Characters Influenced By Their Surroundings With Clare Flynn

I usually get the initial inspiration for my novels from their settings. Location is a critical factor – there is something about a place that gets me curious – who lived here before? how different would it have been eighty years ago?  Then I thrust my characters into the location and see what happens. While I usually have a rough outline of the plot, the characters mostly have different ideas – so they lead and I follow.

I write a lot about displacement – taking characters out of comfortable and familiar surroundings and transferring them into the strange and unfamiliar – completely outside their ‘comfort zone’.

A Greater World Cover MEDIUM WEBMy first novel, A Greater World is set in Australia, but opens in England. Two characters, Elizabeth Morton, a middle-class woman approaching her thirties, unmarried after the death of her fiancé in the First World War, and Michael Winterbourne, a lead miner and war survivor, jilted by his fiancée, are each forced by personal tragedies to take a passage to Australia and a new life.

Elizabeth, used to a world of tennis matches, orchestral concerts and tea parties is dropped into an isolated and squalid homestead in the midst of the Australian outback and left to fend for herself. She’s probably never had to make so much as a cup of tea back in England, having had servants to do everything for her, but is soon scrubbing floors, sewing curtains and baking potatoes over an open fire.

‘Elizabeth Morton, you’ve led a cosseted life: servants to wait on you; agreeable friends to amuse you; nothing too onerous to do, except teach a few charming but talentless children to play the violin. Now let’s see what you’re made of!’ She jumped to her feet.

‘I won’t let him reduce me to living like a wild creature. I’ve never done housework before but by God I’ll do it now. I’ll make this hole a fit place to live if I die in the process!’

An hour later, the contents of the primitive dwelling were stacked on the ground in front of the veranda and Elizabeth, hair piled under a scarf, was at work with a broom. The dust was thick and the broom missing half its bristles. Her throat burned as she laboured, pausing every few minutes to cough.

Michael, uses his skills as a lead miner and his natural leadership qualities, to work his way up to managing a coal mine. Life in Australia was unfamiliar and offered many challenges but both characters learn and grow from their experiences and lead lives which, while tougher than the ones they left behind, are infinitely richer.

Kurinji Flowers MEDIUM WEBGinny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, a London debutante, is destined for a ‘good marriage’ when an abusive relationship makes her the object of a society scandal. Rushed into a marriage of convenience, she is soon on a ship bound for India and a new life as a tea planter’s wife. India has a big effect on Ginny. She has nothing in common with most of the other expatriate Brits and their shallow lives which revolve around the club – tennis, bridge games, gossip and gymkhanas. She is fascinated but fearful of the indigenous Indian population and so is caught between two cultures – until a love affair and a growing passion for painting change her life.

I wasn’t keen to get to know any individual Indians, but I was interested to find out more about their customs and culture. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was slightly afraid of the local people. Not that they would do me harm—despite the constant rumblings among people at the club about the independence movement—all I ever saw were smiling, happy faces. No. I was afraid of their difference from me. The dark brown of their skins, their glossy, raven hair, the little wooden hovels they lived in that were pitch dark inside, and their strange alien smell: slightly sweet, pungent and spicy with a base note of sweat. It was fear of the unknown. Fear at an atavistic level. I hesitate to say this now but, despite my protestations against the bigotry of the rest of the British, I think then I also felt superior to the Indians, viewing them, as many of my countrymen did, as people of lower intelligence. People to feel sorry for. I had absolutely no basis for this judgment as I rarely spoke to any of them, apart from Thankappan and Nirmala, and I knew nothing of their lives. It was blind prejudice and ignorance. My admiration for Gandhi was theoretical—based on his moral certainty and strength of purpose—and the fact he had yet again been slung into prison; it had not been put to the test by a close encounter with a real Indian.

The Chalky Sea LARGE EBOOKMy latest novel, The Chalky Sea, is set in England in a small seaside town on the Sussex coast. For Gwen Collingwood, her home town becomes an alien place with the advent of World War 2, when the peaceful backwater becomes the front line in the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns. Gwen’s life transforms from that of bored housewife into a woman with a purpose. By the end of the novel she has discovered love, friendship, self-reliance and self-respect.

