Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.

Special Guest: Judith Heneghan

Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings.  Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006.  To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children.  Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.

Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious.  She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world.  Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay.  Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here:

Main Speaker: Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books.  Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare.  Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.

Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults.  She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology.  After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.

As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a  writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit.  Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples.  ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create.  All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences.  But what are these themes?  They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.

Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story,  they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children.  The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author.  If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing.  Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’.  She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey.  Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral.  Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

Della Galton speaks to Hampshire Writers’ Society

HWS November Meeting Report by Lisa Nightingale


Special Guest: Mayoress – Angela Clear

Councillor Angela Clear, Mayor of Winchester and District, also known locally as ‘Miss Marple’ with her basket and beady eyes has two literary heroes – Agatha Christie and Jane Austin. A romantic detective – there’s a refreshing change.

Her self-administered reward at the end of a busy run is a little time away following in the footsteps of the great Poirot on Burgh Island, just off the coast of Devon where Agatha Christie wrote many of her novels.

Chris Mann
Chris Mann

While at home curled up on the settee on a winter’s evening, she thrives on the heartache of the heroine caught up on the ‘social perception of Jane Austin’s time’ listening to their head and not their heart. For her they are the perfect mix of romance and historical statements before being quite willingly whisked away to Pemberley.

Being Mayor is a busy role with up to four engagements a day, but she loves it and says that perhaps one day will come to Barbara Large for instruction and put pen to paper.

The audience was treated to a performance by Chris Mann, prominent South African poet, playwright and song-writer who demonstated the creative effect of combining songs with guitar accompaniment. Chris Mann is Professor Emeritus of Poetry, Rhodes University in Grahamston and is currently visiting the University of Winchester.

Della Galton – short story writer and novelist

‘Never forget! We are in the entertainment industry.’ Della Galton told us and she doesn’t believe in Writer’s Block either.

Della draws much of her story-writing inspiration from songs or poems. It is emotion that drives her fingers. Writing Groups are invaluable and Della began attending one back in 1987. 1500 short stories later, she still goes to it.

Della Galton and BarbaraSince she started writing, the magazine short story market has shrunk. Now there are only 7 magazines that can be submitted to, with some on-line.  Successes feel great but they can be sporadic. As can the income.

1000 word stories are the biggest payers. Your readers must care about your characters. Give them a problem that is not of their own making. Make them solve it in an unusual way, but get the reader to care about them – from the first line.

Cosy crime is a big seller.

And men – do not switch off – men can write stories for the likes of Woman’s Weekly. The editors are looking for diversity, the writer’s own voice and they buy on the strength of the story not that of the writer.

Ask yourself, if you are moved by your story. Then the reader will be moved as well. And try to make the editor laugh. Della admits that this is not always easy in 1000 words. But, don’t be predictable. Or preachy. Although a twist in the tale is still a winner.

Your story needs to provide escapism for the reader.  It must also be believable – draw from your own experiences.

Persistance and patience pay off. Poor Della once had thirteen rejections in the same day! So she cried and carried on. What’s your motivation?

Don’t write what is trending! If a tsunami has recently ravished the coastline then don’t submit stories about it – the editor will receive thousands the same. And here she left us a tip – write a list of your ideas. Then cross out the top ten – everybody thinks the same way.

Della could not stress enough how important it is for a writer to carry out their market research. Magazine submission guidelines will state their taboo subjects, word count can be very strict and check the genres that they prefer to print. Your information must be current.

Della confessed to being a NaNoRebel – she uses the National Novel Writing Month as a challenge to write a collection of short stories. And she highly recommends it. In the race to keep writing, your inner editor is subdued.

For more information about Della Galton visit her website and blog.

M.J.Arlidge, James Marrison and John Hayes speak at HWS 8th September

A Night of Crime and Darkness…

Two purveyors of crime and mystery talked about how they weave dark and compelling tales.

Report by Lisa Nightingale


Special Guest – John Hayes

Sep 15 John Hayes_0234John Hayes is Smug! Winchester’s first satirical magazine Remember Viz, Mad and Punch? Well, it’s a bit like those. Smug is a mix of humour and investigative journalism backed up by in-depth research – people watching!

