Alex Martin - Love and Loss and the Perils of War
'The Plotting Shed' (see her blog http://www.intheplottingshed.com/) was Alex Martin's first writing space at the bottom of her Welsh garden. Now she splits her time between Wales and France and plots wherever she is. She still wanders aimlessly in the countryside with her dog and her dreams and she can still be found typing away with imaginary friends whispering in her ear, but these days she has the joy of seeing her stories published and the treasured feedback from readers who've enjoyed them. Alex now boasts eight novels on Amazon and a collection of 3 short stories. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about Book One of The Katherine Wheel Series, Daffodils.
What inspired you to write a love story set during World War One?
Having studied creative writing intensively for three years, I decided it was time to write a book and was stumped for a subject. I thought a love triangle would be a good basis for a story and decided to set it in the village where I was living at the time in rural Wiltshire, England. It was a fascinating place to live, steeped in history with many beautiful old houses from different eras. We lived in what I called 'Skid Row'- a terrace of six small workers' cottages. One of our neighbors, Tom, was a terrific raconteur, and one day, I asked him how he got his wooden leg. Much to my surprise, he told me it wasn't from the war but from scything the hedgerows running along the railway line! Tom also told me about how the plumbing had evolved in the village. First, there was a well and a pump for everyone to share on the village green over the road; then the six cottages shared a single tap between them before each pair had one outside their adjoining back doors. Imagine, he said, the joy when we had our own real sink indoors! Tom's house still had flagstones laid directly on the earth and water dripped through his roof when it rained hard. He bore it all cheerfully even though he was nearly 100 years old. I owe Tom a great debt because his storytelling inspired my own and I decided to set my tale in his lifetime.
How much research did this book require from you the make the history part of it ring true?
Simply years is the truthful answer! I started writing Daffodils before the internet really got going so it meant I had to glean information from books and research trips, such as one to the Imperial War Museum in London. I used an old roll of wallpaper to write out the time-line of the First World War and pinned it up in the 'plotting shed' to get the dates straight in my head. Some of the research appalled me. Particularly upsetting was the way young - often very young - soldiers were treated by their senior officers and there are several anecdotes in Daffodils demonstrating this. I have also driven through the battlefields in France and they still evoke a chill down the spine. It's a bleak place, open fields undulating only slightly and I found it easy to imagine them with stumps for trees and without a blade of grass left.
What was the most interesting aspect of this research?
To be honest, it's hard to choose because it was all fascinating and, I have to say, humbling. So much sacrifice and loss of life were given for the liberty we enjoy today. Of course, Daffodils has a feminist theme so I had to dig deep into the intricacies of women's role in the war. I decided Katy wouldn't be a nurse, as that had been done so many times before, but a gender-defying mechanic. This was partly because I learned that women of the working classes were banned from many roles and most ended up in the WAAC (The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps). Other associations such as the FANY's (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and even the VAD's (Voluntary Aid Detachment) were drawn from more aristocratic backgrounds than Katy's old job as a housemaid at Cheadle Manor.
Tell us more about Katy. What makes her tick?
That's an excellent question! I have to admit (for the first time, I think!) that I didn't really like Katy to start with. I wanted her to be a flawed character, not a perfect, noble and beautiful heroine who could do no wrong and I did worry when I published if people would take to her! Katy starts out restless, like most teenagers, and bored. She's bright, really bright, but she's female and has had little education. She had to leave school at fourteen and go to work. The only work available was in service to 'the big house' - in this instance Cheadle Manor, home to the Smythe family, who take very little notice of her. She's a bookworm, avid for knowledge and adventure. She's also a bit shallow and ambitious to rise above her working-class origins. When Charles Smythe returns home unexpectedly while his parents are away, Katy responds to his overtures rather more than she should. Rebuked by the housekeeper who is overruled by Charles, Katy flirts openly with him, hurting the feelings of Jem Phipps, who has always loved her faithfully. Jem, however, is a lowly gardener, just like his Dad and Katy sets her sights higher, only to have them come tumbling down when Lady Smythe returns home and catches her in an embrace with her son. Katy accepts Jem's renewed offer of marriage after she is sacked and the reader might be forgiven for thinking it was a cynical move but Katy had always loved Jem, she just couldn't resist Charles's attentions and the irresistible lure of being a lady, like his sister, Cassandra.
