What makes a writer? There must be a thousand answers to that but in my case it’s because other people fascinate me, and on my recent journey to Russia that fascination got the better of me despite the glory of my surroundings.
The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is almost beyond description. The 3 million people who visit each year cannot begin to view even a fraction of the millions of artifacts on display or stored in its ten buildings, seven of which are monuments of 18th and 19th-century Russian culture, so when I was taken to the banks of the River Neva to admire one of the most iconic views of the city, I should have been concentrating. Instead something else caught my eye.
Sitting close together on the edge of the cobbled walkway were a young couple. Next to them were discarded takeaway coffee cups. She was holding a camera. Why was I more interested in two strangers than in the magnificent view opening up before me? Why did I stop looking in the direction of the tour guide’s pointing finger, and what made my ears deaf to the history all around me?
The answer is simple. I am a writer. So while my companions listened to the guide’s potted history of the city and how, once upon a time, it had been a great trading port, I was more fascinated by the couple in front of me who appeared to be completely oblivious to the rest of the world.
Why were they here? It was eight thirty in the morning, which explained the coffee but nothing else, so while everyone else in my tour group learned about the construction of The Great Hermitage (1771-87), the Russian Revolution (1917), and how more than a million items were evacuated from the museum to the Urals during World War II, I began to create a story about the here and now.
Were they illicit lovers who were stealing a few moments together on their way to their respective jobs, or were they new lovers who couldn’t bear the thought of having to spend a whole day away from one another? On the other hand, maybe the camera was the clue and they were just tourists like us who had set out to enjoy the view and been sidetracked.
I was intrigued by their body language too. The woman was slightly hunched against the early morning chill, one hand in her pocket, so had it all started when he’d put his arm around her to keep her warm? Was that her clever ploy? Was this their first kiss? Or maybe they were they saying goodbye, knowing they wouldn’t see one another again for a long time, if ever. No! They looked too happy for that. One thing was for sure, they were in love…hopelessly and ecstatically… and for a Romantic fiction writer like me it was a joy to see.
I’ll never know their story of course, and nor should I. I will use that short glimpse into their lives though. One day, in one of my books, there will be a young couple sitting beside a river and they will be so locked into their own world that they will be completely oblivious to the people passing by. She might even be wearing a green coat…but the story will be mine. Whether The Great Hermitage will also feature remains to be seen!
Choosing a blog topic is complicated. At one time I used to promote fellow authors on my blog. It kept it live and made the featured writer happy but it ate into my writing time in a big way, so now I mainly tweet their book links instead.
I sometimes blog about my own books of course but there is only so much I can say about them before self-aggrandizement sets in, so for a while I’ve been stuck for a topic. Then, yesterday, I had an inspiration. My website strapline is ‘A ticket to Romance’ because so many of my books are loosely based on the countries and places I’ve visited. For example Cabin Fever is set on the cruise ship that took me from Auckland in the North of New Zealand right down to Sydney in Australia, whereas Reluctant Date takes place in a small town in Florida where I had one of the best holidays of my life.
As well as being hugely enjoyable, travelling, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures has changed my perspective on life. To quote Mary Anne Radmacher, ‘I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.’
I’m not, however, going to turn my blog into a travelogue. Anyone who is interested in the places I write about in my books can find out about them on the Internet. Instead, I’m going to talk about the flip side of travellings – the many things that went wrong, or made me laugh, or cry, or both, because ‘Travel is glamorous only in retrospect’ ― Paul Theroux.
This means that I have no choice but to start with India and the two weeks I spent travelling between Delhi and Amritsar with no luggage, not even a change of underwear. It was New Year so the shops were closed – well the shops that sold western clothes were – and I would have looked ridiculous in a shalmar kameeze or a sari because I am so obviously from northern Europe. I worried too about offending the Indian families I was going to visit, some of whom lived in remote villages where many of the inhabitants had never seen a white face. I didn’t want to upset them by choosing a wrong colour or an inappropriate style.
