Back in 2014 I started writing a historical novel based in The Potteries (Staffordshire) where I grew up. Stoke on Trent was the hub of the pottery industry from the early eighteenth century and most people don’t know that there was also a big mining industry and steel works that employed thousands of people.
As with most industrial towns there was massive poverty mingled in with huge riches, and that was what interested me: a poor working class girl falling in love with a rich industrialist’s son, who wanted to be a doctor and help the poor – against his mother’s wishes. The plot came to me in a moment of inspiration, but I quickly realised I knew very little about the early Edwardian times and subsequently most of my paragraphs had huge gaps where I needed to add research. Cobbled stones or cinder strewn pathways, clogs or boots? Did the poorer classes even have proper stoves or inside toilets? I knew nothing – but that didn’t stop me rattling along, enjoying Maddie and Daniel’s journey, trying to do them proud by making them interesting, rounded people.
So, I finished my story and started to research the area where I was born: Stoke on Trent. I visited the Hanley museum and the Burslem working pottery and found myself immersed in the history of my ancestors. I even found a plaque with our surname on, which depressed me a bit as I would rather have been the Viking descendent mum always said I was. King Ragnor Brunt of Stoke on Trent doesn’t have quite the right ring to it, does it? Hmm.
Anyway, I then put the novel, (called Set In Stone) to one side and started another one. (which is normal for me – my hard drive is littered with characters who didn’t come up to muster) I came across the novel again last year, and on a whim started reading it, just to see if my writing had improved since then. Well, do you know, I stayed awake all night, I was so engrossed. I’d forgotten so much of it that it was like reading someone else’s book.
It needed a fair bit of editing but I was so excited that I started kicking it into shape straight away. When I’d finished, Margaret Kaine, who is a fabulous Potteries writer, kindly read it through, as did Sharon Booth whose work I love and the verdict was very positive.
Moving swiftly on, I had an in depth conversation with an agent who was very interested in the novel but wanted it to be more of a saga, which really wasn’t me, and deep down I hoped Choc Lit would love it for the romance I wanted it to be. I was sitting on my hands, itching to send a follow up email when the requisite three months from submission had passed, when finally an email from Choc Lit popped into my inbox.
Hurrah it was good news!
I had a good old chat with the lovely Lyn Vernham from Choc Lit and ta-da, the deal is done. The Potter’s Daughter will be published by Choc Lit next year. I’m looking forward to being welcomed into the lovely Choc Lit gang, many of whom I already know. (I have been stalking Choc Lit for a long time now. My novel, Air Guitar and Caviar was shortlisted in their Search for a Star competition)
I’m already researching the music halls of the era for a follow up novel, but fear there may be quite a few blank spaces! I know nothing – did I already say that? But I will – by the time I’ve finished the next novel, I’ll be a bloody expert, but if anyone wants to help, I’d be very grateful!
Maiden Flight by Betty Beaty, about an air stewardess falling for her pilot, was published by Mills and Boon in 1956! Well I never, a hardback Mills and Boon!
I bought it on a whim from my local charity shop, not realising that Betty Beaty had a large following back in the day. The book is apparently ‘a charming romance with gay and serious, fickle and faithful characters.’ Pretty sure the gay bit meant happy back then.
I love the preface in the front: “Of all the professions open to women the one with the highest marriage rate is surely that of the air stewardess.”
I think, nowadays, that would read the highest divorce rate!
Betty Beaty, a romance writer for Harlequin, was born in 1919 and led an interesting life gaining a degree in Social Science and serving in the Woman’s Auxiliary Airforce in the second world war. She lived a long and happy life with her husband who was also a writer, and a pilot for BOAC, and died at the ripe old age of 95.
To be honest, l haven’t read Maiden Flight from cover to cover, but it’s lovely to dip into, to read about the exotic flights in days gone by. Pamela, the heroine was a ‘good wholesome girl who polished her buttons and pressed her uniform nightly.’ She is, of course, lucky enough to bag her very own pilot but will have to leave her job once married. Doesn’t that seem like the most bizarre thing nowadays?
