‘Chasing the Sun’: travelling to two gorgeous locations and finding fabulous festivals, fun and food.

As the worst of lockdown is over, despite wide predictions of another possible ‘wave’, we are all looking forward to the summer and the chance to travel again, whether it is to the nearest beach, or to see much-missed friends, or to somewhere distant but safe. It will be lovely to spend time in the summer warmth after a cold, socially distant winter, and we all need to celebrate with much-missed friends and family. It has been tough for most people, and even tougher for so many more.

When I wrote ‘Chasing the Sun, the novel came from a desire to take my readers to stunning locations. From the cold separation of locked down Britain, I wanted to offer the warmth and fun of Spain and Mexico, the chance to join Molly and her sister Nell on their holidays in the sunshine. Molly, a widow, realises on her seventieth birthday that she is restless and doesn’t know where her life is taking her. It’s a perfect reason for a journey of self-discovery, chasing the sun metaphorically, and location is everything.

The great thing about going on holiday is the chance to kick back, relax and enjoy life a little: Molly and Nell spend time on the beach, sampling good food and wine. They visit fabulous locations and meet interesting people; there is the opportunity for fun, mischief and romance. I hope that the reader will enjoy going with them and sharing some of the things they enjoy.

In Spain, Molly eats octopus. I’ve never eaten ‘pulpo’ and although I do research many things by trying them out, but this is definitely not one of them. The sisters enjoy the best Spain can offer them, including sunsets, beaches, boat trips and sangria. I’ve tried all of those…

Then Molly moves on to Mexico, and I was lucky while writing ‘Chasing the Sun’ that my son was living in Mexico City. I’ve been to Mexico myself, but it was useful to be able to call him and ask questions about the local climate, what time the sun sets, what does the local mole taste like. He was the source of all sorts of useful research information, including inside information about El Día de Los Muertos, as he was there during the celebrations and could talk to Mexican people about the cultural importance and vibrancy of The Day of the Dead. I wanted to bring the local colour to readers.

When I created the tapas bar, Sabores, meaning Flavours, I tried to bring a very different taste of Mexico through a plant-based café that served new and exciting dishes. I have made all of them myself, and I’ve included a few recipes at the end of the book, just in case some readers were interested in trying them. The carrot canapé is quite easy, and most of the others aren’t too difficult except for the vegan scotch egg, which is fiddly. Most ingredients aren’t hard to source, especially by using the internet, and the plant-based chorizo using vital wheat gluten and the cashew cream cheese are well worth the effort. I hope readers will enjoy sampling some new food.

The most exciting thing for me during the journey to Mexico, even more thrilling than dancing the bachata and riding horses Western-style, is visiting Chichén Itzá. It is a very atmospheric and beautiful place so, when Molly goes there to see the sun rise with two friends, I wanted to express how breathtaking it is there.

In short, I’d love us all to fly off on a plane to Spain and Mexico right now if it was safe, but it isn’t. So, it seemed to me, that the best way to travel is vicariously, through the pages of a book, and to enjoy good times with Molly and Nell. Molly’s attempts to chase the sun take her to two wonderful sun-soaked locations. The beaches, the food, the people and the culture of both Spain and Mexico are charming and fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy travelling there between the pages and that, for you too, the summer will be one of sunshine, laughter and fun, whatever the coming months bring.

My next novel, Chasing the Sun

Originally given the working title The Hokey Cokey Woman, I set out to write a story about Molly, a seventy-year-old widow who leaps into situations with complete abandon, later realising that what she’s chosen isn’t for her and she should have considered all options and thought more wisely. But part of Molly’s charm is that she’s spontaneous; she is caring, full of positivity, enthusiasm and she has natural joie de vivre. In the novel, she finds herself in several situations that are the result of her impetuosity, because she acts before she has thought out the consequences. Although her spontaneity might be endearing, and she has boundless energy and enthusiasm, her life isn’t perfect: she’s always seeking something new, chasing something elusive, but she doesn’t always know what it is.

Nell, her half-sister, is a few years younger, wiser and more sensible. But when her own seemingly-solid marriage is in crisis, she appears on Molly’s doorstep, her world suddenly shaken.The husband who had become part of the fabric of her life wants something else and Nell is shocked that the comfortable existence she knew is in the past.

