Words and Pictures

I am a writer resident in the UK but originally from Florida.

My novel ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ was published in the US by Sourcebooks Landmark on 9th June.  It has been published with the title SUMMERTIME in the UK by Orion on 15th Jan. 2015. Editions have been published in Norway, Italy and Holland, with France and Germany to follow.  All enquiries about other rights should go to Tina Betts at Andrew Mann.

First chapter of the Audiobook

Pinterest board of photos relating to the book

All photographs on this site are my own, please leave a comment if you are interested in reproduction rights.

Note that the book is published in the US with the title, ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’.

SummertmeNEW UnderDarkSummer_090414C

Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research

Have you ever needed to know how it feels to twist the head off a pheasant? Or skin a squirrel? Have you ever wondered what the slang word for ‘penis’ was in the 1920s? Have you ever been curious about how much rain falls in an average Oklahoma winter?

These and other arcane subjects have all featured in the Prime Writers’ research efforts. Research is not just for writers of historical novels. Unless you’re writing a memoir, some research is necessary—and even for a memoir, some fact-checking will be required. That’s just another name for research. Even if you’re writing about the future, you will want to find out if something is plausible.

Whenever I meet readers, the first question is always, ‘How did you do your research?’ I can see the hope in their eyes, that I’ll say something interesting, like I flew through a hurricane in a biplane to experience its full magnitude. The truth always disappoints. My research for Summertime consisted mostly of sitting in my home office in Wiltshire for several months, reading about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935: non-fiction accounts, survivor stories, history books, contemporaneous documents such as newspapers and government reports, and meteorological studies. Living in England, I relied mostly on my memories of growing up in Florida for the sights, smells, and sounds of my home state. Of course, I also had to find out about the food, drink, clothing, and general living conditions of rural Florida in the 1930s, which mostly involved a lot of time wandering the halls of House Google.

In addition, readers often want to know whether we research first and then write, or whether the two move along in tandem. For me, there is an initial period of pure research, while I get to grips with the real events that I want to dramatise, and work out whether they will make a compelling novel. I love this phase, trawling back through time, hoping to unearth a forgotten gem. It takes months, following multiple dead ends, and when I finally find a good candidate, I read all I can about it. I annotate my research materials, then transcribe the annotations into a notebook organised by subject: food, daily life, interesting linguistic usages, and historical details. From then on, I can mostly refer to the notebook, going back to the print copies and my bank of images for visuals.

But once the writing starts, there is a continuing need for more information, driven by the direction of the story and brought about by unexpected brainwaves. This is how I found myself looking at aninteractive timeline of male genitalia terms through the ages. One of my book 2 settings is a brothel in Key West in 1920, and I needed the authentic slang term for penis from the period. I marvelled at the scholarship that went into this tool (sorry), which begins in the 1360s. The answer to my research question? I’m going with ‘whanger’.

When I shared this with my Prime Writer pals, they were equally fascinated (or maybe bemused), and provided some of their more unusual research methods, all in the service of getting closer to the characters and giving their stories the vital ring of authenticity.

SD Sykes, known for her medieval crime novels, Plague Land and The Butcher Birdgarderobe,  became obsessed with medieval Venetian chimneys. She says, ‘I dragged my husband around Venice looking at external flues – he was enormously impressed!’ Nor could she resist sitting down in a medieval ‘garderobe’ (polite word for toilet), just to know how it felt (see photo).
Both Martine Bailey (An Appetite for Violets, A Penny Heart) and Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) needed real first-hand experience of another kind. For Martine’s ‘culinary gothic’ novels, an intimate knowledge of Georgian cooking is required, which is how she found herself twisting off a dead pheasant’s head before plucking and gutting it (see her in action below). She says, ‘I wanted to get my hands bloody and viscerally feel the 18th century.’ This is why she also took part in re-

Martine pheasant plucking

enactments and visited an historic farm. Claire Fuller’s novel is set in modern times, but in a remote European forest. Her characters must hunt to survive, and squirrel features prominently on the menu. She says, ‘I watched an awful lot of Youtube videos of how to catch wild animals. But I also wanted to find out what it was like to skin and eat one, so my accountant shot me a squirrel (he regards them as pests on his farmland) and put it in his freezer, ready for me to have a go. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on how you look at it), but the time it had defrosted, the poor animal had rotted, so I never got to try.’

Peggy Riley’s first novel, Amity and Sorrow, is about God, sex, and farming. She says, ‘Of the three, I needed to research farming for sure. Through the many years of drafts, I followed the Oklahoma Farm Report, writing through drought, dirt, and disaster. Every morning I got a “Howdy, Neighbor” email and a good dose of Oklahoma through its weather, markets, grain prices and insurance deadlines. It helped me to root my farmer into the land and the farm into my story.’

Sarah Vaughan (The Art of Baking Blind) also loves spending time down on the farm to get close to her subjects. For her second book, out next June and set in Cornwall, she shamelessly flaunted her Cornish agricultural heritage to gain access to the NFU’s inner sanctum. Although she also spent time in libraries, she says, ‘The memory of octogenarian Humphrey Eddy demonstrating how to hand milk a cow; or recalling how he would ride from the age of six to school, across six miles of coastland; or his wife describing the process of killing a pig is still hugely vivid; as is that of Robin Moore mimicking the sound of a bomb whistling down a chimney – or commenting on the gate being blown from its posts when a bomb landed 300 yards away.’

For Alison Layland (Someone Else’s Conflict), it was necessary to do research for the research. She says, ‘I presented the pivotal scene to a barrister friend to get his opinion on the legal aspects of self-defence, manslaughter, or even murder. He’s not a great reader of fiction so I supplied it in the form of a case brief – and as well as his notes, got a loan of several bookmarked legal text books in return. Little of his advice made it to the novel – I never intended it to develop into a courtroom drama and wanted a deliberately open outcome – but I needed to know where my characters stood and it certainly helped.’

