Researching for a novel is always a joy, although it can be problematic. What to use, and what not to use? In Notes from the Lost, two captured soldiers, Alfie and Frank, escape from the train taking them to a WW2 POW camp in Germany.
I based the story on the experience of my friend Martin’s father. Captain William Wright was sheltered by a very brave Italian family who lived in a mountain village near Avezzano. Eventually, he was recaptured, but in my story the young soliders have a very different fate. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to them.
This different outcome meant that I couldn’t use one of the most touching things I found amongst William’s WW2 letters and journals. It was a letter written by the man who had sheltered him to William’s father in 1944. Clearly whilst in the German camp, William had written to his father about the Italian family and his father had then written to them. What we have to remember is that one day William left the Italian family to try and make his way to the Allied line. Whether he lived or died, they didn’t know. This is the reply, and it still brings tears to my eyes.
Captain Wright did return to Italy after the war, and the photo of the family group was taken during that visit.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked when there was going to be a literary festival in Exeter. Every other city, town and village has one, so why not us? Well, that's one of the problems, especially as we have the reknowned Dartington Ways With Words and Budleigh Salterton festivals practically on our doorstep.
The other major problem, is who on earth would take on such a mammoth task?
I first met the amazing Maggie Bonfield when I gave a talk to the U3A way back in October 2017. To my surprise and delight, she announced to the audience that there would be a literary festival the following year and would I be willing to help? Yes, of course! Maggie and her tech whiz husband, Rob, assembled a steering group that reflected the broad range of literary knowhow in the city. Todd Gray, Simon Timms, Emma Dunn, Lee Rawlings and lucky me all volunteered to do our bit.
What soon became apparent, was that the Festival was going to be HUGE! Not only author talks by a famous few, which are the backbone of most festivals, but a celebration of the literary talent and enthusiasm that abides in and around Exeter. Major cultural venues across the city hosted events - the Cathedral, D.E.I, Central Library, Barnfield Theatre, the University to name some. Those aged tiny to ninety, and of every diversity Exeter has to offer, took part in listening, reading and writing.
Yes, it was a lot of work, but when the seats began to fill up, and the enthusiastic responses came loudly and from all quarters, I could not have felt more proud to be involved. Exeter, you are a wonderful city! Roll on next year!
The festival website is HERE and there are lots of photos from all the events HERE
The announcement came after one of those strange periods of time that seem to go by quickly, and yet last for ages. It was Philip's name written on the slip in the envelope, and I am delighted for him. He was so thoroughly shocked to have won, and nearly fell off the staging. Afterwards it was photos, lots of lovely networking and chat with fellow writers, especially Chip Tolson, Liz Shakespeare, Kathy Shuker, Laura James and Gail Aldwin, and also some of the competition readers, who said such nice things about Secret of the Song, I was very touched. In fact, that has been one of the wonderful things for me - how many people wished me luck and wanted me to win. I wish I had won almost more for them than me!
Now I know what it's like to be in a line-up! Although it is certainly nerve-wracking, it has also reaffirmed my belief that competitions are A Good Thing. If you have a story then why not give either the Exeter Story Prize or Flash competition a go. The old adage: you won't win if you don't enter, is relevant here!
Ps I've had a boost so am hoping Secret of the Song will have a boost too. It's 99p on Kindle all this week.
I've been involved in running competitions for many years now, and although I'm always encouraging writers to send enter their stories, I have to admit to being slow at sending out my own work. My excuse this last year is that I've been finishing another novel, and there's a third textbook on the way too. I did, however, send my novel, Secret of the Song, to the Dorchester Literary Festival competition. It has a long name: The Hall and Woodhouse DLF (see previous sentence) Writing Competition. This was a rare competition, one for independently published books, fiction and non-fiction with a connection to the South-West of England. I posted a copy of the book to them before last Christmas and forgot all about it.
It was a wonderful surprise to hear I was on the long list of seven a few weeks ago, and an even more marvellous surprise to be in the final three. There's to be an award ceremony in July, when the three of us will read and be interviewed by the wonderful journalist and presenter, Kate Adie. Gulp! I am both excited and terrified.
I'm sure all those who have been shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize and attended our ceremony are laughing behind their hands now!
I'll be back with a blog about the event whatever happens. I'm absolutely chuffed to have got this far, and it will be lovely to meet the other finalists, Chip Tolson and Philip Browne and the competition organisers in Dorchester. I'm sure we'll get on very well. The festival itself isn't until October and they have lots of fantastic events. Do check out their website: Dorchester Literary Festival
Being placed in a competition is such a thrill, but (note to self) you won't get anywhere if you don't enter. The Exeter Story Prize and the Exeter Flash are both open for submissions now, and we look forward to reading your stories.
