Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Retreat to Advance

The title of this blog is not to suggest I am a military tactician but to establish how much progress a writer can make by removing her/himself from the ‘normal’ world.

For this year’s annual writing retreat, Elaine Everest, Elaine Roberts, Francesca Capaldi Burgess and I chose Ramsgate on the Kent coast. For one week we lived and worked in a delightful house overlooking the beach and the harbour. We all had different aims but the ambition of each was to focus on our work away from the distractions of everyday life. There was a level of concentration that was impossible to maintain every waking hour so I make no apology for admitting that we sampled many of the diversions on offer – and the ice-cream was delicious.

I asked each of my companions to tell me about their week.

Elaine Everest
I like to plan what I'll be working on while on a writing retreat. Clear the decks so I'm not working on admin or blogging if at all possible and stick to my writing. This year the sun has been out most days and our lovely four-bedroomed house overlooks the sea. There's a buzz from cafes and the harbour nearby which can make it extremely hard to concentrate on words. Worse still was waiting on news from my publisher with the Nielsen Bookscan results for The Woolworths Girls. Tuesday started with much chewing of fingernails and ended with ice cream and bubbly when I learned The Woolworths Girls was number 15 in the Sunday Times Bestsellers chart. Apart from that I wrote around 2.000 words before moving onto edits for my second book The Butlins Girls. With a fair wind behind me and not too much sun to distract me I should have cleared the track changes and possibly even written another short scene before we head for home on Saturday.

Elaine Roberts
Left to Right
Elaine R, Francesca, Natalie and Elaine E
in Corby's Tearooms
The week before the writing retreat, I made a plan and chapter breakdown of my new novel. In my mind, I thought I’d write around 10,000 words; the final figure was 6,335. No, I am not disappointed; tiredness got the better of me. I lost two days writing, one travelling to the RNA Summer Party, which was great, and the following day. Wine, travelling and lack of sleep did play its part for me.

The week did bring lots of writerly discussions. We celebrated Elaine Everest’s success with excessive ice cream and champagne, not at the same time. An afternoon coming up with book titles caused a lot of laughter as we sat near the marina; we got some funny looks from people sitting close by.

It was a good week of sea and sun, with lots of food and wine, even if my word count was down.

Francesca Capaldi Burgess
View from our balcony
A week away to write, research and edit the second part of my serial for People's Friend was what I was hoping to achieve during our week in Ramsgate. Happily, I can report I managed it. I'm sure I'll do a couple more edits, but it's more or less ready to send off. A retreat is a good way to escape the everyday stresses and have some dedicated writing time. It's also valuable having other writers to hand as you can throw ideas around and get feedback. Not all the ideas are sensible but they are fun! I find that our down time, sharing meals etc, is an important component of the week as it refreshes us and sets us up for the next bout of work.

Natalie Kleinman
For a while there I felt as if I was in no man’s land. I had not yet engaged with my new novel and I was waiting for track changes to arrive from my agent, Lisa Eveleigh. Arrive they did and I set to with a will.

We took a day out to get the train to London for the RNA Summer Party, arriving back at the house in Ramsgate close to midnight. We walked each day, on the promenade, on the beach, inland, exploring this lovely seaside town which I had never before visited. We ate a lot. We drank…some. And we worked!

Edits were resumed. They are time-consuming and require much concentration, but are very rewarding. I still have a lot to do but at least I can now foresee the time (I hope) when my book will be ready to submit to publishers. So let’s return to the title of this post. Retreat to Advance. It is unlikely that I would have achieved as much had I remained at home. Every writing retreat I’ve been to has pushed my work forward, given me the time and space to focus on the job in hand. Though the edits are not finished they are well in advance of where they would have been. So, here’s to next year’s retreat. To more eating, drinking, walking and exploration. And above all, to more writing.

My thanks to Elaine E, Elaine R and Francesca for their contributions. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Wonder of Woolies - with Elaine Everest

Today I am delighted to welcome Elaine Everest. This was such an enjoyable interview to do – like taking a trip down memory lane.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Natalie.

