Do 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.
The 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.
Time 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.
But 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!
A circular walk of 7.5 miles including 2,500 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: The disused quarry by Donen Las, Groeslon, Waunfawr. Map References: SH 5509159893 or Lat: 53.116473 Lon: -4.166625
Moel Eilio is situated approximately 3 miles north-west of Snowdon. It has two subsidiary tops, Foel Gron and Foel Goch. From the elevated start point below Cefn Du, Moel Eilio looks remarkably modest; a mere hill alongside its more impressive neighbours, but then mountains nestled in the foothills of Snowdon will always look like the poor relation. In terms of endurance this route is not to be underestimated as the undulating nature of this cluster of 3 summits requires some stamina. And then, just as you might think it’s all easy going as one heads for home through Telegraph Valley, there’s a final ascent to return to the start point. But the climbing is well worth the effort. On a clear day the scenery is spectacular across the ridge, affording views across to Anglesey and Llanddwyn Island, the Llyn Peninsular, the Rivals, the Nantlle Ridge, and of course, the Snowdon Horseshoe. The way is well defined on grassy tracks or bridleways.
The Telegraph Path is so named after the first successful Marconi long-wave transmitting station, situated on the west-northwest slopes of Cefn Du. The station was in use between 1912 and 1938 and was for many years the most important long-wave station in Britain, handling imperial and international communications. The site closed in 1938 but remains of the buildings are still visible. Historical evidence of the slate industry is another strong feature of this landscape, as nearby Llanberis clearly illustrates via Dinorwic Quarry – a vast scar embedded in the hillside above Llyn Padarn. The first commercial attempts at slate mining in the area took place in 1787. By the late nineteenth century, Penrhyn and Dinorwic were the two largest slate quarries in the world.
From the parking area, turn left along the track past the slate tips until the fingerpost sign directs you onto the main route across Moel Eilio. It’s a well-defined ascent and the summit is denoted by a large stone shelter.
Ignore the ladder stile by the shelter and, following the fence-line on the right, continue downhill in a southerly direction, keeping Snowdon ahead at all times. Take the next ladder stile over the wall, keeping the fence-line to the left.
Tackle the curving ridge of Foel Gron, then take the next stile, keeping the fence-line on the right. The next two stiles crop up almost together forming a right angle, before ascending the final grassy knoll of Foel Goch.
Once over the summit, the track begins to descend the short but steep flanks of Foel Goch. Bear right here on an eroded track heading towards the bottom of the valley where the Telegraph Path skirts the foot of Snowdon.
On reaching the bottom, loop back by turning sharp left along the Telegraph Path, a long bridleway which heads down towards Llanberis and runs parallel to the Moel Eilio trio of hills. Good views to the right of Llanberis, Dinorwic Quarry, and Llyn Padarn.
Follow the bridleway for some 4 miles, passing the Marconi Tower to your left and ignoring all right-hand routes down to Llanberis. Pass through all the boundary gates and stiles and continue straight on as the path begins to ascend.
At the T junction turn left and continue the ascent along the slate trail bridleway until a final kissing gate returns you to the start.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
A circular walk of 7 miles including 1,500 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: Layby on the A498 by Llyn Dinas, Nantgwynant, Beddgelert, Gwynedd, LL55 4NG. Map References: SH 6124149371 or Lat: 53.023590 Lon: -4.070265
This route offers a great variety of scenery from panoramic, mountainous views across the heart of Snowdonia, to wooded valleys smothered in bluebells in the springtime, to the iconic village of Beddgelert and the pretty River Glasyln. The village is probably named after an early Christian missionary called Celert who settled here early in the 8th century, although the folk tale of Gelert the dog is more often associated with Beddgelert. There is a raised mound called Gelert’s Grave – a significant tourist attraction. The dog is alleged to have belonged to Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, a gift from King John of England. In this legend, Llywelyn returns from hunting to find his baby missing, the cradle overturned, and Gelert sporting a blood-smeared jaw. Believing the dog had savaged the child, Llywelyn drew his sword and killed it. But then Llywelyn heard the cries of the baby, unharmed under the cradle, along with the dead wolf which had attacked the child – killed by his faithful hound, Gelert. Llywelyn was overcome with remorse and buried the dog with great ceremony, haunted by his dying yelps. After that day, Llywelyn never smiled again. A sad tale, but the grave was actually built in the late 18th-century by the landlord of the Goat Hotel, David Pritchard, who created it in order to encourage tourism.
