I've set up this blog so that all my friends, relations and colleagues in the world of writing can keep up to speed with what I'm doing - from now on, I'll never have to say sorry for not keeping in touch.

Or anyway, that's the plan.

So do please link up with me on Facebook and Twitter - https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 and https://twitter.com/majanovelist

You can find my novels as digital downloads on Apple iTunes, Kobo, Kindle and Nook, and most are available as print paperbacks, too.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Chatting to novelist Gilli Allan

It's always a great pleasure to chat to Gilli Allan and to hear about what is going on in her writing life. This week the paperback edition of her novel Buried Treasure is published. 

I think you will agree that it has a gorgeous cover! It suggests straight away that this novel will feature an archaeological excavation and its after-effects. Look at that golden S in Treasure - isn't it a lovely artistic touch? 

Gilli's novel isn't just about digging up the past. As she explains in her own blog: 

'Buried Treasure is less about material treasure (or even archaeology) than it is about the damage that burying the past can inflict on the present.  It is easier to suppress hurt and humiliation, and erect barriers against the world. It is only by trusting again, and exposing your mistakes to the light, that you can rediscover the best of yourself.'

But how did Gilli go about researching a novel involving archaeology? She got her hands dirty by having a go herself, of course. As it turned out, her published novel features more desk archaeology than actual digging in the mud. But she still found getting some practical experience of field archaeology was very well worth while. 

This is what happened on her day at a dig. 

A Fine Day’s Digging

'I had just begun to write Buried Treasure. Though it had no title, barely any plot, and only the sketchiest of characters, what I did have was a theme – archaeology, and an elevator pitch: Educating Rita meets Time Team!  So, in the summer, a couple of years ago, my husband and I travelled from Gloucestershire where we live, to East Sussex. “Fun” was not the only reason we made the trip to stay with my sister, Jan and her husband.

'Through the Sussex School of Archaeology, Jan is in touch with what’s going on in her locality. I wanted to get a hands-on feel for the practicalities of field archaeology. She identified a day-long introductory course called Excavation Techniques for Beginners sited at the Plumpton Roman Villa Excavations. It sounded perfect and we both signed up for it.

'Jan, who has experience of digs, stressed that the work can be very hard. “Knackering” is the precise term used. No longer in the first flush of youth, I began to worry how well I would cope. The weather was another concern.  This is England, after all, and the prospect of trying to excavate heavy, soaked earth, hampered by wet clothes, was unappealing.  Nor was its opposite - getting scorched.  As I also assumed there’d be little prospect of actually finding anything (they’d not set loose a bunch of amateurs on an area likely to give up many, if any, treasures - would they?)  I imagined myself wet, muddy, exhausted and in pain, scrabbling waist deep in a barren trench.  

When the day came it was a sunhat I needed.

'A corner of the large site, covered in tarpaulins, had been thoroughly excavated the year before.  Over the great majority of the remaining area, only the surface turf had been removed. There were about ten of us and, after an overview of the project and a demonstration of the techniques we were to employ, we divided into pairs and a strip was allocated to each, well away from the older excavations, or the patterns on the surface of the site which marked the outline of the original structure. 

'Each two-man team started a metre or so in from the perimeter worked slowly back towards the edge, keeping in line with the other teams.  Correctly used it’s amazing how delicate you can be with a mattock! The loosened earth was examined and anything that looked interesting was put in a tray, and in due course shown to the team leader. The rest was tipped into a bucket, which had to be regularly emptied on to the already impressive spoil heap built up from the scalping of the turf and from the earlier excavations.

'I was the mattock wielder; my sister was the collector and identifier, before we changed places. My expectations of finding anything, other than soil, stones, and worms were low, but, from the dislodged material of my very first mattock stroke, Jan picked out a rim section of a pot. And we weren’t the only ones to unearth objects of interest. All along the line, artefacts were being found - fragments of shell, shards of pottery, tiles and a terracotta material, which looked like brick.

'After a picnic lunch, we were given kneeling mats and archaeological trowels (like a small plasterer's trowel) and we went back to our places. Side by side, all the pairs worked backwards again, but this time gently scraping, then brushing, another layer of earth from the surface.  And the finds kept coming.

'None of our discoveries were larger than the palm of my hand, and most were far smaller. By the end of our time at the dig, we had penetrated the surface by no more than around five centimetres, so it was evident there was far more still to be found in this area of the site.

