Interview with a Character

Patricia Redman features throughout the Wild Water Series. A tough cookie and an astute businesswoman, she plays the victim card to her advantage and is always looking to better her lot, often valuing material things above relationships. But she is also vulnerable and desperate for genuine love. Sadly, she is often unable to recognise  it.

1. You seemed to have everything when you were married to Jack; a beautiful house, a hard-working husband, delightful children.  So why were you unfaithful to him?
“Oh, rubbish! Everyone only ever sees Jack side. He was a workaholic when I was married to him, just like his father, and look what happened there… I was unhappy, neglected, and bored. I didn’t plan to be unfaithful – it just happened. I know everyone says that and I admit I was stupid to fall for Philipe’s promises and his plans: yes, he had an amazing business plan for combining my beauty salon and his hairdressing chain but, well… things change and it progressed in a different direction from there. I suppose it was inevitable it all got in a mess since Jack was never around and Philipe just kind of ‘got me.’ Above all, he understood fashion and style in a way Jack never did. And anyway, Jack’s behaviour was no better. He couldn’t wait to get Anna Williams into bed the minute my back was turned.”
2. Your daughter Lottie seems such a lovely girl, but are you finding her behaviour rather challenging as she grows older?
“Lottie and I have never seen eye to eye, she was always a daddy’s girl. Still is, always will be. Which is why I made the decision to move away. It wasn’t easy, but I did it for her and Jack, in the end. You don’t believe me, do you? It’s true. Lottie has never needed me in the way that Oliver and James have. Even Chelsey was far more independent, but she’s another story altogether, isn’t she? Actually, I don’t want to talk about Chelsey because my words will be twisted and everything will come out about Banks and that awful, awful time when he… well, as I said, I’m not going to be drawn into that other than to say that Jack and Anna had a lot to do with it, surprise surprise! As for Lottie, she’s happy enough. She’s going to stage school, that’s the last I heard.”
3. What do you think about Anna?  In other circumstances could you have been friends?
“Haha! Anna? There are no circumstances where she and I would ever be friends. What on earth do we have in common? She’s a mess! She lived in a falling-down farmhouse surrounded by swamps of mud before Jack sunk a load of cash into it. So far as I know she still looks and behaves like a hippy from the seventies; long straggly hair, big boots, dirty skirts. Does she still waft incense sticks around and make her own polish out of beeswax? She used to be boring when we flat-shared in our student days but these days she takes it to a whole new level. Lottie told me the other day they baked liver biscuits for the dogs and dug up mealworms on the beach, so that says it all. Anna Williams has always been, and still is, fat and uninteresting, and she stole my husband.”
4. Why do you spend so much time and money on shopping?  Are you depressed?
“I did go through a stage of depression after losing everything, but I met another man, and you know how it is, some things just fall into place and I gradually got my mojo back. I love shopping, so why not? There’s nothing more satisfying than filling the boot of my car with lots of shiny bags. I don’t think it had anything to do with my depression… I see shopping more as a hobby, so in the end I think it helped me. It has to be better than taking pills, surely?”
5. Some people call you manipulative, but do you really deserve our sympathy?
“Do you know, I’ve never asked for sympathy but yes, I do think I deserve at least a little. I’ve had a really hard time with my family. My parents, for example, have been no support at all. I know I had to move back in to their place and I was grateful for that but emotionally, you know? I’ve never felt good enough for them, nothing I could do to impress them. And it’s the same now. Another reason I moved away. I can’t see where I’ve manipulated anyone… I don’t know what you mean. Oh, do you mean all those complicated paternity issues with Jack? Look, I did what I thought was for the best, for the children, at the time. I honestly think I deserve some credit for that, it wasn’t easy, holding it all together. I’ve no hard feelings towards Jack. I’m in a better place now. Although, I do miss him sometimes, after all we never forget our first love. I wonder if he thinks about me?”

Idea and Original post by Lizanne Lloyd, plus her book review: https://lizannelloyd.wordpress.com/2018/02/12/an-interview-with-patsy-from-the-wild-water-series-by-jan-ruth/ 

The Myths of Publishing

Self-Publishing is a Last Resort.

No. To self-publish or operate as an Individual Publisher or an Indie, is often the best creative choice. Without the shackles of commercial pressure, genre-blending or your own personal genre, is the new kid on the block! The author retains global selling rights across all platforms and retains the majority share of any royalties. Most importantly, the author is in complete control of the entire process, from designing the cover to organising events, to advertising and pacing the release of new material. The more you invest of yourself the greater the opportunity for growth, development, and experience, not only as a writer through valuable on-line networking but in all aspects of the publishing world.
Depending on your technical skills, it’s quite possible to design your own covers and 13735790_873470892758672_4699674544226635043_opromotional material using a range of high quality software, some of which is accessible for free. Learning to format for ebooks and paperbacks cost nothing more than your time. If you make a mistake, fix it, learn from it, and move on. There are many publishing platforms out there now – to produce both ebooks and paperbacks – all of which are user-friendly and free. Print-on-demand allows an individual to invest in small quantities of paperbacks which are easily manageable from a financial point of view, and allow the author to either produce copies simply for their own use or order in sizeable quantities for shops and events.
12339449_755681737870922_2320413221731760214_o However, not every author has the skill nor the inclination to want to deal with every aspect of publishing. Some authors find it enjoyable, some find it stressful. And it’s fair to point out that if you don’t have the necessary technical skills then of course, not every aspect of self-publishing is free. The material needs to be professionally edited, proofread, formatted and designed to a recognisable industry standard if you wish to compete with the traditional market and produce something to be proud of. There are many excellent, experienced freelance professionals working in the self-publishing sector to enable you to achieve this. The quality (both in terms of the writing and the book itself) of self-produced work can vary from mediocre, to a standard which is actually way above that of some small press publishers because quite often the editing and designing of your book is a bespoke, individual process. After this, it’s perfectly possible to approach libraries and independent book shops. 
Beware of: Experts. There are plenty of swish looking websites and unscrupulous folk willing to take your money for advice and services offered, from editing to advertising, from special award badges for your book, endorsements, amazing reviews, to everything in-between. Don’t pay for anything – unless the service offered comes from a reputable source and you are happy with their examples. Ask around on the many forums available and choose carefully. 

Self-Publishing is the same as Vanity Publishing.

No. Vanity Publishers have no selection criteria. Vanity publishing is a complete service to authors who have no wish to become involved with the nuts and bolts of producing a book as an independent, or perhaps they don’t possess the knowledge or inclination to send out endless applications to agents and traditional publishers. Maybe they’ve simply become worn down by rejection letters, and we all know how that can feel. Some flattery from an editor is all it needs to get you to sign on the dotted line…
dollarphotoclub_92155465-676x451You will more often than not relinquish all rights to the material. The author is expected to cover all costs out of their own pocket, usually upfront, and the publisher will collect the majority of the royalties on the book. It’s an expensive, often disappointing route – because quite simply the publisher has been paid for his trouble and has no further interest in the material as they’ve already made their profit – from the author! Vanity Publishers have no relationship with bookshops or suppliers.
Beware of: Huge costs (running into several thousands of pounds) and vague promises. Quite often these types of publisher come across as the real thing through cunning advertising (sometimes they refer to themselves as self-publishers). 

A Good Book will be Published by a ‘Real’ Publisher.

Not necessarily. There is still the belief that agents and publishers secure the best material out there, and you may wish to try this route first. Lots of smaller publishers can be approached directly without the need for an agent to represent the author. This is where signing a contract can be confusing and in some cases, detrimental. However, a genuine publisher will never ask for a financial contribution towards producing your book. If they do, you could be dealing with a vanity press.
Traditional publishers are mostly interested in commercial fiction which fits neatly into a genre they are familiar with. This makes the job easier for them and less of a financial risk. 
hoes_six-cylinder_pressYou will of course relinquish all rights to the material and the majority of the royalty payments will go first and foremost to your publisher. This is not necessarily a bad deal if the publisher is knowledgeable about the current market, is selling lots of books and is proactive in maintaining those sales. In a lot of cases though, this simply doesn’t happen. Publishers rarely promote consistently and effectively. The risk of taking on books that don’t sell isn’t much of a deal breaker to them because ebooks are remarkably easy to produce and who knows, your book just might take off without too much effort or investment from them. They can also control expenses by only publishing print versions on demand; exactly as per the self-publishing route, and many of them use the exact same platforms. The alternative to this is that you’ve negotiated a traditional ‘print-run’, in which case the publisher may be keener to recover those costs and work harder on your behalf to shift the copies. The finished product may well look exactly the same as a self-published book but will retail at a much higher cost because of course, the publisher needs to factor in his cut. In some cases, the print book may even be of inferior quality. You will probably be expected to pay for copies of your own book or to buy any stock at trade price, around 40% of the retail cover price.
Beware of: High expectations, grey hybrids and contracts which tie you in to several works, or years of commitment at a low rate of royalty. You won’t necessarily see your book in a major retailer on the high street for example, or in libraries. You may be expected to produce a novel every 3-6 months if the publisher is mostly concerned with commercial ebook sales in a current popular genre. They’ll want to catch the market trends and a steady stream of material will (hopefully) make money.
vader-litreactorSome small presses are blending traditional methods with services approaching those required by the self-publisher. It’s perhaps a way of capturing everything which is going on in a fast moving, constantly changing market. The material may be better treated from an editorial point of view and usually the author will retain all selling rights, but at the end of the day it’s the author who is footing the bill and choices can be limited. Additional services such as offering an author a Facebook page is an example of how new and confused authors could be attracted to a ‘gold package’ when everything seems scary and complicated. Making a Facebook page for example, is simple and free, and yet in some cases, this is listed as a service. This hybrid type of publishing is often the sister arm of a reputable publishing company, encouraging authors to submit under the impression that the experience of the genuine publishing house will spill over into the self-financed version. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t… grey area?

Do I Need An Agent?

literary-agent-commission-contractNot necessarily. You only need an agent if you intend to approach publishing companies who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and/or you wish someone to act on your behalf to wade through the legal jargon of a complicated contract. Bear in mind that around only 1% of manuscripts are selected in this way. An agent may be able to secure a good contract for you, but remember they take around 15% of whatever they negotiate. This could be well worth it if the agent has great connections and you have a great manuscript which everyone wants…

How Much Money Do You Make?

If you are looking to make money from your writing, then you may be shocked to discover that the profit on a paperback can be as low as £1. This is without factoring in the time spent writing the novel, paying for an editor, a cover designer and a formatter. This is based simply on the printing costs of a physical book. Nothing beats seeing your work in print, regardless of how you arrived at that point, but unless you’ve written a commercial best-seller and it’s handled by one of the ‘big six’ in publishing, then it’s unlikely you’ll make any cash from selling paperbacks.
how-to-use-the-internet-to-make-moneyThis is why the ebook market is so lucrative and why lots of small presses have popped-up offering contracts for material. Some of them are pretty good, but an awful lot of them are best avoided. If you self-publish an ebook and it starts to sell, then you can make a reasonable return, especially if you have the technical know-how to produce the book file to a good standard and you’ve studied the market for trends. While some authors fail to break even, some make a reasonable living from writing, usually supplementing their income with author services or non-fiction publications. There is a multitude of levels in-between, depending on how much time and effort you are willing to invest, but there are no guarantees.

Why Does My Book Not Sell?

