Writing is a funny business (when it isn’t a miserable one….). What sets me off on writing a book can be something apparently quite insignificant but that hooks into my skin in some way and I find I can’t quite shake it off. Sometimes, it’s a single image: with my second novel, ‘Lessons for a Sunday Father’, I kept imagining this man sitting surrounded by a sea of broken glass (the working title was ‘Shattered’ because of this). My parents split up when I was little and I suddenly found myself imagining what it must be like to be the dad rather than the child in that scenario. My own father was dead by then, and in any case completely different from the dad in that book, but I wanted to make that imaginative leap – what does it feel like to be a weekend dad? To see your kids then have to hand them back and be without them, as if you’d just borrowed them for a bit?

I also took the image literally and made him a glazier – the fragility of glass made it a good fit, and I wanted him to have a normal, everyday sort of job, nothing posh or well paid.

I keep multiple notebooks but when I hear or see something that resonates with me, it will stay in my head for ever, and then I can dart down like a magpie and scoop it up to use when I want it. Sometimes, those are things I just happen to spot – a woman wearing a peculiar skirt in a supermarket (which became Cecilia’s skirt in the new book), a friend bringing her own pillow on holiday – and other times intensely personal: a jug of sweet peas fluttering in the summer breeze on the day of my step-dad’s funeral when I was eight (seen in the funeral scene in my third novel, ‘I Like it Like That’).

For my new book, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, the image that kept resurfacing was one of a plait of coloured ribbons. I couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with it…..but then it clicked: it was to be the structure of the book. These characters’ lives were intertwined. I must admit it was fiendishly difficult to write, and took me an embarrassingly long time, and multiple drafts to get something that I feel is at least close to what I was attempting to achieve. As I spent so long with my characters, I feel ridiculously protective of them. When someone in my writing group said she didn’t like Conrad, I felt as if she were having a go at my child! You don’t understand, I wanted to say, he’s had a really difficult time: his father died when he was little and he had to be brave about it. He’s suppressed all his feelings of fear and grief and anger. Can’t you see he’s a darling little boy in a crusty academic’s exterior? I even feel defensive about Andrew’s awful mum, Mrs Tyler – I write pages and pages of notes about each character so I know that she’s had a really difficult time and can’t help the way she is….

 

 

#TravelBold

A Place to Call Home Somerset Gallery by Fay Keenan

 

Fay’s novel, A Place To Call Home is available now. Get your ebook, audiobook and paperback by clicking on the cover below.

 

‘A Place to Call Home’ – Somerset Life and Inspiration by Fay Keenan.

 

I’ve lived in Somerset for a long time, but for a long time it wasn’t ‘home’. Despite the stunning scenery, picture postcard villages and wonderful produce that includes World Heritage Cheddar cheese, strawberries and more varieties of cider than you can shake an apple branch at, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I finally felt as though I could live in the county for the rest of my days!

I moved to Somerset in my teens, which wasn’t a great time for a fresh start by anyone’s reckoning, and, much like Charlie Thorpe in ‘A Place to Call Home’, when he moves to Willowbury, it was different, removed from everything I’d known up until then. I felt, as he did, like a fish out of water, and definitely a long way out of my comfort zone! But that was more down to being a grumpy teenager than anything else, and when I did come back to put down some roots after university, and with a new husband in tow, the place seemed very different.

It wasn’t until I started writing novels, however, that I realised just how much inspiration there is to be found in this county, but, in comparison to Cornwall and Dorset, what a Cinderella county it was in terms of modern romantic fiction. I definitely felt that I wanted to put Somerset on the map as the romantic place it is! And, what better way to do that with than with the fictional Willowbury, a town that, in the right light, is a dead ringer for iconic settlement of Glastonbury. The town, and the wonderful countryside that surrounds it, was all I needed for inspiration.

These days, I’m much more settled in Somerset than I was as a teenager, and with the Mendip Hills and Cheddar Gorge on my doorstep, it’s not surprising. Whenever I need a spiritual recharge, I just head out of the door with my Weimaraner dog Bertie and straight up onto the hills, where, standing by the trig point on Wavering Down, you can see across the whole county, and if you’re lucky, spend time with the wild ponies who roam up there. And when you see the views from Cheddar Gorge, Glastonbury Tor or Crook Peak, you can see exactly why I’m inspired by the county. It’s no accident that so many of the intensely emotional moments in my novels take place in the breathtaking Somerset countryside. There’s one destination, in ‘A Place to Call Home’, that is the backdrop for both passion and heartbreak at different points in the novel, and it’s very closely based on the iconic Glastonbury Tor for very good reason!