'At the end of the day, Jan and I had to walk away from our own strip leaving a tile with a ridge along one edge, as well as various bits of brick, protruding tantalisingly from the ground.'

Thursday, May 21, 2020

I'm on the main stage at the ChocRubyFestival today!

Hello Readers

Today, it's my turn to be on the main stage of the #ChocRubyFestival, an online event for Choc Lit and Ruby authors to connect with readers.

I'm talking about my favourite among my Choc Lit and Ruby novels, which is Magic Sometimes Happens. There's a chance to win a paperback of the book, too.

It's the story of two unlikely lovers. Patrick Riley is a married American scientist and father of two small children whose personal life is in turmoil. Rosie Denham is a single British PR consultant who is trying to forgive herself for messing up her life in just about every possible way.

When I'm writing fiction I always like to give my characters their own backstories, and here is one I wrote for Rosie. It's set while she was working in Paris, a year or two before she met Patrick. She had fun time there, particularly on one sunny summer day! How did she end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower?

You can find out in this story.

One Last Dance

It was early morning.
Soon enough, the summer sun would glare and stifle, turning all the buildings blinding white and making everybody tired and cross before the day had even started. But right now Paris was pale grey, enchanted and washed by cool, pure light – an ethereal city, just made for ghosts and lovers.
‘Look where you’re going, can’t you?’ Rosie Denham cried, alarmed.
But he wasn’t looking and, as she and the man collided, as his very large and very expensive-looking suitcase shot out of his hand and hit a bollard, she stared down in horror at the cigarette ash that had landed on her new white linen dress and scorched a big grey burn mark in a very prominent place.
‘It’s the first time I’ve worn this dress!’ she added furiously.
‘Then may I suggest that it’s the last?’ The dropper of the ash, a thirty-something Frenchman, smiled a sardonic but disarming smile. ‘You’re a very attractive woman, mademoiselle, but creased linen isn’t a great look on anyone. Why don’t you donate that horror to the nearest bakery? It would make a perfect sack for flour.’
‘Do you always act like this is public?’ demanded Rosie, still incensed.
Or rather, even more incensed.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said the Frenchman, still smiling crookedly. ‘Whatever can you mean?’
‘I mean by knocking people flying, ruining their clothes, and then insulting them?’
‘Only when they’re gorgeous and you’re absolutely ravishing.’ The Frenchman handed Rosie two of the bags of files and samples that she’d dropped. ‘What are you doing for dinner this evening?’
‘I – I’m meeting somebody,’ she lied. ‘We’re going dancing.’
‘What a pity,’ said the man. ‘You and I – we could have had some fun.’
‘I shall make sure I have some fun, and what’s more my boyfriend doesn’t smoke. So my clothing shouldn’t meet with any accidents.’
She scooped up all the other bags she’d dropped and hurried on, feeling slightly smug that she had managed to put someone down in idiomatic French.
But that white linen dress had cost a bomb, so mostly she was livid.
She strode on down the Boulevard de Magenta, still cross – but paradoxically somehow almost flattered by the man’s attention, by the way he’d told her she was ravissante
What? She shook herself. What was she thinking, letting herself be flattered by a man who’d burnt a hole in her best dress, was she a fifties throwback, a simpering Stepford spinster?

‘What’s the matter, Rosie?’ asked her colleague Juliet as Rosie dumped her carrier bags, then slumped into her office chair and started scrolling through her emails. ‘Why do you look as if you’ve lost a hundred Euro note and found a centime? You’ve – hey, look at your dress! What have you done?’
‘Some halfwit running to the Gare du Nord flicked fag ash over me. I hope he missed his train.’
‘What was he like?’
‘What do you mean, what was he like?’
‘Old, young, gorgeous, hideous, hot, wouldn’t-touch-him-with-a-disinfected-bargepole-minging?’
‘Thirtyish, not bad looking, I suppose – but terminally arrogant, presumptuous and stupid. He was clearly running to catch a train but asked what I was doing for dinner this evening’
‘Do you have anything else to wear today?’
‘Yes, of course, don’t worry. I always keep a perfect capsule wardrobe in the stationery cupboard.’
‘Do you really?’
‘No, of course I don’t. I’ll have to see my clients dressed in this.’
‘They’re going to think you’re Joan of Arc, stepped out of the bonfire for a moment, on her break.’