I don’t claim to be an expert on ebook sales, neither do I sell many thousands of copies; but I do receive a variety of emails relating to the subject, and I often spot frequently missed opportunities for sales and some rather more obvious reasons why books don’t sell.
EDITING. The single most important process of publishing a book is structural editing and proofreading. nick-morrison-FHnnjk1Yj7Y-unsplashThe lack of consistent, industry standard editing will kill sales in record time. Readers can forgive a smattering of minor mistakes throughout an 80,000 word novel, but if the first thing they see when they look inside the book sample are glaring grammatical errors – then there’s little chance they will buy. It’s a false economy to skip the editing process simply because your sister said it was ‘ok’. Or someone you met in a Facebook group said they’d edit the entire manuscript for £100. Only employ a recommended editor with a good track record and be aware there are many, many plausible fakes out there. Be super critical and don’t publish too soon. 
Picture-4COVER. The cover can and should work in a number of ways to help sell your book. Mostly it needs to match the content and the expectations of the genre – ie: not a photograph which you happen to like and may be related to the material in some vague way, but means absolutely nothing to a prospective reader on the other side of the world. Do some research and look at other books in your genre. Unless you have an eye for design, understand book marketing, and own the relevant software to be original and creative; pay someone who does. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to make your own cover with free software through Amazon’s publishing platform or something like Canva, but if the end result looks homemade – and you want to reach beyond friends and family – then consider the commercial impact.
FONT. Often overlooked, but the font is a vital bit of selling kit. Nothing screams homemade more than a bog-standard font scrawled across a third-rate cover image. If the cover and the font look third-rate, then the reader is fully entitled to presume that the content is much the same. Do the research: you will not find a loopy font on a cold-blooded thriller. Consider the impact of this and apply accordingly.
FORMATTING. If you can’t handle the formatting, then please pay someone who can. It might be the best story ever and perfectly well edited but if there are blank pages, irregular indents, or oversized margins, then after a while it just becomes too irritating to read. Your text needs to look consistent on a variety of screen sizes.
BRANDINGIf you’ve got all the above in order then do also consider branding. If you write across different genres this can be difficult but covers which are easily recognisable as one of yours, do help follow-on sales – so at least consider keeping the font of your author name consistent. Four or five cross-genre books with variable cover styles are notoriously difficult to sell. Same applies to using more than one author or pen name. This is why traditional publishers like material which is easily branded to match their current list. It’s easier to market and sell, and the reader knows what to expect. More on branding here: https://janruth.com/2016/06/24/the-importance-of-branding/

Jan Facebook Banner

SHORT LINKS. Every time you talk about your book across social media add the buy link! Potential readers will not go searching, and if you also use a pen name which is different to your social media persona, this can be an impossible task. Why make it so difficult and confusing? The social media audience has a very short attention span at the best of times. Make a short universal link – it’s so easy – and use it. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve tried to find a book and given up because the author didn’t use a buy link and I couldn’t remember the exact pen name or the specific use of initials.
perfecto-capucine-2gllPE42ouU-unsplashPRICE. Study the market and take note how much is free or priced at 99p. How much do you spend on ebooks? Personally, I’m cautious at anything over £1.99 if the author is unknown to me. It makes more sense to sell 10 books at 99p than one book at £2.99. Free books have lost their impact in raising visibility. Still useful if you’re offering the first in a series as a free download – which hopefully will attract readers to buy the next, and the next. But always price the first book in the series less than the sequel – as a loss-leader – not the other way about! 
KINDLE SELECT, CATEGORIES & KEYWORDS. The Kindle Select programme (staying exclusive to Amazon) is worth considering, rather than spreading yourself too thin and being available on every other sales platform. Amazon Kindle remains the most popular so why not use this to your advantage – at least initially – and use the free promotional tools available. Select also means you can enroll in other programmes such as Kindle Unlimited. This allows readers unlimited access to books in the Select programme and for the author, pages read can earn as much – if not more – than those elusive sales. Experiment with categories on Amazon, the smaller ones are more likely to get your book noticed. Likewise the keywords – it’s worth doing some research, there are plenty of articles about keywords and which are trending and are currently effective
SOCIAL MEDIA & WEBSITES. snapchat---illustration-957668776-5b2e9008a474be0036c4c507Build a social media platform before you launch the book, not as an afterthought a few months later because ‘you really don’t do promoting, advertising, Twitter, or all that stuff…’ Your ebook is an internet-based product which is targeted at an internet-based audience who own an e-reader and therefore browse the internet for their next read. A commercial page – use your author name for this, not your book title – on Facebook and a website are both worth having because they are public sites and allow readers to discover you. They will not discover you via a personal Facebook profile. A website is more static – a ‘go to’ place to locate the books and hit that universal buy-link. Keep it clean and simple. Get rid of the dancing cats, change the white text on a black background to the other way about, and fix the links that don’t work.
REVIEWS. Reviews do help to sell books in that they increase customer confidence in the product. Approach book bloggers and reviewers who are interested in your material and whose opinions carry some weight; they will also have a good presence across social media. Don’t approach other authors or send multiple requests through Messenger to all your friends begging for reviews. And the other biggie: don’t respond to negative reviews in public. Nothing looks worse to a prospective reader than to witness an angry response to someone who didn’t enjoy your book. florencia-viadana-1iyGImW84cQ-unsplashThey are entitled to their opinion and if it’s malicious then interacting in any way will add fuel to the fire. There are plenty of people who will enjoy a good to-and-fro at your expense. Not only does it look desperately unprofessional to join in, but it’s wise to remember that reviews are not directed towards the author. Neither are they an easy, cheap critique service – they are there to help other prospective readers decide if they might enjoy the book. Only take them to heart if there are several reviews flagging the same issue. And then… get it fixed.
BLOGGING & NEWSLETTERS. The clue is in the title… these are not meant to be hard-sell sales platforms. Blogs are a good way to build a slow but sure fanbase, but your blog needs original and interesting content. Write articles you can share across social media and build followers. I’ve written some equitation-based fiction so blogging about horses brings me into contact with the right audience. And if you cannot produce engaging, interesting, and informative content on a regular basis, don’t start a newsletter. Sending advertising copy through email disguised as a newsletter is SPAM.
MARKET TRENDS. Are you writing fiction the public are looking to read? If it’s a complicated contemporary romance set in Newcastle and your main female character is aged 45, it won’t sell as well as a formula romance set in Cornwall with a heroine aged 25; even if your book is more original and better executed. Sadly, this is the way commercial sales and marketing works for the big guys, and the independent publisher can either try and swim with the mass-market tide, or accept that writing to their own agenda and enjoying creative freedom will always produce books which are more of a struggle to sell.

The Wisdom of Hindsight

A few funny words of wisdom for very new authors, and those in charge of household appliances.
Self-Publishing. If I could go back and start again, would I do anything differently? Yes, all of it! You see, I never read the instructions for anything. Half the programs on the new washing machine will never be used because I don’t have the patience to read the manual. I learnt about self-publishing the hard way, but maybe that’s not necessarily a negative. Sometimes, if you make horrible mistakes along the way, you’re not likely to forget them, or repeat them. Now, where’s that powder, the one that doesn’t foam? The one I was told not to use under any circumstances, the one that clogged the entire cycle… 

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The Pre-Wash:
  1. Editing & proofreading.
  2. Cover design & formatting.
  3. Website & social marketing platforms.
Editing & Proofreading. 
There are many, many books out there which are badly in need of a good soak and a pre-wash. I confess to having a head-start with regard to the actual business of writing fiction. Thirty years ago I went along the traditional route of trying to find agents and publishers. I had a modicum of success, but the most it taught me was how to write (and re-write, and re-write) and construct a novel, how to build character and how to observe the basic principles such as ‘show and not tell’. 
Editing covers a broad spectrum of skills, from advising on all of the above to merely checking punctuation, or that names and timescales are consistent throughout. Your product needs to be as near perfect as you can make it if you want to be taken seriously, and sell books to the reading public with confidence. It is not a good idea to wait until the reader-review stage to get your work critiqued publicly on Amazon by the very reader you wish to please! 
Anyway, to cut a long story down a bit, I decided to self-publish my languishing semi-edited manuscripts. I made mistakes, I chose the wrong people to work with. I was on the wrong spin cycle and foaming at the mouth in no time.
Then I met John Hudspith.
rawpixel-561415-unsplashSome say he has the eyes of an owl and the body of a crow. (He’s already admitted to the droppings). He can edit any genre. He’s not only comfortable with freaky – such as double-jointed women in gingham – but he also has a handle on quite ordinary things like school puddings and little dogs. What I like about Mr Hudspith is that he personally hand-washes everything; there’s none of this short-cut business with pre-programmed software. He can cope with any kind of material, just check that care label out. He actually enjoys shrinking swathes of narrative such as short stories and blurbs. Hey, he shrunk my shorts but they’re a much better fit. Not only this, but his personal machine can vigorously rid a manuscript of the most stubborn stains, or it can tumble the softest silk into an even smoother ream. As for fluff, he openly admits to being especially obsessed with cleaning that particular filter till it’s sparkling.
Cover design & Formatting.
Formatting the interior of the book is something which is more readily learnt if you have good basic computing skills. The cover, on the other hand can be a challenge. Homemade covers are fine if you have the right skills. The attention span of most people browsing for something to read is actually only a matter of seconds. Ideally, the book’s cover needs to sum up what the reader can expect to find on the inside. Trying to sell a book with the wrong cover is like working in a dry cleaners wearing dirty clothes. Image is everything. There may be a brilliant book inside that plain brown cover but we’ll never know because no one, not least your target audience, can be bothered to open it. 
Do consider that your cover needs to work hard as a tiny thumbnail around the Internet. I didn’t. Anything dark or difficult to read will not do the job. If it looks poor and ill-thought out, readers will assume the same will apply to the writing inside.
I made mistakes with all of mine, they were far too subtle. Virtually everyone would say ‘Yes… very nice, but what’s it about?’ 
Then I met Jane Dixon-Smith.
Working with someone who knows exactly what independent authors are faced with, makes the process so much easier. Many self-published authors write books which cross genres, and although my novels are often labelled as romance, I was anxious not to portray the softer side of this genre, that meant no pastel colours or smiling happy people. In fact, I didn’t really want faces or figures at all, but I studied the market with a more critical eye and put personal feelings to one side. In collaboration with Jane, we went for a more commercial look which not only increased the readership but started to form a brand as well. Another important plus: my books were more readily accepted for promotions on advertising sites.

Your cover is part of your story, and deserves the same thought and effort. That old idiom, about not judging a book by it’s cover, is wrong.

