Steve McHugh at Hampshire Writers’ Society.

Special Guest: Caroline Routh

Caroline Routh is the chief executive of the Nuffield Southampton Theatre which over the last six decades has emerged as one of the leading independent production theatres in the UK. Over the next few years, its evolution enters an important and invigorated phase with the establishment of Nuffield City, a brand new innovative, creative dramatic enterprise right in the heart of Southampton. Nuffield City, scheduled to open its doors on the 16th February 2018, is set to shift the paradigm of provincial theatre in the UK. The new performing arts venue, Nuffield Southampton Theatre (NST) will open in Southampton’s city centre in Guildhall Square. NST will run NST City alongside its long-standing theatre, NST Campus situated on the University of Southampton’s Highfield Campus.

This new state-of-the-art venue will include a flexible 450 seat main theatre, a 133 seat studio, screening facilities, a sprung-floor rehearsal room and workshop spaces. There will also be a bar and restaurant serving award-winning food and drinks, providing the perfect bookends for the artistic and dramatic entertainments that are planned. One of the enduring challenges facing UK theatres, especially provincial ones is to bring theatre to traditionally under-represented audiences.  The drive to encourage community participation through the strapline ‘Southampton can do it’ underscores the campaign to reach as many people as possible with the aim of increasing artistic engagement.

That Caroline explained the theatre is intent on encouraging emerging writing talent was of particular interest to listeners and with the advantage of Arts Council funding a New Writing venue now provides opportunities that include writers’ residencies. The theatre is proud of its continued association with Southampton University and anticipates that collaboration, offering a mutual advantage, will continue into the future.

The new City venue and the handover of the facility including Studio 144 now allows a bespoke creative space for which the theatre will have sole responsibility.  The hope and ambitions for the development of an even greater range of artistic creations have now become a reality.

For more information about the fantastic developments taking place visit the NST here.

Keynote Speaker: Steve McHugh


If you’re an aspiring writer of fantasy with a love for creating alternative realities inhabited by believable, vibrant characters then Steve McHugh provided a plethora of useful and practical information on how to go about it. Using the device of familiar urban worlds on which to frame his own humour-infused fantasy, Steve McHugh elevates the intrigue of his plot and sales figures nudging half a million suggest he’s getting things right.

In a story that will be familiar to many struggling writers intent on becoming published, Steve’s journey to becoming a best selling author was not straightforward. Faced by the ever-increasing agent and publisher reluctance to ‘take a punt’ on new writers, Steve eventually decided that the self-publishing route was the only viable one if he was to reach a wider readership. For the most part, publishing is governed by the market and the market, in turn, is driven by revenues. Following very impressive sales figures, Steve was approached and eventually signed by 47 North.  So the formula is simple; self-publish, generate remarkable sales figures, attract the attention of the mainstream players – et voila!

The rules of writing a stand-alone novel are amplified when the writer’s ambition is to produce a series.  For series writing, consistency of world and characterisation must be impeccable or eagle-eyed readers will spot mistakes. To this end, Steve utilises a spreadsheet system to track and map his fantasy worlds as his stories unfold. So familiar is he is now with the nuances of his main characters he is confident he can write them as if they were people that he knows intimately and personally.

An example of the insight his sojourn in self-publishing gave him in the marketing aspects of the publishing was understanding the importance of choosing a memorable title. Contrary to popular myth, whilst you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, a good cover certainly helps to sell one.

A cautionary note regarding the necessity to avoid writing gratuitously was sounded with Steve’s advice about treating death and gore responsibly. The shocking elements of these aspects of any narrative diminish if there is too much of them or if they are included just for the sake of it. Occasional violent deaths are effective but when they appear with monotony their ability to shock is diminished and they become irrelevant within the arc of the story. When writing series it is also important that each individual book is able to act in a stand-alone capacity whilst not forgetting that a good approach is to have important aspects of the narrative bleed into the next book in the series.  This acts as a real incentive for reader engagement and is in itself is an important marketing strategy.

