The Sea Gate with author Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson is a wonderful story with the perfect blend of present-day and past and a compelling cast of characters featuring the frail but crusty Olivia–I picture Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the role–and the lovely Becky who is trying to get her life in order.

There are broken families, a house with a hidden passage to the sea, a scheming family intent on fraud, and a long-ago murder or was it merely a disappearance? As the book description says: an entrancing tale of love and courage.

Throughout, Jane Johnson ratchets up the suspense chapter by chapter culminating in a very satisfying ending. I recommend it highly!

The author, Jane Johnson, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Most of the story is set in Cornwall in a house called Chynalls. Chynalls is almost its own character in the book. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
Jane: Chynalls was inspired by a number of houses I’ve known over the years. There was my grandmother’s house, which was rambling and rather decrepit, and made strange noises at night (including the sound of a brass doorknob turning where for years there had been no door Flushed); and my great-aunt’s house, from which I stole the scullery, with its channel to wick away water – or maybe blood; and the spider-infested outdoor privy; and one of the houses I grew up in down in a remote spot on the south coast had a tunnel that ran from the cellars to the shingle beach and was locally known as a smugglers’ passage. The ‘sea gate’ itself I spotted in a local village – I lived in the area of West Penwith, in the far tip of Cornwall, where the novel is set.

A Cornwall sea gate used for the cover

Unique and relatable characters are one of Jane Johnson’s strengths. I asked her whether any of the characters in The Sea Gate inspired by real people she knows.
Jane: Not directly, but the idea for the novel came initially from conversations with my mother, who was around the same age as Olivia when the war broke out, and she spent some of those years down here in Cornwall, before going up to London to work. My mother, though, did not have an artistic bone in her body, unlike Olivia, whose paintings made her semi-famous. My mother, on the other hand, when engaging in a Christmas game of ‘Pic-Charades’, in which you have to draw for your game-partner the word on the card, managed to bamboozle me completely by giving a duck 4 legs…
Several of the old folk in the village where I live offered me their recollections of life here during the war and I felt it was important to honour their memories and that remarkable generation. They have – including my mother – all passed now. I mourn them, but am so glad I managed to write some of their experiences into the book.

What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for this book?
Jane: I think the fact that it’s set where I live gave me pause to begin with, especially since some of the events are within living memory for some of the very oldest inhabitants. I didn’t want anyone reading it and complaining that the farmer’s wife wasn’t dead and that he didn’t have a daughter with special needs, or that their father definitely did not hoard butter etc… So instead of calling the village Mousehole, I called it by its old Cornish name of Porth Enys – the Island Port: and that gave me the creative distance I needed to free me to write the story I wanted to write.

Porth Enys … also called Mousehole

Were the WWII incidents and circumstances influenced by what really happened in Cornwall during that war?
Jane: Yes, I used actual incidents and well researched circumstances – the bombing of Penzance, the crash of a German warplane into farm fields, the stationing of internees and POWs at the local farm to carry out the farmwork for the war effort, the pelting with rotten vegetables of French refugees when they docked at Falmouth, the trawlers lost to mines and submarine attacks; the coast dotted with lookout posts and barb-wired off from civilians; the general sense of paranoia about strangers. It was fascinating to do the research and learn more about the region I live in, and enormous fun to write such recent history for once: it’s the first time I’ve written anything so modern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My next novel – THE WHITE HARE – is set in a remote valley in Cornwall in 1954. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and the end is in sight!

The Swingate stone near Porth Enys into which a WWII plane crashed.

The Seat Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.

After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.

Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner…

Perspectives on writing with author Bob Rich

Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. He’s worked as a research scientist, a builder’s labourer, a nurse, a psychotherapist and always as a storyteller. For eighteen years, he’s written a newsletter – a collection of thoughts and insights on a wide range of topics – called Bobbing Around. I think you’ll find his perspective refreshing.

Why do you write historical fiction?

Mary, it’s not like that for me. Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life, and research is the yeast in the cake mix.

I started with nonfiction, and without meaning to, built up a wide following in Australia, where I live. As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to read anything that taught me something new. I used to read encyclopedias, and could get lost in them for hours. This gave me an understanding of our world, and how it can be improved.

For years, I had a concept in my mind: a small group of forest-dwelling teenagers, facing an invading patrol of nomads who kill the boys and abduct the girls. When I felt confident enough, I started writing, and this resulted in a series: The stories of the Ehvelen. The Ehvelen are the REAL little people, the base of the many myths. I know, because I visited them in 700 BC. They became the protectors of the wild places, the Mother’s sword against cruelty, slavery, exploitation.

