Thursday, 10 September 2009

Salting The Wound

SALTING THE WOUND has been released a month early, and is now available to purchase.

I’ve just finished writing its sequel, STRAW IN THE WIND. It was one of those books that was a struggle to write, despite the straightforward plot line of a search for a third sister, who’d been given away at birth. The problem was, I had a timeline trauma somewhere in the middle and lost track of seasons. One moment it was winter, the next moment the heroine was plucking a bouquet of summer flowers from the meadow.

Oh isn’t just a question of changing summer back to winter with this sort of mistake. There is a tendency to have to trawl back through the novel tweaking things into place. The heroine has to put on her winter undies and her shawl. You have to change the crops in the fields, close the windows against the cold and light the fires in the drawing room and bedrooms. As for the evening activities you’ve written in, the leisurely strolls and neighbourly visits, have to be shortened and encapsulated within the daylight hours as you move your whole cast of characters back into the winter mode.

It took me three fairly detailed edits before I got this sequel book right. Okay, it’s my own fault for not paying enough attention in the first place. But sometimes there is a tendency to be a jockey. Swept up by the heart-thumping moments of the steeplechase of the story and characters you just keep your horse hurdling over the fences to get the race over the finishing line - and without taking time to look at the scenery.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

My third Rivers novel CONNIE OF KETTLE STREET is inspired by one of my Dad's wartime adventures. Read now a COPY OF AN EXTRACT FROM THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
This is the rather unusual story of LCI (L) Landing Craft Infantry (Large) as recently told me by her Commanding Officer Lieutenant William T. Skeels, RNVR, of London who before the war worked with the Port of London Authority. The tale has never been made public.
An LCI (L) may be used for carrying troops from shore to shore for short voyages or alternatively for short journeys from a transporter to the shore. Since crossing the Atlantic, No.179 as she may be called for brevity in default of a name, has taken part in the original landing in Sicily and four other operations in Italy. She has had her fair share of excitement and danger in the way of enemy gunfire and bombing and like all the other landing craft out here, has done a sterling good job of work.
Lieutenant Skeels described the evening and night before the Sicilian landing as the worst he'd ever experienced from the point of view of weather. "We hung by our eyelids and many were miserably sick. It was worse by far than the long swell of the Atlantic."
At 4.45.a.m. on the day of 179's great experience, dawn was beginning to break and objects on the hostile coast ahead were beginning to take shape. Filled with troops she was on her way ashore with a concourse of other craft. Soon after daylight shells from a coast defence battery were falling unpleasantly close. 179 beached herself and landed her troops, still under fire. Disembarkation was completed by 6.40.a.m. and the ship hauled off. Almost at once she was hit amidships on the port side of the waterline, the shell making a hole about three feet by two and a half feet. She tried to make water so was re-beached. The enemy battery had meanwhile been silenced by a destroyer; but not before the First Lieutenant and four ratings of 179 had been slightly wounded by shell splinters. It was surprising there were no more, as between twenty and thirty shells had fallen within twenty yards and the ship had been peppered all over by splinters…275 times - I saw a photograph.
Lieutenant Skeels then set about repairing his ship. As a temporary measure the large shell hole was filled with blankets, duffel coats and fenders, anything they could spare, beg, borrow or steal. It wasn't very satisfactory so they asked another ship to cut them a steel plate and having borrowed a drill tried to heel the ship over to get the hole out of the water. With his ship still on the beach that was found to be impossible. But extemporising a diving helmet for working under water out of a service gas mask, with air supplied by a hand foghorn like an exaggerated bellows, they managed to bolt on the plate somehow. It was while this work was in progress that they found the shell - unexploded - still inside the ship.

