The real poppy lady


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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


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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!


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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. 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.


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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.



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Ingrid Müller quilt from Germany

Ever since publication of The Forgotten Seamstress, I have been learning more and more about the  work of the thousands of wonderful quilters in the UK. Some of them have used Lynne Edwards’ free pattern on this website to make their own interpretations of Maria’s Quilt. For photos of these beautiful quilts, see Bringing Maria’s Quilt to Life.

Now, to my great excitement, The Forgotten Seamstress has been published in Germany, and I have received news of the first Maria’s Quilt made by a German seamstress. Here it is! I love the vibrant colours – many of them primary – set off by the bold black background. For me it is reminiscent of those wonderful German traditional costumes and other textiles. It feels quite Christmassy! Thank you so much to quilter Ingrid Müller and Wiebke Rossa, senior editor at my publishers Random House, for sending the photo.

Now: a challenge to all you quilters in the United States: The Forgotten Seamstress has been published in your country for some months now, and I still haven’t heard about any American version of Maria’s Quilt! Please get quilting and send me your photos!

Ten things that authors hate to hear


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 I really love meeting readers because they provide insights that I have never considered before.

But sometimes readers – usually unthinkingly – say things which aren’t quite so encouraging. So, as I prepare to embark on another frenetic round of book signings, book talks and other events to publicise the publication of my third novel, The Poppy Factory, I thought I’d record some of the things that, in my short career as a novelist I’ve been told – or overheard – and why it hurts to hear them.

1. I never pay full price for a book.

When did it become a badge of honour to get something as cheaply as possible? The full price for a paperback is around £7.99: the equivalent price of two very small glasses of wine in a bar, a posh starter at a restaurant, a tiny pizza, a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of cheap wine at the supermarket. For the same money, a novel will bring you pleasure for much, much longer than any of these.

2. I never buy real books, I haven’t got room in my house for them

And nor would you have any room for those empty bottles of wine, pizza boxes etc (see above) if you kept them all. Buy a book and then give it away, so that a charity can benefit from reselling it!

3. I don’t have time for reading

But you do have time to watch television, play on social media, have your nails done. Why not divert some of that time to reading – it is soooo much more satisfying.

4. My mum/gran will love this book.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but what is this generational thing? Okay, I am no spring chicken, but that doesn’t mean my books are only for reading by your mum/granny etc.  Many of my characters are in their twenties and thirties.

5. I only read romance/horror/crime fiction

Fair enough, we all have our favourite types of book. But why not break out once in a while and try something different!

6. I love my Kindle

Kindle pic

Yes, okay, so do I. I love it for travelling, to save carrying heavy books. But I never enjoy books that I’ve read in electronic version quite so much, never feel as invested in them, as emotionally engaged, as with a physical book. They are less memorable, not least because you don’t have covers to look at and enjoy when they’re not being read. You can’t flick back and re-read passages that really caught your attention. You can’t check what the character said, two chapters back. Books that I really want to savour I buy in physical form and will often give away afterwards, unless I cannot bear to, for I too have little room on my shelves. Electronic books are really here to stay: they are really convenient and often helpful as bargain basement ‘loss leaders’ to introduce readers to a new author’s books. But I really hope that we will go on loving and valuing physical books too.

7. I only buy books in supermarkets, it’s so convenient

Supermarkets have an important role in bookselling and authors love them because they sell loads of copies, albeit usually at knock-down prices. But we absolutely must support independent booksellers, too. By always buying in supermarkets, you are spelling the death knell for those few local booksellers clinging on in difficult times, whose existence enriches our high streets and our book-reading lives. Supermarkets only stock a limited range of the thousands of books out there, and only new releases, so you are denying yourself that choice and each bookshop closing ultimately reduces the choice for everyone. If you’d like to support independent booksellers sign up to the Books are My Bag campaign.

Books are my bag pic

8. I loved your book so much I lent it to all my friends.

A double-edged sword, this one. It’s great that you loved the book, but I so much wish you had bought copies for all your friends’ birthdays or Christmas presents instead, rather than passing round that single dog-eared copy!