Hoping to launch in December 2015, Smug needs input. Spoof news stories, reports, short-stories, anything relevant to the prevention of Winchester disappearing up its own bottom! The deadline is ASAP. Even if it’s just a crazy idea, let John know at You should be able to find Smug in the Art Café on Jury Street – John owns it!

Also the very first announcement of the Winchester Short Film festival 2015. John is keen to pair up screenplay writers with directors so if you have an idea for a film of under 15 minutes contact him through the Winchester Short Film festival website by 15 October 2015.

In 2016 Winchester Short Film festival is going international! Next year films will can be up to but no longer than double the length of this years. There is also a new category for 2016 – Write a Short Script for any Genre. Entries need to be submitted by December 2015


Speaker:  Crime Writer, M.J. Arlidge

‘I am not a woman,’ says Matt Arlidge. One and a half years ago, it was his agent’s idea to submit the plan for DI Helen Grace as gender neutral. Four books later, the name has stuck.  Unfortunately for Matt, it is common misconception among his readers that as the main protagonist is a woman then so must the writer be.

It has become apparent to Matt that women are infinitely more interesting than men and that life for a woman is fraught with difficulty. He fully accepts that this is tragic for women. But, not so at all for fiction writers. Plus, it seems to be the time of the female crime solver. So, a female DI with a fetish for leather and motorbikes cannot fail to sell.

Matt admits to finding a story’s baddy more intriguing and so the characters of his serial killers come fairly easily. In a crime novel the denouement is the most important element. So Matt works backwards, meticulously planning and reworking the chapters as he goes. Then the fun part – playing with the characters.

Matt started out a junior story-liner working at the BBC on East Enders  before moving onto many happy years writing for Monarch of the Glen, he then moved into writing crime for independent television. This is when Eeny Meeny was born into a society controlled by reality TV. What if a serial killer was to ask the question – who should be evicted next?

MJ Arlidge is a writer of thrillers not police procedure, so he does not have deep contact with the police, in fact he confessed to making some of it up! The come-down after the action of the denouement is important to the reader – they need to ‘come back up for air’. It can also be used to lead into the next instalment.

It is important to remember that writing might be a craft, but publishing is a business. A publishing house is almost guaranteed to like a genre. They will also want to ensnare those readers for a long time, so a series is much more likely to grab their attention. ‘Don’t be shy.’ he says, ‘Think Big.’

A secret – Little Boy Blue, the prequel to DI Helen Grace, will be launched over the twelve days of Christmas in chunks. It will only be available in e-book and on Kindle.

Liar Liar by MJ Alridge was published on 10th September 2015 by Penguin.

James Marrison & M.J.Arlidge
James Marrison & M.J.Arlidge

Speaker: Crime Writer, James Marrison

Scary music, downloaded photographs, banging a tennis ball on the wall and strict routine all go into James Marrison’s writing day at his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He sets himself targets as most writers do. But, not word-count. He uses time. Rigidly! Have a break or a time when you ‘call it a day.’ And switch off; it is so important.

Plotting is James’ nemesis. He does it in his head which can mean that sometimes, he has precious little in the way of tangible evidence of work. But plotting is work and he has to remind himself that he has actually done a lot today. Agatha Christie, one of his favourite authors was a plotter. And she often hid her killer in the open – a friend or a colleague.

Characters definitely do lead the plot. He fell back on his own emotional experiences of living away from his home for the answers to his main protagonist DCI Guillermo Downes. Once Downes had been given a backstory, he burst into life.

James agrees, it is the unveiling of the killer that is the reader’s reason for choosing crime. But, the day-to-day frustrations of police investigations are pivotal to the plot. Essential information dumps must be handled with care. So, James weaves in the character’s traits, keeping the text interesting. He also has no continual contact with the police but their procedures are not difficult to discover – the internet can give you all the information you need.

In crime writing, pace is imperative. Steer clear of over-describing. Sweep everything along for the ride. Keep working up to that key action scene.

It wasn’t until he started doing it that he actually realised that writing was what he wanted to do. He became a journalist. He collected details of strange and grisly murders carried out by the most demented serial killers and published his findings.

