

Bio
Katharine Johnson likes writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. She’s passionate about old houses and the stories they have to tell. She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire but spends as much time as she can in the Lucca area of Tuscany. When not writing you’ll find her exploring cities, drinking coffee, playing netball badly and walking her madcap spaniel

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Other books by Katy Johnson: The Silence:  

Lies, Mistakes and Understandings

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Katy, I’ve so enjoyed meeting you – albeit virtually. I really hope we can properly meet up some day when you are over here in Tuscany. Good luck with your writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An “antipasto” for tomorrow

In anticipation of the main course tomorrow, here is my review of Katharine Johnson’s new release. As you all know, I love Italy, and I hugely enjoyed “The Secret”. Even the cover is characteristic.

Secret cover (1)

I recently read “The Silence” by this author and really enjoyed it, but “The Secret” is on another level. If I could have given it 6 stars, I would have. There are many facets to the story and the clever time-switches between the present day and past add to the layers of secrets that stretch back to occupied Italy during the Second World War. I strongly believe that we need to understand our past, in order to understand the present and cope with the future, and Katharine Johnson voices this through Carlo, whose mother (Irene) is on the fringes of dementia. He wants to know what happened in her past. “It’s our memories that make us what we are,” he says. It becomes almost an obsession to know his mother’s secrets locked in her heart – much to his wife’s annoyance – for Cass and Carlo have a busy restaurant to run and he is distracted. He gives Irene a tape recorder and, after she has worked out how to use it, her memories pour out. This is such a clever way of writing the flashbacks.
And so, we are taken back to “that blurred line between the past and present”, and for Carlo, “the ghosts from five decades ago shifted at the corners of his vision.” I know Italy well and have studied that period of the war for my own writing, and this is one of the many reasons I appreciated this story. Because Johnson’s descriptions of that time and, indeed of present day Italy, are vivid and accurate. And yet, she writes with fantasy too. It isn’t simply a documentary about war-torn Italy. Yes, we learn of the fall of Mussolini and how hard it is to know whom to trust in the climate of divided political beliefs. And she gives us deeply moving and tense pictures of a massacre and images of German soldiers ruthlessly hunting for partisans in the village. I smelt the fear through her words. Afterwards, “the cries must have stopped at some time, but she (Martina), already knew she’d never stop hearing them,” and “human beings turned to a heap of rubble.” Martina is a complicated character and thoroughly believable. If she wasn’t complex, then the blur between truth and lies would not work as well. Throughout the story, I never knew what the truth was going to be. There is a clever line near the beginning of the book about present day tourists in Italy: “what they saw wasn’t a lie – just another truth.” And I felt that could apply to the layers of events in the book.
Elena, the mother of Martina’s missing husband, is another extraordinary woman. In her grief, she sits at the piano, “monstrously fragile, staring into space… the notes resounded through every room, drowning out the whispering in the chimneys.”
I love this author’s writing. Congratulations, Katharine Johnson and thank you for a wonderful story.

 

“A domani” – see you tomorrow, when I’ll chat to the author.

 

 

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Along the way

I own a little book of Calm, packed with mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
Yesterday, I opened it up at the “Smell the Coffee” exercise. We can’t be calm if we are always rushing from one thing to the next. (Guilty!) So, I decided that when I went up to our little town of Badia Tedalda that morning to buy a few provisions, I would appreciate the small things. To get perspective.
It made me realise how many facilities we have here, although we tend to go down to the city of Sansepolcro, half an hour’s drive away, for a bigger shop. Badia Tedalda has a population of 400 and serves an outlying area of 1,400 inhabitants. I love the way the clock on our town hall has stopped at ten to two. It slowed me down. IMG_4881

Let me share with you a mosaic of the characters and sights of this morning. I started at the greengrocer, where lovely Cinzia displays her still life of fresh vegetables to tempt me.

 

We also have an interesting butcher who writes poetry in his spare time. He invited us to lunch in his restaurant next Sunday and promised to share a few lines. Then, there is Cristina, a young grocer with a trained singing voice who performs at local festivals. Meet our hairdresser, who not only keeps the locals’ hair trim and sorted, but also arranges pizza evenings out, if she feels somebody in particular needs cheering up. There’s a primary and middle school with a view over the Apennines to die for, as well as a great scholastic reputation. Apart from a doctor’s surgery, there is a Chemist whose surname is Salvati (save yourself, or the saved ones). That always makes me smile. A bank, post office, restaurants, a bar (where we smelt and drank the coffee) and an ironmonger who also sells amazing home-cured hams and cheeses.

