Life imitating my books

I do like researching. I’m a natural researcher when it comes to digging up information and for many years that was my main career: finding and managing information. These days, the closest I get to researching is watching programmes like Who do you think you are?  It’s not the celebrity that fascinates me, but the effort involved in discovering their family background, all of which is done before the programme is even filmed by unsung genealogists and archivists, combing through archives and online records for an elusive entry. It takes time. Patience.

While watching a foray into the family history of Paul Merton the comedian, the programme touched on prison life during mid-Victorian era. Now as it happens I’m writing a book that dips into this period in history, although the main story is contemporary. Merton’s ancestor was sent to Wandsorth Prison, the comparable location in my book is Lincoln prison in the grounds of the castle. An old gaol that once practised segregation and isolation, just as Paul Merton’s ancestor experienced during her prison sentence.

Prisoners wore masks so that they couldn’t see each other’s faces, this included the wardens, who were forbidden to interact with the inmates. The condemned were referred to by numbers and not by name, their crimes unknown. There was strict silence, nobody was allowed to speak to each other. Prisoners where kept physically separated at all times in solitary cells and when exercising they couldn’t come into close proximity. The idea behind this draconian practice was to force the prisoner to address their crimes and find salvation. But really, let’s face it, it’s a form of mental torture and unlikely to result in rehabilitation, just good old fashioned punishment. The Separate System didn’t last long and the concept was abandoned, but not on humanitarian grounds – it was costly and hard to maintain.

The TV programme showed an illustration of the chapel with its individual cells where prisoners stood unable to see each other, only the preacher on his high pulpit would be visible.

prison chapel

Surrey House of Correction, Wandsworth

Lincoln Prison’s segregated chapel still exists and is a popular part of the museum’s tour. It also features in my current work in progress – a ghost story where nothing is seen, just heard. My protagonist, Laura, finds herself seemingly alone in one of those cells. But is she really?

The final part of the visit was the chapel, a well-known exhibit, and she believed in savouring the best last. Facing the eagle’s nest pulpit was a honeycomb of tiered wooden cubicles in the form of four crescent rows of individual pews, each with their own divider and no view other than the pulpit before them. Plain and simple, the chapel was a tidy construction that ensured a prisoner never saw another; they were loaded into the row at one end and kept in a perpetual state of isolation until the service ended.

Laura entered one such lidless crate and shut the door. There was only space to stand or sit upon a hard bench. She tucked her elbows in and perched on the edge of the seat. Opposite her was the high balcony. What kind of sermon would the prisoners have heard? Hell fire and damnation or redemption through salvation? Either way, the congregation in their tiny upright coffins had no choice but to listen. The layout reminded her a little amphitheatre. Was there about to be a real-life performance – she glanced up at the overhanging pulpit. Empty, the towering box seemed to loom over the pews, casting a long shadow. Had the prisoners quaked in their boots or dozed off in boredom?

She stood, swayed slightly, aware of a cooling brush of air against her face. Then a noise close by: a cough? A sneeze?

She turned, cocked her ear and focused on the sounds slipping by her. Shuffling, or scuffling shoes? The direction was clear: somebody was in the cubicle next to her, and probably seated as the crown of his or hers head wasn’t visible above the partition. The unnerving discovery meant her neighbour had been there since she’d arrived in the chapel – how else could a person be barricaded into a miniature cell when she blocked their exit? Holding her breath, she leaned toward the wooden partition. Should she say a little ‘hello’ or clear her throat?

 

Heachley Hall is open for business! #newrelease

Today my magical mystery book goes live on Amazon, which means the doors of Heachley Hall are fully open for you to come in and explore, alongside Miriam, who has to decide whether she can really live in a decaying house for year and a day.

I don’t possess the skills needed to renovate a Victorian hall, so I sympathise with her initial decision – sell and run away from the problem. But, I’m also drawn to old houses and the stories they have to tell. If you are intrigued by mysteries and gothic houses, then stay with Miriam for a while and see what happens as she uncovers the secret behind her great-aunt’s legacy, a mystery that only women can solve.