The Paris office of the PR company for which Juliet and Rosie worked was doing really well, finding excellent new clients every day, and soon Rosie found that she was calming down. The burn mark on her dress was not so bad and, if she looked at it a certain way, perhaps in time she would convince herself all those grey dots were actually a pattern?
She collected up the papers she would need to see a client.
Then her mobile rang. She didn’t recognise the number. But perhaps she ought to take the call? It might be a new client.
‘We must discuss where we could meet for dinner,’ said the Frenchman.
‘How did you get my number?’
‘You dropped a business card as you rushed off.’
‘It’s like I said: I’m meeting someone.’
‘Yes, of course: it’s me.’
‘It won’t be you.’
‘I think it should be, mademoiselle. When you dropped your business card you dropped your debit card and your three credit cards as well.’
Rosie glanced in her handbag which was sitting on her desk. The zippered section where she kept her cards was gaping open, empty.
‘Did you have somewhere in particular in mind for dinner?’ she asked the Frenchman.
‘The Jules Verne,’ he replied. ‘I’ve made a reservation – half past eight. Dress code casual, but no shorts or trainers, and definitely not burnt.’
‘The Jules Verne?’ said Rosie. ‘You mean the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower? That’s rather chavvy-tourist, isn’t it?’
‘You’re a chavvy-tourist, aren’t you?’ said the man. ‘You’re British, anyway. I guess you’d qualify.’
‘I thought you had to book up the Jules Verne weeks or months ahead?’
‘I have connections. So – I’ll see you later.’

‘You have to go to the Jules Verne,’ said Juliet.
‘Yes, I want my cards back.’
‘You want to see him, too.’
‘I want my cards back, end of story.’
‘Why are you blushing, then?’

At six o’clock, Rosie dashed back home to her apartment and changed into a new black dress that wouldn’t show the marks if her companion happened to flick ash again.
‘Good evening,’ said the Frenchman.
‘Good evening,’ Rosie said, and checked his hands – no rings.
‘I see you’ve made an effort,’ he continued.
‘What exactly is your problem?’ she demanded crossly.
‘It’s you who has the problem, isn’t it? Or who is confused? You didn’t want to meet me here for dinner. But suddenly here you are in the Jules Verne.’
‘I want my cards back.’
‘Yes, of course.’ The Frenchman smiled and handed her the cards. ‘So now, mademoiselle, I’m sure you’ll need to dash – isn’t that what you British say?’
‘Now I’m here, I might as well have dinner.’ Rosie couldn’t believe she’d just said that, couldn’t quite believe that, actually, she didn’t want to leave. ‘May I know your name?’
‘It’s Jacques-Marie de Bruton.’
‘Oh?’ She looked at him suspiciously. ‘Bruton doesn’t sound very French to me. It’s a town in Somerset.’
‘Why do you suppose I must be French? Ah, here comes the maître d’ – our table must be ready.’
The first course was delicious. So was the second course. The wines were excellent, too. As the waiter brought dessert, she realised she must be slightly drunk. But only slightly, she decided – not enough to make her vulnerable.
‘This is some small recompense for ruining your dress.’ Jacques handed her a thick, white envelope containing a five hundred Euro note.
It had to be a fake.
Or it was genuine, and he must be a criminal, because only criminals used five hundred Euro notes. She’d read about it in a magazine.
Whatever, he could keep it.
She gave it back to him.
‘I can afford to buy another dress,’ she said.
Dessert was great, the service fine, the view magnificent. Jacques behaved impeccably, did nothing she could have laughed about with Juliet tomorrow. There was no silly hand-kissing, no flirty-comedy-Frenchman stuff at all.
Perhaps he was from Somerset?
Anyway, he met her gaze, and listened with attention, and asked occasional but intelligent questions as she talked about herself, her PR work, her friends, her life in Paris.
A man who listened while she talked about herself! She could hardly credit it – weren’t most men interested solely in themselves?
‘What do you do?’ she asked him.
‘I’m in business,’ he replied.
‘What kind of business?’
‘As is the case with everyone in business, I supply demand.’ Jacques smiled his disarming smile. ‘I export a carefully-chosen range of small but rather valuable things.’
‘What kinds of things?’
‘It varies, mademoiselle. It depends on what my clients want or need. So every day is different. But let’s hear more of you. Do you enjoy adventures? Do you respond to challenges? Do you like to travel?’
‘Yes, I suppose I do.’
‘So if you could go anywhere in the whole world, which country would you choose?’
‘I’ve always wanted to see the Iguazu Falls in South America. So I’d like to go to Argentina. Or are they in Brazil?’
‘I believe Brazil. Yes, I would like to see them, too – so that’s where I shall take you.’
‘When, tomorrow?’ Rosie asked him, laughing.
‘Why wait until tomorrow, mademoiselle? Why don’t we go tonight?’