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  Read more about the process here:
http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/publishing-why-i-love-working-with-indie-authors-by-a-book-designer/ 
Websites & Social Marketing Platforms.
A good-looking simple website with easy access to the books you want to sell is the single, most important piece of advertising you can do. It is your hub, your shop window to the world. If someone wants to find you or one of your books, the first thing they do is hit Google. Links to your blog, Facebook- Author page, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and so on, all those social networking sites are worth adding, and it pays to use all of them. 
Simple, clean and fresh always works. I can’t imagine anyone searching for your books will be interested in cats dancing round the edge or fish swimming up and down the sides, but maybe that’s just me. If someone really hates cats, they might, just might… look elsewhere. Are you selling your books or telling everyone you like cats? I’m always turned off by those sites that look hugely complicated, books revolving at a rate of knots, tiny writing, too many badges, too much everything!   
Hanging Out to Dry.
So, assuming you don’t have any of these editing and design skills, all of this is going to cost. Of course it will! You’re asking someone with professional credentials to spend time working on your product; those jobs which used to be down to the agent and the publisher. 
‘Oh no!’ I hear you cry, ‘It’s free to publish. All you do, is upload a file from your computer, it’s really easy! If you have a problem along the way with any of this process, there are plenty of experts to help you on Facebook and Twitter.’ 
All true, of course, but if you want a fully functioning product, please read the instruction manual first.
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Fictional Foraging

IMG_0887Do you know your Saxifrage from your Stitchwort, your Harebells from your Bluebells? No, me neither. Each May the hedgerows of North Wales, and more specifically the Conwy Valley where I live, are bursting with wild flowers, herbs and grasses, so prolific they are impossible to ignore. Each year I vow to learn to identify some of them. As with most aspects of the Welsh countryside there are strong connections to history. The 15th and 16th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values of certain plants.
 IMG_3776The ancient woodlands and green lanes here in the Conwy Valley nurture anything that likes a good  bog, but then the land climbs towards Tal  Y Fan and I find sub species – I think –  which have perhaps adapted to a drier  soil. It was only when I came to identify  the plants on the web that I realised just how vast the subject is, and why this post is mostly pictorial. I know the Latin names are considerably more accurate but I’d never get to grips with that, nor would it evoke much interest if one of my characters were to say Aquilegia spp instead of Granny’s Bonnet.
DSCN5223Time spent gathering this kind of information is never wasted, especially since my fiction is set in this part of the world. Researching is all part of the day job for a writer and, oh … how much richer the story becomes when these snippets are threaded into the narrative. I’m not talking about blocks of description better suited to a Flora and Fauna encyclopedia, it’s the subtle details which underpin that suspension of belief, the transportation into another, possibly alien location for the reader, and hopefully without them realising how you’ve done it.
The absorption of any scene or landscape is not restricted to what we can see, either; smell, touch and sound are also powerful mediums in fiction. Take Wild Garlic. Incredibly pungent and pretty prolific in this area. When the leaves are crushed the perfume wafts a considerable distance and the leaves are indeed edible, but they also happen to look exactly like the poisonous leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley so perhaps edible foraging is best left to the experts. There are in fact many deadly, innocent looking flowers out there which could form the basis of a dastardly plot … so although these pretty hedgerows might be considered pure romance fodder, there’s no love lost when it comes to ingesting some of them.
292595_465391600211822_23641213_nBut I did discover a rather fine recipe for Elderflower champagne. My character, Anna Williams (Wild Water Series) tells me this is the foolproof recipe she always follows, so I think this is possibly a good place to halt my inspection of the hedgerows and start boiling some water!

 

 

The Value of Free Books

‘You’re giving away your latest title? That’s crazy!’
I agree.
However, the indie industry is still relatively new and as with all things Internet, the goal-posts are forever changing. Even in the ancient days of traditional publishing, books were gifted in an effort to raise profile, so paying for promotion and offering free material is not going to go away. My experiment was more about the quest for visibility.

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Controversial…

Giving away books remains a controversial argument. I admit, I find it hugely discouraging that, as indie authors, we are expected (quite rightly) to present carefully edited books with professional formatting and covers… but for free.
I’ve never done it, not with a full-length novel which has taken me a year to produce. I have a set of short stories long-term free, but I’m not convinced it directs readers to seek out my other titles, no matter how much they enjoyed the material. Why should they? All readers need to do is wait for the next email from Bookbub or Book Blast and choose accordingly; they don’t even have to wade through Amazon’s list of free books, because their preferences are catered for and sized down to a couple of choices a day. Two clicks, and their reading material is sorted for the following week.

My Approach to Free

From the author’s standpoint, this is a double-edged sword. I’ve had good results with both these promotional tools, but constantly relying on paid promotions is not really a viable long-term strategy. There has to be a bigger picture!
I chose to promote my latest title in this way partly as an experiment, because this time I wanted to split the performance between my own efforts through Twitter and my Facebook Author Page, and Book Blast. I did it this way because I wanted to achieve something long-term, I wanted to attract readers who would hopefully stay engaged and add to my slowly growing audience, my personal readership.
Over the three years I’ve been self-published, I’ve heard various reports about Facebook and Twitter being no good for authors. I’ve never quite believed this because these two mediums are immensely powerful in the commercial world. Companies with far more sales awareness sink considerable funds into Facebook and Twitter. I suspect the real truth is that they are either under-used, or misunderstood and not used properly. Yes, I fell into these categories!

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Facebook Author Pages

I was most certainly under-using my author page. It had some 500 likes on it – peanuts, and mostly other authors. I was talking to myself. Thousands of readers who may be interested in my book didn’t know I was there, so I began by building the audience on my page by Promoting the Page. Facebook gives the option of targeting to subscribers who have expressed an interest in various subjects, so I chose keywords such as Kindle, reading, fiction, Snowdonia, and so on. Then I targeted the age and gender.
This cost something like £25, but I’m hoping this will be a long-term investment, reaching beyond the promotion of a single book. While the likes were building, I concentrated on garnering well-penned reviews from bloggers and beta-readers and posting these on the page, along with chat and photographs relating to the locations of the book – a soft sell approach. I created a pinned post about the upcoming free book. I was careful not to share items or books that were unrelated.
I did something similar over on Twitter, increasing the quality of tweets and the regularity of the flow, with Feed 140.

Selling My Brand

It’s very easy to get lazy with all this stuff and turn it to spam, so I gave it some thought. I wanted to sell me: my books, my brand. This is an important point. I’ve spent considerable time (and money!) on creating my look, my branding and who I am. I wanted to key into this, to make my products work harder. It was labour intensive, but I actually enjoyed it, because it felt like a real investment.

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What happened?

I promoted the book in two phases.
I set up Book Blast to mail out Silver Rain on Valentine’s Day only, which means in the UK the promotion didn’t go live until 5pm. To cover all bases with different time zones, and to be able to split the experiment with Facebook and Book Blast, I used 3 free days in KDP Select(13th-15th).

Day One: Facebook Promotion.

On the 13th, I stopped promoting the page and instead drew direct attention to the pinned post advertising Silver Rain as being free. This meant selecting Boost Post. This is the direct promotion of the free book via the pinned post, to all those people who have liked the page PLUS their friends. The estimated reach was something like 11,000. I was er… sceptical! There is a lot of data collected by Facebook during these types of promotions (see insights) and it was interesting to cross-reference the information with the use of Bitly. I could see the sales links clicks were telling the same story.
Silver Rain, at a price of £2.50 and a ranking of 250,000, was well down in the charts. I wanted to see if my efforts with Facebook (and a tentative dabble with Twitter) could bring the book out of obscurity before the paid promotion took over.
The results were astonishing.
From my Author Page alone: (and some Twitter)
  • US downloads 2,848: ranking at 44 free in store, 17 in Contemporary romance and 1 in Family Life
  • UK downloads 1,027: ranking at 27 free in store, 10 in Contemporary romance
Day Two: Book Blast Promotion
Book Blast increased these figures to:
  • US downloads: 5,500 ranking at 53 free in store
  • UK downloads: 2,500 ranking at 11 free in store and 5 in Contemporary romance

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Conclusion

Facebook and Twitter can equal the power of Book Blast.
8,000 is a lot of downloads, and let’s be honest, half of those people may never read the book, BUT they helped push it under the noses of thousands of readers who didn’t know I even existed. I’m currently selling at normal price, with the book ranked in the top 3,000 overall and a small take-up of the other titles. I don’t think it made any difference whether the free book was my first, third or hot off the press. Those new readers will not be aware of any publication dates. All they see is the price, and then the cover.
What is interesting is that my sales in the UK have doubled, and I know this isn’t down to Book Blast.
Did I devalue myself? In a way, yes. It’s almost smelling like vanity publishing, and I’ve made more money from paperbacks purely because people will pay for a tangible item.
But this isn’t traditional publishing, and I think it pointless to compare with old methods. Experimentation with the tools we have available is vital. The only danger is to maybe exploit the reader or even ourselves, and this is where constantly offering free and heavily discounted IS under-selling and devaluing, but I can see how that black hole is ever-present and very easy to fall into.
Quality remains as my keyword, not only in what I produce, but in the way I promote too, and if used sparingly, I believe that free can be included under that umbrella.

Six Reasons Not To Write A Book

What’s killing the indie author? Writers are sensitive souls often plagued by despondency, worn down by mindless promotion, and the inability to find a reason to not write. So I wrote this…

woman-trowing-booksDo we really need any more books? The enormous volume of material available to download to Kindle alone renders the vast majority of new books coming onto the market, as more or less invisible. The number of books being published has exploded. According to the Bowker Report in September 2016 more than 700,000 books were self-published in the US alone, which is an increase of 375% since 2010. This doesn’t account for commercial publishing, or those 13 million previously published books recently made available to Kindle. Surely, the market cannot absorb this amount of reading matter? The market is completely saturated. https://www.bkconnection.com/the-10-awful-truths-about-book-publishing
The cost of visibility is increasing Readers and new authors might be shocked by the cost of advertising – BookBub is the current most effective site which offers amazing results to authors and publishers – but it comes at a price. It’s not unusual to pay in the region of £1,000 to advertise a single title. Lots of smaller sites have sprung up and they charge considerably less, but of course they don’t command anywhere near the same number of subscribers. Submit to a handful of these sites at £30 to £50 and you can soon be out of pocket. This leaves many authors at the mercy of social media, and at the risk of annoying their followers with mindless promotion. Even the commercial Facebook ‘Page’ has changed to one of pay-as-you-go. Visibility of posts has been severely restricted unless you hit that promo button and start entering your card details.
when-you-pay-peanuts-you-get-monkeysFree books. Publishers have always used the loss-leader approach with free copies, usually in exchange for a review, but not always. Where does this leave the individual publisher? I don’t know any indie author who willingly gifts paperbacks on a regular basis – they cost in the region of £5-£8 to print, depending on where you get them printed, and the exchange rate. This is without factoring in the shipping costs, and not forgetting those small background invisibles such as editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design. And this is without factoring in the time you’ve taken to actually write the book. The profit from selling a paperback can be as little as £1. Unfortunately, readers are used to browsing a huge selection of free material for Kindle and although print costs can be waived in respect of electronic formats; writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and advertising, is exactly the same as for a print book.
Poor Production Homemade covers and un-edited books, give all indies a bad name. They do, but a word of caution. Authors should strive for excellence, not perfection. There is no such thing as a perfectly produced book. This is partly because a lot of the time perfection is subjective to any one individual. Even traditional publishers get things wrong and mistakes slip through. Some bloggers are quick to judge a book purely by the amount of typos, incorrect punctuation or too much padding and waffle. It’s easy to say there’s no excuse for this – and a lot of the time, there isn’t – but I do take a slightly kinder approach, albeit only slightly and I do feel some of the internet Grammar Police out there need taking to task on this and on the errors of their own scribblings. Tut-tut I spotted a run-on sentence once on a blog post written by a particularly over-zealous reviewer. This person ripped a perfectly good book to shreds with their painfully acidic views on punctuation and vocabulary. Let’s get this into some perspective.The overwhelming reason to read a book is to enjoy the story. If the story holds up, i.e. no serious, consistent issues, and I’m entertained, then I can overlook the occasional blooper, that something which takes me out of the story. Story is everything. A missing comma is just that…  However, there’s another side to this woolly coin. The vast quantity of poor, unedited material out there gives the conscientious author a bad name the minute he declares himself self-published. Editing at any level attracts a cost, likewise with proofreading; but it’s a vital part of publishing a book for public consumption, and the competition to sell and be seen is at an all-time high, so, why wouldn’t you?
Reviews. Another reason to develop a second skin or buy a mouth guard to prevent nightly grinding of the molars. The current product review system employed by Amazon is clearly open to error: One star: totally loved it! Three stars: not read it yet, won’t download. And abuse, on various levels: Doesn’t make any sense, completely unreadable, don’t bother. Reviews which have the power to connect with other readers do help visibility and authors can use them to some effect through social media, but not all readers review books, even if they enjoyed their free or 99p book and would have no hesitation in recommending it to others. The frustration of garnering reader-reviews is real, but then authors can be their own worst enemy. I’ve seen some writers attack readers on social media for posting a low-starred review and going on to label said reader as a troll. (Could it be that they just didn’t like the book? Consider that other potential readers will perhaps read this and back-off reviewing for fear of reprisal or getting it ‘wrong’) And if the review does have a whiff of vindictiveness about it, then surely the most sensible thing to do is to stop drawing attention to it, since this is usually the intent. And then there’s always the option to pay through sites such as Net Galley – the big book giveaway for bloggers and book reviewers in exchange for reviews, although the publisher/author has to pay a handsome sum to be listed. I do think some sites and reviewers have become a bit too powerful, but some authors are desperate enough to pay for a handful of (glowing) reviews – from any source. Amazon have a problem controlling the unethical ones, and their sister site, Goodreads, actively encourages ‘readers’ to simply rate books with no purchase required, or even a simple acknowledgement that they’ve read the book in order to validate the rating. Why not get rid of all the star ratings? If a reader has an opinion about a book, have them write a review using prompts such as characters/plot/setting/ etc. Or, is it time to do away with book reviews completely? After all, we don’t rely on this system in a real bookshop. The sample and the book description should be enough to have us decide if we want to spend our precious 99p (That’s 35p to the author).
Success. Written a best-seller? Great! Now your agent/publisher/annoying little man in your head strongly advises you to write at least two more before the end of the year, otherwise no one will remember who you are and all those knock-on sales will be lost…

Short Stories: How Short and How Tight Should They Be?

