Friday, 30 November 2012

A dog blog

Marcia is often asked, ‛Are your characters based on people you know?’ The invariable answer is, ‛No. Now, with the dogs, it’s different. I know every one of those.’

So, just for fun, I thought that I would tell you something about some of the real dogs and doggy moments that have crept into her novels.
Marcia as a young naval wife with Cassie
Marcia’s first dog was a golden retriever called ‛Cassie’ so it is not terribly surprising that one of the main characters in her first novel Those Who Serve was called Cassandra and that Kate bred goldens. Marcia became very friendly with Shirley Crick who bred goldens up on Dartmoor – where, incidentally, they tend to have pink noses because it is so wet. One of Shirley’s champion dogs was Mugwump Morquest – those who read The Chadwick Trilogy may remember ‛Mugwump’.
Marcia with my collie cross shortly after we got together.
When Marcia and I met, I had two dogs: a pedigree cairn terrier that had been given to me as a Christmas present by the breeder and a year-old collie cross that had been dumped on me by a friend. That was meant to be a temporary arrangement but . . . Anyway, we meet the collie under the name of Nellie in The GoldenCup. The cairn, as far as I know, has yet to appear. He was terribly old when Marcia and I got together and had already lost most of his sight and hearing. Within a week or so he life ended. It was a terrible day for me, we had been almost inseparable for nearly eighteen years.
Marcia and Bessie up on Dartmoor on a windy day. 'You can't use that one,' she said.
Rarely is Marcia wrong! Anyway, I love it. 
Then came our Newfoundlands: Lyddie (mad as a hatter), Huggy (big and macho), Bessie (with whom I was totally in love), Shrimp (housed for the breeder for some months when she was a ‛teenager’) and Trubshawe.
Marcia and Trubshawe enjoyed a very special realtionship
Trubshawe, Admiral Jellicoe to you, was without doubt Marcia’s dog. When he eventually died (in his sleep: his heart just gave out) she was broken hearted. Then came the tapestry. Completely out of the blue there was a letter saying that someone had a present for Marcia and could they please send it. Well, yes, of course. When it arrived it was a beautifully worked tapestry of a Newfoundland dog – and it was the spit image of Trubshawe. It turned out that the reader who embroidered it had been looking at various Newfoundland options and was always drawn back to this one. Very odd, spooky and entirely wonderful. Don’t ask how these things happen – it is probably safest not to know! It really does feel as if he has come back to live with us.
Our last dog together (and that does sound horribly final) was, of course, Jossie. Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time will know that Jossie belonged to the mother of Marcia’s closest friend. She is now immortalised as the terrier called Pops in The Sea Garden who had the same temperament but was somewhat smaller so that she could sit on Lady T’s lap.
We revisit The Bedford Hotel in Tavistock in The Sea Garden and here is Marcia on the hotel steps with Wellie, a friend's old English sheepdog. Wellie - a very patient soul - is still waiting to find out in which book he is destined to appear.
Lastly, there was a scene in that book where Kate drives up onto the moor – Plaster Down to be exact – and she watches a young father playing with his two small boys and another golden retriever. That was taken from real life. We were researching for the book and retracing Kate’s steps though the years and were on our way to Pew Tor when we witnessed this scene exactly as Marcia described it.
At the signing a few weeks ago in Torbay a reader came along with photographs of other dogs from the Morquest line.
This is Argus, a splendid looking chap.

Friday, 23 November 2012


The week before last, I left a comment which hinted that I was going to tell you a story about the world in which Marcia lives for most of the year. Wind the clock back some fifteen years or so to a chilly March Sunday which, weather wise, could easily have been in the middle of the winter.

Sally (who had bought her cottage many years before from Marcia and had become a close friend) was walking down the road past where we then lived to go to church and Marcia joined her.

“Will the girls be home for Christmas, Sally?” she asked.

“Umm. Well. You do know it’s nearly Easter, don’t you?” Sally retorted.

Poor Marcia was terribly embarrassed as she told me when she came home. Life in a parallel universe can be equally as fascinating as any of David Attenborough’s ‛Life on Earth’ series – and sometimes just as scary.

She was writing the first of the Chadwick Trilogy, Looking Forward. This short extract may bring that book back to some of you.

