So far in this series, I’ve showcased the talented writers Ruth Loten, Jane Langan, Beck Collett, Ron Hardwick, L.N.Hunter, Katherine Blessan, Jill Saudek and Colin Johnson. You can find all these showcases by scrolling back through the material on this blog.
November’s showcase turns the spotlight onto Sue Davnall , who is another member of the Twenty-Twenty Club, a writing group formed by alumni of the cohort of students who graduated from the Open University’s Masters in Creative Writing in 2020. Sue is an excellent writer who has done well in our various in-house competitions. She has also had work published and will have more published in the future, I'm sure.
Sue Davnall was born in north London in 1959 and grew up in Hampstead and Finchley. After attending the Henrietta Barnett Grammar School for Girls and au pairing for a year in Brussels, she studied French, Latin and Italian at the Universities of Aberdeen and Geneva, followed some years later by a post-graduate Diploma in Translation from the Institute of Linguists. So, naturally, she started her career in a VAT office!
She worked for HM Customs and Excise, and then HMRC, for over thirty years in a wide variety of disciplines culminating in senior policy manager roles in customs law enforcement and international trade. In the interim, she kept the creative flame alight with a decades-long involvement in amateur dramatics – acting, directing, stage managing, scriptwriting.
Taking early retirement in 2016 for health reasons, Sue decided that the time had come to expand her creative writing experience, first joining a local writing group and then undertaking an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University, graduating with merit in 2020.
She has had multiple stories published in Makarelle magazine and was longlisted for Uncharted magazine’s 2021 Crime/Mystery Contest. In November 2021, she won Mensa’s 75th anniversary short story competition. She currently lives in north-west Kent with her husband and (temporarily) the youngest of her three grown-up children and dog.
Here are two stories by Sue…
Ron was a craftsman. He’d honed his skills over many years until no one in south London could touch him. But times change and Ron was feeling his age. Keeping up with every new wheeze that came along was more trouble than it was worth.
Propping up the bar in his local one evening, he grumbled into his beer.
‘It’s not like when I started out, Stan. Single-glazed sash windows, no mortices on the doors - I used to be able to get in and out in a jiffy. Now it’s all fancy alarms and video doorbells and the like; you’d think they had the Crown Jewels locked away. I’m fed up with it.’
His old mate nodded. He’d met similar problems in his own line of work. Fobless car keys - what a nonsense!
‘Perhaps you should retire, Ron, put your feet up. You could stay with Pauline for a bit. Get a breath of sea air.’
‘Are you having a laugh? You know what she thinks of me, her and Frankie both. They don’t care that I put food on the table for them when they were kids, they’ve hardly spoken to me since their mum died. A social worker and a bloody accountant, I ask you.’
He snorted and swigged moodily at his beer. Stan pondered a few moments before having another go.
‘What about trying a different patch? Somewhere out of London? Folk are more trusting in the sticks.’
‘Don’t know about that, you know what they say about teaching old dogs new tricks.’
‘That’s my point; it’d be more old-school, right up your street.’
‘I’d have to do a few recces first, check out the lie of the land. Wouldn’t I stand out like a sore thumb, a London geezer like me?’
‘At your age they’d likely think you were just some old codger out on a jaunt.’
‘Maybe. Fancy keeping me company? It’d look less obvious if there were two of us.’
‘Yeah, could be a laugh. Find a decent pub or something for lunch.’
With that settled, they ordered another pint. Lovely stuff, London Pride.
It was a beautiful summer and the two mates enjoyed their sorties. They were chuffed to find that beer was much cheaper in the wilds of Kent and Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey. Ron hired a different car each time, something small that would go unremarked as they pottered through the villages and along the country lanes. The most promising area, they concluded, was in and around the Ashdown Forest: they identified several likely properties for Ron’s personal attention at a later date.
In mid-September, once the kids were back at school but the weather still pleasant enough to lend credibility to Ron’s ‘OAP on an outing’ facade, he decided to put his new venture to the test. He chose a house on the edge of a small village, a hamlet really. This was commuter country and most places in the area could be guaranteed to be empty for several hours. Ron knew that the safest time to strike was mid-morning when everyone was out and about their business.
