Sapphic Book Bingo 2022

Join the Sapphic Book Bingo
[Bingo card with boxes arranged in 5x5 grid, each with a heading summarising a particular trope or aspect often found in sapphic books]

I’m about six weeks late with this, but there’s plenty of 2022 still to come, which means that there’s plenty of time still to read books. Plenty of time to take a look at Jae’s Sapphic Book Bingo and mark out a line you might like to fill. There’s still time to fill the whole card, if you’re feeling ambitious.

As ever with Jae’s challenges, there’s a refreshingly wide choice of themes, and my stories fit into quite a few of them. Such as:

  • Speak Its Name is, above all, Lydia’s coming-out story. (It takes her a while to come out even to herself, which was a bit of a challenge when I realised that the whole thing needed to be rewritten and put into her point of view.)
  • It’s also an award-winning book. In fact, it was the first self-published book ever shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. Getting shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize means you automatically win a Betty Trask Award. Will I be forever thrilled to have been shortlisted for the same award as Sarah Waters? Oh yes.
  • I have a few short stories available for free. Find The Mermaid at The Lesbian Historic Motif podcast or Prima Donna at A Story Most Queer (both historical fiction, both podcasts). Or sign up for my newsletter to download Yay or Nay (historical fiction again) or In Little Space (a Christmassy short set between Speak Its Name and The Real World).
  • And you can find Daisy’s Yarn in the new IReadIndies anthology Anything But Romance, free until the end of the month. As you might guess, it’s Not a romance as well as being a free book.
  • Are student politics (Speak Its Name) or the intersection between sexual identity and faith (both Speak Its Name and The Real World) out of your comfort zone? There’s another square for you.
  • As for different sexual orientation or gender identity, Lydia is a lesbian (Speak Its Name is her book) and Colette is bisexual (The Real World is hers, and it’s very, very bi). They’re both cis.
  • They’re an established couple by the time we get to The Real World.
  • I think The Real World is probably my author’s pick. I was flicking through it this morning and thinking that it was worth all the anguish after all.

And if you’re going for the trickier Book Unicorn card, either Speak Its Name or The Real World will of course count for Faith. (You might find some other possibilities on my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations post, too.)

There are some that I can’t help you with. I’m too young to have written a sapphic classic, though I’ve read plenty (most recently enjoyed Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder At The Nightwood Bar). I am not a POC author (try Sara Collins, The Confessions of Frannie Langton). Nor am I a newbie (going to have to do some research there). And so forth.

And there are some that are a bit borderline. I’m not sure that I’d count ‘both being rostered to cook baked potatoes’ as a meet-cute, but you might feel differently. (Sadly, my cutest sapphic meet-cute happens in A Spoke in the Wheel, which is not a sapphic book, what with it being narrated by a man and all. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Vicki and Gianna and their background cycling app rivalry meet-cute. Gianna, the silversmith, would be my best shot at an unusual job, too. Oh well.)

If you think one of my books might help you fill a square on your card, you’ll find them, among other places, on Smashwords, where I’m giving a 50% discount to readers playing Sapphic Bingo. Use voucher code TF79U to get the discount.

So that’s it. Have fun. Eyes down.

We interrupt this blog series to bring you a small Christmassy treat

Christmas tree decoration representing a shooting star

There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.

I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.

I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!

The third dimension: when a book comes to life

A cardboard cut-out character from a toy theatre in front of a backdrop from same

I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.

The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.

Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.

It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.

A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.

This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.

Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.

Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.

When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:

George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.

Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,

Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.

And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.

So I kept writing.

He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.

I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.

Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.

I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.

Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.

Bingo.

That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.

A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.

Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.

I love that moment.

Lint rollers: or why you can’t find my paperbacks on Amazon any more

A model of planet Earth hangs in the nave of a cathedral

I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.

I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.

The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.

Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.

So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.

And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)

One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.

(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For various reasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)

Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.

I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.

So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)

The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.

But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.