Writing is a lonely job, but James is keen to stress that at times it is also crowded. His agent and editor are vocal and blunt, and he is able to rely on them. Doubt, however can be a destroyer if it is allowed to creep in. Until your work is finished – put publishing out of your mind.

The Drowning Ground  by James Marrison was published on 27th August 2015 by Penguin.

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

Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Wallace, Chairman of The Winchester Military Museums

Report by Lisa Nightingale.

Last night the HWS members were privileged to have as Special Guest, Lt Gen Sir Christopher Wallace.

A scary titled person?

Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Wallace advised us all that he felt an affinity to the Hampshire Writers’ Society. So, when asked to attend as our Special Guest, he jumped at the chance.

So a friendly person?

It surprised many of us that it was the Lieutenant General’s education in Latin and Greek, underpinned a life-long love of the English language.

During commands of Battalions, Brigades and Divisions, it was the imaginative prose adopted by his mother in her letters that kept that love alive. A seemingly small intervention, a letter from a family member is often seen as a personal comment, but to the Commander, it became an inspiration to write.

An original person?

An appointment to the board of the Imperial War Museum, cemented the Commandant’s passion for the on-going legacy that our military leaves to us.

As writers we are advised to write about what we know, to write what we love and produce the story that we want to tell. How lucky are we if we are able to actually do that. Well, ambition, creativity and loyalty to the people around him both family and minions paid-off. For Sir Christopher, it was time to mix business and pleasure.

He began to write. Using his love of our language and adding what he knew best, three books followed.

Ambitious as well?

It was always the Lieutenant General’s aspiration to have them published just as he wanted. So, they were self-published. Each non-fiction account of military history cost around £12,000 to publish. The future commencement of his beloved military museums each set on noteworthy sites of historical importance, both military and palatial formed the motivation to keep his books exclusive to the museum shops. The costs were recuperated and over £30,000 has been raised.

Not a scary person at all!

Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Wallace may not have needed the microphone, but he made us laugh and seemed genuinely appreciative that his life is also his hobby.

2015 marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Once again, Lieutenant General Sir Christopher Wallace intends to lead the campaign. Waterloo 2015 is to commemorate Wellington’s defining moment in British military history.

He concluded by telling members about the Battle of Waterloo Bicentenary Exhibition 2015, at The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum, Winchester. The exhibitin runs from 26 March to 30 September.

For more information follow the link: The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum

Andy McDermott: The World of Thriller Writing

Report by Lisa Nightingale.

It was whilst writing film reviews for hugely successful entertainment magazines that Andy McDermott, casual and unassuming best-selling thriller writer became inspired to take the risk of giving up his career to become a writer. “I was tired of writing about other people’s achievements” he said. To the tune of ‘you’ll be writing the review of Trisha’ from his colleagues his motivation was not to return to his employer cap in hand to beg for a return to his job. The writing had to work.

Initially, he began writing anything from ghost stories to comedies in search of his writing voice. This, he found more by accident than design with an almost successful submission of an action thriller. Unfortunately, it fell at the last hurdle and was rejected.

Undefeated, Andy went back to his ghost stories. He was pressed for another thriller by his agent. With a have-it-your-way desperation, Andy amalgamated all his notes and produced, The Hunt for Atlantis. A fantastical archaeological search for a mythical city with larger than life characters.

Oct 14 Andy McDermott_1632His agent loved it. The publishers loved it. Andy was offered a two-book deal. Celebrations over, he realised he had to write another action thriller using the same characters. So, he raked through his notes intent on finding some snippet that had not already been used. On a small note he found a scribble from Wikipedia that Hercules was the only demigod not to have been dedicated a tomb of his own. And thus book two, The Tomb of Hercules was born.

Andy was offered another two book deal, did the same thing and was offered another two book deal and so on until a five book deal was offered. Andy is now on book eleven of the series and his characters, Nina Wilde the adventurous archaeologist, her husband ex SAS bodyguard Eddie Chase show no sign of slowing down.

Andy was keen to stress that much of his deadline keeping success is his strict, self-imposed timetable. He sticks rigidly to the hours that he worked as a journalist. In the office and writing by 9.00 am. He starts writing his first draft and does not stop until it is finished. Then straight into a process of revisions. The book stays behind closed doors for a couple more drafts. Then it is sent to his editor. Her suggestions have shrunk to almost nothing as, over the years their trust in each other has grown.

