Welcome to my blog. I am not a very regular blogger, but I try to keep this site updated with news and information. If there's none of the above I may just share my random ruminations.

Friday, May 22, 2015

FLY OR FALL

Perhaps she is worrying for nothing. Perhaps, after moving out of London to a strange town, she will settle quickly and put down roots. Why does she fear their move up in the world? Why isn't she looking forward to a life where penny-pinching is consigned to the past?  Being comfortable, having money in the bank, living in the manicured suburbs ... will this life undermine her principles? Surely not?

FLY OR FALL took many years to write. I started and stopped, put it away and got it out again. There are several reasons for this which I won't go into now, but it was also a difficult story to write. It has a larger cast of characters than I’d ever handled before, and the plot was complicated. There were a lot of balls I needed to keep in the air.

Each of the protagonists has a history, they each have flaws and failings, they each keep secrets, but.... They are secrets I do not want my reader - or my heroine - to know until the time is right!

A Man up a Ladder
 seems a prosaic image but, believe me,
 it has significance!
Wife and mother, Nell, fears change, but it is forced upon her by her manipulative husband, Trevor. She feels stranded in an unfamiliar landscape, far away from old friends. And there's no comfort to be found in the house they've moved into. It feels like she's living in a building site.

Straightforward and honest, Nell is a woman whose default position is to take life at face value, to believe others’ accounts of themselves.  She’s not stupid, but it never crosses her mind that others are not like her; that the people in her life might deceive and hide and lie.
Halfway through the story, the friends she’s made and the casual infidelity which permeates the atmosphere in which she now lives, tempt her into making a fatal mistake. It is only then that she begins to realise that nothing is as it seems. Everyone - even her nearest and dearest - has been lying. She’s even deluded herself. Some of the deceptions are serious, some trivial, but it’s like a house of cards.  Take one away and everything begins to topple. And when an unlikely love blossoms from the wreckage, she believes it has no future.

Everything in the life of the woman who feared change, is irrevocably altered. But has she been broken, or has she transformed herself? Will she fly or will she fall?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Triumphs and Knock Backs

Life has a habit of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  Two things are happening to me at the moment.  I’ve a new book coming out - the second in my republishing deal with Accent Press - but my mother-in-law has died. Next week, when FLY OR FALL is launched, I'll be in Chichester at Barbara's funeral.


In many ways it was a good death.  Barbara Williams was 92 and had lived independently almost until the end. Despite living with cancer for the last few years, she had continued to go to church and for little outings and lunches with her boyfriend (who lived in the flat next door) right up until the beginning of 2015.  When her health began to decline more dramatically, the day’s out ceased and she was cared for at home.  Nurses from Saint Wilfrid’s Hospice came in three times a day to attend to her needs.  It would have been kinder if she’d slipped away then, while still living in her own surroundings, her bits and pieces, photos and ornaments, all around her. But a week and a half before her death it became unavoidable that she be taken into a nursing home. In the terminology of the Saint Wilfrid’s nurses, she had become too vulnerable. Nursing care needed to be on-site and full-time.  






Barbara and her son, my husband Geoff
The staff at the home were caring and kind. It was a pleasant place, airy and spacious with big gardens and sea views.  But Barbara was too poorly to appreciate the amenities. She didn’t want the bother of being taken downstairs to the lounge .  I’m glad the time she spent in her bedroom there, was short.  We’d seen her a few days before, but we weren’t there at the last; her son, Paul, was at her bedside. It cheers us to have been told that she was in good form on the day preceding her death and enjoyed a full English breakfast.  It’s an image of her resilience and attitude to life that will stay with us.
Barbara was one of my biggest supporters. She always read my books in manuscript form and would express astonishment I couldn't get a publisher.
It was a great joy to me that she was staying with us last summer when the news of my Accent deal was confirmed. I was able to tell her I'd found a new publisher after..... a long time. She was thrilled.


On the 21st May, FLY OR FALL, is launched in its beautiful new cover.  It is actually the third of my self-published novels, but Accent Press are bringing it out second, in my three book republishing deal.  The books aren’t linked so there’s no problem with that.
I won’t waffle on; in the next few weeks I’ve a few appearances lined up around the web, where you’ll have a chance to find out more about the book, and about me.
The first is at BrookCottage Books on the 22nd, where I talk about the strange and disturbing coincidences that occurred to me - my life began imitating my plot - when I first started writing FLY OR FALL. The second appearance is at A Woman’s Wisdom on the 25th.  There I am interviewed, and you can read an opening extract from FLY OR FALL. Here's the blurb to be going on with!