As the evening darkened into velvet night, a million lights came on all over Paris and made the view even more magical.
This whole thing is mad, thought Rosie, and I must be mad as well, to be sitting here in the Jules Verne with this peculiar man.
He’s obviously a criminal, a people-trafficker, a member of a drugs cartel who’s on his holidays. He’ll slip something in my coffee and I’ll wake up bound and gagged in the hold of someone’s private plane.
I wonder what it would be like to kiss him?
He’s very attractive, after all. He’s calm and self-contained – mysterious. But I believe he could be passionate. I think he could be dangerous…
What are you – an idiot?
She decided she’d skip coffee and get out while she could.
She stumbled to her feet. The room spun wildly. Perhaps he’d drugged the wine? ‘Th-thank you for a very pleasant evening,’ she began, desperately looking for the maître d’ or for a passing waiter she could ask to call a cab.
‘It’s not over yet,’ said Jacques. ‘We’re going to South America, don’t forget.’
‘We are not going to South America!’
‘You seem very sure of that.’
‘Of course I’m sure!’
‘But you will change your mind and, in the meantime, I wish to show you something.’
‘What kind of something?’
‘It’s a very famous sight of Paris.’
‘It’s not the Moulin Rouge?’
‘Of course it’s not the Moulin Rouge.’

The boat was tied up at the quay. A small but pretty town boat of the kind that she had seen in Venice, it had an outboard motor and fat, red leather seats.
She thought: you know you’ve had far too much wine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing this. You’d be in a cab on your way home.
Hey, but listen, said her other self. This is a challenge, an adventure, isn’t it? You know you love adventures. The water won’t be really cold in June. So, if he tries anything, you can just jump overboard and swim.

He stopped the boat outside the Louvre Museum.
‘I think it’s closed,’ she said.
‘It’s never closed to me.’ He helped her get out of the boat and climb on to the jetty. ‘They whisper that I pass through walls, that I’m a shape-shifter, a necromancer, that I can make myself invisible. The truth is rather more prosaic. I am the king of codes, the lord of padlocks.’
Rosie knew she must be dreaming now. She’d wake up in a moment and find herself tucked up in her own bed, in her bijou apartment seven floors up under the sloping roof that leaked whenever it rained.
He led her through the dim-lit galleries where works of art lay slumbering.
It seemed to Rosie the subjects of the portraits and the statues were themselves asleep, dozing heavy-lidded until the morning came.
‘It’s fairyland,’ she whispered.
‘You approve?’
‘I do.’ She looked at him and frowned. ‘But surely we can’t be alone? There must be security men around, or even guard dogs?
‘There are no guard dogs in the Louvre. As for the security men – they’re likely to be drowsing in their office, failing to watch the screens. Mademoiselle, as I recall, you like to dance?’
‘Yes, but not that bopping, shuffling stuff most people do. The waltz, the tango, foxtrot – they’re my thing. I’m a big fan of Strictly.’
‘What is Strictly?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, and yes, I like to dance.’
As Jacques took her in his arms, Rosie became aware of shadows looming, circling them.
But she ignored the shadows.
This was all a dream, so shadows couldn’t hurt them, could they?
Jacques led her through a waltz, not showily but expertly, humming something that she didn’t recognise, but it was sweet, melodious.
Then kissed her slowly, perfectly.
Rosie kissed him back. She found she wanted to be kissed for all eternity and she never wanted to stop dancing.
The shadows grew, came closer.
They resolved themselves into four men in leather jackets, jeans and trainers.
They could not be anything but cops.
They stood there silent, watching.
‘Just keep dancing,’ murmured Jacques, and kissed her cheek.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I have not yet decided.’
‘You mean you’ve got a gun, a knife?’
‘Mademoiselle, you watch too many movies.’
‘What was in that suitcase you were carrying this morning?’
‘The most exquisite Leonardo, the glory of this place – did you not see the headlines all over social media today?’
‘You stole the Mona Lisa?’ Rosie pulled back and stared at him, astonished. ‘Why are you here again, then? Do you have it rolled up in your trouser pocket? Do you want to put it back?’
‘These things would not be possible, ma chère. The work is painted on a wooden panel. I do not intend to put it back. My client would be most upset. No, I was thinking we could take another little something to Brazil.’
‘Jacques, it’s been a lovely evening. I’ve enjoyed myself. But I’m not going with you to Brazil.’
‘But you must. You said you love a challenge, an adventure – ’
‘That’s enough, de Bruton.’
The four policemen formed a circle round them.
‘It’s over,’ said Policeman One.
‘I know,’ said Jacques.
‘Why you here, de Bruton?’ demanded Policeman Two.
‘Why aren’t you in Morocco, the Ukraine, the Congo?’ asked Policeman Three.
‘There must be a thousand places where the most notorious art thief in the whole of France could hide? Where it would be impossible to find you?’
‘Yes indeed, a hundred thousand places.’
‘So why – ’
‘This morning, I lost something very precious. How could I leave Paris, let alone leave France, without it?’ Jacques de Bruton shrugged a Gallic shrug and raised his hands, revealing that he wasn’t armed.
‘You mean you hung around to pinch more stuff,’ said Policeman Four. ‘You might have got away with it if you had been here an hour earlier.’
‘But you see we had a tip-off from this lady’s friend.’
‘She told us mademoiselle was having dinner with somebody suspicious.’
‘Someone with a suitcase who’d been racing to the Gare du Nord.’
‘So we put two and two together.’
‘Well, of course you did,’ said Jacques.
‘You’re a fool, de Bruton. You could have been in Moscow, Madrid or Monte Carlo hours ago.’