For several minutes she was rooted to the spot. How many times had she stood here before, looking down at the town spread out before her? It had always been a beautiful sight, the sea peppermint green under a blue sky, the pier stretching out into the water like a slender finger, the elegant Edwardian hotels lined up along the front, the town houses in their neatly regimented boulevard-like roads and the flat stretch of grassy fields dotted with cows and sheep stretching out to meet the marshes around Pevensey. Today she looked out over an unfamiliar, dystopian world. Meads, the area where she lived, was on fire. The spire of St John’s church, a familiar landmark, was a flaming beacon, the roof below it already collapsed. Through the thick cloud of smoke over the town, fires blazed everywhere. In a matter of moments her peaceful seaside home had been transformed into a battleground.

Letters from a patchwork quiltMy last extract is from Letters from a Patchwork Quilt. Jack Brennan is dragged off a ship as he is about to sail to America and instead finds himself in what feels like a hell on earth in industrial Middlesbrough.

The sky in front of him was washed in the deepest purple with moving vermillion clouds of smoke overlaying it, twisting and writhing in saturnine patterns. Plumed lines of fire cut horizontally through the red clouds in bright yellows and oranges. He stopped and stared. The black bulk of buildings, chimneys and cranes were silhouetted against the multicoloured sky. It was the gateway to hell. The mouth of an angry volcano. Boom. Boom. Bang. Bang. Relentless movement of machinery. The stench of sulphur and smoke clogged in his throat. He saw it as a metaphor for the life that was ahead of him. He was a soul condemned to eternal damnation among the blast furnaces of this god-forsaken town.

Unlike Elizabeth in A Greater World, this trial by displacement proves too much for Jack. Life in a Victorian slum, separation from the woman he loves and easy access to alcohol as a pub landlord sets him on a path self-destruction.

In writing all of my novels I have tried to get under the skin of my characters by immersing myself in the physical places where they interact with each other.  From the hill towns of India to the smoke stacks of Victorian Middlesbrough and the breweries of St Louis, location plays a central role in my novels and significantly shapes the fortunes of my characters.

Thank you, Stephanie, for inviting me to participate in this series.

About Clare:

Clare Flynn

Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director, who has marketed global brands from diapers to chocolate biscuits and has lived and worked in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney. After spending most of the last fifteen years running her own strategic management consultancy in London, now most of her time is dedicated to writing her novels. She has wanted to write since she was four years old.

Clare has won BRAG medallions for her first two novels, A Greater World, set in the Blue Mountains of Australia in the 1920s and Kurinji Flowers set in colonial India in the 1930s and 40s. Her latest novel Letters From a Patchwork Quilt was published in September. The book is set in the late nineteenth century and moves from industrial towns in England to New York City and St Louis.

Clare loves to travel – usually with her watercolor paints. She even went to live on a tea plantation while finishing Kurinji Flowers, staying in a tea planter’s bungalow from the 1930s and blagging her way into the incredibly snooty High Range Club to research the Planters’ Club of the book. The original idea for the novel came to her during an earlier trip to Kerala, during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar, on which the fictional town of Mudoorayam is based.

The idea for Letters From a Patchwork Quilt came from Clare’s genealogical research. She stole Jack’s jobs and the English towns he lived in from her own great grandfather. All she had were names and places so she changed the names, kept the places and made everything else up.

Clare is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Historical Novel Society and is on the organizing commit for HNS Oxford 2016.

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Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Clare Flynn

Clare Flynn BRAG

I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Clare Flynn today to talk with me about her book. Clare is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. Born in Liverpool, the eldest of 5 children, Clare read English Language and Literature at Manchester University, although spent most of her time exploring the city’s bars and nightclubs and founding the Rock n’ Roll Society. For many years she worked in consumer marketing, as International Marketing Director for big global companies selling detergents, diapers, tuna fish and chocolate biscuits. This included stints in Paris, Brussels, Sydney and Milan.

A Greater World, set in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, was begun back in 1998 after the first of many visits to Australia. Having almost completed the first draft, burglars stole her computer. Determined that they would not get the better of her, she sat down and wrote it all again. Her second novel, Kurinji Flowers is set in a tea plantation in South India in the 1930s. The inspiration for the book came during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar in Kerala. The kurinji flowers of the title grow across this region and are renowned for only flowering once in every 12 years. People travel across India to see the flowering – the next main one is due in 2018.

Both novels are about people being displaced. In A Greater World Elizabeth Morton and Michael Winterbourne are unwilling emigrants from England for Australia, driven away by tragic events. Ginny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, following a scandal that wrecks her future, is catapulted from her life as a debutante into the world of colonial India. None of these people is equipped to deal with what lies ahead.

Clare loves to travel and always takes a sketchbook and a set of watercolours with her, but makes no claims to being any good at it.

