There is nothing I like better than inviting good friends back onto Wendy's Writing Now - especially when they have a super new book out! Today, that person is the writer, Merryn Allingham. I first met Merryn at a gathering of local RNA members and she soon became a friend whose advice I value. She is a super writer and if you haven't read any of her books, you are definitely missing out.
Today, Merryn is answering my questions about The Buttonmaker's Daughter which is set in Sussex in 1914.
Can you remember where you were or what you were doing when the idea for The
Buttonmaker’s Daughter first came to you?
I was on a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. Our guide had a fund of anecdotes and one he told was particularly poignant. It concerned the ordinary working men whose labour had created these beautiful gardens - a single image really, that lodged in my mind and set me writing.
The gardens’ heyday was in the late Victorian/Edwardian eras, several owners spending large amounts of time, money and effort in creating a veritable paradise. But in 1914, war came to England and everything changed. One day in the summer of that year, every gardener on the estate downed tools together and walked to Redruth to enlist at the local recruiting centre. Most of the men never returned, perishing in the mud of Flanders. The Day Book that would normally list jobs completed, that day carried only the date, and was never used again.
It was the image of those men, honourable and courageous, walking together to enlist in what they saw as a just cause, that stayed in my mind, and I knew I had to record that moment in a novel.
Can you describe your novel in one sentence?
As war and family conflict threaten the Summerhayes estate, Elizabeth Summer must decide how best to save her family from danger, yet stay with the man she loves.
How long did it take to write The Buttonmaker’s Daughter?
I did several months’ research in addition to what I already knew of the period, reading up on the social history of the country house, for instance, the timeline of the First World War, emigration to Canada and so on. Then three to four months writing a first draft, and another three months or so after that redrafting and hopefully refining. Around nine months in all, which is about average for me for a 90,000 word novel. But, of course, I wasn’t finished with the book then. There were agent’s suggestions to consider – whether to adopt or adapt or reject them. Then the editor’s revisions, the copy edits and finally the author alterations which was my very last chance to modify the ms. Giving birth to a book is a lengthy process!
What was your favourite chapter to write?
It’s difficult to choose a particular chapter but if I had to, I’d say the one in which Elizabeth finally takes the action she must, to save her lover and her family. That chapter also sets her on the path to a new future. (I’m saying no more – I don’t want to give the plot away!)
Is the Summerhayes mansion based on a real place?
The gardens of Heligan gave me the inspiration for the novel but the Summerhayes estate is my invention – I actually drew a detailed plan of its various parts. As for the house, Heligan’s mansion was long ago transformed into private apartments and I’ve no idea what the house looks like. In any case, Summerhayes had to be a ‘modern’ mansion because Joshua Summer, a Birmingham manufacturer, is ahead of his time and loves new inventions. And a modern mansion in the early 1900s was an Arts and Crafts house. I’ve put some of the pictures that were important to me on Pinterest. https://uk.pinterest.com/merrynallingam/the-buttonmakers-daughter/
What attracted you to this period in history?
1914 was a cataclysmic moment for this country and I feel a deep attachment to the world that was lost then. The First World War affected millions of lives across every class and community, with so few understanding the reality of a war they were called to join. A veneer of innocence was lost and Britain was thrown into a century of total change. It could be argued as the most significant moment in our history. Philip Larkin's poem MCMXIV says it all:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word
Do you see anything of yourself in any of your characters?
I always seem to write feisty heroines, usually young women fighting to gain their independence and the chance to live their lives as they decide. So maybe!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I see a lot of my family, go out with friends for lunch or a film or the theatre. I’m a member of a book club and I enjoy being part of two different writing groups. I go to several dance exercise classes every week. Oh, and I’m learning Russian!
What does your family think of your writing?
My husband is hugely supportive, diligently reading every novel as it’s published and telling me how good it is. My son is proud of me, but doesn’t have time to read books, or so he says, and prefers his entertainment to be visual. My daughter-in-law tries to read them but she is Russian and the language is sometimes a struggle for her. And my daughter likes to hear what’s happening to me writing-wise but tells me she’ll only read my books once I’m no longer here. I’ve never been sure what to make of that!
What suggestions do you have to help a writer write better?
- Don’t constantly self-censor. Relax and let the words flow. Some of what you write you’ll want to delete, but the rest will be worth keeping. A few sentences will be pure gold.
- Read as much as you write. And read widely, not just in your genre.
- Writing can be a lonely business, never more so when rejections start to flow, so you need to keep believing in yourself. If you look at the biographies of many of today’s most popular novelists, they’ve often been writing for years. Wasn’t it Lee Child who said, ‘It took me ten years to be an overnight success.'
Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. Under the name of Isabelle Goddard, she published six Regency romances, but in 2013 adopted a new writing name and a new genre. The Daisy’s War trilogy, set in India and London during the 1930s and 40s, was the result.
Her latest books explore two pivotal moments in the history of Britain. The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 as the First World War looms ever nearer and its sequel, The Secret of Summerhayes, forty years later in the summer of 1944 when D Day led to eventual victory in the Second World War.
If you would like to keep in touch with Merryn, sign up for her newsletter at www.merrynallingham.com