Fortunately, because it was winter I was travelling in layers, so my solution was to wash the sweater while I wore the blouse, and vice versa, while the jeans, boots, woollen jacket and cape were easy to dress up with scarves and cheap jewelry, things that I was able to acquire. At night I festooned our various hotel bathrooms with drying lingerie while I went to sleep in a pair of my husband’s pajamas. I also borrowed his socks.
The experience had a profound effect on me. Once I’d accepted that the airline really had lost my luggage I was able to enjoy the trip in a way I’ve never experienced before or since. While others were busy unpacking or repacking their suitcases, I went sightseeing or talked to strangers. While they prepared for each formal visit or outing, I could only brush down my jeans, shrug on my jacket and think about the day ahead. I saw more, heard more, learned more and worried less. It was totally liberating and I also learned that in the wider scheme of things, a suitcase full of clothes, a hairdryer and a change of shoes is neither important nor necessary. I learned that it really is possible to travel light.
Oh, I forgot to say…my lipstick was in my handbag. Now if that had gone missing it might have been different story!
Come back next week for another traveller’s tale from the flip side. In the meantime, what would keep you sane if your luggage went missing? I’d love to know.
OK so I got it wrong. Having been so full of how I was going to upgrade my website and blog and, at the same time, blog less frequently but more consistently, I failed. Well almost. The website is definitely better although still not fully tweaked, but the blogging has been a disaster. I do have several excuses…a husband undergoing a serious back operation that led to complications…happily now resolved, a new grandchild, husband returning to hospital as the result of a freak accident, caring for older grandchildren, and a whole host of other things, most of which have also slowed down the progress of my latest book. In the middle of all this, however, I received some exciting news. Bouquet of Thorns, the fourth of my Retro Romances, has just been published.
With so much else happening in my life, having a new book published with very little effort on my part is a wonderful boost. So too is the knowledge that all those 1980s romances are having a new lease of life thanks to Samhain Publishing.
Bouquet of Thorns is set in and around Buckinghamshire in the UK, where I used to live. The heroine, Sarah, is a florist, as was my mother, so I didn’t have to do much research for that part of the story. As for the rest, well I just had to visit the occasional wine bar which, in the 1980s, were all very similar. Checkered tablecloths, candles in old chianti bottles set in wicker wine carriers, dim lighting, and a fairly basic menu of lasagne, cannelloni and spaghetti bolognese, all smothered with pre-grated parmesan that was more like sawdust than cheese. Chianti was always the wine of choice.
I can remember feeling very sophisticated whenever I ate in one. Goodness how times have changed! Although the old favourites are still on most menus, Italian food has moved a very long way since those heady days, and I still love it. Unfortunately that doesn’t come across in the book because her brother’s wine bar is one of the thorns in Sarah’s side. There are many more…Sean Marlow for instance…but you’ll have to read the book to find out about him. In the meantime you can read a sample if you click on the book icon at the top of the website. Enjoy!
I read this post by Luc Reid and know from experience that everything in it is true so, thanks to his generosity, I am reposting it.
My 16-year-old son Ethan recently wrote his first short story intended for publication, and my niece, a high school senior, is visiting colleges like Middlebury, Williams, Wesleyan, and Bennington looking for a school that can help her develop a career…
When I go on holiday I rarely read the books I take with me. Instead I read the books that previous holiday makers have left behind. Crammed onto shelves in the reception area, scattered on tables in the guest lounge, stacked beside the TV in the villa or apartment…wherever we happen to be staying there are always abandoned books. And what treasures they are. On holiday I’ve discovered authors I’ve never heard of, learned new things, been reminded of long forgotten stories, looked at situations in a different way and, in the reading, remembered why a new book is always such a joy.
Of course reading on holiday has an added bonus because it’s one of the few times it’s possible to read a book from cover to cover in an afternoon. This week I have read The Color Purple by Alice Walker and in the process learned a whole lot more about the American Deep South in the early part of the twentieth century. By the time I finished it I was so entranced that I followed it up by listening to the actress Whoopi Goldberg being interviewed on the UK Radio programme Desert Island Discs. Whoopi Goldberg won so many acclaims for acting in the Steven Speilberg film of the book that I wanted to find out more about her, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I did just that. Apparently she was so deeply affected by the story that she wrote to the author asking for a part if a film was ever made of the book. Alice Walker wrote back about two months later to tell her she had sent the necessary paperwork to the studios. The film script for The Color Purple was then written specifically for Whoopi Goldberg. It was her first big motion picture. The rest is history.
