libraries

Murders in the Fens

As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.

John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.

In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.

On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.

Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.

Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!

Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.

Very sunny Sleaford

Sleaford Library, which overlooks the marketplace

The first thing that strikes you about Sleaford is that it is a lovely old town with lots of characterful buildings and monuments. I was particularly taken with the Carre’s Hospital Almshouses, also known as the ‘Bedehouses’, off the Market Square in Eastgate and the lovely old redbrick buildings adjacent to the town centre car park. The next thing that strikes you is that it is a town packed with traffic. In every road and small lane, there is a queue of cars – at least, there is at midday on a summer’s afternoon on a Friday! The volume of traffic may explain why Sleaford can also boast an extremely friendly traffic warden who, when we eventually found a baking hot car park quite a long way out of town, directed us to one that was closer to the library.

The library itself is spacious and extremely well kept by Kay and her assistant librarians – I met Angela and June and I know there are others, too. She was also assisted by James, a work experience boy, who told us he had just enjoyed a stellar week in the library. I’m not surprised – Kay and her team thought of everything. They set out tables with lace cloths, served tea and biscuits twice – at the beginning of the talk and before it ended – and gave me a beautiful bunch of flowers before I left. They also secured one of the largest audiences I have had on this series of talks. They told me this had been achieved by putting flyers in the boxes of books they send out to reading groups – a useful tip for other librarians, if any are reading this post.

As always, the members of the audience came from diverse backgrounds and each had an interesting backstory to tell. There was an Australian couple searching for information about the husband’s ancestors; the widow of the former County Archaeologist of Northamptonshire, with whom I had a fascinating exchange about Anglo-Saxon graves that contained valuable grave goods – and the ones that didn’t; a teacher of English literature; and a lady whose parents had known Ethel Major, the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire (more about her in a later post) and were adamant that she wasn’t guilty. Various lawyers have recently come to the same conclusion, if more tentatively expressed.

All my audiences have asked different kinds of questions. This audience – made up of avid readers – wanted to know what sparks the idea of a plot in the first place: what triggers the gleam in the author’s eye? I much enjoyed talking with them and was grateful to them all for turning out on such a hot day – it was thirty-one degrees outside, though the library – uniquely among the libraries I have visited – boasted some very effective air conditioning. I was impressed that every person who booked a ticket turned up.

The talk at Sleaford was the last of the series of talks in Lincolnshire libraries arranged to celebrate Crime Readiing Month. I felt that, owing to the amazing efforts of Kay, Angela, June and the rest of the team, the series ended on a real high. Very many thanks to them and to all the wonderful Lincolnshire librarians I have met this June. I am not planning any events for July and August, but I shall be back in the autumn, setting up some writing workshops and giving more talks. I will keep the readers of this blog posted.

And the posts will, of course, continue until the end of the month – possibly beyond, if I can summon up the time! Tomorrow’s post will be by Kev, a Lincolnshire police officer responsible for the drones the police service uses – to catch criminals, of course, but for other purposes, too. Kev has sent me some great photos to accompany it. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.

Bewitched by Long Sutton library – and murder and tea with the vicar

On Monday, after a cloudy start, the weather suddenly started to improve, aided in my case by my travelling south to Long Sutton, which already had a head start in the heat stakes. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived in this old Fenland village with its ancient silver and grey church and mellow ‘city centre’ (that term beloved of satnavspeak that makes me smile when the ‘city’ in question has a population of 5,000 people😉).

As I was an hour early for my talk, I headed to the churchyard, intent on finding the grave of John Bailey, a surgeon from the village who was murdered in 1795. I spent an interesting half hour examining the gravestones, having quickly discovered the late eighteenth-century graves, but I could not find John Bailey. I knew he was there somewhere because I had seen a photo of his stone. A quick online search told me that it was inside the church. The church – which began to be built in 1170 – is magnificent; I recommend anyone who is passing through the area to visit. Luckily for me, on Monday it was unlocked and, having it to myself, I walked slowly up the aisle from the back of the church to the altar and then down the aisle on the other side, reading all the plaques on the wall and the gravestones set into the floor. I discovered tributes to several ‘vickers’ and members of the Fitzalan Howard family – the local toffs – but still John Bailey eluded me.