“Wife and mother, Nell, fears change, but it is forced upon her by her manipulative husband, Trevor. Finding herself in a new world of flirtation and casual infidelity, her principles are undermined and she’s tempted. Should she emulate the behaviour of her new friends or stick with the safe and familiar?
But everything Nell has accepted at face value has a dark side.  Everyone - even her nearest and dearest - has been lying. She’s even deceived herself. The presentiment of disaster, first felt as a tremor at the start of the story, rumbles into a full blown earthquake. When the dust settles, nothing is as it previously seemed. And when an unlikely love blossoms from the wreckage of her life, she fears it is doomed.
The future, for the woman who feared change, is irrevocably altered. But has she been broken, or has she transformed herself?"

FLY OR FALL is not published until Thursday, the 21st May, but is available to pre-order.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

If I Hadn't Gone To That RNA Conference....!

I owe a lot to the Romantic Novelist's Association.   It is a truly egalitarian and supportive organisation, where the stars of romantic fiction rub shoulders with those for whom a published novel is still just a dream.

Being a member provides access to information, friendship and a sharing of experiences. It also offers the chance to learn what's new and to network within the world of publishing. Last but not least the RNA offers a mentoring scheme for new writers who are not yet published - the NWS.  Apart from its annual award's ceremony - a very glittering occasion - and it's parties, meetings and local 'chapters', the RNA also organises a yearly conference.

When I joined the RNA - so long ago I can't actually remember the year - I was already published, but my publisher had gone out of business. I was confident I would find a new publisher soon, but in the meantime I would be able to keep my fingers on the pulse through my membership. The years ticked by. The RNA became my only contact with publishing, other than the letters, submissions and ultimately emails, that winged back and forth between me and publishers, and then between me and literary agents.  Sometimes I went to the annual RNA Conference, sometimes I didn't. It depended where it was to be held and how cheerful and optimistic I was feeling when the time came to make a committment.

In 2011, e-publishing and, more particularly, the Amazon Kindle, was still a fairly new idea.  I felt I'd reached the end of the road in my attempts to find a new publisher and I decided to self-publish .
Hazel Cushion of Accent Press

It has been a very steep learning curve and now, having been in the midst of this revolution for the past three plus year, I have reached a conclusion.  The success some have undoubtedly achieved as Indies depends not just on writing a good book.  There has to be two extra elements - an author with chutzpah and a book with clear marketability.  I have very little chutzpah and my books are complex, lacking an easy one-line summation.


Last summer I decided to attend the RNA Conference, which was being held at the Harper Adams University in Shropshire.  There I renewed my acquaintance with Hazel Cushion, head honcho of Accent Press. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within a matter of weeks I had signed on the dotted line and Accent had contracted to republish my three self-published novels.

TORN came out on December 17, 2014, with a stunning new cover.

I  am so much more comfortable here, back within the fold of a "proper" publisher.  But not any old publisher.  Accent is a publisher which has already proved itself to be dynamic and innovative. Of course I will still have to get out there on social media and hawk myself and my book, but I am doing so in the knowledge that I have the back-up of  Accent and all its other authors. I am soooooooooooo glad I attended the 2014 RNA Conference. From here on in the only way is up!

I have just visited Rosemary Gemmell at her Reading and Writing Blog, where I talk about the inspiration behind TORN. I've always followed the old adage - write what you know - and the creation of TORN was no exception to this rule.  But don’t expect me to be too revelatory. There are some things best left for me to know and you to guess at.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Close Encounter with Fame in Paxos

Though we'd visited on a day trip from Parga in 2002, this was out first holiday in the Greek island of Paxos.  I've talked about it already, but what I haven't mentioned previously was our brush with celebrity. My husband, Geoff, is very into music and the previous day, while we were walking through the tiny harbour village of Loggos, he suddenly span round and eyes on a retreating figure, said, "I'm sure that was.... I saw him on Jools Holland only a few weeks ago."

Though I knew of him, I wouldn't have recognised the singer/songwriter he mentioned and I thought no more about it until Spiros Anemogiannis, owner of the bar we frequented for breakfast and late night Metaxxa, told us there was going to be a jam session in the bar that night. The man Geoff had spotted had a villa nearby and wanted to play. We were instructed, very seriously, that we were NOT to spread the word. We were thrilled and honoured, feeling that we'd been picked out as 'cool'.















