Wednesday, 16 December 2015


I'd like to share this short film. It's so wonderfully inspiring. A mini masterclass on writing stories.

Please click onto this link to see the Vimeo film...

Saturday, 11 July 2015


I've recently had more time to read, and that pile of books by my bedside has finally had the dust brushed off. There's still a long way to go but whenever I can I'm going to try and blog about the novels read - starting here with William Boyd's latest novel, Sweet Caress, which Bloomsbury will publish this coming September, and then Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party, published by Virago.

The first thing to say about both of these novels is just how easy they are to read, both compelling the reader to turn the page and discover yet more about the lives of the women portrayed within them.

Upstairs at the Party resonated with me because it tells the story of Adele, a woman whose childhood has been formed by the loss of parent she's dearly loved, and who then goes on to form new bonds in the Seventies, at university. The university is un-named but I'm pretty sure it must be York, with the rural campus situation, and descriptions of the duck ponds. This brave new world (a somewhat flawed institution when it comes to its students' pastoral care) provides the claustrophobic set for all the new relationships forced between very different young people whose lives are chaotically gathered together. 

These characters are well drawn - especially the glamorous and androgynous Evie and Stevie, the daringly cool fashion icons who seem to appear out of nowhere, casting a spell of intrigue and lust among their fellow students. But dark secrets lie within their hearts, and those secrets will lead to tragedy during Adele's twentieth birthday party, after which she will be haunted well into her middle age - until certain mysteries are revealed.

This novel is nostalgic and complex, sceptical and very sad - with passages of yearning that will tug at your heart so hard it hurts. 

Sweet Caress is the latest novel written by William Boyd. As so often in his novels the theme of war is never far away, from the trenches of France, to Vietnam. And here, with the story of Amory Clay, we see a character whose life has been almost entirely informed by the consequences of such strife throughout the twentieth century. 

Amory's childhood is shadowed by the the effects of WW1 on her father - which provides a fine contrast to the years that the young woman spends in Germany, immersed in the Berlin underworld where she works as a photographer. Her images, when shown in London, will be deemed to be obscene. But they lead her to America, employed by a wealthy newspaper magnate with whom she becomes very closely involved. 

Much like Adele in Upstairs at the Party, Amory's affairs of the heart are rarely straight forward or  what she might have hoped them to be, but all continue to draw her into the arenas of the wars where she works as a picture reporter, or else is dramatically entwined in the ravages those conflicts leave as scars on the bodies - and in the minds - of those she comes to love the most.

Sweet Caress uses old black-and-white prints throughout the pages of the book. (Are these licensed old prints, or have they been staged especially for the novel? I'm not sure. Some are more convincing than others.) The images demonstrate Amory's work, and they show us her lovers and family members; a device not entirely original, but it leads to another level of immersion and 'reality'. However, even without them, I could not help but be drawn into the world of Amory Clay. 

William Boyd is a master of story-telling, even so, some reviewers have been disappointed, not quite as beguiled by this novel as by others written in the past. But, for me, in four words (to echo a game that Amory very often plays when describing other characters) Sweet Caress is ~ Compelling. Intriguing. Heartbreaking. Redemptive.

I enjoyed it.

Saturday, 27 June 2015



So often when I'm reading the newspapers I see true life stories that immediately inspire ideas for fiction. However, because I write novels, and because novels take a long time to write, it would be quite impossible for me to weave all these facts into fantasies.

However, from time to time I find something that - even if I may not use it myself - I would love to share with my fellow writers in the hope that it might inspire them too.

So... here is a story, so odd - so strange - that I simply had to write it up -

Overtoun House

Overtoun House (near Dunbarton in West Dunbartonshire) was built by a certain James White in 1862. Designed in the Scots Baronial style, ever since the mid-twentieth century many ghostly tales have been linked to it.

Perhaps the strangest of these tales relates to a bridge leading to the house that was built in 1898 to make carriage access easier, and that driveway crossed a waterfall situated above the Overtoun Burn. 

Lady Overtoun

The owner of the house at that time was John White,  the son of James, who was in due course elevated to become Baron Overtoun. He was married but had no children, and when he died his wife was said to be so inconsolable that she was very often seen weeping while walking along the bridge.

Many locals have since said that the bridge has an odd and oppressive atmosphere. Others have claimed to feel as if invisible hands  are pushing them towards the edge of it. And, even more peculiar, over the past decades as many as six hundred dogs have now been reported as having jumped over the parapets. They almost always launch themselves from one particular spot on the bridge, and fifty of them have met their deaths on the rocks at the base of the gorge below. It is the oddest coincidence, and the reason for these canine leaps remains a baffling mystery. 