So, although in these strange times of COVID-19 and lockdown it’s still difficult to get to places that might inspire us, I hope that, by reading ‘A Place to Call Home’, you might get a sense of why Somerset is such a beautiful and inspiring place to be. And, maybe, when things return to a more recognisable way of life, you might also be inspired to visit and see for yourself!

 

Fay’s novel, A Place To Call Home is available now. Get your ebook, audiobook and paperback by clicking on the cover below.

 

Becoming a mother for the first time was the hardest thing I’ve ever done (writing Time Out was a close second!). I had all sorts of expectations about what kind mother I would be and fell short of all of them. Sleep-deprivation and breast-feeding difficulties just added to the sense of shame and guilt. Desperate to find a sympathetic audience, I confided in other local mums about how much I was struggling, how some days I was crying more than the baby, and how I found breastfeeding an absolute killer. But all I received in return was head tilts and judgements, ‘Oh no! Poor you. I’m so lucky that my baby sleeps through.’ Or ‘breastfeeding has been a doddle for me.’ 

In my experience, the key to getting through those dark, lonely days was finding my ‘tribe’ – the people you instantly connect with, who are as honest and open as you are about the bewildering complexities of being a new mum, friends who recognise that a rant is just a rant (you don’t really want to murder your husband – well, not all the time anyway) and who won’t judge or berate you for doing things differently or ‘wrong’. Your tribe recognises that when it comes to parenting, there is no magic code to crack, no book that will give you all the answers, and that we’re all as clueless as each other.

The first addition to my tribe was someone who lived on my street (I won’t mention her name because she’ll be mortified). Passing by her house one day, I overheard her chatting to the local handyman; I also noticed she was heavily pregnant and had an Irish accent just like me. A few weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I knocked on her door in sheer desperation for company. Her husband opened the door, and I introduced myself.  Our first chat was a hasty one because it turned out that his wife had just gone into labour. A few days later, I dropped a congratulations card in with my number and she texted me back not long after. We became fast friends – venting about sleep deprivation and breastfeeding, slagging off our husbands, mourning our loss of freedom…everything that had seemed out of bounds before when talking to other mums.

The second mum in the tribe was a nursery mum. One day, I admired her baby in an effort strike up any sort of conversation outside the nursery entrance, to which she replied, ‘Well, she wasn’t so beautiful at 4am this morning!’ We had a brief chat about the horrors of being a new mum before she invited me for some nursery mum drinks the following week. After that night, I knew I had found my tribe. These are my forever friends and I credit them for their honesty, generosity and kindness. I owe them my sanity.

The haiku that opens Time Out is dedicated to my own tribe:

Motherhood is tough

But loneliness is far worse

Friends help us survive

 

 

 

 

Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network – Judy Leigh

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsleigh Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way .

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though. There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.

 

Judy’s upcoming novel The Old Girls’ Network will be published on 16 June 2020.
Pre-order your ebook, audiobook and paperback by clicking on the cover below.

I’ve always been one of those people who can read anywhere. Whether I’m reading on a tour bus during a sing-a-long, or on a packed-out train during rush hour, I’ve never had much trouble shutting the world out.

I suppose it’s for that reason that I’d never really thought too much about audiobooks, because I didn’t think I needed them in my life. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first audiobook I listened to was one of my own, just out of curiosity, and now I can’t get enough of them.

First of all, I’m sure it goes without saying that listening to the audiobook of a book that you have written is serious cool. Well, when you’ve spent months working on a book, and then you hear your characters talking to you, surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But more than just enjoying the voices in my head being turned into actual voices, there really is something to be gained by listening to a story instead of reading it.

I love the performance element. I love the voices. The talent it must take to be one person voicing a whole cast of characters – male, female, young, old, from Los Angeles to Luton, and everything in between. I think that, especially with romcoms, having someone deliver the jokes with comedic timing makes them all the funnier. The same goes for all the other emotions too. And when you’re listening to a novel told in first person it makes it feel all the more real, like the main character is talking to you, or letting you tap into the inner workings of their brain.

Sometimes I just want to curl up with a book and ignore everyone around me but, it turns out, books don’t always have to be quite so antisocial. You can listen to them with other people, just like you would if you were watching a movie or binge watching a TV series. You can listen together, laugh together, gasp together – and then chat it out afterwards.

With Amazon, Apple Books, and even music streaming services like Spotify offering audiobooks, they couldn’t be easier to get hold of and, just like with ebooks, the ease with which you can carry around an entire library is nothing short of incredible. Take it from someone who used to carry a folder of CDs and a stack of books around in her schoolbag…