Of course, the real danger in all of this wonderful, evocative excavating is that it can become the end rather than the means, a substitute for getting on with the job of writing. It is so easy to justify a few more hours trawling through yet another database of incredibly moving Spanish flu survivor stories, on the basis that it will inform the writing—when really one is enthralled by the material itself.

So it is very important, when one is following leads from source to fascinating source, drifting ever further from the substance of the book, to keep a firm grip on the point of research, and not let it swallow one whole. Now it’s time for me to get back to writing book 2, just as soon as I have studied a few more of these traditional Cuban recipes, and maybe cooked a few of them, just to help me to get into my female protagonist’s persona.

All in the interests of research, you understand.

Character Sketch: Grace’s Story

All authors have to get to know their characters very well in order to tell their stories.  There are lots of ways to do this, but my favourite is the interview.  I get them to tell me about themselves in their own voices, and I write down what they say.  I find it very useful for establishing the intimacy that I need with them.  Sometimes this text will find its way into the book, but often it exists only for me.  I decided to share this one from ‘Summertime’/’Under a Dark Summer Sky’ because it wasn’t used.  Grace is a minor character, she only appears in a couple of scenes, but she’s mother to two major characters:  Selma and Henry.  From Selma we learn that her mother was very hard and distant, bordering on cruel, and I did this interview to find out why.

Grace’s Story

work camp

During the early 1900s, oil millionaire Henry Flagler decided to use his vast wealth to fund his dream of a railway stretching from Miami all the way to Key West.  South Florida at this time was still undeveloped, with little tourism and barely any amenities. Compared to the great cities of the North, it was a primitive, mosquito-ridden jungle frontier. Between Miami and Key West stretched a vast swamp, a sparsely populated wilderness scattered across miles of open sea.  At the far end was Key West, the only outpost that could be described as civilised at this time, thanks to a thriving shipping trade.  ‘Flagler’s Folly’, as the railway became known, was second only to the Panama Canal in ambition, cost, and difficulty.  No one had ever built a railway across the sea.  Yet it was completed in 1912, a year before Flagler’s death, and carried passengers until it was destroyed by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 depicted in ‘Summertime’.

The project attracted thousands of workers, from as far away as the slums of New York, and from the Caribbean islands, drawn by the promise of work with good pay and living conditions. The photo above depicts the camp at Long Key.

Among them was Grace Roberts, who came to the Keys with her husband, Xavier, and their daughter, Selma. This is Grace’s story.

We came to Florida from Haiti so Xavier could work on the overseas railway.  Selma was just little then, but she was fascinated by the men working on the tracks. She worshipped her daddy.  And Xavier was a good man, probably the best man I’ve known.  And I’ve known a lot…too many to count.  When I look back, it seems that was the only time the sun shone on my life.  Everything before and after is in darkness.  But for a short while, with Selma growing fast, Xavier in a steady job, and me working as a laundress for the workers’ camp, we lived well.  Being married meant we got a decent cabin, just a tent raised up on a wooden frame.  But it kept us clear of the sand flies, and at least we didn’t have to live in the floating dormitory with the single men.  The cabin was the best house I ever lived in.  It kept the rain out, and was sheltered by coconut palms.  We had plenty to eat, from Xavier’s pay, and our little vegetable garden.  There was an orange tree that people said was over 100 years old.  It had the sweetest fruit you ever tasted.  Selma made a pet of a big iguana who liked to sun himself on the hot sand by the cabin door.  She called him Jack.   Xavier would take her fishing on his day off.  We were happy.

Not long after, I came to realise that this was something that the universe simply could not tolerate.

I brought the old knowledge with me from Haiti.  Xavier didn’t like it, said we were in the modern world, and the people would look down on us, or worse, if they knew.  But I kept it quiet.  Out back, behind our cabin, I stored my tools inside the rotten trunk of a poisonwood tree because I knew no one but a crazy person would stick their hand in there.  Every day, I prayed to Jesus and Mary, and made offerings to Dunballah, the father, and Erzulie the moon mother, and Papa Guede, loa of death and resurrection.  To keep us safe, and well, and whole.  And it worked, or as well as anything can be expected to.  With the old ways, there’s always a price for the loas’ favours.  Selma did come crying to me one day, her hand all burned by the poisonwood.   She had seen me putting my tools away and gone to investigate. Luckily I could get the gumbo limbo tree sap on her quick, or she’d have been scarred worse.  It was her first lesson in respect for the old ways.

Pretty soon, word got around and women started coming to me, wanting things, the usual kind of things women want:  more babies, less babies, more love, or different love.  Less pain for themselves…more pain for someone else.  I knew Xavier didn’t approve, but in exchange I got extra food and supplies we needed, so he didn’t complain.

Xavier was killed on a cold Tuesday in February.  It had been raining all night. People said the orange groves had ice on them so bad that all the tiny white blossom turned black.  Xavier hated the cold.  He used to say it was his hot blood.  Selma wanted to go with him that day, but Xavier said no, she had to stay home and help me with laundry.  I will always be grateful that she was with me, instead of with her father.

They told me that it was no one’s fault.  Everything was wet and slippery from the rain.  They had to shoo away the gators who were laid on the equipment, trying to get warm.  The men’s hands were numb, so when they fired up the big excavator, which hacked its way through the coral with a thousand iron teeth, the operator lost his grip.  The machine jerked forward, right over my Xavier and two other men.

They cut the motor as fast as they could, but there was not enough left of him to fill a coffin.  I put away my spells that day.