Fluffy black and white cat curled up on a cushion

Read An Ebook Week

Ebook reader showing the first page of 'The Real World'

Apparently it is Read An Ebook Week. I would not have known this had Smashwords not sent me an email to say so, and to invite me to put my books in their sale. I thought I was doing impressively well to remember that both Mothering Sunday and my father’s birthday were approaching; I can’t keep up with anything invented more recently than that.

Anyway, if reading an ebook is a thing you might wish to do this week, you can find both of my Stancester books in the sale. The Real World is at 25% off; Speak Its Name is free. Get them here.

An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists

A child's plastic sled cable-locked to a bike rack on a snow-free pavement

Lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) I came across this thread about inactive protagonists, and this other thread pointing out that it was an extremely Western-centric take. I think that both threads make good points, but the first one offers an extremely limited solution to a genuine problem. (When you have a hammer, etc, etc…) I rather like the way that they’ve both linked to each other, so the conversation rolls round and round forever. And this post isn’t really meant to be an answer to either of them, but more an excursion on my own train of thought.

There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.

And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternative structures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.

Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.

And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)

I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.

Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.

And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.

Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.

Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.

Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021

Stack of books with rainbow-coloured covers and text 'Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021'

This year Jae is running a Sapphic Reading Challenge: 50 categories, from which you can choose to read 10, 20, 50, or 100 books. There’ll be a big giveaway at the end of the year, although, as Jae says, “real prize, of course, is discovering a lot of awesome books and new favorite authors”.

My Stancester books, Speak Its Name and The Real World, fit a few of the categories:

  • Character with a disability or mental illness (7) – depression ended up being a major element of The Real World, though I don’t think I ever actually mentioned the word. I wrote a bit about that here.
  • Character is a book lover (8) – Lydia is doing an English Literature in Speak Its Name. By The Real World she’s mostly reading school stories.
  • Genre you don’t usually read (15) – well, I don’t know what you usually read, but if you don’t usually read literary fiction with overtly religious characters then these might fit.
  • Shy or socially awkward character (27) – Colette. It’s probably more obvious in The Real World, which is told from her point of view.
  • Bisexual or pansexual character (37) – Colette, again.
  • Part of a series (43) – either one would work, obviously! The Real World makes sense without having read Speak Its Name, but you do learn a couple of major plot points that you can’t then unknow.
  • Character works in STEM (48) – Colette’s studying chemistry at undergraduate level in Speak Its Name and working on her PhD in The Real World.

My short story Prima Donna appears in Supposed Crimes’ anthology Upstaged: an anthology of queer women and the performing arts, which would fit Anthology, short story collection, or novella (50).

And of course I might be a new-to-you author (45).

Jae also has a giveaway running now, so if you fancy winning a special journal in which to track your challenge progress, see this post.

Enjoy!

The Reader’s Gazetteer: S

Stack of books: Principal Role by Lorna Hill (with a dustjacket with a ballerina in front of a backdrop showing an Alpine village), Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, and The Rose and the Yew Tree by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.

And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)

Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.

A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.

He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…

The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:

“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”

Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.

When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.

(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)

Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.

Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.

… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.

No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).

As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.

While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.

We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:

The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.

(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.

In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:

It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.

In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:

There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.

This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.

The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.

Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia (not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.

Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.

Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.

Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.

Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.

Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:

The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.

If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.

There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.

detail of a relief map showing Ilchester at the top, Yeovil at the bottom, and, in faint red type, 'STANCHESTER' a third of the way up

Books mentioned in this post

The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie

King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell

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A #BeautifulStory in which nothing much happens

LGBTQIA Christians on Twitter have been responding to a video from the Church of England Evangelical Council by sharing their experiences as queer people of faith under the hashtag #BeautifulStory. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. I posted it on Twitter yesterday, but it’s probably easier to read here and, because this is the first time I’ve written a lot of it down, I didn’t want to lose it in my feed.

I’m not sure that mine is a particularly #BeautifulStory. Nor is it a particularly ugly one. It’s a bit awkward, and a bit messy, and for the first twenty years of my life I didn’t know that I had it. I grew up under Section 28, you see.