 

It is a pleasant experience to buy from these little shops. I enjoy the different personalities of the owners. Some of the shopkeepers were too shy to be photographed – Olga, the hairdresser, was wearing her curlers… so I let her off, but not before she proudly showed me the vegetable garden she had planted on this, her day of. My namesake, Angela, who runs the newspaper/knick-knack/haberdashery/gift shop refused, so I teased her, telling her I would display the fresco of the angel whom she resembles, painted on the ceiling of our local church further up the mountain.
I walked back down the hill, opting for a short cut along the vecchia strada, the old road, where I always feel the history, wondering how many mules and peasants must have travelled the same route in the past and I tried to imagine their conversations and concerns.

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At the hamlet of San Patregnano, I turned down the alley named vicolo corto e stretto, meaning short and narrow. But my world felt wider because I had taken time out to appreciate it.

 

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A chat by the river

Perhaps I could have had my chat with author, Helen Christmas, in a London pub,  in Shoreditch, the kind of venue in her first novel. But, I’m in Tuscany, so I spirited her over for an espresso in the mill and we caught up indoors. There was a light drizzle – maybe it helped her relax and feel more at home. Anyway,  we had a great session. We are both members of CHINDI authors, based in Chichester, now spreading its membership of indie authors wider, thanks to the internet.

I started off by asking Helen when she started writing.

Writing has always been a passion of mine. Born with a vivid imagination, I have always loved dreaming up characters in my head; such was the process that inspired ‘Same Face Different Place.’ I came up with the idea while wandering along the beach with my dog one day in the summer of 2010. I was thinking about the decades – the changes I had seen throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s… and somewhere in the midst of those thoughts, I imagined a murder mystery and at the heart of the story, a troubled teenager in London who falls foul of some very dangerous people. Once I started writing it in 2011 there was no stopping me. The story evolved into five books which took seven years to complete, but I loved every minute.

I have only completed the first book (“Beginnings”), and was taken aback by the rawness and violence of some scenes. You’ve been likened to Martina Cole, which you must be pleased about. Her books cover quite difficult aspects of the crime world. Is there any subject you wouldn’t touch on?

I’ve read quite a few of Martina Cole’s books but there came a point when I found them too violent. There were some horrific killings and I don’t like scenes of torture or child pornography, it’s too nasty and plays on my mind.
The most evil character in my own story (first introduced in Book 2 Visions) is a dangerous psychopath who enjoys frightening people, though I avoid graphic scenes of violence and sex.

I’m reading “Visions” at the moment and, although there are scenes of psychological bullying, I relaxed more into this book than your first. Maybe I’m a scaredy cat… I’m particularly enjoying the descriptions of the countryside locations and buildings.  I know you’ve talked to other writers about location. This is an aspect of writing that really interests me – how it influences our writing –  and I know, like me, you take lots of photos in researching your books, so can I have a peep at them?

Much of the series is set in and around London and I have loved visiting some of the places from high rise tower blocks in Bethnal Green to the Old Bailey, near St. Pauls. Then one amazing co-incidence arose when I decided my male character, Jake, (at the heart of the conspiracy and romance) was a Dutch-born musician. I chose Nijmegen as his homeland which I have visited only once. But in summer 2011, friends of my husband’s from Nijmegen invited us to stay in their house for a week to look after their cat. I was ecstatic!

I love Holland. When I was in my twenties, I worked near Amsterdam for a year and spent most weekends visiting other places. Do you have any more pictures? The cities are so leafy-green and, although it’s a densely populated country, you don’t get that impression, do you. When you visited, did it change any of your ideas for the plot?

This time, I took many photos and made notes. I don’t think I have ever deviated from my original plot but from this trip, I decided that Nijmegen would feature a lot more throughout the series, which it did. There are detailed chapters set in the city, in Book 3 Pleasures and the final book of the series, Retribution. It is a beautiful place and the people are wonderful so I like to think I’ve done it justice.

A lot of these snaps are on Instagram. I’m on there too and I see your fab photos but I’m not sure I use it properly.  I admire the way you navigate social media.  The trailer you produced the other day was stunning and you casually said you’d put it together on the train back from London… I need to book you for a lesson, Helen – I’m such a beginner in this area.  How did you learn how to use social media? And Instagram in particular.

I started using Instagram when I ordered a new smart phone. It is such an easy app for sharing my best photos and I even have an Instagram feed on my website. Like twitter, you can feature a timeline in a side bar, so the content is continually refreshed. I have noticed more and more authors using Instagram to show images of their books but I personally prefer not to do this too much, otherwise it just becomes another vehicle for advertising (which I already do enough of on Facebook and Twitter). I like my Instagram feed to look colourful with vibrant pictures that inspire people. I am a big fan of architecture which makes Instagram a great place for showing off my London photos.

Right – when can I book you? I didn’t even realise you could feed to a website.  Do you think your writing aspirations changed in the time it took you to write your series?