By the time Prue arrived later on Christmas Eve everything was ready. When she came into the hall, fetched from the station by Fox, they were all waiting for her. The tree, soaring up to the ceiling, was covered in lit candles, the only light apart from leaping firelight. The tinsel and baubles shone and glittered and tiny parcels, beautifully wrapped, hung from the stronger boughs. Holly and mistletoe, tied with scarlet ribbon, decorated the hall; mince-pies and sherry were waiting on the table before the fire. She stood quite still, just inside the door, and stared in delight while the family smiled at her pleasure.
'It's perfect,' she said at last and - as though she had released them from a spell - they surged forward to greet her, hugging and kissing her, making her welcome.

Now, as I write, with the signings nearly over (one more on 1 December) Marcia is already withdrawing slightly from the here and now as she sinks deeper into the world being inhabited by her characters.
There are no particularly apt pictures for this week so I thought I would share a couple I have taken recently that I quite like. This is Vixen Tor on Dartmoor. It usually merges into the background but the light was making it stand out in relief which was rather good.
One of the problems we have always had (but now resolved, I am happy to say) was that various Inland Revenue inspectors just could not grasp how the creative process works.

“You have here traveling expenses for MOTS? Please explain.” I would be asked.

Having explained that MOTS was shorthand for Memories of the Storm, I went on to say that Marcia needed to visit where her characters were to connect properly with them. Clearly this concept was inexplicable to those from the Inland Revenue and I can still see the deep suspicion and dis-belief staring at me from the other side of the desk. What I was saying was the absolute truth – Marcia never suffers from writer’s block but there are times when she, as she puts it, “hits the buffers” and then we set off to wherever we need to be going. We are rarely on the road for more than half an hour when she starts talking about the book – exploring new ideas that are coming to her as we drive along and through the area where the book is set. It may be that she wishes to explore a town or village and we stop so that she can wander off (on her own) and see what connections she can make.
We thought we would miss the sunsets when we left The Hermitage. Well, this was taken from our bedroom window the other night when the moon (you can just see it top left) was only a few days old so, clearly, we were wrong.
Would the books be the same if we never droned about like this? Would there be any books? I can’t give you a definitive answer to that question but, obviously, the way we go about things works – it produces very popular and (if I may say so) moving novels. Eventually, after both sides said a lot of things that should not have been said (and I hope they regretted these as much as I did) they accepted my arguments.

We have made two such trips this week, grabbing moments of reasonable weather in between the torrential rain which has flooded so much of the west country recently, and I am happy to report that matters trundle along very satisfactorily.
Just to prove that I haven't forgotten the Jackdaws. Here is one prancing (do you agree that is the right word?) on the drive - track, really - that leads from the house.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Listening to the characters

The last signing session this month took place in Torbay (see above) and was, by all accounts, great fun. A pattern sees to be evolving whereby a group of readers are all there together at the beginning of the signing and a conversation builds up with Marcia answering various questions. She loves this sort of interaction with her readers – far better than just sitting there signing books. Of course, it does rather depend on the size and shape of the shop.

Two events this year did include a more formal talk and question time: the one in the Liskeard library and the evening spent in Saltash.

Anyway, with the signings out of the way we are back to creating the best possible situation for Marcia to ‛listen to’ her characters or, if you prefer, for the ideas to flow more freely.

With most of the books there has been a particular place – or group of places – where she has been acutely aware of her characters and it has been in those that they have become fully rounded.
This robin was to appear in the book. He is perched on a gorse bush in the place where we would park and look across to the 'High House' and 'Summer House'. Shortly afterwards, all these gorse bushes were burnt down (probably by accident) but by then the book was finished.
In the case of The Summer House this was a place on the Toll Road out of Porlock from where you could see the field in which Marcia set the High House with its Summer House. In the case of Echoes of the Dance it was beside the ford at Bowithick while the cliffs above Trevone did it for The Christmas Angel. In these cases, the exact location of the book was known but that is not always the case.
The ford at Bowithick
We have never really pinned down The Keep which is in the Chadwick Trilogy and The Prodigal Wife. Yes, we know it is in a triangle bordered by three roads but where in that triangle remains a mystery. Oddly the same thing is true of house that Henrietta is minding: somewhere near the villages of Crowcombe and Stogumber but that is the closest we every got to it. Even so there were particular places: a field running down to woodland where the cuckoo called not far from Rattery for the trilogy and the area around Robin Uprights Post on the Quantocks.
The cliffs near Trevone on Cornwall's north coast
The same is true of the book Marcia is working on at the moment. There is this hamlet and we now have a pretty good idea of what properties there are there and we have created a sketch map which will probably be changed a bit as time goes on. Having said that, we have no real idea of where it is (other than on the flanks of Dartmoor somewhere) but we do know where Marcia is finding inspiration and we have been visiting there whenever we have had the time and the weather has been reasonable. It is a shock for us to be doing this at this time of the year. More usually it would be from late April to the end of May and we would have our coffee – from the hamper in the back of the car – while sitting out on our faithful folding chairs.
The Two Bridges Hotel huddling in the valley on a very cold but clear day in March
Not now. It is far too cold and so, and for us very unusually, it is a question of finding places to go in for the odd bit of refreshment. I suppose it is possible that some of them might even appear in the book. So far we have been to the Two Bridges Hotel, the community shop in Holne which also includes a small café and the Dandelion (a sort of café bar associated with the Moorland Hotel near Haytor). 
Holne Moor is my favourite part of Dartmoor.