When someone says shorts what does it mean to you? I always used to prefer those continental jobs that the tennis players favour. But are they short trousers, or long shorts? These days, now that I am back to writing ‘shorts’ mean something totally different.

I’ve always written novel length stories, and I’m thinking now that my penchant for long trousers may have a subjective effect on all of this. I hate my legs in shorts! Does it explain why I find writing short stories so difficult? They are time capsules, a brief but intense insight into someones world. They still have to carry all the same criteria as a novel, but all the principles have to be honed to within an inch of their life, or hems, if you want to stay with the theme. The length can vary from ankle grazing continental style (almost a novella, but not quite?) to an old fashioned pair of budgie smugglers… flash fiction?

I think mine are the discreet kind, just on the knee or maybe slightly above. Is all this the first signs of madness? Oh, very probably, and yet I found someone from the same sewing box. John Hudspith is a man with pins in his mouth and a pair of pinking shears in his hand. I send the big roll of material to him and it comes back all cut out into smaller, more pleasing shapes. He can turn any billowing sheet of raw silk into a pleasing pair of shorts. A silk purse from a pig’s ear. This is my editor’s comfort zone without a doubt, he devours the over-worded paragraph with the tenacity of a royal dress maker. When I’m writing I see him in my minds eye with a machete, bearing down on the over-grown narrative until I give in and hit delete.
Let’s be serious for a moment now. I have a small but tortured history of working with editors, agents and publishers and one develops a ‘nose’ for the real thing, like the fragrance of fresh washed cotton… Oops sorry about that, lapsed into analogy again. When I was introduced to John Hudspith I don’t mind admitting I was on the verge of despair. I’d had dealings with a big editorial company from London some thirty years ago, so I know how editing and proofreading should work but of course with self publishing we don’t have the cash advances and the backing, and we have to make all of these decisions for ourselves. I wanted to find someone with those same skills who didn’t charge the London prices. I struggled. I was let down, and disappointed. The internet is a very messy sewing box and not everyone puts the needles and pins in a safe place.
Until I found John Hudspith. I want to see his shorts. I’m betting they are very very small.

The Importance of Branding

I’m on my fourth set of book covers!

Life Story of a bookWhen I first began self-publishing some five years ago, I uploaded three titles onto Kindle sporting the obligatory homemade covers. Actually, looking back – they weren’t too bad! But over time, it occurred to me that Kindle was not only a mostly American market but I was going to have to try much harder for visibility as the number of available titles seemed to increase on a daily basis. I set about finding a good designer to produce a bold, professional-looking brand. And as most authors are aware, unless you have a famous pen name, then your covers are going to have to do the majority of the marketing for you. I knew this, even then, but I wasn’t looking objectively at my potential reader base. I was too close to the material, and too inexperienced with market trends.

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At this stage, I still had just three titles and no plans of writing sequels to any of them, but despite the simplicity of this, I struggled to reflect my material. Romance is one of the biggest selling genres in fiction – according to Amazon. And yet if you admit to writing about relationships, it attracts an element of disdain. As with most styles, the extremes are always easy to identify. If it’s a Fifty Shades book, then it will be a ripped torso and some handcuffs. Chick lit? Easy… shoes, handbags, cakes and cartoons. Happy smiling couples? That’s Christian Romance, or Mills and Boon. But what about the rest of it? There are literally thousands of romance titles out there which these successful, albeit cliched images, don’t reflect.
More on this current trend here: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/choc-lit-335396
What I did get right, in principle, was the human element as I think the reader needs to identify with the protagonist in character-driven fiction as opposed to plot-driven fiction such as crime. The problems began when I started to write more books, some of them sequels, some of them with a slightly different feel. The essential genre of the books became fuzzy, as did the concept of the original designs, and it became increasingly difficult to work with as a form of branding.

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Then along came the traditional publishing deal and I fell into the trap of thinking that they’d have more experience in this department then me. I’d had communications with agents and publishers in the dark and distant past as followers of this blog know all too well, and one of the major stumbling blocks had always been the in-between genre problem – which probably represents a huge majority of independent authors. I think it still has the traditional publishing industry throwing up their hands in despair. “We’ll never sell this, it’s time-slip-historical-paranormal. What would we put on the cover?” I used to scoff that they lacked imagination. They probably do… but that’s not the whole picture, they lack time, money and inclination more.
Silver RainOf all the marketing I’d tried, the move to a small publisher had to be the worst decision ever, for me. And I’m partly to blame when I stated initially that maybe I didn’t want characters on the cover anymore. The result was something so bland and plain that any indication of content and what to expect – was non-existent. I was rather hoping they’d know exactly what they were doing but I guess if it isn’t chick lit or erotica, we’re back to the same puzzle. What do they put on the cover of these books? There are romantic elements but the characters are way, way too old for chick lit and there’s not always a neat, happy ending. These novels are peppered with manslaughter, arson, domestic abuse, judicial use of a swear word or two, and here’s the quirky bit which throws everyone: a lot of British humour. They’re not ‘easy’ reads but they’re not especially literary or demanding either. I’ve always sought to entertain and engage rather than try and dazzle readers with the use of long words.
Silver Rain Cover MEDIUM WEBBecause I feared the chick lit syndrome, I opted for Family Saga and Women’s Fiction as a means of general description. Neither of these woolly titles did me any favours. The worst element – according to my Welsh publisher was that they’re set in Wales! Books set in Wales don’t sell, they said… you need to set them in Cornwall, or have the men in kilts. I did spit feathers over this, but wait… this isn’t as nonsensical as you might think. The reason their mainstream genre books sell well is that they are clearly signposted by their cover design, and most importantly, the reader understands exactly what they’re getting. They don’t have to wade through the entire sample or spend precious time trying to decide if it’s for them. Simple, standard genre motivated cover art means a lot less work for the publisher too…
Leaving the traditional publishers behind due to a chronic lack of sales also meant I had to forfeit my US rights on three titles, but this went to reinforce what I should have done from the outset with regard to my images. I needed to make a definite shift into a specific genre. Maybe I had to grit my teeth and start calling them Contemporary Romance and embrace the fact that they’re so British. Whilst ruminating the errors of my ways I spotted a book on Amazon with a new cover –a book I knew well – a book which I’d read and loved some years ago, and I knew it was pretty close to my own material in terms of genre, age, location, and content. My decision to re-brand was formed there and then. I set about sharing my ideas with J.D. Smith Design and the process began in earnest.

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We concentrated on two vital elements. My Welsh landscapes are a fundamental part of the stories and almost a character in their own right, so this needed to be a clear statement on the cover: stone walls, wild ponies, mountains, heather, tumbledown farms… all of these elements underpin the books, and the romance genre after all, is about escapism. This background creates a romantic aspect in the blink of an eye – and sometimes, this is the exact amount of time we get to impress a reader. In the next second, the reader needs to identify with the story and the protagonist; so the characters needed to be modern against those sometimes historical looking backgrounds – and finally, they needed to appeal to readers generally above the age of 35.

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Working with J.D. Smith Design again I was able to give my work the bespoke service it deserved. Everything was carefully considered and time taken to make sure all the elements were correct, true to the material, inviting and engaging. The clever use of different fonts meant that my series sat together as they should. An interesting upward trend has developed with my equine series Midnight Sky, and Palomino Sky. Clear branding on these two books (horses, realistic characters and yes let’s be honest, a rugged outdoor guy is eye-catching. He doesn’t have to be cheesy or bare-chested!) have significantly increased sales in the US and Australia, where before they didn’t get a look in. This is interesting because back in the old days I had an agent who told me to ‘back-off with the horse stuff, it puts people off.’
If this exercise has taught me anything it’s to be true to the material. Not only have I given my books the very best in cover design with clear definitions, the overall re-branding has increased sales by at least 60%.
The importance of book cover design and careful branding cannot be underestimated!
More on design and branding here: https://goo.gl/VVx3du

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How to Write a Book Review

Authors are always clamouring for reviews. Some readers pen them automatically after they’ve read a book and have a ready-formed opinion bursting to get out, but a huge percentage of readers don’t bother. Some are not quite sure what it’s all about. Lot’s of readers are less than confident about sharing an opinion of something they’ve read, for fear of looking silly or uninformed. So here’s a quick overview of how to go about it.
Who are book reviews for?
You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book. Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did. 
What to include:
  • The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!
  • You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points: Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page? Did the structure of the plot work for you? If it’s a mystery, was there one?
  • The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?
  • The author’s writing style. How was it for you?
  • Your personal enjoyment of the book and whether you would recommend it to other readers is always an overriding strength in a positive book review. Maybe there was an experience which resonated with yourself?
  • Comparing the book or the author to other books and authors is useful. For example, if you like Jilly Cooper you’ll love this…
It’s not necessary to be literary and serious; a lot of the time a couple of sentences will suffice. On the other hand, if you like writing essay-type reviews these can be brilliant, but study book-bloggers and top Amazon reviewers to see how they go about it. (Well-written reviews often attract free ARC copies from authors : advance review copies).
What not to include:
  • Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.
  • If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.
  • Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars! I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?
  • The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly there’s no need to mention the weather…
  • How long the book took to arrive in the post; ie it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book. Likewise, problems with your Amazon account; ie it won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.
  • Spoilers; giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers ie: I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.
  • Copying and pasting the entire book description instead.
  • And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?
It’s easier than ever to leave a book review. You can write a single sentence or several hundred sentences. I do hope readers who’ve never left a book review will now consider penning their valuable thoughts… weather permitting.