Go through the gate by the footpath sign, walk the short distance along the edge of the lake before passing over the bridge and turning right to follow the River Glaslyn as it flows downstream towards Beddgelert – for almost two miles.
At the copper mine, ignore the road bridge to the right and turn left towards the car park before turning sharp right to take a footpath alongside the drystone wall. At the end of this short track, turn right on the single-track road and continue towards Beddgelert. At the next road bridge go through the metal gate to the left alongside the river, taking the path into Beddgelert.
Cross the pedestrian bridge over the river then turn left to walk alongside the Glaslyn for about half-a-mile – the route here is sign-posted to ‘Gelert’s Grave.’ At the next bridge, pass beneath it to emerge onto the road. Cross the road and take the stile opposite into grazing land. Keep left alongside the drystone wall, ignoring the first stile by a metal gate into the woods, taking the next stile which crosses over the wall.
Pass a ruined barn to your left and continue along the well-defined grassy track that climbs steadily towards Bryn Du. The lower slopes here are covered in bluebells in springtime, and throughout summer the tooting of steam trains echo across the valley. Follow the National Trust posts as the route winds up towards a small stone enclosure on the summit. Some of this path can be boggy after heavy rain but there are stepping-stones in the form of well-placed boulders.
At the top, far-reaching views towards Snowdon and Moel Siabod make a good stopping point for a tea-break, before turning right towards Aberglasyn Woods. Take the stile over the wall into the woods, and continue to follow the National Trust markers, taking care on the steep sections as the route begins its descent.
At the bottom of the woods, turn left and emerge onto the road. Turn left and walk along the road for a short distance before taking the stone road bridge on the right. Go through the metal kissing gate on the left and turn sharp right to ascend the track which leads through a copse of trees, arriving at a car park.
Turn left and head towards the railway arch, following the route through a small picnic area before taking a well-defined, gradually ascending track towards Cwm Bychan.
The route opens out into a narrow valley, with evidence of copper mining. Head up towards a wooden ladder stile which passes over a drystone wall and onto the summit of Cwm Bychan. Again, panoramic scenery as the route heads towards Llyn Dinas.
Take the steep steps back down to the lakeside and retrace the route back over the footbridge to the starting point. This walk works equally well in reverse, allowing for a well-timed pub stop in Beddgelert towards the end of the walk.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
Wild, Dark and Silent: A testimony to the Welsh Hills…
Wild Water is the story of Jack Redman, the wronged alpha male who’s trying to make the best decisions for his family but more often than not, gets kicked in the teeth. How often we read novels in the contemporary genres which consistently root for the female character – nothing wrong with a strong woman, of course – but no one seemed to be telling these stories from the male viewpoint, at least not twenty years ago when I began my quest. Divorce still seems heavily weighted towards the partner with the children, and the mother is usually awarded custody unless there are extenuating circumstances which can be proved. Most of the time this is all well and good, but there are a great number of cases where our ancient system is fully exploited. Sadly, a lot of the initial storyline was prompted by real-life experience but there’s no better starting point than this for fiction in the family-saga genre. Jack Redman is a victim not only of the court system injustices but of its inability to deal with the speed and complications of contemporary family life.
The Wild Water series is strongly rooted in Conwy, a medieval town in North Wales. In the main I’ve used real places, and I do love the mix of historical buildings as a backdrop to a modern tale. Links to Welsh history and heritage are unavoidable in Wales and it’s the visible remains of quarries, castles and farmsteads which give the area a strong sense of the past. And there’s richness in the landscape here which has certainly inspired my writing. St. Celynnin’s 12th century church in the hills for example, is an evocative piece of living history and a landmark which is included throughout the series. It’s exactly the sort of place Anna, with her natural spiritualism, might seek sanctuary. Nestled in the hills 927 feet above the sea, it’s pretty inaccessible and best approached on foot, but this is no great hardship.