The distinctive outline of Haytor
Well that should narrow things down bit.
On our return from The Dandelion the heavens opened for a moment and the rain came sizzling down. Then the shower stopped as abruptly as it had started and for a moment the setting sun peered through the clouds to outline the tors in the distance.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Taking a well earned rest

Another Friday and Marcia is absolutely shattered. This is not really so surprising as she does tend to give of her all when she is with readers. Anyway, I persuaded her to take a couple of days off and I am please to report that (for once) she agreed.
All the photos here are associated with The Sea Garden.
The Royal Albert Railway Bridge (Wikipedia).
However, I can also report that she has had a great time with two pretty unusual events in the last week. First up was an afternoon talk in Liskeard library after which she – and all who attended – trooped across the road for tea, cakes and a signing in the bookshop on the other side of the road. ‟It was really lovely,″ she said, ‟such fun and such wonderful people.″

Then, on Wednesday, to Saltash bookshop in the evening for a talk and (of course) a book signing. This one was special because, for the sake of those who don’t already know, Saltash is near the mouth of the River Tamar on the Cornwall side – and The Sea Garden is set just up river from there. In the prologue to the book Kate is on a train from Cornwall bound for London and actually crossing the famous Brunel railway bridge that links Saltash to Plymouth.

Marcia explained how she had found the setting for this book – which those of you who follow this blog will know about already – and that was followed by a lively question and answer session. Marcia was delighted to catch up with some of those who had been to her talk at Trematon (arrange by the Saltash Bookshop) last year.

Tomorrow she will be in Paignton and that is the end of the signings for this year apart from the one in Waterstones of Exeter which will take place in December. It is clear that bookshops are really struggling and we feel very sorry for them facing both on-line outlets (Amazon and so forth) as well as cut-price books being sold in supermarkets (notably Tesco). Having huge negotiating powers, these giants are able to have a very serious impact on publishers too who are finding their profit margins cut to the bone. Having said that, most of the evidence points to the fact that more people are reading more books (whether in paper form or as ebooks) and that must be a good thing.

Modern technology has its advantages. Not long ago it would have been impossible for me to talk to you all every Friday and I have horrid memories of writing on my old portable typewriter. One particular chapter has lived with me for over twenty-five years: I had to retype it thirteen times before I felt it was right. The computer makes life so much easier. There is, of course, a downside – there is always a downside. In this case it is that there is a tendency to write too much and that has to be curbed. In writing (but not all writers would agree with this) both Marcia and I feel that ‛less is more’. Trimming back, using less words but never losing the message is hard and time consuming work but can result in some superb and economical writing.  

Friday, 2 November 2012

Jay's Grave

Yesterday, Marcia wanted to check out one of the places in the book she is presently writing. This is not far from Jay's Grave. We left home in brilliant sunshine, then we were hit by a vicious squall and the car was lashed by sleet. This passed over and rolled away towards the south west (from where the weather usually comes) and I shot this out of the car window. 

Well, I said I would tell you a bit about Jay’s Grave. Some of this is, of course, myth. Some people like myths and encourage them by embroidering the old stories. Other people think that is wrong and try to destroy myths that cannot be properly proved. That is sad. Folk memory (which you could say is another name for myth) often retains some of our history which is not to be found in any written record. Of course there will be differing reports of the same event. If six people see a car accident and give the police witness statements within a couple of hours of the incident you will end up with six different versions of the ‛truth’. Anyway, here is what it is all about.