First I’d like to say it was a real pleasure meeting you at the Historical Novel Society Denver Conference/2015 in June. Could you please share a little of your experience and what you got out of it? Who were some of the authors you met there?

Great to meet you too, Stephanie. I had a wonderful time at the HNS conference and met so many interesting people. I’d been to the London conference last year which was great, but everyone staying on one hotel made Denver so much easier to meet people – and Americans are so friendly!

I did the Larry Brooks workshop on the first morning – his exercise on concept and premise will be one of my holiday tasks while I’m away in Bali for a month.

The range of panel discussions and workshops was excellent and the quality of the presentations first class. I wanted to cut myself in pieces and go to several at the same time! I thought Chris Gortner was a hoot – I ended up in 2 or 3 of his sessions and have just ordered one of his books to add to my holiday reading.

From cold reads to after dinner sex scene readings, from discussions on the gender divide in historical fiction to addressing HF to modern audiences, there was so much to take in. I wasn’t feeling too energetic after my transatlantic flight – so passed on the sword fighting workshops and the regency dancing – both of which were apparently brilliant. I loved the session with Chris Humphreys, Gillian Bagwell, Leslie Carroll and David Blixt – a real privilege to hear novelists who are also professional actors reading dialogue. My favourite was the extract from Margaret Rodenburg’s novel on Napoleon – I can’t wait for it to be published.

There was so much packed into a weekend – I have food for thought to keep me going for a while. I hope to see lots of the new friends I made at HNS Oxford 2016 – which I am sure will also be brilliant.

How did you discover indieBRAG?

I noticed some other indie authors had BRAG Medallions and investigated and liked what I found. The editor of my second book also recommended it. A quality endorsement is very important when there are, sadly, so many poor books out there – especially those “written” by people who view it as a way to make money rather than a vocation or a passion.

Please tell me about your book, A Greater World.

A young English woman, Elizabeth Morton, has lost her fiancé in WW1 and looks destined to be a spinster. Out of the blue she is summoned to join her father in Australia where he has lined up a husband for her. She has no intention of going but after being raped by her brother in law and thrown out of the family home by her sister, she has no choice. On the voyage to Australia she meets Michael Winterbourne, a miner, fleeing England after a family tragedy. Love blossoms but fate, in the form of Edward Prince of Wales, conspires to keep them apart.

The book is about being displaced – having to adapt to a life very different from the one intended. While Michael seems to land on his feet, Elizabeth has a tough time adapting to her new life and her loveless marriage to an older man.

A Greater World -BRAG Book

Why did you chose the early 1920s, a period of transition between the old pre-World War 1 way of life and the post-War for the period of your story?

I think it’s an interesting time because it’s a time of change. When I started writing it I had in mind that it would be set in the 19th C but I quickly switched to 1920. Michael’s life in a secluded valley in the Northumbrian dales is radically impacted by the First World War and his experiences there which widened his horizons. He wants to see the world and live a bigger life in “a greater world” than the one he has known until now.

Elizabeth is happy as a single woman, living in a post suffragette world – until her comfortable world is shattered. She just wants things to be the same but knows they never can be and she must therefore make the best of a life for which she has been completely unprepared.

What were a few of the major social changes during this period?

Women’s suffrage is the obvious one. English women had the vote – but only those over 30. Women were no longer prepared to accept what was dished out to them – Elizabeth is unwilling to accept the status quo, and doesn’t want to be a chattel for a man.

The period post war in Australia was also a time of change – men coming back from the war in Europe struggled to find work and the depression was starting to bite. The novel is set in the Blue Mountains in a coal mining town – where the seams were already becoming exhausted and unemployment threatened.

Divorce was also becoming easier – at least in Australia – where New South Wales was very advanced in its divorce laws.

What are the settings for your story and why did you chose them?

The book opens in England. Michael comes form the dales of Northern England – lead mining country – but like the coal in the Blue Mountains the lead is running out. He sees the writing on the wall – but his fiancée, Minnie, won’t. They had been extracting lead there since the Romans were in Britain so it seems inconceivable that the mines might close. Originally I planned for Michael to be a Welsh sheep farmer – but I saw a photograph of some lead miners’ cottages in a book about Northumbria – and immediately thought “That’s Michael’s house”. The area is at the conjunction of three Northern counties, Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria. I know the area from the ten years I lived in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Elizabeth lives in a place called Northport – loosely based on Southport near Liverpool – and the latter is the scene of their departure from England. The ship they sail on, the Historic is closely modeled on a real ship called the Ceramic – which had just been converted back into a passenger liner after serving as a troop ship. It was a single class ship – thus making it easy for Elizabeth and Michael to meet, even though they come from different social classes.