The railway company let me have a wooden cross in the ground for him.  But they took the cabin, told us go back to Haiti.  Even if I had money for passage, I’d never go back there.  They fired me from my job to make us leave, didn’t want lone women around to tempt the workers—even though Miss Hattie Malloy made a good living from her floating cathouse, just off the beach.

So I went to Miss Hattie and offered my services as a laundress.  I put on my karabela dress and my head scarf which Xavier always said made me look like a queen.  Hattie looked me up and down, said nothing for quite a while.  Said she didn’t want Selma around, that she wasn’t running a nursery, but I said I would keep her out of the way, make her invisible.  I laundered plenty of filthy linens in my time, but the linens that come out of a whorehouse take some beating.

For a while, we were safe.  We had only a little room to share, and there wasn’t much food, but it was enough.  Most of the girls stayed drunk on the liquor smuggled in for the workers.  They gave Selma little trinkets now and then.  Selma didn’t complain, and little as she was, she helped as best she could, even when the hot water and strong soap hurt her hands.  She seemed to understand that it was just us now together.  And our home kept floating south, always south, keeping pace with the new railroad, and the men who worked on it.

I could barely stand to look at Selma, she so reminded me of Xavier.  She wasn’t a pretty girl, but there was something about her, a fierceness that burned in her eyes.  She held her head high like she was somebody.  I could see Miss Hattie watching her as the months passed, figuring, weighing up Selma’s worth to her in the future.

I had no intention of letting that happen.  My plan was to make enough money to leave Malloy’s service, set up my own seamstress business on land.  Find somewhere to live, sew and keep chickens and grow vegetables.  A safe place where we could start over.  I saved all I could, kept it in a hole in my mattress one of the rats had chewed.

One night Hattie’s best customer, a railroad supervisor called Mullins, turned up drunk, when his regular girl was off with the clap again.  Miss Hattie said she could not disappoint him, surely even a savage like me from the islands could understand that?  She said not to worry about old Jim Crow, he only had a say how things went on land.  Out here on the ocean, she said, a man could…indulge his tastes.  She gave Selma one of her best smiles, but before she could speak I told her I’d do the job for her.  She said to put on that crazy creole dress for him, so I did.

As soon as Mullins came into the room, I recognised him, from his chalk white skin and bright green eyes.  Xavier used to talk about him, said both blacks and whites avoided him because of his vicious temper.   I knew that the spirit of Congo Savanne was in him…he stank of pure evil, like something left to rot in a hot room.  I got to study those green eyes of his real good.  Each time I closed mine, he slapped me and said, ‘Look at me, girl.’  His eyes were just like the ones on Selma’s iguana.  Savanne grinds people up like they are corn, and so he did to me that night.  He tore my beautiful kerabela dress, which upset me more than anything else.  I told him I would take it off but he wouldn’t wait.

It was that night I used the spell, for the first time since Xavier’s death.  I cleaned myself and then took Selma ashore in the little skiff and we made a mound in the sand, surrounded by palm leaves and a sprinkle of oil, to summon Ayezan, punisher of those who prey on the weak.  And it was not just for what he did for me, but for how he treated men like my Xavier.  It was the first time I let Selma watch.  Her eyes never left me, I could tell she was taking it all in, putting it away somewhere, for later.

The spell took a while to work…a good long while.  And in the meantime, Hattie used me more and more.  I still did the laundry too.  My little pile of money grew, and so did Selma, and I noticed Hattie noticing.  I put Selma on her mattress outside the door each time I was with a customer, until it was over.  She always looked up at me when I opened the door, with those all-seeing eyes of hers.  Never said anything, like she understood.

Ayezan took care of Mr Mullins on a miserable hot day a few months later, when all the girls just sat in their rooms, shades drawn, fanning themselves.  None of the other men had the energy to visit us, but Mullins never missed a week.   I caught a glimpse of him as he went in with Rosie, because I had my monthlies.  He was even whiter than usual, and sweating, but then so was everyone else.  A few minutes passed, then Rosie came running out screaming, said his face had turned all purple and blue, and there was foam coming from his mouth and nose.   They rowed him over to the camp doc, but it was too late.  Turns out there was an infected mosquito bite on his leg that went bad and poisoned his whole body.  I gave thanks to Ayezan that night.

Soon after that, my monthlies stopped.  Lord knows, I was careful, but my precautions weren’t enough.  I tried everything, but neither Ayezan nor any of her sisters or brothers could stop the baby growing inside me.   I just knew that I had to hide it as long as I could from Hattie.  Any girl with child was hustled back to shore quick as a flash.  Hattie only tolerated Selma because she worked with me.  I couldn’t say whose it was…not like it was a secret, but because I did not know.  At that time, I was working so much that it could have been any of a dozen men.

But it seemed, for once, that two-sided fortune had turned his fair face to me.   My money pile inside the mattress had grown along with my belly.  I had almost enough for our new life, I had only to work a few more weeks, and keep my secret.  Then we would be free, to start again.  No more lying under stinking, grunting railroad men, no more scalded hands, with skin like an old woman’s from the carbolic.  I told Selma, one of the first things I’d make her was a new dress.  The one she wore every day was too small and full of holes.

The fire started in the kitchen late one night, and the flame beast devoured Hattie’s place.  Its blistering breath tore it to pieces.  All was chaos.  Girls ran around the deck screaming.  There was no time to grab anything.  I had Selma in my arms when the side of our room burned away and we fell into the dark water.  Selma and I clung with Rosie to a trunk and were eventually washed ashore a mile or so down the beach, coughing and exhausted in the grey dawn.  When we looked out to sea, the familiar silhouette of Hattie’s was gone.

And with it, my money for our new life.

