Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

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The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

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The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

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The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

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GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

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GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

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GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

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GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?

 

Is 45 the new 15? I only ask because I honestly haven’t felt so ‘in between’ since I was a teenager.

To start with, there’s all that moody existential questioning: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can I make a difference? What is it all about? Does anyone even care?

Then there’s the image crisis as my grown-up body, which I’d become quite accustomed to, begins to make dramatic changes: wider waistline, grey hairs, surprise hair, wrinkles, spots, for crying out loud, sag and general loosening.

Suddenly I’m noticing handsome young men again as I lift my head above the parapet of family chaos, school run, career struggles and realise whoa, there’s all this life going on out here. What have I missed?

I genuinely do not feel old, but clearly I’m not young because one of my children is choosing his university course and cars I remember well are on display at the Transport Museum.

The causes of mid-life gloom, doom and depression are obvious.

When you’re young, you can’t wait for the future and the thrilling milestones ahead: first day at school, first day at college, first job, first car, first love, first baby and then baby’s first steps, first words, first day at school…

As you grow older, the future is a picture of complete dread and the milestones ahead become terrifying: first child to leave home, last child to leave home, first parent to die, first partner to die… help!! I’m even looking at our sweet little dog and thinking: ‘he’s NINE now… that’s 63 in dog years.’

And not least, me…  growing older, less attractive, less vital and zesty.

But I’m determined to treat 45 as a wake up call.

It’s time to react, cheer up, move up a gear and start to tick off the remaining ambitions and add in some new ones.

Because it is NOT too late (well, maybe to get into Oxford, win Wimbledon, Olympic gold etc. but hey, just saddle your children with those unfulfilled ambitions.)

Here’s what I’ve found helps to keep the mid-life blues at bay.

  • Value your friends and family, your tried and trusted loved ones, but for goodness sake meet some new people too.
  • Find other children you can be a real help to, now that yours don’t need you so much. Babysit, giggle, have fun with these little people. Do not gaze into play parks from the side lines regretting the time that has gone, I’m warning you.
  • Upgrade your wardrobe. Really. Mid-life requires better clothes, better shoes and some fashion savvy. You can’t just hang around in the worn out stuff that suited you five, even 10 years ago. Get yourself to All Saints or Jaegar or Harvey Nicks or maybe even Topshop. At least have a current haircut and a brand new scarf.
  • Find interesting work to enjoy. I know it’s not easy, I know no one’s handing round fabulous jobs like cupcakes at a party. But think hard about what you’d love to do, then knock on doors, take a course… whatever it takes.
  • Remain positive and optimistic: read encouraging, feel-good books, watch hilarious films; be with people who make you laugh out loud.
  • Join a cause, commit to a charity and do good deeds.
  • Keep making small changes, then maybe the big ones won’t be so scary.
  • Find an exercise or a sport and do it often. It will hugely boost your mood and your droopy bits.
  • Pluck the unruly eyebrows, care for your hands and your gnarly old feet.
  • A smile is as good as a facelift.
  • Glittery earrings are even better than a facelift.
  • Face down your worst fears. If you’re terrified to fly, book a flight or one of those fear of flying courses. If you’ve never learned to swim, find an instructor. Nothing makes you stronger than slaying your dragons.
  • Make peace with the past wounds, tragedies and disappointments. Lay them properly to rest. One door closing means another will open, if you let it.
  • Be inspired by the people who have had much worse to deal with and went onto thrive and lead amazing lives.
  • De-clutter. Keep your best souvenirs and let go of the rest. Let some space, light and calm into your life.
  • Be creative: in the wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom… write, paint, splodge, bake, sew, sing… whatever. You are allowed to express yourself.
  • Throw out the old love letters, bad memories, sad photos and those boxes in the attic. Make room for new people, experiences and the growing lessons ahead.
  • Get out after dark: tango class, the theatre, tea-drinking in an all night café. Plan some fun or have an adventure.
  • Dancing is good.
  • Don’t let your sparkle fade years before it should.

Life will bring sadness, I’m not denying that, but then along comes a burst of wonderful joy. Sometimes it will be both at exactly the same time.

The day your child goes off to uni must be like that: an emotional cocktail of fiercely proud and heartbroken.

But if you can’t feel deeply sad, you will never feel blissfully happy. Remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ – both the good and the bad. The relentless current of life sweeps us all onwards. Best to accept the flow of change.

We all get the mid-life blues, wondering where the grass might be greener and the cure is to count your blessings. It’s a privilege to be here, so no moaning, regretting or wishing your precious time away.

My aim is to grow older, yes, but also wiser, happier and hey, maybe even a little wilder too.

Editing The New Project

Paperwork

I’ve been very busy with The New Project. I have typed ‘The End’ three times now. But that’s never enough. I’m quite sure that about fifty per cent of the work I do on a book happens after I’ve typed The End for the first time.

Editing is the process of going back and having another long, hard look at what you’ve written, then reading and re-reading and re-working pretty much everything.

Editing involves taking large chunks out and re-writing them again and again and even several more agains. I’m generally killing off characters (because I’ve created too many, not because I’m writing a crime novel!), deleting whole scenes and going about all kinds of painful surgery.

Sometimes I think I’ve never quite worked out what I’m writing about until I’ve given the manuscript two really long and painful edits.

‘The first draft of anything is sh*t,’ according to the legendary Ernest Hemingway and it’s probably true of lots of things in life. Your first attempt is usually rubbish and you just have to take that on the chin, knuckle down and make it better.

Writers don’t edit enough.

Because it hurts!

We’ve written this huge epic; we’ve breathed life into our characters; we’ve woven this whole elaborate storyline, now we don’t want to change a word.

But in the editing, this is where the really good work begins.

Honing.

I love that word.

Honing is when you sculpt and shape and cut and trim until only your best work is left and all the other not-quite-good-enough stuff is transformed or simply deleted.

The plot comes into focus.

The lesser characters sidle out of the way.

Deleting whole pages… whole chapters… whole characters, honestly, it’s liberating: try it!

I’ve never managed to delete a whole book, but I have ‘parked’ two… they’re in the files, tucked away on my computer and whether or not they’ll come to life one day, we’ll have to wait and see.

Editing, like piano practise or losing tennis matches or any kind of grind and defeat, reminds me often of the deep wisdom in Samuel Beckett’s line:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.’

The more I edit, the deeper an understanding I have of my characters. I start to know and love them, I begin to realise not just what they’re doing, but why.

I fill in the gaps and the back story, creating characters who feel quite amazingly real to me.

When editing your work, keep going, because I promise you will find, glimmering in your heap of words, a few paragraphs, or even one whole scene that already works, that gives you goose pimples, or shivers, or a lump in your throat because it’s so emotionally charged.

You got it almost right the first time, it just needs tidied and trimmed and then left alone.

Of course, you have to beware of over-editing. You have to be able to spot the moment when it’s all right, time to step back and take your showstopper up to the judging table…

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Reviews for Cross My Heart | A BIG thank you

Dear book bloggers and reader reviewers, WOW, thank you so much, really and truly, for your amazing response to Cross My Heart.

Every single one of these reviews has absolutely made my day, over and over again.

Writing is a damn lonely job and of course I spend great long stretches of my time wondering: ‘Will anyone like this story?’ ‘Will anyone care about these characters even half as much as I do?’

So to every lovely reader who fell in love with Nicole and absolutely rooted for her to get through the ordeals she faces in this story – thank you!

Here are links to some of the wonderful book blogs (all worth a read, all packed with really interesting stuff) who’ve taken the time and trouble to read Cross My Heart and spread the love.

If I’ve missed your blog out and you’d like me to mention you, please just drop me a line CLICK HERE.

IT WAS LOVELY READING YOU

BOOKS MONTHLY

READERAPTOR

FABULOUS BOOK FIEND

OVERFLOWING LIBRARY

BOOKS WITH BUNNY

QUEEN OF CONTEMPORARY

GOODREADS

The Ravensbruck dilemma | Writing about torture and concentration camps for children

Ravensbruck women prisoners
Inmates of Ravensbruck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest scenes to write in Cross My Heart were the scenes where Nicole is tortured and then imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp.

I’ve read a great deal about how Resistance prisoners were treated in prison and it’s brutal and terrible. They were beaten, cruelly hurt and fingernail pulling, branding with hot irons and all kinds of unspeakable treatment was routine.

I’ve also read as much as I could bear about the concentration camps all over Germany and Poland and Ravensbruck (ravens bridge): the camp for women only which features in the story.

How to translate the fear, cruelty and inhumaneness for younger readers was a challenge. I didn’t want to terrorise or terrify my readers, but neither did I want to censor the inhumanity.

15 YEAR OLD IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP

So I’ve sort of glimpsed at the awfulness. I’ve tried to put myself into the mind of a young person and imagined looking at it all between the chinks in my fingers. I hope, as a reader you’ll realise you are getting a hint of how dreadful it was, you’re learning as much as you can bear. Maybe you’ll find out more when you’re older, but this is enough for now.

