Friday 18 March 2011

Researching Luckpenny Land

Writers are told to write about what they know. Good advice, although it doesn't take long to realise how little you do know when you start writing a book.

Luckpenny Land was the first saga I ever wrote. We were living on a small-holding at the time, out on Shap Fell in Cumbria, and as I trekked up the fellside in the freezing dark to check if our sheep were about to lamb, or to feed a pet lamb, I would be thinking: ‘There must be a book in this.’ But who would want to read about a middle-aged mum, with arthritis, being so stupid as to choose to live in a place where the pantry was colder than her wonderful Zanussi fridge, the winter snows would freeze the mains water supply in the field below the house every winter, as well as the battery of her car as it stands buried in snow in the yard. This was not a place for sun-loving wimps, which is what I’ve turned into now, of course.

So I thought why not write about a girl who wants to be a sheep farmer during World War II, only her Victorian father thinks it’s not women’s work. I could then use many of the incidents and anecdotes, the difficulties and drama of living this life, but write it as fiction. Of course, I realised that running a smallholding did not qualify me to write knowledgeably about running a large sheep farm, let alone during WWII, so I began by interviewing farmers.

Cumbrian farmers are a breed apart. Stoic, strong, taciturn, and distrustful of strangers, particularly those who have not lived in Cumbria for three generations. It’s not that they are unfriendly, only they’re more used to the company of themselves and their animals rather than a nosy, would-be author. At this point in my career I’d published 5 Mills & Boon historicals, but the prospect of a full-length saga was daunting, and I’d never done an interview in my life.

When I rang the first name on my list, a farmer out in the Langdales, I spoke first to his wife to ask if he would see me. ‘Happen’, she said, which I took as a yes. To be on the safe side I took my husband with me as he was used to dealing with Lakeland farmers in his business. And it worked like a charm. I asked the farmer a question, and he told David the answer. I was so nervous I didn’t even dare to switch on the brand new tape recorder I’d taken with me, so I scribbled notes like mad, and then even more later. I didn’t make that mistake again. But he was marvellous. He took me through his farming year, explained everything he did most carefully, and showed me pictures of his dogs. Not his family, his dogs. All the farmers I interviewed did that. It’s a nonsense to say farmers don’t care about their working dogs. Mr G’s dog appeared in the book, much to his delight, although the accident the fictional dog suffered was far more dramatic to that of the real dog, even if it had the same outcome. And no, I can’t say anymore on that without spoiling it.

Some of the farmers I spoke to were women. Although farming was a reserved occupation during the war, some men opted to join up and leave their wives to run the farm. I learned how to kill and scald a pig, how to wring a chicken’s neck and pluck it. (I kept hens myself but they all lived to a ripe old age) And all the various wangles they got up to during the war, like dressing up a pig as a person in the car so they wouldn’t be caught out selling one. Talking to these women inspired many plot incidents and ideas, many based on real life, including the most dramatic which takes place in Luckpenny Land. And I won’t spoil it by telling you that either.

I loved writing this series of books, now available in ebook form on Amazon, Apple etc.

Luckpenny Land is also newly out in Large Print as the original version was too long, being nearly 200,000 words. I’ve now cut it in half. The second part is called Storm Clouds Over Broombank, also available as an ebook, and coming soon in Large Print. I’ll tell you about the last two books in the series another time.

You'll see that the covers are different, the one above is the Large Print, availabe in your local library, the one adjacent is the ebook.

The story
Life is hard for Meg Turner. She lives on a lonely farm in the bleak but beautiful mountains of the English Lake District with a bully of a father and a brother who resents her. They want to keep her stuck at home, but Meg wants more than the kitchen sink. For love and comfort she turns to her best friend Kath, and to Lanky Lawson, who’s more of a father figure than her own father will ever be. But it’s Lanky’s son, Jack, with his dark good looks, she loves and hopes to marry one day. Loyalties are threatened as World War Two approaches and Meg gradually realises that the only thing she can really count on is her passion for the haunting land she loves. Until one day a stranger arrives in the dale and her world changes for ever.

You can check out my website for an extract

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