Leaving the car a little way down the road, Ron slipped in through the side gate and round the back. French windows, poorly secured – he was inside within two minutes. He was always selective about his haul: there was no point in lifting electronic goods, his fence wouldn’t give him the time of day for them. Jewellery was better, small ornaments, collectable items. There wasn’t a lot of that here but it was a useful dry run. Once he’d got enough to make it worth his while he strolled back to the car and headed for London.
Over the next few weeks he paid a couple more visits to the area. These trips were more rewarding and he began to enjoy his new venture. He even stood Stan a round of drinks to say thanks for giving him the idea.
But on his fourth trip he came a cropper. He’d switched from hiring cars to buying a different old banger for each outing, picking them up at dealers who were happy to accept cash in hand and ‘disappear’ the vehicle afterwards. Ron took it on trust that the car was roadworthy: on this occasion, it wasn’t. After a succession of inexplicable squeaks and bangs and some alarming grinding noises, steam began to pour from under the bonnet. Ron stuttered to a stop at the side of the road and considered his options. He plumped for abandoning the useless heap of metal (with a good kick to the tyres for luck) and walking to the nearest pub. Like many country inns, it had rooms and Ron opted to stay over.
He had a terrible night: the mattress was lumpy, the room draughty and the landlord clattered and clanked around downstairs until the early hours of the morning. As soon as it was daylight Ron was up, dressed and away. When he got back to the car it seemed better for a night’s rest and sputtered into action.
Ron was too tired to stick to his original plan and didn’t trust the car not to let him down again so he set off to find the most direct route back to London. That took him into an area of Ashdown Forest that he’d not come across before. Passing through a denser stretch of trees, he spotted a neat white gate and picket fence. Beyond was a track that ran straight for a short distance before disappearing around a bend. Black lettering on the uppermost bar of the gate declared the property to be The Spinney. Ron was intrigued; whatever was at the end of the track could yield enough to make up for his hitherto disappointing outing.
He pulled the car onto the verge and began to walk carefully along the track. It seemed that no vehicles had driven up here for a long time. Thick tussocks of grass had broken through the disintegrating tarmac and drifts of fallen leaves blurred the line between the roadway and the trees on either side.
After a quarter of a mile the track turned a corner before entering a clearing. Ron saw before him a stone cottage one storey high with a thatched roof and dormer windows. It looked well maintained but modest and he almost turned back, suspecting that the pickings would be thin.
‘Still,’ he thought, ‘Now that I’m here I might as well have a closer look.’
Ron surveyed the clearing for signs of life. Nothing stirred. As he approached the cottage he could see that the door was solid but warped; there were deep indentations in the wood around the handle. He lifted the latch and was surprised to find that the door opened readily.
‘Hello? Anyone at home?’
Silence. He stepped inside. The ground floor was a single large room with a steep flight of stairs leading to the attic with the dormer windows. It was much smarter than Ron expected. The walls were painted a fashionable shade of grey, the window frames picked out in olive green. To the left was a kitchen area: an Aga was set into a wide hearth and nearby stood a rustic table and three dining chairs. At the other end of the room Ron saw a coffee table, two padded armchairs and a three-legged stool. On the range was a steaming saucepan. Soup, by the smell of it.
Ron turned to leave: the inhabitants couldn’t have gone far if they’d left a pan on the stove. But the alluring odour reminded him forcefully that he hadn’t had any breakfast. It was a long drive back to London and he was feeling woozy from lack of sleep. He checked the view from the cottage door again: no movement in the surrounding forest, not a sound to be heard. So, taking a ladle from a nearby hook, he dipped it into the soup and sipped cautiously. Lovely! Before he knew what he was doing, he’d scoffed half the pan.
He thought he’d better get on his way sharpish and stepped out of the front door. But the forest was as silent as before. It seemed a shame to come all this way without any reward. Maybe just a quick look in the attic?
As he crossed the room towards the stairs he caught his foot under a thick rug that he’d not noticed before. Pitching forward, he landed flat on top of the stool. There was an almighty crack as one of the legs snapped and Ron sprawled onto the floor. Damn! That had torn it. Ron scrambled to his feet and stood rigid, straining to hear approaching footsteps. Still nothing. He waited for a few moments then scurried up the stairs as fast as his advancing years allowed.
