In conversation with…@WriterMJLee

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Author Q&A with writer Martin Lee 

Last month, in honour of Remembrance Day, I wrote about my Great Great Uncle William who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. How apt then, when writing my column, I came across author Martin Lee’s recently published novella, The Silent Christmas, which finds Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, trying to unravel a mystery concerning her client’s great grandfather in the trenches on December 25, 1914. Read my review here to find out more but in the meantime, I’d thought we’d do an interview with the author himself.

Martin, can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself? How long have you been writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life, but not a novel writer. I worked in advertising for over 25 years as a copywriter and creative director. Every day, I had to go into work and, in the blink of an eye, come up with creative solutions to business problems for clients. About four years ago, I was offered a new job and I had a chat with a headhunter who asked me what I really wanted to do with my future. Without a thought, I answered ‘write novels’. And now, here I am, with The Silent Christmas being my tenth book to be published, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair series.

I really enjoyed The Silent Christmas, which falls into the historical fiction genre, however, I also understand that you’ve recently released a contemporary thriller called Where The Truth Lies? My question being, which do you prefer to write about, the past or the present?

I’m so glad you enjoyed The Silent Christmas, I really loved writing the book. The answer is both, because the challenges are very different for an author. When writing about the past, you have to put yourself in the mind of the character, his or her beliefs, attitudes and thoughts at the time. Writing in the present is much more about observation of people and events in one’s daily life. I think what links the two is the idea of character. What made people act they way they did, whether it is yesterday or 100 years ago. That’s what I love to write about.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I love research, it’s where you can escape the banal and ordinary and discover something new. As I write historical crime fiction, the mores, actions and beliefs of the time are present in all my work. Readers would soon point out (and have) anachronisms for me. Research allows me to stay true to the times whether its 1920s Shanghai, the Restoration period of Samuel Pepys, or the first year of the Great War.

I’m quite methodical, probably because I was at one time a researcher in history as well as my background in advertising. I start with some general books of the period, in this case the lead up and first year of World War One, so that I can understand what was happening on a macro level. Then I will read contemporary newspaper accounts of what happened. In most cases these are third hand, ie reporters writing about something told to them, but in the case of the Christmas Truce some newspapers published letters from men at the front describing what had happened. At the same time, I will look at newsreel footage, programmes or films on the subject. Some of the participants actually described what happened on film. Next I will read memoirs or first hand accounts of what happened. There are three or four published accounts of the Christmas Truce the best being by Henry Williamson, Bruce Bairnsfather and Bertie Felstead. Finally, I will look at contemporary documents such as War Diaries and individual diaries kept at the National Archives or, in this case, at Cheshire Military Museum.

I’m generally researching two books ahead of my writing. So at the moment I’m looking into the Emancipation of Slaves in 1834….

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Character. Why do people act like they do?

In The Silent Christmas, what made people, on both sides, stop killing each other for one day? What made people stop being enemies and become friends? And conversely, having met and chatted with their opposite numbers, how did they return to the trenches a day later and start killing again?

And finally, what one piece of advice would you offer any would be writers out there?

Read. Read. Read.

But read smartly.

How is the writer telling his story? What are they trying to say? How are they saying it? What would you do differently? How have they built up character and themes? What genre are they writing in? How would you describe this book in one sentence?

And once you’ve decided to be a writer, never, never give up. There will come a point when you want to stop. Don’t. Push on through to the end, because nobody will ever read an unfinished book.

Writer Martin Lee

M J Lee can be contacted at http://www.writermjlee.com, on Facebook at writermjlee and on twitter at @writermjlee. He’s nothing if not original with his handles (his words – not mine!).

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Book #Review of The Silent Christmas by @WriterMJLee

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My Book Review of – The Silent Christmas by M J Lee

Independently published

 

Thanks to a cousin who has been researching our family tree, I recently discovered I had a Great-Great uncle who served in the trenches during WWl. He joined at the start of the war as a volunteer in 1914, and just one year later, aged twenty-one, he was dead, killed in action, his body never recovered but is commemorated on the Menin Wall in Ypres, Belgium. How apt then, I should stumble upon Martin Lee’s recently released novella, The Silent Christmas, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, which can also be read as a stand-alone.

