Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Grave Obsession

It's weird the kind of thing that can inspire a blog post. Last week I found myself in Conwy*, a beautiful historic town close to where I live. Unfortunately, much of Conwy doesn't seem to open before 10.00 am, including the coffee shops, which is why I found myself walking around the churchyard.

To anyone who doesn't know me, this might sound slightly peculiar - but I've always loved churchyards. There is the general spookiness of them, for which I blame watching too much Scooby Doo in my formative years. They are also packed with history and very inspiring to a creative type; I think all but one of my books has a scene set in a graveyard.

The Church of St Mary's and All Saints is located in the centre of Conwy, entirely surrounded by 18th century houses. It has become my habit to take short cuts through the churchyard to avoid the tourists and traffic on the streets. Considering the location, the churchyard is incredibly peaceful and I sometimes wonder if the tourists even realise it's there.

This church was originally founded in the 12th Century as the church of the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy, and was the burial place of many of the princes of Gwynedd, including Llywelyn the Great. After King Edward I conquered Wales and built Conwy Castle, the abbey was forced to move to Maenan in the Conwy Valley - and they took  Llywelyn's remains with them. (Llywelyn's body was later moved again to the Gwydir Chapel in Llanrwst, where the empty stone sarcophagus can still be seen, but that's probably a whole other blog post.)

As you can see from the photo above, the majority of the gravestones in this churchyard are made from slate which, due to the close proximity of the quarries in Snowdonia, was in huge supply in the 19th century, making this grave (below) stand out in particular.


In 1798 William Wordsworth wrote a poem, We Are Seven, about a conversation with a child in a churchyard. Because the child says: 'And two of us at Conway dwell' this grave is traditionally considered the location of the conversation (although Wordsworth himself said the conversation took place at Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire). Souvenir hunters therefore continuously broke off pieces of the tombstone so an iron cage was constructed in the early 20th century to protect what was left.

Another interesting memorial in this churchyard is that of Hugh Griffith, a ship’s carpenter who went missing at sea and was presumed dead. When he turned up, alive and well, the inscription on the tombstone was changed to a Biblical quotation about being brought up from the depths.

And I suppose this is the real reason I find graveyards so fascinating. I'm a writer and a reader, and I love hearing stories. In a graveyard every memorial tells the story of someone's life, often heart-breaking, which might otherwise never have been told.


* The Welsh spell it 'Conwy', the English spell it 'Conway', but it's all the same place!




Sunday, 2 November 2014

A Room of One's Own

One of my more eccentric 'quirks' is that I have trouble telling people what I do for a living. When cornered, I try to get away with saying, "I work from home" - and hope they'll assume I'm mass knitting tea cosies or something similar. Well, that comment came back to bite me last month; I moved to a new house and found it had no landline and therefore no Internet. How have I managed to stay online? With a mobile Wi-Fi, Internet cafés and the generosity of friends; now I was working anywhere but home!

Ironically, it was at this point Johanna Grassick asked if I would contribute to a series of blog posts she was collating for Novelistas Ink, entitled Where I Write. My first thought was wondering whether I could get away with writing a post about the local Waterstones café, which had become my new 'office'. But while writing that post, it got me thinking about where I write and how much writers rely on the Internet for their work - research, keeping in touch with other authors and readers, as well as promotion. The flipside is that the Internet is a huge distraction - which is why writing retreats are so popular. Now I had my own Internet-free writer's retreat - only without the retreat bit!

So, does it really matter whether I work in a café, a spare room or my own study?

I wrote my first book, A Girl's Best Friend at my desk at work during my lunch break. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was written in the sitting room of our first house (a tiny bungalow) with the computer monitor wedged inside a cupboard, the keyboard on my lap and dance music bouncing off the walls. Why Do Fools Fall in Love was written in several spare rooms, as we moved around the country, from Hampshire to Bath and back again. Breathless was started in Hampshire and finished via another spare room in Wales and then -

And then I claimed my first 'study'! We had moved to a rambling Victorian house, where the dining room was at one end of the building and the kitchen at the other. So I claimed the redundant dining room for my study. I had an entire wall of shelving so, for the first time ever, I could get all my books out of their boxes. Heaven! It had a huge bay window, with a beautiful view of Snowdonia, and I positioned a sofa there - with the idea I could recline and daydream about my plots while I admired the scenery. Of course I never had the time to do that! Incidentally, this was the first time I put a room from my own house into one of my books - my study also became Alicia's in Nemesis. The castle you might just be able to see to the left of this picture is Penrhyn Castle and it became the model for Hurst Castle in the same book.

Then we moved again. My books went back in their boxes and I ended up with another dining room for a study, which was probably the prettiest I've had, with views across the Menai Straits to Mount Snowdon itself.

What have I learned from these upheavals over the years? Well, despite my whinging, it turns out I can write anywhere. It doesn't matter if I'm in a spare room or a café. I don't need a study and I don't need an Internet connection - in fact, as any author will tell you, we get more writing done without it!

It turns out that all I really need to write is ... my laptop and me. 


Read More

Keeping it (Un)real - why the best part of being a writer is making stuff up
You Know You're a Writer When ... (for Novelistas Ink)
Where I Write (for Novelistas Ink)