Gala Evening – Lady Antonia Fraser in conversation with John Miller

Report by Lisa Nightingale.

The Hampshire Writers’ Society and friends celebrated summer with strawberries, a Book Fair and conversation with Lady Antonia Fraser.

With VIP guests such as versatile and respected author, John Miller; scriptwriter for TV, film, theatre and children’s drama, Robin Mukherjee and the evening was opened by Joy Carter, Patron of the Society.

The foyer of the Stripe Lecture Theatre at the University of Winchester where the society meets each month, thronged with writers: published and aspiring.

Displaying their books at the Book Fair, were published members, including Claire Fuller, who has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize and bestselling author, Cathy Woodman. They were accompanied by Celia Leofsy, Richard V Frankland, Sharon Garrett and Dai Henley. Two poets, Sue Spiers and Di Castle joined them along with e-book writers, Damon L Wakes and Natasha Orme.

Lady Antonia Fraser in conversation with John Miller

Lady Antonia Fraser considers herself to have had only two privileges in her life:

  1. Parents who loved each other for life
  2. A mother who was adamant that girls should be educated

Lady Antonia FraserNeither of these privileges are material. ‘People go on too much about class.’ She says and she points out, she had to earn a crust. She worked hard at her job in publishing, but when you are in the midst of your desired surrounding, hard work is not difficult. Her main memory? Publishers are not scary at all, they are just human.

As a child in a house of Classical and political books, she drew on her surroundings, imagining herself to be Queen Matilda, escaping from Oxford Castle across the ice. And in the stubborn way of a child, she decided that writing and history was what she was going to do.

Her first foray into historical novel writing came when she unwittingly volunteered to re-write the classical story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table for Marks & Spencer’s range of children’s books.

Four children later, Lady Antonia Fraser believes that ‘Writers’ block is a luxury for those who have time.’ Her writing day consisted of just three hours a day, her early books were up to five years in the making. She is a meticulous planner, pays attention to detail and has notebooks, index card boxes and green files full of research.

Jun 15 GALA_0061 (2)Coining the phrase – ‘Optical Research’, she explains that the writer’s job is to make it ‘real’ for the reader. By actually visiting the site of her story, e.g. a priest’s hidey hole, she gains a wealth realism. She uncovers little tit-bits guaranteed to invoke the reader’s sense of belonging in her novel’s setting and a relation to its characters.

Identification with her protagonist is key. She needs to feel a sympathy for them. Her memoir states, ‘a writer is like a barrister’. Writers make the case for their characters, much like a barrister does for their client. Research is seen as preparation for this case.

She did give us an exclusive – her next book will explore the emancipation of Catholicism in 19th century Britain.

The Hampshire Writers’ Society Anthology Winner entries from competitions 2011-2014 is now available to purchase for £7.95. Please  contact:  Celia Livesey by email competitions.hws (AT)

Gala Evening Photo Gallery HWS Members’ Book Fair

The Countess of Carnarvon and the real Downton Abbey

Report by David Eadsforth

Barbara Large, Chair of the HWS, opened the meeting and welcomed everyone to what would be a wonderful event on a sunny evening, and pointed out although we may be at different stages of development, we were all writers. Barbara welcomed our guests: Lady Carnarvon, Professor Joy Carter, Becca Munday, and Becky Bagnall. She delivered the apologies of Stephen Lawrence and Lindsay Ashford who could not be present and thanked Ray Mosley and Keith Arscott of Chawton House for their great help in making the event possible.

June 14 Prof Joy Carter Barbara LargeBarbara pointed out that the membership of the HWS was drawn from beyond the confines of the county, and informed us that one member lives in London and endeavours to attend every monthly meeting. Barbara then reminded the meeting of the HWS events of the past year, citing the highlights of each. She then thanked the members of the management committee, asking each to stand up and be recognised. The HWS Treasurer, Crispin Drummond, then gave a brief report on the state of health of the Society’s accounts which were, in brief, healthy; we had a strong, stable membership, revenue was good, and considered that the HWS could do even better if it were to extend its activities into the running of workshops and other activities. Barbara then ended the Society’s interim report and asked Professor Joy Carter to say a few words.