Andy has had the same editor since The Hunt for Atlantis (he sincerely hoped someone would have found a better title. But they seemed to like that one) and they have built a good relationship. She is able to advise when Andy has provided too much technical detail, and when more is needed.

With regard to research, Andy spends anything from three to six months on planning. He delves deep into research. Often much of this does not make it into the story, only the answer that he was searching for in the first place. However, he pointed out that often it will come in handy in other parts of the book. With a little embellishment, a story can be ‘hung’ on a tiny detail.

Word count for Andy’s plan is often more than half that of the finished book. In stories like these, it is imperative that the characters remain pro-active. An action sequence needs almost as much planning as the whole book.

Andy is more than happy to accept that his books are an exhilarating mix of facts and flights of fantasy. With each new project, he asks himself – What is the overall story? What is the ‘McGiffin’ that Nina and Eddie will search for? What is the issue that will test their relationship? The answers are then fitted into the time-honoured format of an action thriller. The result is the white-knuckle thriller that keeps Nina and Eddie on their toes.

There is a strong business element to being a best-selling writer. A commercial publishing house will expect a novel that will appeal to the target audience. Andy will often find himself in marketing meetings in London.

When asked what he would write ‘just for fun’ Andy replied; Nina and Eddie stories!

However, one of the most exciting aspects for Andy was discussing the movie for the whole series with those described as Hot Fuzz.

Good luck Andy!

An Evening of Novels, Inspiration and Other Tales with Santa Montefiore


Report by David Eadsforth. 

Barbara Large welcomed everyone to the first talk of the new HWS season and said how pleased she was with the numbers of people who had turned up; and that we had a super night ahead.  Barbara welcomed Joan McGavin, the Hampshire poet, and Santa Montefiore, the novelist.

Joan spoke about the Winchester Poetry Festival, which is to take place between the 12th and the 14th of September.  Friday begins an exciting and varied programme that will feature Slam Dunk Hants, a student showcase, Hogwords, Hampshire poets now, and the main reading comprising Imtiaz Dharker, Matt Harvey, and Brian Patten.

Sep 14 Joan McGavin_1570Sunday will feature a city walking tour with sites of special interest, The Wilfred Owen International Poetry competition, and “Poets from Hampshire”, Edward Thomas.  Also, “Things being Various”, Christopher Reid on the poets craft.  There is a Commemorative Reading in Winchester College War Cloister, and the Main Reading will be Ros Barber and Jackie Kay.  There are also a number of workshops and competitions. Saturday will feature Young Voices; Zena Edwards and friends, “The Singing of the Scythe”, the best of World Poetry, “So Too Have The Doves Gone”, the poetry of conflict, and “Telling Tales, Patience Agbabi. There will also be “New Voices”, Liz Berry, Olivia McCannon, and Jacqueline Saphra, and “Those Timeless Things”, the poetry of John Arlott.  The main reading comprising David Constantine, Julia Copus, and Michael Longley.

Joan encouraged us all to try writing poetry, and offered a tip: if you are getting “poet’s block”, try writing some prose.  If getting “writer’s block”, try writing some poetry!

David Eadsforth then introduced Santa Montefiore:

Santa was born in Winchester and grew up in Dummer, Hampshire.  Due to her mother being Anglo-Argentinian, she was able to teach English in Argentina for a year before taking a degree in Spanish and Italian at Exeter University.  She went back to work in Buenos Aires for some years before returning to Britain and marrying historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore.  Her first novels were set in Argentina and Chile, but many other countries have now provided the settings for her books.

