Friday, 22 July 2011

"You Know What I Mean 'Arry?"

Such a lot has happened on the writing scene lately! Anne has told us that last month we had 1,627 visits to this blog. Way to go, girls! Since I last posted, Anna Jacobs, Gwen Kirkwood and Freda Lightfoot have all written their news, including the sad notification Iain Blair better known as Emma, died on July 3rd, leaving behind him a legacy of great stories. This year we also lost Gilda O’Neill, a prolific writer of stories about the East End of London, my neck of the woods, though Gilda’s turf was Poplar, whilst I’m more Millwall and Cubitt Town. My family are costermongers, dockers, bird fanciers, dodgy dealers, marketers and shop-keepers. The Isle of Dogs is a horseshoe of land jutting out into the River Thames, comprising West India Docks, Millwall Docks, Blackwall Basin and South Dock basin. The island was once so poor, Gilda’s Poplar was regarded as posh. She’d laugh at that! On the island, no one ever had new clothes, shoes or furniture. Everything was begged, borrowed or stolen. And then of course, there were the markets. But even these sometimes, were regarded as rip-offs. The Isle of Dogs was the Luftwaffe’s first port of call in World War 2. It was the docks the planes went after, but Mum’s house was razed to the ground. My Nan and aunties finally fled the Doodlebugs, the eternal brick dust, the night and day catastrophes and deaths, depleting almost every family on the island. Mum survived the night of the worst raid. She didn’t like the Anderson or the underground, so she hid under the table. The front door of our house blew in and met the back door, then Mum got out before the whole lot caved in. Granddad was blown off his bike and into the docks, but he was a strong swimmer. Dad shimmied down from the control box on his crane, ran through the foot tunnel from Greenwich, and stood staring at our terrace in Chapel House Street. My Nan and aunties had survived. Mind you, they left pretty quick, bundling aboard a bus to Oxfordshire. The little they had was left behind and for the next six months they were shuttled around the country. Mum returned to the island to wait for Dad’s call-up. When the buff envelope came, she refused to let him go. I wouldn’t mess with my mum now, at 92, and I don’t think Dad fancied it much then. But he had aspirations. He was a good man, an intelligent one. And he did his tour of duty for the next five years. Goodness only knows how he survived. But he did. So, no need for me to wonder what I should write about, then? And now, well, the world is changing again and I’m still here to be part of it. What a privilege! This time, it’s the Digital tsunami! So exciting! All of us are in awe of Freda (Lightfoot) – who has paved the way for self-publishing digitally. And much to our surprise, we can hear the bombs dropping in the publishing world. Writers are confident enough now to take more control of our futures. Rejections? What the heck! We’ll publish ourselves! Not quite the Blitz, but then, some elements seem familiar – the human spirit is so resourceful – and brave! In a great fighter’s words, “You know what I mean ‘Arry?” Yes, I think we do!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Beyond the Sunset

My husband and I were born in the UK, emigrated to Australia thirty years ago but love to return to the UK regularly. We still love both countries, just can’t cope with the UK winters.
The first time my husband suggested us buying a summer home in the UK and spending more time here, I shuddered and said no way, too much extra work. After all, I’ve got writing to do.
But I caved in, and I’m really glad I did. It’s been hard work setting up a two-country lifestyle, but the stimulation of our new life has made story ideas well up in greater numbers than ever before.
It’s no problem setting up the office equipment, but I worried about my huge collection of research books. How was I going to manage without those for my historical novels? The answer is, I plan ahead very carefully and do all my main and preliminary research in Australia. Then I use the living research in both countries – buildings, museums, people, the beautiful countryside, research books that don’t make it overseas.
Another thing has happened: with more exposure to people unfamiliar with Australia, I think I understand more about ‘showing’ them Australian history in my stories and I think that’s improved my stories. I hope so, anyway!
I’ve just had a series published set in Western Australia in the 1860s. (Farewell to Lancashire, Beyond the Sunset, Destiny’s Path) England was a busy industrial country in that decade, with railways connecting not only main cities, but small towns and villages too. Western Australia, physically as big as Europe, had a population of only 30,000 and no railways at all.I’ve also written a series of Wiltshire sagas, beginning with Cherry Tree Lane and Elm Tree Road

A set back in publishing

Oh dear, it is ages since I contributed so my apologies. I can't say that my sagas are exactly historical since the fourth book in my present "Home" series has reached the 1970's - maybe that is historical to younger members!
Also my publisher was Severn House and they have refused to take it since Amanda Stewart, my editor, left. However it is to be published by Robert Hale. I am also struggling to put some of my older sagas on line, with the help of Freda's guidelines, but I have not quite managed it yet.

Mention of the late Emma Blair reminded me of one of his novels set in Jersey during the German invasion. Half Hidden was the title and I really enjoyed it. He does not wrap up the truth or flinch from the sorrow, or human failings.


Victorian Misses - Janet Woods

A friend stated that young women did not go out without a chaperone in Victorian Britain. These general sorts of statements don’t sit all that well with me, and this is why. Queen Victoria reigned for over 60 years, and over that time the world changed and progressed considerably.