I’ve put Nicole, who is 15 into prison and then into a concentration camp. I’ve also put younger children into the prison and the camp too. Hope’s son, Pascal, is threatened with torture in front of her.

In one early draft of the story, he was branded with hot iron, but my editor and I decided this was too awful for a children’s story. I wish I could say I made the child torture up, but I’m afraid it’s inspired by a Nuremberg trial document in which a French resistance witness says he saw a boy being tortured in front of his mother to make her talk.

Children of all ages were kept in Ravensbruck camp. What happened to them is a catalogue of dreadfulness which I couldn’t tell in a story for younger readers. So in Cross My Heart, Nicole finds Ettie, a childhood friend, in the camp. And Ettie is living a tolerable life there, because she sees it all from a child’s point of view and somehow finds a playful element to sustain her. Plus, she is there with her mother, who loves her more than anything.

DINNER WITH MOTHER

Ettie and the other children in the camp play this game in the evenings which they call ‘dinner with mother.’ I read about this in an amazing interview (sorry, I am searching through my notebooks for the link… will post asap) with a woman who was a young teenager when she was put into a camp with her younger sister.

In the evening, they would remind themselves of all the wonderful meals they’d eaten at home. They’d recall the food, the menus and the flavours and use these very happy memories to sustain themselves through their hunger and misery.

As soon as I read about this game, I knew this is what the children in my story would do as it’s one of those details that feels true and authentic, so it brings the story to life.

Happily, these Polish sisters were allowed to escape from a death march by a German solider who told them to run into the woods and hide. They were taken in by Russian soldiers and finally made their way back to their home village, amazed to find their house and several relatives still there.

 

The books which helped with Cross My Heart

As Cross My Heart is my first historical novel, set during the Second World War, I had lots of research to do. It was really fascinating find out about the real heroines of the Belgian Resistance and work out how I could use their recollections and adventures to make Nicole’s story as authentic as possible.

I loved doing the research and I’d advise any writer to get to the library and find out all about your chosen era. In the real stories and autobiographies, you’ll find the kind of things you could never possibly have imagined. I loved the tales of house cats who nearly knocked over bomb making equipment, couples who hid explosives in a pram under their baby and what bread made of chestnut flour really tasted like. I wouldn’t have known about any of these things without digging deep.

Here are some of the titles which helped the most:

quest

The Quest For Freedom by Yvonne de Ridder Files

Isn’t that an extraordinary cover? A woman weeping as she’s forced to make the Heil Hitler salute.

Yvonne’s is one of the first personal accounts I read about life in the Belgian Resistance. She lived in Antwerp and from the age of 17, helped make bombs, deliver coded messages and she was part of a chain to help Allied airmen, whose planes had crashed or been shot down, out of Belgium and back to Britain.

Yvonne is very honest about how scared she was most of the time. But nevertheless, she felt it was absolutely the right thing to do, so she just ‘got on with it’.

I love the story about her cat prowling about beside her home made bombs, one false move and he could have set everything off.

She tells of daily life in Belgium under the Nazis: the dreadful bread made with chestnut flour, acorns, even bark and the horrible fake coffee; the constant lack of food and the lack of coal. One very harsh winter she couldn’t get warm at all and all her antique furniture was actually dripping with condensation.

She was captured by the Gestapo and for the prison and torture scenes in Cross My Heart, I’ve drawn on her descriptions and details. My heroine Nicole is interrogated, slapped and beaten by soldiers just like Yvonne. Yvonne’s determination and incredible courage in the face of torture is just inspiring. Very luckily for her, although she was sentenced to death, the liberation of Belgium arrived before her execution date.

 

frank

 

Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee

I came across this biography of the famous Anne Frank in my local library and read it in just a few hours. It’s terribly sad and deeply shocking. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and found it sad enough then that the entries come to an abrupt stop followed by the explanation that everyone hiding in the annexe with Anne was captured and she died in Belsen concentration camp not long afterwards.

This biography fills in many of the gaps in Anne’s story and makes her diary all the more tragic. Here are the school photos of a charming, smiling girl passing from age 5 through to 12.

Here is the information that the Frank family had lived in Frankfurt for over 400 years until Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws forced them to leave for Holland.

Nevertheless, Anne learns Dutch and spends several happy years being a carefree child in Amsterdam.

She loves to skate and swim, at 12 she has a 16 year old boyfriend who takes her out for ice creams and brings her back home at 10pm! I didn’t expect girls of her era to enjoy that kind of freedom.

