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Saturday, 30 April 2022

BEFORE BELTANE - a guest post by Nancy Jardine


Hello, Sue.  Thank you for inviting me here today to share a little about Before Beltane, a prequel to my highly-acclaimed Celtic Fervour series.  Before Beltane officially launched on 29 April 2022 with Ocelot Press, and is available in e-book and paperback formats from Amazon.  The paperback can also be ordered from bookshops, and is available for library ordering on request.



The idea of writing a Prequel to the series spawned from review comments for The Beltane Choice, Book 1 of the series. Some reviewers indicated that they loved the explosive interaction of Lorcan of Garrigill and Nara of Tarras, but would have liked a bit more about their individual backgrounds prior to their meeting each other in Book 1. Other reviewers noted that The Beltane Choice doesn’t quite have the same historical background details as the other four novels in the series, and that they’d have liked to learn a bit more about the background history of northern Britain in AD 71.
Those comments made me embark upon the writing of a Prequel. At times during the writing process, I was unsure if I should be publishing two short novellas - one about Lorcan and another for Nara. However, I felt that two Prequels to the series might be confusing.
Before Beltane is a book of two halves. The reader learns about Lorcan’s life in the early months of AD 71. The time frame is the same for Nara’s story. When formatting Before Beltane, I decided to intermingle the two stories so – although Lorcan and Nara have no direct interaction with each other – the reader experiences an interlude in Lorcan’s life (a chapter) followed by one for Nara. That process is repeated throughout the book. 
Before Beltane is effectively Book 0 of the series, in which the reader experiences the trials and tribulations of what Lorcan and Nara would term their daily lives, as they undertake the everyday tasks set for them … until those lives are entirely turned upside down! Lorcan’s visit to the Sacred Groves, with the Druid Maran, is terrifying, though the future prophesied for him is thrilling, confusing and heartrending. Nara’s expectations of becoming a fully-initiated priestess of the goddess Dôn are shattered when she’s summoned to the High Priestess. She is thrown out of the sacred home of the priestesses and must live at her father’s Hillfort of Tarras. The huge problem there is that her father Callan, Chief of Tarras, hates Nara and he orders her to be shunned by all at the hillfort, or they will face severe punishment. Nara must fend for herself, but fulfilling her destiny, her promise to the goddess  Dôn by the Festival of Beltane, seems so…impossible!
I thoroughly enjoyed creating a backstory for both Lorcan and Nara and hope that readers will enjoy this glimpse of them, too. It explains quite a bit about why they are the way they are at the beginning of the series in Book 1.
Blurb:
Two lives. Two stories. One future.
AD 71 Northern Britannia
At the Islet of the Priestesses, acolyte Nara greets each new day eager to heal the people at Tarras Hillfort. Weapon training is a guilty pleasure, but she is devastated when she is unexpectedly denied the final rites of an initiated priestess. A shocking new future beckons for Princess Nara of the Selgovae…
In the aftermath of civil war across Brigantia, Lorcan of Garrigill’s promotion of King Venutius is fraught with danger. Potential invasion by Roman legions from the south makes an unstable situation even worse. When Lorcan meets the Druid Maran, the future foretold for him is as enthralling as it is horrifying…
Meet Nara and Lorcan before their tumultuous meeting of each other in The Beltane Choice, Book 1 of the acclaimed Celtic Fervour Series.
Before Beltane eBook
Before Beltane paperback
Barnes & Noble
Bio:
An ex-primary teacher who published local history projects, Nancy spends her retirement writing historical and contemporary fiction. All historical time periods appeal immensely but so far Roman Britain (and a teensy bit of Victorian and Edwardian in contemporary mysteries) has won the day! She loves to interact with her readers when regularly signing/ selling paperback versions of her novels at local Craft Fairs, and at larger event venues. She enjoys presenting author talks and gives formal presentations on her novels, and on Ancient Roman Scotland, to groups large and small.
She’s a member of the Historical Novel Society; Scottish Association of Writers; Federation of Writers Scotland; Romantic Novelists Association and the Alliance of Independent Authors. She’s self-published with Ocelot Press. Current writing is historical fiction which begins in 1850s Scotland.
You can find her at these places:

Monday, 28 March 2022

THE GIRL IN THE VAN - an interview with Helen Matthews

I'm delighted to welcome the lovely Helen Matthews back to my blog.  Helen was here a little over a week ago talking about modern slavery (you can read that piece here), but today she's back to tell us a little more about herself.  