The time of my talk was approaching and reluctantly I decided I’d have to leave, Bailey still unfound. Outside the main door, I met a man dressed in black and wearing a dog collar – and, super-sleuth that I am, having honed my investigative skills through the medium of writing nine detective stories, I deduced that it was the vicar. He asked if he could help and when I said I was looking for John Bailey he led me straight to Bailey’s memorial stone, which was set in the floor very close to the altar and cunningly concealed by a chair.

The vicar told me a bit more about the church and said he would have liked to have come to my talk, but the parish meeting was taking place at the same time. He therefore had tea and biscuits to hand! Very hospitably, he made me a cup of tea which I had to drink quickly as time was running short. It was not exactly what you might expect of tea with the vicar – we drank standing up from recyclable paper beakers – not a bone china cup in sight – but it was hugely welcome after a long journey and the dusty ramblings among the tombstones.

On to the library, where I met Tarina and Alison, the librarians,

and a very lively audience made up of some of their readers.

As with my other Lincolnshire talks to celebrate CRM, the discussion following the formal part of the event ranged far and wide. I discovered, for example, that in the nineteenth century, the citizens of low-lying Wisbech were plagued with agues which they assuaged by taking laudanum made with opium from the boats that still sailed up the river from the sea. (I’ve never been to Wisbech, though my Great Aunt Lily lived there. I doubt if she was one of the laudanum set. She signed the ‘pledge’ when she was fourteen and thought my father, who could make the same bottle of whisky last across three Christmases, was a drinker because he indulged in the odd glass of shandy on his way to the coast.)

One of my audience is a curator at Bewsey Old Hall in Wisbech. I have been invited to give a talk there later this year. The vicar would also like me to return to talk to various groups in the village, so I am already looking forward to visiting Long Sutton again.

Huge thanks to Tarina, Alison, Jonathan Sibsey the vicar and my wonderful audience at the Long Sutton library for an enchanted afternoon. And thank you, John Bailey, for eventually emerging from your hiding place. I’ll write about you in a later post.

Footnote

On an entirely unrelated topic, today is Bloomsday, the day that Leopold Bloom pounded the streets of Dublin in 1916 in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a date that I remember every year. Joyce chose the date because it was the same day of the year in which he met his (eventual – they didn’t marry until they were middle-aged, after many years and two children) future wife Nora Barnacle in 1902. Barnacle really was her name – I’ve always been surprised that Joyce didn’t use if for one of his characters. She was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when they met. I envisage her as a homely, no-nonsense lady who did her best to keep Joyce grounded. He was one of the (slightly) more stable members of the brilliant but half insane generation of writers that included Virginia Woolf (his exact contemporary), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott FitzGerald. Happy Bloomsday, everyone!

Murder in Horncastle and Mablethorpe

Conviviality in the very friendly library at Horncastle!

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. It involved a very early start – in perfect early summer daylight, the gentle sunshine gradually getting stronger – as I travelled to the first two of the four library talks I have been invited to give in Lincolnshire to celebrate Crime Reading Month.

The first was scheduled to take place at the library in Horncastle, which is a fine old market town of brick, mellow stone and painted rendered buildings.

Post Office building, complete with guerrilla knitting!

It was also my first visit there. It was market day – I love Lincolnshire markets! – and I had time to buy new potatoes (‘Boston potatoes’), the rich local soil still clinging to them, and some strawberries.

Buying potatoes: “You want washed or dirty? Dirty? Help yourself.” Lol.

The event was very ably hosted by Helen, the library manager, and Donna and Hannah, two of the library’s librarians.

Helen, Donna and Hannah: In amongst and engaged with everyone.

All were wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable about the history of the town and famous people who have lived there: I discovered, for example, that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby, near the town. The audience – some of them members of the library’s book club – was also formidably knowledgeable, as well as being avid crime fiction readers. After the formal part of the talk, the discussion ranged far and wide. Over tea and biscuits, we managed to talk about local murders, discrimination against women, why I use a pseudonym, local tycoons and local customs – including an explanation of the fascinating ‘ran-tanning’, something I had never come across before, even though I am Lincolnshire born and bred. It was an ancient practice adopted by the neighbours of a wife-beater, who would surround his house and make a racket by beating on pots, pans and farm implements until he treated his wife with more respect. If he transgressed again, the process was repeated: an early version of Neighbourhood Watch and vigilantism combined which was probably more effective than calling the police today. It might be worth a revival.