Neil Finn on guitar, Spiros on accordion, plus a bazouki player.

We had a fabulous evening.  Though he's the front man from Crowded House, the bar was far from crowded, and NewZealander, Neil Finn put on a great performance. And yes, he did play and sing, Weather with You.


It was early in the holiday when this happened, and we rather assumed it would go on like this. We had a wonderful time but Neil Finn - or any other passing sleb - failed to put in any further appearances.  Ah well, you mustn't be greedy.
                                                    I'm definitely looking over-excited

Friday, August 15, 2014

August - The centenary of the start of the Great War



My grandpas both fought in and survived WW1.
My dad’s father, John Jamie Allan, (stage name Jamie Dallas) was a music hall and variety performer - ‘a song and dance’ man. During the early days of the war he wanted to do his bit and repeatedly volunteered, but was repeatedly turned down, probably because he was asthmatic and was considered too old.  But the very poignant aspect to his story is that minds changed.  On the same day the papers arrived accepting him into the London Scottish (he was by then 36 and still had asthma, but presumably the losses were so great that they’d lowered the bar to entry and would take almost anyone), sod’s law decreed that he should also receive the offer of a contract to perform at the Drury Lane theatre. It was the biggest break of his career but he was unable to take it up.

Pictured right, John Jamie Allan is shown here in costume - possibly a Doyley Carte Opera, a pantomime, or comedy sketch.  Date unknown. 
He suffered injuries during the war which, despite his best efforts when he’d recovered and the war was over, prevented him from fully resuming his former career.  He could still sing but was no longer able to dance and do the 'prat falls' required in his type of slapstick. It was a double whammy because his disability coincided with the decline of variety theatre, and though there were still opportunities, they were fewer and further between.
The only memory I have of him is visiting him after he’d been confined to bed with severe chest problems - asthma, bronchitis or emphysema (he may even have been exposed to mustard gas). I was not yet 4 but apparently I danced for him, which made him laugh. He died not long afterwards. From 1918 until his death in 1952, Granddad had lived an increasingly limited, financially straitened and disappointed life. 
Pictured right, John Jamie Allan in uniform. Possibly around 1916.


We, his grandchildren, called my mum’s father, Popsy. We called her mother, Nanny. Nanny and Popsy - real name James (Jim) and Louisa Jane Kelsey - were cockneys.  Jim had volunteered at the start of war, when he was still a teenager aged 17 or 18.  He was wounded in the knee at the battle of the Somme and invalided home to recover.  When he was fit again he was posted to Ireland, where there was considerable unrest at the time. Even though he felt unwelcome and uncomfortable there - he recalled being spat at in the street - it was a mercy he wasn’t sent back to the front and like so many who served, he never spoke about his WW1 experiences.
Pictured right - Jim Kelsey poses here with his mother. It is probably 1914, just before he left for the war, aged 17 or 18.  
He went on to live a happy, modest but fulfilled life. An abiding memory from my childhood is of crowding around the piano with all the family, in my grandparents front room, while Popsy played ‘pub style’ and sang all the popular songs of his youth. We all joined in. I still have a love of the songs of Al Johnson and all those songs inextricably linked with the Great War.  
Pictured left, Jim with Louisa Jane and between them, my mother, Irene. 1922 or 23
Popsy died, aged 72, in 1969. Shortly after his death I spent a night in my grandparents’ house to keep Nanny company.  I woke up with a song running through my head.  It was almost like a message from Popsy, telling me not to be downhearted, that everything would be all right. It still brings a lump to my throat whenever I hear it.  Keep the Home Fires Burning.




Monday, June 2, 2014

My Visit to The Hay Literary Festival





I have thought of myself as a writer since..... 
Well, it’s been a long time since 'Just Before Dawn' was published. The prospect that I would  one day go to the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival as a featured author was a fervent ambition. I was still deluded enough to believe that it was within the bounds of possibility.

But it was our son’s literary efforts, not mine, that took me there.  