Molly’s reaction is to leap straight into a new adventure, to change the scenery in order to prevent Nell from further heartache, so she drags her off to Spain for a holiday. They have a wonderful time, although Molly’s impetuosity leads her into a few more scrapes, but they both make new friends and initially life appears idyllic. However, after a while, Molly has itchy feet and she yearns to move on and to discover more.

I am always interested in the themes of companionship and love, and how different people make different choices about whether to stay single or to choose to be in a relationship: loneliness can affect us all, whatever our age. Molly is a widow, she is independent and has learned to live alone, so she doesn’t stop to consider whether being single is a problem. Nell, however, has had a partner in her life for forty years: she hasn’t known solitude before and being by herself is a novelty. So what interests me in this part of the story is the way both women react to the choices of new love and friendship. Are friends needed to keep loneliness at bay? Is any partner better than no partner at all? Or can solitude and self-reliance be an alternative to loneliness: sometimes we find satisfaction in being alone, and sometimes we yearn for love and companionship. Both Molly and Nell face decisions about their future paths several times in the novel and their responses are very different.To live life independently or to accept a new partner, that is the question. As one character says, being single is not the opposite of being happy. And as the other suggests, once you have tasted champagne, why would you opt for flat lemonade? So the title Chasing the Sun is not simply about wanting to be in warmer climes, it is also about how the characters consider bringing warmth into the cold empty space of their own lives.

The setting of the novel was also an important choice. I began writing Chasing the Sun at the start of lockdown, having previously intended to go to Spain for a few days to practise speaking Spanish and to research the location. When the trip was cancelled, I researched the coastal area of Murcia online. 

I’d been to Mexico several years ago and my son was living there at the time that I was writing the novel, so I took my character there, to a location and a culture where I had some background knowledge already, which was a useful starting point for research. I wanted to offer the reader the chance to experience vibrant, sunshine-filled locations and a rich cultural heritage as a form of escape from what had become the lockdown norm. My intention was that if we can’t go on holiday physically, then we’ll go vicariously, with a character in a novel. 

To that end, I hope the readers will enjoy Molly’s voyages to the sunshine, and also I hope that they’ll like the exploration of the choices between independence, loneliness and romance, the life-choice options considered by Molly and Nell, two very different characters with very different experiences. Chasing the Sun is out on April 8th.

Casting Heading over the Hill as a film

Of all my novels, this one is the easiest to cast as a film. The characters jumped out at me, from the moment I thought ‘now who would play Billy and Dawnie?’ Once you’ve read the book, think about the casting for yourself – you may come up with much better ideas than I have but, for me, the following actors work perfectly.

Dawnie Smith is a really strong character; in her wigs and colourful clothes, she is outgoing, determined and vociferous, with a kind heart. Julie Walters would play her perfectly – Dawnie can’t be suppressed, she is incorrigible and fun but she’s also sensitive, kind to others. Julie Walters would capture her mischief and she’d have a wonderful rapport with Billy, as they are both inseparable and interdependent.

Billy Murphy is Brendan Gleeson: tall, big-hearted, sociable yet his fun-loving character hides a shadowy past, which he rarely mentions. He adores Dawnie. He has a sense of humour and he is a gentle giant who keeps his Harley Davidson in the hallway and plays the drums in the spare bedroom. He is the perfect man for Dawnie; romantic, a good cook, and with a heart of gold, Brendan Gleeson would be a wonderful Billy.

Dilly Stocker is the older woman who lives across the road with her son; she is mischievous, full of fun and she adores action movies. It would be wrong to play this character merely for her stereotypical ‘older woman living disgracefully’ qualities without accentuating her loneliness, her love for her son and her sense of loyalty. Bring out Maureen Lipman here, who’d need good make-up to enable her to look older, but she is absolutely the right actor to capture Dilly’s sense of fun.

Vinnie Stocker is in his fifties, handsome and vulnerable, looking for love, having had his heart broken. Colin Farrell could do this role perfectly; handsome, naive, trusting and kind, Vinnie’s journey from lonely heart to happy man would be wonderfully played by Colin Farrell.

Malcolm from next door. Malcolm doesn’t have many friends. He is a gossip, he’s judgmental, negative and an all-round- unpleasant neighbour. He’d be played by Jim Broadbent. He has the ability to appear sorry for himself but he can be quite petty and difficult. I’d imagine he’d do a fabulous job as Malcolm, enabling an audience to feel pathos as well as animosity towards the character.