Some of the area is chocolate-box pretty, a lot of it isn’t. The struggle to make a living in this community is mostly based on farming or tourism, although the mussel industry is alive and well. Since I know little about these subjects, Jack Redman emerged as an estate-agent. I like to be slightly unconventional with my characters because another great killer of readability is sameness, and cliche.
It was both daunting, and a pleasure to write the follow-up, Dark Water.The story picks up three years after the end of Wild Water and Jack is in for another bumpy ride. Dark Water is, as the title might suggest, a darker story partly because my writing style has changed over twenty years, but also because I introduced an element of crime. It’s too easy to become lazy with a sequel and repeat much of what has gone before. The resurgence of Simon Banks created plenty of tension, and a fresh challenge for me to write some of the story from his perspective. New characters such as Clarissa Harrison-Smith and Peter Claymore, breathed new life into the original cast. When I brought Claymore into the story, he had to have a purpose and a passion, and his persona took root in one of the most fascinating buildings in Conwy – sadly in a state of disrepair – but the real life situation fitted perfectly with what I had in mind for the plot.
This house was built in 1589 by the vicar of Conwy. Since then it’s been a pub, a tearoom and an antique shop. It’s full of spooky atmosphere with cellars, trapdoors and secret passages, and apparently there used to be an escape tunnel which led to the quay. Haunted? Most certainly! It’s exactly the sort of place someone like Claymore would want to renovate and bring to life, and the perfect setting for Anna to develop in her own right as a serious artist. Her portrait of Llewellyn the Great is the centrepiece of her launch but of course, this is fiction and nothing goes to plan! The comedy and tragedy of Jack’s life rumbles on. In his own words: ‘Raping and pillaging is still rife, even in the modern world.’
Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people.
Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.
It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.
This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.
Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?
Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.
Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline.
I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.
As for Taliesin, he is at the bottom of the lake…
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
Erotica: (from the Greek ἔρως, eros “desire”) is any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating subject matter. All forms of art may depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music or literature. Erotica has high-art aspirations, differentiating it from commercial pornography.
How dark can you take it?
High art. Does this apply to chocolate? In my opinion, it applies more to chocolate than a lot of literature. And if chocolate was graded according to fiction then surely it would have to be erotica? Award Winning Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are most certainly the high-art end of chocolate creation, removing themselves from the crude porn of supermarket chocolate bars and divulging our senses of the most sophisticated chocolate experience.
Cathryn Cariad chocolates are not bound by the conventional selection box either. Be prepared to delve into several sub-genres and rest assured that chocolate dragons will be someone’s erotic fantasy, but as you may expect, romance takes the biggest bite. And not just the chick-lit love of chocolate shoes and Champagne bottles – but a diverse and satisfying array of fillings expertly coupled with either white, milk or dark. Where to begin? Clearly, all of this needed researching thoroughly!
Chocolate has enjoyed longstanding stories of magical and mythical properties, so it’s only fitting that the name of the tree it comes from, Theobroma Cacao, means “food of the gods”. Ancient Mesoamerican art, depicting cacao gods and goddesses, rituals, and cacao in sacred caves and mountains, indicates the cacao tree may have been seen as connecting the gods and humans, heaven and earth. It seems perfectly fitting then that chocolate trees flourish only in the hot, steamy tropics; more specifically in a swathe roughly 20 degrees north and south of the Equator.
Of course, before the raw product arrives in Snowdonia the beans are harvested, fermented, roasted and graded according to quality. The process continues when the ‘nib’ is extracted and ground. This is called conching and produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect. The length of the conching process determines the smooth, sensuous quality of the finished product. After this, the chocolate can be liquefied, ready for blending and moulding, and the final seduction can begin.