My writing skills have greatly improved during the past 20-odd years, and I should rewrite the books, because the content is great. Only, I’ve grown since, and now I am less interested in opposing evil as in changing it into good. For example, my award-winning novel, Sleeper, Awake, has plenty of tension, but no villains at all. It’s also historical, but the time is 1500 years into the future.

Another historical project was set between 1939 and 2000. It’s the story of a woman who did the impossible and survived the unsurvivable, more than once. She used intelligence, creativity and ruthlessness to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary, then built a million-dollar business behind the iron curtain. Only, this is nonfiction: my mother’s biography. After she died, I had a suitcase-full of research materials, but couldn’t even look at them for two years. The resulting book has the highest number of awards among my 17 titles. It’s Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

In 2013, I had book published that’s mostly historical fiction: early Viking times in Ireland, the period surrounding the Irish rebellion of 1798 and its sequel of Irish people being deported to what became Australia, then the Victorian era, and finally our times. Why did I write this one? Because it is my life story, though fictionalized to protect the guilty. It’s the story of my life, and five of my past lives I recalled in 2007, but the hero is not me. Rather, he is the person I’d like to be. This is Ascending Spiral.

Finally, one of my recent books is historical fiction, set in Australia in the mid-19th century. The inspiration for it was my work as a counselor in an (Australian) Aboriginal health service. I came to love and admire these people, who are the survivors of genocide, and terribly traumatized from what the invaders did to people of an amazingly wise culture. So, Guardian Angel is a tribute to them.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

Typically, I invent a few characters, and put them into a situation. They then take over, and tell me what to write. Often, they tell me what I need to find out before I can make it happen. For example, Maraglindi, my Aboriginal heroine, told me that her life began near Newcastle, in New South Wales, so then I researched the area, contacted local Aboriginal associations, consulted with experts on various aspects of life in the area during the 1850s, and suchlike fun activities.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time?  Any disadvantages?

I think I’d get bored with sticking to just one time-and-place. Life is too short for the seriousness it deserves. (A young fellow told me this in 700 BC.) If I get a concept for a particular time, or location, then I have the joy of researching it.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I’m not fussed about speed, or deadlines, and have several projects going at the same time, all very different from each other. I had a historical novel published in 2017, a contemporary one earlier this year, I am almost ready to send a nonfiction book (From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide) to my publisher, and am working on a science fiction series set in the present time. I started the depression book about 10 years ago, and worked on it only when the more fun fiction projects dried up.

Writing for me is not distinct from life. Ideas bubble up all the time. Some I let go, others I grab hold of, and they take me over.

What strategies guide your writing career?

Get a piece of work as perfect as I can make it. Then I seek beta readers, and improve further. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement, and there is no such thing as a mistake, only learning opportunities.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

Enjoy. Do enough research that you could move into that time and place and be indistinguishable from the locals. Listen to your characters. They know better than you do.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?

What sets literature apart from the forgettable?

You can have a perfectly enjoyable book, which will merge into the great crowd of other memories within a few weeks, or at the most months. Other books stay with you. Real life events will bring something from the story to mind, and you feel a better person for having read it.

I think the difference is the message. Every book has a set of messages, which is the belief system of the author. When the subterranean messages are bland, the book is forgettable. When they challenge you, take you out of the ordinary and get you to question what others take to be common sense, then you have literature.

Many thanks, Bob, for sharing your views on writing. What an eclectic mix of stories. You mother’s life story sounds fascinating.

Guardian Angel by Bob Rich

1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love. During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart. Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Interview with Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Barbara Gaskell Denvil is an award-winning author with eclectic tastes in that she’s written historical, fantasy, mystery for both adults and children. At one point in her career, Barbara worked at the British Museum Library amongst the collection of ancient folios and manuscripts. A perfect background for writing historical fiction. Let’s see what she has to say about her writing.

MKT: You write both historical fiction and fantasy. How are these genres similar and how are they different?

BGD: Both are certainly escapism. I make every effort within my writing style to bring these worlds alive but of course, the difference is that medieval England really existed, and therefore I am attempting to recreate truth whereas with fantasy I am attempting to create believability from scratch. But until a Tardis is invented, we cannot really be sure what the medieval world was like. I have adored walking those narrow cobbled alleys in London, wandering the Tower and the castles of the north, and imaging the bustle of folk around me. That is what I try to convey. But documentation from that period is scarce, and it does not relate everything by any means. With fantasy, on the other hand, I make my own rules and I walk those roads in my mind – not in fact. So both are escapes into my own imagination and yet both are serious attempts to turn imagination into reality.

What ‘magic ingredients’ do you try to weave into your novels to make them unforgettable and irresistible?