After I’d allowed myself enough time to think about what I’d just read, I turned to something that I thought would be very different but which turned out to be linked in the strangest way. This was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson who is a well known British author. It is a semi-fictional autobiography. I know this sounds like an enigma but I assure you it’s true. To understand what I mean, however, you’ll have to read it.
Like Celie in The Color Purple, Jeanette Winterson is someone who lives on the edge and who has also spent much of her life searching for love as well as for a lost love. I didn’t see the similarities while I was reading because one was about a black community in the American Deep South in the 1920s while the other was set in the 1960s in a poor northern town in the UK. In both books, however, the main character was lonesome and abandoned, and immensely brave. It was only afterwards that the similarities became clear, and that is another benefit of this random holiday reading…there is far more time to think.
There have been other books too, more random choices, and while I’ve been reading them an amazing thing has happened. In each one of the holiday books I’ve read, I’ve discovered a fact that is crucial to the next story I’m going to write.
I set off on holiday determined to develop the outline for Book 3 of my Pathway Trilogy. Before I write any book I have to ‘see’ the characters and develop the back story. Within days I had all this clear in my head. What I didn’t have, however, was the detail. I needed to research a lot of things if I was to get my facts right but, happy that I had the outline, I decided to concentrate on my holiday and worry about the detail when I returned home. So with my selection of random books I settled down to do just this. I had no plan when I chose these books…I knew very little about them and wasn’t even sure I was going to enjoy them… yet despite this they seemed to have a plan for me. In every book I read I discovered a nugget of information that I needed to flesh out my own story. I was also confronted by a new way of looking at a situation, something that has made me reconsider how one of my characters is going to react. After two weeks of reading random stories my research is complete without any effort on my part…so to every writer whose book I’ve read in this villa in the sun, thank y0u. And to every holiday maker who has left a book behind, thank you. Random reading has much to commend it.
No, this post doesn’t have anything to do with the James Bond film, it’s about Empty Hearts, a romantic novel I wrote in the early 1980s. It’s set in Moscow even though I’ve never been there. How did I research it? Well I certainly didn’t use the Internet as at that time it wasn’t available for home use. Nor did I type it on a computer because I didn’t own one. Every word was produced on my old portable typewriter, in triplicate, using Tippex when I made a mistake. It was a slow and tortuous process, made even slower by having to research everything via the reference library and an encyclopaedia as well as something more specific – the National Geographic magazine. Someone gave me a bundle of back copies and for a while they remained piled, unread, on the bookshelf. Then, one rainy day when I was looking for inspiration for my third book, I happened to pick one up. Pretty soon after that I was engrossed in an article about Moscow. I was enraptured by the descriptions and wanted to use them, but how? While I was pondering, two things happened. First I met someone who was very decidedly hero material. Secondly I read a newspaper article about a writer who, to make ends meet, combined caring for other peoples’ children with research. With those two snippets it wasn’t long before the book began to take shape.
Would I dare to write the same story now? Definitely not. Although I frequently use exotic backgrounds for my stories, these days I only use those I’ve visited first hand, which means I can write from the heart. Thanks to National Geographic I think I got most of my facts right in Empty Hearts but nowadays, with the Internet linking almost every town and city across the world, I would worry that my readers would see right through me.
And what of the man who was the inspiration for my hero? Well he never found out, even when I met him again a couple of years later and he asked me if I ever based my characters on real people. And who is he? Well I hate to admit it, but all these years later I can’t even remember his name!
So there you have it. The inner workings of a writer’s mind.