Chapter one – exploring Heachley Hall

The life of a freelance illustrator will never rake in the millions so when twenty-eight year old Miriam discovers she’s the sole surviving heir to her great-aunt’s fortune, she can’t believe her luck. She dreams of selling her poky city flat and buying a studio.

But great fortune comes with an unbreakable contract. To earn her inheritance, Miriam must live a year and a day in the decaying Heachley Hall.

The fond memories of visiting the once grand Victorian mansion are all she has left of her parents and the million pound inheritance is enough of a temptation to encourage her to live there alone.

After all, a year’s not that long. So with the help of a local handyman, she begins to transform the house.

But the mystery remains. Why would loving Aunt Felicity do this to her?

Alone in the hall with her old life miles away, Miriam is desperate to discover the truth behind Felicity’s terms. Miriam believes the answer is hiding in her aunt’s last possession: a lost box. But delving into Felicity and Heachley’s long past is going to turn Miriam’s view of the world upside down.

Does she dare keep searching, and if she does, what if she finds something she wasn’t seeking?

Has something tragic happened at Heachley Hall?

Miriam has one year to uncover an unimaginable past.

“The story is beautifully constructed and precious, and it is very satisfying.” – Rosie Amber Reviewers

“This beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” – Goodreads reviewer

Available on Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and Print

Amazon

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The evolution of a book…

… or how it didn’t turn out quite how I expected it to.

When writing the first draft of The Women of Heachley Hall (codenamed: a year and a day), I had a good idea where I wanted to end up. The writing unfolded naturally to that conclusion and my congratulatory pat on the back. But, oh, the beginning of the book! It never offered the same sense of satisfaction. The feedback I had from beta readers, agents and editors sent me spiralling in circles of frustrating re-writes. Without spoiling the plot, this is how it went:

1. Opening chapters started in the house (great). However to explain the presence of the house, I needed the back story.  Consequently, the poor reader was sent zig-zagging back and forth in time. Where was the grab?

2. Try something completely different – a prologue. Introduce the historical aspect of the story by flinging the reader back in time. It certainly had a hook to it. But… the voice was written from a character who never appeared again the story. Uhm. Scrap that idea.

3. Re-write the opening to follow the chronology of events and introduce the key characters. For a while, I thought that was the draft to work on. Except, I’d created heaps of dialogue and no house. The feedback became more consistent – start in the house.

4. Oh dear. I’m back to square one, but I knew that first version didn’t work. I read, and read, I consulted the wisdom of other authors, attended writing workshops and finally, it slapped me in the face. Take option 1 and 3 and throw half of it out the window and re-write it to be the best of both worlds. I reminded myself I’m in control, I didn’t have to tie myself to one set of chronological events when the most important element of the book is the house, the protagonist’s reaction to the news she’s inherited it and what she does next.

After four years, and not the year and a day I envisaged, the opening settled down and stopped shouting at me to do something.

Have I learnt any lessons? Certainly: planning the intricate details of a book is one thing, writing it is another.

Now my labour of love is live on Amazon and available from pre-order.

Only women can discover Heachley’s secret.

The life of a freelance illustrator will never rake in the millions so when twenty-eight year old Miriam discovers she’s the sole surviving heir to her great-aunt’s fortune, she can’t believe her luck. She dreams of selling her poky city flat and buying a studio.

But great fortune comes with an unbreakable contract. To earn her inheritance, Miriam must live a year and a day in the decaying Heachley Hall.

The fond memories of visiting the once grand Victorian mansion are all she has left of her parents and the million pound inheritance is enough of a temptation to encourage her to live there alone.

After all, a year’s not that long. So with the help of a local handyman, she begins to transform the house.

But the mystery remains. Why would loving Aunt Felicity do this to her?

Alone in the hall with her old life miles away, Miriam is desperate to discover the truth behind Felicity’s terms. Miriam believes the answer is hiding in her aunt’s last possession: a lost box. But delving into Felicity and Heachley’s long past is going to turn Miriam’s view of the world upside down.

Does she dare keep searching, and if she does, what if she finds something she wasn’t seeking?

Has something tragic happened at Heachley Hall?

Miriam has one year to uncover an unimaginable past.

Available for Pre-Order on Amazon

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Advance reader copy for reviewers is available upon request.