Not really. I write for pleasure, not to make money, so I don’t have a lot of respect for those who think that writing a book will make them rich. I get more of a buzz when someone tells me how much they have enjoyed my book, even more so if I get nice reviews. I also think that as authors, our books represent our own take on life. For example, I enjoy simple pleasures. I cannot stand greed or people who are power hungry. Supporting strong communities where people show each other kindness is the moral message in my fiction.

Well said!  That’s quite a timely piece of advice for me at the moment. And I would add we shouldn’t lose our enjoyment in writing. There can be too many pressures, if we’re not careful. Let’s lighten the mood and move outside as the sun is out again. What book would you have loved to write and which three characters from any novels would you invite for dinner? What would you dish up? Food is so important in Italy!DSCN2840

I have a great love of Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth,’ which was written in Medieval times and a wonderful story ,but I probably get along better with characters who are more modern. I adore all the Harry Potter books and would have loved to have written those. So I think I might choose Sirius Black, along with Ron and Harry and serve up traditional fish and chips in beer batter, followed by sticky toffee pudding. I’m sure they would like that very much!

Ha ha! I can’t imagine tucking into sticky toffee pudding here in Tuscany! Let’s have some ice cream instead… It’s been great getting to know you better, Helen. I wish you everything you want for your books and that you continue to write to your heart’s content.  Arrivederci!

More about Helen and her books

I am an avid reader and writer, with a passion for good stories. I’m lucky to be living in an idyllic 17th Century thatched cottage with my husband, Peter, where we run our own web design business from home. We share our cottage with a fluffy white cat called Theo and a border collie called Barney and as we live near the sea, I enjoy taking him for walks along the beach (where the idea for my book series began.) I trained in marketing and graphic design and worked for a number of different companies before my husband and I decided to go self-employed. We both love long country walks, good food and films.

About my Books

‘Same Face Different Place’ is a combination of a mystery crime thriller and romantic suspense.

Beginnings, the first book of the series is set in the criminal underworld of 1970s London and the start of a mystery thriller that rolls across four decades. Sixteen year old Eleanor is the key character, a girl whose father is forced to go on the run. This puts her in danger until she meets someone who has even more to fear. Dutch born musician, Jake, is the only witness to a suspicious scene, on a day a British MP is killed in a car bomb explosion. The press blame the IRA but only Jake has some notion of who the real killer is and as a result, they send a hit man after him. Eleanor and Jake tumble into a passionate love affair, soon after their escape and are desperate to get out of London to Jake’s homeland, Nijmegen, in Holland.

The next book, Visions, (set in the 80s in rural Kent), is a suspense filled psychological thriller. The pace hots up again in the 3rd book, Pleasures, where we see the return of organised crime in a terrifying race for justice. In this story, the younger generation grow up into the adults they become in the final book, Retribution, which concludes the series throughout the 90s. I have enjoyed reflecting the mood of each decade by depicting the politics, fashion, TV and music as can be seen on my Pinterest boards.

Links

Helen’s blog, for more information about her books.

Download Beginnings:

Social Networks:
Facebook
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SFDPBeginnings
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/helenxmas/same-face-different-place-beginnings-book-1-by-hel/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenchristmas7/

helen-barneyHelen and her dog, Barney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Tuscan garden

Good old Cicero! An Italian friend made me a bookmark with flowers from her garden and used his words: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” I would add family and friends to that, but it’ll do.

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We’ve been semi-taming our garden here in Tuscany for about eight years now. I say semi, because neither of us like a “parks and gardens” type design. Our plants have mostly been begged, borrowed or stolen (the latter in the form of seeds). My clever husband has made containers from recycled floorboards or lengths of surplus wood; we’ve purloined baskets and pots from skips or bins, or nature, in the form of hollowed-out tree trunks. Our challenge is the very cold winters (it can descend to -15 degrees) and quite hot summers (sometimes 40 degrees). So, my philosophy is to go with nature and plant what we see growing around us. Thus, I have mixed wild flowers with the more typical garden species and, in many cases, I prefer the wild. Field scabious is one of my favourites and I love the way it mingles and towers amongst my other plants, like a purple mist. We also have to contend with wild boar, who love digging up the roots of orchids that appear in our wild meadow. Porcupines love bulbs, so my heart is in my mouth about my lilies. But… these animals lived here before me and, hopefully, will live here after I’m gone.

We are at the beginning of the summer season, so there isn’t a huge amount of colour quite yet. But I have sneaked in a couple of snaps from last year in June. When I’m not writing or doing house stuff, I’m pottering outside and trying to dream up more planting schemes. I hope you enjoy my garden tableau. If you like, I will update you on progress through the summer months.

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