This is where I rely on inspiration. The magic is in my head. I try to make that magic believable, but it continues to dance in bubbles inside my mind as I write, I suppose I simply put on paper what comes into my thoughts, but I never feel I can write about a place in history until I can smell it in my imagination.

Characterisation is even more important to me. My principal characters, and even most of the minor characters, must leap alive in my head before I can write about them. Then they seem to write themselves.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Yes, I think there is an inherent difference, for the way a character must act, believe and think is so varied in historical fiction. What is expected from people 500 years ago is certainly not the same as that expected nowadays. Therefore the general direction of historical fiction is different from the start. There is also the limitation of historical accuracy, the fascination of genuine historical characters, the warfare and the poverty. When writing of crime (as I often do) we enter a world of confusion and ignorance, for not only were there no forensic aids (no DNA, finger prints, understanding of blood or stains nor even of exactly how someone must have died) but there was no actual police force. The Constable of an area did not DO investigations himself and there were certainly no detectives. Therefore in historical novels the author has both the advantage and the disadvantage of writing under a whole new set of rules, and this offers us some very unusual plots and storylines, and the reader will find himself walking through a strange new world indeed.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I have been researching that period of history for many, many years. I have read so much non-fiction that there are times when I feel I live in the 15th Century, and I even dream of it. I love the medieval castles and villages of England and Europe and have travelled extensively to those places. It is therefore comparatively easy for me to slip back into those times, and recreate them in my novels. I feel I understand the difficulties and the ways of thinking which existed back then. However, there are also problems. I do not agree with attempting to re-create the manner of speaking since it would prove completely unreadable to our modern world. However, I do try not to include words which would have been out of context back then, or references to ideas, scientific or medicinal, which would have been entirely unknown. I try to keep a balance with characters speaking in a modern fashion, but without absurdly modern ideas. There also needs to be a balance when referencing 15th Century religious practices. Because many of our surviving documentation was written by the priests of the time, some people believe that folk were wildly religious. However, we also know that humanity tries to escape the limitations of strictly confining practice, and in spite of the clergy’s teaching, sexual infidelity and other so-called sins were widely practiced even by kings. I therefore use my own careful standards in keeping accurate detail without making my books unreadable. After all, even in the call of accuracy (which I believe extremely important) what would be the point in writing a book of boring confusion?

Which authors have inspired your writing? Why?

So many authors have inspired me since I was a child and I could probably say that every single book I’ve ever read has given me inspiration of a sort. I adore Shakespeare – then discovered Dorothy Dunnet, migrated to Mary Renault, on to the simple delights of Georgette Heyer, deeper into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkein – and a hundred and more non-fiction books drawing me deeper into the English medieval.

Rather than list so many authors, I should say that the written word and the creative genius of so many just sets me on fire. But life is my greatest inspiration. Just looking up at the sky, watching a sunset or dawn, the amazing chaos of India where I have recently been visiting, the gentle glory of the Eastern countries, and the shimmering flutter of wisteria, rose petals, magnolia and irises in my garden. The astonishing variety of everything, both the kindness and the brutality of people, and the strange motivations we have for every action.

I reach out for inspiration when I first wake each morning – and it continues through my colourful dreams at night. I have been known to forget what is real and what is fanciful. Oh dear – sometimes I think all authors are simply crackers.

Have you ever been inspired to write a modern novel? What is the main difference?

Because the modern world is so well known and understood by us, there is no scope for describing it, nor attempting to bring it to life. And there is less scope for creating believable adventure. In the past the battles and extremes of everyday living were far more brutal, and the struggles were more common. I find that many modern novels offer us plots concerning a life even more drab and boring than those we live ourselves. There is less personality and less colour, whereas in the bustling escapism of both history and fantasy, both the writer and the reader can use their imaginations without being confined to dreary routine. Of course, some books set in modern times are remarkable and wonderfully composed and written, but I prefer the inspiration of turning the unknown into believability.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

After many years of writing for adults, I have been inspired to write a new series for children, combining history and fantasy. These are books of adventure and excitement in two worlds – medieval England – and the fantasy world I have invented. The series is BANNISTER’S MUSTER and Book 1 SNAP is already published while Book 2 SNAKES AND LADDERS will be out soon. They are aimed at an age group of roughly 8 to 12, So far they are proving very popular.

I have frequently felt sorry that so little history is taught in schools these days, and I wanted to re-create a fascination for the past in young minds. More but simply, I just wanted to write some good old fashioned adventure, and I also wanted to try my hand at writing for children.

I have also created a new website for these children’s books, so please do drop in and visit both my adult website –   http://barbaragaskelldenvil.com

And my children’s website –   http://bannistersmuster.com

All will be revealed ———-

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing, Barbara. And yes, sometimes we writers are crackers!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (either through WordPress or by using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.