I have visited Australia many times and was lucky enough to work in Sydney for six months. The bulk of A Greater World takes place in a fictional town, MacDonald Falls in the Blue Mountains. I based many aspects of it on Katoomba – but by the time of the book there was no longer any coal mining in that town. I went back to Australia in 2011 to research the locations in the books.

Tell me a little about Elizabeth Morton. What are her likes and dislikes?

Elizabeth has led a quiet, privileged life, but latterly a sad one after her fiancé is killed in the war and her mother dies soon after. The family has fallen on straitened times since her mother’s death pushes her father into gambling, but Elizabeth uses her skills as a violinist to supplement her income by taking pupils.

She loves to play tennis, adores her violin and going to concerts – particularly Elgar’s music. She reads a lot – her first conversation with Michael is over a book. She’s independent, spirited, determined to make the best of what life throws at her and is not afraid of hard work – even though before arriving in Australia she had never experienced it.

Nothing has prepared her for what happens to her in Australia. She thinks her life has been destroyed but finds inner strength and grows into a different person from the girl she had been in Northport.

Where can readers buy your book?

The e-book is available at Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google, iBooks etc – all the usual e-retailers and the paperback at the moment is just on Amazon.

Who designed your book cover?

The fabulous Jane Dixon-Smith of JD Smith Designs – she’s done four covers for me and I love them all I give Jane a brief synopsis and key themes and some images (I have a Pinterest board for each book so I can save images as I write and research) then she develops some options. I always get input from friends and family and via my facebook pages – but ultimately I decide. For my second novel Kurinji Flowers the overwhelming majority preferred one cover (it was beautiful) but it didn’t fit with the brand look I am trying to create.

What are you working on next?

I’m having a pause from my third book, Cynara’s Shadow, set in Victorian England and the USA, before the final editing stage – and I’m working on book number 4 – as yet untitled – just mapping out the skeleton.

Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?

I write at the top of my house – in a large sunny room which is my dedicated workspace. I write on an iMac at a small wooden desk – and look out over the roof of a gin distillery. I have lots of trees to look at and in the evening get some wonderful sunsets – even here in London – as I can look west in the afternoon. The room is full of bookshelves and also houses all my painting and drawing materials, as well as a sewing machine and fabric stash – but 90% of the time it’s just me writing. I also have my music collection up here – but mostly work in silence. I start around ten in the morning – but have been known to leap out of bed at dawn, eager to get words on paper. I work until about seven pm (usually aided by a large glass of wine once the sun has crossed the yard-arm! I always stop for lunch and try to get out for a short walk each day.

I mostly get my initial inspiration from a place – and imagine who might have been there and what they did. I’m about to embark on my fourth novel and I had no idea what it was going to be about until I made a trip to Dorset last week (Thomas Hardy country) and after visiting a house I was thinking of buying, the idea just rushed up on me when I wasn’t expecting it. I sketch out a rough outline so I have a clear idea of what the book is about – but as soon as I start writing the characters take over and often lead me in another direction. I usually edit the previous day’s work as a way of warming up for the current day. Once I have a finished first draft I work on it some more, then send it to three or four readers and when I have their feedback I do more editing to get it the best I can before sending it to be professionally edited/ proofed.

I also spend a lot of time (more than I’d like) on marketing and social media – plus briefing the designer, formatting, planning etc. I try to write 1500 words a day – I often miss that target – but sometimes do significantly better than that. I try not to beat myself up about it. One of the joys of no longer having to answer to clients or employers.

Do you stick with just genre?

I don’t really like the idea of genre – so far I have written books set in the past so I have classified them as historical fiction. A Greater World could also be classed as romance. But none of my books are classical romances – and I reserve the right to an unhappy ending – or at least not a boy gets girl ending. I write about displacement – my books so far have all involved people being plucked out of their familiar surroundings and transplanted into a challenging new environment where they are tested in some way. I also write about tough topics including unwanted pregnancies, alcoholism, child abuse – my next book, Cynara’s Shadow has all of those plus Catholicism. I do get why genre is important – to help people discover you – but I may well one day decide to write in a different genre – I’m toying with the idea of a psychological thriller – my pet project for Bali. You’re unlikely to find me writing biographical historical fiction as the research burden is too heavy – I love research but for background, not as the end in itself.

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A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Clare Flynn who is the author of, A Greater World, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, A Greater World, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.