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Monday, 17 July 2017

Looking Back

Coming to the end of the first draft of my WIP, the third instalment of The Inspector de Silva Mysteries, I've been looking back at some of my photographs of Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, the island that inspired the series, and I'd like to share some of them with you.
The book will be out this autumn.

Elephant and friend

Flower offerings at a roadside shrine
Statues at a Hindu temple

Working in the rice fields

Royal palms at the botanic gardens in Peradeniya.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Magic Castle

I recently visited the delightful Victorian castle at Chiddingstone in Kent and was introduced to the extraordinary world of Denys Eyre Bower, eccentric and obsessive collector of antique artefacts.
Born in Derbyshire in 1905, Denys started his career in a bank but by the age of 38, he had had enough of this sober environment. He left and made his hobby into his life's work, amassing a remarkable collection that ranged from Jacobite memorabilia to world-class collections of Japanese and Egyptian art. (Denys had a habit of claiming he was the reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie.) In 1955, he bought Chiddingstone Castle to house the collection and show it to visitors.

Japanese Samurai helmet

When peace left Japanese armourers without work, they used their skills to make articulated insects for collectors and the emerging tourist trade.
A rare Japanese casket
Denys' private life was even more colourful.
Twice married, neither of the marriages lasted long possibly because his wives couldn't compete with his passion for collecting. His next relationship was with a young lady who claimed to be a member of the Grimaldi family of Monaco; she was in fact the daughter of a delivery man from Peckham in south London! The relationship was stormy and when Denys thought his beloved's affection was waning, he went to visit her taking an antique gun with him. The gun went off and she was wounded. Fearing she was dead, he turned it on himself. The next years were spent in Wormwood Scrubs prison for attempted murder and suicide, until the efforts of his solicitor, Ruth Eldridge, who thought there had been a miscarriage of justice, got him freed.
He spent his remaining years at the castle where he lived frugally, often going to market late in the day to buy food cheaply, however he still found the money to buy himself a yellow Rolls Royce.
He died in 1977 but his collection lives on.


Friday, 19 May 2017

Ten Golden Rules

I've just put the finishing touches to the second instalment of my Inspector de Silva Mysteries, Dark Clouds Over Nuala, so, with the hard work done, I'm taking a moment to reflect on what I've learnt over my years of writing.
1 Don't worry about finding gaps in the market, write what you like to read. That way you'll write with interest and passion and it will communicate to your readers.
2 Have a great opening. You have about 15 seconds to sell your book to the potential reader browsing in a bookshop or on Amazon. Give them a great cover, a captivating blurb, a killer first sentence that compels them to read on.
3 Be clear about point of view. Writing in the first person is tempting but remember, your protagonist must be interesting, quirky or both, for the story will be filtered through the prism of their thoughts and words. Also , they will have to be in every scene. Third person is not, of course, a problem in this way, but remember not to "head hop" within a scene or a chapter. If you want to use  multiple POVs, take care not to overdo them.
4 Write in the way that suits you. Some people like to plan in great detail; you may not. The thriller writer, Mark Billingham, advocates the "headlight" approach, just plan as far ahead as you can see in the headlights. Personally, I like a plan but I'm always ready to depart from it if I get a better idea. 
5  Keep going! I don't advocate a set word limit every day, it can be so stressful that you no longer enjoy your writing, but try and do something, even if it's only a few paragraphs. Writing, like most things, improves with practice.
6 When you've finished your first draft, edit ruthlessly. Your manuscript will probably be too long and much improved by cutting out long descriptions, too many adverbs and adjectives, unnecessary or banal dialogue etc. Don't agonise over detail too much though. I don't advise becoming like Oscar Wilde who claimed to spend a morning deciding to put in in a comma and then the afternoon deciding to take it out! When you're ready ask a trusted friend (or three) to read and comment. If you can afford it, a professional copy edit is a very good idea. 
7 Work on dialogue. Good dialogue is so important; your characters will come alive if you know how they speak. Use speech tags as sparingly as possible, really only where the reader would otherwise be confused about who's speaking.
8  Less is more. Don't hammer points home, let your readers use their intelligence and imagination and work some things out for themselves.
9  Don't get hung up on research. Leave it until you know what you'll need to know. Take care though: readers who like historical novels usually have a good grasp of history and crime fans tend to be savvy about their facts, whether it's police procedure or poisons.
10 Above all, show, don't tell. Take the reader with you into the world you're writing about. Make them feel they're involved and waiting breathless to see how things will turn out.
Dark Clouds Over Nuala - An Inspector de Silva Mystery is out on Monday 22nd May 2017 in Kindle (available now to pre-order at

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Silver and Us

This week I spent a fascinating day in the company of an expert from the BBC's popular Antiques Roadshow. I was learning about antique silver and the part it has played in social custom. I'm sure that much of what I learnt is going to add greatly to my enjoyment of works of art.
It would take too long to mention everything here so I'll just touch on a few aspects of the study day.
We began with a painting of a medieval banquet. How pretty, I thought. I'm sure I received an Xmas card that looked very like it last year. But our expert made us look deeper into the picture. He pointed out that the windows would have been unglazed in medieval times. Birds and insects would have been able to come into the banqueting hall very easily. I wasn't sure that his suggestion that the reason why the lords and ladies would sit under a canopy was to protect them from bird droppings, but the idea that covered cups were used to keep the drink clean and fresh was far more plausible. You can see one on the left in the painting below.