What prompted you to first start writing? What was the first thing you wrote?

There’s a quote I especially like from author, Neil Gaiman. Apparently, someone asked him:  I want to be an author when I grow up, am I insane?

To which Gaiman is reported to have replied:  Growing up is highly over-rated. Just be an author.

I’m someone who has achieved my author dream after serving a ridiculously long apprenticeship. Many of us say we’ve been writing from the moment we picked up a pen, and I’m one of them. In childhood, I had some successes in competitions and fillers published in teen magazines. Then I went on to study English at university and was a bit overwhelmed by reading the works of great literary masters. In the early days of my business career, I wrote late at night with a glass of wine by my side, mainly short stories that were judged ‘too dark for our readers’ by the magazine editors I submitted to.

As the family’s main breadwinner, after my children were born I continued working full-time in a career that used the analytical side of my brain. I noticed my writing was deteriorating – impacted by turgid quasi-legal and financial business speak I had to use in reports and documents. The creative spark left me. Writing fiction was hard, so I began dabbling in freelance journalism and had some articles published in family and lifestyle magazines. Ironically, in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the internet expected content for free, even hobbyists like me were well-paid, typically £70-£200 and once as much as £1,000. My highlight was pieces published in The Guardian and broadcast on BBC Radio (in a programme called Home Truths presented by the late and lovely John Peel).

During those wilderness years, I wrote a couple of deeply-flawed novels and put them in a drawer. Finally, when my children were heading for university, I decided I’d never be happy if I stayed on the treadmill of my well-paid career. I fled corporate life, putting our family finances at risk, and went back to university to do an MA in Creative Writing. You absolutely don’t have to do an MA, or any qualification, to become a novelist. I did it because I needed to make a break from the business world and rediscover my creativity. For my dissertation, I wrote another novel. It can’t have been too terrible because I did pass my MA, but I knew it wasn’t good enough so it went into the drawer with the others.

 My breakthrough novel was After Leaving the Village. The opening pages won first prize at Winchester Writers’ Festival and I spent two years querying. Five agents requested the full manuscript; many gave positive, personalised feedback but didn’t make an offer. In the end I signed a deal with a small indie publisher and the book came out in 2017.

It’s been a long journey to becoming a published author, but I’m sure Neil Gaiman would be pleased to hear I still haven’t grown up.

 

Can you summarise your latest work in just a few words?

The strapline does quite a good job: A tormented mother, an abandoned girl, a deadly game of survival.

One of the problems with writing suspense is trying to entice the right readers in without giving too much away.

 

What was the inspiration for this book?

Inspiration for each novel comes in different ways. It could be a snatch of overheard conversation, an incident that happened to someone else or a random ‘what if?’ idea. For this book, the inspiration arrived in visual form. I had an image of a frightened girl, who turned into Miriana, hiding in the back of a campervan. The mental picture was so vivid if felt as if she’d tapped me on the arm and asked me to tell her story. Immediately I wanted to know what that story was. Why was she hiding? What had happened to her? And how was this stranger linked to the central character, Laura.

 

What’s your writing process? Did you do any research for the book?

Authors are often asked, ‘Are you a plotter or a pantser?’  Due to my long years in management, my planning skills are over-developed so I’m about seventy percent plotter; twenty per cent pantser, and the other ten per cent is just generally confused.

My starting point for a novel is a broad plot outline and some ideas about my main characters. I do some initial research, then write a few chapters to test out whether the characters will live and breathe on the page. Not all stories have legs and some plots fizzle out. Once I’m confident an idea will work, I get stuck into more extensive research. For The Girl in the Van, I had to research, among other things, an aspect of modern slavery known as ‘county lines’ where young people are lured by criminal gangs into transporting drugs from cities into rural areas. I’m an ambassador for the anti-slavery charity Unseen so I’m lucky to have access to their materials and resources. I can also ask my contacts questions about anything I’m not sure of. There’s quite a bit of police involvement in this book, and for that I used the services of Graham Bartlett, a former senior police officer who offers a consultancy service to authors.

As I’m originally from Wales and many scenes in the book are set in Cardiff, Penarth, and Tenby, this was a great excuse to return to some fabulous places to research the book and take photos to illustrate future blogs.

 

What does a typical writing day involve for you?

