What can you tell our readers about your new novel Brandy Row?
Brandy Row is a regional historical romance set on Portland in the 19th Century. It is basically a love triangle between Violet the daughter of a fishing family, her young lover Matthew who is a smuggler, and Richard Dryer, the new Preventive (customs) man who is determined to win Violet’s heart and defeat the smugglers. Trouble is brewing for everyone when Violet falls in love with him. Knowing that she risks being ostracised by her family and friends Violet has to make a decision that will have repercussions throughout the rest of her life. The tale however, encompasses many aspects of the social history of the island as it moves on to the second generation and ultimately to the sequel.
The novel is set between 1830 and 1851, what research did you do for the novel?
I read everything I could about the history of Portland and the UK during that period, also books on smuggling and fishing. I also studied the 1851 census to be able to use local names and occupations. I visited the Portland museum and Yeovil and Dorchester libraries to research the costumes of the period. I also studied the local rope making and linen industries.
You set the novel on the Isle of Portland, what was the reason for this?
For a complete novice Portland seemed a good place to start. I always saw the story as a film and the splendour of the Chesil beach is a powerful image from which to begin, the quant stone cottages built on the beach itself, the magnificent Verne Citadel constructed within the ancient hill forte, the plaintive cry of the sea birds and the moody turbulence of the ocean all play a part in creating unforgettable scenes in the mind. Being an island, the story is quite easily contained and, like all islands, its inhabitants are fiercely proud of their heritage. It is almost like weaving in another strong character, so important is its history.
You have been writing for many years, but where did it all begin?
When I was about fourteen I had a poem published in the school magazine and I went on to write poetry throughout my teenage years. I always loved reading and admired writers and I thought I would give myself a challenge to see if I could complete a novel.
You are planning a sequel to Brandy Row, so what can you tell us about this?
The sequel is set in South Somerset in the Yeovil area and focuses on the young son of the heroine in Brandy Row who studies to become a Justice of the Peace. A new born baby is abandoned outside his home and this sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the hangman’s noose. It follows similar subject matter in Brandy Row in that it involves romance, smuggling and superstition, but it has the added ingredient of witchcraft. The working title for this manuscript is‘Babies Breath to Deadly Nightshade’.
Have you had any education in writing or is writing something that has come naturally?
I went to Secondary Modern School in Sherborne and loved the stories of Thomas Hardy, but I did not excel in anything. I did pass my ‘O’ level English language and when I decided as an adult to try to write a novel I also decided to study for ‘A’ level English Literature. I was fascinated with the curriculum of Shakespeare, Chaucer, John Donne, Jane Austen and Graeme Green. I have always loved reading so much that I think you could say that writing comes naturally to me.
Your father told you lots of stories about Portland, were these the main inspiration for the book?
Yes they were, although the island itself has a stark beauty that has a magical quality that stirs the imagination. My father’s tale that really inspired the novel is the image of my great great-grandmother meeting a customs official whilst smuggling bottles concealed in pockets in her underskirt and being obliged to curtsey to him, fearful that the bottles would chink against the pebbles and expose her.
It is very sad that my father, my mother and older brother are no longer here to witness the publication of my story.
Of all the myths and legends of Portland, which are your favourites?
There are several that I could name, one is that the Chesil beach was thrown up in one night during a violent storm.
Another is the bad omen associated with the word ‘rabbit’. It is believed that this stems from the fear of rock falls in the quarries where rabbit warrens undermined some areas and also the fact that rabbits escaped into Chiswell whenever the high tides flooded Hamm beach, giving an early warning of danger. In October 2005 posters advertising the Wallace and Gromit film ‘The curse of the were-rabbit’ were ripped down, and to avoid offence in deference to older Portland residents they had to be replaced with posters saying, ‘Something bunny is going on’.
Another tale my father told me was of a huge earthquake that happened centuries ago and split the island in two, one half disappearing into the sea. This is why a sand bar adjacent to Rufus Castle is known as the shambles (an ancient name for butcher’s shops).
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I wrote ‘Brandy Row’ many years ago and I did send it off to a few mainstream publishers, but I found that historical romance was not what they were looking for and, apart from an encouraging letter from Headline, I only had brief rejection letters back. They already had their historical authors and were looking for fresh modern writers. Dejectedly, I decided to put the manuscript back in the desk drawer, but occasionally I took it out to give to selected friends to read and each one said they had enjoyed it.
When I retired I decided to start work on the sequel. The first draft of this manuscript is also now completed and because of this I decided to publish ‘Brandy Row’ myself, rather than relying on the main stream publishers, and I found Matador were very happy to take this on for me. They have been extremely helpful and professional and thus the birth of my first novel has been relatively pain free.
Self-publication was the answer to my prayers, for although my book was outsourced to Matador I was in control of the entire process, supplying the old photograph for the design of the front cover and able to choose font size and other formats and set my own price, both for the paperback and the electronic versions, which are gaining enormously in popularity.
There was a time when self-publication was known as ‘vanity publishing’, but more books are self-published than those published traditionally these days. In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published and for aspiring writers I recommend you join a writing circle to benefit from their experience, and persevere, you should never give up. I am really happy that ‘Brandy Row’ is no longer hiding in my desk drawer, and I hope that everyone enjoys reading it as much as I did producing it.
Female First Lucy Walton