Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. She was born on 9th August 1892, which means that if she were still alive she would be 122 today. That is 164 days younger than the age attained by Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified person who ever lived, who died in 1997 (though a Bolivian man called Carmelo Flores Laura, still living, is reputedly 123). I like to think, therefore, that she could still be alive and vying with Signor Flores Laura for the distinction of being the oldest person in the world.
My grandmother actually died on 9th February 1979, when she was eighty-six and a half. She outlived all of the famous people who are listed as having been born on the same day as she except for one: Thomas Fasti Dinesen. I’ve never heard of him – I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this piece of information – but apparently he was a Danish recipient of the Victoria Cross who died on 10th March 1979, about a month later than my grandmother. Significant events that happened on her actual birthday include that it was the day that Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a two-way telegraph and (of more interest to me and perhaps to readers of this blog) the first day of the trial of Lizzie Borden, the celebrated American murderess.
Every year when this date comes round, I pay a small, silent tribute to the strong, elegant and feisty woman that my grandmother was. She was in domestic service all her working life, a period which began when she was fourteen and did not end until she was seventy-four, with a very short break for the birth of my mother. She started her career, Tess of the d’Urbervilles fashion, as a poultry maid, working for an elderly lady in her native Kent. During the First World War, she trained as a nursery nurse at Bart’s Hospital and worked in London for more than a decade, looking after the two daughters (one was adopted and much younger than the other) of a Scottish diplomat. She then moved to South Lincolnshire to take up the post of housekeeper to Samuel Frear, the last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. He lived at a large house called The Yews. It’s still standing, just off the main Spalding-Surfleet road. During the Second World War, after Mrs Frear’s death, she moved to Spalding to another housekeeping job, this time working for the Hearnshaw family. They lived in a substantial three-storey house in Pinchbeck Road. Her final post was as lady companion to a very old lady called Mrs James, who lived at The Laurels in Sutterton.
Sausage Hall, the house that features in the next DI Yates novel (to be published on 17th November) is partly based on The Laurels. I can remember visiting my grandmother there when I was a small child.
When Mrs James became too ill to be cared for at home, my grandmother finally retired, to 1 Stonegate in Spalding, one of three mews houses built in 1795. These houses have since been renovated, but when she lived there they had hardly changed since they were new: the toilet was at the end of the short back garden path and, although she had a bath, it had been installed in the kitchen: there was no bathroom as such.
This house (the one on the right of the three in this picture) suited her well, because it was a short walk from Spalding town centre and just over the road from Spalding Parish Church, which she attended several times during the week and up to three times on Sundays (always clad in hat, gloves and stockings, even on the hottest of days).
As it happens, I’m just reading Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge. This is a meticulously-researched book. Although accessible, it is much more scholarly than many books I’ve read on the subject, which often fall into the trap of reading like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Many of the things that Lethbridge describes remind me of my grandmother’s accounts of work in the world of domestic service, but with one exception: she clearly never found the work demeaning and, although she must have been respectful towards her employers, she certainly did not kowtow to them. In fact, she gave me the impression that, in her day, trained servants were in such short supply that she could pick and choose whom she worked for and certainly earn a respectable salary.
My guess is that this was not because Lethbridge (or, indeed, my grandmother) has exaggerated the nature of the employer-servant relationship, but because my grandmother generally worked in a stratum of society not much covered by Lethbridge’s book: that of the upper-middle classes. Thus my grandmother was neither subject to the rules and strictures that servants in the grand stately homes had to observe, nor was she obliged to suffer the petty tyrannies and hard labour imposed by a ‘jumped-up’ lower-middle class mistress who could afford only one servant. The people for whom she worked were kind, enlightened, appreciative and wealthy enough to be able to pay for charladies, gardeners, maids-of-all-work and outsourced laundry services.
This is not to say that my grandmother did not work hard; I’m certain that she did. I know, for example, that when she was working for the Hearnshaws, she was accustomed to cook Christmas dinner for sixteen people. But the work that she did was appreciated and she had time to devote to her own preferred leisure activities: reading (especially geography books, a passion with her), fine embroidery and Christian worship. Each year her employers enabled her to take an annual holiday, either at the seaside or walking on the Yorkshire Moors.
She lived a long and useful life and, I think, it was overall a happy one. Reading Lucy Lethbridge’s book (which I thoroughly recommend), I am grateful to those long-gone employers for the way that they treated her.
I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
On the platform
Yesterday was a real red-letter day for me. I had been invited to give one of two after-lunch talks at Soroptimist International King’s Lynn annual fund-raising lunch, which was held at the Best Western Le Strange Arms Hotel at Old Hunstanton. I was invited to speak by Sue Renwick, this year’s King’s Lynn Soroptimist President, and her colleague, June Muir. I discovered that my name had been suggested by two of my old school friends, Lyn Lord and Mandy North. Both have been enthusiastic promoters of my books and Mandy has attended both of the signing sessions held at Bookmark in Spalding. I was chosen because my books are set in Spalding – not too far away from King’s Lynn (in fact, my brother was born in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital there) – and the group particularly likes to listen to authors whose books have a local flavour.