The attic room contained little apart from a king-sized bed with a cabinet either side and a smaller bed at the far end. The window shutters were painted in the same olive green as the woodwork downstairs. Ron sat on the edge of the king-size to look inside the nearest cabinet. More disappointment: the cabinet held only a bowl of nuts. Night-time nibblers, eh? No wonder they needed a huge bed. Ron yawned. His disturbed night was catching up with him. He decided to sit there for a little while until the floor stopped moving. A minute later, he was gently snoring.
Ron jerked awake, confused. He couldn’t remember where he was. Someone was moving about downstairs; Ron heard a low murmuring followed by an indignant roar. They’d found the broken stool, then. Or was it the missing soup?
Ron knew that he was in serious trouble. The dormer window was too small for him to climb through, there was no way out except down the stairs. The treads creaked as whoever was below came up to the attic. There was only one thing for it: Ron rolled off the bed and scrambled underneath, pulling down the edge of the coverlet to hide him.
Now they were in the room. Heavy footsteps, laboured breathing, and a peculiar smell. Ron, his eyes squeezed tight shut, sensed the coverlet being lifted then felt the touch of a hairy hand on his cheek as whoever it was reached under the bed and prodded. Peering up, he saw a pair of big brown eyes looking down at him. Registering the identity of his unwitting host, Ron screamed, scrabbled out from under the bed and ran for his life.
‘Hey, Stan, where’s Ron got to? Haven’t seen him in ages.’
Stan picked up his pint from the bar and gulped down a third of it before answering.
‘Really sad, actually; he went a bit funny in the head. He’s living with his daughter in Bexhill. Nowhere round here would take him, said they weren’t equipped to deal with whatever’s wrong with him. So much for the NHS, I ask you.’
Stan turned back to his pint with a sigh. He really missed the old Ron. He’d go down and see him later in the week. He wouldn’t stay too long though: it was tough having to sit there listening to his old mate raving about trees and cottages and bears.
First published in Makarelle, 2021
The following story was inspired by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, and informed by the landscape around the Kentish village where Sue lives (and her many walks with her daughter's dog!):
The late afternoon sun slanted through the variegated leaves of Archer's Wood, casting golden patterns on the bluebells that carpeted the floor in every direction. The annual reappearance of the delicate flowers attracted many visitors but by this time of day the crowds had gone home and Catherine had the wood to herself.
Hamish, ignoring the ban on disturbing the precious blooms, snuffled happily hither and thither, doubling back on himself as he picked up each interesting scent. Nearby, the rapid toc-toc-toc of a woodpecker contrasted with the softer cooing of wood pigeons.
'Hamish - here, boy.'
Hamish was far too intent on his mission to pay her any attention.
The change of tone warned him that Catherine meant business and he trotted back to her side, tongue lolling and sneezing as he came.
Following the narrow path, still muddy in places despite the dry weather, the two companions emerged onto the broad meadow above the village cross. From here, Catherine looked down upon the valley running steadily from east to west. Neat hedgerows demarcated a patchwork of fields pale green with young crops or thickly grassed and dotted with sheep. A cricket match was drawing to a close on the village green: listening hard, Catherine could just hear the thwack of ball on bat followed by a spattering of applause.
Across the valley from the Saxon church of St Mary, the hazy outline of the equally venerable St Nicholas marked the neighbouring village, the two settlements separated only by the railway line running through the foot of the valley.
The area had been under cultivation since Roman times. Substantial remains of a second century villa lay in an adjoining valley and vineyards had once adorned the lower slopes.
Up on the ridge, the landscape remained wild and primitive. The woodland beeches, yews and whitebeams would have been familiar to the medieval pilgrims making their way towards Canterbury, watching anxiously for wild boar, wolves and human predators. Catherine relished the sense of ancient forest, the connection with darker, wilder times.
In the west the sun was stretching its first tentative rose-pink fingers towards the treeline, while behind Catherine a sliver of moon already hung in the afternoon sky.
'Come on then,' she called to the dog. 'Let's go home via Cotman's Ash.'
The path would take them back through the wood, past the old chalk pit and out onto the narrow lane to the Rising Sun, a pub once popular with hikers but now abandoned. It was another three miles to home from there: both woman and dog would work up a good appetite for dinner. There was a stew in the oven, maybe she’d invite old McKenzie round for a bite to eat. Catherine enjoyed the retired librarian’s company: the woman was a font of knowledge about local history, the myths and legends too, and she was a natural-born storyteller. Catherine could listen to her for hours.