Letter to my Pre-Publication Self

Dear Vanessa,

It’s now 9 months since the book was first published, so I decided to invent time travel (patent pending) to give you a preview of what will happen and what you will learn during this crazy, baffling, exciting, scary time.  You can thank me later.

  1. Writing the book is not job done. It’s just the beginning.  You will need to create a lot of content for blogs, websites, and other media—quickly.  Make a list of topics to write about.  Better yet, bank the pieces so you can pull them out at short notice.
  2. Facebook isn’t just for your cat pictures and grammar jokes. Create an author page and keep it stocked with posts that will interest readers.
  3. All authors are trying to make their books stand out, and there is no magic formula. Find some trusted sources of advice and tune out the rest, or it will make you crazy and eat up any time you have for productive work.
  4. Bloggers are the fuel in the publishing engine. You will work with several who will really help to raise awareness of the book, and a few who will become good friends.  Cultivate them ASAP.
  5. You will be asked the same questions over and over. Find a way to make it sound like it’s the first time, every time.
  6. Your publicist’s job is to interest media outlets in the book (magazines, newspapers, TV/radio) while the marketing team will be targeting readers, through giveaways, reading groups, etc. LEARN EVERYONE’S NAMES AND KEEP THEM STRAIGHT.
  7. When you visit the publisher’s office, bring key lime pies for the team. They will like this.
  8. You will get some bad reviews. It will hurt. A lot.  No matter what, NEVER ENGAGE.  That way lies madness and public humiliation.  Go for a walk. Eat some cake. And did I mention NEVER ENGAGE?
  9. There will also be good reviews—thank Odin, the majority. NEVER ENGAGE publicly.  This looks creepy and is an intrusion in the reader space.  Private thanks are OK, if the person reaches out to you.
  10. Readers and aspiring writers are very interested in the creative process—sometimes, more than the book itself. Be prepared to answer questions about this.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a process as such, just a random series of tasks which results in a book.
  11. Get on Twitter and find Antonia Honeywell. She will invite you to join a new group of other 40+ debutants.  This group, which will come to be known as the Prime Writers, will transform your experience of being a debut novelist.  The members will make your highs higher and your lows more bearable.  You will learn things from them, and read books which you would never have come across otherwise.   You will help to create the group’s website and establish it as a real thing in the publishing world.  Above all, it will mean that you’re not alone any more.
  12. Social media is not the whole world. If it were, then based on my timeline, everyone would be an animal-loving, cake-eating bibliophile.  Keep a grip on your perspective.
  13. You will sit for far too long. Get a standing desk.
  14. There will be unexpected successes and surprising failures, all outside of your control so there’s no point in fretting. You will anyway.
  15. New books get the attention, and then the circus moves on. Write another one.
  16. Finally, the most important thing: make a point of being grateful, every single day, for this extraordinary opportunity. Show your gratitude to people involved in the process, and everyone who pays you the huge compliment of reading your words.  Yes, it took hard work to get here, but plenty of good writers never do.  Remember this when things go wrong, when people are dismissive or just plain mean. Savor every single moment, good and bad, because you will never, ever be a debut novelist again.



PS  Your hair will grow back curly.  You will hate it.  Some things aren’t fixable.

My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees

It’s way too-early-o’clock on a chilly December morning in Crystal River, Florida.  The weak winter sun has barely peeked above the horizon.  Banks of wispy mist hover over the cypress-brown water around our boat.  Everyone is quiet, subdued.  Sleepy.  We anchor in a shallow area and I slip carefully into the water.  Fins and mask on, I go in search of my favorite, fattest sea-going mammal.

Manatee, Crystal River, Florida

I don’t have to look hard, or at all, in fact. A nose breaks the surface, then disappears. There they are, beneath me, parked up in the river like RVs at an underwater camp site.  They sleep on the white sand of the bottom, and only need to bob to the surface for air every half an hour or so.  This is their refuge, from the cold of the ocean, and from their only known predator:  homo sapiens.  The Crystal River stays a constant 70F all year round, fed by springs which pump tens of thousands of gallons of pure, fresh water into it every day.  Winter is the best time to see them in large numbers, as during the hot months they roam the coast.

Their other major risk factor is boat strikes, and this stretch of the river is subject to speed restrictions.  Many of the adult manatees around me have the deep, white scars of propeller cuts across their backs.  How anyone could hurt these peaceful, gentle herbivores is completely beyond me.  They draw me to this place again and again, although I live 3000 miles away in England.  I grew up in Florida, but I only discovered their magic when I had been away for more than 20 years, once they gained protected species status and became a tourist attraction.

The sun gets a little stronger.  Some of the behemoths start to stir.  They are inquisitive and playful, especially the calves, who weigh in at about 500lb (compared to their 2000-lb mamas).  Distant relatives of the elephant, I find their whiskered faces goofily beautiful.  A calf approaches my outstretched hand, which is the signal that he wants to interact.  They especially love to be scratched under their flippers, and I’m more than happy to oblige.  He shows his delight by rolling over anManatee, Crystal River, Floridad over for me.  We are in the secret Three Sisters spring, which looks like it was designed by Disney:  blue water, pure white sandy bottom, all encircled by towering cypresses draped with Spanish moss.  The sun sparkles now. My little friend bumps my arm.  He wants more scratching.  I look into his round cartoon eye and feel totally, utterly at peace. After a morning of this, I am centered, calm and happy.

Manatees were hunted as late as the 1940s, when meat was scarce.  This is just one of the facts that I discovered when I started researching Florida’s history for ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’.  The research led me into some very dark corners of my home state’s past. I will keep coming back, every year if I can, to swim with its sweetest, most docile and endearing resident.