Steve McHugh’s talk was packed with writing tips and anecdotes born of hard-won personal experience but he signed off with the very sensible advice that writers should find what works for them and focus on enjoying the process of producing stories that above all else that they themselves want to read.


James Aitcheson, Historical Novelist Talks to Hampshire Writers’ Society

Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests and made a couple of announcements regarding forthcoming events.

  • Table bookings are now being taken for those who wish to show and sell their own published writing at the Society’s Book Fair during the June gathering. Karin Groves awaits applications from interested parties.
  • In May there will be a Victoriana and Steampunk event which is being held at Bursledon Brickworks Industrial Museum based in the village of Swanwick.

Special Guest: Janet Owen

Janet Owen is the Chief Executive Officer of the Hampshire Cultural Trust, the county-wide organisation that seeks to connect creativity and heritage. The Trust aims to encourage an integrated relationship between its twenty Arts Venues, over one hundred staff members and four hundred volunteers with its 700k patrons via an extensive and varied programme across the whole of Hampshire County.

Hampshire Cultural Trust is keen to extend and strengthen its current support for literature within the county and as such 2017 was a significant year being as it was Jane Austen’s 200th-anniversary celebrations. The outreach programmes for the year have involved Jane Austen themed Youth writing competitions and the Coastal Shores Arts Programme in collaboration with Isobel Rogers the Hampshire Poet Laureate for the year. Further, the Trust’s close relationship, involvement and support for the Winchester Writers’ Festival continues unabated.

Like many similar charitable organisations in these straitened times, the Hampshire Cultural Trust continues to face financial pressure but its ambition of promoting Hampshire generally and Winchester particularly as Heritage destinations remains undimmed. For more information on the wonderful work that the organisation does, or if you would like to become involved as a volunteer or simply find out more about the fantastic opportunities on offer please visit:  The Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Keynote Speaker: James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson recently embarked on a PhD with the University of Nottingham where he also undertakes some lecturing responsibilities. He is the author of four historical novels centred on the events of the Norman Conquest of England. His undergraduate history studies at Cambridge no doubt providing a wealth of immersive information from which James has been able to weave the magic of his writing. James’ first three books form a series known as The Conquest Trilogy, with his fourth publication, The Harrowing, comprising a stand-alone chronicle. If the trilogy is based on the overarching real-politic of the times The Harrowing takes a rather more personal viewpoint as it charts the lives of five individuals thrown together by medieval circumstance.

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James Aitcheson’s The Conquest Trilogy

The enduring question about the importance or otherwise of historical accuracy was addressed and James explained that even learned scholars disagree over what represents ‘factual’ historical accuracy. Quite simply, reference sources from the period in question cannot in themselves be considered definitive and so there must inevitably be some degree of imagination at play on the author’s part. In order to contextualise how historical novelists themselves view the question of the importance of historical accuracy, James asked the audience to consider whether it would be fair to ask a general fiction novelist whether all the content of their stories was entirely fictional.

James recounted a couple of passages from The Harrowing and from his reading the atmosphere of the North Yorkshire Moors, Ripon and the ancient city’s church were vividly conjured.  His reading was so well received that when he finished there was a spontaneous round of applause.  Whilst James would give nothing too concrete away his next work, which is currently in progress, is going to be a blend of historical fiction and magical realism.  To find out more about James’ work and future plans take a look at his website.









Cecily O’Neill at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Following a fabulous performance by members of the Hampshire Regency Dancers resplendent in period costume, Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests to the society’s December Gala Evening.

Special Guest: Eileen Fitzgerald

A specialist in the life and works of Jane Austen (1775-1817), Dr Eileen Fitzgerald was the perfect guest to commence proceedings with a meticulously researched insight into the Regency world that formed the backdrop to Austen’s social and domestic experiences.

In 1768 the Austens took up residence in the rectory of the Hampshire village of Steventon where in due course the family grew to include Jane and her 7 siblings.  The circumstances of family life that the children enjoyed comprised an enlightened and intellectually open atmosphere.  This might have contributed to Jane’s inquisitive nature which evolved as she grew towards adulthood.  Her childhood experiences were such that as a young teenager she produced works now referred to as The Juvenilia and within them, it is possible to discern the subjects and characterisations that she would develop in her later works of literary genius.