Archer's Wood was unusually quiet as they turned down the eastward path. The birds had fallen silent and there were none of the usual rustling noises from small rodents scurrying through the undergrowth. Even the dog seemed subdued: he trotted close at Catherine's heels, panting slightly.
As they turned a corner, Catherine was taken aback to see two people, a man and a woman, in the middle of the path, apparently studying a map. It was unusual to see anyone in the wood at this hour and both looked out of place. The woman wore hiking trousers, a fleece and boots - all brand new and ill-fitting, as if she had dressed herself in what she thought a hiker would wear without actually expecting to do any walking. The man appeared to have consulted a 1950s guide on dressing for the countryside: there was a lot of tweed. They looked at Catherine intently as she approached, acknowledging her cheery 'hello' only with a grunt from the man and a cursory nod from the woman.
'Are you lost?'
Catherine gestured at the map. The man responded by folding it up then turning his back and marching off briskly in the opposite direction, the woman following.
'Well that was rude!' Catherine exclaimed to Hamish once they were out of earshot. 'What on earth are they doing up here at this time of day?'
She waited a little to allow the strangers to get well ahead, passing the time by giving Hamish a couple of his favourite biscuits. He appeared cowed: it was disconcerting as he generally loved everyone he encountered on their walks.
After a few minutes they set off again. Somewhere nearby a bird began to chatter and Catherine's spirits lifted. Emerging from the wood, she took the path that ran around the lip of the chalk pit. It was rough underfoot. After rain the exposed slivers of chalk were slippery but today it was easier going.
They were about a third of the way around when some instinct prompted Catherine to glance across at the opposite edge of the pit, where the lower slopes were covered with a tangle of waist-high undergrowth. She gasped: standing there looking up at her was another man. Although some distance away, she could see that he was not the fellow in the woods. This one was younger and wore camouflage trousers and jacket. There was no reason for him to be down there, and why was he staring at her? She lifted a hand in greeting, to see what he would do. He didn't respond.
'Come on, Hamish.'
Catherine set off again as briskly as she could. As she went, she tried to think of an alternative path, one that would take her past inhabited dwellings. There wasn't one, she would just have to push on and hope to avoid any further encounters.
It was silly for her to be concerned about the couple or the man in the quarry, they hadn't threatened her in any way. Yet her gut instinct told her that there was something 'wrong' about them. Why were they up here? Not local, not walking a dog, too late to catch a train from the halt that served as the village station. The youth hostel had closed years ago. Maybe they were from Otford Manor? Built by Mr Lyle of the sugar manufacturers and inevitably known as Treacle Towers in the village, the gothic pile had been in use for some years as a Christian holiday centre. Yet none of the people she had just encountered seemed typical of the Otford Manor clientele.
'What good songs do you know, Hamish?'
Catherine launched into How Much Is That Doggie In The Window in an attempt to lift her spirits. She felt daft but it began to work. Her breath steadied and she relaxed as they left the pit behind them and took the short footpath to the Rising Sun.
The shadows were lengthening as they stepped onto the lane - dusk was falling unusually fast tonight. The front of the pub was illuminated by the setting sun; the bottle-glass panes glowed deep orange in the lingering rays so that it seemed that the building was on fire. For a second, Catherine thought she saw a shadowy figure passing behind one of the windows. She knew, though, that no-one had set foot inside for years. The front door was warped and would be impossible to open. Nevertheless, her discomfort returned and she hurried past the building, intent on getting home.
The next footpath led across a couple of horse fields. She called Hamish to her and put him on a short leash. The dog was wary of horses and she always had to coax him past them. That seemed to make him even more interesting to them and she sometimes had to fend off an overly curious stallion. This evening, though, the big animals kept their distance.
The path entered the north-east corner of Archer's Wood. For the first time since she'd moved to the area twenty years ago Catherine was apprehensive about passing under the trees. Her hands were clammy, there was a fluttering at the base of her throat. She kept Hamish on the lead and marched him along. He was eager to keep pace with her: seeing him ill at ease was more disturbing than her own anxiety.
'It's alright, lovely, nothing to worry about.'
She wasn't sure whether she was reassuring the dog or herself.