A short excerpt about a visit to the open air ice rink at Moscow’s Gorky Park where Holly, already disturbed by the fraught relationship she has observed between her employer, Dirk, and his young son, Peter, is determined to find a way to help them bond. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen at Gorky Park, not now she has very stupidly flirted with Dirk in the hope that it will make him want to spend more time with her and Peter.
Well it’s been an amazing week. By chance rather than by design, two of my books have been published
Pathway to Success – Finding Bella Blue is Book 2 in my Pathway series, while Empty Hearts is a Retro Romance that was first published more than 25 years ago. There is one downside to such excitement, however, which is all the promoting that has to be done once a book is published. While both the publishers involved will do their bit, I, like every other writer out there nowadays, will have to do a great deal of my own marketing. This means blogging, appearing on guest blogs, showcasing the books on various promotional websites, using twitter, facebook and a whole host of other social media sites, and that all has to happen while I write the next book. Oh…and I mustn’t forget to carry on promoting past books either. The only writers who escape this are the big names and those lucky people whose books rise to the top to sell in large numbers, and even they have to spend a great deal of their time being interviewed, making author appearances and going on tour. Long gone are the days when a writer could just write. I’m not complaining though. Far from it. Through all this promotional activity I have made many friends, not just in the UK but across the world, some of whom are also fans of the books I write – something that all writers cherish.
So what about these two books? Well I gave you a sneak peek for Finding Bella Blue last week, just before it was published. What I didn’t tell you though was that the story takes place 10 years on from Book 1: Pathway to tomorrow, and is set in a number of different places. During the course of the story the heroine, Izzie, spends time in London, Los Angeles, in a 500 year old historic home on a 2,000 acre estate, in hospital, and at her sister Jodie’s home, which readers of Book 1 already know is on the northwest coast of England. Not a great deal is written about some of these settings. They are just a background to what is happening in the story. In London, for example, the reader will make a brief visit to a hotel and to an arena where a musical extravaganza takes place. Later that same reader will visit a dressing room back stage before spending longer in a hospital room. In Los Angeles it’s mainly about a garden, and when Izzie travels to the northwest of England it is to revisit the home that was first introduced in Book 1, something that needs very little explanation. Most of the story takes place somewhere very different. The setting is the imaginary Corley Estate, whose owner, Lord Corley, the Earl of Faversham, can trace his family back to the Domesday Book. With a crumbling 500 year old house as a backdrop to the 2,000 acre estate, the story mixes the past with the present, so all in all, it’s an eclectic mix.
How did I research the background for each setting? Well my website boasts that my books are a ticket to romance, so for this to be true I have to take my readers on a physical journey as well as into the journey of their imagination, and for this to happen the content has to be as authentic as possible. Sometimes this involves a great deal of judicious research but often I just write about the places I’ve visited, which is what I did in this book. London was easy because I’ve worked there and stayed there, so it is very familiar, as are its hotels. I’ve also attended just the sort of musical extravaganza described in the book, so another tick. I’ve visited a lot of hospitals too, both as a visitor and as an employee, so no surprises there. Los Angeles was a little more problematic but not much as I’ve spent time in California, although not in LA itself, so I’ve seen the sort of plants that thrive there and asked questions about them. My own home is in the northwest of England so I relied on local knowledge for that. Only Corley Hall, the crumbling historic home on its 2,000 acre estate required any real research because I don’t move in the sort of circles where I’ve ever stayed in one (although I did once stay in a castle that had been turned into holiday apartments!) In the end though, even Corley Hall was relatively easy because there are a lot of ancient historic homes open to the public in the UK. In the very recent past I have wandered around several of them and admired their beautifully manicured gardens and the wonderful landscaping that makes them such works of art, so all I had to do was to collect together as many facts as I could and amalgamate all of them into an imaginary home like the one pictured. This is where the imaginary Earl of Faversham lives in my story. So if you like history, and travel, and music, you’ll find a little bit of all of it in Pathway to Success – Finding Bella Blue
Empty Hearts was an entirely different challenge, however. For a start it’s set in Russia and no, I haven’t been there yet. I am visiting this summer though and it will be very interesting to see how much of the research I did over twenty-five years ago, holds up now. In those pre-Internet, pre-computer days writing was a whole different ball game and one I’ll talk about next week when I give another sneak peek. This one will be from Empty Hearts. In the meantime, here is the blurb.