Set in both the present day and the WWI trenches, the story centres on the informal football match believed to have taken place between the English and German soldiers during a brief truce on Christmas Day 1914. The first chapter takes us straight to the trenches on December 21st in Belgium, capturing the conditions and possible mind-set of some soldiers, ‘He lay on his back on the hard ground and dreamt of England; picnicking on the grass in front of the bandstand, straw hat tipped over his eyes to shield them from the sun… A shadow crossed his face and he felt a tap against his foot. ‘Time to get up, Tom, we’re moving forward… The men began packing up… As they did so, a solitary shell from a German whizz-bang whistled overhead, landing one hundred yards past the farm. None of the men moved or even ducked; each one carried on preparing to move forward as if nothing had happened.’ We then move forward to the present day and discover Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, asked, just days before Christmas, if she can help shed light on the mystery of several items, namely a label, a silver button and a lump of leather, found in a chest in the attic of her client. Ms Sinclair, who says, ‘Our role as genealogists is to use our research to bring these lost people, the vanished people of our family, back to life,’ agrees, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Written in the third person throughout, The Silent Christmas is a fictional tale exploring the actual events that took place during December 1914, later called the ‘Christmas Truce.’ A real “feel good” story handled with great care and respect, full of hope and love, that is both well written and researched. And, as 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice it is also particularly poignant.

You can find The Silent Christmas on Amazon.co.uk here and Amazon.com here

 

Writer Martin Lee

 

M J Lee can be contacted at http://www.writermjlee.com, on Facebook at writermjlee and on twitter at @writermjlee. 

Remembrance Day, The Menin Gate and Great, Great Uncle William

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When I was a very small child and people asked me when my birthday was, I’d tell them—11th November. “Ah Remembrance Day”, they’d reply, nodding their heads gravely. Understandably, their sobriety confused me. Remembrance Day or not, it was my birthday… and birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions aren’t they? As I got older though, understood better, I realised what an important day it is. Marked on the date of the World War I Armistice (1918), Remembrance Day is a day when—regardless of politics, religion, and race—everyone in the UK and Commonwealth remembers those who have lost their lives in war and military conflict while serving in the armed forces.

 

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2018 is particularly poignant because it marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice. It is also the year that my lovely cousin Dean, who lives in Kent, got in touch with some very interesting information. He’d been doing family research (on my mother’s side) and discovered we had a Great, Great Uncle, Corporal William Alfred Tuckley, who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium dedicated to soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Since the inauguration ceremony, which took place in July 1928, a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate every night at 8.00pm regardless of turnout or weather. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and local people are said to be very proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.

 

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Built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, the vast, white, Portland-stone walls of the Menin Gate are engraved with the names of some 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost on the battlefield with no known graves, my Great, Great Uncle William among them. His recorded date of death was 17th October 1915—he was just 21 years old. A very sobering thought when I think of my son who recently had his 20th birthday, and my daughter who is 22. So, this year during the two minute silence, while my thoughts, as usual, will go out to all those who have served and lost their lives, I will also take a moment to spare a special thought for my Great, Great Uncle William.

 

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The Go-Between and The George!

The Past is a foreign country;they do things differently there_ – L P Hartley

I live in a small Fenland town called Whittlesey which is six miles to the west of Peterborough, eleven miles to the east of March, bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke. For such a small town it is rich in history and was once connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman road, Fen Causeway, constructed in the first century AD, which is the approximate route of the modern A605 road used today. Whittlesey also appears in the Cartularium Saxonicum (973 A.D.) as Witlesig, in the Domesday Book as Witesie, and in the Inquisitio Eliensis (1086 A.D.) as Wittleseia.

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Whittlesey in the 1940s.

Recently, while waiting to meet a couple of friends at one of the local pubs in Whittlesey, The George (which you can see to the left in the above photo), a grade II listed building (also rich in history) which dates from the late 18th century and whose landlords can be identified as far back as 1830, I happened to look up, and there on the wall opposite was a framed black and white photo (one of many adorning the walls) of a rather serious, rather dapper looking gentleman. Curious, I moved in for a closer look. Bespectacled and sporting a very bushy moustache, not unlike that worn by Tom Selleck during his Magnum PI days (showing my age now!), his chin resting on his hand in a somewhat contrived pose, the name above his head read, L.P. Hartley. Not to be confused with J.R. Hartley – a fictional character and said author in a popular TV advertisement promoting the Yellow Pages back in the early 1980’s that sees an elderly gentleman trawling second hand bookshops for a book called Fly Fishing – L.P. Hartley was, I discovered, actually a bona fide author of several famous works of fiction (one of which contains one of my favourite quotes – above) with a local connection.