On the first Saturday of the Hay Festival, Thomas J T Williams was billed to appear on the Starlight Stage to speak to an audience of parents and children about his book, 'The Tale of King Harald’. The book details the life and exploits of Harald ‘Hardrada’ (hard ruler) Sigurdsson, the Viking King defeated by our own King Harold Godwinson, at Stamford Bridge in 1066, just before the Norman Invasion. 
The night before we were due to go, the weather forecast could not have been much worse.  I abandoned my initial intention to wear high-heeled ankle boots for flat shoes. Wellingtons would have been more appropriate - that’s what the experienced were wearing on their feet.  But then, why wouldn’t an open air festival, situated in a field, and housed in tents, not be subject to the conditions so often seen at Glastonbury? This is England, after all.
We’d been forward thinking enough to make for the wet weather car park, but it was overflowing and we had to park in the driveway leading to it.  We didn’t get out of paying the £5 charge though.  Then the interminable wait for the shuttle bus. After 20 minutes standing in a long queue, the rain pounding down on our umbrellas, vehicles splashing tidal waves of muddy rainwater up our legs as they passed, we first began to wonder if there was only one shuttle bus. And then we began to wonder what on earth we were doing here! 
When the bus eventually arrived it
was too small to take us all.  Fortunately shuttle buses then 
turned up mob-handed. Hay is a small town, with narrow streets.  The journey was tortuous and slow. Eventually we arrived at the site and, thankfully, there were walkways laid out across the sodden ground to the various tents, but by now they too were wet, muddy and slimy. 

We knew we had to make our way to the box office where our tickets were being held for us. But the tickets weren't all that was waiting for us and the day suddenly became radiant again.  Our son, Tom, and daughter-in-law, Zee, were there and the tickets, which we’d expected to pay for, were complementary. Not only that, seats in the front row of the sell-out event, had been reserved for us. We were so proud to be there, enhanced by my own claim to be taking part in the event. I was not just Tom's mum, I was the illustrator of his book. (To find out how and why see the previous post on How the Vikings Invaded my Life.)

Our son has performed in front of audiences since he was a teenager. But the only time we’d seen him was at his school, where he and his friends had improvised some surreal sketches for an end of year show. Through university and later, he played and sang in several heavy metal bands which gigged around the country and abroad. And since those days he has become a regular speaker at conferences, on subjects connected to the early Medieval period, the focus of his PhD. But we had never seen him perform and didn’t know what to expect, until the first Saturday of the Hay Festival. 
Had I been an X Factor judge I would have said “He owned the stage”! As the project curator of the Vikings-Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum, Tom needed to balance his talk between his own book, and Vikings in general, and he did so brilliantly, even though I am hardly an objective commentator. Throughout he used images from the exhibition, plus illustrations from the book to make his points. The audience was largely children, but he didn't talk down to them and neither did he talk over their heads. He was witty and informative and answered the clamour of questions with grace and good humour. Afterwards, in the book tent, we had a queue of people who wanted their books signed. It was great fun.

But that wasn’t the end of feeling like a real celebrity.  We lunched for free in the “authors” tent where we hobnobbed (or, more accurately, spotted)  Peter Snow, and then Jennifer Saunders and Ade Edmondson (who, by the way, were wearing wellingtons).







It was a long drive home to London for Tom and Zee, so we went our separate ways shortly after lunch.  As my husband and I crossed the river Severn, on our way home, the sun came out.  We didn’t need it.  We already had a warm glow.



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How The Vikings Invaded My Life

Many years ago I worked as an illustrator in advertising. Over the years I’ve continued to design our annual family Christmas cards and have taken on a few small private jobs; but, to all intents and purposes, I gave up commercial art when I was first published as a novelist.

Christmas following the election of the coalition Government
copyright Gilli Allan

Scroll forward many years to January 2013, when my son, Tom Williams, started a contract with the British Museum, as Project Curator for the ‘Vikings - Life and Legend’ exhibition, scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.  My husband, Geoff Williams, and I were thrilled.  It was a great opportunity for our son and I had no inkling at that time that the ‘Vikings’ would involve me in any way, other than as Tom’s supporter and cheer-leader. 

It wasn’t long, however, before Tom conceived the idea that the British Museum should produce a children’s book to accompany the exhibition, which he would write. He proposed to base a story on the life of Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson, the Viking king who was beaten and killed by our own King Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, just before the battle of Hastings. Tom asked me if I was interested in illustrating the book. His vision was an ornamented ‘arts and crafts’ style, in black and white, with borders and decorative panels.  How could I say no? For one thing I wanted to support my son in this venture. His idea was far more likely to be given a hearing if he already had an illustrator on board. It was also a wonderful and totally unexpected opportunity for me, and the style of illustration he envisaged was one I was comfortable with.  I might be scared stiff, having never done any book illustration, but I sensed it was a once in a lifetime chance which, if it came to fruition, I would forever regret turning down.