Recently, I had the very great pleasure of meeting Master Chocolatier Cathryn O’ Connell, the founder of the award winning cottage industry in the heart of Snowdonia: Cathryn Cariad Chocolates. The products are handmade in a rather beautiful setting overlooking the Moelwyn mountain range and within earshot of several vocal hens, and more than one cockerel (all of whom, for ease of identification are named Brian). The local steam train tooted and chugged across the mountain in much the same way it had done for over a hundred years, as we talked about Snowdonia, the history of Cathy’s amazing property, books and … chocolate.
Ah, the chocolate room of pleasure! The full chocolate experience should start with light kissing: creamy white chocolates filled with lemon and Welsh lavender from Rhayader. Or maybe you’d rather explore the delicate laciness of wild elderflower. Too sweet? Progressing onto milk chocolate is a comfort zone enjoyed by many and the fillings are not quite so innocent and teasing. Homemade butter caramel and Welsh vanilla sea-salt. Purple Moose Ale, Brecon gin… Sooner or later, we arrive at the penultimate. The Dark. Warning: this strength of chocolate erotica is highly addictive. Rich, controlling, surprisingly diverse and not so sweet.
Dinner party mystery game. Want to play? First, employ a silk blindfold to concentrate the taste buds and raise the selected truffle to nose, and then palate. Now, can you identify the exact combination? Is it sloe gin with a secret layer of raspberry jelly, or maybe the dragon-roasted coffee? You surely wouldn’t mistake Welsh Dragon chilies with cinnamon and nutmeg – rich, aromatic spices with a kick of heat from the chilies – just the way the Aztecs liked it, apparently. And for the more experienced or to confuse the senses of a seasoned taster, try innocent virginal white chocolate and Welsh honey from Arthog, ruthlessly coated in devilishly dark chocolate. The masked one! Without a doubt, Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are an imaginative selection box of mystery and fantasy. It can most certainly be romantic and erotic. It has historical roots and global appeal, but will only perform at its best when we understand the science fiction of it all.
Try a dark, dark salted caramel and wait for the full sensory experience, or a creamy milk truffle filled with blackberry brandy… go on. It would be criminal not to.
I’m in the pub with my editor, John Hudspith, talking about school puddings and prose, Snowdonia, & the science of story-telling: *Setting: In a darkened bar on the edge of Snowdonia, where the wild buzzards roam. *Characters: Jan Ruth, Snowdonian Author, and John Hudspith, writer, editor and Magical Wordmaster.*Plot: alcohol-fuelled ramblings. (Pantser) *Dialogue: read on…
Jan: I know you have the eyes of an eagle, but some folk say you also have the body of a crow. Is it true, or just a nasty rumour spread by Kimi? John: Probably true, going by the droppings. Jan: I think of you (only in private) as the brain of Brian. I couldn’t believe how many brains were confused by Brian, and how much sand my characters ate for dessert in Silver Rain. How do you focus on typos and daft mistakes and still manage to keep the overall shape of a novel, the plot and the character development in mind? John: Practiced instinct. My reading cursor hits each word, checking for choice, position, requirement, punctuation – one at a time and also in context – and, if approved, paddles it along to the story-collector, who sits there like some humongous wicket-keeper, catches each word in a fat mit, and adds it to the growing story-tree. If a character reaction isn’t right, or a plot hole gapes, or if something can be improved, the tree will sag and rattle and the catcher will know how to fix it. Like a dual processor, the paddle is programmed for errors of word, and the catcher for shortcoming story elements.