By trying to make a new start, Holly just may find a family of her own.
Holly is struggling to pick up the pieces of her shattered life when she is offered the chance to travel to Moscow to research a new book. That she will also have to look after diplomat Dirk Van Allen’s five-year-old son, Peter, seems a small price to pay…until she meets them both.
Determined to find a way into Peter’s stony little heart, Holly thinks that softening his father’s attitude towards her might help. When Dirk sees through her ploy and starts to play her at her own game, she realizes she is way out of her depth with this mysterious, intriguing man.
This Retro Romance reprint was originally published in 1985 by Woman’s Weekly.
Last week I promised to tell you more about Book 2 of the Pathway Trilogy – Pathway to Success: Finding Bella Blue. The final edits are now finished and it will be published very shortly. It’s not before time either, as some of my lovely readers have been at pains to tell me.
Although I’m sorry that I’ve kept them waiting, I love their impatience. I also love the fact they are prepared to tell me to hurry up. Why? Well because the one thing a writer loves above all is readers who like their books, and especially readers who are waiting impatiently for the next one. So for all those fans who want to read more of the Pathway series, here is a sneak peak. I promise it’s not a spoiler, it’s just a short extract to keep you interested.
When the book is published I’ll let you know via my blog and also on Facebook at facebook.com/SheilaClaydon.author. I’ll probably mention it on https://www.facebook.com/groups/153824114796417/ the Books We Love Facebook page too, as well as a few other places. In the meantime, here’s the taster. I hope you enjoy it.
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An extract from Chapter One – Pathway to Success: Finding Bella Blue
His dog found her first and with all the joyful abandon of a half grown puppy decided the stranger on the grass wanted to play. Jack yelled moments before it pounced but he was too late. By the time he was close enough to grab it’s collar the girl was shrieking for mercy as a wet, pink tongue slathered her face with slobbery kisses.
He gave an inward groan as he hauled his dog off and began a systematic search through his pockets for a clean handkerchief. What was the girl doing here anyway? Why couldn’t she stay indoors with the rest of them? He was going to have to insist that Amelia insert some sort of access clause into future contracts if people started treating the place as if they owned it. Finally locating a wedge of tissues, he thrust them at her with an apology.
“Sorry about Cora, she…you surprised her.”
“Not as much as she surprised me,” the girl was sitting up now and laughing. Despite his irritation he noticed she had the most amazing eyes. Then Cora lunged again, distracting him. When he finally had the dog under control he saw that the girl was shaking biscuit crumbs out of the tissues.
“The mark of a true dog lover,” she grinned at him as she wiped her mouth and the smear of dribble drying on her cheek.
“Or maybe a dog owner who still has to bribe his dog into being obedient,” he surprised himself with a wry smile.
She seized the excited dog by the ears and looked into its eyes. “So you’re called Cora are you? Well it’s time you learned some respect. Sit!”
To his utter amazement, Cora sat.
“Now lie down…good dog.” Without a murmur Cora slumped onto the grass beside her and pretended to go to sleep.
Jack stared at her. “What are you, a dog whisperer or something? She barely does what I tell her, let alone a complete stranger.”
“No, nothing like that. I just grew up with animals so I know all about letting them know who’s in charge.”
“Well that’s lucky for Cora. Her bad manners could have put you off dogs for life.”
She shook her head. “It would take a lot to do that. Most of the time I like animals more than people.”
“You and me both,” he was surprised into another smile. “Is that what you’re doing here? Playing hooky from people. I thought everyone involved in these photo shoots had to stay within shouting distance.”
“They do, but I wangled a special dispensation today by persuading everyone I was superfluous to requirements. Once they’d agreed I made a hasty escape before they changed their minds. I intended to go for a walk but then I saw this tree and it sort of asked me to lie down under it and stare at the sky through its branches.”