Here, There, and Nowhere

As an American author, living in Britain, writing a novel about Florida, I am accustomed to existing in a semi-chronic state of dislocation. I have a mid-Atlantic accent which sounds to Brits like I’m right off the boat from Appalachia, but to Americans is pure Downton. Although 35 years of living in the UK have also modified my behavior and my spelling, and added a second passport to my collection, people here still often ask me if I’m having a nice visit. Americans try to enlighten me about ‘how we do things in the US.’

I belong, in effect, nowhere.

I inhabit a weird, invisible dimension made up of off-cuts of two very different yet superficially similar civilisations, which alternately admire and despise each other. By turns hilarious and destabilising, it can be hard to remember which gesture to use, and which word is a curse is one place and a greeting in the other. It feels like being at a dinner party where it’s always the wrong fork, and frequent travel between the two places requires a NASA-style re-entry program each time, even after all these years.

My geographic home is the market town of Marlborough in Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge, where I live happily with my husband and furry child substitutes. It’s about as English as it gets, with a charter dating from 1200 and gorgeous medieval architecture along the main street. Before that, I spent 20 years around Oxford, the epitome of Disney-gothic. Brits often ask me if I get to go ‘home’ much, which always takes me aback because I wouldn’t be able to say definitively where that is any more.

I never intended to stay in the UK for so long. After college, I thought that I would have a few years of adventure in a foreign place, and then go back to America and get a real life. (A warning to moms: that junior year abroad can last a lot longer.) It’s not what happened, the result of a combination of inertia and, well, stuff. Overall, I’m not unhappy with how things have turned out (there’s that British understatement creeping in).

But publishing ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ has brought the question of my strange in betweeness into sharp focus. To British readers, I am ‘that American who wrote about the hurricane’. Despite being a bona fide Florida native, I am bemused and bewildered to be classed as a ‘British author’ by US publishers. It seems that my post code matters more than my birth certificate…and they didn’t even hear my weird accent!

It has also brought up a whole bushel of thoughts, feelings, and memories in totally unexpected ways. I never imagined that I would write about my home state, but I stumbled on a story from its past which so totally took over my imagination that I felt compelled to dramatize it. In the process, I discovered a time capsule in my brain, full of the sights, smells, and sounds of my childhood.

When I began writing the book, they poured out onto the page: the wriggle of tiny, striped coquinas between my toes, the unique, indescribable taste of key limes, the sharp pain of a sawgrass cut, the ancient indifference in a gator’s eye. Writing the book reconnected me to my own past, for the first time since I left 35 years ago. It has been described as a love letter to Florida, and I get that. It made me realise that, although I live in Britain—and, on current evidence, will probably remain ‘here’—there is some sense in which ‘home’, in its deepest, most primal sense, is still ‘there’.

The first American readers are responding to this American story, with American characters, set in America, about a long-forgotten episode of their history. Who I am, where I’m from, and where I live don’t matter, not in any real sense. What matters is the story. Just the story.

I hope that it finds its way home.

The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should Remember

Hurricane memorial1


Like most Americans, I was ignorant of the history of our involvement in WWI until a set of random events set me on the path to discovering an episode so shocking, so unbelievable, that it seemed at first to be fiction.  But it is not.  The events described below did happen, but have been forgotten by all but the locals of the area.  On so many levels, this is wrong—not least because the events carry some very instructive lessons for us today.

They happened in Florida, where I was born and raised, not in some unpronounceable Belgian town. A group of desperate, destitute WWI veterans, the grimy face of a war that the country wanted to forget, changed the course of US history.  They helped to bring down one President and damaged his successor. And yet, in America today, it’s as if none of it ever happened.  Appalled by my ignorance, I wrote ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ to dramatize the events.  On this, the 80th anniversary, it seems like the right time to reflect on them, and what they mean for America today.

On Labor Day in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, a hurricane more powerful than Katrina, with a storm surge greater than Superstorm Sandy, devastated the little town of Islamorada in the upper Matecumbe Keys. Most of the locals lost their lives, along with hundreds of displaced veterans who were there only because of a government construction project. This unnamed storm still holds the record as the most powerful ever to strike North America.

How these men came to be in the Keys, unprotected in the path of a monster storm, says a lot about the treatment of veterans then—and now.  The way they lived, and the way they died, deserve to be better known.

Many WWI veterans slid into destitution after their return home from the war.  Today we would recognise the symptoms of PTSD, but in 1918 they were simply left to resume normal civilian life, with no resettlement assistance, no jobs, and no housing.   Alcoholism was rife, as were serious psychological problems.  Shunned by the society that they had helped to safeguard, they drifted on the backwash of the war. Things worsened still during the Great Depression.

In 1932, 15,000 hard-up veterans marched on Washington to demand early payment of a bonus that they had been promised by the government back in the good times of 1924.  The ‘Bonus Army’ march descended into violence and chaos in the center of Washington when President Hoover despatched troops to break up the disturbance (including cavalry commanded by a young Major named Patton). The resulting public outrage contributed to the demise of his administration.  The incoming President Roosevelt—stripped of funds by the Depression and keen to avoid another scandal—offered the veterans work on a host of New Deal projects, including hard labor building a road in the Florida Keys.

It’s easy to see why so many jumped at the opportunity for paid work in the sunshine.  With no experience of the tropics, they were unprepared for the heat, the mosquitoes—or the weather.   Through a combination of indifference and incompetence, the veterans were left unprotected in the storm’s path.  All authorities agree that they could have been evacuated.  There was time…but no will.  And so they died in their hundreds, along with the locals of Islamorada.  Ernest Hemingway, a first responder on the scene, wrote a scathing critique, Who Murdered the Vets?’ (New Masses Sept 17, 1935), which effectively accused the Roosevelt administration of manslaughter.  Once again, nationwide public anger, and the bungled investigation which followed, damaged the government all the way to the top.

