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’.

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HNS Short Story Award Winner: Fire on the Water

I’m thrilled that this story was chosen as the winner for 2016 out of 400 entries by the Historical Novel Society . For readers of ‘Summertime’/’Under a Dark Summer Sky’, it is written in the voice of the character Grace, mother of Henry and Selma. The child in this story is Selma in the novel.

Fire on the Water


During the early 1900s, oil millionaire Henry Flagler used his vast wealth to fund his dream of a railway stretching from Miami all the way to Key West, Florida.  The project attracted thousands of workers, from as far away as the slums of New York and the Caribbean islands, drawn by the promise of good pay and living conditions.

This is one of their stories.



Florida Keys, 1909


We came from Haiti so Xavier could work on the overseas railway.  Sophie was just little then, but she was fascinated by the men working on the tracks. She worshipped her Papa.  Xavier was a good man, probably the best man I have known, and I have 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 Sophie growing fast, Xavier in a steady job, and me working as a laundress for the railway 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 did not 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, bought with Xavier’s pay, and what I grew in our little vegetable garden.  There was an orange tree that folks said was over one hundred years old.  It had the sweetest fruit you ever tasted.  Sophie 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 this was something the universe simply could not tolerate. Continue reading “HNS Short Story Award Winner: Fire on the Water”

I Lost Part of the World

This piece was written five days after major brain surgery.


It started, as often happens in big disasters, with something small.


A grey dot appeared in my left visual field one day in early June.  I am a novelist, putting in a lot of keyboard hours, and this dot hovered over my left index finger as I typed.  It moved with my eye.  About the size of a pea, it was—annoying, in the way, as I worked to complete the changes for my editor on my second book.  All my energy was devoted to optimizing each word, each phrase, each image.  I had no time or attention to spare this grey dot.

I was also having the worst sinus headaches in my long career of sinus headaches, taking the usual meds, as one does with chronic, familiar pain.

‘It’s a floater’, my friends said, ‘everyone gets them.  Nothing to worry about.’ (A floater is an innocuous, transient defect in the eye, which usually looks like a squiggle or a dot.  Irritating but harmless.)

A week later, after a thorough examination, my optician concurred.  ‘It may last a long time, but clear up eventually. If it changes at all, then go straight to the eye clinic.’  She gave me a leaflet.

The grey dot turned brighter, shimmery over the course of the next month.  I thought it meant that the floater was healing. The headaches abated, but never completely cleared.  A feeling of increased pressure developed inside my skull, an unpleasant addition to the standard sinus face pain.  The final book manuscript was approved, and we started looking at possible cover designs.


Continue reading “I Lost Part of the World”

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. Continue reading “Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research”

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. Continue reading “My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees”

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. Continue reading “Here, There, and Nowhere”

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. Continue reading “The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should 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?’