But the bridge has seen human tragedy too. 

In 1994 a man called Kevin Moy threw his two-week old baby boy to his death, having become convinced that the child was possessed by the soul of the Devil. 

Are the dogs seeing the ghost of the baby, or could it be Lady Overtoun’s spirit, staring out from a window in the house directly overlooking the bridge - with various photographs claiming to show her shadowy face behind the glass?

The owner of a dog that recently jumped from the parapet says that her pet was staring up at the house at the time when it leapt from the bridge. Luckily, that dog survived. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014


This has been such an important year in our history as a nation - and indeed for all the nations who were involved in the Great War which began a century ago.

So many lives were lost between 1914 and 1917. We've seen news reports and listened to discussions on radio and TV. And, of course, there have been books to read, whether they are fact or fictional in which the horrors are described.

Such a monumental tragedy has led to classic novels such as Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, Pat Barker's Regeneration, or Ford Maddox Brown's Parade's End - adapted by Tom Stoppard for a BBC dramatisation which was screened in 2012 and starred a wonderful acting cast, which included Benedict Cumberbatch, Rupert Everett, Freddie Fox, Miranda Richardson, and the glorious Rebecca Hall.

Over the years there have been other films and television dramas, and several of them inspired by novels set against that dreadful time - such as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks which so captured imaginations  when published in 1993. 

Birdsong vividly described the tragedy of forbidden love, as well as the lives so cruelly lost during the fighting in the war. When life and love and death are brought so closely into focus the heightened tension often leads to extremely dramatic writing - such as that in Ian McEwan's astonishing Atonement, published in 2001. And again, that book inspired a film and, if you watch for nothing else, the Dunkirk scenes are breathtaking; a truly harrowing image of the fighting's wretched aftermath.

Scene of Dunkirk from the film, Atonement.

Another more recent title which has also dealt with such large themes is Kate Williams' The Storms of War  - the first in a trilogy which will lead us up to the Second World War.

What is interesting about The Storms of War is how the central conflict is mirrored by the family of a German industrial magnate who has settled in England to make his life in a grand and rambling country house. The novel explores the class system and how personal friendships formed in peace may not survive in times of war. We see the death of  Empire, the rise of women's emancipation, and the bitter realities of life thrown under the spotlight of nationalism. 

A more romantically inclined, though no less tragic offering, is Judith Kinghorn's heartbreaking and beautifully written novel. The Last Summer is a love story played out against the First World war - and again we have a country house to compare with that in The Storms of War, as well as Isabel Colegate's remarkable The Shooting Party

Colegate's 1981 novel went on to inspire  two films - the one which bears the novels name, and the Oscar winning Gosforth Park, which takes us back to Downton again, being written by Julian Fellowes, who has now penned an introduction in a recent reprint of Colegate's book. There is simply no getting away from the man - or the Downton stickers on the books!

But really, what better symbol for the England just about to fall than in the glorious summer scenes of garden parties set on lawns that spread before the mellow bricks of stately homes behind them, where the sun always shines and the fragrant blooms exude such sweetness in the air. The darkness and the stench of death that followed on is palpable; a vivid nightmare set against the peaceful Edwardian Summer dreams that few - the aristocrats at least - believed would ever reach an end.

But, of course, they had to end. After 1914 many heavens descended into hells. And with that in mind I'd like to end this post with a poem I read today by the German writer, Carl Zuckmayer (for which I must thank  Simon Barraclough, who is himself a poet). 

It is incredibly moving. Raw, and visceral - and real.

Soldier drinking stagnant water from a bomb crater. 1917. British Library.


I haven't eaten for seven days

And shot a man right in the face.
When I scratch, the bright blood runs.
I'll soon by turning twenty-one.

When I'm drunk, I'll plant my fist

In those pasty faces. Rage is my hymn.
Lice and fleas eat from my shins.
My stubble sprouts like garden cress.

And so I take my seed in my hand -

Europe's future, black-specked spawn;
A god drowns in a sludge-filled pond! -
And shit my legacy on the wall.

Carl Zuckmayer
Translation by David Colmer 

From The Singing Scythe ~ a selection of WW1 Poetry to which you can subscribe at The Modern Poetry in Translation Magazine.

Monday, 13 October 2014


For all those writers of historical fiction - and contemporary fiction too - here is the full video of a panel at this year's Historical Novel Society in London.

I was absolutely thrilled to be speaking alongside Prof Diana Wallace, Kate Forsyth, Jessie Burton and Prof Deborah Harkness. 