Sep 14 Santa Montefiore_1571Santa started by wishing everyone good evening and saying how delighted she was to see so many people.  She was not going to deliver a lecture about how to write, but would like to recount what had inspired her writing over the years.  Santa said that locations and settings were very important in her books. She found the greatest inspiration from the places she had visited.  Smells can be very evocative; Buenos Aires has wonderful scents from the flowers, and caramel from the sweet stalls – and diesel fumes from the buses.  Santa has visited everywhere she has written about, apart from Polperro, which was the one bit of Cornwall she couldn’t make, but she was able to construct a satisfactory picture from the internet and other references in the end.  (This was our secret, and we were not to let on…)

Santa started writing at school, where she created stories for her schoolmates. These were romantic, but were not drawn from life as the only specimens to hand were spotty schoolboys; not a very suitable model.  Later, however, she did manage to include one character from real life from her school, a schoolmaster who was Scottish but who affected an Italian accent.  One day, he invited Santa and a couple of her friends to his home for afternoon tea (unlikely to be allowed these days…), and on a tour of the house threw open the bathroom door to reveal the bidet, where, he announced proudly, he liked to “boil his botty”.  He did become a character in one of her books!  Another teacher, who was a very large lady, actually wanted to become a character in one of her books.  Santa obliged, and then worried about what the teacher’s reaction would be.  The teacher loved her fictional character so much that Santa wondered if she had actually recognised which she was.

Then there was Bernie, the family Saint Bernard, who would be let loose at the end of a garden party to herd the last of the visitors away.  On one occasion, a lady appeared to be indulging Bernie by letting him press his sticky jowls on her suede trousers.  However, when Bernie followed his “new found friend” around a corner he got a kicking for his pains.  A lesson for Santa; people who like animals are generally nicer than people who do not.  That lady turned up in a book as well, as did an early Argentinian boyfriend of Santa’s.  Argentinian men are supposed to be darkly good-looking and courteous, but this one was not.  A very controlling person, he would even check that Santa had used the soap after having visited the bathroom; the “soap-checker” also went into a book.

Sep 14 Santa Montefiore_1572The great thing about putting nasty people in books is that they think that they are so perfect that they never recognise themselves.  Santa has noted that people who have been scarred by life’s experiences will quite often have an unattractive persona, and it can take some effort to find a more likeable nature beneath.  Santa also liked older people, and the slightly eccentric views they often hold.  She hoped that such eccentricities were not dying out but might be constantly maintained by people who, as they age, grow less inhibited and less likely to continue to follow convention.  Santa said that her novels do, of course, introduce the views of her characters, which may or may not reflect her own views.  However, many people believe that a view expressed in a novel must reflect the view of the author, so care must be taken.

Writing at the same time as your husband can be problematical if both of you like to write to music.  Santa creates a playlist for each new book as it helps create moods and emotions.   Typically, this would be something wonderfully evocative of the location she is writing about.  At the same, “Ground Control to Major Tom” would be belting out from the next room.  Even though “Major Tom” may now be played through earphones, the problem has not gone away; her husband has started singing along to it – rather badly…

A noisy environment can be dispiriting.  At the time she and her husband lived in a flat, a yuppie couple lived in the one above, and would often put their washing machine on late in the evening.  One night, Santa’s husband decided to tackle them about it, so went out, in pyjamas and dressing gown, only to meet an elderly lady from another flat intent on doing the same.  They knocked on the door together and were confronted by their puzzled neighbour.  They explained that it was really too late to be running a noisy washing machine and Santa’s husband added that the offending machine was “right above their bedroom and they had a baby only one year old”.  Their neighbour’s eyes went from one to the other in growing incredulity…

Santa believes that the writing room should be a beautiful place to work; it should invite and inspire you, and for her this means flowers and candles etc.  Her advice is:  “Make your office your sanctuary – a room you long to get to every day”.  This will help you get on with the writing process.  Following the advice of her husband: “don’t get it right, get it written”, her method of working is to write the book from start to finish before revising; if you go back over what you have written and revise as you go, you will make appallingly slow progress.

Santa happened to meet Joanna Trollope about the time she had finished her first manuscript, at the age of twenty-five, and asked Joanna for advice.  “Put it in a drawer until you have had more experience of life.” was the reply; wise, undoubtedly, but not terribly welcome!  But Santa has indeed found that the older you get, the better you write.

After Santa had been published, a US book tour did not work out quite as planned.  On one occasion, Santa found herself in a bookstore in Chicago, ready to address an audience.  She was quite fired up by the news that Isabelle Allende had pulled a crowd of three hundred there a short while before, but when Santa entered the room there was only one man in a baseball cap, sitting at the back reading a book: and not one of hers.  But with her belief in the “stiff upper lip” she approached the man, quite prepared to devote the session to him.  Unfortunately, he was only there waiting for his family to return from shopping.  However, Santa did manage to have a chat with him long enough to sell him a signed copy of her book.  Lesson: Americans are only interested in big names.  However, this story says a lot about the kind of fortitude everyone needs to become a successful author!