Alongside writing fiction, I’m an occasional freelance copywriter though I’m turning down most commissions just now – mainly because the agencies and contacts I work with want me to do project management as well as the writing and this sucks up too much time. Self-employment is a joy. If you meet deadlines, you can work whenever and wherever you please. Unless I have a conference call or Zoom meeting, I set my alarm for a very civilised 8.15 am. My lovely husband, an early riser, brings me a cup of tea. If he forgets, I might send him a WhatsApp message: Tea, please. I once sent the Tea, please message, in error, to my daughter’s partner – presumably, the last person I’d messaged the night before. This caused some consternation as they live half an hour’s drive away and the tea would have been cold before it reached me.

Enough confessions. You probably think I’m slothful, but this working-from-home life became the norm for many of us in lockdown. I shovel down a bowl of cereal and I can be at my computer soon after nine.

I wish I could devote my whole working day to novel writing but the demands of social media, writing newsletter and blog content and searching out new promotional opportunities take time. I do talks for book clubs and women’s groups, and occasional library or literary festival events. All of these I really enjoy but they need planning. For example, yesterday I spent the morning with an author I’m due to interview at a local literary festival soon. We met over coffee in an indie bookshop, worked out the structure of the event, brainstormed the questions, answers and the messages she wants to give. I still need to write up the interview brief and we’ll discuss it again. All this preparation work is for a one-hour event.

Once I’ve cleared the business end of my inbox, I’m back to work on my novel-in-progress. Late morning, I take Homer, our rescue dog out for a short walk then have a fifteen-minute lunch break. I write through the afternoon with Homer snoozing at my feet. Around four, he’ll start pestering me for another walk and we’ll go for a long one. I’m trying to average three miles a day to get a proper break from the keyboard.

In the evenings I’m often out. I belong to two book clubs and a choir. I meet friends or family for a film or a meal. If I’m in, I might carry on writing until 10 pm then watch the News and maybe a film or read and do a Sudoku or Wordle. I’m rarely in bed before twelve-thirty.

Writing can be solitary, but I take days off when I need to. You can never spend too much time with fellow writers. I belong to three critique groups. I call them my Hotel California – you can go there, but you can never leave.

 

Which writers have influenced your own writing?

Two authors at the literary end of my psychological suspense genre, who I hugely admire are Louise Doughty (Platform Seven and Appletree Yard) and Emma Donoghue (Room). I would love to write like them, but my books aren’t written with literary prizes in mind. I’m targeting high-end commercial/book club crossover, and I think I’ve got this right as one book club has already hosted me twice and has already invited me back in June to talk about The Girl in the Van. The invitation came in as soon as they saw the cover reveal for the book, and I was so surprised I asked the organiser:  Are you sure they really want to hear me again?

In psychological suspense and thrillers, I enjoy Lisa Jewell (The Family Upstairs) Gillian McAllister (How to Disappear), Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go), Louise Candlish (Our House), Emma Curtis (That Night), and Katharine Johnson (The Suspects). The list is endless.

 

Does your new book have a message for the reader?

I’ve already mentioned the modern slavery ‘county lines’ theme in the book.

This is the second time I’ve written about human trafficking and I’ve become dedicated to the anti-slavery cause and raising awareness of this hideous crime. Once lured into ‘county lines’ gangs it can be very hard for victims to break free. Recent survey research shows public awareness of this crime is lower than of other forms of human trafficking and slavery. Sometimes parents don’t realise their own child is involved because they don’t spot the signs. So as well as writing a gripping page-turner, I wanted to bring the plight of these young people to wider attention.

 

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Find your writer tribe. Writing can be lonely, so writers’ groups – local ones that meet in person and online groups on Facebook – can give us the support we need.

You don’t have to write what you know. Draw on it, by all means, but give your imagination a free rein to be creative. Books would be very boring if we only wrote about our lives.

Read, read, read – sounds obvious, doesn’t it, especially if you’ve been a reader all your life. But I’ve been surprised to learn (from a friend who lectures on a creative writing degree course) that many of her writing students don’t read! I once heard a quote (and I’ve searched online but couldn't find who said it), something like:  

If you have the arrogance to write, have the humility to read.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think the above quote about reading just about sums it up. We’re nothing without readers.




MORE ABOUT THE GIRL IN THE VAN

A tormented mother.  An abandoned girl.  A deadly game of survival.

What happened to Ellie?

Traumatised by events, Ellie's mother Laura can't bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner Gareth.  She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him and refusing to tell anyone her new address.