I stayed talking with the Horncastle audience for so long that I only just made it to Mablethorpe for the afternoon event.

The light and airy new Mablethorpe Library.

Kathy, Manager of the recently built and very well-stocked library, and her colleagues had gathered an impressive audience which consisted of local people across the age range, including several children.

An animated and warm welcome from Kathy.

Once more, there was a lively discussion which covered many topics –  again accompanied by tea and biscuits – after the main talk. This audience was interested in the process of writing, how to get published and how authors exercise their rights over the more unusual outputs of publishing – films, TV scripts, audio etc.

They particularly wanted to know whether, if I sold the film rights to my books, I would let the film company alter the characters and the endings of the books. (My answer was a resounding ‘No!’ 😉) They said they had often been disappointed when they’d watched films of books they had read, only to discover that the script writer had “mucked about” with the author’s story.

One of the young women present and two of the children were aspiring writers who wanted to know how to get their work noticed. One of the children had already won a writing competition. Ebony, her sister, presented me with a tiny, fluffy feather, which I have carefully brought home. I think it is beautiful. I suggested that they should start a blog and post on it often, sometimes supporting other writers, attend festivals, book themselves into author surgeries at events and, above all, exercise patience, courage and self-belief! Regular readers of this June CRM series will see that I have ‘borrowed’ many of these tips from others who have contributed to it.

For this series of Lincolnshire talks I have carried out some research to find an unsolved murder which took place in each of the towns in which I am speaking. As I still have two more talks to go – I am at Long Sutton library next Monday (13th June) and at Sleaford library on Friday 17th June I won’t today bomb the blog by introducing a spoiler that tells more. I shall, however, write a post about these murders – some of them very unusual – when the talks have all been delivered.

Huge thanks to Helen, Donna and Hannah and Kathy and her team for all the work they put into making these talks a success and for their magnificent hospitality. Massive thanks also to all the members of the two marvellous audiences. I hope that some of you will find this post, read it and like it – and that we may meet again. Kathy has already expressed enthusiasm for my suggestion of including a writers’ workshop next time I come.  So, two more exceptional library teams that are awe-inspiring in their people skills, organisational flair and warmth of personality. Well done, Lincolnshire!

And a very special thank you to Ebony. I shall treasure the feather!

Three great librarians and what makes them tick

The lovely Gainsborough Library

This month I shall be lucky enough to give talks at four Lincolnshire libraries: Horncastle, Mablethorpe, Long Sutton and Sleaford. The first two are on Thursday. In the first instance they were arranged by Lynne Kershaw, who has welcomed me to Gainsborough Library several times. When I was last there I asked Lynne and her colleagues to describe what it means to be a librarian.

On 24th May, it was my privilege to be invited to give a talk on crime fiction at Gainsborough Library in North Lincolnshire. I had visited the library before and was looking forward to the warm welcome that the librarians, Lynne, Fabi and Jill, always provide.

A relaxed interview with librarians Fabi and Jill

Between them they have devoted fifty-one years to the library (Lynne has worked there for twenty-six years, Fabi for nineteen and Jill, seven). I asked them what inspires them. What makes them so committed to their jobs?

They said they love reading and books, being with people and helping those who use the library. They are much more than advisers about and dispensers of books: their patrons confide in them and often need their support to help sort out problems.

“There’s a lady who’s been using the library for a long time who told us she had been bereaved. She was very lonely and needed to get more activities into her life. We put her in touch with people who could help her. Now the only free day she has is Tuesday.”

These librarians are particularly devoted to helping children. “We want to inspire people to read. It’s a real joy when children want to come in and choose books to read. There are still many families who have no books at home.”