Monday, 22 September 2014


I've really enjoyed some of the youtube video book vlogs that I've chanced to see in the last few months; though they've mostly tended to be reviews. 

The film I've made isn't a review. It's just me talking about the novels I've written and generally what they're about. It was done on a whim and is entirely unscripted. It is a little rambling, but it was great fun to make and I hope to do more in the future. 

By then I'll try to concentrate more on presenting some of my scripts from events.. with more links to pictorial images and specific historical references. I also hope to manage to be a little more professional than I am in this first video. 

Look out for me jumping out of my skin when I realise the camera has started to roll...and also for something quite unexpected that comes at the end of the film.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


I was recently reading Cakes and Ale, a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Towards the end there is a scene when the narrator is visiting an old friend and, when she picks up the telephone to speak with somebody else, he begins to ponder on what it means to live the life of a writer, and if that writer is famous then perhaps he might be plagued by ...

"...secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture...women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him ... youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan ... gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions ... agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited live, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing though, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a them of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man."

So, Somerset Maugham's narrator, who, I'm sure, was directly conveying the thoughts of the author himself, sees the act of writing as therapy - a way of healing the soul that very few others are blessed to have. 

However, shortly after reading that, I happened to glance at my Twitter feed and saw this quote from Edna O'Brien...

"Writing is the product of a deeply disturbed psyche, and by no means therapeutic."

What do you think? How does writing affect your private thoughts? Does it help, or does it only raise old ghosts and painful memories that would be better left alone?

Here is a blogpost from Karyn Reeves who was reading A Penguin A Week in which she discusses Cakes and Ale. For my part, I very much enjoyed the work of W. Somerset Maugham; far more than I expected to. Very clever and well-structured story telling. Very good analysis of character. Enjoyable. Also heartbreaking.

Monday, 8 September 2014


Galatea by Gustave Moreau: 1880

Yesterday, I went along to the Historical Novel Society's London Conference 2014. The venue - the Westminster University campus on the Marleybone Road - was excellent. I met so many authors and enthusiastic delegates, and everyone chatting openly with no sense of exclusion or elitism. And I think that's so important, because it can take a great deal of courage to come along to a conference like that  - especially for new writers and those who make the journey alone. 

Writing can be a lonely profession - and now and then it's wonderful to meet and talk with others who share your writing passions. And the conference buzzed with passion - amidst which I was honoured to be part of a panel that was called: Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained: From Myths and The Occult, to Fairytales and the Gothic.

Admirably chaired by Kate Forsyth, whose adult novels delve so deliciously into the dark and cruel truths to be found in the world of fairytales - I was speaking with Deborah Harkness, Jessie Burton and Professor Diana Wallace.

Hopefully our panel - which was filmed and recorded - will at some point be available via the Historical Novel Society's website. I will look out of that and post it if at all possible. But, in the meantime, here is the introduction that I was supposed to give for that panel  - the words I completely forgot to say, being so nervous at the time...

I’ve written three historical novels, all of which are set in the Victorian era. And although these novels do adhere to many Victorian traditions, or morès, they are also very deeply steeped in the worlds of fairy tale and myth.

I honestly think a lot of this – shall we call it magical realism – stems back to my very early youth – when I read Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, when the seeds of that story then went on to influence the novels that I was to write in later life: all about Victorian repression and sin, of doomed or unrequited loves, and the darker mysteries of death.

That story has always stayed with me – the idea of water – of ‘other lives’. And the element of water was there from the very start in my novel, The Somnambulist, which begins in a Victorian music hall, where an operetta is performed, telling the story of Acis and Galatea – where Galatea is a nymph who falls in love with a shepherd boy. That boy is then murdered, crushed with rocks by the jealous giant, Polyphemus.  But, in a way, Acis doesn’t die. His blood becomes a sparkling stream that flows down the hillside and into the sea, into which Galatea then follows, never rising up to the surface again – while Polyphemus, his love never requited, is doomed to grieve forever more, looking out from the shore and across the sea - hoping to see Galatea's face.

Water – in the form of real rivers and streams, but also as an element in which to ‘change’ and be reborn’ - is central to my second novel called Elijah’s Mermaid, which shows the corruption at the heart of the worlds of high art and literature in nineteenth-century England. There, so-called respectable souls mingle with those who more frequently inhabited the demimonde – in which an imagined Pre-Raphaelite artist is so obsessed with painting his muse in the form of a mermaid or a nymph that his passion becomes insanity - affecting not just the man himself, but everyone around him. Throughout this novel I weave ideas from the stories of an imaginary author who writes Victorian fairy tales. But I also have real quotes and themes, both from Kingsley’s Water Babies – and also from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale, The Little Mermaid. Both stories have darkly gothic hearts that suit my novel perfectly.