Things have improved since 1935, are improving still, yet there are compelling reasons to remember and learn from these events.  Even with all the modern hurricane-tracking technology available today, it has been only 10 years since Katrina pounded the life out of one of our major cities.  The last big hurricane to strike Florida was Charley in 2004.  Many people have forgotten it already and have a fairly relaxed attitude to hurricane preparedness—much to the anxiety of the meteorological community—because   they simply have no idea of how bad it can get.  And we are overdue for another big one.

The treatment of damaged veterans has arguably seen less progress than meteorology. Society still struggles to cope with them, to heal their physical and psychological wounds, to reintegrate them into civilian life.   Despite increased awareness of PTSD, every day in America approximately 22 former service personnel commit suicide.  With mixed public support for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, it’s even more important to support those who serve, when they return to face a different kind of battle.

As the world commemorates the centenary of WWI and the last of its veterans pass away, it seems that the least we can do for the victims of the Labor Day hurricane and their families is mark that hot September day in 1935, when a town was changed forever and so many lives were destroyed.  We can learn the hard lessons of history, and try to do better.

And we can remember.



Homeward Bound

In just over a week, I am setting off on the most important visit that I have ever made to my FL, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Labor Day hurricane on which my book is based.   While I’m there, I am fortunate to be taking part in some truly splendid events.  I’ve never done this before, so I’m both excited and nervous – excited to return to my home state as a published author, nervous of my debutante book’s first real ‘coming out’ in the US.  Many thousands of people in Europe have already read the book, but it was only published recently in my home country, so this is special.  I’m hoping to capture as many of the moments here, as I go, so watch this space.

My travels start in Tampa, where I grew up and went to school. My first stop is the WFLA Channel 8 TV studio on 2 Sept. to cook live on camera. In this whole crazy year of being a debut novelist, this is truly the most bizarre thing that I’ve been asked to do!  I will be making authentic key lime pie and kick-ass mint julep cocktails (click here for recipes).

That evening, I will be the guest of the fabulous Seafood Shack in Cortez, FL, thanks to my old school mate Liza Adler Kubik, for a literary dinner featuring four of the area’s top chefs.  Each one will cook a course inspired by food in the book, and I will keep the diners entertained with readings in between.  It’s all in aid of the Coastal Conservation Association, which is a cause very close to my heart.

The next day, I am off to New Orleans for a brief visit, to do a reading at the lovely Octavia Books.  It has been ten long years since hurricane Katrina, but for anyone living there it must seem like only five minutes ago.  I’m privileged to play a small part in marking the occasion.

On my return to Tampa, the wonderful Oxford Exchange is hosting a literary lunch on 5th Sept.  I’ll be interviewed by Matt Bolton from the American Meteorological Society about the book, while people enjoy coconut shrimp, ceviche, and other tropical delights.  A signing will follow in the store.

Next it’s time for the real reason for the trip.  I will be heading for the place which has been so much in my mind since I started writing the book in 2010:  Islamorada, in the FL keys, which the Labor Day hurricane destroyed 80 years ago. On 8th Sept., as part of the hurricane anniversary commemorations, I will be interviewed by Keys Discovery Center Curator Brad Bertelli about writing historical fiction.  It’s a huge honor for me to be there for this occasion, and definitely the high point in the whole experience which started five years ago with the question, ‘Why has no one ever written a novel about this?’

I will leave for Miami the next day to sign some books in a few stores and do an interview for the local NPR station before boarding the return flight to London.

I feel tired just writing it all down, but my health has improved a lot in recent months, and I know that it will be energizing as well.  And I SO love meeting existing readers and sharing this story with new ones.  My only regret is that there will be no time for swimming with manatees on this trip.  That would have made it perfect.