At last they left the trees behind. Crossing a meadow of knee-high grass studded with spindly thistles and giant daisies, they reached the head of the path that zigzagged down the scarp to the first row of houses in the village. It was sandier here, and the grass on the steep slope close-cropped by sheep. It would be harder for anyone to come upon them unexpectedly.
Except that, as they reached the road, Catherine saw a car pulled up by the gate. It was now too dark to see properly but she thought there was someone inside. Waiting for her? Her nerves fraying, she jogged down the road to her cottage, Hamish flying along beside her as fast as his little legs would carry him.
Fumbling for her door key, she almost fell into the hallway. The door shook as she slammed it. She swept Hamish into her arms and cuddled him close.
Almost immediately, she was ashamed of herself.
'Well how daft was that, Hamish? Spooked by a couple of strangers! What an imagination I've got!'
She went through to the kitchen and put the kettle on then prepped Hamish's dinner. Half an hour later she was curled up on the couch watching Vera, her discarded dinner plate on the coffee table in front of her and Hamish nestled into her side. On balance, she’d decided not to have Mis McKenzie round. She’d had enough of other people for one day.
At ten o'clock she headed upstairs to bed. Crossing the room to draw the curtains, she glanced out at the street. The moon, now high in the sky, illuminated two people standing across the road looking up at her.
Catherine dropped to the floor. The couple from Archer's Wood! What were they doing here? Hamish crawled to her side, she felt him shaking. Then the doorbell rang.
'Catherine? It's Miss McKenzie.'
How odd! Why would she be calling round at ten o'clock at night?
'Please open the door, Catherine. It's important.'
Catherine wasn't inclined to trust anyone right now but Hamish made up her mind for her, running downstairs to paw eagerly at the door. Catherine followed, looking through the letter box to check that it was indeed Miss McKenzie before opening the door.
'Thank you, my dear. You've got nothing to be afraid of from me. Any chance of a cup of tea?'
Dazed, Catherine led her guest through to the kitchen. Once they were both settled, the older woman began.
'You're wondering who those people are who've been following you today.'
Catherine nodded. How did Miss McKenzie know about them?
'You have something they want. Something of great power.'
Catherine instinctively glanced down at the dull pewter ring on her middle finger, the one her mother had given her as a "family heirloom". Following her gaze, Miss McKenzie snorted.
'No! Not that old thing. Hamish, it's time.'
The dog had been sitting contentedly at the older woman's feet. Now he leapt into her arms as if he belonged there.
'I'm sorry, my dear. I know how attached you are to him. But he's not what he seems and now his destiny awaits.'
Miss McKenzie scratched behind Hamish's ears and he wriggled with pleasure.
'Who are you? What has this to do with Hamish?'
'No more questions, my dear. It's better that way. But you won't be bothered again.'
And to Hamish:
'Come, master. We are ready to serve.'
Miss McKenzie opened the front door, still cradling the dog in her arms. Looking past them, Catherine saw that the two watchers had gone.
She stayed up for a long time that night, thinking things through, and was no wiser at the end of it. Would she ever know what it was all about?
The next morning the doorbell rang. When Catherine opened the door no-one was there, but on the step lay a basket from which poked a tiny black nose surrounded by fur. Around the pup's neck was a label which read A small token of our gratitude. Hamish.
This story is included in Words From Wonderland, an anthology of stories written by members of The 20-20 Club [to be published by Castle Priory - website @www.castlepriorypress.com. They are aiming for publication on the 14th of November but keep an eye on their social media @c.p.press on Instagram and @CP_Press on Twitter for updates].
And finally we come to The Big
Interview, where Sue kindly answers
writing-related questions and lets us
into some of her writing secrets...
How old were you when you first knew you wanted to be a writer, and what set you off down that journey?
A tricky one to start off with! There wasn’t a defining moment when I decided that I wanted to be “A Writer”. I loved English at school, and I loved translating – I was fascinated by the process of capturing the intrinsic meaning of a text written in another language. At work, I wrote policy papers, Ministerial briefings, public reports: all of this got me into the habit of reviewing and editing, taking on board a wide variety of feedback on my drafts, putting myself in the readers’ shoes.