I’ve written several books set in the “Victorian age.” “Hearts of Gold” started almost at the end of Victoria’s reign in the late 1890s. The heroine was a brat from the goldfields, sent to England by her mentor. My current release, “Lady Lightfingers" is also set in the “Victorian age” but fifty years earlier, and in the London slums. “A Dorset Girl” saga was set in the 1830s, earlier still. What did they have in common? Very little, except the heroines were not members of the privileged classes. Each book was researched separately for the period within that age, to make it authentic to its particular time.

Did the Victorians write books of etiquette for the majority of working class women? I doubt it. Most books of manners were designed for those who could afford to indulge in it. Fashion catalogues display silks and satin gowns, accessories such as kid gloves, fans and hats all through the period. Victorian ladies didn’t all wear hooped crinolines. Skirts got wider as Victoria's reign progressed then narrowed down and grew bustles, which were lost as the Edwardians indulged in a more elegant style. The same economics that applied then,apply now. The majority of lower middle class young women couldn’t afford designer wear, or chaperones . . . or even underwear come to that. It stands to reason that they couldn’t afford several changes of outfit, but might have a special one kept for Sunday best, weddings and funerals.

In 1891 women were told that, legally, they could no longer be forced to live with a man if they didn’t want to. This was a two-edged sword. Divorce brought scandal with it for the female, and usually loss of her children. Without income, often the alternative was to starve to death or take up prostitution.

Even Queen Victoria must have regarded herself as her husband’s chattel, for she was reported as saying, from her lofty position of top hen in her glittering henhouse – thus setting back the women's movement by a number of years, I imagine – “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for her man, but with totally different duties and values.” With total respect, I wonder how she knew what He intended, and would she have said the same, had she been one of the 1,740,000 female domestic servants in England struggling to stay alive? Many maids in Victoria’s time took the occasional man to bed for supplemental income. They were called dollymops . . . very apt.
Victoria and Albert produced nine offspring, I believe. Of course, Queen Victoria never had to make ends meet, and (bless her) I wouldn’t like to have lived her life.

My mother’s child-raising wisdom came from clichéd and sometimes cutting little proverbs from her Victorian upbringing. I’ve been careful not to pass them on to my own. “Children should be seen and not heard. Spare the rod and spoil the child. You’ve made your bed, now you must lie on it. Pride goes before a fall . . . etc.”

Thank goodness we reach a point in life where we can think and reason for ourselves, and wonder at some of the tosh we accepted as wisdom. Unfortunately those wisdoms weren’t tosh to them. They were a necessary part of discipline. Mostly it was rule by fear, though that in its turn taught us respect. I was scared of anything with an official feel or a uniform attached to it – policemen, teachers, parents, priests, soldiers, bus conductors and fatherly lectures all signified authority. It didn’t stop me rebelling, even though one of my teachers was a reincarnation of Sweeny Todd, except she used a ruler instead of a razor.

So, our characters should be true to life, too. They should be encouraged to step out of the rule book and live their own lives. Over the sixty-year span that was the “Victorian Age” women weren’t all laced tightly into corsets, either metaphorically or literally). If we wrap historical characters in rigid rules, manners and clichés they’ll come across as cardboard, or at the very least, clones.

When I look at the “Victorian age” it has lots to commend it. On the industrial front, there were engineering breakthroughs, sewerage disposal was improved and railways networked. There was a certain amount of hypocrisy too – child labour, wars, forced immigration and starvation. But nothing was static. Advances were made in industry, medical and moral mores – too many keep up with. Bear in mind that change didn’t happen in all parts of England at the same time. The rural south trailed behind the industrialized north. So while some people enjoyed the luxury of train travel another part of the country might still be bumping around the countryside in a wagon.

Unless you can travel back through time it’s impossible to know how people actually acted or spoke in the past. Sure, they wrote letters, essays and books, and yes, I imagine somebody wrote a rule book. Writing is a more formal way of expression than speech. We all act differently when we’re on public view, but relax at home. When we write we don’t stutter or hum and har on the page. We don’t have people interrupting and turning our train of thought to something else, we don’t use body language to help people understand meaning, like we do face to face. We stick to the point.

Women wouldn’t have gone out without a chaperone? Some women, perhaps. But not the working classes.

Remember the early TV ads, where the lady of the house wore stilettos, make-up, beehive hairdos and false eyelashes, when they cleaned the oven with greasy goop? Did we all dress like that to clean the house in? Nuff said!

Friday, 8 July 2011

R.I.P. Iain/Emma Blair

Most historical saga readers won't know of the name Iain Blair, but they do know of Emma Blair, the author of over 30 saga novels. Sadly Iain Blair died on July 3rd, leaving behind him a legacy of great stories.

From his website:

Iain wrote a number of plays for theatre and television and then naturally progressed to book writing. At first he tried writing thrillers without much success. Then he completed a saga Where No Man Cries and that's when Emma Blair was born. His publishers decided he'd sell far more books simply by being published as a woman. 

"I was given absolutely no choice in the matter.  They'd decided on a sex change and even the name. So that was that. Emma I became and Emma I've stayed," says Iain. "Many people ask me what kind of person Emma is. Well she's probably about late forties, a bit of a tough cookie and had a certain amount of personal tragedy which is why she writes with such passion."

I've read several of his books and enjoyed them very much. Like all good saga authors he was able to take the reader back to a time when life was different to what we know of now.

With his passing, another saga author has gone.

 To read more about Iain Blair visit his website: