Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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.

A big thanks to the wordsmiths

It’s April, months after I handed my final manuscript for Cross My Heart in. Bless the editor who has just sent an email after she’s taken another final, final look through before the pages go to typesetting to ask if ‘stretch of woodland’ wouldn’t be better than ‘woodland’?

Plus several other tiny tweaks… and, by the way, do I like the new font they’ve picked out for the gravestones in the story?

This is why I love publishing and publishers. Where else does this relentless perfectionism, relentless attention to detail still exist? Writers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, we are all obsessive in our search for the exactly right words. We’re on a quest for extraordinary that only ends when the final crunch of the deadline stops us.

I’ve never worked harder to get a story right. I was dying to tell it. I found it the most challenging book ever to write but also the most deeply satisfying. I had to go the extra mile for this story because it is inspired by real people and real events and I had to do them justice. I’ll explain more about that in future posts.

Due to maternity leave and people moving job this story has had four editors. All have brought real insight, a great deal of thought, care and attention to the job, realizing what an important project it is for me.

Cross My Heart has also had an eagle-eyed copyeditor. She was the word dentist, poking about my story with a sharp pick, checking for any tiny signs of weakness.

A German speaker was found to check my snippets of German grammar, a classicist to read over the small Latin extract. Another proofreader has made several final combs for mistakes the rest of us may have missed.

Altogether we’ve probably read this story far too many times, tweaked and re-tweaked sentences that were probably OK-ish in the first place and obsessed about tiny details which readers might never, ever notice.

When you pick up this book, as I hope you will, you’ll be holding a completely original, highly crafted piece of work in your hands. If it was an item of clothing, it would be a beautifully hand-knitted jumper with an intricate Fair Isle pattern of many colours or highly detailed Aran cables.

I don’t know if this is the right way to work in the 21st century when people are texting, tweeting and self-pubbing their mis-spelled stream of consciousness. Maybe we are still crazily trying to stitch a tapestry by hand when everyone else is machine knitting in acrylic.

But then again, if everyone else did their jobs as lovingly, carefully, thoughtfully and deeply creatively as everyone who has worked on this story, the world would be an incredible place. Maybe we would be poorer in many ways – no hasty burgers or mis-stitched T-shirts – but maybe we’d be so much richer in others.

So my heartfelt thanks to team Cross My Heart, for caring so much – way above and beyond the call of duty.

JK Rowling at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – wow!

JK Rowling
JK Rowling interviewed by Muriel Gray — look at the boots!

Last night I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the JK Rowling event at the teeny Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington, East Lothian.

Like everyone else in the audience I was buzzing with excitement way before the 8.30pm kick off and when JK finally stalked on in glittering diamonds, skintight PVC leggings and six, maybe even seven-inch kinky boots – WOW! An audible gasp from the audience.

She is so much skinnier, sexier, funnier and kind of raunchier than you might ever have guessed from the TV interviews. She gives the impression that she’s really, really enjoying letting her hair down from being the world’s treasured author of the Harry Potter series. Yes, the effect was definitely like bumping into your teacher out of school and being disconcertingly dazzled.

 

JK Rowling tickets
The much coveted tickets for JK Rowling event

Fetch JK Her Reading Glasses

JK’s interviewer for the evening was Muriel Gray, a non-stop fizzball of pop energy, and they sparked off one another brilliantly. Hilarious middle-aged moment though when JK realized she didn’t have her reading glasses and Muriel, quick as a flash, brought out hers.

Of course, we were here to hear JK talk about her new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. It’s famously very nasty about the middle class who are accused of ignoring the glaring problems of the very poor right in their midst. But JK disarmed her thoroughly middle class audience immediately by telling us: ‘We’re all a little like this, I’m like this, we all have these thoughts.’

Her enthusiasm for her new book, her subject matter, her difficult characters and some of the dark scenes was infectious. She knew this was a book she had to write. When she pitched the idea to people, she could tell by the look on their faces they were not impressed, but nevertheless she pressed on, knowing with absolute certainty, she couldn’t write about wizards again.

‘I knew back in 2000 when I was being driven somewhere and all these people were looking at me, I knew I would never, ever be able to create something like this again.’

In 2000, she was publishing Harry Potter book four, so it seems an amazing insight to have half way through a planned series.

Don’t expect her to write a series again soon. When Muriel suggested she would like to read more about the characters in The Casual Vacancy, JK rolled her eyes and collapsed into her chair. She’s been the slave to her own creation for so long that she’s clearly relishing the freedom.

In fact, she spoke of the liberation of writing the new book. The heady pleasure of being a writer who could now write exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted to: ‘I love writers who take risks.’ She sprinkled Colette, Iris Murdoch, Trollope and Dickens into her talk.

Because she’s British and programmed to be self-deprecating, she also told us that she keeps a quotation by the Jaws writer, Peter Benchley on her study wall: ‘It took me 15 years to realise I wasn’t a good writer. But by then, I couldn’t stop because I was too famous.’

See, this is why we love her.

Lennoxlove books signing
The Great Hall in which JK Rowling signed books had more than a touch of Hogwarts about it…

 

We’re not at Hogwarts anymore

The audience was very teen heavy, which was brilliant. Not nearly enough teenagers go to literary festivals – and they should!

I loved the handling of the: ‘Why did you use the C-word?’ question. JK laughed, urged the shocked lady, who’d been reading the book in the doctor’s surgery, to read the Vagina Monologues, get out there and ‘really reclaim the c-word’.

Afterwards there was a book signing. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go because meeting your heroes even for a moment or two is… tricky. But teenagers were coming out of stunning Lennoxlove House gasping: ‘That was the most epic moment of my life!’ so I joined the airport security style queue.

Your book gets a special holograph sticker to prove it really has been JK Rowling-ed. Then you queue and watch her sign with a charming military precision. Her face absolutely lights up when anyone under the age of 20 approaches.

I thought I might manage: ‘Thank you for the YEARS of reading pleasure you’ve brought me and my children,’ as I was hustled past. But that just wouldn’t have summed up the countless nights we’ve snuggled in bed to read about Harry; the hours of Stephen Fry narration which kept us going on endless car journeys; the fact that even as a grown-up I couldn’t sleep on the day I read about dementors.

But I’m afraid when the moment came, I barely managed a croaked: thank you.

Like the true superstar she is, JK left every single person in that packed marquee desperate for more.

PS Thank you so much to festival sponsors McInroy and Wood for my ticket.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

 

Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.
Do your research. Write notes. Write more notes.

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

How do I get started writing?

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

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 1