Contrary to popular belief, hygiene was not neglected in medieval days. When you were the guest of  a wealthy household, you were expected to bring your own knife and would be offered water to wash it and your hands. Plates (trenchers) were usually provided as well as spoons (no forks were in general use until much later on). Incidentally trenchers were mainly square, giving rise to the expression "a square meal". 
It was in Tudor times that hygiene became less scrupulous, perhaps because of the growth in population. The Tudors also loved their bling. Something akin to this extraordinary silver ship, known as a nef, would have graced the tables of the rich.

 Several hundreds of years later, in the Edwardian era, a beautiful silver teapot like this one would have been an essential ornament to the tea table if you wanted to be fashionable. However it wasn't considered necessary that all the pieces of the tea service should match. It was acceptable for them to have been purchased at different times, or handed down as family heirlooms.  
Service at table also changed from "service a la francaise" where many dishes were placed in the centre of the table and people helped themselves, to "service a la russe" shown below where there would be many courses, all served individually by staff. This left more room in the centre of a table for elaborate centrepieces - silver being highly prized. Interesting that the popularity of sharing plates in modern restaurants is, in effect, a return to the idea of "service a la francaise".


Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Strange Case of the Spanish Buns

Now that we are in the month of Easter and hot cross buns are in the shops, I was interested to come across this little story about the railway from Zurich to Baden,  Switzerland, built in 1847. The story goes that the citizens of Zurich were particularly fond of a delicacy made in Baden, called Spanisch Brötli , or Spanish buns. Wealthy people paid for these to be brought to them in time for breakfast which entailed suppliers making the 45 minute journey from Zurich to Baden very early in the morning. The city fathers decided that something must be done.

The subsequent building of the railway meant that suppliers were able to dispense with the need for such an early start and their wealthy patrons could still have their daily treat.

 The railway became known as the Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn and is credited with fuelling Zurich's prosperity. Today, the city is famous for its banking industry, spearheaded by the gnomes of Zurich. It's also a byword for good organisation and cleanliness. James Joyce, who greatly admired the place and is buried there, said you could eat your meals of the pavements. We don't know whether that was how he liked his Spanish buns served.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A London Palace

Built in 1756 by John, First Earl Spencer, Spencer House is London's only surviving great 18th century townhouse. The Earl spared no expense to create a magnificent house that, on a small scale, rivals many a royal palace. His wealth was vast. As an example, on his honeymoon, the diamond buckles on his shoes alone were valued at £30,000
At twenty-one, he secretly married his childhood sweetheart, Georgiana Pointz, an acknowledged beauty. It was a love match and the house celebrates this. Classical motifs are everywhere. The Earl did the obligatory Grand Tour and came back full of enthusiasm for the art and architecture he had seen in Italy and Greece.
The Spencers were among a small group of families who were at the top of the society of the day and the house became a venue for political and social gatherings of the highest order.
Visitors were led through a series of impressive rooms, culminating in the extraordinary Palm Room, where the fronds of palm leaning towards each other over the arches symbolise married love.

After the Second World War, the house was in a state of disrepair and was used as offices, the gorgeous palm room demoted to being the typing pool with holiday postcards and office notices pinned or taped to the walls. However, under the care of the present owners, the Rothschilds, it has been restored to its former glory and limited viewing is possible with guided tours.  

The grand staircase lit by a lantern salvaged from a Venetian gondola

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Meet Alex Martin

I'm delighted to welcome historical novelist,  Alex Martin, to the blog today. Alex, thank you so much for accepting the invitation. Would you like to start by telling readers a bit about yourself and your family? Where are you from? Do you have a day job or do you write full-time?
I live in South Wales, on the Gower peninsula but was born in Greater London, more years ago than I care to remember.  I grew up in Wiltshire and most of my stories to date are set in that rural county. I work from home as an aromatherapist but increasingly my time is now spent writing.