At about the same time as the Paris mob stormed the Bastille a new born baby was left at Wolborough Poor House near Newton Abbot. The first letter of the names that the babies were given rotated through the alphabet and hence this baby was called Jay which, as it happens, was also local slang for a prostitute. Was there a reason for this choice? We shall never know but the home also gave her a Christian name: Mary. As in Mary Magdelene? Again we shall never know.

When she became a teenager, she was sent to Canna Farm near Manaton upon Dartmoor. Here she was ‛employed’ in the farmhouse and in the fields. The days would have been long and the work incredibly hard by modern standards. Most of these youngsters taken from workhouses were lucky if they were properly clothed and given enough food. Anyway, it seems it was here that she received the nickname, ‛Kitty’.

The farmer had an attractive, young son and, probably inevitably, in the course of time Kitty found she was expecting a child. There was uproar. Clearly the whole thing was her fault: she had been true to her name and seduced this innocent boy. She was thrown out of the farm and news of what had happened spread rapidly throughout the area.

Unable to find any employment, starving and homeless, Kitty took her own life by hanging herself in one of the barns at Canna. Now, there was a problem in those days with disposing of the corpse of a suicide. Clearly the last thing that anyone wanted was for the soul and return to haunt the upright members of society who had rejected this evil from their presence. The only answer was to bury her in unconsecrated ground.

Even then, or so it is said, there was a problem since none of the three parishes in the area wished to take responsibility. Thus was Kitty Jay buried where three moorland parishes met. If this is true, the parish boundaries have since changed. It is, I think, more likely that she was buried at the nearest convenient cross roads. This is an extract from “Criminal graves and cross roads” which appeared in the British Archaeology paper dated 25 June 1997: The reasons why crossroads were used for the execution and burial of criminals have only begun to be investigated. They may derive from a belief that the roads would confuse the ghost of the deceased, preventing it returning to haunt its home. The use of communal boundaries may have emphasised the criminal's outcast nature, while signifying the boundary between life and death.

Soon known simply as Jay’s Grave, strange things happened: it was said that on some nights a figure clothed in a heavy cloak would be seen kneeling with bowed head beside the grave and always there are fresh flowers or greenery laid on the grave. No one knows who puts them there – some claim to have camped out all night and that they have not slept but that by morning the flowers had been renewed.

There are photographs of the grave without flowers and with plastic flowers – presumably published to disprove the theory. It is, of course, easy to remove the ones that are there and replace them before taking a picture so I fear these images are not very convincing. All I can say is that Marcia and I have passed that grave dozens of times and every time there is an offering of flowers or other greenery in the usual place.

There was an interesting article in the North Devon Journal dated 23 January 1851 which read as follows:

In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq., of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hanged herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.

So, was she Ann or was she Mary? Was the farm Canna or Forder? Clearly there was no defined grave as such in 1851 and there were no flowers being left as a votive offering.

To add to the confusion "Things Old and New Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and its Neighbourhood, a book edited and published in 1876 by one Robert Diamond contains this paragraph.

A simple mound and unwrought headstone by the roadside marks the site of a more modern grave. A poor old woman, called Kay, having hanged herself, was laid here under cross roads without the rites of Christian burial. There are many such graves of suicides hereabouts, and the country folk shudder as they pass the whisht spots by night. This one is about a quarter of a mile from the Swallaton Gate, on the road leading from Ashburton to Chagford; it is not now a cross road, but a path strikes across the main road, and leads between the farms of Hedge Barton and Heytree into the valley of Widecombe. The grave is known as Betty Kay's, and about twenty years ago, the late Mr. James Bryant, the owner of the property, opened the little mound to verify the local tradition, and discovered the bones, which he placed in a coffin, and reinterred in the same grave with a head and foot stone properly set up

You begin to rather like James Bryant, don’t you? But, Kay or Jay? And I must say I really do like the word ‛whisht’.
The signings last Saturday went very well. In the morning Marcia was at the Harbour Bookshop in Kingsbridge and is seen here with the owner, Pat Abrahart (left), and Alex Doughty, one of Marcia's readers. In the afternoon it was over to Totnes Bookshop which is owned by Dartington.