In my third and latest book, The Goddess and the Thief, there are still ‘stories within stories’, still with themes of rebirth or reincarnation. But the element of water is here transformed to one of fire – opening up with a letter in which a Victorian woman in India is writing to her sister and tells of a Maharajah’s death – when his wives committed Sati – being burned alive with his corpse. 

Again, I’ve woven exotic myths into a staider Victorian world, linking the prophecies, legends and myths surrounding a sacred Indian stone with ancient Hindu stories - all of which then combine to create a nightmare scenario when my Victorian heroine meets a man who is convinced that their destinies are linked with the eternal love between the Hindu gods, Shiva and Parvati. As Parvati is said to have been born as the reincarnation of Sati's soul, the god’s first and human wife who went on to burn herself alive to prove the depth of her love for him - that obsession not a happy one.

This is my most truly supernatural and, I suppose, my most 'gothic’ novel – being steeped in drugs and sex and ghosts, with a blood cult at its very core, and with gruesome Hindu rituals that are linked to Victorian sensation tales printed in Penny Dreadfuls... stories like Varney the Vampire, which terrified its audience years before Bram Stoker would write his own tale of The Undead, what we now know as Dracula. 

Prof. Diana Wallace, Essie Fox, Kate Forsyth

Monday, 7 July 2014


This is a brief post, and really just a suggestion for any fellow writers who might at this very moment be immersed in the editing process - specifically at that early stage when reading back over a first draft.

It's a simple but very effective idea.

Save your MS into Dropbox, or send it to yourself in an email, or to your Kindle account. Open up the file on your phone, or your tablet, and when you read back in this different 'space' you'll be amazed at how much easier it is to get a sense of the flow of words - not to mention how any grammatical errors will be screaming out for your attention, when they might have passed unseen while working on your computer screen.

But even on the computer, if you change the page layout orientation from vertical to horizontal, that can also be a real help - forcing your brain to read the words as if you've come to them anew.

I'm sure that many writers I know will already be using these techniques - or some other versions of them. But, if not, do have a try and see if you find them useful too.

Monday, 16 June 2014


The towpath along the river Thames in Windsor

The other day, while walking beside the River Thames, I was reliving one of the scenes in my novel The Goddess and the Thief. In turn that made me realise that there are some settings in my books that are almost like characters themselves, so important are they to the stories' plots, and also so vivid in my mind. 

Sometimes, these are places that I remember from my youth ~ places that had a profound effect on my emotions and happiness so that, now,  I need only close my eyes to imagine I am 'there' again. 

One example of this is a large country house that I renamed as Dinwood Court in my novel, The Somnambulist. But Dinwood Court is actually based on Hampton Court in Herefordshire; a magical, mysterious place which intrigued me when I was a child, and also when I worked there as a cleaner during my university summer holidays. And what imaginings it went on to inspire!

I have many photographs of Hampton Court and the surrounding woodlands, and so I've decided to post some here - and to set those pictures alongside the words that the visual imagery inspired.

Phoebe, The Somnambulist's main narrator describes this view of Dinwood Court when she first arrives one cold wet night ~ 

"As we drove on past expanses of lawns, nothing prevented my view of the house – a central square tower above an arched entrance, castellated walls running either side, and so many windows, I couldn’t even begin to count – and each one unlit and unwelcoming. But, as the moon’s face broke through fast-scudding clouds, I saw something else that quite took my breath, the thing that was lying behind that house, spreading upwards and outwards for several miles: the dense, sloping woodlands that glistened like silver. And, being quite overawed, and sounding far more like Old Riley than me, I exclaimed, “Strike a light! What a wonder. I’ve never seen so many trees in my life.”

When drawing a little nearer, Phoebe sees the gargoyles on the house walls: "...monstrous menacing features most of them had, and wide open mouths that still spewed with trickling twists of rain, draining from gutters and roofs above."

So, there we have a very brief example of Phoebe's first impression of the isolated country house which goes on to provide the setting for some crucial events that occur in her life ~ and all inspired by the gothic facade and ancient gargoyles of Hampton Court, along with the magnificent green of the woods that grow around the building ~ and the secrets that those woods contain.

For the last few years, it has been possible to visit Hampton Court and its beautiful gardens, but the house has recently been placed on the market. Ah, if only I had £12,000,000. If you do, you'll find all the details here, with many more pictures of the house.

And if you only have £1.99 to spend, then why not console yourself by reading the Kindle version of The Somnambulist which is currently on special offer.