Steventon Rectory, as depicted in A Memoir of Jane Austen, was in a valley and surrounded by meadows.

[Image Public Domain]



Jane’s father augmented the family’s sparse income with farming and teaching and therefore it would seem that the young Jane would not have been living in opulence.  It is possible that the themes of class, wealth and social aspiration often through marriage, which were to take a pivotal role at the centre of her work, were seeded at this time.  And what work it was, forging as it did an entirely new literary genre of Realism.  Indeed, Austen might have been the first to recognise the truism of ‘writing what you know’.  Eileen identified and discussed both the evolution and the craft of Austen’s writing, citing Walter Scott, ‘Austen managed to find a lightness of touch and married that to an acute sense of place’.  Eileen concluded her talk by mooting the intriguing and inspiring suggestion that Jane Austen and the Scarlett Pimpernel might have been one and the same.

3630,Jane Austen,by Cassandra Austen


Jane Austen By Cassandra Austen (1773–1845)

[Image Public Domain]

Keynote Speaker: Cecily O’Neill

Over the course of her professional life, Cecily has directed many dramatic societies and has for years worked in English and drama education.  Her delight in adapting unfamiliar texts for performance has led to the creation of re-imagined classics and original texts for publication and performance.  Members were given a glimpse of this work during her talk, with three wonderful women actors in period dress reciting from Cecily’s own original scripts.  What a treat!  These adaptations include ‘Young Jane’, three plays inspired by Jane Austen’s teenage writings, and ‘Venus and Adonis’ for the Winchester Festival, 2016.  Not only does Cecily hold a PhD in Theatre from the University of Exeter but she is also an Honorary Fellow of the University of Winchester… aficionados of Austen were certainly in excellent company.

Cecily O’Neill is one of those speakers to whom listeners immediately warm, perceiving a richly informed, deeply passionate expert in her twin specialisms of Austen’s literature and drama. It might be said that the young Cecily O’Neill produced her own versions of theatrical juvenilia rounding up as she did teenage friends to present plays in her parent’s garage.  From such humble beginnings, a great literary expert and dramaturge was to emerge.

Cautioning against Laertes’ advice of ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, Cecily raised a laugh when she cited Byron’s lowly opinion of The Bard whom he accused of being a thematic magpie.  She also highlighted that Jane Austen herself had come in for opprobrium, being considered by some as creating extremely deficient characters whose lives were devoid of invention.  However, Walter Scott acted as a counter to those who had been slow to embrace Austen’s now universally recognised skill of capturing the realism of everyday lives in economic prose.  He praised Austen’s writing saying that her skill of rendering ‘nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’ was, in essence, a shift in the literary paradigm.  Whilst the modern scholar, William Galperin noted that Scott had recognised Austen’s divergence from standard contemporary practise saying, ‘That young lady had a talent for describing the feelings and characters of ordinary life. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.  What a pity such a gifted creature died so early’.

There would be few if any at this gala evening who would disagree.

Mitchell​ Symons at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests on what was a suitably dark and chilly evening the mood of which wasn’t lightened when he read a letter from society chairman, Barbara Large.

Barbara shared the upsetting news that following a consultation with her physician and subsequent hospital examinations she has been placed under long-term medical care and is being treated for a serious condition. However, she and her medical team are optimistic and everyone anticipates that Barbara will be back ‘shiny and new’ in time for March’s meeting and the onset of lighter evenings. Typical of her selfless attitude, Barbara apologised for her absence and I’m sure that when Dr Farnell asked that everyone join him in wishing Barbara a speedy recovery there was unanimous agreement.  Everyone is channelling best wishes Barbara’s way!

Special Guest: Steve Marper

The Hyde900 Project was established in 2010 to mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of Hyde Abbey, the burial place of King Alfred the Great.  The initial aim was to provide a platform to celebrate Hyde’s history and environment and to promote the wealth of talent to be found amongst its local people.  The project proved so popular it was decided to continue it beyond its initial planned period and it has gone on to become a vehicle to support other events in Hyde and the wider Hampshire area.