Katy and Jem's marriage is the tender heart of this book despite its awkward beginning. Their love deepens through tragedy and when Jem goes off to war, Katy is bereft. When he is pronounced 'missing, presumed killed' she is devastated and not even the offer of another marriage, raising her much higher in society, can tempt her away from her determination to join the war effort and try and find him. Through this endeavour, Katy discovers her real purpose in life and trains to become a mechanic working on the ambulances on the Front in France. She also learns the value of home and true love.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
No secret, but I love to cook, read, walk and garden. I spend a lot of time in France these days where I am creating a garden from scratch and I'm loving the creativity of planting trees and shrubs and learning what will survive the hot, dry summers there. I have an affinity with dogs and seem to know what they're thinking without words. My love of plants lead me to become a trained herbalist and aromatherapist, a career that taught me a huge amount about life, health, disease and plants. I took early retirement so I could write full time. I like long drives in solitude and find them meditational, often solving a plot twist at the end of them. I'm an ardent eco-warrior so I'll be glad when electrical cars become affordable. Failing that, I have two legs which still work!
Daffodils forms part of a saga. Did you plan from the start to make this into a series? How do the books tie in with one another?
Goodness, no! When I started writing it, I meandered and stumbled upon the plot. I have since learned to keep a much tighter rein on the events unfolding on my screen. I was amazed at the success of Daffodils and genuinely thrilled that readers wanted to learn more about Katy and Jem. I was also intrigued by Cassandra and Douglas, and so were others. There are so many books about World War One but fewer about its aftermath. It was a strange time of bereavement in 1919. Spanish 'flu claimed more lives than had the war and the whole social structure had to readjust to a new way of life. Having got to know and love Katy, I could see what an opportunity this presented. Also, having researched the impact of shellfire and trauma upon the thousands of young men who served their country, I wanted to explore the psychological legacy they experienced afterwards. Daffodils was named after the spring bulb because it is a symbol of hope and a play on the conventional image of the red poppy. I wanted another plant to represent the peace that followed, little realising that the morphology of the Peace Lily would be so relevant! I'll leave your readers to work out why! Peace Lily ends with a beginning and I just couldn't leave it there and so went on to write Speedwell. As I said, I love to drive and my late father did too. He shared many memories with me about the exciting period in the twenties when he was a young boy and cars were novelties. Again, it was the research that drew me into the world of racing and its inevitable conclusion. And there I thought I would leave it. A trilogy completed. And so it was while I went through a very busy period in my personal life. When things calmed down, I began to wonder about the next generation born of these two pioneering women. Mostly, I felt so sad about Cassandra and I wanted to see how it all panned out for their children. Willow quickly followed. It's a short story, novella-sized, as a bridge to the next two books, which were destined to be only one - Woodbine and Ivy, named after a folk song my husband used to sing. Woodbine took a deal of research too and, like in Daffodils, began slowly with the world on the brink of another global conflict and again, no-one imagining that it would escalate the way it did. Squabbles and feuds, love both requited and rejected all dominate Woodbine and filled so many pages I realised I would have to split the story over two volumes, Woodbine and Ivy! Ivy is the final book, it really is! It's a big one too, and covers the end of the Second World War in the arenas of D-Day in Normandy, the Land Girl and Auxiliary Air Transport Services in Britain and the requisition of stately homes. Although there is huge suffering and drama in this final book, it ends, as Daffodils does, with hope.
Which book in the series is your personal favourite and why?
I'm proud of each and every one, but I think I am most satisfied with is the last one, Ivy. The breadth of the book is huge and was very challenging to complete, as I had already published Woodbine, which ends on a cliffhanger because it is part one of the same story and I was under a lot of pressure to finish Ivy quickly. I couldn't skimp the research though and I knew I had to weave all the threads of the previous five books into it and leave no loose ends. I worked solidly through the first Covid lockdown and more, working seven days a week, 10 hours a day with few breaks until it was done. This was helpful, actually, with such a big expansive story and covering several theatres of war over a few years and including so many characters.
What was the best writing advice you've ever received?
I am grateful to many mentors, authors, readers, reviewers for their advice and admonitions and criticisms and I have learned from each of them but perhaps my real breakthrough came when I discovered the method that worked for me. It was a real eureka moment. The way I write is to live it. Oh, I have an arc for the story, I know where it's going alright, but when I start each section I take a while - could be as long as half an hour - to actually be there. I am that character - whoever they are - good, bad or indifferent and for me, it's like watching a video and I just record what I see. On good days, I look up at the clock and find hours have passed without my realising it. There are other days, of course, when it's a slog and you have to push your way through a lack of energy or more research you hadn't planned for etc.
When starting a new book, what is the first thing you do?
Any book starts with an idea. Often this comes to me in a dream, clear as crystal and one I can always recall. Sometimes it's sparked by another trigger. At the moment, I'm researching the slave trade in the Georgian era, after reading about the National Trust's new report on how the grand houses of Britain were funded from it. Having lived in Bath for a few years, I have always wondered about that.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I write about my work on my blog: www.intheplottingshed.com and I have an author's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheKatherineWheel which can also be found by putting Alex Martin, Author into the Facebook Search box
All my work (including two other books which are stand-alone, The Twisted Vine and The Rose Trail) can be found on www.amazon.com on my author page: Alex Martin Author Page