Off to pack now…



Back from the Abyss

11167803_10206675738680997_4268186619984933061_n I’ve written before about recovering from cancer, but I have just had the most unexpectedly healing experience, 100ft below the sea.  My husband and I have been keen scuba divers since we met, and aim to indulge our love of the underwater world once a year if possible.  Last year was different, of course, because of my second diagnosis in May.  We have just returned from our belated honeymoon, which was planned as a dive trip like the ones we have loved in the past.  Although I used to love diving, so much about me had changed.  Diving is physically demanding, and I had done no exercise at all for almost a year because of my cancer treatment.  A series of infections had dogged me through the winter and into spring.  I could not remember how it felt to be healthy. Treatment only finished 5 months ago, and I was still in the really vulnerable, fearful stage. On arrival at the dive centre, I felt ridiculously anxious, close to tears at the thought of donning the gear, and heaving myself out of the water at the end.  I felt fundamentally changed by my second cancer experience: hesitant, incapable, weak and geriatric and frail, not quite human, and definitely unfeminine. I had developed an unhealthy dependence on my husband.  The old me was gone, the independent, self-sufficient person who others usually leaned on.  I was reduced, in every way. I just wanted to go home, to the only place where I felt safe. And then there were the scars, and my rearranged anatomy resulting from the mastectomy.  One of my back muscles has been repositioned as part of my reconstructed breast, leaving me weak on the left side.  The scar on my back resembles a large, deep shark bite.  How, I wondered, will I cope with the stares?  And the chemo has pushed me into the scatty, forgetful phase of the menopause, when I do really stupid things, like putting my credit card in the trash.  I have to think about everyday tasks very carefully, and diving requires great mental stamina to remember all thie technical information that keeps us alive down there.  What if I had a scatty moment, a long way below the surface? 11146242_10152845190782759_24632093409838953_nI slept badly the night before the first dive, stomach churning through anxiety dreams.  We were on the boat early next morning, everyone chatting in happy anticipation. The sun was hot, the sea was calm, but it took a huge effort of will not to run back up the dock and shut myself in our room.  My husband had a quiet word with the boat crew, who were helpful without making me feel self-conscious.  The dive leader briefed us on the first site with a whiteboard drawing.  ‘And over here,’ he said, indicating a jagged line, ‘is the edge of the abyss.  We don’t go there.’11026293_10152857287807759_7916662661810616221_n And then we were in the water, sinking down into the blue.  I remembered the routine:  clear mask, equalise ears, check air gauge, watch the computer.  My breathing slowed.  I felt buoyed by the salt water. We toured the reef and the beauty overwhelmed me like it always did.  I swam, engaging muscles that I had not used for almost a year. I forgot about my aches and pains, the ones that whisper constantly, ‘It’s come back.’  After we surfaced, I handed my heavy gear up to the crew from the water.  No one remarked on my scars.  I began to relax and thought, ‘I’ve got this.’  On the second dive, I started to enjoy myself.  And when I came out, I handed up only my lead weights and climbed out wearing the rest.  I expected to be exhausted, and I was, but after some rest and food, ready to do it again the next day. FB_IMG_1430114086256This set the pattern for the week.  Every day, I grew stronger, more confident, until I could climb out with all the gear on, including the weights.  The staff stopped offering to help.  I did 3 dives on each of the last 2 days – including a very long, unplanned swim – and still felt OK.  I had some scatty moments, but the important thing was that I corrected myself.  We dived on the wreck of the SS Kittiwake, which was fascinating but challenging, with some difficult, confined spaces inside.  I coped just fine.  Stamina, so long absent, made a welcome return.  I slept deeply and woke without pain.  By the end of the week, I wasn’t fearful any more.  For the first time in 321 days, I felt healthy.  Sitting beside the pool each lunchtime, still in my dripping swimsuit, ravenously hungry, with the sun on my shoulders, I felt like the old me again.  Ready for adventure. 11156386_10152857288112759_6276574868182804156_n Cancer is a thief.  It robs us of confidence, energy, and optimism.  It steals our dignity and – yes – life expectancy.  It takes away our very identities and turns us into patients. It shrinks our horizons, until we only feel safe in our homes.  After my first cancer experience, I rebounded pretty quickly, although it was still a year after treatment before I could dive again.  This time, I felt much worse, and we were diving only 5 months after treatment finished.  Some people thought that it was too soon – and I suspected that they were right.  But I am so glad that I wasn’t sensible this time.  Everything about diving seems unnatural:  we put on a thick rubber suit under the burning tropical 11169964_10152857277022759_7517996136575232244_nsun, we weight ourselves down with lead and rely on 100 year-old technology to breathe in a medium not designed for us.  It is so, so easy to die down there, and yet it’s where I feel most happy, most at peace, and very much at home. Diving gave me back a lot of what cancer stole from me.  It made me feel strong and capable again.  Helping the new diver in our group, I was reminded that my knowledge and experience of over 200 dives has value. Diving returned my body to me.  It made me feel normal.  It showed me that I can master my fear when I choose. I have been to the edge of the abyss, but I’m back.


Behind the Wizard’s Curtain: Reader Input and the Work in Progress


I have recently spent quite a bit of time with readers of my debut novel, ‘Summertime’.   Aside from the sheer miracle of their existence (it has only been two months since publication), it was also very illuminating to see the book through their eyes, this thing which had only lived in my imagination for so long.  The characters were as real to them as they were to me, their lives and struggles just as interesting.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was my book under discussion and not someone else’s.  I’m not sure that this thrill will ever wear off.

The experience started me thinking about the role of the reader in the writing process.  For debut authors, who inhabit the mystical Land of No Expectations, friends and family are commonly the main sounding boards.  We need validation, confirmation that it’s not complete twaddle.  However, this can be fraught with tension when the writer has a close personal relationship to the reader.  The reader desperately wants to like the work, but may not.  The author’s confidence is more fragile than a faerie wing, and can easily be shredded by exchanges like this (all real, by the way):

Author:  Did you like it?

Reader:  I liked your other book better.

Author:  Never mind.

Author:  What do you think?

Reader:  I’m so proud of you!

Author: Yes, but what did you think?

Reader:  You’re so clever!

Author:  Never mind.

Author:  Have you read it yet?

Reader:  It’s not my kind of thing.

Author: In what way?

Reader: Sort of, all of it.

Author: Never mind.

My husband read four drafts for me, and friends read some of it, but I needed more objective—and less emotionally fraught—feedback.  (Full disclosure:  I have worked in academic publishing for almost 30 years, where my job was to get new book ideas assessed by specialists in the field.  I then used their feedback to make the case for publication.  I may still have this habit.)

No one is more objective than a stranger. So while writing ‘Summertime’, I posted my first two chapters on a feedback site for writers, www.youwriteon.com .   The response was tremendously helpful, not least in confirming that the opening of the book was grippy enough to continue.  And the community’s comments even convinced me to re-think one of my minor characters and turn her into a headliner.  It was a safe, closed environment with a lot of rules in place to prevent abuse, and I would recommend the experience to other new writers.

Technology has transformed the author/reader relationship, democratised it.  Before the internet, the only way to interact was in person or by letter.  It was all very formal, with reviews the province of serious publications.  But now the barrier has shrunk, become permeable.  Bloggers get their reviews into circulation instantly.  It’s possible for readers and authors to communicate at every stage of the process, from the genesis of the idea, to the story outline, to the draft manuscript.  Readers can follow their favourites on social media.  There are lots of options for authors to ‘crowd-source’ opinion (and funding) online.

I hear my fellow authors gasp, ‘But why, by Odin’s beard, would you want to?’

And that’s a very good question.