Friday, 23 May 2014


Today the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction launches a Twitter #ThisBook campaign which aims to shine a light on who we would personally choose to name as our favourite female authors. 

Personally, I’m not quite sure that I like to divide the world of books on the basis of the sex of an author. But then, Baileys is all about women’s books, and I think this is a wonderful way to spread the word about those we love and to draw new readers to their fictional worlds.

I’ve been thinking about who would be my choice. It’s such a hard decision to make. In the end it came down to three writers. A. S. Byatt. Muriel Spark. And then ~ there was Angela Carter. 

I’ll never forget how excited I felt when first reading The Bloody Chamber, an astonishingly dark and sensual collection of traditional fairy and folk tales which are conjured into something entirely new and fantastical when reimagined by Angela Carter.

Nights at the Circus, a novel, was different to any other book that I had experienced before. It was theatrical. It was gaudy and it was sexy. It was full of enchantment, adventure and thrills, with more of those fairy tale elements exploring a feminist view of the world. But always with a subtle hand, never becoming preachy or dull. And how could it ever be so when its heroine is the marvellous Fevvers – the feisty, charismatic girl who grows up to have wings – who can fly!

But my favourite Angela Carter novel has to be Wise Children – the very last that she was to write. It tell the story of Nora and Dora Chance, the identical twins who are very old at the beginning of the book – though their pasts on the stage are soon revealed, along with an extended family circle - a hotbed of intrigue, deception and lies, all set against what is ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the cultural traditions of the film and theatrical world – and on both sides of the blanket too.

Identity and legitimacy, the acceptance of what is respectable, are themes explored from the point of view of both entertainment, and family. The unfolding drama is wonderful, full of colour, warmth and wit, and with many a twist along the way that often alludes to Shakespeare’s plays – not to mention the darker fairy tale themes which, as always, when worked through Carter’s hand, take on an entirely new life of their own.

Life, and the thrill of living, overcoming rejection to love and belong, are what form the core of this fabulous novel. And how moving it is when we read the refrain that appears so often on the page: ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ Because this novel was written when Angela Carter knew she had cancer, soon to die and leave this life behind, along with a husband and small son. 

I only wish she could have lived to sing and dance for  years to come, and to write many more of her glorious books. But those we have are magnificent, and I hope (if you have not done so) you will now be inspired to discover and read them for yourselves.

Friday, 9 May 2014


These days, with so many e books produced, our reading choices are often inspired by word of mouth ~ the general buzz that some books create when talked about on the internet. Of course, book covers still remain an integral part of 'identity', but that aspect of the marketing plan is sometimes less significant than it would have been when all of our books were still produced in print media.

I can remember when I was a child spending hours in the local library, or our small town's branch of W H Smith ~ just pulling books down from the shelves to look at the covers I liked the most. I would thrill at the expectation they raised as to what sort of stories their pages might tell, and with no preconceived intelligence gleaned from what friends or family said, or the views of professional reviewers, or the influence of online communities. 

In those days my world was much 'smaller', and whatever design I chanced to see was marketing at its most direct - straight from the paper to my eye. More often than not (except for those titles read in school, as part of the general curriculum) a cover was the only thing to influence my reading choice.

I can honestly say it is was this design by Jessie Wilcox Smith that first lured me into the story of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley - that book then becoming so 'real' in my mind that it never left my memory; and more recently inspired some themes in my novel, Elijah's Mermaid. 

Elijah's Mermaid is definitely not a storybook for children - being something much darker and gothic in tone. But still, it does draw on fairy tale themes and watery elements prevail - and I was thrilled when Orion Books produced this stunning cover -

The designers (Bold and Noble) also produced the cover for my debut, The Somnambulist. Those beautiful cover designs were then used for the hardback and paperback versions for both titles.

Bold and Noble have also created the hardback cover for The Goddess and the Thief, which is my latest novel - and this gorgeous, sizzling design really does reflect the Indian themes that deeply influence the book.

But now, for the mass market paperback edition of The Goddess and the Thief ~ to be published in late November this year ~ Orion have commissioned the designer Sinem Erkas whose brief has been to illustrate the darker Victorian themes of the book - all those English aspects that are based in the world of spiritualist mediums. 

The result is another stunning cover ~ very different to the hardback, but equally evocative of the story at the novel's heart. In reality, it is even more dramatic than it appears to be in this post, with the beautiful shimmer of embossed gold providing a vivid contrast to the sepia portrait that it frames.

I love it, and I hope you will too. I can't wait to see it on the shelves when I hope that, just as with all of those books that drew my eye when I was child, readers will be tempted to pull it down, to hold and  caress it in their hands ~ and to judge my book by its cover.