But then the curbs begin: she has to leave her school because no Jews are allowed. Then no Jews are allowed at the ice rink or sports hall.

One day a summons from the SS arrives for Anne’s 15 year old sister Margot. She’s to pack a rucksack and report for transport to a work camp in Germany. Four thousand 15-16 year olds were taken in four days in July 1942 from Holland.

It makes you shudder with horror.

The family went into hiding that day (their requests to leave the country and emigrate had all been turned down).

Two years in a small series of rooms with 7 other people followed. Two years! Never to feel the fresh air on your face from the age of 13 to 15, it really is unthinkable.

The final chapters about what happened to Anne after she was captured are very difficult to read… the train journeys in cattle carts, the separation of children and parents, the hard, hard labour, the starvation and desperation. But still she forged friendships, even in these terrible circumstances and there was even a brief reunion with a childhood friend in Belsen.

Anne and Margot shared a bunk in the sick wing at Belsen. Margot died first, falling from her bunk, delirious with typhus. Anne died alone just a few days later.

Peter, the teenage boy in the annexe with whom she formed such a close relationship died on a death march. All the things we knew about him from the diary: his hopes, his dreams, his deep thoughts and kindness… to read that all of this was just wasted and lost was very hard.

Only Anne’s father, Frank, survived. All the other inhabitants of the annexe died in the camps.

I was surprised to learn how soon after the war Anne’s diaries were published. They appeared in Holland in 1947 and in Germany in 1950 – where they sold over one million copies.

When I finished this book I was inspired to read Anne’s wonderfully insightful diary all over again.

 

odette

Odette by Jerrard Tickell

I’d never heard of this biography, I came across it by chance in the library. It’s not only amazing, but I couldn’t have asked for a better piece of research. It’s a biography but as exciting as a thriller, by a very talented writer who was also in the forces.

It tells the true story of Odette Sansom, a French woman who marries a Brit and is living in England raising her three children when SOE (the special operations executive of the British army) ask her if she’d like to move to France and work as a secret agent for them.

This stubborn, ‘ordinary’ housewife performs astonishing feats of heroism and bravery. She leaves her home and her family and works in France as a courier and a stalwart of her resistance group. (The detail that her children are sent to boarding school and she writes them a whole stack of letters to be posted week after week while she is in France made me cry.)

When Odette is captured, she endures all kinds of Gestapo horrors with breath-taking dignity and courage.

She ends up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for women and somehow survives until the end of the war when she is returned to Britain and reunited with her beloved children.

I loved every moment I spent in Odette’s company. She is so solid, so determined and so wonderfully classy: always in silk stockings and a smart skirt. At one point she is walking through prison, carrying her blanket and sheets in a bundle when a senior German officer comes to talk to her. She hands him the bundle saying simply: ‘It’s polite for men to carry things for women, why should we not carry on with these simple curtesies?’

The sense that even ordinary people were desperate to play their part against the Nazis shines through. Agents like Odette really did believe that their lives were not as important as the cause of freedom.

Even in the darkest hours and most dire circumstances, men and women like Odette were always prepared to tell any Germans who would listen that freedom would win, you couldn’t break the human spirit.

There are all sorts of fascinating anecdotes in the book: about the ultra-British SOE, where you stayed in a central London flat with a marble bath (!) and had clothes tailored to your exact specifications.

About the captured British soldier forced to march round and round a prison yard for hours on end. When he slipped and fell in the mud, the French prisoners began to sing ‘God Save the King’ to encourage him.

From Odette, I learned how resisters would help to land a British plane in the dead of night; how she and others escaped from the Nazis and their terrible dogs in the dark, running through woodlands and water; and about the importance of BBC radio to people all over Europe. The nightly news bulletin from London, which had to be listened to in secret, gave everyone hope and often passed coded messages.

As the book was written very soon after the war and there is a real flavour and authenticity to the tale: the rationing, the shortage of clothes, hand washing blouses in the sink, pinning hair up with metal pins, the luxury of a chicken which cost £220 in today’s money. Clapped out bicycles (the only method of transport) which cost £1,300 equivalent.

It’s intriguing to learn from this account how organized the Resistance was. Britain wanted organized, large scale sabotages. It was much better to have a whole railway network put out of action than lots of little disruptions by separate groups.

In France, Odette’s prison experience has much in common with other accounts. Communicating through heating shafts, graffiti on the walls and of course torture. Odette’s toenails were all pulled out and she was burned with a poker.