Jan: So, you think like a computer? John: No. Computers don’t think. But realising that your brain does act in a similar way to a computer, is good way to hone your writing/editing eye/processor. Jan: Is that how you’re able to edit so many different genres? Are there any that have you running for the hills? John: No running. Editing must remain wholly objective. Understanding the conventions of genre and the needs/requirements/expectations of each genre’s reader means putting subjectivity to one side. And yes, I have a program for that. Jan: The man with two brains? John: Five, actually, but I’ll keep the other three under wraps… for now. Jan: What makes you roll your eyes? John: Rolling one’s eyes is a subjective expression of emotion, so if you’re referring to when editing, no eye-rolling can occur…the paddle and the catcher do not know how. And, while they’re paddling and catching, I’m off elsewhere, rolling my eyes at humanity. Jan: Does that mean you never enjoy reading the stories you edit? John: Oh hell, yes. I do allow my subjective nose to poke in and get its thrills. Jan: So what thrills you the most when you begin to read a manuscript? John: That the story is one of my preferred genres, or that the writer is adept at plotting/dialogue/characterisation/scene-setting, etc. Jan: Has anything given you goosebumps recently? John: I went out the other day in t-shirt and shorts. Foolish at only five degrees. You could have hung your hat on them.
Jan: Either you’ve got the hide of a rhino or your head was clearly elsewhere. This happens to me a lot. Is it normal? My hubby says I look vacant (not all the time, but he says it quite a lot!) A rhino hide can be useful for an author to deflect the inevitable barbs along the way, but there is a fine line between a head in the sand job and confidence rooted in acceptance to learn and take advice. How do you deal with ego, because we writers are such ahem… sensitive souls. John: Showing the writer the `good` things and explaining what makes them good is the key. Then when you explain what could be improved and how, the ego usually gives a satisfied nod. Nothing wrong with egos, of course. Getting the balance right keeps the ego at bay because such balance is what the ego seeks. A smart young girl taught me that. Jan: Aw, Kimi. That’s given me goosebumps now! No, what I meant was, those goosebumps you get from words alone? John: I could associate that with a scene in Stephen King’s latest: Doctor Sleep, where Danny wakes from a pissed-up night to a flabby whore, a stinking mess of booze and drugs, and has to run to the bathroom to puke onto his own floating turd. Beautifully written. Word perfection brought the setting alive via mood and tone. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Jan: How important is setting? Are you bored with my hills yet? John: You see, Jan, they’re not just any old hills, they’re always different, be they sullen peaks draped in sunset ribbons or sheened with sleeting rain or suffused with morning mist or dripping snowmelt like icing, you choose your words to carry the story’s tone…every time! I was especially impressed to see equally masterful settings in your novel Silver Rain when you take reader halfway round the world, using all the elements of place to bring the settings alive and drop the reader right in there. Jan: Thanks. Now let’s talk about sex. We all know sex sells, but it’s just as important to keep the tone consistent in a novel. No one wants to reads a sex manual, nor do they want to hark back to the old style Mills & Boon. Do you think it’s become a lot more challenging to write good love scenes which are satisfying to the reader without making them cringe? John: You said `love` scenes. Of course, they are challenging because the love portrayed must be believed by the reader, and that takes build-up. Sex scenes, on the other hand, differ from genre to genre from author’s style to another author’s style, and even to individual reader perception. Honing said sex scenes are therefore challenging to write and difficult to master. Jan: Any tips for writing good sex? John: Less is more and succinctness is sexy. Jan: Agreed. Apart from the sex, what was your most challenging job ever? Can you tell? John: Easy answer… a memoir: Where Petals Fall, written by a mother who lost her daughter to leukaemia. My first go at editing a non-fiction – and at the same time, a heart-breaking – `story` – working with the author was an immense privilege, a humbling experience, and the finished work is huge testament to a courageous, determined individual.
Jan: That must have been difficult to write too, but possibly cathartic in a small way. I’m a strong believer of the adage ‘write what you know or at least have a deep understanding of what you’re trying to convey’. Would you agree that the power of her writing came from having lived through the experience, and she succeeded in a way another writer who was merely observing, would certainly fail? John: Perhaps an `observing` writer might not convey the raw emotions as well as the writer who actually experienced it, yes. Jan: In the days of agents I used to get told ‘Well, yes, it is romance, it’s almost romantic comedy, but then there’s a dark thread in it too so we can’t place you in a box, so thank you and goodbye!’ Is it possible to blend genres do you think, or is there a limit? Do you think the boundaries are too relaxed now or is that a good thing? How would you describe my genre? John: Where to start? I hate the genre label but they are necessary pointers. It is possible to blend genres. I know of one writer who experienced similar knockbacks for blending `crime` and `supernatural`. Look, it’s all about story and style, and the style of your work certainly has dark threads, certainly has romance/love/attraction, certainly has a wry touch of the comedic, but all this brings a great read. Those agents really should have been snapping you up and hawking your work. As for the boundaries being too relaxed, if it works, if it entertains, then write it.