As I began working up ideas for book two, and wanting to share them, I started to wonder if I was just this needy, exhibitionist weirdo (entirely possible). Did other writers feel the same?  Or would it seem like pulling back the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, revealing the workings of something that should never be exposed?  Would it differ between new and established names?

So I sounded out some fellow authors at different career stages to find out a) whether they solicit reader opinion while writing and b) who they use.  The results were very interesting, and worthy of serious study by someone with a sociology degree.

There is a wide diversity of opinion amongst my fellow debut novelists about who should see the Work in Progress (WIP). Not surprisingly, several relied in general on family and friends.  S.D Sykes (‘Plague Land’) says, ‘I have a small group of trusted readers—my husband and grown-up children.’  Likewise, Fleur Smithwick (‘How to Make a Friend’) relies on her nearest and dearest for the first pass.  And Jo Bloom (Ridley Road) says, ‘During the 3 years that it took me to write, I never really showed it to anyone other than my husband.’

And then there are those who produced their first book during a structured program.  Karin Salavaggio (Bone Dust White) and Sarah Louise Jasmon (‘The Summer of Secrets’) took part in a Masters writing program, and hence had a lot of peer group involvement.

Claire Fuller (‘Our Endless Numbered Days’) is part of an informal writing group.  She says, ‘They read my first-draft scenes and chapters, no matter how rough, and the input I receive is invaluable.’  Beth Miller (‘When We Were Sisters’) concurs:  ‘They saw the first novel in bits, and then all read the final draft.’  Antonia Honeywell (‘The Ship’), says, ‘I have three close and trusted writing friends with whom I exchange work in progress and that’s invaluable in helping me shape and hone my stories.’

There seems to be a definite shift in approach when moving from first to second book.  There is more reliance on editors and agents, less on ordinary readers, and more trust in one’s own judgement.  Karin Salvalaggio says, ‘No one read my second novel until it was finished, and I think that it’s far stronger for it.’  It’s partly about protecting that ‘precious vision stored in the subconscious’, as Rebecca Mascull (The Visitors) says.  It is so easily damaged, especially in the early stages.  Rebecca feels that it’s about the writer’s growing confidence and professionalism, rather than not valuing others’ opinions any more.  This is true for SD Sykes, amongst others, who sums it up as, ‘I know what readers expect…but essentially I write for one reader:  myself.’

It was very interesting to compare the opinions of the debut novelists with some more established writers.  Liz Fenwick (her third book, A Cornish Stranger, is out in paperback in April) has both a critique partner and a beta reader who see everything as the writing progresses.  She also shares passages with friends on her Facebook author page.  She says, ‘I trust my crit partner and beta reader in so many ways.  They will tell me what works and what doesn’t, which is especially important when I’m too close to the work to see it.’

Essie Fox (her third book, The Goddess and the Thief, was published Dec 2013) takes exactly the opposite approach.  ‘I love to discuss the origins and developments for the inspiration of characters, places and themes of my novels once they have been written…but while actually writing I tend to be silent.’

Finally, I asked Julie McRobbie, who is both my oldest friend and one of my WIP readers for her opinion of the experience.  She said, ‘Reading early chapters and drafts and talking with Vanessa during the writing of ‘Summertime’ has given me an insight into the way that an author approaches a book. This has helped me to see more in some of the other books I have read recently, whilst making me more appreciative of a well-crafted tale.’

It’s been very informative to ‘consult my fellow wizards’ in this matter.  Now, as I leave the Land of No Expectations, I do so with a greater appreciation for how my debut novel has affected readers.  Their views and questions are mixing in my brain along with the ideas about plot, character and setting.  I have a feeling that I will still want to pull back the curtain as the next book takes shape, which has more to do with my personality than anything else.  But if I do, it will be with more confidence, more control, and more assurance than before.

After all, as Rebecca Mascull says, ‘what is the point of writing if you don’t want to show it to anybody?’

Second Book Syndrome: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

A Case Study by Dr S Lapyurself


As a specialist in this field, I see many cases of 2BS, which has affected the author population for hundreds, even thousands of years.  There is evidence that even Plato was afflicted after he released the first of his Dialogues.  It is said that he spent several months afterwards wandering the hills of Athens, muttering, ‘But what should I do next?’  Like many authors since, he opted for a sequel.  Today, 2BS is extremely prevalent in the debut author cohort.

Patient VL

The 51 year-old woman presented with the classic signs of 2BS:  agitated, sweating, clutching an empty chocolate digestives packet in one hand, and her first book, ‘Summertime’, in the other.

In the case of VL, the diagnosis was confirmed once she described her symptoms:  sleeplessness, scribbling plot ideas constantly, accosting strangers who looked like interesting characters, staring anxiously into space for long periods, and obsessively reading reviews of book 1.  She reported increased appetite, especially for carbs and ‘anything with cheese’, and an overwhelming affinity for hot chocolate.

This is one of the worst cases that I have seen.


Our job as medical professionals is to instill in the sufferer the confidence that they will be able to write another book, and that people will read it, and that there was nothing magical about the first book which cannot be repeated.  This is the approach that I took with VL.  In common with many sufferers, she complained of crippling self-doubt and an almost pathological envy of ‘those bastards who write series’.

The only cure for 2BS is to write another book, which is what has prompted certain researchers in the field to call practitioners like myself, ‘Money-for-old-rope Merchants’.  This is both unkind and unfair.  Through a long and expensive process of talk therapy, patients like VL can eventually recover and live something approximating a normal author’s life.   By that, of course, I mean that they can be restored to spending their days staring at the laptop screen, talking endlessly about people who don’t exist as if they were real, and drinking many cups of tea.

And if this approach doesn’t work, then I give them a good, hard shake and remind them that it’s just writing, just putting one word after the other.  It’s not sodding brain surgery.