Reading the adverts in the back of the book (something publishers don’t do anymore, and I wonder why not?) told me, for example, that embroidery was the way to peace of mind.
But what really struck me was the advert for the book ‘Beauty Belongs to You’ that was priced at 15 shillings. This seems like an huge amount of money for a book published in 1956. It states that ‘every woman can be beautiful,’ and mentions Elizabeth Arden twice. She apparently targetted plain and middle-aged women assuring them that they too, could be beautiful. Her make-up has certainly stood the test of time, hasn’t it?
Maiden Flight is a lovely delve into the past, though I do wonder what Pamela, the heroine, would make of in-flight Kit Kats and drinks served in plastic glasses on a night flight to Ayia Napa. The horror!
I was going to call my second novel Stargazy Skies, a play on Stargazy pie because I mention the pie in my novel and there are a lot of star gazing references. I still think it’s a great title (my editor suggested it) but when I started asking people if they knew what a Stargazy pie was, most of them looked at me blankly. I then realised that to understand the title they would have to have read the book – and if they didn’t know what Stargazy pie was, they might not understand the title – and not buy the book. Bit of a catch 22. For the uninitiated, Stargazy pie is made from pilchards and potatoes, encased in a pie crust. It supposedly originated when a fisherman called Tom Bowcock braved the Cornish winter storms to bring back a huge catch of pilchards, which were made into a big pie to save the inhabitants of Mousehole from starving. The Stargazy name comes from the pilchards having their heads sticking out of the pie “gazing at the sky” so that the oily goodness seeped back into the potato. And if that doesn’t turn your stomach I don’t know what would, but I guess if you are hungry enough…
Would a picture of a Stargazy pie have made a good book cover with a backdrop of Cornwall? To find out, I bought all of the ingredients to make a Stargazy pie and to take photos of it, but my daughter said, ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering – no-one will eat it.’ She was right – it all went in the bin. I have yet to see a Stargazy pie being served in Cornwall. I even visited The Ship Inn in Mousehole where the recipe is said to have originated, but the young lad behind the bar seemed pretty vague on any particulars – and he had never seen a Stargazy pie either! I found lots of these pesky things
which I would quite like to have put in a pie just to keep them quiet and drank a fair bit of cider
Can’t beat a good half of Thatchers
I did read that there was a chef who made a modern-day version with chicken and prawns and have to confess that sounds infinitely better. Mousehole still celebrate the tradition at Christmas time when revellers can help themselves to this annual dish in return for a donation to charity: http://bit.ly/2CFsKGu
Here’s an excerpt from The Magic of Stars, when Marco and Sapphire check out the Stargazy pie and are less than entralled with it:
Marco grinned at Sapphire as they shouldered their way through the noisy crowd of people. He ordered a beer brought in from the local brewery for himself, and an apple juice for Sapphire, and they fought their way back through the throng of people to find a tiny corner of space to stand together.
‘If this beer is any good I’m going to serve it in the hotel – and that St Martin’s wine we have at the cottage. Stargazy pie too, maybe. Got to keep in with the locals.’
‘I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think I’m traumatised.’ Sapphire pointed to the huge pie that was sitting in a food warmer next to a pile of mashed potato. Fish heads, complete with baleful eyes, poked out of the top of the pastry crust, staring up to the sky.
‘Well, I guess we now know why it’s called Stargazy pie,’ Marco grinned. ‘But the lovely name doesn’t make it look any more palatable.’ He took a closer look at the pie. ‘Hmm, think it might even be up there with haggis and samphire on the list of excluded foods, unless I manage to find that chef – the one the old man mentioned.’
‘Don’t know what happened to him, but I’m glad we have bread and cheese back at the cottage as I really don’t think I can stomach even one mouthful of that.’ Sapphire couldn’t take her eyes of the fish heads and didn’t think she’d ever seen a meal look so unappetising.
‘Certainly sounds a lot better made with prawns and chicken,’ Marco agreed. ‘I’ll find out the chef’s name for my new hotel.’