This literary lunch was the fourth one held by the King’s Lynn Soroptimists. The speaker at last year’s event was Stella Rimington (who has a house in Norfolk), so I felt honoured indeed! The audience consisted of ninety-nine lunchers, mostly Soroptimists, with a sprinkling of husbands. The Worshipful the Mayor of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Councillor Mrs Elizabeth Watson, was there, and I much enjoyed talking to her. I was privileged to be seated next to Sue Renwick’s husband and had a fascinating conversation with him about migrant workers in Norfolk (a topic in which I’m currently immersed as I write my third DI Yates novel). The local press was in attendance: I shall post links to their photographs when I have them.
I had heard of the Soroptimists before, but I didn’t know much about them until I received the invitation, when I made it my business to find out a little more. The first group was set up in the USA, quickly followed by others in the UK. The organisation is now worldwide. Its website explains its mission: We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide. The fund-raising events support particular causes. The money raised from yesterday’s lunch will contribute to respite holidays for Norfolk’s young carers: heartbreakingly, there are children as young as seven looking after infirm or disabled parents.
My fellow-speaker was Elly Griffiths, whom I had already met earlier this year at a very successful literary festival event held at Watton Library. Elly spoke first. I know her to be a witty and eloquent speaker (and therefore a tough act to follow!). She told the audience how she came to create her academic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, and read an excerpt from the next Ruth Galloway novel. She said that the inspiration for these books had come from her husband, who exchanged a high-profile, lucrative career as a city ‘suit’ to become an archaeologist. The Galloway novels are set in Norfolk because Elly’s aunt lives there and Elly spent holidays there as a child; she also pointed out that Norfolk is full of bones!
My brief asked me how I came to develop the characters in the DI Yates novels. I’ve reproduced some of what I said here in the hope that it may interest readers of this blog, as several of you have asked me similar questions.
When I was thinking about where to set the novels, I revisited the Spalding of my childhood (and incidentally some of my most memorable holidays as a girl were spent in Hunstanton). DI Yates’ Spalding is therefore a ‘perfect’ place in the sense that it exists only in my memory and imagination. Among the many riches that Spalding and the Fens offer to me as a writer is their wonderful place-names – Pode Hole, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, Pinchbeck: I know that many readers are intrigued by the promise of romance and mystery implicit in the names of these villages.
None of the characters is entirely based on people I know or have known, though they have been influenced by traits I saw in certain individuals or by real events and customs. For example, my great uncle kept a general shop in in Spalding, in Westlode Street. It was the family business for many years: he’d inherited it from his father. My grandmother – my father’s mother – acted as his housekeeper. More or less accurately, this is the shop in which Doris Atkins is murdered in In the Family. Her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Atkins, also known as Tirzah, is convicted of the crime. But Doris Atkins is not a portrayal of my grandmother, nor is Dorothy a portrayal of my mother. Uncle Colin, the hunchback who keeps the shop, is a little more closely based on my own great-uncle, but only in the physical sense: my great-uncle did indeed suffer from curvature of the spine. He did make forays on a grocer’s bicycle to collect cigarettes and bananas to sell in the shop. He did wear a long shopman’s coat and a trilby. But Colin’s character is not his character. (Just as well, considering what Colin gets up to in the novel!)
Moving on to Almost Love, I talked about Alex Tarrant and her role in the novel. Alex is the secretary of the Archaeological Society, a prestigious institution very loosely modelled on Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. Some of my readers have told me that they feel that the Archaeological Society is almost like another character in this novel. The story begins with the unexplained disappearance of a famous archaeologist. Several murders take place during the course of the novel and, although she isn’t involved in them directly, Alex is inadvertently the person who provides the links between the various perpetrators; this is in part because she embarks upon an ill-considered affair. I was interested in exploring the disintegration of character of Edmund Baker, the County Heritage Officer and the instigator of this illicit alliance, as he undoubtedly suffers the guilt of betraying his wife.
I also spoke about my grandmothers and the extraordinary houses they lived in. I’ve already mentioned the shop at Westlode Street where my father’s mother lived. My mother’s mother was employed in domestic service from the age of fourteen to seventy-four, at first (a bit like Hardy’s Tess!) as a poultry maid. Her second employer sent her to Bart’s Hospital to train as a nursery nurse and from this she worked her way up to become housekeeper to Samuel Frear, last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. She was widowed young, so my mother grew up at The Yews, the Frear family home at Surfleet. Just after I was born, my grandmother, now aged sixty, moved to Sutterton, to become companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels. She had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like Westlode Street, The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. The book I’m working on now is set in this house. When I began writing it, I had also just discovered that a very famous person was living in the area at the same time, which helped me to construct the plot. It’s about a murder that happens in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.
I think that both our talks were well-received: many of the Soroptimists came and spoke to us with great warmth and enthusiasm afterwards, and they were extremely generous in their purchases of our books. We were each presented with a pen in a beautifully crafted wooden box that Sue Renwick had made herself – an unexpected and delightful kindness.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank most sincerely all of those present for a wonderful day. I shall certainly take a very close interest in all that they do from now on and hope perhaps to be able to help them, both as a writer and a professional woman, in the future. I hope too that they will come to visit here and perhaps comment, too.