Gillian, Malcolm’s long-suffering wife is sad and lonely in an empty marriage; we feel sorry for her and, as is often the case for many characters in this novel, there is more to her than initially meets the eye. I’d choose Imelda Staunton to play Gillian. She’d have to be made to appear dowdy, but she’s such a strong performer and she’d embody the character so well.

Lester Wainwright becomes Billy’s biker friend; he’s an entomologist and an all-round nice guy. He’d be played by Tom Courtney who’d be perfect in the role of the kind man who adores his wonderful wife.

Ursula Wainwright is so warm, friendly and thoughtful, a completely generous person. I struggled to cast this one; I was looking for a German actor who would be in the right age bracket and I couldn’t find one. In the end, I settled for an American who would have the kindly face and potential to appear gentle and magnanimous, so Ursula would be played by Laura Linney.

The seaside setting would add to the British feel of the movie, on location in west Devon, where Billy riding on his Harley along the coast and across the moors would offer a great opportunity for the sense of freedom. The fresh summer sunshine and moonlit nights set the scene  for second chances and new beginnings. I can just imagine Billy and Dawnie’s story being a poignant and joyously feel-good movie.

My novel Heading over the Hill and the three stages of marriage.

When I wrote Heading over the Hill, I decided that my main protagonists would be a married couple who arrive in West Devon. Having left their children behind in their former house in Lancashire, they are now looking for a new life, an opportunity to start again.

My protagonists Billy and Dawnie are retired and in their early seventies. They have inherited some money  from Billy’s father and they want to buy a new home. Their children have grown, they have grandchild, great grandchildren, so the opportunity to start again is exciting. They have shared fond memories and they have different views on their newly empty nest, but they are both convinced that they have an ideal opportunity to concentrate on themselves.

Dawnie and Billy’s marriage hasn’t been an easy one. It’s been filled with children and laughter but, for some of the time, Billy has been an absent father. Although loyal to his wife, Billy is far from the perfect husband and Dawnie has had to shoulder much of the responsibility for day-to-day living over the years. Their marriage hasn’t been easy.

Billy and Dawnie aren’t a conventional couple. He keeps his Harley Davidson in the hall and she is outspoken and bold, wearing bright wigs and clothes. Not all the neighbours like them immediately but, as a couple, they are inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other.

Many people will recognise the stages of Billy and Dawnie’s marriage and, although I wanted to focus on the ‘third’ stage, a succinct history of the first two stages was important to establish in order to create a background to their story.

They met in their early twenties, besotted with each other, quickly recognizing their soul mate in the other and, without any careful thought for the future, they married and began a family. The first stage of marriage can be, in many cases, a whirlwind of strong emotions, a belief that the relationship will last forever, that it is idyllic and that true love is everything. Love conquers all! Of course, this doesn’t describe everyone’s first stage of a long-term partnership, but  Dawnie and Billy hurled themselves into marriage believing that it was going to be perfect forever, and much easier than they thought.

The second stage of their marriage was the treadmill stage, the mayhem of bringing up children that Emma Murray writes about so wittily in Time Out. For couples who don’t have children, perhaps it’s a more settled stage although external demands like careers and mortgages usually rear their heads for us all. But when Billy and Dawnie’s two children, Lindy Lou and Buddy, arrive they dominate their parents’ daily existence. With Billy not always present, or with frequent changes unsettling the family regime, life is not easy for Dawnie and, in fairness, Billy has a history which remains with him in the present. The love-conquers-all dream becomes simply about day-to-day survival.

Billy and Dawnie decide it’s time to move to Devon and find the perfect house by the sea. The third stage of their marriage is ‘their time’. The children are no longer dependent and Dawnie and Billy have the opportunity to follow their own path and to choose the life they would prefer. They rent a house in Margot Street, immediately termed ‘Maggot Street’ by Dawnie, in order to search for the dream house.

This third stage of marriage should be the most settled, arguably the easiest and the most deservedly selfish. Billy and Dawnie have earned it. They have come a long way together. Instead, they find themselves in a neighbourhood where not everyone likes each other. They make new friends, an enemy or two, and they discover that the empty nest is still a real issue and that they have to rethink a lot of their settled  beliefs about life and marriage.