‘Yes, perhaps you’re right. But how could I resist the opportunity to see my private kingdom one last time? To share it with the lady who today made me look like an amateur? Who made off with my heart?’

UK residents can win a signed paperback of Magic Sometimes Happens by leaving me a direct message on my Facebook or Twitter pages -  https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 or https://twitter.com/majanovelist - or by posting a comment here. 

I'll choose a winner at random, message the winner, and send you the book to add to your summer reading pile. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Catching up with the novelist Valerie Holmes

It was a great pleasure to catch up with Valerie again and to hear about her latest work.

But first, a bit of background! Valerie’s first breakthrough into print came when she won Writing Magazine’s Annual Ghost Story Competition back in 2002. Over forty novellas later, she is currently writing The Yorkshire Saga Series for Sapere Books and is about to celebrate the publication of the fourth in the series, which is In Sickness and In Health and comes out on 13th April.

The series of stand-alone, fast-paced adventures is set in the early nineteenth century: a time of dramatic social change at home as the wars dragged on in France. With story-lines including smuggling, espionage and press-gangs, the result is books packed with the mounting dramas facing each hero and heroine.

Research, explains Valerie, is the key to writing convincing historical fiction. From the ancient trods that cross the moors to the history of the various halls and abbeys that dot the region, North Yorkshire makes for an atmospheric and beautiful setting. 
She loves the challenge of creating strong characters and a sense of place whilst working within the limitations of the characters' understanding of life within that era, and keeping things accessible to a modern reader: superstition, religion, tradition, travel and folklore were important, and people's  roles/places in society were so much more limited than they are today.
Moving forward, Valerie has embraced the digital world as her North Riding novellas are now available as eBooks. Although she would hate to see traditionally-published books replaced completely, eBooks are convenient, hygienic and space efficient, although the feel of a good book can never be replaced.
Breaking away from the romance of the past, the suspenseful psychological thriller Roses are Dead is also now available as an eBook and attracting 5* reader reviews.

Valerie is an experienced creative writing tutor, loving the challenge of supporting and encouraging as-yet-unpublished writers to move toward attaining their writing goals, as well as developing the skills of more established writers. 
You can contact Valerie through her website ValerieHolmesAuthor.com for further details of the services she offers guaranteeing constructive, helpful, professional feedback.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Short Stories Big Prizes

One of the UK's longest-established writing groups, Exeter Writers, runs an annual short story competition for which the first prize is £700 - quite a gratifying return on 3,000 words.

We also offer second and third prizes, and a special cash prize for an author who lives in Devon.