Losing the Plot

Almost 10,000 words of a novel I started in 2018 and haven’t touched since. I have no compulsion to finish it so it remains untitled, unedited, and unfinished…
AUTUMN
The letter from her mother disturbed Autumn. Somehow, it tore apart the equilibrium of a life she’d constantly tried to justify. But then, how foolish to assume she could live forever without the salted wind and the misted mountains roaming across the horizon. For years she’d programmed herself to remember only the winters at Ty Traeth. The rain, the mud.   
And then there were the horses. Difficult to quantify how she felt about the horses. Her mother lived and breathed all things equine and made it plain that raising three daughters who hadn’t embraced her passion in quite the same way was a constant, crushing disappointment. Furthermore, none of them would ever be forgiven or included in her will. As it might suggest, someone who thought nothing of wearing paisley bell-bottoms or a man’s kilt and gumboots to muck-out,  Deanna was prone to theatrics and exaggeration, although this kind of declaration still had the power to depress. Autumn should have been her time of the year to shine, but the letter had quickly dulled any perceived sense of well-being. The musty paper had stayed in her coat pocket for the remainder of the day, its presence reinforcing a number of familiar, unresolved issues. Deanna’s words not only cut deep but unceremoniously dragged Autumn’s head out of the sand where it had lain dormant for too long. She could almost taste the sea and feel the grit beneath her eyelids. 
 Sharing a name with one of the four seasons always tended to attract diverse opinion. Most of the time she simply felt enormously grateful that her mother had stopped at three children and no one had had to suffer being christened Spring. And at least Autumn couldn’t be shortened to a nickname like Sum, or Winnie. Summer had daringly called her Tum on more than one occasion but she’d quickly put a stop to that. And then a surprising number of people imagined she might sport a vibrant hair colour, although she could argue that mousy brown was easily as seasonal as red, or yellow. But the mood of the season was perhaps especially fitting since she often felt as if she might be approaching the end of something. 
A Friday evening on the last day of September proved a case in point. She’d finished late at the office and since it was her last day, allowed herself to be swept along to the pub. A place which represented a noisy conglomeration of city life squashed into the confines of the latest less-touristy establishment favoured by the real Londoners who lived and worked there. On the face of it, less pretentious than the glitzy wine and cocktail bars. Perhaps it was more pretentious because of its exclusivity tucked away on a side street, the entrance heavily disguised as a fridge door. Autumn emerged as darkness began to descend across the city, transforming the urban landscape into one of blinking and twinkling surprise. Breaking through the constant drone of traffic, the strains of a familiar song by U2. On autopilot, her feet took her in the direction of the pounding bass, the well-known guitar riff, the soaring vocals. 
Four youths stood in the middle of the traffic island by Tower Hill tube station, rush-hour traffic crawling past. Wet leaves, the rush of people walking by and the twilit city added to the surreal scene. The band were good, even gave her goosebumps. Gloria! She used to wish her name was something ordinary like Gloria, and Alfie had laughed and tried to pick out the refrain on his guitar. He couldn’t play it, neither could he sing like Bono, but she’d loved the way his floppy hair had fallen into his eyes when he’d tried to concentrate. They’d collapsed laughing in the end, drunk on fresh air and infatuation. Well, that’s what she’d always told herself. Nostalgia was always such a bitter-sweet pain.
Twenty-three years ago. She’d been sixteen, a bookish geek, impressionable, a hopeless romantic. He’d been three years older, a mathematics geek, unimpressionable, a guarded romantic. Encouraged by his cheek and his hip-hugging denims, she’d joined him in taking a couple of the faster horses – without permission – to the beach at Llanddwyn. It had been exhilarating galloping through the surf in November, Dwynwen’s Celtic cross – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – outlined against a sepia sky on the peninsular. But they’d got into terrible trouble when Chiron, her mother’s hunter, had pulled a tendon after suddenly ploughing into soft sand. Her fault, but Alfie had heroically taken all the blame and walked the horse home while she jogged alongside on the headstrong Gypsy. Ah, Gypsy. Black as coal, a mane and tail like long knotted seaweed. 
Autumn heaved a sigh, hitched her bag over the opposite shoulder, and stuffed her hands into her pockets where her fingers found the letter again. A handwritten letter held more gravitas. Deanna never used the phone or a computer. No doubt this was one of the reasons the riding school had failed some ten years ago. Reduced now to private teaching and a handful of liveries. 
No doubt the same identical letter had gone to her sisters, although Winter and Summer would already have responded. Summer would be eager to seize an opportunity to tell Deanna exactly where she had gone wrong and worm herself back into favour as the golden girl, when in fact Winter was the only one with any real understanding about horses and had been itching to get involved for years. But then she was with Joe, and he showed no interest whatsoever in their family affairs let alone a painfully old-fashioned washed-up riding school run by a difficult eccentric like Deanna. For Win to be hands on would mean moving onto the island, and there was no way Joe would make a compromise like that. Since the blame culture and the rise of indoor schools, the landscape had changed. There was no money in it. And therein lay the age-old problem.
Autumn took the tube back to Bethnal Green, and walked briskly past the launderette, the greengrocers and the Asian shops. Her flat was in a gated community, surrounded by sharp railings. She punched in the code at the gate and passed through, head down. She had no idea who her neighbours were and sadly, she didn’t really wish to know. Too late now, anyway. Her sanctuary, four rooms in a refurbished soap factory, frequently felt as if they might be closing in. The moment she was through the door, the cats threaded through her legs and demanded feeding, but Autumn was grateful for the distraction. She opened two pouches of tuna crunch, wrinkling her nose at the odour. An overhead train rattled past and its thunderous passage sent shock waves through a glass upended on the sink drainer. She filled it with red wine then moved to the sofa, opened her laptop and scanned the emails. No job news, nothing from either of her sisters, but a confirmation that contracts had exchanged on the flat. Something lurched in the pit of her stomach but it was too soon to consider whether it might be relief, shame, excitement, or fear. Maybe it was failure, after all. 
Facebook informed her that she had just five notifications, this after at least ten days of not looking. She browsed her elder sister’s timeline and rolled her eyes at the continuous stream of showing-off attention-seeking nonsense, the most pertinent being a post reminding everyone of their deceased father’s birthday. Autumn hated posts about imaginary anniversaries, or the continuous yearly announcement of someone who’d died years ago. Surely it was touting for sympathy and exactly the kind of thing Summer did on a regular basis. ‘It would have been Dad’s birthday today,’ she announced, accompanied by an ancient photograph of them all playing on a beach with Dad wearing a bright smile and a pair of psychedelic shorts barely skimming his thighs. Who did she imagine might be interested in an old family photograph, other than the relatives themselves? And yet the stream of sympathy kept coming ‘Aww so sorry, Sum. Hope you’re okay?’
Of course she was okay. She was married to Alfie.