He nodded because what she had just said made total sense to him. Then, realizing he was in danger of breaking his own self-imposed rule by being halfway friendly to one of Amelia’s clients, he poked Cora with his toe. “Come on lazy bones. No more chatting. We’ve work to do.”
Sighing heavily, she ignored him.
The girl laughed. “Seems her training has a way to go yet. What have you got to do anyway, and is Cora an absolutely indispensable part of it? If she’s not then maybe she’d like to come for a walk with me instead?”
When the word walk percolated Cora’s apparently moribund brain cells she forgot she was playing dead and leapt to her feet, barking excitedly at the pair of them.
“You have taught her something then,” folding her long legs beneath her the girl stood up surprisingly quickly, pushing the soggy tissues into her pocket as she did so.
“Oh she knows all the nice things, you know…biscuit, walk, dinner, ball…it’s the other stuff she has trouble with…the rules! Isn’t that right Cora? It’s the rules you ignore.” He bent down and patted the dog’s head as he spoke because now that the girl’s wide turquoise eyes were almost level with his, his heartbeat seemed to have inexplicably speeded up.
When he straightened up she was still standing next to him and was looking almost as expectant as Cora. Despite himself, he laughed. “I don’t know why I’m saying this but yes, you can take her for a walk around the estate on the absolute understanding that you teach her something useful. In the meantime I’ll get on with my work.”
“Done!” She held out her hand as if they were sealing a major agreement. Shaking it, he was surprised by how firm it was, and how small and slim it felt, and how much he wanted to keep holding onto it.
In November 2013 I reviewed my blogging prowess, decided almost everything was wrong, and promised to put it right. One of the things I was going to do was blog more regularly, the second was to update my website. Well, with a little (lot) of help from my friends, I’ve managed to update the website except for working out how to let readers subscribe. That’s my next aim. The blogging, however, has been sadly neglected. Why? Well if you revisit that blog at http://sheilaclaydon.com/2013/11/01/blogger/ you’ll see I was trying to do too much at once and all of it very soon after an incredibly busy summer. Then, after only a few more blogs and before I could fully collect my thoughts, my husband was scheduled for a very serious back operation. This was such a worry as there was the possibility of paralysis if things went wrong, that my blog dropped way down my priority list, as did writing, using social media to promote my books and all those other things that writers do.
Now, however, it’s a new year and I have a newly refurbished husband! I’m glad to be able to report that the operation was successful beyond the surgeon’s dreams, let alone ours, and that he is regaining his strength day by day. With full mobility now within reach he will soon be playing sport again and that will leave me time to write and blog.
So now you know what stopped me blogging again so soon after my new resolution, what have I got to tell you today. Well, despite the worries of the past months, I have managed to finish the second book of my Pathway Trilogy. This happened while my husband was convalescing and the completed manuscript is with the editor at Books We Love. I’m waiting for final edits and then it will be published. In the meantime, here is the cover. Like all the covers produced by Michelle Lee at http://eroticdesign.eroticpen.net, it is fabulous. Michelle always seems to know exactly what I want and this one for Pathway to Success – Finding Bella Blue is no exception.
After all the delays and problems, I got there and, more than that, like the result. I had to re-read every word I had already written before I could start writing again though. When I did, Izzie, Luke, Jodie and Marcus were waiting to welcome me because I already knew them from their appearance in the first book of the trilogy, Pathway to Tomorrow – but Jack, Amelia, Erica, Leo, Sebastian, Tony, Connie and, most importantly, Cora, these were the characters I had to get to know a little better before I could complete the second book. And what characters some of them turned out to be. Leo is larger than life, Cora too, and as for Jack, well you’ll just have to read the book to find out about him.
Now of course, I have the third book looming over me. So far I’ve written two pages. I already know who the main characters are, though, and when you read it, you might be surprised by the hero. That’s quite a long way into the future, however.
In my next blog I will tell you a bit more about Book 2.
Life is complicated, which means I sometimes write while I’m travelling. Many of the places I visit appear in my books. I hope you enjoy reading them. Buying them is like buying a ticket to romance.