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Leslie Poles Hartley (named after Leslie Stephen, who was, among other things, an author, critic, and historian, not to mention the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) was a British novelist and short story writer, born 20th December 1895 – in Whittlesey. The son of Bessie and Harry Bark Hartley, a solicitor, Leslie also had two sisters, Enid and Annie Norah. While he was young, the family moved to Fletton Tower, a small country estate near Peterborough. However, most of his schooling took place in Cliftonville, Thanet, and Clifton College, Bristol. He completed his education at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read modern history and also met and befriended fellow writer, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). Some of his early works of fiction were published in the early 1920’s, however, his writing career, much to his disappointment, was slow to take off. It was only during later life that he began to experience serious success. His best-known novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy (1944-7) and The Go-Between (1953 – where the above quote comes from), which was made into a film in 1971 starring Julie Christie (a photo of which also sits alongside Hartley in the same frame) and Alan Bates. Offering a critical review of society at the end of the Victorian era, the New York Times described the novel as “a triumph of literary architecture.” The Go-Between was joint winner of the Heinemann Award and Hartley was awarded the CBE in 1956. Hartley died in London on 13 December 1972 at the age of 76, however, I think I can safely say L.P. Hartley was a local boy done good!

Book #Review of Before The Fall by @JulietWest14 @panmacmillan

A great war.
A powerful love.
An impossible choice.

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My Book Review of – Before The Fall by Juliet West

Published by Pan; Main Market Ed. edition

A tale of forbidden love, Before The Fall is beautiful, poignant and heartbreakingly sad. Set in London’s East End during the First World War, this is a fictional tale based on true events.

Hannah Loxwood is the struggling young mother of two children, namely 4-year-old Alice and 2-year-old Teddy. Her husband, George, one of many young men who has voluntarily enlisted to fight in the Great War, is across the channel, fighting. To help make ends meet, Hannah and her children move into the home of her older sister, Jen, and brother in law, Alec, and to help pay her way Hannah takes a job offer in a local café. There, she meets Mr Blake, Daniel, a welder. “This man, he’s not like your average docker. He’s well built all right, strong like you have to be, but there’s something unusual about him. A word comes to my mind – elegant – and I tell myself not to be so daft. It isn’t a word I’ve thought of before, let alone said.” Hannah quickly realises she is drawn to the quietly intriguing Daniel in a way she neither expected nor anticipated. The feeling, as it turns out, is mutual. “All the single girls in London and he has to fall for a soldiers wife … beautiful, odd, vulnerable.” Nonetheless, Hannah is a married woman; social norms must be observed at all times. Hence Hannah and Daniel must do their level best to suppress any thoughts or feelings that go beyond friendship. However, as the war rages on, Hannah finds herself wondering if her husband will ever return home again – and if indeed she actually wants him to.

Well researched, full of fascinating historical details, including police statements, newspaper reports and witness statements, Before The Fall is a brilliantly crafted, superbly written novel. The characters are well rounded and believable, especially Hannah, written in the first person – whom I became highly invested in – and Daniel, written in the third person. The author’s prose is wonderfully captivating and highly evocative – I could see the smog, smell the river, feel the hunger, and sense the desperation. However, although set amongst the fear and uncertainty of war torn London, this is not a war story but rather a mesmerising, realistic, and haunting tale of love. It is also a story about the plight of women, their sad indictment and the difficulties they faced if caught challenging a ruthless wartime society. A sensitive, powerful, must read.

 

#Review – A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray @whjm ‏

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My book Review of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Published by Oneworld Publications

This year marks the  100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK.  Also, on March 8th, it was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, observed annually since the early 1900’s. I therefore thought it appropriate to review a book that was both fitting and relevant to both these historic events.

