Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not a member won’t be aware that the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit the clubhouse is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today I’m talking to Ann about her writing. It’s lovely to have you here. May I order you a drink?
Many thanks for inviting me along to the tearoom, Paula – I see you have everything here, including tea and books! What could be better? And I’m a Yorkshire lass, so I’d like a cup of your Yorkshire Tea, please. Oh, and a chocolate biscuit too – thank you.
Right now we have our drinks, let’s get started. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
I was an only child, Paula, and we didn’t have TV until I was about ten, so books were a big part of my life from being very young. My grandmother in York had the most amazing stash of Victorian books in the attic, including bound collections of women’s magazines from the 1880s and 90s. Like today, they had serial stories, fashion pages and travelers’ tales – all illustrated with beautiful black & white drawings. I was hooked from day one – kept me entertained over many a wet weekend. As I grew older, I would read almost anything, but I’d learned a lot about late Victorian life without being aware of it, so I find I’m most comfortable writing novels set in that era.
What writing elements do you think are your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
Well, I love reading detective novels but couldn’t possibly write one, so I don’t go for complex plots. Looking back, at least two of my books could have done with a few more twists and turns, so maybe next time… My aim in writing is to create to fully-rounded characters, with all their imperfections. They drive the story – and it’s their flaws that lead them to make all-too-human mistakes. A recurring theme is the way the past influences the present, so I’ve also used time-slip as a means of carrying the story forward. I’ve been praised for that, so I must be getting it right.
I do tend to get totally involved though. It often seems to me that writing an important scene is like being the director of a film – except I get to play all the parts, as well as painting the scenery.
Tell us a little about your latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
This new book, ‘Housewife Writes Bestseller – a Tale of Life & Luck,’ is a memoir that began life as a series of blogs on my website. My first two novels, ‘Louisa Elliott’ and ‘Liam’s Story’, had been traditionally published to sudden, jaw-dropping success. That was thirty years ago, but as historical tales of life and love they were timeless, and back in 2012, I wanted to reissue them. To spark some interest, I used blogs to record some of the extraordinary events that led to their creation.
Both books were inspired by a WW1 diary that I’d discovered in Grandma’s attic, but from start of writing in early 1982, to the publication of the sequel in late 1991, it was as though I’d tapped into a different world. It was never spooky, but while following clues in what felt like a treasure hunt, I often wondered just who or what was in charge. A long chain of coincidences led to some wonderful people, amazing facts, and later – after publication – to some truly bizarre moments. Not least, the interest of the tabloids! The ‘housewife’ tag was embarrassing at the time – but how else could they describe me? I didn’t go to university and I wasn’t a career woman. Peter, my husband, was a sea-captain away on long voyages of up to six months, while I was caring for our two children and handling absolutely everything on the home front. On the plus side, we often got calls at short notice to join him for a few weeks aboard ship – if I’d been in paid employment, we couldn’t have done that. But my ambition had always been to write a novel, and once I got started, I found it gave me purpose, and kept me focused during some of the worst times – especially in the mid-1980s, when Peter was involved in the Gulf War.
Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter?
After doing some basic research, I usually have a good idea of who the characters are and where their story needs to begin and end. After that my writing progresses a few chapters at a time – rather like a child’s dot-to-dot picture. But my research becomes more in depth while writing, so odd nuggets of information can change both the tone and direction of the novel.
Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order, begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?
- Thomas Hardy, for his characters and beautiful settings, and also his bitter-sweet storylines. I read ‘The Trumpet Major’ first – it was part of the syllabus for O Level GCE – and went on to read all his novels over the next few years. I loved his fictional Wessex, and since moving here to Hampshire, I’ve enjoyed exploring his home county of Dorset.
- Daphne du Maurier for similar reasons – Cornwall, in her case. But I admire her for the very different books she produced, from historical novels to thrillers, and what must have been the first time-slip novel, ‘The House on the Strand’.
- Tolstoy – again for his rounded characters and the background of 19thC Russia. I was reading his novels around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – as an antidote to the scary stuff reported in the news!