The turning point for me was after I took early retirement for health reasons. After a few months of trying various things to pass the time, a friend invited me to join a local writing group: I’d written playscripts for an amateur theatre group that we both belong to, mainly stage adaptations of classic novels, and he thought I might like to cut my teeth on some short story writing. I was hooked, and a year later signed up for the MA in Creative Writing course with the Open University.
Tell us about the books and writers that have shaped your life and your writing career.
Growing up in the 1970s with far fewer entertainments on tap, I read incessantly. In my early teens, I consumed swathes of what is generally thought of as ‘classic’ European and American literature, from Austen to Zola and all points in between. When I look at lists of ‘Top 100 books to read’ or equivalent, I usually find that I’ve read a significant majority of them. I loved short stories too (Somerset Maugham, Katherine Mansfield) and horror (Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft). As I grew older, I discovered sci-fi and fantasy – The Lord of the Rings, unsurprisingly, but also Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson, Neil Gaiman and my beloved Terry Pratchett.
In terms of shaping my writing career, I would love to be able to emulate Jane Austen’s sharp character observations and sparkling dialogue, Tolkien’s wise insights into the importance of loyalty, resilience, courage, compassion and not judging a book by its cover, and Pratchett’s deep humanity, wonderful word play and brilliant humour. Not much to live up to there!
Have your children, other family members, friends or teachers inspired any of your writing?
I do think that there is a bit of writing DNA in there somewhere. My maternal grandfather was an editor on the Western Mail. My mother made no claim to be a writer but when I went through her papers after she died, I found some charming short stories that she had written but not shared with anyone, all set in her beloved Welsh valleys. My older brother also joined a local writing group some years ago and is a very talented and engaging writer. Outside the family, there was my ferocious but inspiring English teacher at school and my dear friend who first lured me along to our writing group. Last but very much not least, my long-suffering husband before whom I dump all of my first drafts and whose advice is always excellent. (I don’t always accept it, though!).
Does the place you live now, or have lived in the past, have any impact on your writing?
My mother being Welsh, I spent a lot of my childhood holidays in Cardiff. Then I lived in Aberdeen for eight years, leaving me with a love of Scotland almost as deep as my love for Wales. I worked in Brussels for a year before university and spent another year at the University of Geneva as part of my degree studies. Apart from that, most of my travels have been in Europe: I’ve been once to the United States and once to Canada and that’s about it.
What my travel experiences have given me is a love of mountains and wild places. My husband is from Cumbria: over the years I’ve had many hillwalking experiences with his family there and on the Isle of Skye. I struggle a bit with anything too challenging now but have the pleasure of the North Downs just behind the village where we live in north-west Kent: I walk my daughter’s dog up there for a few miles most days. I take great pleasure in writing about landscapes, conjuring the feel of certain times of day, putting the reader in the middle of the picture. I find increasingly that I’m referencing places and settings that have meant a lot to me in my own life.
How would you describe your own writing?
Definitely a short story writer – though with aspirations to develop some longer pieces that I wrote initially for the MA course. I have a predilection for likeable, or at least relatable, characters: I would like to be better at producing a really terrible villain. I do particularly enjoy writing tales with some sort of twist ending.
Are there certain themes that draw you to them when you are writing?
I was going to say not, but then I thought of the number of stories that I’ve written which have drawn their inspiration from folklore, legend or fairytale. I like the simplicity of a fairytale style of writing, using tropes that will lead the reader down a certain, seemingly predictable path, then subverting their expectations.
I am passionate about music – all genres, all centuries – and would like to write more around a musical theme. My final piece for the MA course was a set of four inter-connected short stories entitled A London Quartet and centred around the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden: my ambition is to expand this into a novel-length work.
Tell us about how you approach your writing. Are you a planner or a pantser?
I’m tempted to let Louise answer this as she has had to endure my terrible tardiness over the last few years! My default approach is to stare blankly at the title or theme for days on end, waiting in vain for inspiration to strike. Then, just as I think I’ve blown it, an opening sentence will pop into my head and the story flows from there. If I have a 10.00am deadline, I may well be writing until 03.00 or 04.00am, and if it’s midnight I tend to interpret that as ‘before I go to bed’. I cannot emphasise too strongly how heartily I do not recommend this as a valid approach to writing: it is very stressful! And I think it’s the main barrier to me writing a more substantial work.
Do you have any advice for someone who might be thinking about starting to write creatively?