WINTER  
Winter allowed a lopsided smile to crease her face on sight of Summer’s photograph. Judging by the blurred, distant view of the Llyn Peninsular in the background the beach scene was almost certainly somewhere on Anglesey. Dad in a pair of hideous shorts sporting a milk-white chest. Autumn looked especially haunted, buried up to her neck in sand and seaweed and, as usual Summer looked especially carefree in a bright sundress, pouting and striking a pose. Even as a young teen and before the advent of phones and cameras, Summer knew how to play to an audience. Winter could afford to be mildly blasé about the family history because all those photographs Summer scanned in to her computer hardly ever included Winter and if they did, she invariably only appeared as a small child on a hairy pony. On the other hand, she didn’t remember their father with the same heartache as her elder sisters. And anyway, what mattered to Winter was the here and now, the present. She’d already responded to Deanna’s summons with enthusiasm. Personally, she couldn’t wait for the distraction. Her only immediate problem was persuading Joe that October half-term was a good time to spend a week on Anglesey at the family pile. No doubt Summer would seize the opportunity if she could juggle her work, but then like Joe, she was a bit… obsessed with her career. And these days, Summer’s limited holiday time tended towards something hot, expensive and exotic. An island off the North Wales coast didn’t tick any of those boxes. 
Joe padded down the stairs, yawning. 
‘Why didn’t you wake me? 60 covers for lunch today.’ 
‘And risk getting my head bitten off?’
He opened the fridge and when his shoulders drooped at sight of the sparse contents, anxiety crept along her spine. It didn’t help her cause that she was cleaning tack on the kitchen table. She occasionally rode her neighbour’s horse and the secondhand saddle was her contribution to a casual arrangement which so far had served them both well, but if Joe knew the full story he’d hit the roof. She rubbed oil along the old, cracked leather with her fingers, raising her eyes to Joe’s muscular back as he removed a carton of orange juice and three eggs decorated with tiny feathers and soil. At least they always had eggs, and Ty Nant Honey. Free-range, organic. A Welsh cottage garden in a jar. The production of home-grown fruit, herbs, and vegetables had proved a bit hit and miss but at least she was trying, and during holiday times the honesty box at the end of the drive always collected a few pounds. When they’d first moved to Ty Nant, Winter had imagined that her home crafts and the cottage garden might be the perfect fit with Joe’s job and her lack of earning skills. But the struggle with money and the endless repairs to their dilapidated farmhouse in Snowdonia had proved otherwise. Joe was good, too good even for the renowned Llewellyn Arms, but living where they did had its limitations career-wise. 
‘What’s this?’ he said, Deanna’s letter between his fingers.
‘Why don’t you read it?’
He scanned the letter quickly and grunted, then threw the creased sheets of paper back down onto the worktop. He rummaged noisily through the cutlery drawer. ‘Who the hell’s Bertie? Anyway, I’ve got a two-day meeting in Birmingham at the beginning of that week, on top of everything else. No chance of me being there.’
‘Oh, Joe, we never take a break and the pub owes you so much time.’
Restaurant.’ 
‘Whatever. Bertie’s mum’s friend, remember? That old guy who dabbles in antiques.’
‘Christ, him. Anglesey’s answer to David Dickinson. What’s he got to do with anything? Why is he even hanging around?’
‘Not really sure. That’s why the family need to form a united front.’
  He waved a spatula in her direction. ‘Summer has enough front for everyone. Anyway, you only want me over there to cook for you all. What did we have last time your mother decided to boil something?’ 
‘Peacock, wasn’t it? From the estate, I should imagine. The dogs are always hunting them. What’s the difference to you cooking… I dunno, an ostrich?’
‘Everything.’ He began cracking eggs into a bowl with one hand.
‘Joe, look, can’t you make stuff in advance at the pub and leave them to it?’
He laughed. 
She knew better than to challenge this. His reputation was everything. Joe Sullivan didn’t just cook, he created a religious experience. Given some of the sensitive content of Deanna’s letter, perhaps it was best that Joe went to work and attended his meeting. After all, her mother had a low opinion of nouvelle cuisine and loathed any show of extravagance, or waste. Deanna still had a Welsh dresser stuffed to the rafters with Co-op plastic bags, baler twine, and tins of corned beef circa 1965. Somewhere in the pantry there was a rusted, tinned vegetable omelette with a grinning baby on the label.
And then she insisted on either mending everything or shopping for clothes in charity shops. Deanna hadn’t thrown anything out for about fifty years, but it meant Ty Traeth had been a treasure trove of discovery for a child. Rainy days for the sisters had meant trawling through the attic or locking themselves in the cellar until one of them screamed. Eventually, Summer and Autumn became too old for such games and left Winter to her own devices. Despite the awful food, it had been a rich childhood in all the ways that mattered. Now though, Deanna remained in the past, while the rest of the family existed somewhere in the blinkered future. A future Winter wasn’t sure coexisted happily within herself. Sometimes she understood her mother’s craving for how things used to be in the fifties and sixties, when everything had seemed slower and safer, and everyone knew the Christian name of the postman’s second cousin removed.
‘You go,’ Joe said, tipping the eggs into a sizzling pan. ‘I’m not one for family stuff, you know that. And I can’t see Autumn turning up, she’s stayed away for years. So that means Alfie and Summer giving each other dagger looks for a week.’
‘Alfie’s a laugh.’
‘Used to be.’
He had a point. She’d have to persuade Autumn it was a good idea.
~ ~ ~
‘Actually, I am coming to Ty Traeth,’ Autumn said, later. ‘I’m coming home for a while.’
Winter cupped the phone closer to her ear, bemused that her sister had called Ty Traeth, home. ‘Really? That’s brilliant! I know it sounds silly, but I get nervous and morose around Summer without backup. Her drinking is worse than ever these days.’
‘Worse than it was at Christmas?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know how Alfie puts up with it, I really don’t.’
A guarded silence. ‘You’ve never got on.’
‘No, well. And she’s such a social climber these days with her artificial tan, and the way she fawns over her gown-up children is just… weird.’
A sigh. ‘I know.’
‘Sorry, I promise I won’t antagonise her.’
They talked briefly about Autumn’s redundancy and Winter’s unexpected, undisclosed pregnancy, before Autumn said she had to go and buy a cat carrier from the Indian Mini-Mart. 
AUTUMN
In truth, the family powwow presented Autumn with a medium-term fix. She’d taken a room on short-term rental to see her past the completion date on the flat. Some breathing space on Anglesey with all her worldly goods in storage – such as they were – felt well-timed. She’d made no real effort to find another job or somewhere permanent to live, mostly because one without the other in London posed a problem and without a clear sense of direction, her entire future felt open for debate. On the upside, she had a healthy bank balance and the freedom to do as she pleased. In fact, if Summer promised not to squabble, some time spent at Ty Traeth might even be enjoyable. The only difficulty about leaving London for an undisclosed length of time had been trying to explain her exodus to Warren.
‘But for how long? When will I see you?’
‘Warren, I… I think we should call it a day.’
‘Good grief, well, I didn’t see that coming.’ 
He didn’t try to oppose her. In fact, his only reaction was to loosen his silk tie, but then Warren was used to being obtuse. He was an MP. Married. He’d never strung her the line that his wife didn’t understand him. It was more Autumn who didn’t understand him, or herself for that matter, for carrying on with something so utterly devoid of passion and commitment. Friends with benefits was over-rated and as of this day, over and done with. Even clandestine trips to the theatre and dinner at Ramsey’s in Chelsey had its limitations. Warren was bland, and so was his expensive life. 
He’d been mildly allergic to the cats. 
Sensing something was up on travelling day, Piglet and Tigger evaded capture until a bribe was forthcoming. She’d made the interior of the carrier as comfortable as possible with a familiar blanket and some dangling mice filled with catnip. She’d also managed to compress a sensible wardrobe of items – plus a bag of dried cat food and some kitty litter – into a pull-along case, and then she had a leather backpack which doubled as a handbag. Heaving these items onto the train at Euston and heaving them off again at Chester was no mean feat. No one helped these days, for fear of being accused of obstructing feminism. Warren would have helped, but she’d closed the door there. He’d not even turned-up to wave her off, but perhaps that was for the best. 
The train was on time. As she left the outskirts of London the countryside opened out and it felt cheesy to suggest that her heart did too, but it went some way to reassuring Autumn that she’d done the right thing. At least, for a while. And if she found it tiresome or too difficult, then there were plenty of web developing contracts in London to scuttle back to.      
A couple of hours later, Autumn stood outside Chester station as instructed by Summer, the cats yowling at her feet. She could easily have caught the Holyhead train and continued her journey but all told that made another two hours of travelling, and it wasn’t fair on the cats and so suggesting to her sister that she travelled in with herself and Alfie for the final leg, made more sense. Or that’s what she told herself. In truth, Autumn wanted to test her reaction to Alfie, assess Summer’s level of drinking and perhaps mediate a smooth way forward before the holiday – if that’s what it could be called. Once in the clutches of their mother, things were apt to go off course very quickly and it always paid to have some sort of plan.
Her sister’s gas-guzzling car came into view. A Mercedes four-by-four, a huge, black thing with tinted windows and a carbon footprint the size of Switzerland. They exchanged the usual pleasantries but as usual, Summer was only half-listening while Autumn filled her in on the redundancy and the demise of Warren, while she manhandled her bag and the cat carrier into the cavernous rear hatch. Autumn climbed into the passenger seat and only just managed to pull the belt across before Summer swung the vehicle back out into the traffic.
‘Why have you bought the bloody cats?’ 
‘Why do you think? I could hardly leave them in London by themselves, could I?’
‘You’ll have to shut them in the utility room. Or the conservatory. I don’t want them climbing the William Morris drapes.’
Autumn stared through the side window, at the windblown streets and the cascades of leaves, occasionally stealing a glance at her sister. She looked tired, but groomed to the nines. Long, lustrous hair, obviously helped by a mahogany tint, but even so. Fully made-up face with slightly too much foundation and a thick slick of dark pink lipstick. Matching nails, one with a diamanté tip. A dark business suit, jewellery in the form of diamond earrings, a Cartier wrist watch, and a white gold wedding ring nestled to a ruby engagement ring. Some of her business cards were scattered across the dash. McCormack and Morris-Jones Solicitors. Mrs Summer Rose McCormack, specialising in family law. 
The car swung into The Groves, a prestigious road of individual properties. Summer and Alfie lived in a five-bed period house, originally Georgian, but extended and altered too much beyond its original imprint. For example, Summer had insisted on a huge modern conservatory, something which Autumn thought downright unnecessary and grossly ostentatious. This was mostly down to the water feature and several fake bronze statues. They walked through the hall and into this cavernous space and Autumn gravitated towards one of the over-dressed sofas. She moved several cushions to clear a space in order to sit. 
‘Where’s Alfie?’
‘Where he always is at lunchtime.’ Summer avoided eye contact and rummaged in a bulging leather briefcase. ‘Propping up the bar at the Dancing Bear.’
‘You make that sound like he’s some sort of waster.’
Her head came up then. ‘He is! It’s a job for a student, not a 42 year-old man with an incredibly clever brain. The Alfie I married used to be a financial analyst for several high profile investment bankers. Now he’s on something like seven quid an hour. Plus tips. Mustn’t forget those.’
So, it still rankled after all this time. Summer’s disdain because Alfie no longer earned mega-bucks, hadn’t diminished one iota. 
‘But um… he likes the pub?’
‘Of course he likes the fucking pub!’ she spat, almost rounding on Autumn for asking the question. ‘Everyone loves him because he can add up a drinks list in his head faster than the bloody computerised till. He’s like a… a mascot for them, some sort of weird novelty.’ 
‘Alright, alright. I get it.’
Summer held up her hands in a placatory gesture. ‘I’m sorry. I just feel like I’m the only one in this family earning any money to keep us all going. And now Mother’s whinging about the financial mess she’s allowed herself to get into.’ Summer pinched the bridge of her nose and Autumn was part horrified, part fascinated to witness tears welling in her sister’s eyes. ‘I have to get back to work. I’ve got clients for the rest of the day.’
‘It’s fine, you go.’ 
‘You know where everything is?’
‘I think so.’
The front door slammed behind her sister. Tigger and Piglet yowled. Autumn set up the litter tray and let the cats out for a stretch, then made her way into the kitchen. Acres of sparkly granite worktops stretched into the distance across glossy white units, but rather than try to locate a kettle, her eyes were drawn to a pair of Alfie’s denims perched on top of a pile of laundry.  
WINTER
October half-term promised a mix of weather. Local forecasts rarely synchronised and so the upshot meant that it was wise to expect anything and everything on Anglesey. She’d dropped Joe at the train station first thing. She did think it a little odd that a training course necessitated setting off on Saturday morning, but it most likely included a meet-up with the other chefs and the usual night on the town criticising someone else’s dinner. And there wasn’t much point in him being home alone. It would take something like three hours to get to Birmingham, down to a replacement bus service somewhere along the way, and an expensive taxi trip at the other end. Guilt then, because she’d bagged the car. Summer couldn’t collect her on the way because their car was full including Autumn, squashed into the back between the cat-crate and a baby-seat which was too difficult to keep taking out. Summer’s offspring and their offspring, generally went everywhere their respective mothers did, often in preference to friends of their own age. But then Summer seemed to pay for everything rather than make them stand on their own feet, and so these over-privileged, emotionally dependent adult children were forever in the picture and more often than not, offering up opinions on matters that didn’t concern them. Coupled with Summer’s drinking, and the way she undermined Alfie at every move, didn’t set a good example and the whole dynamic made Winter feel uncomfortable, especially the way the Rose women viewed all men as losers. It was a relief that Deanna had explicitly asked that children of all ages be excluded on this occasion and went some way to endorsing Winter’s view that her older sister exhibited dubious parenting skills. 