- Donna Leon – a modern favourite, with a great central character in detective Commissario Brunetti, insights into Italian politics, and of course, the wonderful Venetian settings.
- Rosie Thomas – her novel, ‘The White Dove,’ set during the Spanish Civil War, really inspired me, and proved to be the key to what happened later in my own life.
When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?
Not usually, although while leading a celibate life in my thirties, I did put a lot of passion into my early novels! And I remember at the beginning of my fourth novel, ‘Moon Rising,’ being so angry about a particular situation, it found its expression on the page.
Were any of your characters inspired by real people?
Yes, in fact much of my work has been inspired by the lives of real people – my great-grandmother, who became the fictional Louisa Elliott, and her eldest son, a WW1 soldier, who became Liam Elliott in the sequel. Bram Stoker is a major character in ‘Moon Rising’ set in 1880s Whitby, and Captain EJ Smith inspired ‘The Master’s Tale,’ my take on the Titanic disaster. The experiences of a close friend inspired my most recent novel, ‘One Night, Two Lives.’ Using the known facts of these people’s lives, in many respects I’ve had a ready-made framework for each novel.
How I’ve interpreted them as fictional characters, is based to a certain extent on my own experience, since I’ve been fortunate in knowing people from different walks of life. But I believe time and place influence who we are and how we think – so that’s been an important factor. But I’ve also had quite a few light-bulb moments in which I understood exactly what motivated them – and that’s been guaranteed to spur me on!
What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?
Through writing and researching six novels, I’ve learned a huge amount about social history, and I try to weave that into the main thread of the tale. I like to give the reader a picture of what life was like at the time. Old newspapers – usually kept in local archives – can be great source material.
Incidentally, from the early days, I found that reading aloud, to a friend or writers’ group, is the best way to ‘hear’ your own work. You can tell whether the dialogue works – and also tell whether you’ve ‘gone on’ too much or repeated yourself. Best of all, you get a sense of the rhythm of a sentence, what sounds right and what doesn’t.
How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?
I have a book of names and their meanings – very useful. And like you, Paula, I enjoy wandering around graveyards, looking at memorial stones and wondering about the people buried there. One of the main characters in ‘Moon Rising’ has an unusual surname – borrowed from a gravestone in York. But do I know everything about them? No, although I usually know enough to be able to decide what kind of person he or she is, and I let the story carry on from there.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
It’s changed over the years. When I first started writing, the children were young and my working hours followed the course of the school day. Breaks came with research trips, school holidays and/or my husband’s home leave. ‘Louisa Elliott’ was a big novel that took five years to write. But with the next, ‘Liam’s Story’ – an equally big book, involving time-slip and WW1 – I became a professional, working to a deadline, often for 10 or 12 hours a day. I met the two-year deadline on time, but it was tough going.
After four traditionally published novels, by 2000, I’d had enough of the pressure. Big changes in publishing as well as in my personal life, meant that at least three other ideas never made it beyond a few chapters. But I’m glad to say that Captain Smith of the Titanic did spark true inspiration, and ‘The Master’s Tale,’ was my first indie-published novel in 2011. The second, ‘One Night, Two Lives,’ was published in 2019. Between times, I spent a lot of time travelling, painting, and writing blogs.
Being an indie writer means I can work at my own pace. Nowadays, I begin about 10am, I have a break for lunch and finish about 6pm – but I keep a pen and notebook by the bed, just in case my characters insist on talking to me! Whether I’ll write another novel is open to question, but another memoir – about our travels aboard merchant ships when the children were young – is certainly on the cards.
It’s been lovely Paula. Thank you so much for asking me. I hope my answers prove useful to other writers and those just starting out. Despite the challenges and the pressures of success, I wouldn’t change a thing – it was a fantastic time and I met some wonderful people. I hope my memoir reflects that – and that those who read it enjoy the stories behind the books.
Thank you for taking up my invite, Ann. It has been very interesting and I’m sure it will help others. If you what to find out more about Ann’s writing or books check out her links:
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/AnnVictoriaRoberts/
It you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops too.