Don’t approach it as I do! Seriously, though, the main thing is to work out what works best for you as an individual. Research what established writers do – there’s lots of information on the internet – but then find your own rhythm. If you’re a night owl like me, you may work best after everyone else has gone to bed. Alternatively, you may prefer to get a few paragraphs under your belt when you first get up. Do you like to be able to edit as you go? The computer is better for that. But there’s great satisfaction to be had in a good pen and fine quality paper. There’s a lot to be said for trying to write something every day, even if it’s just a few sentences – but that doesn’t work for me, I tend to get stuck in for a few hours at a time with some favourite music in the background (and lots of coffee!). The main rule is that there are no rules.
Are you, or have you been in the past, a member of any writing groups, online or face-to-face?
Yes, a local face-to-face group and an online group, the latter of which was born of the desire of the graduates of the 2020 Open University MA in Creative Writing course to stay in touch and continue to support each other. The local group instils in me the discipline of writing a new story every month, and as several of my peers are in the throes of writing novels or creative non-fiction works I am privileged to hear each time a wide variety of subjects, settings and styles which stimulate my own creative juices. The coffee and cakes aren’t half bad either! From the online group I receive a more rigorous level of feedback plus lots of information about submitting work more widely. It’s lovely, too, to be able to celebrate each other’s successes.
You have an MA in Creative Writing. Have you studied creative writing on other formal courses?
The MA in Creative Writing is the only formal training that I have undertaken. Apart from the excellent technical grounding it gave me, I feel I really benefitted from the insights into how successful authors approach the task of writing and what the publishing process involves (including how to deal with rejection!). The icing on the cake, though, was the huge amount of supportive and constructive feedback I received from tutors and fellow students alike. The one tip I’d give to anyone about to undertake such a course is that it is vital to learn how to accept feedback gracefully! Luckily my professional experience had prepared me for that.
What do you think about getting feedback on your work from other writers and/or non-writers?
My primary beta reader is my husband, then any of my kids who happen to be available, my local writing group members and my MA buddies. It is rare for me to reject advice: there’s no point in asking for it if you’re not prepared to listen. I think it particularly important that you seek out someone ‘in the know’ if you want to include a character whose life experience is different from your own: I don’t believe that any topic should be off-limits for a writer (it‘s hardly creative writing if you always reflect only your own life story) but you’ll produce a better piece of work if you have checked for authenticity.
If you have experience of self-publishing, what have been its challenges and rewards?
No, I haven’t, and am not inclined to do so, for now anyway.
Where do you get your ideas from?
That’s a big question! Very often, a prompt provided by others – a theme for a competition, a writing group topic and so on. When starting with a blank sheet of paper, it might be a character that has popped into my head or even a single sentence, a particular setting, something I’ve seen in the news or when out and about. It could even be just a particular quality of light that I want to capture that then demands a context. I don’t tend to go round jotting things down as some writers do but there’s a lot of stuff rolling around in my mental attic, just waiting for me to stumble across!
They say that successful writers need to be selfish. How far do you agree with this?
I’m in the privileged position of being retired, with my family grown up and living their own lives, so I have considerably more free time in theory than many of my peers. I’ve always found, though, that I work more productively when I’m under pressure so having spare time doesn’t always work in my favour when it comes to writing. I know that there is little point in my deciding to sit down and write at a certain time every day as the demands on my time are too fluid but when I do have writing days my best time, as previously mentioned, in late evening when there are no other distractions. I always work at my computer in my tiny study under the stairs and seem to make better progress with music on in the background (has to be instrumental – lyrics are too distracting). Movie soundtracks work well – Lord of the Rings again! – and classical music, preferably piano/violin/cello.
Beyond your family and your writing, what other things do you do?
A permanent feature in my life since we moved to the village 24 years ago has been the local amateur theatre group. I chair the group, act, direct and write playscripts. My solo efforts have been classic novel adaptations, and with my husband I’ve written three comic murder mysteries set in and around the village. I volunteer with a local refugee support group, belong to a local power walking group and go for a hike several times a week with my daughter’s dog, as well as having a personal trainer come to the house once a week. Having given up work for health reasons, keeping fit is very important to me. I’ve recently discovered the joys of open water swimming!