Sapphire enjoyed talking about Marco’s plans as it made her feel part of his life, and that was what she wanted. She sipped at her drink, contentedly watching the band and the locals, and wondered if it was worth doing battle at the bar again for some crisps.
A man playing a Spanish guitar started up a sweet confection of chords and a singer joined him, picking out a soulful tune. It all looked very impromptu and haphazard, which added to the charm of the evening. A couple of people started dancing, cheek to cheek, and then another two drifted onto a space in front of the singer that doubled up as a makeshift dance floor. They moved in unison, inching around the floor in a circle, the woman’s head nestling into the hollow of her partner’s collarbone.
Marco picked up Sapphire’s hand and she looked up, ready to smile at his sentiment, but, unexpectedly, he pulled her to her feet. ‘I haven’t danced with you, yet. Can’t be considered a proper relationship until we dance together.’
‘Really, why’s that?’ Sapphire eyed the tiny space, wondering if they would even fit in there.
‘What if we don’t synchronise? It will be the end for us. Being able to dance together is more important than sex.’
‘You’re joking, right?’
‘I never joke about dancing.’ He drew her over to the tiny dance floor and pulled her in to him. ‘I should have mentioned that when I went to Cambridge University, I learned ballroom dancing. I kid you not – as you English would say. Follow my feet, and you’ll be fine; we are basically just shuffling around, here.’
Sapphire put her hand on Marco’s shoulder and he placed his arm around her waist. Their free hands met and she was terrified that he would start to prance around the floor, like something out of Strictly, doing proper ballroom stuff, but he just tightened his grip on her waist and took the lead.
He pressed up to her body; there was barely a gap between them and it felt strangely erotic. Marco brought his hand up to her shoulder and she leaned in to him as he stroked the back of her neck with his thumb. The singer crooned an Ed Sheeran song about being perfect and Marco started to hum under his breath. It resonated through his chest and Sapphire relaxed into the rhythm of their slow dance. It was as if it was just the two of them; no-one else mattered as they moved, wrapped up in each other. Sapphire felt that she was melting with longing for Marco, the sweet ache that always seemed to be there for him pulsing through her veins. She had found the man of her dreams, unlikely as it was. His heart beat next to hers and she pressed her breasts into his chest, her thigh into his thigh, feeling the strength of his muscles as they moved in unison around the dance floor.
Marco groaned as Sapphire pressed her pelvis into the erection she could most definitely feel. ‘This is interesting,’ she whispered into his ear.
‘This is difficult,’ he murmured into her hair. ‘I don’t think I want them to put the lights on any time soon,’ His eyes were smouldering with heat when he finally pulled away to gaze down at her.
‘Did we pass the test?’ Sapphire’s voice was unsteady as she came back down to earth, out of the trance that Marco’s humming and manly warmth had put her in.
‘I’m not sure. I think we need to get back to the cottage quickly to check out the sex again. We need a proper comparison.’ Although his eyes danced, his tone was urgent, his voice unmistakably throaty as he ushered her off the dance floor, hunger burning in his eyes.
I can’t remember what made me include comments loosly based on my old headmistress, in The Magic of Stars. Some subliminal thought process I guess, that must shape every writer’s imaginary world. The memory of my innocent school days and wanting to show that Sapphire was very naïve, probably brought Sister Mary Mark to the front of my mind.
In The Magic of Stars, Sapphire, an air-stewardess gets very drunk and tells Marco, her soon-to-be boss, that she reminds him of her old headmistress, who was a really scary nun with a big black habit (for those who don’t know, a habit is basically the tunic and veil that various religious people wear to distinguish their ‘order’) Sister Mary Mark was quite frankly terrifying to me as a ten-year-old new girl, whose world was suddenly inhabited by formidable ladies wearing long black veils and floor length ‘dresses.’ Demands not to run or talk in ‘The Cloisters” were supposed to be met with a quiet bow of the head and words like Benediction and Liturgy were suddenly part of my vocabulary, along with convoluted Latin phrases which were chucked around as casually as a rubber ball. I felt totally overwhelmed at first – and pretty gauche, it has to be said.