The very first winner of the flash competition was Martin Sorrell. You can read his winning entry HERE. Martin has written for radio, and recently, a memoir about his French/English family during the 20th Century. Paulette, published by Impress Books, is a beautifully written book.
Hurrah! I'm over the flu at last. It's meant rather a slow start to the year, but I'm cracking on now and I know that Margaret and Sophie are too.
We are deep in reading and writing reports for the Novel Prize, and are once again amazed at the variety of subject matter and the high standard of writing. The long list will be posted in mid-February and we are hoping to send out the reports then too. There may be a short delay though, as we have had more requests for reports this year. We'll do our best.
After a lot of deliberation, we have decided to move the closing date for our short story competitions until later in the year. There is, however, the other Exeter short story competition that is often muddled with ours. It's an excellent competition with good prize money, run by Exeter Writers, one of the oldest writing groups in the country. Their competition closes on 28th February and all the information about entry etc is HERE
A quartet of Exeter Writers took the train to Honiton last week, where we received a very hearty welcome at Honiton Library. Unfortunately for local residents, the weather was terrible, and the street entertainments, dancing and vintage car rallies were all cancelled. We were warm and dry, however, and enjoyed an afternoon of chat, excellent cake and lashings of tea. Here we are, from left to right Richard Handy, Yours truly, Margaret James and Su Bristow.
The lovely Caro and Rick are doing great things at Tiverton Community Radio, including running a literary festival from June 23rd to 25th. The CWMatters team will be there on Friday 23rd, at the author meet and greet, and also running a workshop in the afternoon. On Sunday 25th, I will be part of a women's writing panel with Su Bristow. I'll post more about that nearer the time, but here the link to theFestival's Fb page.
I was delighted to be a guest on Tiverton Community Radio last week, and they podcast their shows so it's still available. It's roughly in three chunks. In the first I talk about researching and writing Secret of the Song. Then I talk about the Exeter Novel Prize and our competitions, and finally how Margaret James and I wrote The Creative Writing Student's Handbook. Thank you for listening!
A little while ago, I was stopped in the street by an ex-creative writing student. I hadn't seen her for years.
'I want to thank you for running that flash competition,' she said.
That surprised me, because I didn't remember her story getting through the first round. I began to say I was sorry she hadn't done well, when she put her hand on my arm.
'No, you don't understand. Just entering was giant leap for me.'
She went on to tell me about her long listing in another competition and what a boost it was to both her writing and more importantly, her self-esteem. Not only that, she'd now got her own email address, her own Paypal account and she was joining a writing group. There was no stopping her, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her name pop up on competition listings in the future.
I was reminded me of my own, now rather distant, past experience as a novice writer. Strangely, I don't remember writing the story all that clearly, but I do remember printing it out, filling in the entry form (I could hardly hold the pen, I felt so sure I'd make a mistake), then taking it to the postbox at the end of my road, and wishing it good luck. A great deal has happened since I received a call - on my land line - to say I was a finalist. I didn't win outright, but it was a win all the same. It gave me the confidence to keep trying.
There are competitions out there for every kind of story, and fortunately they don't all have the same closing date. Deadlines may come all too soon, but they are marvellous for focusing for the mind. It's very easy to let the days slip by if there's nothing to work towards.
Competitions are a great way of learning how to deal with rejection. Okay, I didn't win that one, but I might win the next. All writers need to learn that lesson and very quickly, especially if they have a novel they'd like published.
Not winning doesn't necessarily mean your story is bad. We don't stipulate a theme for our competitions, but if you enter a competition that does, don't ignore it. If you leave your name on the copy, exceed the word count, or send in late - all these will result in disqualification. That's a shame.
The first competition I organised was at the end of a term of creative writing. The class was quite small - eight, I think - but there were the usual rules, anonymous reading and then we had a blind vote for the winner. It was fun. Everyone enjoyed the challenge and the main thing that I discovered, to my surprise, was that everyone had seriously raised their game.
Margaret, Sophie and I have all had considerable judging experience, not only of our own competitions, but as guest judges for other organisations. It's always a privilege, and we have a keen eye for winners these days, but that doesn't mean we always agree. As anyone in a book group will know, opinions vary and can be surprising.
Can you surprise us? Check out the Exeter Story Prize and Trisha Ashley Award page HERE
Read Margaret's Blog