My favourite way to pass the time is with my family. I have three grown-up children between the ages of 28 and 35; after several years of variously being away at university/working abroad two now live in Deptford with their partners and one is temporarily back at home with her dog. I consider myself singularly blessed that they still seem to enjoy hanging out with me and my husband!
Would you describe yourself as a ‘cultured’ person?
I do love going to the theatre, concerts, art galleries etc but since retiring (I worked in central London) I don’t go as much as I used to. I love the opera - my husband emphatically does not! – and I used to treat myself to occasional after-work sorties to Covent Garden or the Coliseum. For four glorious years my eldest daughter worked at the Royal Opera House and it inspired my final MA piece. Now, we sometimes get up to town to the theatre and I have a few friends in choral societies so try to get to as many of their concerts as we can. Musically, my husband and I have a shared love of rock music, and guitarists in particular: our most recent excursion was to see Steve Vai. We like to support the local community cinema, and on TV we binge-watch box sets – detective dramas, true crime dramas, comedies – anything but reality TV! (Though I can’t resist a bit of Strictly Come Dancing). If I get a chance to see a Wales rugby match I’ll be there.
Of course it’s important for a writer to stay abreast of contemporary culture: I find that talking with my kids and their friends keeps my mind fresh and prompts me to explore new writers/singers/artists.
To be honest, I’m a bit wary of the label ‘literary novel’: it’s easier to define by what it’s not than what it is. I’d just say that I’ll read anything and everything, irrespective of the genre. For the same reason, I wouldn’t like to name just one favourite writer. I’m not going to ‘name and shame’ either!
Are you interested in history and if so does it impact on your writing?
I do enjoy historical writing, both fiction and non-fiction, also any narratives about the history of science, engineering, geography, exploration, political developments down the ages. My school education was very Euro-centric and I love reading accounts of world history from a different perspective. It’s all grist to the mill when it comes to creating new stories, and I think that challenging accepted wisdom is one of the core purposes of writing creative fiction. A quick plug here: I’ve just finished reading Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the World by Simon Winchester – fascinating!
How did the Covid pandemic affect you as a writer?
The pandemic coincided with the last few months of my MA course: life wasn’t tremendously different for me as I spent most of every day in front of the computer, typing, as I would have done anyway. My local writing group, my theatre group, even my power walking group met regularly on Zoom. We had daily family exercise sessions on Zoom too. But my youngest is a paramedic so we were very aware of the challenges being met by the NHS, the grim reality of families not being able to be with the sick and dying. I don’t feel ready yet to incorporate Covid themes into my writing – it still feels too close to home. One day, perhaps…
There is a lot of talk at the moment about political correctness, about the Woke movement, about cultural appropriation, about diversity. What are your thoughts on this, with regard to writing?
I don’t like the word Woke: it carries too much baggage and generates unnecessary confrontation. To me, it’s a perfectly common sense principle that one should be sensitive to different life experiences and make the effort to portray them authentically, it doesn’t need a label. It follows that, whilst I don’t have a problem with writers adopting personas from other cultures/sexual orientation etc, I believe strongly in the value of sensitivity readers to authenticate the narrative.
I do take issue with the rewriting of books that contain currently unacceptable language or references, whether children or adult, if the author is no longer alive to give their consent. (Obviously if the author is still living an updated version could be negotiated). If the book is beyond the pale, it should be quietly allowed to disappear by no longer reprinting it. If the problem is moderate/mild, ensure that there is a prominent warning message. The danger in abolishing any reminders of outdated attitudes and views is that as a society we may forget that these thing exist and fail to be on the alert for their re-emergence.
Where would you place your own stories/poems, on a continuum with PURE FANTASY at one end and COMPLETE REALISM at the other?
In my teens and early twenties, I loved fantasy and sci-fi. But I reached a point where it seemed to me that many of the books I was reading were quite derivative and it’s some years since I found myself browsing the Fantasy section of the local bookshop. To be able to create a self-contained universe is an admirable skill but sadly I think that many writers that attempt it don’t quite manage to pull it off. There is still a place for fantasy as an allegory for the ‘real’ world’ – Pratchett was a master – and I’m not above introducing a fantastical element into my stories if it seems to fit.
All photos in this piece are copyright of Sue Davnall
Thank you very much, Sue, for a fascinating showcase.
In December, I will showcase
the wonderful writer and member of the
Alain Li Wan Po
Not to be missed!