Professor carter said that it was a joy and a privilege to be present at the event, thanked Barbara for such a wonderful set of events, and wished everyone a great evening. Barbara then introduced the main speaker for the evening, Lady Carnarvon.

Lady Carnarvon greeted the members and commenced the delivery of what was to be a fascinating and at times immensely amusing presentation, supported by a huge number of projected photographs. Highclere Castle had, reportedly, been made famous in “two hundred countries” around the world, which slightly exceeded the actual number, but confirmed that the TV series “Downton Abbey” was indeed a worldwide phenomenon, loved by huge numbers of people and once amusingly parodied as “Downturn Abbey”. Filming of the series at Highclere Castle had resulted in a number of amusing production requirements, such as the use of a cupboard as a door to a bedroom. Today, Highclere had between 80 and 120 people connected with the maintenance of the building and between 35-40 people who actually run it. There were 200 rooms in the Castle, which is set in 1,000 acres, with a larger estate surrounding that.

Lady Carnarvon
Lady Carnarvon

The Castle had a fascinating history. In 749, the then estate was granted to the Bishop of Winchester, and there is an area known as the “Monk’s Garden”. William of Wykeham, founder of Winchester College, held it while in office, and there were significant developments in the Elizabethan, Georgian, and finally Victorian eras, all of which were being increasingly understood by modern archaeology. One significant modern development is that Lord Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, is a regular dinner guest.

Lady Catherine, the subject of a book by Lady Carnarvon, truly represented the glamour of the 1920s and 30s. Lady Catherine was American, and when she married, the wedding guests comprised a few close family members – numbering 750 – and the event was followed by a party for 1,000.

The Earls of Carnarvon had traditionally been prosperous, but by the end of the nineteenth century the old, previously dependable revenue streams were drying up, at which point salvation appeared in the form of Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who appeared on the scene with a £500,000 dowry. Almina was a great society hostess, but on the outbreak of the First World War decided to turn Highclere into a hospital and convalescent home for wounded servicemen, the first of which arrived at Highclere in September 1914, to be greeted by Lady Almina and her attractive troop of nurses. Almina had asked her father for £25,000 to set up the hospital and requested a further £10,000 a little later for running costs. One patient, who kept a diary, was Captain David Campbell who had served at Gallipoli and been shot in both legs. Almina concentrated on orthopaedic work. This period saw a shortage of surgeons, sixty having been killed at the Battle of the Somme alone, and many doctors and surgeons came out of retirement to help.

(On the third of August, Highclere will once more be turned into a hospital: as part of the marking of the start of the First World War. There will also be a big air show, and the proceeds will go to the Royal British Legion.)

Almina’s husband, Lord George Carnarvon, along with Howard Carter, had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923, but was the first to fall under “the curse of Tutankhamun” and died in April of that year. On the news of her husband’s illness, Almina had been lent an aircraft so she could be with him, but sadly he died before she arrived. Death duties then hit the family, but Almina managed to save Highclere by selling many old masters.

A complicated period now followed. The sixth Earl, Henry, had married Catherine Wendell in 1922, and they were together until 1936 when they divorced. Henry, after having become engaged to Tanis Montagu, who turned him down shortly before their intended marriage, then married Tilly Losch, the ballet dancer just before the Second World War.

WWII saw Highclere providing a home for dozens of evacuee children, and cooking for everyone was a challenge for the resident chef. But danger was never far away as Luftwaffe bombers would frequently jettison bomb loads on the way back to Germany from Bristol, and Highclere was under their flight path. Tragedy also came to Highclere in the form of several crashes of allied aircraft, including a B17 Flying Fortress, and parts of this aircraft are now in the possession of Highclere.

Lady Carnarvon ended with a description of present life at Highclere, and how the people who work there rarely retire. A valet, Robert Taylor, served for fifty years, and one employee is now in his 90s.