More recently it has broadened into a serendipitous approach to community-based initiatives with such things as public health and fitness, music, visual arts and written and spoken word being included.

Cycling, with the annual Wantage to Winchester cycle ride and numerous guided history-based walks, have proved to be enormously popular activities.  The Hyde900 archaeology programme, via the Community Dig, continues to investigate the early history of Hyde Abbey and choral music development is promoted through the Hyde900 Choir.  Written and spoken word, also an important aspect of the programme, is promoted through the Hyde Poetry initiative which is now well established and the Hyde900 Writers strand was recently revived.

Following a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding an extended programme of lectures, guided walks, information pamphlets, music concerts and the provision of space for the visual arts alongside some bursary availability have all been made possible.  For further information visit Hyde99

Main Speaker: Mitchell Symons

Mitchell Symons was born in London and educated at Mill Hill School from where he went on to study jurisprudence at the LSE.  However, this chosen degree pathway did not enthuse him in the way that he might have hoped and he started to work for the BBC as a researcher and subsequently a director.  He also worked as a broadcaster and journalist and currently writes an award-winning column for the Sunday Express.  He was the principal writer for early editions of the once iconic board game, Trivial Pursuits.  Following his involvement in concept development, Mitchell went on to devise many television game show formats based on general knowledge.

Mitchell’s presentation was preceded by the cautionary note that his talk might become a little ‘potty-mouthed’ and that ‘Chatham House rules apply’ – which this report must ignore! Mitchell Symons proved to be a fast-paced, eclectic and tangential speaker who shared a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes without pause.  The warning of ripe language was issued with good reason but Mitchell explained that writers are notorious for their invective and over his years of moving in publishing circles he has become somewhat inured to imprecation.  By his own volition, he has been ‘helping the nation to poo since 1974’ and this, not for the last time, drew laughter from listeners.

Mitchell Symons is a prolific writer of primarily non-fiction material that includes quiz-question setting, oddly interesting facts and ‘how-to’ rules.  For example, he wrote the trivia for the pilot series of the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but turned down an invitation to become involved with the televised show.  He has also published a book of pithy poems, a couple of which he recited to draw his talk to a close.

Mitchell was intrigued by his audience, claiming he did ‘not understand the purpose of writing societies’ and explained that the idea of writing for no monetary gain appalled him.  After a long and financially prosperous career providing his reading public with titles such as Why Eating Bogeys Is Good For You and Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs? Mitchell’s nemesis came in the form of free-to-view internet sites like Wikipedia where content that would have been grist to his creative mill became readily available and free of charge.

Mick Jackson at Hampshire Writers’ Society, Tuesday 10th October


With Barbara Long temporarily indisposed, Adrienne Dines kindly welcomed members and guests alike before hosting The Society’s Annual General Meeting. Adrienne presented for consideration the General and Financial Reports for the period 2016/17. A brief synopsis of the proceedings can be found at the end of this article.


Special Guest: Jon Walcott

Established in 2008, Little Toller Press is a small, independent publisher based in Dorset whose industry footprint has steadily grown despite its non-London centric ethos. Perceiving a market gap is often the catalyst for fledgling business ventures and it was the dearth of a specialist Nature Writing publisher that formed the germ of Little Toller’s creative profile, a profile that has become to be admired both within and beyond the publishing industry.

The success of any business start-up is rarely a foregone conclusion and this is even less so for those embarking on enterprises reliant on creative industry. This last, allied to the fact that the publishing world in 2008 faced what amounted to ‘the perfect storm’, should have ensured that Little Toller’s existence was short lived. Happily, this was not to be the case. A carefully constructed and meticulously produced early list, that saw lost nature classics re-born, safeguarded the company’s early life. ‘Classic texts of rural writing and illustration brought back into beautiful existence’ (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian) is but one example of the early impression the press created. This, coupled with a resurgent interest in nature writing and a reading publics’ appetite ever more whetted for well-written words on the culture of ecology, began to establish Little Toller as a niche but significant player.