Her book tour experiences are quite different in the Netherlands, where she is very well-liked and draws large audiences, and can almost feel like JK Rowling (if one ignores the difference in royalties…).

Santa then took a few questions.

  1. Does Santa relate to her own characters?

Yes, indeed, but she also writes about characters who she knows she won’t relate to. This is very difficult, but often quite necessary; and a particularly challenging part of writing fiction.

  1. What is her production target?

Santa is happy with writing one book per year.  She has to maintain this schedule to satisfy the publisher, and on completion of a book often wonders if she can write another – but she has always managed to do this so far!  If she ever found that she could not keep up with the demands of writing, then she would probably give up.

When in the early stages, daily progress will be 1-2,000 words.  In the later stages, she will be writing up to 5,000 words per day; once the narrative has begun to progress, the writing comes easier.  Santa has a disciplined writing year.  She only writes in term-time, and hands her completed manuscript to her publisher in July, just as last year’s book is being published in hardback.  She takes the summer off then, in September, she goes through her editor’s notes for her finished book, and makes the necessary changes.  During this time she will begin planning for her next book, which she starts writing in January, the manuscript being ready for the July deadline.

  1. What would Santa liked to have been if she hadn’t become a writer?

A singer: recalling her time in Argentina, she projected herself as singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from the balcony of the Shakespeare Room where we were all sitting.  And ultimately . . . a teacher – which was the right thing to say as the questioner was herself a teacher!  Both Santa and her questioner were keen to emphasize how much there is a ‘performance’ element to teaching, and to writing and public speaking as well.

  1. Any advice on how to end a book?

Santa acknowledged that endings are often very difficult.  But, as a rule of thumb, if you find you’re getting bored with the story or book you’re writing it’s best to end things quickly (or even move on to another project).  This discussion of book endings was a natural place at which to bring the Q&A part of the evening to a close. Santa rounded everything off by telling one last story – a rather explicit, but highly amusing, story – about the difficulty of getting some anatomical details right when writing about the opposite sex . . .

To conclude the evening, Barbara thanked everyone for coming and invited them to “keep writing” and to “bring a fellow writer” next time.  In October, we would have Andy McDermott, the thriller writer, so it would be worth coming back.

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’.

Questions and Answers with James Wills

James Wills - May 14

Points raised by the questions:

  • Check the agent’s website for submission guidelines and do what they say! Emails are acceptable.
  • Yes, you can contact multiple agents, but be courteous enough to let them know you are doing this, and inform them should you accept an offer; it is very annoying for an agent to spend a weekend studying an author’s work only to find on the Monday that another offer had been accepted the week before.
  • Are literary agents getting fewer submissions due to the rise of self-publishing? No, they are getting more!
  • Has self-publishing affected literary agents? Not really; the agent’s search for serious writers continues.
  • Can the self-published book get the attention of an agent? It can, but it does depend on the degree of success and other factors.
  • Will agents be impressed by a web presence? Broadly, yes; but if you are not good at website creation then get experienced help.
  • What percentage of a book is read by an agent? This depends – enough to make a decision!
  • Do sub-editors have the right qualifications and skills?       Yes, if you pick the right one for your book!
  • What about copyright protection of the MS? Usually quite adequate, but in the event of an infringement the AAA may be able to help.
  • What about the contradictory comment and advice an author gets from different agents? Comments will always be subjective, but are worth analysing and absorbing.
  • Often, “rules” of how to write a novel are offered. When so many classic novels break these apparent rules, can they be valid? There are no real rules, but you need to understand what you are attempting.
  • Must we write purely for commercial appeal? Best to immerse yourself in what is going on at the time and understand what is popular and why, but do not simply duplicate.
  • Is the selection of children’s books for publication purely commercially driven? Are themes of sex and violence creeping in too much? Editors of children’s books are lovely people, but with the changing times slightly darker themes will inevitably creep in.
  • Are the first and last sentences really key? No – but they are a good start!
  • If a book has not grabbed the reader by the throat by the 5th page, will it be binned? Probably, unless you have effectively set the scene by then.
  • Would works of acknowledged genius, if submitted today, get published? If it is not what the intern is looking for, it probably will not.       Newspapers try this out periodically, but fail to appreciate that publishing is market-driven.
  • Should I complete the book before trying for an agent? If fiction, absolutely.
  • Will an agent dump a book after reading just one sentence?  Such brutality is very rare, but the reputation is worth having!