  But then focusing on a different set of problems for a while other than her own, might be quite cathartic. A mild wave of nausea reminded her of the major undisclosed item at the top of her personal list. Joe would be alright about her pregnancy, once he’d got over the shock. Once he’d accepted that his career was not the be-all-and-end-all of their relationship. They’d raise strong, respectful, independent children and Joe would see her in a new light. She’d have a sense of purpose, an important job to do because in truth, Winter had always felt over-shadowed by her sister’s careers. 
~ ~ ~
Holiday traffic meant that the drive took more than the usual couple of hours to drive to Pentref-y-Gog. Although she liked the rented cottage where they lived on the outskirts of Llangollen, Winter loved the island more. The close proximity of the sea, the dramatic headland walks, the ancient history and the small, coastal communities. A vanilla sky rose like parchment above the stretch of water called the Menai Strait, the perfect backdrop to the remaining colours of autumn. She sped towards the old suspension bridge, a line of traffic halting her progress down to a crawl. But then the road widened, peeling off towards the west coast and Holy Island, and the old car picked up speed. Holy island, just fifteen square miles; notched with coves, and saturated with burial chambers and standing stones.   
Winter turned right at the church down a long rutted driveway and minutes later Ty Traeth – the Beach House – came into view. Huge, crumbling, imposing. As always her eyes were drawn to the horses strung out across the muddy wind-flattened fields. The land surrounding the nineteenth-century house and the dilapidated barns and stabling, all belonged to Ty Traeth and gradually gave way to open headland and a coastal footpath. The sea roared and crashed against the rocky shoreline but today it was unusually calm, hopefully a prophecy of things to come.  
Summer’s car was already there.  
Delaying the inevitable, Winter glanced towards the stables, looking for Chiron’s dark velvet head dozing over his stable door, his bottom lip dangling and his ears flopping sideways. Her mother’s hunter was twenty-seven, a pensioner in horse years. He hadn’t worked in over a decade down to a string of expensive complaints, but continued to live out his final years in better conditions than a lot of people. But the yard was eerily deserted, and after scanning the fields for Chiron’s red rug and drawing a blank, steeled herself to enter the house. Access to the back door was hampered by a large porch filled with rows of coats and outdoor gear and the outer door needed a good shove. Ancient wax jackets with rotting pony nuts in the pockets and festooned in cobwebs, plus racks of boots, filled the space. Old wellingtons, gumboots, leather show boots, jodhpur boots, old sandals. Mice. Everything covered in dust or mud, some of it mildewed, most of it not used in years.
The inner door was wedged open. ‘Hello!’ 
‘Is that you, Win? We’re in here.’
She dragged her case down the hall and into the snug, the wheels catching on the wrinkled carpet. The room was full and her eyes touched on Autumn gratefully, before she tugged at the zip on her coat and kissed her mother’s proffered cheek. ‘Where’s Chiron?’
‘Ah.’ Bertie cleared his throat and inclined his gaze. ‘He’s re… stabled, up there. Pride of place.’
Above the ferocious log-burner, the long mantle displayed the cremated remains of special family dogs and horses since 1965. ‘He’s dead?
Deanna flapped a hand at her. ‘Wouldn’t have been fair to make him endure another winter.’
‘Kindest thing in the end,’ Bertie grunted. ‘Genuine antique Welsh gold, that box, all lined.’
‘All entirely unnecessary,’ Summer said. ‘Another obscene waste of money. And anyway, how would you know it was the kindest thing? You know nothing about horses.’ 
‘He went down,’ Deanna said, defiant in the face of Bertie’s polite discomfort. ‘Want the details?’
‘No.’
‘Then be quiet. Despite every effort on my behalf, you don’t know much about horses, either.’
‘Well, that box looks fake to me. Just like him.’
‘Why are you so rude? Chiron deserved the best. Not that it’s any concern of yours how I choose to remember my dearest companions. I don’t lecture you when you spend obscene amounts of money on your spoilt, ungrateful grandchildren.’ 
The eye-rolling was palpable. Alfie shot Winter a tired smile then got up and stoked the fire. Summer gave her a barely-there nod, too busy with pouring another glass of wine, but at least Autumn came over for a hug. She looked her usual geeky self in grey woollen tights and a long grey cardigan over a purple skirt and clumpy boots; all of which was reassuring. 
ALFIE
The house seemed in a worse state than Alfie remembered, or maybe it was just that in the summer months it looked a lot better. Softer, somehow. Summer used to be softer, too. When he saw the three sisters side-by-side it emphasised how much  harder his wife had become. Of course she was the eldest and life took its toll, but the heavy drinking and the bitterness did nothing for her demeanour let alone her once stunning looks. 
He felt mild unease at sight of Autumn, but he couldn’t allow his current state of mind to dwell on the past. After years of avoiding family gatherings, he assumed Autumn’s appearance meant she was in agreement with this mindset. As for Winter, he simply felt relieved that Joe had waived the entire thing. Something about the guy made Alfie feel woefully inadequate. He studied Winter’s downcast eyes for a moment but pushed any uncomfortable thoughts to the back of his mind. There was plenty of other stuff to contemplate. 
The ‘big news,’ was to be discussed after dinner. Autumn and Winter took themselves off to the kitchen to reassure themselves that ‘dinner’ meant a repast in the traditional sense of the word, and not a half-hearted attempt at some eighteenth century recipe involving the blood of three cockerels or some other such atrocity. On the other hand, it could easily mean instant noodles served on silver platters. Alfie used to find that stuff funny. Still, he was working on it. No pills for several months now. He creaked up the stairs to their room, already needing to escape the tension between Deanna and Summer. It was a great room. Dual aspect bay windows commanding sea views, big purple skies full of racing cloud and somehow, you just knew there were millions of stars up there. And on the headland, a small group of brightly-coloured walkers, heads down against the wind. He lowered himself down on to the edge of the bed. The pink candlewick bedspread, nibbled and faded at the edges, clashed with a badly fitted threadbare peach carpet, the sculptured sort with scrolls. The sort of carpet that held on to dust and spilled drinks like a treasury of past times. None of this decor was improved by the addition of a rippled Chinese rug; lying in wait by an antique dressing table cluttered with memorabilia. On closer inspection the rug was hiding a couple of rotten floorboards, and while he was crouched at floor level, Alfie spotted a mousetrap behind the curtains amid several inches of dust.
His wife materialised, threw her handbag across the bed and began to disrobe. ‘Close the curtains will you? I can’t get changed in here it’s like a bloody fishbowl.’
‘How so? There’s nothing out there.’
‘The coastal path? Everyone has binoculars these days or cameras with zooms.’
Alfie tugged at the heavy material and it screeched along wonky metal rails, forcing the last beam of afternoon light to concentrate upon Summer’s fancy suitcases and his old leather holdall. He no longer owned enough clothes to warrant bringing a suitcase and his wife had given up buying anything for him. He used to have rows of Saville Row suits, silk ties, hundreds of shirts. Fancy shoes with shoe-horns in them, a dry-cleaning account. The holdall contained a soap-bag, some underwear, a jumper, a beanie hat, his running gear and two pairs of Levis. He’d applied this same philosophy to those areas of his life where he felt he could get away with it. It irked him that the word simplicity contained the word ‘city,’ but you couldn’t have everything. Maybe he was overthinking again. 
Summer shot him an expectant look before pulling something woollen over her head and poking her arms through. ‘So, have you had any ideas how we can make Mum see sense?’
He used to like watching her dress. Especially when she wore stockings and nice lingerie but that felt denied now, or too complicated. It was about performance, targets, rewards. All the things that had eventually destroyed him. ‘See sense? About what?’
‘Have you not read the letter?’
Well, yeah.’
‘Well, then!’
‘Let’s see what the others say first.’
‘You’d better back me up, Alfie.’
He ignored this. Not too long ago he’d have gone along with anything if it meant a quiet life. But on this occasion Alfie was genuinely interested in Autumn and Winter’s take on matters. He had a feeling his wife might be in the minority, but if surviving a breakdown had taught him anything it was to take control of the abyss before it swallowed him again. Complacency, and indifference held up as significant negatives, or so his therapist had said. He used to scowl and scoff at these statements, but some things were beginning to make sense.
He watched his wife check her phone, scrolling through messages.
‘Oh, God, no! River. She’s in a right state.’ 
‘What’s happened?’
She turned her back to him and speed-dialled, then paced up and down the room, boards creaking. Alfie stretched across the bed and closed his eyes. His eldest daughter had always enjoyed the monopoly on attention. Was it right to feel so resentful of one’s own offspring? There was no way of blanking out the fraught exchange. River crying and shouting, Summer trying to placate and commiserate.
‘Come home to The Groves with the kids till he sees sense,’ Summer said.
This had Alfie’s blood pressure leap. He’d only just got rid of them all six months ago! River’s wedding had seen bells and whistles of the highest order. Sugared almonds, thousands of peace doves, white horses wearing pink plumes. Swathes of shell-pink silk and highlighted, straightened hair. Dagger-like nails with crystals in them, all those expensive, pampered hands unable to do anything in case the nails spoilt, split or snapped off.
‘I’m only helpless till my nails dry!’ his youngest had said, and they’d all laughed. Alfie had cried, but behind the smoking garden at the pub, so that was alright. He used to cry for himself, but now he cried for them. He often cried for his daughters and the things they deemed important. He tried to counter their immaturity against his still sometimes fragile emotions, but living with three hormonal daughters plus River’s children and her fiancé, hadn’t helped Alfie’s overall recovery. The arguments, the pettiness of everything from whose phone-charger it was, to banging doors at all hours of the day and night, a two-year old going through the tantrum stage and a teething baby. A baby who cried and grizzled while Alfie was trying to sleep after a long shift in the pub, but of course no one really cared about that because it wasn’t a ‘proper’ job. Summer loved the chaos, the feeling of being needed all the time but then she was out at work all day, took credit for all the good stuff, then lapped up the agony aunt role on her return. Ironically, she practised family law for a living. Alfie reckoned the good guys never got a look in. Pay up, and ship out. 
‘They’ve had a bloody row, that’s all. Sum, she can’t keep running home all the time, she has to learn to deal with stuff. Stop… helicoptering or, what’s it called? Micro-parenting, that’s the one.’
‘I thought you hated buzz words?’ 
‘I thought you understood them?’
She looked slightly wrong-footed at this, at his quick response. ‘Whatever. Anyway, in my book it’s called caring.’
‘That’s passive-aggressive. You’re intimidating I don’t care.’ 
‘You don’t!’
Alfie lay back down and covered his eyes with an old, yellowing edition of Woman’s Own. Why Summer involved herself in the details of their daughter’s marriage was quite beyond him. The poor guy she’d married didn’t stand a chance. Neither of them did.
AUTUMN
Dinner consisted of beef stew. It was passable, if one avoided any kind of close visual inspection and firmly bypassed the concrete dumplings. At least Alfie had found some decent wine. She watched him fill up everyone’s glass with a light-hearted flourish, until he came to Summer. When he ignored her glass and placed the bottle out of easy reach, the resultant glare could have curdled milk. 
They plodded through the meal, eyes mostly cast downwards until Autumn finally cleared the plates and carried them through to the kitchen. The dogs followed her, but even they recoiled at the dumplings, although they made a polite effort to lick them clean of gravy. On her return and once re-seated, Bertie prised open an ancient tin box, the lid of which depicted a colourful Victorian cottage garden. The sort of box usually full of sweet promise but in Autumn’s experience of Ty Traeth, just as likely to contain a sewing kit, or assorted screws. Maybe she should have trusted her initial instinct because several Kit-Kats suddenly exploded into the middle of the table. Alfie whistled and rubbed his hands together.
‘Hey, look what Joe’s missing!’
Winter shot him a soft smile. ‘I like Kit-Kats. Especially with a good Merlot.’ 
‘The girl has taste. Do you dip them in?’
‘Right, down to business,’ Deanna cut in. She rose to her feet, bangles jangling, purple spectacles perched on the end of her nose, silver hair piled up in a wobbly topknot. Both dogs immediately leapt up from beneath the table. ‘Bones! Chutney! SIT! Sit down.’ Neither dog obeyed. Bertie offered to take them for a walk. At mention of the W word, the whole barking shebang started again until Bertie managed to escape outside, both dogs in tow – rather gratefully, Autumn thought. The second the door closed behind them, Summer grabbed the bottle of wine from where Alfie had placed it under-guard, and upended it into her glass. 
‘Good, right. Well, this has nothing to do with him, anyway,’ she said.
Deanna bristled. ‘On the contrary, it has everything to do with darling Bertie. In fact, we’re getting married. This very week as it happens.’
‘Seriously? Is this why we’re all here? I haven’t brought anything to wear.’
‘You’re not invited,’ Deanna said starchily, then glanced round the table. ‘None of you are.’
‘Charming!’
There was a collective sigh, looks were exchanged, and then a brooding silence descended while Deanna opened a cardboard file and shuffled the papers. Summer brushed dog hairs off her woollen dress and glared at Alfie. Winter mostly studied her orange juice; a mix of bewilderment and despair etched across her face, but then her younger sister had looked over-emotional from the moment she’d arrived. Autumn longed to offer her a shred of sisterly comfort, but now wasn’t the time.