"Then we hauled off and took her out for a trial," said Lieutenant Skeels. "It was quite successful; a good deal of water came in but it could be kept under by the pumps. However, to make quite certain, I went alongside a ship and they built us a cement cofferdam inside. Then we went to Malta who took a look at us, but said they'd plenty on their hands, that we would do for the time being and sent us on to Bizerta where we were finally repaired by an American repair ship. Those chaps made a thundering good job of it, welding on the big patch and the 275 small ones. The old ship looked like nothing on earth when they'd finished."
"I like the idea of your gas-mask diving helmet,' I said to Lieutenant Skeels. "Who thought of it?"
"I can't quite remember,' he replied, "but it worked."

The King has approved the following award for gallant and distinguished service in the face of heavy opposition from the enemy for BAR and D.S.C to Lieutenant William Thomas Skeels…R.N.V.R.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Research - Land Girls

I often interview people when I'm working on a book, and they readily find time to share their memories with me of the work they used to do whether in the mill or munitions, farming or forestry, war or peace. With The Land Girls on TV this week, I thought you might be interested to hear about Betty, who I interviewed, among others, for Gracie’s Sin.
Betty joined the Women's Timber Corps, which is a branch of the Land Army, because she was too young to join the WRNS. The girls were trained by foresters too old to fight, and were allowed only a matter of weeks to learn how to do the job. She recalls that her first task was to plant larch and Scots Pine, which had to be one spade length and one foot apart. Later she went into felling. She used calipers to measure the diameter and estimate the height, mark each tree to be felled with a white blaze, then take it down using a 5lb Ellwood Felling axe, or the crosscut saw. These were for pitprops. For loading logs on to the lorry they had a three legged crane with wires, which worked like a pulley. Betty would stand on the wagon and guide the logs on board, checking that they were stacked evenly and didn’t fall. She was only small, barely 5 foot, but learned the task through common sense and practice.

Betty helped to fell a stand of trees on the far side of Loweswater. There was oak along the edge of the water and larch above. She helped build a chute to send the felled trees into the lake so that they could be towed across by boat. These were probably for telegraph poles. The forester was in charge and Betty said you did as you were told or you were in trouble. The trees had to be lopped and topped, then peeled and all the knots taken off with a draw knife. Stripping the bark hurt your fingers, and it was sticky underneath, creamy with sap. A lot of swearing would go on.
Cheese sandwiches seemed to be the main fare to keep them all going. There were blisters, aching muscles and sun burn, and the skin of her hands became hard and calloused, stained by the bark. Her clothes would be crawling with small brown spiders.

Betty worked for most of the war in Grizedale Forest close to the German POW Camp, which was strictly for officers. The POWs used to march up and down the road for exercise. They’d make comments to the girls and the guard would shout at them, 'Eyes front.'
‘We are German Officers and if we say we will not escape, we will keep our word.’

There was a machine gun trained on them the whole time but, of course, escape attempts were common, particularly when they were out working in the forest. If they could reach the coast they could get to Ireland, but none succeeded. They would all be caught later on the fells in a sorry state. Trouble makers were taken up to London in a blacked out car for interrogation.

Betty remembers that she had to have a pass to walk through the camp gates to reach the forest to work. There was a sentry on guard who would say:
‘Halt, who goes there? Friend or Foe?’
‘Friend,’ she would say.
‘Advance friend to be recognised.’
So Betty would show her pass and be allowed through.

Gracie's sin, in my book of that name, was only to fall in love with a German officer, but it wasn't at all the right thing to do.

The Timber Jills, as they were fondly called, worked from eight till five and were rarely allowed a full weekend off, with four weeks a year leave. Betty sometimes got a lift to the station at Ulverston to go and see her mother who was a seven shilling widow. Betty earned twenty-eight shillings a week, less insurance. Fourteen shillings went on board and lodging at the camp and she sent her mother five shillings. She’d be left with about 5 bob, and think herself fortunate.

After the war she worked in 22 different counties in three years from 1947-49. Then stayed on with the Forestry Commission as a cartographer. She drew maps so well that they were often used for publication and she made a career of it. Her memories are happy ones and she can still wield a 5lb axe even though she is now in her eighties.

You can see Betty, first in the line of girls, pictured when she joined the Women's Timber Corps aged just 17.
Best wishes,