The closing date is 28 February 2020.

Check out our website for details of how to enter - and good luck!


Friday, January 3, 2020

Exeter Novel Prize

It's that time of year again! All the hundreds of entries have been safely received, and also lots of requests for reports on these submissions.

This means the CreativeWritingMatters team of Sophie Duffy, Cathie Hartigan and myself will be reading day and night in order to find those sparkling literary diamonds we know will be there!

This year, we've received entries from everywhere in the world - from countries large and small, countries where the official language is English and countries where it's not, but where it is clearly well taught in schools and universities.

Who will be our winner this year? We don't know yet!

Who has won in the past? Last year, our winner was Rebecca Kelly.

Twitter @holymoly1000

You can check out our website to learn more about our previous winners:  www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk.

Good luck to all the entrants this time! We're looking forward to finding out what you have sent us for our reading pleasure.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Merry Christmas and...

Hello, all my friends and relations who read this blog - thank you for checking in now and again. It's always lovely to hear from you!

I hope everyone I know in real life, and also virtually on Facebook and Twitter, had a calm and peaceful Christmas Day and will enjoy the rest of the holidays. I spent yesterday with my extended family and had a great time. Oh look, that big box of chocolates is nearly empty. How did that happen?

I'm guessing we're set for a scary ride as we head into 2020. So hold on tight, look after those dear to you, and let's hope we all manage come through, reaching those promised Sunlit Uplands well before the year is out.

Let's also remember that Christmas celebrates the birth of a refugee Jewish baby to a young Palestinian mother who had to make the dangerous journey into Egypt in order to keep him safe from Herod's anger, and let's try to follow this baby's teachings as we go on with our own daily lives.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Notes from the Lost - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her latest novel

It is my great pleasure to welcome fellow novelist Cathie Hartigan as my guest today. 

It's also publication day for her latest novel Notes from the Lost, a wonderful story set in Italy and parts of the UK, especially Exeter and London, two cities she knows very well.

Cathie, please tell us something about how you came to write this book?

Thank you so much, Margaret, for inviting me on to your blog.

A hessian shopping bag would not normally be a source of inspiration for a novel, but the unassuming outside disguised what it contained. I knew it was treasure. I’d had a conversation with a friend about Italy in WW2. He’d mentioned that his father had been a prisoner for a while, but had managed to escape into the mountains by jumping from the train that was taking him to Germany.

I was immediately interested. What happened next? It was winter and he was hardly kitted out for a hike through inhospitable mountains behind enemy lines. What I heard was a moving story of courage and humanity in the face of grave danger. Then he told me his father had written about his experience. There were letters, journals and photographs, and yes, of course I was welcome to have a look. They were in the hessian bag.

I spent a long time reading Captain Wright’s journals. He had the neatest and smallest writing I’ve ever seen, and my magnifying glass was indispensable. Whilst his writing was inspirational, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to write a faithful account of his experience. In Notes from the Lost I don’t attempt to comment on the details of the surrounding battles or the wider war. This is a small scale story in a civilian community. There were many men in Italy during the war, and such was the confusion that many escaped. I was also heavily influenced by the stories of servicemen who had been helped (and still are) by the Blind Veterans UK charity. My sister is a volunteer in the archive department, and I was moved by many of their tales.

A novel, though, is a thing of many parts and I was keen to write a dual narrative story in a similar vein to my previous novel, Secret of the Song. I’ve always liked a bit of a mystery and stories full of secrets, so I decided to give my contemporary heroine a trail to follow. I did this by having her discover various items that lead to the truth about what happened in the past. The first of which is the sheet music copy of an old song. It’s a comic song, the sort popular in the thirties, with a black and white studio portrait of the singer on the front.  I studied music as a student, and it was my profession for many years, so it comes quite naturally to populate my stories with musicians. They’re people first and foremost though, and for my heroine a relationship is definitely on the cards.

I had a wonderful, and at times emotionally challenging, time writing Notes from the Lost, but I hope my appreciation for what happened all those years ago shines through.

 See the photograph of Captain Wright and his notebooks above? As Cathie tells us, what happened to him was the initial inspiration for Alfie's moving and engaging story. 

Here's the opening of the novel.