Heading over the Hill is Billy and Dawnie’s story, focusing on the stage of marriage after the children have grown, but it is also the story of others’ relationships. There are other characters whose stories may resonate: a widow, a lonely man searching for love; two people stuck in a miserable relationship; a blissfully happy couple or two. It is about people reaching out to each other, about fun, sharing, communities and kindness, but also it is about life being lived at its fullest, enjoying each day as a blessing.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

dried maple leaves

What I’m writing now…

Since the restrictions of lockdown, we dream of a time and a place before Covid where we could travel freely without risk of a virus. We have no idea, however, how things will change in future months and years, whether travel as we knew it will become normal again or whether it will be subject to changes. As a writer, I’ve always enjoyed giving my characters the opportunity to travel. Evie travelled through France; Nanny Basham visited Brighton; the Hens went to Paris; Barbara and Bisto visited Pauline in Somerset and Billy and Dawnie zoom around North Devon on the Harley.

I have to decide how far to allow the virus to intrude upon what I write, and that means to what extent my characters can travel. We all watch the future with interest. I’m setting the novel I’m writing now in the Highlands. Last year I visited Loch Ness for the first time and, enchanted by the magical atmosphere, the warmth of the welcome and the breathtaking scenery, I decided to set a novel there and I went back again – just for research purposes, of course.

Meanwhile, a few months ago, I wrote a novel in which the main two characters visit Spain: I booked a holiday there a while ago for April 2020 and, like many other people, I couldn’t go. I still wrote the story, though.

So, now I’m writing about the Highlands, and it’s another story of second chances for both characters, a woman in her late eighties who used to be a chorus girl in London in the 1950s, and a woman who is on holiday near Loch Ness, who is almost sixty, independent  and rootless. The characters’ lives intertwine and their ultimate destinies come from their interdependence.

I’m writing chapter sixteen already, thirty-eight thousand words in, and I’m enjoying the characters and their story. The time line is from August until January: the setting is so important as the Scottish backdrop changes dramatically during this time: the vibrant colours and the cooling temperatures are all intertwined with the action.

I don’t do spoilers but, interestingly, both characters’ journeys are parallel, in terms of love, loss and self-discovery. The fifty-nine-year-old character isn’t looking for what she finds: she’s happy enough as she is. The eighty-eight-year-old is lonely and lives her life in the past, immersed in memories, but the present brings both women surprises. Of course, events change both characters’ outlooks, expectations, and they both discover a new chance, although not necessarily with similar outcomes.

One thing I love about being over a third of the way through a novel is that it will still surprise me and it will still change as I write it. The novel I want to write will develop considerably from my current plans and it will be improved by the end – if not, I’d file it away and forget it. I have a structure, a plan, but it’s not set in stone. My ideas are changing already. I know how it will probably end for one character and for the other, there are several options.

In terms of the story’s timeline, we’re well into September as I write. There has already been sunshine, mist, a thunderstorm, rain. In October, there will be a balmy trip to the Isle of Skye. November will bring autumn leaves, deer frolicking in darkness. In December, there will be ice, snow-capped mountains. I’m looking forward to writing about Christmas and Hogmanay.

I expect to finish writing this story in October, although I’ll walk away at intervals and come back to the story afresh, to check if it works. Then, when it’s finished, I’ll leave it for a fortnight, then read it through again and decide what needs to be changed and developed. A week or two after that, I’ll give it a thorough edit, then another. I still won’t be finished with it as a story. Some things will be wriggling in the back of my mind: inconsistencies: the need to develop a scene or a character some more; an idea which can be improved or altered to make the whole thing more cohesive. I have to walk away and think, then come back.

I’m so glad I enjoy working this way, with ideas and a loose plan in place but also ready to fly by the seat of my pants and realise new ideas: I have several friends who are painters, poets and artists, and I’m often aware of how similar our working pattern is. We sketch stuff in, rub it out, improve it, stand back, make alterations, paint over, fuss over details, cross out and then fill in the spaces with colour. It’s great fun to see how something develops, but only when I’m confident that it works.

Of course, what makes it ‘work’ or not is based on a complicated journey and many ports of call. It takes time for a novel to change and develop before I’m happy; I ask reliable friends to read it as I progress and I request feedback. I have an agent and editors whom I trust, who will tell me honestly if something needs adjusting, from a character to a simple phrase. There’s a lot of work by a team of people before a novel reaches the reader. And when it does, of course, that is the ultimate test we writers all hope to pass.

Scotland Loch Ness

The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsley Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

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