‘Right. I’m 65 soon,’ Deanna went on. ‘And I need to make some decisions about this place. Not one of you has ever bothered with it, despite it’s all I have to gift to you when I’m gone. It will likely be worthless by then. Crumbled to dust.’
‘So you keep saying,’ Summer said, ‘but we have our own families, jobs… properties.’
‘So you keep saying. Thing is, it destroys me to the very core that this house and the horses and everything your father and I did to build it into something special has been left to rot! Including me!’
Summer’s snort of derision ripped through the ensuing silence.
‘Mum, be reasonable. The condition of Ty Traeth isn’t our fault,’ Autumn said, although she could concede that her own attempts to visit since moving to London had been abysmal, and it didn’t help that Deanna would never know the real reasons why. Autumn meant to glance at Summer in a placatory way but her eyes were drawn like magnets to Alfie. He sat in deep thought, turning his wine glass round by the stem, such beautiful sadness etched in his face. A random memory then of riding bareback, the sun glancing through the trees, cooking supper on the beach. The perfume of warm horses, his saltwater kiss, and the dark chill of the rising moon. She’d been a fool to imagine returning to Ty Traeth as a different, more mature woman could wipe all that away.
Deanna broke through her thoughts. She cleared her throat, smoothed-out a single sheet of paper and squinted through her spectacles. ‘The main thing is, I’ve had a substantial offer for the house and the 15 acres of attached land. From Cariad Caravan Parks.’
‘So, what’s the problem?’ Summer said, at once more animated. ‘Sell up, and let’s split the proceeds. Don’t you agree, Alfie? Alfie!’
Deanna’s face darkened. ‘I’ve said nothing about splitting any proceeds. Bertie and I have talked at great length about taking a gap year.’ 
‘A gap year?’ Autumn said, unsure then if she was confused or bemused at the idea.
‘Yes! We may well spend your entire inheritance on Singapore Slings, street dancing in Costa Rica and a cruise down the River Nile.’ Deanna leant across the table towards Summer. ‘The last thing I want is for your spoilt children to be enabled to buy another phone, one of those silly pedigree dogs they’re always hankering for, or another pair of ridiculous shoes.’
‘How dare you!’ Summer gasped, ignoring Alfie’s quick restraint on her arm.
‘Easily, I’m afraid.’
‘So, what are you saying?’ Autumn went on, intent on keeping Deanna focused. 
‘What I’m saying is if you want a decent inheritance then you’ll all have to do something about it.’ She wagged a finger round the table. ‘Two out of three of you round this table have enormous salaries.’
‘Oh, so, you want us to pay for our own inheritance?’
‘Really, you are all incredibly dim! Alfie you should understand what I’m driving at here. If you invest in Ty Traeth now, think how much it will be worth in say… twenty years time, or whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil.’
Summer’s jaw dropped. ‘So you’re expecting Autumn and myself to restore this place, then when the time comes to split it three ways? Sorry, Win, but I don’t see how that’s fair.’
Winter nodded miserably in agreement. 
Deanna rolled her eyes, removed her spectacles. ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat. This isn’t just about money. It can be about the most valuable investment of all: time, and love. Something Winnie has in abundance.’ After a moment she looked at Winter and added, more briskly, ‘Winnie you can move in right away and start working the horses.’
‘I… I can’t.’
‘Why not?’ Deanna said, indignantly. ‘Joe can live here as well. Look at the rent you’ll save! Enough for a deposit on your own place. I can’t for the life of me understand why you pay rent when there are perfectly good rooms here.’
‘Er… Joe’s job?’
‘Joe can easily commute to the pub from here while you help your sisters bring this place back to life again. Winnie, darling, you’re the one with all the knowledge, the empathy, a proper little horsewoman. You can use that long-lost qualification of yours and start teaching again.’
Summer scraped her chair back and got to her feet. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never heard such a harebrained scheme to get your own way.’ She pointed a long nail at Deanna. ‘You know something, all of this sounds like blackmail to me. And if you’re getting married to Bertie all this talk of inheritance will be null and void anyway.’
Deanna flapped a dismissive hand at this. ‘Bertie signed a disclaimer on Ty Traeth a week ago. He has his own perfectly lovely place in the village. We could easily live there while any renovations are under way.’
‘Good for you. Your life, your choice. I’m sorry girls, but I’m out.’
Summer yanked a jacket off the back of her chair and made for the door, fuelling Deanna’s wrath yet again. ‘The alternative is for me to accept Cariad Caravans generous offer and travel the world with Bertie! Everything here reduced to a cloud of dust. Imagine that!’ 
‘Go for it. I’m afraid I have a crisis at home which is more important.’
‘Like what?’
The dining room door slammed and rattled the mis-matched crockery on the dresser. Alfie rubbed his temples then scrolled a hand down his face and peered through his fingers. Winter looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Although her heart was banging and her mind raced in first one direction, then another, Autumn couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
 WINTER
Her old room hadn’t changed much. The handmade shelves on either side of the fireplace were given over to a substantial collection of books featuring girls and horses, as well as old classics like The Red Pony by Steinbeck; Black Beauty, Thelwell, and hundreds of paperbacks she’d inherited from Autumn. A Pony to School, Pony Club Camp, I Had Two Ponies… The paperbacks were yellowing and fragile, the pages so well-thumbed some of the print had faded. The nostalgia of the colourful covers set in the fifties and sixties felt both sad and powerful, because all of these books linked ostensibly to her mother’s dreams. Dreams which her father had endeavoured to ensure came true. Further evidence adorned the walls of Ty Traeth in its heyday. The pony-trekking business had supported her mother’s first love, that of breeding Welsh ponies. Winter studied the mostly monochrome prints on the wall, choked with dust and juggling wall space with posters of Britney Spears and Robbie Williams. Curious that the pop posters felt enormously embarrassing now and the old books and framed photographs which she’d almost thrown out – completely fascinating. Her mother’s prize-winning Welsh Section-A stallion peered out at her from beneath a plaited forelock, a nervous Autumn hanging on to his fancy bridle at Anglesey show. Faded rosettes clung wearily to the frame. She rummaged through her dressing table to find a long lock of ebony tail plaited with dead daises, curled in the drawer. 
Much of the time, Winter felt she’d missed out on all the good stuff. She’d inherited the souvenirs and the second-hand memories. By the time she’d been a teenager in the nineties, the horses were not much more than pets and the riding school was already beginning to struggle, defeated in the face of those places with indoor schools. Deanna had scoffed at the same children when they arrived at holiday times, wanting to ride on the beach. Most of them were unprepared at the feel of a forward-going pony in an open space, used only to riding inside, to a set of strict rules and regulations, something Deanna had never entertained.
‘They learn nothing in those despicable city sheds!’ she’d say, hands on hips.
Winter was in the throes of ripping-up the pop posters when a knock on the door preceded the entrance of Autumn, still holding a glass of Merlot.
‘Oh, no, not Robbie!’
‘Can’t understand what I ever saw in him.’ 
‘Me neither.’ Autumn swirled wine around her glass. ‘So, what are we to do?’
A shy smile. ‘About Robbie? It’s too late, I’ve binned him.’
‘Funny.’ 
Winter turned to look through the window, lifting her eyes above the roof of her sister’s car towards the horizon, and the sun sinking towards the sea. Her unborn child, her unborn dreams and her loyalties to herself, all struggled in the face of Joe’s ambitions. Was that fair to say? Closer to home, she spotted Summer re-packing her car, throwing a bag and some coats onto the back seat. Not wanting to think about the significance of this, either, she moved away from the window, planted herself down on the bed and chewed a nail. Autumn straddled the dressing table stool. To say the questions about what to do about Ty Traeth represented the proverbial elephant in the room, was something of an understatement. They reached the same conclusion within minutes; that without Summer on board the entire project was pretty much doomed, and not only from a cash perspective. The thought of squabbling over Ty Traeth when the inevitable time came to split the estate, was unthinkable. 
‘Can’t we talk to her, the three of us sit down and work something out?’
Autumn was about to respond when the sound of skidding tyres on gravel had them both lock eyes as the unmistakable sound of the engine changing gear and then roaring into oblivion, had Autumn spring-up to look through the window. ‘So they’ve gone, just like that! Without even saying goodbye or apologising for leaving me here?’
‘Typical of her. At least Sum knows her own mind. I’m not so sure I do. I mean, is it the right timing for me to have a child,’ she said, a little surprised by her admission. Her sister frowned. ‘You’re not saying what I think you’re saying?’ 
‘How do you mean?’
Her sister’s face assumed a guarded look. ‘Win, you’re halfway to forty, and you’re already pregnant. It’s now or never.’
‘Alright, you don’t need to rub that in.’
‘Joe will be fine about having a child, the longer you leave off telling him the worse its going to be. Or are you waiting till you get to the point of no return?’
‘No, course not.’
 When Autumn spoke again, her voice was so quiet Winter struggled to hear her. ‘I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that if you weren’t pregnant, you could be here, doing everything Mum wants you to do. I know that wistful look of yours.’
‘A little bit. Alright, quite a lot.’ Her throat thickened with emotion. ‘I just want Ty Traeth to be here forever.’
After a moment, Autumn whispered, ‘Me too.’
ALFIE
Deanna said she had things to do outside. She looked dragged-down and disappointed. Alfie could easily identify. He wanted to say something, but his thoughts wouldn’t form into anything relevant or coherent, despite feeling enormous empathy for a woman who’d lost her husband in her early forties and had been alone ever since. Bertie seemed an okay bloke to Alfie, despite Summer’s animosity. There again, his wife tended to be a cup half-empty kind of person these days. His fault. He’s emptied all the cups and chipped all the handles. He waited until the room emptied, his gaze lingering on Autumn as she made for the door. She glanced round at the last moment and caught his eye but his face felt too wooden to respond, programmed into a passivity he was beginning to resent. Eventually, he made his way upstairs, his heart-rate uneven and uncomfortable. This most likely down to the anticipation of a row, nothing to do with his physical health because since he’d started running he felt more together than he had in months, years even, and his once slack muscles had begun to find shape again. 
The room looked mildly ransacked but because Summer hadn’t really unpacked, she didn’t have much of a job rearranging her case and zipping it closed. ‘Get your stuff, I’ve told River we’ll be back tonight.’
‘Why?’
‘Why do you think?’
She shoved past him in a cloud of fresh perfume, and for a moment Alfie listened to her feet hammering down the stairs, huge case bumping the bannisters. He tipped his head back and studied the dirty ceiling bathed in the soft rosy glow of dusk, then crossed to the window for inspiration. Deanna looked to be weighed down with buckets, dogs at her heels, while his wife shoved bags and coats into the car. The same bags and coats they’d unpacked less than four hours ago. When he heard her re-enter the room, car keys jangling, he turned about and they stared at each other, mostly indifferently.
‘Why are you still stood there like a dummy?’
‘Like a dummy? Is that how you see me?’
She folded her arms. ‘Alright, what is this?’
‘You tell me. We drive all the way over here to spend a week with your family and now you want out?’
‘I’ve said my piece about their stupid plan. Thanks for your support, by the way. Anyway, River needs m–’
‘No, she doesn’t. She has a husband. And two sisters at home, come to that.’
‘I’m still her mother!’
‘And I’m still your husband. Remember me?’ he said, quietly. ‘Sum, I’m not coming back with you to babysit a grown woman. A pastime which more or less translates to you both drinking wine and slagging-off men.’
Her eyes travelled over his body and for a wild, surreal moment he thought she might cross the room to kiss him. But then her arms flapped at her sides and the spell was broken. ‘So, what are you going to do, stuck here with no car?’
He shrugged. ‘I’ve booked a week off work, so I’m taking it. When I’m done, I’ll get the train back with Autumn. Remember her, she came with us in the car? Nice, the way you treat your family, by the way.’
A deep exhale, a hand through her hair. ‘Alright, look… I need you to drive. I think I might be over the limit, in fact I–’
‘Then the obvious answer is to do the decent thing, and stay. Don’t be a dummy, for once.’
‘Goddammit Alfie, what’s got into you?’ 
‘Loneliness, common-sense? Look, I want you to stay.’
‘Don’t give me that crap, Alfie.’
‘You see that as crap?’
‘At this moment in time, yes.’
Her slanty eyes and her deep irritation still had the power to throw him. In some ways she was right; he’d been complacent for years and now, when she’d hoped to rely on his compliance, he’d suddenly cracked out of his shell. Only a hairline crack, but even so. She thundered back down the stairs and his guts waited for the door slam, the crunch of tyres and the spit of gravel. 
Guilt. Everything these days seemed to boil down to feeling guilty about something, about trying to apportion blame. 
The upshot of this meant Alfie remained more or less motionless on the bed, the  chill night air seeping into the room while he imagined every worse case scenario involving a powerful car and a determined, alcohol-fuelled woman. Not for the first time, either. Through the gap in the curtains, pinkish grey clouds parted to reveal a full moon, adding to his sense of doom and casting a strange light across the wardrobes. He gave her two hours to get back to Chester before he tried calling and texting. No response – which was fully expected. She’d be in a pow-wow with River, casting scornful glances at his messages… wouldn’t she? Unless… unthinkable. He messaged his youngest daughter, figuring Sienna wouldn’t be especially interested in the latest drama.
Hi love. Mum get hone alright?’
ages ago where r u?’
At Grans for a bit.
seriously…
A row of laughing faces, and one with a pair of rolling eyes, but that didn’t matter. The relief that Summer hadn’t crashed the car was a double-edged sword in that it welcomed back every other emotion he’d been holding at bay. He heard the shrill whinny of a horse and moments later, a reassuring answer from a stable-mate, followed by absolute silence. And he knew then, knew he’d done exactly the right thing. For now.