Sister Mary Mark and the other nuns (many of whom were teachers at our school) played a big part of my life and I learned a great deal – not all of it strictly educational. Who knew that eating was only acceptable when sitting at a dining table, brushing your hair in public was almost a sin, and wearing make-up (young ladies do not need “lash paint”) or nail varnish, would ensure that Mr Mountford, the caretaker, would appear with his bottle of turps and an old rag, ready to remove the abhorrent display of “peacockery”?
It does all seem a bit authoritarian now, but Sister Mary Mark was a brilliant teacher and well-respected, and St Dominic’s was a place of great kindness and quiet intelligence and I wouldn’t have changed my time there for the world.
As an aside, my sister, who lives in Sydney, thought she was seeing a mirage when early one morning on Bondi beach, Sister Mary Mark came steaming towards her, long veil and gown flapping in the wind. My sister didn’t know whether to embrace her or run, but ended up having a surreal conversation about the Sydney Opera house – and the weather. She’s still not sure if Sister Mary Mark knew that she was an ex-pupil from her school in England. I think I’d have run – even as an adult I always found her fearsome, (even though she probably wasn’t) the anxious ten-year old that was me, resurfacing the minute I spotted her in Stone high Street.
The Magic of Stars is availabe here: http://amzn.to/2rPd0jo
Here’s a quick excerpt from The Magic of Stars where I mention Sapphire’s headmistress, who is very loosely based on Sister Mary Mark: Sapphire peered into her glass, squinting slightly. ‘I heard that the answer is always at the bottom of the glass. So, I’m looking for it.’
‘Do you know what the question is?’
‘Heck, no.’ She giggled. ‘Am I supposed to?’ The – very handsome, she noted – man’s smile loosened slightly, but Sapphire picked up on his underlying disapproval. She angled her head away from him, wanting to be left alone to continue on her path of self-destruction. But when she peered sideways he was still there. He looked so stern that she gave another nervous giggle.
He raised his forbidding eyebrows, once more.
‘Sorry. You reminded me of my old headmistress for a moment. She’s a nun. A really scary nun.’
Mr Cavarelli rested his arm on the bar, looking intrigued. ‘I don’t think I’ve been compared to a nun before.’
‘Yeah, she had a big black habit and a huge hooked nose.’ Sapphire pulled on her own nose. ‘Ow, that hurt.’ She grimaced as she rubbed her nose.
Her new friend looked amused. ‘Tell me more. What was her big bad habit?’
Sapphire thought this was one of the funniest things she had ever heard and she snorted with laughter. ‘Sorry.’ She put her hand up to her face to cover the embarrassing sound. ‘That’s hilarious, though.’
The hotel owner quirked an eyebrow, unmoved by the hilarity of his question.
She composed her face. ‘Not a bad habit, a black habit.’
‘Right.’ He still looked uncertain. ‘Long flowy thing.’ She ran her hands down her dress for emphasis. ‘And she was always giving me detention for dumb reasons.’
‘Dumb reasons?’ Mr Cavarelli turned enquiring eyes her way.
‘Yeah, like bringing an injured rabbit to the dormitory or feeding my dinner to the baby foxes. I mean, she’s a nun – she’s supposed to care about God’s creatures. Sorry, I’m going on a bit, aren’t I?’ She hiccupped and gulped. ‘Sorry. I really should stop saying sorry, shouldn’t I? Sorry. Damn it!’
Choosing a book title
The guest on my blog today is my fellow Write Romantic, Jackie Ladbury. Jackie has had two books published: Air Guitar and Caviar and The Magic of Stars. She has recently completed a third novel – rather different in style to the others – called The Potter’s Daughter. Jackie is here to tell us about the settings for her novels, and what inspired her to locate her stories there. Over to you, Jackie.
As soon as I saw the dedication plaques on Southwold pier I had a lightbulb moment, knowing that there was a romantic storyline in there somewhere. I have always loved visiting Southwold and I realised that my stories were better if they were grounded in a sense of place – for myself and the reader. I also wanted to show that Dylan, my loveable busker, was sexy and scrumptious, not just some grungy guy who…
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