Do you have a special place where you like to write?  
Yes, I do! I adore my shed. My husband and I built my den from a kit - unlabelled parts and in howling autumn gales - a few years ago and it made a real difference to my writing output. Within its insulated wooden walls I can delve deep into my subconscious and draw out images and ideas that have been cooking on the back burner. It smells good in there, with the resinous wood, and I can hear the birds tweeting away outside. Through the window the Welsh hills march across the horizon, the shifting clouds creating different moods according to the season. I can pin research papers and documents all over the walls and leave it in a delightful mess of creativity, knowing it will lay there, undisturbed, until I return. I am very fortunate.
 Have there been any particularly memorable moments in your writing life?
I often get ideas with a frisson of 'otherness'. For instance the idea for The Rose Trail came a long time ago when I stared through the window of an empty cottage. The place was ancient, with a flagstone floor and huge inglenook fireplace and I could see right across the main room into the walled garden beyond. I had a shiver down my spine as I sensed the people who had lived there hundreds of years ago during the English Civil war, perhaps witnessing some tragedy. The memory returned in full technicolour, years later, and I knew I had to follow its trail.
 What parts of the writing process do you enjoy the most and the least?
Good question! I had a major epiphany a few years ago when I realised standing back and writing objectively didn't work; I had to be there, as part of the action and 'live' the story in character. It's a bit like meditation - blissful when you are in it, quite hard to reach.
What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?
Haha! No! I first started writing when I was about 8 or 9. Stories of schoolgirls in a boarding school, based on some Mallory Towers type book I was reading. I had an old black and gold typewriter - probably from the twenties or earlier, that I treasured and, when I wasn't climbing trees and skinning my knees, plonked away at it with two fingers and fierce concentration.

You’ve chosen the timeslip form for your latest novel, The Rose Trail. What attracted you to that?
I'm a fan of Barbara Erskine and also loved Thorne Moore's 'A Time for Silence'. The Rose Trail resembles neither author's work but the time slip format was inspired by their work. I'm fascinated by history and wanted to play around with the possibility that time runs in parallel. After my experience with the cottage when I had such a strong sense of the people who had lived there hundreds of years ago, I decided to weave between the present and that turbulent time when families were driven apart by their beliefs. How can any of us know if time is linear or many layered?
 Tell us a bit about the story. What conflicts shape it and where did the inspiration for it come from?
The characters of Fay and Persephone came about from a little skit I'd written based on an awkward encounter in my own life. On a day when I was feeling frumpy, I bumped into a glamorous acquaintance who provided a charming, but stark, contrast. From these characters a modern story started to build and I wove it into the spooky memory about that cottage in Wiltshire all those years ago. Sometimes, when I've been giving treatments to clients, I've 'seen' images or received messages which I've relayed to them and they have found them very relevant to their lives, even though they meant nothing to me. Intrigued by these, I wanted to explore other possible realities.
How do you do your research?
We used to live near Devizes, where The Rose Trail is set and I'd always been interested in the battle that took place on Roundway Hill, above the town, in the English Civil War. Last January I walked up there again and pictured the battle scenes. I went to the library and the book shop, just as Fay and Persephone do in the story, and researched the civil war on-line. Other books have needed other research trips - Daffodils involved a trip to the Imperial War Museum in London, Speedwell meant visiting Brooklands Racing Circuit and the Motor Museum at Beaulieu. For Peace Lily, I had to pore over maps of Boston in 1919, discovering the molasses disaster along the way from old newspaper cuttings. It's much easier with on-line research these days. In fact, when I first wrote Daffodils, years and years ago, there was little information about WW1 on-line, but with its centenary, attention has focussed on the details of that war. I have revised the whole book a couple of times as a result, as new information came to light.
Who would you cast to play your leading characters if your book was to be made into a film?
It would have to be someone gorgeous for Persephone. Perhaps Cameron Diaz might be good, as she manages to portray that delightful ambiguity that perhaps she's not a bimbo. Or Julia Roberts, with her flowing locks. I think Renee Zellweger might be good for Fay, as she's prepared to put on weight for a part!
 Have any particular writers influenced your work?
I think everything we read influences our work on some level. My favourite authors include Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Barbara Erskine, Joanna Trollope, Winston Grahame and loads more. I'm enjoying The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr at the moment.
 It’s been said that you can’t teach creative writing, you can only recognise what is good and say ‘keep doing that’. Do you agree?
Not entirely, I think you can learn about good dialogue, how to formulate a plot, how to make characters come alive. I learned a lot from peer reviews on where pieces of writing are anonymously critiqued by other writers. Some of the writing I read there was excellent; some not so good but I learned to recognise what worked and what didn't.

 Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?
I started out writing Daffodils as a journey of discovery but it took a very long time - about ten years - before I could wrestle it into some sort of story. Now I definitely plot a story arc from the original idea before embarking on a first draft. Mind you, sometimes the characters have other ideas and I have to adapt!
What will you be working on next?
The fourth and final book in The Katherine Wheel Series is my next project. It concerns the children of the characters in the other three books and takes them all into the global arena of the second World War. It will be called Woodbine and Ivy because everyone smoked Woodbines in WW2 and Cheadle Manor will be covered in ivy, due to Cassandra's inability to maintain its grand facade after the Great Depression. I have the story arc outlined but the writing - and the mountain of research it's going to need - has yet to begin.

Alex, thank you so much for coming, it's been a great pleasure talking to you.
The Rose Trail is available on Amazon in Kindle or paperback. Universal link:

For details of her other books see her Amazon Author page:

Alex blogs at (where readers can get a free copy of her short story collection Trio)

Facebook: Alex Martin
Twitter: @Alexxx8586