A History of Britain in 21 Women is written by Dame Jenni Murray; probably best known as Radio 4’s presenter of Women’s Hour and whom I had the very great pleasure of meeting last year. These short biographies are a personal selection chosen by Murray to present the history of Britain through the lives of twenty-one women, whose lives embodied hope and change, who refused to surrender to established laws of society, and, who still have the power to inspire us today.

In the introduction Murray, born in 1950, states that growing up “the role of a woman was to learn how to be a good wife and mother, do the cooking and cleaning and nurture those her around her.” She quotes Thomas Carlyle, circa 1840, who said ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ and as a young girl growing up in Barnsley in the 1950’s and ‘60’s that’s pretty much what Murray believed. However, it was education that made her question the expectations placed on women, and after attending a wonderful girls’ school she began to discover many women that had influenced history and also challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.

Murray writes about, to name but a few; Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe who fought bravely against the Romans to preserve a social structure that had been practised by, and was so important to the women of the tribes of Britain, namely equality; Aphra Behn, the first English woman playwright to earn her living by her pen; Astronomer Caroline Herschel, after whom a crater on the moon is named; And, computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. We are also given an insight into the courageous account of writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840) entitled ‘Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812, who, when she discovered she had breast cancer and under the insistence of specialist surgeons, underwent one of the first recorded mastectomy’s at a time when there was no effective anaesthetic – ouch! She was 59 years old at the time and went on to live until the ripe old age of 88!

Written as biographies in small chunks, A History of Britain in 21 Women is well researched, informative and entertaining. Dedicated to “all the young people who need to know” it is an illuminating, easy read offering a great deal to both women and men of all ages. However some of Murray’s omissions were interesting and there was one woman in particular whom I felt wasn’t deserving of a place amongst such great individuals – but that’s purely politics. Nonetheless a thought-provoking read finishing with a timely reminder that we still have a way to go and the fight for gender parity must continue.

 

#PressforProgress – Still A Long Way To Go

 

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

–Mary Wollstonecraft

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Image: Pixabay

 

Today, Thursday 8th March 2018, is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, political, cultural, and economic achievements of women. It is also a day that marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. The call to action this year is #PressforProgress and with global activism for women’s equality fuelled by movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp momentum is particularly strong this year. 2018 also marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK. So, a century on, how are we doing?

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Image: Pixabay

Sadly, the findings of the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report (International Women’s Day website) suggest gender parity is still over 200 years away. Disheartening to say the least. Further research suggests that globally, one in three women suffer from gender-based violence, sixty two million girls, annually, are denied access to education, and women in the workplace still suffer in terms of pay and representation. Much has also been written about the inequality female writers still face in the writing and publishing world. As a female writer myself, I wanted to explore this a bit further.

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Image: Pixabay

In terms of reviews, literary prizes, and senior positions within publishing houses, many are still being awarded to men above women. Even World Book Night (The Guardian) shows that the picks of the last 5 years have been made up of 64 male versus 36 female authors. And author Nicola Griffith shows gender bias in her study, published in May 2015, of prizewinning books both here and across the pond, broken down by the gender of their protagonists. Her findings suggest that in the last 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have had male protagonists, two have had female protagonists, and one has had both male and female protagonists. The Booker fared better than the Pulitzer, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books. I was also disappointed to find in a study carried out by The Guardian in August 2016, articles written by women, irrespective of their content or subject matter, attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men.

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Image: Pixabay

Aleesah Darlison (Writers Edit) attributes continued gender discrimination to “tradition and possibly even culture… It’s incredibly difficult to change centuries-old thinking, but women are continually striving to move forward.” 

Whereas some writers like Christine Piper (Writers Edit), author and winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for After Darkness suggests that the confines of professional limitations based on gender are sometimes self-imposed and said “Like many women, I’ve been guilty of self-sabotage: doubting my ability, playing down my talents, taking rejections personally, and being shy about pursuing opportunities. Men are socialised to be confident and champion their abilities (but of course not all male writers are like this), while women are not – if a woman does do those things she’s often seen as arrogant or a ‘tall poppy’.”

However, it’s not all bad news, women are making advances. I only have to look at my daughter to see the opportunities available to her compared to my mother who, born in 1950, was paid half the wage of a man when she first started working. Nonetheless, let’s not get complacent, continue to unite, support one another and #PressforProgress for women.

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Image: Pixabay