I was born in Surrey, England and went to Godalming County Grammar School. From an early age, I was always writing and still have some of my stories from when I was seven years old - the spellings are lovely! At age ten, I wrote my first full-length book, Amber. It was the story of a horse - Black Beauty was my favourite book at the time! I sent it to a publisher, and months later I received my first, albeit very kind, rejection letter. I continued writing pony books until school exams demanded more of my attention and I had to put down my pen.
College and various jobs followed. I married, moved to Sussex and stayed at home with my daughter whilst running my own company, looking after five horses, sheep, goats, a brood of rescued hens, two dogs, a cat and a rabbit. So little time for writing.
When I decided to write No One Must Know, it was one of those 'I used to do that' moments - I'm sure some of you know what I mean.
I now live in Devon and when I'm not writing I enjoy gardening, walking the surrounding countryside and coastlines with my husband and of course, researching for my books, and reading.
1. When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always written and still have some stories I wrote when I was seven – the spellings are lovely! I wrote my first book when I was ten. It was the story of a horse called Amber – Black Beauty was my favourite book at the time. I received my first rejection letter for that, albeit very kind.
2. How do you begin your stories? A character? A plot idea? A setting?
NO ONE MUST KNOW is Book 1 of the Chiddleigh Saga, which follows the fortunes of the Chiddleigh family over the centuries. It’s based on my own Devon family, so it had to be the setting first.
Then I thought about the plot. The story begins in 1330 because that’s the earliest record of my family that I have. I wanted to make the point of how one unforeseen incident can affect so many lives which is the heart of the book.
I also wanted to show the social injustices of that time and the role women played. That’s where Lady Joan and Annie come in. Lady Joan was ahead of her time and Annie a victim of her peasant class.
3. Let’s talk about your book No One Must Know. Why historical fiction?
I love reading historical fiction because it adds another layer to a book. As a reader, you get a fascinating insight into the past alongside a good story whether it be drama, mystery/murder or court intrigue. If I’d had historical fiction to read in school instead of dry old history books, I’d have done better!
NO ONE MUST KNOW came about by accident. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s stories of his days on the farm and about our Devon roots. Years later, my husband, Bill, and I moved to Devon and I began researching my family history.
I wanted to learn about the characters behind the facts and so I visited some of the villages where they lived and worked. I saw their cottages and sat under the same oak tree where, in the 19th century, men would wait after church for their pay – if they didn’t attend church they didn’t get paid! I visited cemeteries and found the headstones of my ancestors. It was a surreal moment knowing I was walking the same paths they had walked.
At that time, I had no thoughts of writing a book but I remember coming across a record that made me think. I don’t want to give too much away but there was one incident in the 1840s concerning a young woman. She had secured a good position working in the house for a pharmacist in Exeter. She was accused of larceny, found guilty and sentenced to 14 days in prison.
I could find no trace of her after that. What happened to her? Did she flee in shame? Was she guilty and if so, why did she risk everything?
Then came the lightbulb moment – I could write a book about my family! It was the start of NO ONE MUST KNOW which took me 5 years to write.
4. Tell us about the challenges of writing within the historical fiction genre.
I love researching. I start by getting an overall feel of the period and then look at the details; what did they wear, what did they eat, how did they make candles? The list is endless.
The difficult part of writing historical fiction is keeping the reader immersed in that period. It means having to weave social history into the story whilst not losing pace or clouding the plots. For example, in the book, Annie becomes a herbal healer which enabled me to show their poor understanding of illness and remedies of the time.
Language is particularly difficult. It’s the characters and the story that matter and I didn’t want old language spoiling that for my readers. Many of today's words didn’t exist in medieval times, so I had to check and make judgements. I tried to keep the flavour of speech by using medieval greetings and swearing but I kept the main text to modern English.
5. As for the characters, are they based on any real historical figures?
Sir John did live and he married Joan but research only gives so much and that’s particularly true the further back you go. So whilst the facts are true, the characters are my imagination, although there may be some aspects taken from people I know, but I’m not saying who!
6. Which character is your favourite and why? Which is your least favourite?
Strangely, although he’s a secondary character, Carac’s my favourite. I loved writing him and feel sorry for him. He tries so hard to keep the estate running against all the odds but is caught between his loyalty to Sir John and his affection for Lady Joan. Wise and on the outside looking in, he sees the overall picture with both of them using him to lean on.
My least favourite I suppose has to be Sir John - he’s the bad guy in the book. He’s arrogant, totally selfish, has no empathy for anyone and whilst he acts with the best of intentions, below that cold exterior, he’s gullible and weak. He was satisfying to write and has a few surprises up his sleeve for the reader.
7. Joan has recently married Sir John de Chiddleigh. In order to entice potential readers to read the book, can you tell us more about how they came to be married?
Sir John and Joan’s marriage was arranged when they were very young children which was not unusual at that time. Medieval noble marriages were arranged for each family’s mutual benefit with daughters used as assets to be bartered for titles, land and wealth. Daughters had no say in the matter and often contracts were agreed when they were as young as four or five.
In NO ONE MUST KNOW, Sir John’s father, Sir James, wanted easier access to a port for valuable trading.
Joan’s father was a respected sheep farmer with land just a few miles from the major port of Bristol, not that far from the Chiddleigh estate. Joan was the only surviving child and stood to inherit the entire de Conteigh lands, which would go to her husband.
In exchange, the de Conteighs would have a Lady in their family and could move up the social ladder.
Joan was under no illusion as to why she was marrying Sir John and because of her lower status, she struggled to find her way as Lady of the Manor. And as Sir John told her on more than one occasion, her family was untitled and she was merely a sheep farmer's daughter.
8. This is the first book in the Chiddleigh Saga. How many books are you expecting? What direction do you see future books going?
That’s a tough one because I never know how the book will develop until I’m writing it. Originally I saw the saga as a trilogy but it will be more than that, probably five or six books. I’ve no intention of writing an autobiography so the saga will end with Chud, my grandfather’s story, taking the reader to the 1960s.
Book 2 is well underway and picks up where NO ONE MUST KNOW ends. It follows Thomas’s story, the next Lord de Chiddleigh, and his struggle to know who is and what he wants.
9. What is your favourite colour?
Lime green – it’s so fresh and lively. I once painted my hall and dining room with it. Friends said it was like walking into a can of lime juice! Now I keep it to a few cushions in my study where I write.
10. Would you rather be driving or riding?
Well, I haven’t ridden for a few years but I’d still choose a horse over a car. So much quieter and slower.
11. What is your favourite book to read?
It’s hard to choose because it changes depending on my mood but mostly I go for historical or crime. I love any character-driven book. At the moment it would have to be the Giordana Bruno series of books by S J Parris; the first book is Heresy but in the back of my mind is something different and that’s the Project series by Jude Austin.
12. Who is your hero?
That’s easy – it’s Baloo the bear from Disney’s original animation, The Jungle Book. I just love his attitude. He’s laid back, completely at ease with himself no matter what others think. We should all have a little of that in us.