The library has set up a writing group of a special kind. Led by a journalist, it aims to provide therapy for people who are depressed or suffering from a disability. And many people who visit the library regularly come to use the computers. Being able to access computers has become a crucial element of all library services since applications for government benefits switched to online. Often people who are entitled to benefits don’t have computers of their own and, quite frequently as a result, they don’t know how to use them. The librarians have had some training in assisting with this, but the technology is always changing and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it. A ‘computer buddy’ therefore offers sessions in the library on Mondays and Tuesdays. The library is made available to other groups and societies who want to use it, too.

Lynne, who is the library manager, said that her mum used to bring her to Gainsborough Library when she was very small – she thinks from the age of seven. Recalling what the library was like then, she remembers that all the books were catalogued in card index files and there was always an old bloke smoking a pipe who had come in to read the newspapers. (The library has kept its collection of old newspapers.) After she left school, she worked in a bank; then, when she had her first child, she looked for a job in the library and has been working there ever since.

Lynne, Gainsborough Library Manager

They organise as many events as they can cope with. ‘My’ event was obviously about crime fiction. Many events are intended to keep children reading: they were preparing for a sequence of Platinum Jubilee events when I was there. They will also launch a Summer Reading Challenge, which will last for six weeks. A separate event is planned for each week and children are encouraged to read six books in the period. Each time they read two books, they receive a prize, and a certificate when the challenge finishes.

Despite all this activity – and very hard work – the librarians say that it is sometimes difficult to explain how librarians and libraries add value. They are continually having to justify their existence to the government and others who scrutinise the (relatively modest) costs of running a public library service. “It’s hard to define qualitative work.”

As an author, I can say librarians have certainly added shed loads of value for me – and, I’m sure, for other authors, too. It’s not just the joy of being welcomed to a place where my novels are really appreciated or the buzz of being invited to talk about writing – though both are of course important – it’s achieving the holy grail of being able to interact with readers in the flesh, of having the chance to ask them what they like to read, who their favourite authors are and what they think of individual books. In my experience, readers pull no punches – but they are also amazingly generous. The amount of time they are prepared to spend on reading my books and afterwards thinking and talking about them is truly humbling. It may sound trite to say it, but readers are the lifeblood of writing; and authors would attract far fewer readers if librarians did not devote every day to promoting their books.

National Crime Reading Month and www.christinajamesblog.com

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) and the Reading Agency have built on their brilliant lockdown idea of designating June as Crime Reading Month (CRM). This June, crime writing of all kinds will be celebrated in bookshops, schools, libraries and museums and at special events. CWA members are all encouraged to engage in some kind of activity to celebrate crime writing and reading, however small – it could be something as simple as encouraging a local library or bookshop to mount a crime fiction display – or large – the festivities culminate with the announcement of this year’s Daggers Award winners. More information about individual activities and events can be found at Events – National Crime Reading Month. It is worth checking this site every day, as exciting new projects are continually being added.

I think CRM is a very exciting concept and I am planning to participate by offering a new blog post every day during June on some aspect of crime writing, reading or publishing. Most of the posts will take the form of interviews with people prominent in these areas and I have many great interviews already lined up: for example, with Richard Reynolds, the doyen of booksellers specialising in crime fiction; Dea Parkin, the secretary of the CWA; and Lynette Owen, the distinguished editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, as well as authors, book lovers, bloggers, librarians, publishers, policemen and more booksellers. I have been invited to take part in several events myself and shall be covering these, too. There are still a few spaces left in the latter half of the month, so, if you would like to take part in an interview for the blog, please let me know.

I’ll write one or two posts about certain aspects of my writing. Questions that I have been asked are: ‘Why do your books describe the towns and villages of Lincolnshire as they were when you were growing up, even though the novels themselves are set in the present?’ and ‘What is the fascination that Lincolnshire still holds for you as an author, when you say you moved away many years ago?’

I’ll pick up on this later in the sequence. In the meantime, I do hope you will find time to follow the posts and enjoy them. The series will begin tomorrow with the Richard Reynolds interview. Why have I started with a bookseller? The post itself explains.

National Libraries Week

It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.

Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.

We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!

I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020. 

Stamford Library, January 2020

Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.  

I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog.  If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.

In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.

I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.

Happy library memories: with Lynne and her lovely colleagues at Gainsborough Library
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