Some general questions from the membership then followed, and James had the following comments:

  • Do not go to an agent who asks for money to read your MS.
  • Are there any truly taboo subjects for thrillers? Yes; truly appalling sexual violence etc.       Discuss your intentions with your agent.
  • How long should an author allow for a response from an agent?       This depends on the time of year, Watson Little try to be under 4 months. A polite nudge is acceptable if you have been waiting for far too long.
  • Some agents ask for 3 chapters; how much material do they think they will get for that? Some people do write with short chapters; use common sense and send 30-50 pages as you believe will do the job.
  • Do film and TV tend to use adaptations or fresh material? Literary agents usually have associates who handle these options; check the agent’s website carefully.

James Wills at the HWS May 13th 2014

Report by David Eadsforth

Gary Farnell opened the meeting and explained that Barbara Large, who would normally manage proceedings, was absent on family business. Gary explained that tonight had a particularly full agenda. First, there would be a number of HWS announcements, to be followed by His Worship the Mayor of Winchester, who would provide an outline of his work during his term of office, which was due to end shortly. Then James Wills, of Watson Little, would talk about why a literary agent was still needed in the digital age, and finally the results of the monthly competition would be announced.

HWS Announcements

First, an award had to be presented to Rebecca Laurence for her poem “Fossils” , as Rebecca had been absent on the night in question. Then Cat Randall, chair of “Big Up Words” announced that a poetry festival would be held on the 24th May in Romsey. Cat explained that there would be 100 prizes of volumes of Slam Poetry and a reading by Teapot Percolator. She also gave initial notice of a Youth Anthology event which is planned to take place in Andover. Further details would be found on the site:

Celia Leofsy announced her debut novel “The Company of Goblins”. Celia thanked Jenny Knowles of Little Knoll Press for having made this possible. Against a projected image of a book cover drawn by 11 year old Emily, Celia explained that this book was the first of a trilogy featuring twelve-year old Izzy Green, who battles against the ambitions of the goblins who want to take over the world. Celia has drawn on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology in the creation of the story and the book launch will take place at Waterstones at West Quay, Southampton on the 12thJune between 17.00 and 19.00.

Anne Sherry announced the availability of her book “Safe Passage”, the writing of which has dominated her life for the last two years. Anne was prompted to write the book after facing the problem of what to do with her huge cache of travel journals, and in going through these she rediscovered a lost world. “Safe Passage” is Anne’s story, which she subtitles “The Human Face of Dementia”. Anne self-published, which had high costs in both money and time, but this enabled her to maintain the level of control she wanted. Alzheimer’s Research UK encouraged Anne to continue with self-publishing when the going got tough and helped with publicity.

James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.
James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.

Gary then introduced Cllr Ernie Jeffs, the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Winchester, and revealed that Winchester had the second oldest Mayoralty in England.

Cllr Ernie Jeffs started by answering the question in everyone’s minds; the oldest mayoralty in England was, of course, London. Cllr Jeffs recounted how he had attended the Winchester Writers Conference of 2013, and had been most impressed by the advice that Julian Fellowes had had to offer. He also noted that Barbara Large had run the conference for 33 years before handing over, and hoped that 2014 would go well.

As a result of praiseworthy research, we now have a list of the mayors of Winchester from the year 1200, he was the 814th, and was very proud to have been elected to the office. The Mayor has the use of a house in Winchester, one which has neither bedroom nor bathroom, and is used mostly for meetings. However, Cllr Jeffs was very keen for the public to use it as well as the city officials. The house was built on the site of an abbey founded by the wife of Alfred the Great and existed until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. In 1889, Winchester City Council bought the house for £5,500, and its use is now largely ceremonial.