After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday.  Here she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie.  As Laura uncovers Miriana's story, she's shocked by the parallels to her own life.

But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out...


MORE ABOUT HELEN:

Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant.  Her latest novel The Girl in the Van was published on 17 March 2022 by Darkstroke Books.  Previous novels include suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the Opening Pages Category at Winchester Writers' Festival.  This was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, a domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press.  Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke Books in 2020.  

Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management.  She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University.  Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flas 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday Magazine.

She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren't any hills, sings in a choir, and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York, in a multi-choir performance.  She loves spending time in France.  Helen is an ambassador for the charity Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery, and donates her author talk fees and a percentage of her royalties to the charity.

Find out more at: 

https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com  

https:www.twitter.com/HelenMK7 

https://www.Instagram.com/helen.matthews7 

https://facebook.com/HelenMK7Writer


Sincere thanks to Rachel's Random Resources for the opportunity to take part in this blog tour.  Do check out the other stops!



Friday, 18 March 2022

WHY I CARE ABOUT MODERN SLAVERY - a guest post by Helen Matthews

Today I'm delighted to welcome my friend and fellow-author Helen Matthews, whose psychological suspense novel The Girl in the Van was published yesterday by Darkstroke Books.  I had the pleasure of working with Helen as editor of this novel (not that it needed very much editing!), and I can honestly say it was one of the most gripping stories I have ever read.

Helen is an ambassador for the anti-slavery charity Unseen UK.  She has written about modern slavery and human trafficking in a previous novel, and returns to this topic in The Girl in the Van.  In this article, Helen explains why she’s passionate about raising awareness of slavery-related crimes, and why she thinks fiction has a role to play in building empathy for victims and survivors.


Welcome, Helen!  Please tell us more...

Thank you, Sue!

When you look at the statistics of human trafficking on an international level, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless at the sheer scale of the numbers. According to figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), trafficking is second only to the drug business in scale and the amount of profit it generates for criminals.

It’s thought there are almost 45.8 million slaves worldwide. Forced labour in the private economy generates US$150 billion in illegal profits each year.

This hideous crime affects not only vulnerable women and girls from impoverished parts of the world, but also men, boys and UK citizens. It takes place in our own towns, cities and rural areas, and maybe on your street or mine. For a modern slavery crime to be classed as human trafficking it needs to include an element of movement, but that doesn’t need to involve crossing international borders – it can be as simple as moving a victim from street to street. The crime I’m highlighting in The Girl in the Van is known as ‘county lines’ - about which more in a minute.

To put this in context of the bigger picture, let’s rewind and talk about trafficking more generally. 

When I’m giving talks to raise money for the charity Unseen UK, audiences tell me the image that springs to their minds when they hear ‘human trafficking’ is those shocking scenes we see on TV News: flimsy inflatable boats packed with people in orange life jackets. At one time we focussed on the terrible loss of life on routes from North Africa to Italy, Malta and Spain. Now it’s on our doorstep, with boats crossing the English Channel from France to Kent.

So you might be surprised to know that according to the strict definition, this isn’t human trafficking. The unfortunate people on those boats are migrants or refugees, and they have paid for their passage. That specific crime is ‘people-smuggling’ and is an immigration crime – a crime against the state.

Human trafficking, on the other hand, is a crime against the person or individual. It’s a form of modern slavery. But people-smuggling can easily turn into human trafficking or slavery, because the passengers have put themselves at the mercy of criminals, who don’t care if they live or drown. Let’s say a man called Mahmood (we’ll give him a name because he’s human and we’re not going to talk about him as a commodity, as a smuggler would do) has paid $3,000 for the journey in one of those small boats from a Normandy beach across the English Channel. Mahmood has made himself vulnerable by relying on a callous criminal to arrange his passage. When he reaches the UK, the smuggler might say to him, "Mahmood, you’ve paid me $3,000 for your journey but that’s not enough. You should have paid $6,000 or $10,000 or whatever. So now you’re in debt, and you’ll have to work for me until this debt is paid off."

This is known as ‘debt bondage’ – another form of modern slavery. My example shows just one of the ways in which a man like Mahmood might become trapped into forced labour. In the UK, he could find himself working in a real job (say, in agriculture or a chicken factory), but he wouldn’t get paid. His earnings would be credited to the bank account of the smuggler or gangmaster who controls him. Mahmood would be told he has to work for free to pay off the debt for his travel and his accommodation in the UK. This mythical debt would grow ever-larger.