Consequently, I didn’t come across the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 20. If I’d heard it earlier, my life might have been very different. But then again, it might not, because I had many other things going on in it. Including a lot of Scripture Union books.

My church and family were Church of England, slap bang in the middle of the road. I continued down the middle of that road at university. But it’s very easy to internalise certain interpretations of Scripture, particularly if they seem to be more decisive than the alternative.

Anyway, I’d had a few half-hearted crushes on boys in my teens, so I couldn’t be gay. My cousin asked me (at my 18th birthday party) whether I liked women or men. I do wish he’d given ‘both/and’ as an option – though at that point the honest answer would have been ‘neither’.

(I should probably have said that this isn’t a particularly exciting story, either!)

So I went to university, dodged (or did I???) the Christian Union by sheer luck (was committed to symphony orchestra; both met on Tuesdays), had various crushes on various people, ended up going up with a bloke I lived with. (Who was and continues to be lovely!)

Despite studying English Lit and therefore having at least some exposure to queer theory, the first point at which I was prompted to apply it to myself was a Livejournal meme (the old sort of meme which was a series of statements which you bolded or struck out as appropriate)

One of those statements was ‘I am openly bisexual and have completely different reasons for being attracted to men or women’. I thought about that one for a while. I couldn’t say that it was true, for several reasons, but denying it didn’t feel right either.

And that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Christian Union drama went on and on and ended, the year after I graduated, with someone suing the Students’ Guild. The drama had got me to articulate my convictions about faith and sexuality to myself.

This was because the drama had a lot to do with the ‘religious freedom/Biblical teaching/equalities’ faultline, though that wasn’t where it had started. Never mind that. I couldn’t reconcile anti-LGBTQ theology with the Gospel.

I hoped and suspected that same-sex marriage, if it ever happened, would sort things out. What I didn’t do was apply any of my thinking to myself. Because I was in a heterosexual relationship, so why would I need to think about any of that? And for quite a while, I didn’t.

So. Graduated. Got engaged to the chap I mentioned upthread. (What I didn’t say is that we met in chapel choir, and that he was agnostic at the time and is now a churchgoing atheist. Which doesn’t seem to bother anybody…)

The beautiful irony in this #BeautifulStory is the fact that it was Church of England marriage preparation courses that got me to take a long, hard look at myself and appreciate that I couldn’t keep on keeping what I knew about myself to myself. So I came out to my fiancé.

And again, nothing much happened. We got married, moved house several times, sang in the choir together, both knowing I was bi. It didn’t make any difference. As one of my friends once said, being bisexual merely doubles the pool of people with whom one doesn’t commit adultery.

All of that is still true. And yet… It does make a difference. Because knowing I was bi and having my husband know I was bi wasn’t enough. Without realising, I was pushing part of myself down, leaving part of myself outside the church door.

I was thinking that part of myself was not acceptable – despite the fact that I’d have been horrified to catch myself thinking that about any other #FaithfullyLGBT person.

There’s a character in my first novel who’s a bit of a caricature of the Perfect Christian Woman. Wife, mother, pink top, cross pendant, etc. She’s also bi, but nobody knows, because she’s so good at projecting the PCW image. In a way, she’s a rather unflattering self-portrait.

Quite a lot happened the year I turned 30 – in my head and heart, at least. I finally found the gumption to self-publish. And I untangled a whole load of that internalised biphobia. I realised that nobody had hurt me as much as I had hurt myself.

And, self-publishing, on the last but one editing pass, I revisited my self-portrait, my Perfect Christian woman, and thought, Good grief, she sounds miserable. I’d moved on.

In between times, I was coming out to people, some of whom were at church. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was a relief, sometimes it was awful. Every time my knees went wobbly afterwards. After a while I decided that I’d act as if everybody knew, and stop worrying.

But of course heteronormativity plus a different-sex partner meant that people always assumed – actually, ‘assumed’ is too strong a word – that I was straight, so I kept having to come out. I came out online, I came out offline. I came out to my family, to clergy, to colleagues.