In Ravensbruck concentration camp, she was almost fortunate to be locked into a basement cell, so she couldn’t see what horrors were being inflicted on the women above ground.

It’s a great book, very well written and amazingly pacey for a historically authentic account. Not surprisingly it was made into a film in 1950.

 

 

Granny Was A Spy by  Jose Villiers

I love this book which I found at the Imperial War Museum. It was a very important part of my research because it had so many details about ordinary life in occupied Belgium.

From this account, I got an idea of what it was like in Brussels on May 10 when the Germans came. A lovely sunny morning, then dive-bombing stukkas, sirens screaming, anti-aircraft guns booming on the edge of town and the mood: ‘frightened and excited’. The only people left in town were women, children and old men. Everyone else was fighting. Then men were taken prisoners of war, so they were missing from everyone’s lives for years.

Everyone over the age of 30 could remember the last German occupation so they immediately fell into submissive, passive behaviour. The youth were the ones who rebelled.

Military rule began immediately and overnight there were swastikas everywhere. Lots of new aerodromes were built and there were soldiers on every street corner.

Your ration book let you eat 1000 calories a day, if you could find it. Bread was a grey sticky mess, made with bark and all sorts of horrors. Everyone dropped a stone in weight within months and the children stopped growing.

Shoes, tyres and baby clothes were impossible to find. There was roaring inflation because the Germans bought everything in the shops and sent it home.

In the Autumn of 1940, after a civilized, restrained summer, protest and resistance broke out, especially on Nov 11th Armistice Day and November 15th , the king’s birthday.

People were told not to mark these dates, but fighting broke out at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then at a cathedral mass on the king’s birthday, there was a violent protest. The organ played the British anthem (I love this story and had to have it in my book) and 700 people were arrested. The 8pm curfew was introduced and rations were cut even further.

Then teenagers began to be rounded up in the streets and sent to work camps in Germany. Try to imagine just how awful and scary that must have been. You dash out to the shops and never return home.

Le Libre, the Resistance newspaper started up. The editor signed himself: ‘Peter Pan’, and the paper gave its address as: ‘Gestapo HQ’.  I had to have this detail in my tale.

Resistance to the German occupiers went on growing: power lines cut, there was arson at fuel dumps, trains derailed.

When GB airmen were shot down, there were huge crowds at their funerals, people bringing flowers and wreaths.

But also – lonely women fell in love with handsome German soldiers.

All men and women aged 18-35 were sent to work camps in Oct 42. In 1943, women were excused.

There were no new clothes to buy, so fashion sense was expressed in beautifully trimmed and decorated hats! Despite all the terrible war news, people still enjoyed the gossip pages with details of the Duchess of Windsor’s new clothes.

Jose Villiers mentions the couple who hid explosives in their baby’s pram and marched him proudly through the checkpoints! I had to have my own version of this in Cross My Heart.

 

 

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Cross My Heart | A story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope

 

For everyone who’s been wanting to know what I’m doing next… here it is, curtain up moment… the heartbreakingly lovely cover of my new book: Cross My Heart.

Yes. Gasp! It’s quite a change. No pink, no sparkles, no adventures in fashion-land… this is the story of a 15 year old girl who joins the Belgian Resistance in 1940 during the Nazi occupation.

It’s an adventure story. It’s a love story. It’s a story of extraordinary courage, endurance and hope.

I am so proud of it. I have worked my socks off on it for over a year and I think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. It has been lovingly researched, something I enjoyed immensely.

I’ve always been totally fascinated by the Second World War, especially with the women’s and the girls’ stories.

The teenagers who served in the Resistance were unbelievably brave. They faced torture and execution every day. They had to make incredibly difficult decisions especially if their bombs risked civilians. But they were still teenagers: they fell in and out of love, they argued with their best friends, hung out in cafes, gossiped, had problems with their families.

More about this story soon, I’m compiling a blog of all the research sites and books I’ve used.

Cross My Heart comes out in August. It’s written for readers from age 11 plus, but I think anyone who wants to read a really gripping story of young love and unforgettable courage from this era will LOVE it.

Here’s the taster from the back of the book.

How far would you go for freedom?

Would you lie to your family?

Break up with your best friend?

Follow the boy you love into extreme danger?

Risk your life?

It’s 1940, Europe is at war and Nicole’s home city has been invaded by the Nazis. When she joins a secret group of freedom fighters, she learns that 15 is not too young to fire a gun, plant a bomb, face capture, torture and heartbreak and put your life on the line.

Inspired by real people, real places and real events.

Is 45 the new 15?