On researching a very different era….

My first three novels were set in various decades of the 20th century, but for my new novel, The Silk Weaver, I have reached much further back into history, to the 1760s in Spitalfields, East London.

I have so much enjoyed exploring a very different era for this one, but it has certainly set challenges. My research was extensive and great fun: visiting museums and great houses all over the country, and immersing myself in 18th century literature and art. But how did characters think, in those way back times? What did they read? What did they eat, what did they eat with, write with, light their houses with? There was so much for me to learn.

Georgian fashions seem to have changed almost as fast as those of today. I needed to find out what wigs men wore according to their status, their occupation, their age. Would clothes have been tied, hooked or buttoned? How did a middle-society woman get dressed, with all those layers? What make-up would they have worn? Where did they wash, and what with?

Of course you can turn to the experts and there are sources of information to be had in almost every field, but a writer must learn and absorb just the right amount of knowledge to write a convincing novel without themselves becoming an expert. There just isn’t the time.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to research as fully as possible, writing copious notes and then, when you start to write, close your notebook(s). It takes courage but somehow the knowledge sits there in the back of your head and imbues the writing and the atmosphere of the book. If you refer back to your research too frequently it seems to stultify the imaginative part of your brain and you find yourself writing non-fiction.

Over the coming few weeks I’ll be blogging about this process, what I learned and how it influenced the characters and plot of The Silk Weaver. Then, come publication date on 26th January 2017*, you can read it for yourselves.

* Sorry, US readers, you will have to wait a few more months. For you, the book will be coming out under the title The Hidden Thread in May 2017.






The real poppy lady

Anna Guerin

I was thrilled to receive an email from Heather Johnson, whose website Madame Guerin explores in detail the life and work of this remarkable Frenchwoman who, along with the American Moina Michael, ensured that the remembrance poppy has become one of the most powerful symbols of our time.

It was the stories of these two women, along with the work of the real life Poppy Factory, still going in Richmond, near London, today, which inspired my third novel, The Poppy Factory.

It’s great to hear from readers who share my passions and interests!






Getting the blue ribbon right

blue bonnet 2

Who’d have thought that going through copy edits on your manuscript could be fun! But I really enjoy it. For the first time, you see your book through the eyes of a professional copy editor who gets down to the finest details: questioning, pointing out inconsistencies, recommending improvements. And most of the time they are spot on!

I’ve just finished going through the copy edits for my fourth novel, The Silk Weaver (due for publication January 2017) and these are some of the things I have learned:

  • When a hat previously had a blue ribbon on it, you need to make sure that it’s still blue when she wears it next!
  • A chaise is either a horse-drawn carriage or the US term for a chaise longue.
  • Quotes from original English 18th century documents often had spelling now only used in the US eg traveling/travelling, toward/towards, judgment/judgement. Similarly, oatmeal was an 18th century term for what we now call porridge oats but it is still used in the States. It’s fascinating to trace the origins and mutations of language.
  • Do you count the basement of a house as a ‘floor’, eg when describing a house as ‘four storey’?
  • You can’t be too careful with historical detail: dame schools were only set up in Victorian times (not in the 18th century)
  • A woman dressmaker would be called a ‘costumière’ not a costumier.
  • In conversation, would my character say ‘Coz’ or ‘Cousin’?
  • Don’t have your character sit down when she already sat down a paragraph earlier!
  • Question: Should this not be ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, if it’s referring to the book title rather than the concept of the line of beauty? Er, yes, almost certainly, now that you mention it!

In general, what you learn through the process of copy editing is that, however carefully you have checked, you will have made silly mistakes such as repeated words and inconsistencies. So bless all those copy editors (Lorraine, are you listening?) who are there to make sure you get it right!



A long wait, but it will be worth it!

One year today, on 26th January 2017, my next book will be published by Pan Macmillan, my new publishers (in the UK and Commonwealth, US readers may have to wait a little longer).

The Silk Weaver returns to my silk-weaving roots. Nearly 300 years ago, in 1720, my family’s silk weaving company started weaving in a house in Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, East London.

Just a few yards down the road was the house of a famous silk designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite, whose beautiful designs were worn by the aristocracy and royalty both in England and across the Atlantic, in the colony of America. Nearly a thousand of her beautiful, intricate designs are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see illustration).

Did my ancestors know Anna Maria? Did they weave her designs? How did she learn her craft? And how did this single, middle-aged woman become so pre-eminent in a largely male-dominated industry? These are some of the questions to which I have tried to provide fictionalised answers in my new book.

I will post more about it in the months to come, to keep your appetites whetted during the long wait!


Hello Bulgaria!

This is exciting: the cover for The Forgotten Seamstress, as published in Bulgaria. It is very odd indeed not being able to decipher a single word of what I’ve written. So welcome to all my readers in Bulgaria!

For the Love of Silk

WeaverIntrigued by this photo? Anyone who is in the Colchester area this evening (Wednesday, 13th January), come along and find out more. My talk for Lexden History Group is entitled For the Love of Silk and will describe how my family’s remarkable 300 years of weaving silk has influenced my novels. http://www.lexdenhistory.org.uk/program-of-events/4580505205. Just £3 for non members including refreshments. What a deal!

Maria’s Quilt: a journey through time.

Urusla's quiltUrsula's quilt 2

I am so thrilled to receive photographs of another version of Maria’s Quilt from Germany. This beautiful quilt was made by Ursula, and I will let her tell you her story in her own words:

I started making patchwork and quilting about 10 years ago, when my busy life slowed down and I could finally afford to develop a very time consuming passion – quilting. Meanwhile I have retired and apart from my two little dogs quilting became a very important part of my life. 

I got the book last November as a present. I felt attracted to the story of the quilt from different angles: including history and personal life stories into a quilt is a fascinating element. I read about American quilting and found some interesting legends on that. I also liked the way Liz Trenow let the modern protagonist Caroline find out about the history of the quilt and of Maria. It was more like detecting an old story than living and suffering in it.

The story of Maria is the second angle. The history of a now long dead relative of my family who spend years in psychiatric care had quite a few similarities and the book reminded me of her fate. Last but not least I felt inspired to making it because the quilt is so beautiful and I really wanted to make one myself.

Starting with traditional motives and projects, during the last couple of years I mostly tried different freestyle techniques, moving toward art quilts. When I started planning ‘Maria’s Quilt’ one of my quilting friends commented: ‘But that is very traditional.’

I really enjoyed following the instructions for this traditional quilt. With each round I read the part in the book again, where Maria was supposed doing it. Within the application round I changed to embroidered units, using silk yarn and little pearls. I decided to design the units out of elements from ancient motives.

I have given the quilt a subtitle: “Journey through time”, since it starts with ancient design and ends with some bright colours in modern design. I used some elements from Celtic and other ancient designs and looked individually for colour and style that would comply with each piece.

A big hello to all readers in Germany!

The Forgotten Seamstress has just been published in Germany by Random House and they have retitled it The Forgotten Word – which I think is rather lovely.

Here is the cover. Curiously, the building is vaguely reminiscent of some of the more classical frontages of Severalls Hospital, the former mental hospital in my home town on which I based the setting for the book, although I don’t remember the flower beds ever appearing as lush as these!

As I posted last week, already one German quilter has created her own version of Maria’s Quilt. Let’s hope that Lynne Edwards’ pattern is as popular with the quilting folk over there as it has been in the UK and America.