June 14 Lady Carnarvon signingBarbara thanked Lady Carnarvon for her absolutely fascinating talk, and Gary Farnell then handled questions from the members. One question concerned the awnings seen over the Castle windows in one WWI image, and the answer was that these were to shade sun-facing windows. Lady Carnarvon was asked how she decided what to include in a book, and replied that generally she includes, and Hodder takes out! (At this point a gentle ‘ooh’ was heard from Becca Munday, Lady Carnarvon’s agent.) In answer to the question “what next?”, Lady Carnarvon said she now viewed the interests of her readership as important, and was looking at ‘a year in Highclere Castle’: the food of Highclere and also the people who have worked there. She admitted that she had now come to know an enormous amount about plumbing and electrical systems. Asked if she kept a diary, Lady Carnarvon said she did not, but had a huge volume of emails which was just as good. Asked how she found time to write, she replied that it was indeed difficult, but it was a challenge and, if she found herself facing writer’s block, opening a bottle of champagne usually did the trick.

Barbara then introduced Sharon Garrett, who had recently published “Friday Night’s Dream: Wyckerton” under her pen name Nick Newberry. Sharon explained how she had been inspired by Julian Unthank, HWS speaker of June 2013, who had presented the ways in which a person could write for the screen. Sharon had decided that what worked for screen should work for a book, and set about reading and analysing existing fiction, and seen how internal conflict could draw the reader into the story. The result had been her book.

Jim Livesey then asked Becky Bagnall to present the results of the competition, the details of which can be seen in the ‘Competition Report’.

Gala Evening at Chawton with Julian Unthank

Chawton HouseThere can be no better location for the finale of the HWS season than Chawton House and Library.  Stephen Lawrence, Chawton’s Chief Executive and author Lindsay Ashford, his partner, made us feel at home as we toured the house, ventured into the garden when the rain stopped and ate strawberries and cream in the courtyard and kitchen.

June 2013 123 HWS Chairman, Barbara Large introduced the special guest, Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester who praised Barbara for making the HWS and The Winchester Writers’ Conference the respected and successful organisations they are today.  She described her own role at the university as falling into three parts: a business woman, a diplomat and a politician.


Barbara reminded the audience that the HWS was borne out of a £2000 grant two years ago and then gave a creative synopsis of events that the HWS had enjoyed this second season.  The speakers that have given us pleasure and inspiration across the past ten months were:  PD James, Mark Morris, Nicolette Jones, Steve Tasane, Rosalinda Hardiman, Graham Hurley, James McConnachie, Jane Wenham-Jones, Christopher Reid, Julian Stannard and Madeleine Milburn.  She encouraged people to join the society before the end of June for £25 – this is less than £1 per hour for time spent listening and learning!

June 2013 122Treasurer, Crispin Drummond assured the audience that the finances are in good shape and that a constitution will be circulated to members for comment and approval preceding an AGM in October

Events Secretary, David Eadsforth introduced the superb guest speaker, screenwriter Julian Unthank who grabs our attention in Doc Martin, New Tricks, The Bill and various other TV dramas.  Julian started as an animal trainer for films, then went to film school with the intention of becoming a producer but then decided he’d prefer to write the scripts himself.  His first film was a short, Potemkin: The Runner’s Cut and had Charles Dance as the main character.

Julian UnthankJulian also won numerous awards, including Raindance Film Festival, for his short film, Love at First Sight starring John Hurt and Phyllida Law.  He has used this film as his calling card in the increasingly competitive film world. Many experienced and good writers are finding it tough to get work as so much drama has been cut.  He cited the old TV soaps as the breeding ground for talent but these don’t exist today so even getting into the business is more difficult than it has ever been.

Julian’s illuminating and energetic presentation, Hidden in Plain Sight – the Secret Structure of the Screen Story, made sure that we will never look at films or TV in the same way again…

Using four distinctly different creative genres:  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Love at First Sight, The Apprentice and a 40 second Dulux commercial, Julian outlined his 17 beat structure that makes for a successful dramatic outcome.

