This month I have mainly been preparing the second book in my Avonstow trilogy, 'The Mermaid', for publication. As with its predecessor, 'Folly', the main challenge when I was writing the book, was to balance the facts of Brightlingsea history with what I needed to happen in Avonstow, for the purposes of the plot. Indeed, the book came about largely because I couldn't make Brightlingsea history work in the way I wanted it to.
When I was appointed Writer in Residence at Brightlingsea Lido, one of the things I agreed to do was to write a book set in Brightlingsea which had the Lido at the heart of it. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but was unable to determine whether or not the Lido had remained open during the years of World War Two. It was essential for the book that it stayed open and I spent weeks online and in the library trying to find anything that might indicate what its fate had been during those years. In the end, I had to give up, but I couldn't let the story go.
While I was deciding what to do, I was finishing the first set of edits on 'Folly' and it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps it was possible to have the best of both worlds. I had already created a fictional version of Brightlingsea for 'Folly', so why was I trying to force a story into the real world, when I had a ready-made make-believe one already set up. I decided that this was the answer to my problem and decided to write the story as a sequel to 'Folly'. Whilst this made writing 'The Mermaid' easier, it did mean that I had to go back through 'Folly' and insert extra scenes and build up the character of Frankie, so that when she was introduced as one of the main characters of 'The Mermaid', readers were already familiar with her. I also had to change one of the characters I'd created in my initial notes for 'The Mermaid' in order to create a further link to the events of 'Folly'.
Once again, I found that after immersing myself in the history of the town and then pulling it apart and stitching it back together, that the lines between fiction and reality had blurred for me (not the characters, who are 100% all fictional) and occasionally, I had to return to my notes to check whether something had actually happened or if I'd invented it for the book. However, there were a couple of real events that I knew absolutely had to go into the book because they really brought home the fact that even though Brightlingsea as a physical place was largely unscathed by the war, the residents were not. It wasn't just her soldiers, sailors and airmen who died, her civilians were also killed as a direct result of the war and she played host to bereaved wives from 'up country' who no longer had a place to call home.
I am grateful to so many people who have helped to get 'The Mermaid' from that initial spark of an idea, to the finished book. Some of those people live in Brightlingsea and I'd like to to take this opportunity to thank them: Dr Sue Sheppard was my Alpha Reader and will be interviewing me at the Book Launch during next month's Brightlingsea Literary Festival; Olivia Reilly from Little Boat Gifts, once again produced a beautiful cover design that perfectly matched the image in my head; Mick Barry's tour of the Lido Pump Room gave birth to a pivotal scene in the book, Margaret Stone from Brightlingsea Museum gave me access to the museum's resources, including a superb 3D model of the town in WW2, Gary and Marie Humm took me out on their boat so I could experience what it was like sailing out of Brightlingsea Creek and Anne Berry's off the cuff comment about the babies who were left behind when the ANZAC troops left after WW1, gave me the idea for the turning point of the novel.
Brightlingsea herself (albeit under her pseudonym of Avonstow!) is, as always, the star of the book and it is her history and her buildings which inspired it. I'd love to think that when people have read the book and take a walk around the town, be they resident or visitor, they might pause outside a building and think, 'oh that's where X happened in the book!' In 'The Mermaid', the former Anchor Hotel takes centre stage.
'The Mermaid' will be officially launched on Sunday 4th February 2024 at the first event of the Brightlingsea Literary Festival. Hope to see some of you there!