I managed to push the idea to the back of my mind; it was still a purely theoretical concept, but when Tom pitched the idea to the British Museum in the early summer of 2013, they were immediately interested. What had I let myself in for? Time went by and it was the end of August before the decision was made to give Tom and me the go ahead to produce a sample first chapter.  At this point there were no still guarantees but, if the project was agreed, the timetable was looking increasingly tight. The deadline was the end of October. 

Tom sent me the opening passage of chapter one, with the brief for an illuminated capital letter, two illustrations and a panel. Instead of allowing myself to worry about whether or not I was capable of doing it, I just launched myself into the job. There wasn’t time to fret and to get tense.

"Long ago, in the days when dragons could still be found, there lived a Viking king. He was fierce and warlike, brave and strong, cunning and cruel. He was called Harald Hard-ruler, and his name was feared wherever it was heard. But it was not always so….

This tale begins when Harald was still a boy. Fifteen years old, he had awoken alone, deep in the dark forest, and wounded near to death. The forest was full of terrors: there were wolves and bears, and more dreadful things too it was said. Harald had listened as a child to the stories told by the skalds, the poets who recited ancient tales in the halls of wealthy chiefs. They sung of dreadful magics and the wakeful dead, of giants and trolls and foul dwellers in inky bogs.

Harald had never thought much about such things. But now, as he looked into the black spaces between the trunks of the silent trees, wounded and afraid, those tales came back to him and filled him up with fear. He reached for the cross around his neck and wondered whether God would protect him, the God his half-brother had fought and died for."

When the commissioning editors at British Museum
Press approved the project, I was thrilled ... 
and terrified. We had the go-ahead, but they didn’t
want the kind of stylised and decorative illustrations
that I felt most comfortable with. I was also informed
that I couldn’t just make things up! Although my
drawing of the rock and the crow was liked, 
(see right margin illustration) the short, wide-bladed 
sword and rustic shield I'd dreamt up were completely
wrong, apparently. Artistic license could only be 
stretched so far. Any Viking artefact about which there
is existing information, or of which there are examples
in the exhibition, had to be depicted as accurately as
possible. 

And British Museum Press required far more images
than I’d envisaged providing. I signed a contract to 
produce an illuminated capital, as well as four 
illustrations, including at least one full-colour plate,
for each chapter of a five chapter book, to be called
'THE TALE OF KING HARALD - The Last Viking
Adventure'.  

From then on a huge number of emails flew back 
and forth between my son and I.  Mine with pleas for 
information “What did eleventh century Novgorod look
like?” or “what did Vikings wear on their feet?” and his
with many references attached. I used loads of ink
printing them all out. 






Until all of this happened I knew nothing about Harald Hardradaother than that his life intersected with English history at Stamford Bridge, in 1066. 
His exploits appear in the Icelandic Sagas and, although some of the more extraordinary detail may be fanciful, the majority of this story is based on historicafact. Independent evidence confirms the vast range of his travels through Europe and into the Middle East, his battles, his influence and his ruthlessness. He wasn't awarded the nickname Hard Ruler - for nothing.  


Never did I expect that at this time in my life I’d be illustrating an elaborate map detailing Harald’s travels, Viking long-ships, eleventh century Constantinople, the aftermath of battle, and a burning village not to mention a polar bear arriving at the court of King Harald (and many more in a similar vein).  

As it turned out, it was easy working with Tom, as we are so in tune and know immediately what the other means. This was essential, as we did not see one another, face to face, throughout the whole project. Thank goodness for the Internet. Doing the illustrations in batches, chapter by chapter, and getting them agreed before knowing what was next, meant I was never overawed by the amount of work still ahead of me.  This approach also meant that British Museum Press could see that the project was on track, and when Tom had not finished writing the book by the end of October (the day job - curating a block-buster exhibition - was making huge demands on his time) the deadline was extended.  It was all wrapped up by the middle of December.

One of the very welcome bonuses of the whole project was that it gave me the idea for our 2013 Christmas card!

The Vikings DID NOT wear horned helmets
copy-right Gilli Allan 

‘THE TALE OF KING HARALD - The last Viking Adventure’ was published in March. 

The book contains not only the story of King Harald Sigurdsson and his adventures. There are factual sections interleaved between the chapters, which describe the culture, beliefs, achievements and conquests of the Vikings, with very accurate drawings of the artefacts, weapons and jewellery seen in the exhibition. Also written by Tom Williams, these passages were illustrated in-house, by William Webb.

The British Museum's  'Vikings - Life and Legend' exhibition  finishes on June 22.