Many of us will remember the iconic fascia that was Woolworths, sadly no longer a part of our high streets. What prompted you to choose them as one of your major characters?
I knew that my WW2 saga would be set in the town of Erith, Kent – Erith was situated in Kent at that time and true locals still think of it that way and not as part of Greater London. I knew that my main character, Sarah, would be starting work in the town and there she would make new friends and meet the love of her life. So where should I bring young men and women together in a place that would be recognised by readers? There were plenty of armament factories at that time but Erith was a thriving town with lots of busy shops. Coming from the area I recalled with fondness shopping trips to Woolworths in the sixties. We still had the original store with high counters and polished floors that had survived WW2 although it succumbed to a fire in the seventies. I’d been a Saturday girl at another Woolies store in nearby Dartford and the ideas started to form…

I appreciate that you wrote about an area in which you lived and were raised but you aren’t old enough to remember the events you describe, in fact you weren’t even born when they occurred. How did you undertake your research?
I grew up listening to stories of the area told by my family. In fact there is still a strong connection between ‘old locals’ of the town who meet on forums to chat and share memories of the good old days. To a writer this is a gift. Although we were never taught the history of WW2 whilst at school in the sixties, I’ve devoured history books to find out what happened. It fascinated me that the house I lived in when first married had survived both wars. Where better for the Caselton family to live than my old home? Local history archives held at The London Borough of Bexley were a great help, as was Erith Historical Society and the wonderful Woolworths Museum who came up with some gems about the Erith store that I was able to include in my story.

The Woolworths Girls tells the story of three friends, though one stands out as your main protagonist. Is this a theme you plan to carry through to your next book?
Yes. You will find this theme in many WW2 sagas. Three, four, even five friends who are thrown together in wartime sharing good times and bad.

Speaking of your next book, is it in the pipeline and what can your readers expect?
In The Butlins Girls, due for publication in Spring 2017, there are three girls thrown together at Butlins Skegness in 1946 just after WW2 ends as Billy Butlin reopens his well-known holiday camps. Molly Missons has fled Erith because of a family problem, aided by another friend who appeared in The Woolworths Girls. Each girl has her own reasons for being at Butlins which we find out as the story unfolds.

It’s been a long while since acceptance of your manuscript by your publisher, Pan Macmillan, to today’s publication. Can you tell us something about the process of assembling all the ingredients together to getting them onto the table?
These days authors seem to expect their novels to be published much quicker due to E-books and digital first. In truth it has always been the norm that traditional publishers contract books for the following year or even the year after that. Copy for The Woolworths Girls was filed at the beginning of last year and then the hard work began. Structural edits came first with the book being passed through each editing stage until Pan Macmillan and myself were happy with the book. Along the way I wrote the ‘end bits’ and I was included in the design of the cover – isn’t it lovely? My input was encouraged as models were chosen and the uniforms discussed. Then the PR team took over and that alone has been – and still is – another part of an exciting journey. As publication day draws near I’m already working on the edits for The Butlins Girls and planning my book for 2018.

You haven’t always written novels. What came before?
I’d always wanted to be a novelist but first, whilst honing my skills, I was earning a living with other forms of writing. I sold over sixty short stories to Women’s magazines and wrote prolifically for newspapers and magazines with features – my specialism was the canine world as it’s a big part of my life. I’ve been commissioned for, and written, three non-fiction books for dog owners and do continue to write for some of the publications. I’m called upon to broadcast about aspect of the dog world although I’ve given up my columns to focus more on my novels. Whilst promoting The Woolworths Girls it has been good to have the support of many publications and radio stations that I’ve worked for in the past. I also won, or was placed, in a few prominent writing competitions that not only helped me along the way to being a novelist but still look good on my writing CV. One was the BBC Radio Kent short story writer of the year and to this day the company have supported all my work, be it The Write Place creative writing school, charity anthologies such as Diamonds and Pearls which celebrated my thirty year remission from breast cancer or my books.

As a journalist and someone who runs a creative writing school, as well as being a novelist, how do you prioritise your time?
I have no idea! At times it can be hard to juggle everything. All I can do is make a list and try not to panic. However, my priority has to be my novels as that is my career. Everything else has to wait.

Finally, what do you do for relaxation – that is, if you have the time!
My relaxation is my dogs, or dog at the moment. Although I no longer sit on committees or write so much about the dog world I still like to get to dog shows and exhibit my Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Henry. I’ve been involved in dogs since the early seventies and like to promote the image of pedigree dogs as much as I can. These day we try to go away for the weekend and take in a championship show. It is so much more relaxed than the days we would drive to Wales, show a couple of dogs and then drive home all in one day – there again it's not always possible to do this on our motorways anymore. I’m hoping to have another puppy soon but not sure if it will be another Polish Lowland or my one true love – the Old English Sheepdog. I miss having them in the house.

Twitter: @ElaineEverest

Thank you, Elaine. Happy publication day and good luck with The Woolworths Girls.