The duties of the mayor are considerable, and can involve up to 500 events per year. Over the Christmas period, he attended 22 carol services and 5 nativity plays. Regarding the latter, he had been advised to attend the dress rehearsals, the parents’ evenings generally being prone to descend into chaos, and so he did, although at one of these Baby Jesus was continually dropped on the ground by a somewhat maternally-inexperienced Virgin Mary. He had also led support for a number of charities; Help for Heroes, the Countess Mountbatten Charity, and the Scouts of Winchester. The last event he would attend would be a concert to be held at St. Swithuns at 19.00 on the 24th of May (to be preceded by a picnic) and for which tickets were widely available.

Referring to Winchester’s place in the literary world, Cllr Jeffs mentioned Jane Austen, who spent her final time in Winchester before her premature death, and who now has a splendid memorial in Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Hardy mentions Winchester in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and was reputed to have based his heroine on Mrs Hamo Thornycroft, the wife of the sculptor of Alfred’s statue in Winchester. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote three stories in Winchester. And of course the Winchester Bible, now conserved in the cathedral, is Winchester’s oldest book, having been created between 1160 and 1175.

The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs
The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs

Two books about Winchester have impressed Cllr Jeffs: “The Bloody History of Winchester” the launch of which he hosted in December 2013, and “Time Gentlemen Please” about Winchester pubs. Cllr Jeffs admits he was “rubbish” at English at school, preferring maths and science, and eventually becoming an engineer. However, as an engineer he had to write proposals and reports, and frequently had to correct those of others. Cllr Jeffs ended by thanking the University for its support of the HWS and said again what a huge privilege it had been to be Mayor of Winchester.

James Wills then took the stage and launched into his talk on “Do I need an agent in the Digital Age”. His immediate answer to this, surprisingly perhaps, was ‘no’. Do we wrap up now? he asked the members. However, he then went on to ask the members how many possessed electronic readers, and also took a rough poll of those who wrote fiction and those who wrote non-fiction. Twenty years ago, self-publishing used to be termed ‘vanity publishing’ but this was no longer the case. So, do you need an agent today? After all, the agent often seems to be a gatekeeper, all too often preventing your book being published. James then made the all-important point; do you, as an author want to write or do you have to write? There is a huge difference in mentality between these two groups of authors, and he is interested in the 25% or so who simply have to write. So, when it comes to the question of how writers get an agent to represent them, a big part of it is to realise that the agent wants to do more than simply push an author’s book to publishers; the agent wants to help the passionate.

Career management of the thoroughly committed is the ultimate aim of the agent. If an author can transmit the passion for his work to the agent, then the agent in turn can transmit that passion to the publisher, and the commissioning editor can in turn transmit that passion to the Acquisition Meeting. Editors now have accountants and marketing people to contend with; the book is no longer the end of the debate, possibilities are now the emphasis – possible film, TV, and theatre, and project momentum is the key. Most authors will not be an all-rounder – there are very few like Stephen Fry (although Stephen Fry does have an agent…) – most authors should be allowed to get on with what they do best: write.

Becoming a good writer depends for a great part on being a good reader. You, as a writer, should read as much as you can. Even though you might wish to ‘do something new’ you have to know the rules before you can break them; all too often the ‘great new idea’ painstaking developed by an author will turn out to have been done before; possibly many times. You will not be contaminated by reading: you must want to learn. If you want to write children’s stories then buy some and see how others achieve their effect. Research! Talk to people! Successful authors actively monitor and absorb the trends.

Regarding the approach to be made to an agent, if you do not plan this sufficiently you are very likely to suffer a rebuff. Watson Little handles a very wide range of subjects, and it is important that you find the correct agent for your book. When making an approach, avoid doing, or stating, anything that might put off the agent. Be concise, professional, and passionate. The slush pile can also be the talent pool, but you have to do what is necessary to float to the surface. In short, an agent wants to manage the career of their charge, in good times and in bad, so you have to be worth managing.

A question and answer session was then conducted with James answering quick-fire questions from the members to finish. Please see the separate blog for James’ question and answers.

Gary thanked James for his fascinating and very useful talk and then handed over to Jim Livesey for the competition results.