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And my favourite book is …

I started writing when I was about nine years of age and I think my first story was a murder mystery, which seems a bit strange because I loved books like Black Beauty!

I was particularly enchanted by this book because I was in love with horses and I read it time and time again. This horse was so intelligent and I think there was a burning stable and it managed to get out and sound the alarm. It’s very vague and hazy in my mind but I know the story transported me to a different world. I loved and still love the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.

Those are quite gentle books with a bit of a moral theme running through them, I suppose, and children don’t realise they’re learning. So, I’m not sure where writing a murder mystery came from!

Of course, I read to my boys when they were young and they were great fans of Dr Seuss, and the Narnia books, as well as some of the classics like Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and they devoured the Asterix books.

My writing journey stopped when I was about nine or ten and I never started again until I was in my thirties. I wrote a few children’s stories but didn’t start writing any adult fiction until my current novel, The Mayflower Marriage. Throughout my life everyone kept telling me I should write but only in recent years have I felt I wanted to. Then when I was searching for what to write about, my friend Jane said “You must write this story”. I found myself waking up in the morning thinking about it and then it was in my head and I knew I had to do it.

I mostly read character fiction and biographies. I think biography is a wonderful way to learn history, and I am especially interested in American history.

I don’t have one favourite book but up there in the Top 10 is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin which is about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet. He brought together various men who had rivalled him in the campaign and the book is written as a biography of each one which takes you right through the Civil War. Goodwin is a master of complexity and a marvellous storyteller.

Another favourite is A Month in the Country by J L Carr. It is a short novel, about a man who has come back from the First World War and is commissioned to uncover a mural in a village church. He spends a summer in the village where he becomes part of village life and falls in love. Carr takes us on a journey into an imagined past filled with vivid, sometimes poignant memories; a past in which something precious slips out of reach, is lost forever. The book is a modern classic.

I hope readers of The Mayflower Marriage (published in March 2020) will be similarly transported to a different time and become immersed in the story of my characters who lived then.

The story behind the story

I thought for my first blog I would share some of the discoveries I made while writing The Mayflower Marriage.

I knew virtually nothing about the Pilgrim Fathers before I started writing the book. I’d grown up with the myth that they sailed to America, everybody got along beautifully and they made a treaty with the Indians and lived happily ever after. And that sanitised version couldn’t be further from the truth.

I hadn’t realised or imagined the political machinations that went on amongst the Indian tribes; how they were vying for power and the extent to which the Pilgrims became embroiled in these power struggles. And I had no idea about the horrendous King Philip’s war. 

Also, knowing very little about the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, I was interested to learn the extent to which folk at that time were medieval in their outlook, believing in an almost causal link between their earthly ‘natural’ lives and the supernatural, e.g. that a comet streaking across the sky could be a portent; that a hurricane or an earthquake could be a sign of Heavenly disapproval.

It was also a jolt to learn just how brutal life was. I visited the Plimouth colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts; a reconstruction of the colony as it was in 1627. The ‘houses’ were hovels with dirt floors, and I knew from experience just how harsh the climate could be.  The ‘guides’ are all characters from the time enacting how it would have been – you can talk to these people and ask them questions and they respond in character but they wouldn’t go beyond 1627. 

There is a reconstruction of The Mayflower moored in Plymouth Harbour and it was a thrill to stand in this small ship and look across the harbour to Clarks Island where the first exploring party spent a cold, wet night having almost drowned. 

Close by the Pilgrim settlement is a reconstruction of a settlement of the Wampanoag tribe with ‘guides’ taking the roles of Native Americans, answering questions about the Wampanoag way of life and history.

In my research I delved into many books, both primary and secondary sources, but four stand out. First, Bradford’s history of the Plymouth Settlement 1608 – 1650. William Bradford was governor of the colony for 30 years. Second, Mayflower, A Voyage to War by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick’s books all combine meticulous accurate research with a gift for storytelling, giving a spellbinding read. Third, Saints and Strangers by George F Willison. I found this book on my father’s bookshelf. Published in 1945 the history is not as up to date as some contemporary historians but it goes into detail about the religious background and contains many anecdotal episodes. Finally, The Mayflower and her Passengers by Caleb H Johnson gives a brief biography of all the passengers who travelled on the 1620 crossing of The Mayflower along with the estate inventories where they existed. These hold a treasure of detail about the person’s daily life and interests. This is where I discovered that Miles Standish possessed a copy of Homer’s Iliad.

This has been a very rewarding project. I had never written fiction before so it did take a long time before I finally got the hang of structuring the book and how you had to get the emotional movement and movement of the plot etc. But with the one I’m writing now I’ve got an overall sense of the plot and structure, and I have a much better feel of how to weave things together. So I’m hoping it won’t take anything like as long as The Mayflower Marriage