The next major step for the house came with a decision to look beyond established classics and divine new writing talent but again, the aim was to stay few in number and high in quality. Excellence, in terms of content and product, remains Little Toller’s prerequisite. Following on from John Burnside’s Havergey, Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow and Fiona Sampson’s Limestone Country comes the soon-to-be-released and much anticipated Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton. The growth of the new writers list has seen the house liaise with trusted literary agents cognisant of Little Toller’s culture with the aim to further augment a nascent stable of contemporary writing talent.

Jon’s commitment to providing readers with exquisite volumes that are a delight to own still underpins the aim of the press. Little Toller is one of the few publishing houses offering discerning readers the chance to acquire books to be treasured and passed on. If second-hand bookshops still exist in 100 years time, a browser finding a Little Toller First Edition, will no doubt consider themselves very lucky indeed.


Main Speaker: Mick Jackson

The theme of Mick Jackson’s key-note talk was ‘Finding Inspiration’. Members were treated to a thorough and detailed insight into how Mick finds inspiration for his writing from what, on first appearances, might be considered obscure and unpromising items. One of Mick’s slides showed the interior of his office, a space crammed with stacks of books, magazines, posters and personally precious things of curious interest. By his own admission, Mick is a hoarder, collecting the ephemera of his daily life in the hope that one day some of these things might provide the inspiration for his next piece of work.

Mick, working in light of Adrian Mitchell’s declaration, ‘I like stuff’ takes this modus a long way and we were treated to a glimpse of Mick’s scrapbook, a leather-bound ledger of Dickensian proportion, crammed full of things that have appealed to his sense of humour and curiosity. Working on Tom Waites’ premise of ‘putting interesting things in the same room and waiting until they have children’ is a writing philosophy that has worked well for Mick who believes that ideas beget ideas. Having a sense of physical place to establish a story’s concept goes hand in hand with a love of physical objects and this was perhaps best highlighted while Mick was a member of the UEA’s creative writing graduate programme. He accepted an invitation to explore the grounds of the English aristocrat, the Duke of Portland’s country house. It was a fascination with the labyrinth of tunnels that the eccentric Duke had excavated and how this endeavour connected to the Duke’s need to withdraw from sight, that inspired Mick’s triumphant debut novel The Underground Man, Faber and Faber, 2007.

An example of Mick’s prescience for the direction that some aspects of contemporary writing were to take was his recognition that ‘everything already exists’; that it is the writers who have the ability to find the interesting angle or the new approach who will produce new and original content. It’s all about ‘finding what’s already there and showing it to people anew’. Mick drew on the Michelangelo analogy that suggests the Boy David already resided in the block of marble.

Mick seeks to ask ‘what if?’ as a way of subverting preconceptions.  In doing so he hopes to find a way to show the world differently, in much the same way as the great American post-Beat Generation writer, Richard Brautigan sought to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This was perhaps one of those keynotes that might have been best enjoyed first-hand, packed as it was with pithy advice and practical suggestions for writers seeking to find their next idea.   If you weren’t there, Mick concluded his talk with the caution that inspiration won’t come to find the writer, it has to happen the other way round.


The Annual General Meeting

Adrienne Dines conducted the AGM’s (20016-17) proceedings, with written reports being made available for scrutiny. Presenting a thorough resume of The Society’s position, the report showed progress to be developing in accordance with the committee’s expectations. Membership numbers continue to increase year on year which in turn promotes The Society’s positive financial position. Whilst the need to recruit more members was acknowledged, the current status ensured that all financial commitments for the period of the report had been met with no existing debt burden cited. Appropriate steerage is being informed by the analysis of the results of the recent survey which also evidenced members’ satisfaction that the society has hosted a pleasantly wide variety of events and guest speakers. The proportionate distribution between expertise from both the creative and the business sides of the publishing industry was shown as being appropriate.

The Annual Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of The Society’s position by Sally Russell and seconded by Joan McGavin was accepted. The Annual Financial Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of the Society’s position by Peter Hitchen and seconded by Damon Wakes was accepted.