Jan: What about your own writing? I know you’re working on something new, and after the amazing Kimi books I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Any clues as to what it’s about? John: Many years ago I tried writing the book I really wanted to write… but I lost the plot. I hope that now I can tell the story in an entertaining way, and that involves five POV characters weaved into a plot of deceit and destruction. Jan: So it’s a romance then? John: Ha-ha! In a way I suppose it is; human reliance, dependence, devotion, and the rudeness of death. Jan: Sounds like a night at our local. (It’s your round by the way… Mine’s a large Sauvignon) Five POVs is a challenge. I did this with White Horizon and I have to say it gave me quite a few headaches along the way. Is there a limit to heads? I read somewhere it was seven, before it gets too complicated for the reader. John: A POV limit? Interesting. Good POV takes time to build… five or seven would perhaps make a satisfying amount, i.e. enough space within the average (high-end) word count. Any more than that and the pages would surely need to stack up. You handled the multi-POVs very well in White Horizon. Jan: There was a good deal of planning for that book, but I have to say, in general I’m a seat-of-the- pants’ writer, whether I’m wearing tight shorts or a fetching yarn of waterproof for climbing the hills. Can you tell without looking or feeling? John: Nope. Seamless.
Jan: Always more comfortable… What about characters? Is it true you fancied James Morgan-Jones from Midnight Sky? Do you always fall in love with good ones? (Not good as in saintly, just meaty in character.) John: Oh, yes. You see, this is why blokes would like reading your novels, not just for the sultry heroines but the male characters: clumsily strong, adeptly inept, ruggedly handsome, stupidly sensible… attributes the male reader might recognise within themselves – add to that the chance of showering with a curvaceous, freckled, milky-fleshed redhead and it’s a no-brainer. Jan: Good point. *makes marketing note*. I like to write from the male POV. Does it work in general? The way I look at it is this; my target audience are women 35-65. They want to get into Al’s head, don’t they? Don’t be rude… John: They want Al’s head, you mean? Your male POVs are always great, it’s the little touches you employ, like nuts in a bathrobe pocket (sounds painful), or the clown suit, the pork pie hat, the brooding roughness of the horse-whisperer with his jumble of a kitchen, fat steaks, and lots of wine… every time you do this without fail, and every time the character is totally different from the last. It is this that makes your male POVs more than work `in general`, they’re always totally real, convincing, and the resulting reader empathy enormous. Jan: Thanks. They are my forte! What’s your favourite type of character? John: A good one. In other words I like every character… as long it’s convincing, believable, written well. Jan: Dialogue is a good builder of character, don’t you think? I find it the easiest discipline too. What advice would you give to a novice writer about the use of speech? I remember some thirty years ago trying to think of different words for ‘he said.’ Big mistake! John: Ah, yes, the invisible `said` – use it whenever it suits the flow of speech, which happens to be pretty much most of the time. And read the dialogue out loud and in character, doing so shows up errors and shortcomings with ease.