So why doesn’t Mahmood tell someone? His employer? The police? There are multiple reasons, and every case is different. It might be that he’s suffered actual violence or is threatened with abuse. The people-smuggler might be someone from his own village in Sudan, and will tell him that his elderly parents or wife or child back home will be killed if he doesn’t do as he’s ordered. Mahmood might speak poor English. He’s likely to be here illegally, though the criminals might have arranged a fake work permit, so he knows that if he goes to the police he’ll be deported. Perhaps he comes from a country where people don’t trust the police (or any authorities), and would never think of complaining to them. And so on.

My debut novel After Leaving the Village was about a young Albanian woman, Odeta, who was trafficked to the UK, on the promise of a well-paid career, by a man she thought was her boyfriend. Instead, she finds herself forced into sex work. This is a vicious kind of trafficking most of us are familiar with. That novel won first prize in its category at Winchester Writers’ Festival and was well-received by book clubs, because as well as being a gripping suspense read, there was enough discussion material to fill a whole evening.

And that’s what I want to see – people buying my books to read as page-turners and then discovering dark contemporary storylines they might not be aware of.

In my latest novel The Girl in the Van, published on 17 March 2022 by Darkstroke Books, I’m highlighting a pernicious aspect of modern slavery known as ‘county lines.’ This crime has grown rapidly in the UK in recent years - though while doing my research I discovered it’s been happening for a couple of decades. 

‘County lines’ is where vulnerable children and teens are groomed by gangs, and used to carry drugs from big cities out to smaller towns or rural areas. Once lured in, it can be very hard for victims to break free. Recent survey research shows that public awareness of this crime is lower than of other forms of human trafficking and slavery, and up to a third of people have never heard of it. Sometimes parents don’t even realise their own child has been groomed because they don’t spot the signs. Around 38 per cent of parents said they wouldn’t know what to do if their child was involved. Imagine the terrible dilemma if you’re that parent.  Do you go to the police and risk your child ending up with a criminal record?

Fortunately, the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, run by Unseen, provides expert advice and operates 24/7 on this number: 08000 121 700. Another source of help is The Children’s Society. Click here for more information.

Miriana, one of the main characters in my novel The Girl in the Van, becomes homeless and without family support. She falls under the power of a drug dealer based in Croydon, south of London. He has plans to expand his territory, and forces her to carry drugs to a rundown town in South Wales. What will happen to Miriana, and how does her experience intersect with the other characters in the story? If you read my book, you’ll discover how her story unfolds.

Why would an author give away such a major plot spoiler at this stage, rather than reveal it as a twist in the story? Good question. Fortunately this isn’t the only storyline in the novel, which encompasses family relationships, secrets, violence, loss, grief, danger and recovery. Miriana’s story is integral to the plot, but there are several others. Either way, it’s important to me to catch readers’ attention and show them the desolation of a young person who finds herself exploited, and what might happen next. As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t only unfortunate people from impoverished or war-torn countries who are impacted. It could happen to someone you know, perhaps even someone in your family. Revealing it here is part of my mission to make more people aware of ‘county lines’ and other kinds of modern slavery.

The Girl in the Van is out now in eBook and paperback.  You can order your copy by clicking here.


MORE ABOUT THE GIRL IN THE VAN

A tormented mother.  An abandoned girl.  A deadly game of survival.

What happened to Ellie?

Traumatised by events, Ellie's mother Laura can't bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner Gareth.  She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him and refusing to tell anyone her new address.

After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday.  Here she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie.  As Laura uncovers Miriana's story, she's shocked by the parallels to her own life.

But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out...


MORE ABOUT HELEN:

Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant.  Her latest novel The Girl in the Van was published on 17 March 2022 by Darkstroke Books.  Previous novels include suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the Opening Pages Category at Winchester Writers' Festival.  This was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, a domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press.  Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke Books in 2020.  

Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management.  She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University.  Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flas 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday Magazine.

She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren't any hills, sings in a choir, and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York, in a multi-choir performance.  She loves spending time in France.  Helen is an ambassador for the charity Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery, and donates her author talk fees and a percentage of her royalties to the charity.

Find out more at: 

https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com  

https:www.twitter.com/HelenMK7 

https://www.Instagram.com/helen.matthews7 

https://facebook.com/HelenMK7Writer