9. Would you read my manuscript?

I love talking to and trying to encourage other writers, but  writing is a full time job for me and there are professional manuscript reading services that would do a much better job.

10 You must be making a fortune, getting all these books published.

Excuse the hollow laugh. The cut-throat discount world of bookselling (see 1, 2, 6, 7, and 8 above) has ensured that 99% of authors these days have to do other jobs to make ends meet. I read somewhere that the average income an author gets these days is £11,000 a year, so we can assume that 50% of authors make less than that and only a tiny handful of very big names (and whose books get made into movies) actually make a ‘fortune’.

NB It goes without saying that none of the above reduces the joy I have in writing, the delight in seeing a book come to reality, and the absolute pleasure of meeting readers. Which is why I will be smiling with genuine pleasure to meet you at any of the events over the next few months!






The view from my writing desk this week


This is the view from the place where I have been writing for the past few days – wild, bleak, and utterly beautiful, on the coast of Suffolk, the easternmost county of England.

In front of me is the grassy marsh, currently covered in brilliant purple sea lavender, then a narrow muddy creek, and then some more marsh, sandier this time and home to countless sky larks, leading to sand dunes and, beyond them, the great grey North Sea. And has it been grey, these past few days! Sometimes it’s been almost impossible to distinguish where the sea ends and the sky begins – the horizon merely a thin faint line in a paler shade of grey than either of the elements above or below it.

But that’s all to the good, because if the sun were shining I would be on the beach, or swimming in the sea, or walking on the marshes, or drinking beer in a pub garden. But when the sun is not shining there is nothing much to do here, so I write*. There isn’t even any distraction in the form of the internet (no broadband in this little house), which is why I have had to wait until returning home before posting this blog.

Well, that’s not entirely true, there are still plenty of distractions. Take the groups of schoolchildren who arrive in mini-buses each day wearing their rain gear and carrying buckets, nets and crabbing lines, excitedly gathering like flocks of birds across the bridges and along the side of the creek, ready to fish out the long-suffering little green crabs so they can be compared for size before being released back into the water. Take the walkers, and the artists, and the many others who love this place and come here for a few hours just to imbibe its calming effects before returning to their busy lives.  It all affords us great people-watching opportunities.

Then there’s the wildlife: like the swallows nesting underneath this hut. It stands on wooden stilts to raise it out of the marsh and to keep it safe from the high tides that regularly swamp the land around us. So beneath my makeshift desk and the wooden floorboards is about eight feet of air and the rafters provide swallows with safe hidden places for nesting. I can hear the little ones cheeping for food as their parents swoop past the window and underneath the hut. Seagulls strut across the roof with their scritchy-scratchy claws, and you can often hear the distinctive piping sound of the oyster catchers striding through the mud at the edge of the creek as they search for dinner. Rabbits hop around the hut undisturbed and oblivious to the fact that we are watching from above.

If it is not actually raining there is the possibility of taking the small rowing boat ferry (it has been going for 500 years) across the river to the fishermen’s huts on the other side, where they sell the catch I hear being brought in early each morning, the deep chugging of the fishing boat engines invading my dreams.  A crab salad for lunch, oh yes.

And when evening comes around and there is any chance of a sunset, we sit on the verandah with a glasses of wine in hands, watching as the sky all around turns spectacular reds, oranges and purples. Here, where the land is so flat, we have 360 degree views, and sunsets can light up the whole dome of sky, not just in the west. Thunderstorms with lightning can be terrifyingly impressive for the same reason.

And so the day passes, here on the Suffolk coast. A little writing, a lot of fresh air (sometimes coming at you at 60 miles an hour), reading, watching the world go by and doing a lot of just thinking. Bliss.

*I am around 30 thousand words into my new novel, provisionally entitled The Master Piece, about silk weaving and illicit romance against the backdrop of religious persecution, mass migration, racial tension and wage riots in 18th century Spitalfields, London.