Jan: Do you find male and female writers are different to edit? John. No difference at all in the writing, but men seem less eager to ask for help. It’s a caveman thing. Jan: It’s an ego thing, possibly? When I sent my first badly typed manuscript to an agent thirty years ago (it makes me cringe now when I think about it. I had no capital L on the typewriter so I had to use a number one instead) she said it was a good story with perfectly good characterisation but littered with mistakes. She sent it to an editorial company in London, who then passed it back to me for perusal and it was covered in red pen… I was speechless! Then I got over it and re wrote it, and re wrote it again… and again. I just didn’t realise what editing and proofreading could do, and how essential it is. I didn’t make that connection; from the story in my head to the polished books you see for sale. I had no idea what happened in the middle to make it all come together. But I am forever grateful to Jane Judd for seeing that potential to develop Wild Water. So, what do you look for, initially? What do you like to see in a book? John: A crisp, clear opening paragraph that will instantly engage me, instantly drop me into place and POV, followed by the same crisp clearness … no fluff! Jan: You’re always on about fluff. Common problem? John: The number one. Over-writing, suffocating most books on a shelf near you. Jan: I must admit, you’re bloody good at hoovering up that fluff. And not just unnecessary words, you even spot misplaced spaces and commas that are italicised when they shouldn’t be. How did you get so eagle-eyed? John: Practice. When you do anything every day for years and years you will get reasonably proficient at it. Jan: You’re too modest. John: It’s my biggest fault.
Jan: How do you get in the zone to edit, is it a different zone when it comes to your own writing? John: Exactly the same: peace, quiet and gallons of tea. Jan: Of all the editors I’ve worked with, I have to say you are the most ‘switched-on’ in more than one sense. I think it’s maybe because you are an indie author yourself and know exactly what we are faced with in terms of market trends and so on. John: Yes, it helps that I’ve been down the bumpy road: written rubbish, made mistakes, and learnt a lot along the way. Jan: Oh, and I love the funny cheeky remarks about my characters too… your margins are so interesting. How important is it to have a good working relationship with authors in this way; does it help to have a similar sense of humour/borderline insanity? John: Insanity always helps. And editing SHOULD be fun. Jan: I like how you always explain the need for the edit. I’ve learnt a great deal about the finer tricks of the trade from you. John: What many authors who have never engaged with an editor realise, is that in working with an editor you’re also working with a teacher. You will learn, improve, become a better writer. Jan: Makes perfect sense, of course. Only don’t undersell yourself, Johnny. I employed a few editors before finally finding you. And believe me, they weren’t teachers. John: There’s cowboys in every trade, I guess. Jan: Doesn’t that bug you? John: Not really. Look, it’s simple, if you’re looking for an editor ask for a free sample. From the sample you will know if the editor connects with you and your work. Jan: Not every editor offers free samples. John: Then use one that does. Jan: Good advice. We’ve covered a little of everything except plotting. I think this is my weakest area and no matter how hard I try to plan, my characters tend to take over; which can be good, it means they are developing and moving the story along, but it is easy to write yourself into a dead end. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants plotter rather than a planner. What advice could you offer to rein-in those crazy voices in my head? John: Whether you’re a careful plotter or not, it doesn’t matter: write the way that works for you. As for those dead-ends, try and at least have some plot markers in place, something to aim for, like the end and one or two middle bits.