I came out so many times to my (high turnover) Bible study group that I started to wonder if my purpose on earth was to demonstrate to ordinands (this was a Cambridge church, so got a lot on placements) that they were likely to encounter bolshy queer laypeople.

Now I’ve moved and will have to do it all over again. I have a few lapel badges to assist me. And it does get easier with practice (and not caring so much what people think, or whether they even think it.)

And this is really what my #BeautifulStory has been. From the outside, it looks very similar to the way it looked 15 years ago. But inside I am constantly being renewed and transformed.

I am constantly coming to understand more of who and what I am, and how that glorifies God much more than my previous half-life. I take all of myself to church, these days.

My novels tend to have more action than this. If you want a fictional #BeautifulStory, try Speak Its Name. If you want to know why this is still a big deal in the Church of England, The Real World is out now.

Award-winning crossword clue

Framed certificate with text: 'The Betty Trask Award 2017/Winner/Kathleen Jowitt for Speak Its Name (self-published)/The Society of Authors Prizes/Judges/Simon Brett/Joanne Harris/Michele Roberts'

That cryptic (thank you, thank you, I’m here all week) title refers not an award-winning clue, nor even an award-winning crossword (though you never know), but to Jae‘s F/F Fiction Crossword featuring award-winning WLW & lesbian fiction, which features, among other award-winning books, my first novel, Speak Its Name.

What’s the name of the hall of residence at the University of Stancester where Lydia Hawkins is Christian Fellowship representative?

Well, you can find the answer in the extract on my site, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the book (and the award), because I know a lot of readers will very reasonably be reading that clue and thinking ‘what on earth???’ Because, let’s face it, that question (which I drafted) seems like a bit of an unlikely start for a WLW book. And yet there it is, in some excellent lesfic company.

Speak Its Name is (as you see) a university story and (as you can guess) a coming out story. It’s got a bit of romance and a bit of satire. It is, above all, a story about how it’s possible to be more than one thing at once, to claim an identity that might be more complicated than most people assume, about the joy and the tension and the grief of having both a religious faith and a queer identity.

Lydia Hawkins is the main character, and by now you’ve probably guessed that ‘the secrets she tried to keep even from herself’ include her identity as a lesbian. Which I suppose would be a bit of a spoiler, if you hadn’t come here from Jae’s crossword. Anyway, she manages to get her head and her heart around that, but that’s rather less than half the story…

In ‘very good timing’ news, I’ve just released the sequel. In ‘very bad timing’ news, I’ve been hit by a bug that’s kicked all my ebooks off the major retail platforms. I’m trying to get that fixed; in the meantime, you can still get everything in paperback, and the ebooks are available from Lulu.

The award that it won was the 2017 Betty Trask Award. The Betty Trask Prize is awarded every year by the Society of Authors to the best debut by an author under the age of 35. Submissions, it says, have to be in ‘a romantic or traditional style’. Speak Its Name is a bit of both.

I only entered because it was free to do so, and because they accepted self-published books (at least, they didn’t say they didn’t). Being shortlisted was a huge surprise. I was walking with my brother in northern Spain at the time, and had in fact forgotten that I’d even entered my book for the awards. Realising that I was the first self-published author ever to have been shortlisted blew me away completely. I’ve made a tiny piece of literary history, and I’m still immensely proud of that.

The delightful thing about it is that even being on the shortlist gives you a Betty Trask Award and a cheque for £3000 to be spent on foreign travel. (I went Interrailing and enjoyed myself hugely.) And again, I’m in good company. Previous winners include Sarah Waters – who I met at the awards ceremony, and who was absolutely lovely.

I have the certificate hanging on the wall to the right of my desk, and it makes me smile every time I see it. Writing a book is a slog. (So is self-publishing.) If my experience is anything to go by, all the authors on that list of clues will have put a huge amount of work into their books, and will have been delighted to have it recognised.

Good luck with the rest of the crossword clues – and I hope you find many more new authors to enjoy!

Banner showing a golden cup and text 'Award-winning WLW & Lesbian Fiction'