1 The Italian Apennines, 1943

‘Get your kit, Alfie.’
Frank’s voice hisses in the dark, so close I can feel the heat of his breath on my ear.
Goodbye dreams of singing to my darling Dottie at Covent Garden. While I’ve been having forty winks, he’s done it. Smashed through the bolt with the smuggled pickaxe. I go to stand, but the swaying and juddering of the cattle truck is so violent, we end up half crawling and half thrown towards the open door.
Cold mountain air rips into every corner and down all the crevices between cloth and skin. Marvellous. I want to jump now, but the train’s going too fast. What’s the use of a broken neck? We’re in trees here, but the line of the ridge is visible ahead. I see it for a moment, before clouds smudge the bright moon. The air is fresh, but there’s something else that raises the hairs on my arms.
Out there, the big outdoors, forest, mountain, the inky sky of a million stars, it all means one thing – freedom. At last, at long, long last.
Frank’s on look out. He’s the best of us four here. My school chum, a big man now, surprising seeing as how Dottie’s so slight. Siblings mostly look alike but not those two, although when they’re smiling you can see it. Trustworthy, quiet, Frank has a steady hand and enough grit to deal with mines. The train slows. Yes? If it’s a bend, we’ll go. Frank tenses, and so do I. Is this it? Is it? But instead of jumping he pushes me back.
‘Wait,’ he says. ‘Lights.’
The train slows even more. Yes, lights and a bloomin’ station. Frank’s pulling on the door trying to close it, grunting with the effort.
It’s jammed.
The wagon jolts and we nearly catapult outside there and then. We hang on to each other, then crouch on our knees. There’s something in the door runner. It feels like lumpy sand, breaking into ever-smaller pieces when you get hold of it.
‘Bloody Jerry biscuits!’
Of course, Frank’s right. Before we left Sulmona, a handful had been thrown in. Our rations for the journey to Germany. We scrape at it like madmen.
Behind us, Ted and Stan are quiet, but pushing the door with all their might. It jerks forward a couple of inches, but still won’t close. If it’s seen open, we’re done for.
The end of the platform goes by. Flashes strafe us: light, dark, light, then mercifully darkness again. We lie flat as the train whines to a halt. Over the distant engine rumble, I can hear voices further down the platform. Is this an inspection? A signal stop? This isn’t a passenger train. Nobody boards by choice.
I close my eyes, and should pray but, when an owl hoots high in the trees, all I can think of is that poem we had to learn at school, about stopping at a station in the middle of nowhere and hearing all the birds of England. Dear God, what I’d do to be there.
Heavy boots rattle the planks of the platform. Someone’s coming.
One of the others lying nose down in that stinking space has better luck with the praying. Not two yards away, the footsteps stop, there’s silence and next thing I hear something familiar. By the sounds of the splashing, the railway bank falls steeply away to leafy trees or bushes. He’s humming too, a dance tune, while we lie like corpses. I’d not be him for all the tea in China, but in another time and place that could be me.
There’s a shout from the other end of the platform.
‘Beeile dich!’
‘Ja! Ich komme.’
The guard swears too softly for anyone but us to hear, but he’s done anyway, and sets off back down the platform. None of us move. Even the Germans don’t stop a train just to go for a piss. Another door slides open and then closes smoothly on its runners. Probably more chaps like us have been loaded on. With a juddering clanking jerk, we move forward.
Once the station and village buildings give way to forest, we make ready again. The door has no problem with opening. Relax and roll, I murmur under my breath. Don’t fuck up. Just jump. No problem.
My nerves jangle. Back at the Chieti camp, escape was about tunnelling, where the dark is a solid thing. Here there’s all the space in the whole wide world. Relax and roll. Don’t get hurt.
Frank keeps look out. I catch his expression in the moonlight. Jaw clenched, he’s frowning. There’s a thinning of the trees.
‘Go. Go!’ he barks. And they do. Ted and Stan. One, two – like parachuting from a plane.
Relax and roll, relax and roll.
‘See you soon, Alfie.’ Frank’s hand on my shoulder is reassuring, but I’m the senior officer here.
I nod and give him a gentle push. He disappears into the dark.
Now me.
Relax and roll. Go, go. Now!
You tell yourself these things, but of course what actually happens is in the lap of the gods. It’s not home, or Dottie or grand thoughts of freedom in my mind. Bill Flack is though. I didn’t know him well, but he played the harmonica like a demon. He was shot dead leaping from a truck yesterday. That’s what I’m thinking when I jump.

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