Over the next few months I’ll be chatting with authors who, like me, write Family Sagas, (#familysaga) a genre that can cover many countries, years and cultures.I am thrilled that so many excellent writers have agreed to meet here with me. I’m sure you’ll find them as fascinating as I do. All I can say is watch this space. Your TBR list of books will be toppling over!!
Today, I’m chatting with Merryn Allingham. Merryn was born into an army family and spent her childhood on the move. Unsurprisingly, it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world. The arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England where she’s lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
Merryn has always loved books that bring the past to life, so when she began writing herself the novels had to be historical. She finds the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fascinating eras to research and her first book, The Crystal Cage, had as its background the London of 1851. The Daisy’s War trilogy followed, set in India and London during the 1930s and 40s.
Her latest novels explore two pivotal moments in the history of Britain. The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 as the First World War looms ever nearer and its sequel, The Secret of Summerhayes, forty years later in the summer of 1944 when D Day led to eventual victory in the Second World War. Along with the history, of course, there is plenty of mystery and romance to keep readers intrigued.
Hi, Merryn, good to see you here, I’m looking forward to our chat.
Thanks for inviting me, Judith.
Please tell us How long have you been writing?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve needed to put pen to paper. As a small child, I wrote poems, at grammar school there were short stories that I never dared mention – creative writing was definitely not encouraged. Then the long letters home while working as cabin crew (pre internet and mobile phones) and at least two ten year diaries. Deep down, though, I knew it was a novel I had to write. But between family, pets and my job as a lecturer, there was little time to do more than dabble. However, when the pressures eased, I grabbed the chance to do something I’d always promised myself – to write that novel.
What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
I worked for twenty-five years as a university lecturer teaching English Literature and when I came to write, it proved a two-edged sword. I’d spent years analysing how a piece of writing worked (or didn’t) so in theory I knew the basics. But that same background of academic research and teaching was a huge barrier to writing popular fiction and I hadn’t a clue how to begin, although I knew I wanted to. Then one morning I woke up and the idea was there. I would start where I felt most comfortable – in the Regency with a book along the lines of Georgette Heyer, whom I’ve read and reread a hundred times since my teenage years.
What process did you go through to get your book published?
It wasn’t until I’d completed the book, that I thought about a publisher. You can see how naive I was! I discovered that Harlequin Mills and Boon was one of the few who published Regency romances and were happy to accept unsolicited manuscripts. When I read they were willing to help polish my work if the writing showed promise, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
It took a long, long time for them to get back to me and in the meantime I’d made a start on novel number two. When eventually I received their feedback, it was complimentary. They liked my voice, they liked the characters and the plot but – you soon learn there’s always a ‘but’ – there were elements that didn’t fit what they wanted in a Mills and Boon novel. Would I care to revise? I certainly would. I set about getting the manuscript as right as I could before resubmitting. Another long wait followed, six months this time, and then ‘the call’ came (by this time I was half way through a third novel – the bug had truly bitten). I remember I was sitting on the sofa feeling doleful from a bout of December flu when the phone rang. Despite the coughs and splutters, it felt pretty special hearing an editor say I was being offered a two book contract.
What kind(s) of writing do you do?
I started publishing over six years ago, producing six Regency romances under the name of Isabelle Goddard. Writing category historical romance proved a great apprenticeship, but left me wanting to broaden my scope and move into mainstream women’s fiction. It also left me wanting to create something a little darker. It hadn’t escaped my notice that with each succeeding Regency, the mystery element of the novels had become more pronounced. It seemed a natural progression then to segue into writing suspense, but still with an element of romance. In 2013, I adopted a different writing name – Merryn Allingham – and launched myself into the new genre.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I write historical novels so research is essential, and it’s something I enjoy hugely. Delving into history, I get to live in different houses, wear different clothes, meet different people and confront different choices. For The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, I did several months’ research in addition to what I already knew of the period, reading up on the social history of the country house, for instance, plotting the timeline of the First World War, understanding the pressures that led to emigration, and so on. The book is set in the summer of 1914, a cataclysmic moment for this country, and I feel a deep attachment to the world that was lost then. The First World War affected millions of lives across every class and community, with so few understanding the reality of the war they were called to join.
Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
It’s interesting how often a place begins the process for me. I mull over possibilities of what might have happened there, and who it might have happened to. The mulling probably goes on for a couple of months. Then I might do some reading around the subject. For example, last year I travelled on the Orient Express to Venice and was blown away by the beauty of its art deco carriages. I wondered what it must have been like to travel on the train the whole way to Constantinople, as Istanbul was once known. That led me to reading about the last days of the Ottoman Empire which in turn led to a fairly detailed plot outline for a new book. The outline will change as I write almost certainly, but I have a structure now to work with. At the least, I know where the story will start and how it will end. The rest should fall into place as I write.
How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?
This is another instance of place playing a significant role. I was on a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, ‘lost’ because they were only rediscovered in 1990 and since that time have been lovingly restored. The gardens’ heyday was the late Victorian/Edwardian period when owners spent a great deal of money, time and effort, in creating a beautiful and exotic paradise. But, when in 1914, war came to England, everything changed. Over half the staff perished in the mud of Flanders and the gardens were left to a slow disintegration.
Our guide that day had a fund of anecdotes and it was a single image from one of his stories that lodged in my mind and set me writing. On one particular day in the summer of 1914, every gardener on the estate downed tools together and walked side by side to Redruth, to enlist at the local recruiting centre. Most of those men never returned. The Day Book, which should have listed every job done on the estate that day, carried only the date and poignantly was never used again. The image of those men, honourable and courageous, walking together to enlist in what they saw as a just cause, stayed in my mind, and I knew I had to record that moment in a novel.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I try to do both. There’s a temptation, particularly under pressure from publishers, to repeat what has worked before, but readers can get bored with what is virtually the same story, just a different setting and different characters. I try to vary how I tackle each project. Daisy’s War is a trilogy exploring several themes across the three books but with each a complete story.
The Crystal Cage is a novel with parallel time lines, that interweaves the lives of a modern day heroine and her Victorian counterpart.
And the Summerhayes books (the second novel, The Secret of Summerhayes, is due out in August) are centred on one location but set thirty years apart, during the two World Wars. What remains constant in all the novels, though, is the mix of social history, suspense, and romance.
What do you like to read in your free time?
My choice of reading is fairly wide. I try to keep up with books in my genre – at the moment, I’m looking forward to reading Nicola Cornick’s The Phantom Tree. I also read some of the latest literary fiction and often go back to old favourites such as 19th century novels. Then there are the books I read for my book group. We’re currently into a season of Virago and I’ll be introducing one of my favourites, A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse. I read the book years ago and liked it a lot, and found the television series excellent.
What would be the advice you would give to your younger writing self?
I’d tell myself to get rid of the censor in my head and allow the words to flow. I’ve learned from experience that some will be rubbish, some will be reasonable and a few will be nuggets of gold. I’d realise that I need to be disciplined and write as regularly as possible. And finally I’d counsel myself to learn patience – it often takes a long time to get anywhere.
About the book
My latest book published on January 12th is The Buttonmaker’s Daughter. It is set in the summer of 1914 in a country mansion called Summerhayes. Nestled in the Sussex countryside, the Summerhayes estate seems the perfect country idyll, but it faces the threat of a war that looms ever closer. It also faces threats nearer to home. The daughter of the house, Elizabeth, is at odds with a society based on rigid gender and class divisions. She has struggled unsuccessfully to become a professional artist and now is forced to fight against her family’s choice of husband. Her adolescent brother, William, already a disappointment to his father, must confront his true sexuality. And a long-running feud with the Summers’ neighbours, fuelled by money and jealousy, intensifies to breaking point. As the sweltering heat builds to a storm, Elizabeth, her family and household, face danger on all sides. The summer of 1914 will change everything for them, as indeed it did for so many.
Find Merryn here:
Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/zxm9ku4