Act One [1/4 of the total length of feature]

1          Opening image [generally an opposite image from the final one]

2          Set up [approx 10 pages – can take up 50% of writing time]

3          Controlling idea [character might state the theme e.g. Do you believe in love at first sight?]

4          Inciting Incident [spurs movie on]

5          Debate [moment of self doubt?]

6          Turning Point

Act Two [1/2 of the total length of feature]

7          B story [contains controlling idea]

8          Promise of Premise [trailer material – easiest to write]

9          Mid point [the mood hangs on this]

10        Things go wrong

11        False defeat or victory

12        Moment of Truth

13        Turning Point 2 [creating more build up]

Act Three [1/14 of total length feature]

14        Finale

15        Climax

16        Resolution [often the main character usually has the last word]

17        Final Shot [defines how the story has moved from the opening shot]

Julian hung all four “dramas” onto this structure and we were amazed how accurately it worked.  He uses Final Draft software for script writing and encouraged everyone to write as visually as possible as so much film has less dialogue than it used to have.  He cited that in the UK drama tends to have 65% dialogue against 35% in the US. Shane Black is his favourite writer of action genre [Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3, the Last Boy Scout]  and his recommended books are:

How to Write a Movie in 21 days – Viki King

The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting – Syd Field

Save the Cat – Blake Snyder

Story – Robert McKee

Teach Yourself Screenwriting – Ray Frensham

The Screenwriter’s Bible – David Trotter

Dr Gary Farnell led a resounding applause from the audience who had been privileged to hear the equivalent of a full day’s workshop condensed into an evening.

Barbara wrapped up the evening by extending her thanks to everyone who had made the evening such a success.  She gave bouquets to Lindsay Ashford and Laura Hubner and was presented with one herself by Crispin Drummond for her constant and indefatigable efforts on the Society’s behalf.
Report by Carole Hastings

What our members say:

“Dear Barbara, Thanks very much to you and your lovely team for another wonderful finale to Hampshire Writer’s Society’s second season. It is especially magical being in Chawton House with all its literary associations.

We had a fun evening, melting in the atmosphere and enjoying a picnic and the tour.

Obviously the highlight of the evening was Julian Unthank who was so enthusiastic and open about how to write a screenplay! Fantastic stuff! It almost makes one want to have a go!

Many thanks again!”

Joan Robinson-Harris


“What a fabulous evening! And a cracking end to our second season. Julian’s talk/workshop/insight into being a scriptwriter was electrifying, and I shall certainly be reviewing everything I’ve written.

Karin and Gary stole the show though, when they nearly brought the house down with Karin’s comedy sketch.

Thoroughly enjoyable, all the best, Celia. “


“…It was a memorably great evening and we all enjoyed it very much. One of my students, Jan won a prize for ‘Toggles’ which made the evening even more special. Thank you and all the committee for organising such a special evening and all for £2.50 or £5. Amazing!…”


Gala Evening at Chawton House 12th June 2012

Report by Celia Livesey

More than 70 members and guests attended the final meeting of the inaugural year of the Hampshire Writers’ Society and the Annual General Meeting at Chawton House Study Centre. The reception, which started with a picnic in the Old Kitchen at 6 pm, was followed by complimentary strawberries and cream. A fantastic turnout!

Members then enjoyed a tour of the House, hosted by Director, Stephen Lawrence, and Lindsay Ashford, author and Deputy Head of PR. Mr Lawrence began his tour in the Library and explained some of the history. An Elizabethan manor house, Chawton was once home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. Now it is a library with a unique collection of books focusing on women’s writing in English from 1600 to 1830. Some of the older books are stored in an air-conditioned basement. Other highlights included the Dining room, Tapestry Gallery Staircase and the Great Hall. An interesting human touch that intrigued me, were the ‘witch marks’ scratched on the Tudor panelling by the fireplace to ward off evil spirits that might fly down the chimney. I’m glad I didn’t live back then!

