To wish you all a very happy 2020, we’re starting a new Q&A feature, where Crime Cymru authors will be answering our questions to tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, Judith Barrow talks about her characters and her writing process.
Give us a brief introduction to you?
There is a cushion on a chair in my study that bears the quote,” I Live in Two Worlds. One is the World of Books.” I think that sums me up quite well; when I’m working on a book I live with my characters and in their world constantly. It’s all absorbing and, although I suppose that sounds obsessive, I suspect that, to some extent, most authors who write fiction are the same.
I have an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen. A BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University, and a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University. I’m a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council’s Lifelong Learning Scheme and I also hold private one to one workshops on all genres
I was born and brought up in a small village in Saddleworth on the edge of the Pennines in the North of England and had various short stories and poems published. But it wasn’t until we moved to Wales, forty years ago that I felt I had the freedom to begin to write in the genre I love, historical family sagas set between the North and Pembrokeshire, and all that entails. Most manuscripts stayed hidden away but twelve years ago I found the courage to send one to Honno Welsh Women’s Press and was taken on by them. My stories are set against the background of the twentieth century.
Have any of your plots/characters been influenced by real life events/people?
The simple answer to that is yes. Firstly, the characters; having been a people watcher all my life I soak up the way people talk, walk, behave in certain circumstances. It all helps to make rounded characters (and is something I always recommend to my students – that’s besides telling them to always carry a jotter, but hasten to add to be circumspect in note-taking. Funnily enough people object if you start taking notes during conversations). Sorry, I’ve gone off at a tangent. Back to the question! Have I been influenced by real life events? That’s a yes again: in the twentieth century, there is a wealth of events: the awful devastation caused by two World Wars, the machinations of politics, the growing sophistication of certain crimes – and solving them, the ups and downs of the economy, the change in transport, in industry and living conditions. And the adjustments that society has needed to make. All these are nuggets that give ideas for plots.
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how/where?
I think it essential to reflect a sense of place. I always draw a map of the town or village that my characters walk around in. I name the streets, the pubs, the churches, any places of interest that will provide a scene in the story. I can’t imagine writing about action in the trenches, the stealth or violence of a crime, the deceit of a political act, the relationships in families, without settings. And the only way to give a true backdrop is to use all the senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. All these, together with the reaction of the characters; the kinetic sense, to the setting, give a true sense of place. So I think, in answer to your question, I should just say I do like to reflect a sense of place in my stories.
Do you do your research strictly online, or talk to professionals in the field or a mixture of both?
I do research online but I find there’s a great danger in that. Whilst reading on one particular subject I usually discover something else of interest. So I get distracted and read about that – which might take me to another topic – and then another. Before I know it an hour has passed and I’m miles away from the initial research. So I mostly try to find books, either in the library or to buy. For me, turning those pages, flicking back to check details, absorbing the atmosphere of the era physically in a book, is more satisfying. There are rare occasions when I’ve needed in the past to chat, exchange emails with a professional, usually to clarify certain points. It’s only been with my next book, The Memory, that I felt I needed to go into more depth with an expert. He is authority in the field of children with special needs, the husband of an author friend of mine, Alex Martin.
If you’ve spent time researching for your book, how difficult is it to not overload the reader?
Someone once told me to research a subject thoroughly, to know whatever it was I researched inside out – and then use ten percent of it in the story. But to choose that ten percent wisely and subtly, using only that which is relevant to the plot, the themes, the era, to give that sense of time and place and action. I think the answer is to drip- feed information through both the narrative and the dialogue, to weave it through the story. The last thing a writer should do is to drop a whole load of information about something just because they can’t resist letting the reader know that they know so much. It’s called an “information dump” and it both slows down the action and takes the reader out of their suspension of disbelief.
Where did you get the inspiration for your latest story?
The last four books, all published by Honno Press, have been a trilogy and prologue of the same family, the Haworths, set against the background of a Lancashire town, a Pembrokeshire village and the actual first German POW camp in Britain, which was in Oldham, Lancashire.. Reading about the camp in the local museum inspired me and set me on the path for those books and I’ve lived with those characters for over twelve years. It was difficult to leave them behind. So I knew I had to write something completely different.
I had a story that had been a slow burner for some years, a book I kept going back to which is based on memories. They are quite diverse recollections and, at the time I wrote them, were quite cathartic to put into words. The first was the death of a girl I knew in my childhood who was a Downs child. She used to sit on the steps outside her house and we would chat. Well, I would talk and she would nod and laugh. And then one day she was there and the next not. It was the first time I had faced the death of someone I knew. The other memories are more recent and are of two of my aunts that I looked after in their later years when both had dementia. A time of combined sadness and humour, tears and laughter, a time when I kept a journal to remind myself of the good days. And the inspiration for my latest story.
Tell us about your book. What prompted your latest novel/story?
My next book, due to be published by Honno in March 2020, is called The Memory, and it evolved from the memories I’ve spoken of above. Without giving too much away, I can say it’s mainly the story of a difficult relationship between, mother and daughter, Lilian and Irene, made worse, over the last few years, by Lilian’s dementia. Irene feels trapped by the love she has for her mother, which vies with the hatred she feels because of something she saw Lilian do many years ago and has told no one. (I suppose this also answers the question, “What secret does your character have?”). And she and her husband, Sam, are also trapped by a legality set in place by Lillian. Although all three are joint tenants/owners in the house they live in, at the time they entered into the agreement, and unbeknown to them, Irene’s mother also made it impossible for them to sell the house while she still lived. . Driven to despair and exhaustion by caring for her mother, Irene believes there is only one solution.
The book runs on two timelines: Irene’s life from the age of eight in the past tense and, in present tense, over twenty-four hours leading to the denouement.
What Irene’s mother thinks of her?
Though confused, Lilian resents Irene.
Irene’s physical appearance?
Weary. Attractive. Middle-aged. Tall. Short-sighted. (Hm, think I’ve cheated there!).
What’s next? A series or something entirely different? Will there be a sequel?
The Memory is a standalone book. But I have also written another novel called The Heart Stone, which is due to be published in 2021. Set between the years 1914 and 1920 it’s a cross genre of family saga, a war story and crime fiction. I’ve left the ending slightly open as I feel the main characters might have another story to tell sometime. And the protagonist of the Haworth trilogy, Mary Haworth, keeps nagging at me to tell the story of her and her family at the time of her old age. I knew she wouldn’t leave me alone.
Can you tell us about your work in progress/next book idea?
My work in progress is the story of three women who work in a cotton factory in the 1950s, when the industry is on the decline. Working title, Fabric of Friendship. It’s divided into parts: sections where the action takes place in the mill and includes all three characters, and chapters that show the background of the women: their pasts and their present lives. It’s early days but, at last, I feel there is some merit in the story. I plod on…
Buy here books here Judith’s Amazon