Tracy Baines at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Wholly unforeseen events indisposed scheduled guest, Margaret Graham which forced a last minute alteration to the evening’s programme. Stepping in to save the day, The Society welcomed short story writer extraordinaire, Tracy Baines to share her wisdom on how to write short stories and how to get them published.

Sitting alongside Tracy was Ian Thornton of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, whose story of bravery and fortitude, allied to an unswerving desire to promote the charitable legacy of his late brother, was a privilege to listen to.

Special Guest: Ian Thornton

Captain Ian Thornton, a commissioned infantry officer with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and patron of the charity Words for Wounded is passionately committed to helping his fellow servicemen wounded in the line of duty to live as full and active lives as possible.

Captain Thornton understands all too well the personal cost of military service, having tragically lost his younger brother, John on active service with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After this terrible event, it fell to Ian to organise some of John’s repatriated belongings. Amongst those precious personal items was John’s diary and Ian quickly realised what an important and unique record it comprised. Ian explained that John had already shared some of the diary’s contents and so knew John would not feel that he was being intruded upon. What Ian read seemed at once funny, poignant and superbly well-written. Indeed, it is a testimony to the quality of the writing that John’s diary now resides in the Imperial War Museum but crucially, before it found its way into public display, it provided an inspirational template for the publication of Helmand: Diaries of a Frontline Soldier. Endorsed by ex-Royal Marine and politician, Lord Paddy Ashdown and with a foreword from Simon Weston, the book comprises the diary entries of Ian and John Thornton alongside those of other serving and ex-military personnel. It provides a glimpse into the frontline experiences of those serving in Afghanistan.

The proceeds from the book support both the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation and the Royal Marines Foundation and to date have enabled youngsters to become involved in a wide variety of activities that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience.

Main Speaker: Tracy Baines

Growing up in North East Lincolnshire, in the estuarine town of Cleethorpes and with the river Humber an ever-present backdrop, a young Tracy Baines sat fascinated at her grandmother’s side listening to recollections of her family’s history. Not least amongst these were the tales of hardship, bravery and adventure of her grandfather’s time serving as a member of the now legendary wartime Baltic Fleet. Tracy promised that her grandmother’s wistful desire that ‘somebody should write these stories down’ held true.

It was this seed, dormant for years, that eventually began to germinate when Tracy visited her public library and found information on a local writers’ group and decided to become a member. Here she was finally able to find the courage to write of her great uncle’s maritime death. Tracy’s mother word processed the handwritten manuscript and duly sent it off to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. To Tracy’s astonishment and delight, the story was accepted. Tracy wasn’t to know it but this was to be the first of very many publications.

Buoyed by her initial success Tracy wrote a second story and pitched it to Woman’s Weekly but as is often the case, writing success doesn’t follow a linear pattern. Tracy’s new story was rejected but the letter included an invitation to submit further work. Being inexperienced she didn’t interpret this to be the very near miss that it was and fell into the common but mistaken assumption that her story was without merit.

Tracy talked a little about what it means to be successful. For her, that means defeating personal demons in the shape of self-doubt and freeing herself to be the best writer she can possibly become. Here, Tracy was keen to point out that we all must learn as she did – that a story’s rejection is not proof that it is no good – but rather it is probably just not a good fit for its chosen recipient. Tracy stressed the importance of judging the market and submitting work accordingly.

Tracy uses realistic goal-setting as a method for maintaining her writing focus. So take down that scrawled note from behind your fridge magnet that reads ‘To Do: Write a 100k word novel. Win the Man Booker Prize’ and swap it for one that is in Tracy’s words ‘an attainable stretch’. For example, her goals might be that she writes a story every week and pitches to 10 magazines; implicit in this is the need to be realistically ambitious. Only after Tracy, with her husband acting as benign task-master, decided that she would cast aside self-limiting doubts was she artistically free to forge her career as a serious short story writer. From then on she finally understood that life as a writer was not just the preserve of a higher species of human but one that was possible for her, too.

Tracy’s inspirational message was that a writer’s life could be had by those prepared to work at their craft, banish self-doubt and persevere when others might give up.