There was a buzz of excitement as everyone packed into The Great Hall for the AGM. The Director, Barbara Large, welcomed everyone and outlined all the successes of this inaugural year of the HWS. Special guests of the HWS throughout the year were mentioned, Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Mark Courtice, Director, The Theatre Royal, Winchester, Stephen Boyce, Advisor on the Arts to Winchester City Council and the recent Mayor of Winchester, Councillor Lipscomb. The Treasurer was then called upon to give his report, followed by other members of the committee. Ant Ridgway called for a vote of thanks for Barbara Large for all her hard work. The meeting closed at 20:15.

Book Cover - Mysterious Death of Miss Austen Lindsay AshfordLindsay began by telling the group how she got started as a writer. Her first novels,Frozen, The Killer Inside, Strange Blood, and Death Studies were based on real life experiences. Lindsay had the group literally gasping with horror and sympathy as she recounted true stories gleaned by going out with the local vice squad. One woman, an addict, filthy, drunken and tragic, had been brought to that terrible state because her child had been beaten to death by her pimp.Barbara Large then invited Lindsay Ashford to reveal how living at Chawton House has influenced her to switch from contemporary crime fiction to historical fiction involving real figures from the past in her book The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

There was silence as Lindsay read an extract from her book. It conjured a lurid picture in the mind – a prostitute coerced into giving freebees to a policeman in his car. The bad breath in her face, the mess! It was squalid, gritty – too real to be comfortable. Yet, initially Lindsay got lots of rejections. She went on an Arvon Foundation Course for Crime Writing, and two years later she moved to Wales. There she met Janet Thomas, Hunno Press, who was looking for short stories. Lindsay ended up writing a novel in six weeks for Ottakers, which was subsumed byWaterstones.

In 2008 she moved to the Chawton Estate, and became absorbed by the place. Going through Jane Austen’s manuscripts, Lindsay found a letter Jane had written to her friend, Fanny Knight. Alarm bells rang as details in the letter suggested arsenic poisoning. A lock of Jane’s hair, donated to the Trust, proved to contain traces of arsenic. This prompted the germ of an idea for Lindsay’s novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

Lindsay realised that to write this story her novel had to become more character-driven.Previous books had been plot-driven. The character of Fanny Knight, a governess, needed to be explored. She was neither part of the aristocracy nor part of those people who worked below-stairs. What would friendship and love cause one woman to do for another? What was it like to be that alone as a governess, and to find that your only friend, Jane, had died? Lindsay wondered how she would find her Historical Voice!

In conclusion, Lindsay said ‘Whatever problems you encounter, believe in yourself and never give up. Accept constructive criticism and persevere’.

Gary Farnell thanked Lindsay for her talk and took questions from the floor.

Q ‘What should you do if an editor asks you to rewrite?’

A ‘Editors do know the pitfalls; don’t question instead: rewrite. Sometimes you must distance yourself from your work.’

Q ‘What do you mean by character-driven?’

A ‘A strong character. I had to learn because I was plot-driven. Know the background of your characters. Character is everything.’

Q ‘Is writing in the 1st person restricting?’

A ‘Yes. There’s more freedom using the 3rd person.’

Q ‘Were you intimidated by Jane Austen’s language?’

A ‘I didn’t try to write in Jane Austen’s style. I used my own voice.’

Q ‘Did you alter your view of men after you had spoken with the prostitutes?’

A ‘I thought it was only a certain sort of man who wanted dangerous sex. And I was surprised that many men would pay more, despite the risk they were taking.’

Q ‘Arsenic was used in face powder. Could Jane Austen have poisoned herself?’

A ‘That is a possibility. Jane had rheumatism and may have used Fowler’s Solution, which contained arsenic. Arsenic was also in wallpaper and sweets.’

Q ‘Where does your future lie, now, Crime or historical novels?’

A ‘I would like to do both. But publishers like to ‘brand’ you. Some authors use a different name. But it becomes difficult if you have to deliver one novel a year.’