Jan: Dessert Island time. What book would you read in the sand, and which favourite pudding would you choose to accompany the experience? I’d have to say Panna Cotta or Eaton Mess with The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna. John: Choosing one book is hard enough but only ONE pudding? Yikes! Okay then, I’d go for Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher – multi-POVs and multi-themed, all so beautifully weaved, one can read it over and over and keep on getting hit with surprises. As for the pudding, something with custard… sticky toffee and fig or jam roly poly or spotted dick. Jan: You can only have one. John: Okay I’ll have a spotted dick. Jan: Mine’s another wine, thanks. What about childhood favourites? Mine would be The Wind in the Willows and school chocolate pudding with custard. John: Oh, I’d forgotten all about school chocolate pudd. It came with chocolate custard, lovely stuff. But there was one school dessert to beat that, most kids hated it but I loved it… semolina with those gooey brown little egg-like things plopped in the middle. We called it frogspawn. Always went for seconds. As for the book: Mr Pink Whistle – he used to love blowing his own magic flute, and such a skill might come in handy on a desert island. Jan: Ha! I loved books from an early age (and puddings). Although much can be learnt to hone a skill, I think it’s important to have that genuine love of words and read lots of different styles to become a rounded author (in every sense, I am getting too fat sat at this desk!) What other attributes would you consider important for a writer? John: You’re right about the genuine love of words, and to read lots of styles/genres is an enormous source of education. If I could add one important thing it would be the ability to step back and view one’s own work with an objective eye. So many don’t or can’t do this, and it shows in the writing. Jan: Good point. My round I think, what’s yours? John: All that talk of puddings has made me hungry. Chippy? Jan: Chippy? Bit of a walk from here! This is Snowdonia and it’s dark… get ready for goosebumps…
When does a romance become something else? When I first started writing and submitting manuscripts in the traditional way, it was either a romance or it wasn’t. The definitions were very clear, but incredibly restrictive. Although I think it’s a huge step forward to have the freedom of being a cross-genre writer, I must admit I am sometimes baffled by the many sub-divisions in the romance slot and it seems they are constantly evolving. Just for fun, I had a look at the top five most er… unusual genres in romance. At number five then, Amish Romance. This one speaks for itself, but who, other than the Amish community, would read them? Number four was interesting, Nascar Romance. This is where the hero is a driver and all the action is car related, nothing too odd about that, but number three had me cringing… The Personification of Death. As the title may suggest, these novels feature a romantic interlude with the Grim Reaper. Number two was plain old Romantic Suspense, but number one on the list… Centaur Romance! Okay I like horses, but really? The piece said it was nothing to do with My Little Pony, but you’ll love it if you are a horse lover and like sex with hairy men…
Maybe my work is more conventional than I thought! But I did get to wondering if White Horizon could allude to any of these trends. Now, the Nascar thing I can understand a little, since my male character did the first thing that any working class hero coming into a lot of money might do – buy a fast car; and the Romantic Suspense speaks for itself and is extremely relevant to White Horizon. The Grim Reaper does indeed show himself to one of the characters but you may or may not be relieved to learn there is no sex scene. No, I’m sticking with dramatic romance. Or is it romantic drama?
The location re White Horizon is certainly both romantic, and dramatic. Crafnant, is far more accessible than it looks in the pictures. I say accessible, but to be fair the single track road is not built for the modern car, and if someone needs to pass, don’t look down. Llyn Crafnant is a ¾ mile-long lake (well, reservoir actually) that lies in a beautiful valley where the northern edge of Gwydyr Forest meets the lower slopes of the Carneddau mountains and, more specifically, the ridge of Cefn Cyfarwydd. The head of the lake offers what could be regarded as one of the finest views, across the lake to the mountains above, in North Wales. Crafnant takes its name from “craf”, an old Welsh word for garlic, and “nant”, a stream or valley. Even today the valley of Afon Crafnant smells of wild garlic when it flowers.
It’s a popular location for a Sunday stroll, a family walk on mostly level paths and the whole circuit only takes 40-60 minutes depending on your pace. There’s a tea shop selling Welsh ice cream on the left bank and in bad weather the mountain ponies come down to graze, often with young at foot. On one such amble, I said to husband, wouldn’t this make a great location for a hotel? Maybe with a huge decked area jutting over the head of the lake. What a wonderful vista to have a restaurant overlooking the water, imagine the sunsets! Oh, the romance of it all.
‘Why don’t you use it for a book location? Then you can build a hotel in your head,’ he said. Our imagination ran riot, well, mostly mine, although we soon became bored with just the hotel and began to spice it up, adding a character hell-bent on destruction, manslaughter, domestic violence and eventually, running out of sensible plans, we set it all on fire! What a story… we turned a pleasant picnic area into a scene of death and devastation! (I’ll have to keep my eye on that idea of his though, the one about building things in my imagination. I can see how it might become used and abused beyond its original motive)
And I haven’t forgotten the sexy centaur. Is it relevant to White Horizon? Well, yes, he gallops in somewhere towards the end… Oh, and I kept the fire, the manslaughter and the domestic violence. But it is romantic as well, trust me.