Newsletter 43

Welcome to the December 2015 issue of our occasional newsletters.


Origins of ideas

You often hear authors – fiction ones especially – saying that the most common question they are asked is ‘where do you get your ideas?’ From a reader’s point-of-view, it’s a fair question. Even though we write books, we still want to know how other authors work, how they develop their plots and ideas, and how they interact with their agents and publishers. Some authors, exasperated with the question, have written pieces claiming to buy their ideas from retail outlets. A few weeks ago we spotted the signboard in this picture, alongside a Devon country lane, which inspired us to compose some verses on the theme, based on ‘Logs to Burn’ (see our newsletter 27).


Plot for sale website

Signboard of Drew Pearce, a leading firm of estate agents and surveyors

based in Exeter (with thanks to Drew Pearce for permission to use it)


Plot going for a song

Plot for sale, plot for sale,
Plot to make a fairy tale.
Here’s a word to make you wise,
If you hear the agent’s cries.
Simple plots are frowned-on now,
Use one with great care.
Complex plots can end in knots:
Use one if you dare.

Plot for sale, plot for sale,
Plot to make the readers quail.
Here’s a word to make you wise,
If you think the agent lies.
Ghostly plots are always good:
Publish in the fall.
Real-life plots are out of vogue:
Publish not at all.

Plot for sale, plot for sale,
Plot to make the critics wail.
Here’s a word to make you wise,
And see beyond the agent’s sighs.
Genre plots are evergreens,
But they sell too slow.
Romance plots just join the dots:
They rake in all the dough.

Plot for sale, plot for sale,
Plot that is the holy grail.
Here’s a word to make you wise,
And find the plot the agent buys.
Love stories always sell:
They are worth a mint.
But sex and porn, however poor,
Are never out of print.

Plot for sale, plot for sale,
Plot to get you out of gaol.
Here’s a word to make you wise,
If you hear the agent’s cries.

Our next book

Many readers and event organisers have asked about our next book. For quite a while we have been working on different ideas, certain that each one would appeal, but to no avail so far. We are therefore looking to acquire a decent plot and have several spare plots for sale, never before used! Actually, we hope to revisit them at some stage and are meanwhile researching one or two other possibilities. Watch out for news in the next newsletter.


Our research recently took us to the seaside town of Selsey in West Sussex on the south coast of England, at the tip of the low-lying Manhood Peninsula, some 8 miles due south of the cathedral city of Chichester. Bounded by the sea on two sides, with fertile farmland to the north, Selsey was once virtually an island. Even now, there is only one main route into the town – the road from Chichester. It was on Selsey island that Christianity was introduced to Sussex around AD 680 when St Wilfrid was driven ashore during a storm and subsequently founded a monastery and cathedral there. Both have long disappeared beneath the sea due to coastal erosion.

Holiday camp

Today, Selsey is part-seaside resort and part-dormitory town for Chichester. For centuries the main occupations were farming, fishing and smuggling, but in the 19th century Selsey began to thrive as a seaside resort. During the 1930s, when holiday camps were becoming popular, Broadreeds Holiday Camp was built, designed on a Spanish theme. In World War Two, the camp was used as accommodation for handicapped children evacuated from London, though its location right on the south coast made it a target for attack. In the summer of 1940, after concerns were raised about the position of guns and searchlights, a decision was made to move the children from the camp on 27th August. Before that happened, a German bomber attacked the searchlights on the night of the 19th, and a soldier and three civilians were killed. As a result, steps were taken to move everyone immediately.

After the war, Broadreeds became a Pontin’s holiday camp, in an era before foreign holidays were commonplace. In October 1987, severe damage occurred in the hurricane that hit a large part of southern England. The holiday camp shut down, and it has since been demolished and the site redeveloped with housing.

War memorials

The main war memorial in Selsey stands outside the church of St Peter in the High Street, but in 2012 a memorial to the four people who lost their lives at Broadreeds in 1940 was erected by the seashore, on land that was once part of the holiday camp.

Broadreeds Holiday Camp memorialBlog)
Memorial (left foreground) to those killed in 1940
at Broadreeds Holiday Camp, Selsey


The memorial comprises a concrete slab supporting a plaque on which the inscription reads:

ON 19 AUGUST 1940

The soldier was Gunner William Harding of the Royal Artillery. Thomas Martin was an evacuee from London. Winifred Twist and Jean Whytelaw were a teacher and a helper at the camp, though it is unclear who held what role. If anyone knows, please get in touch.

Notorious smugglers

Just a few yards away from the Broadreeds memorial is another plaque, this one relating to an earlier era. The inscription reads:



Selsey gibbet plaqueA memorial marking the gibbet at Selsey
from which the smugglers were hung in chains


In the 18th century, almost constant warfare led to high taxation in Britain on many imported goods such as brandy, wine, gin, lace, tea and tobacco. No moral or social stigma was attached to tax evasion, and all levels of society were happy to buy cheap smuggled goods. Smuggling in the Georgian era was an immense business, and virtually the entire coastline of Britain was a landing place for smuggled goods. Being so close to the Continent, the Sussex coast was especially busy.

Although viewed today as exciting and romantic, some of the smugglers were career criminals, involved in all kinds of crime, including highway robbery and housebreaking. Dick Turpin, for instance, was a smuggler and a highwayman. In October 1747, members of one ruthless gang from Kent carried out a daring raid on the custom house at Poole in Dorset so as to retrieve contraband tea that had been confiscated. While returning home through the New Forest, one smuggler was recognised by Daniel Chater, a shoemaker. For a reward, Chater agreed to give evidence before a Justice of the Peace at Chichester, and he was being escorted there by William Galley, a customs officer, when the pair became lost in the lonely countryside. Fearing for their own livelihoods, several local smugglers brutally murdered the two men.

Seven men were eventually captured and tried at Chichester in January 1749 – for murder, not smuggling. Five of them were sentenced to be hanged and then suspended in iron chains from a gibbet as a warning to others. One man died before he could be hanged, but the remaining four were executed just outside Chichester. One was hung in chains near the scene of the crime and another just north of Chichester. The other two, John Cobby and John Hammond, both came from near Selsey, and they were hung in chains close to what was then a remote coastline, where they could be seen for miles at sea.


We have four talks lined up for 2016, three of them in our own local area of Exeter in Devon. Two talks are ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’, one of which is for the ‘Pinhoe Angels’ at the Hall Church, Main Road, Pinhoe, EX4 9EY, on Tuesday 1st March at 7.30pm. The other is for the U3A on Thursday 27th October at the Mint Methodist Church, Fore Street, Exeter, EX4 3AT at 10am (the talk starts at 11am). You will need to be part of these organisations to attend, but this gives you plenty of notice.

Two more talks are on ‘Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy’. The first is on Monday 25th April at the village hall in Whitestone, near Exeter (address: Merrymeet, Whitestone, EX4 2JS), starting around 7.30pm, free for the social club members, £2 for guests. The other talk is on Wednesday 18th May at the library in Denmark Street, Wokingham, Berkshire, RG40 2BB, at 2.30pm. A large car park is close by. Tickets will be available nearer the time from the library.


The latest magazine article we have had published is ‘Women Who Went to War’ in Folklife Quarterly for October 2015, which talks about the songs relating to women in Georgian times who joined the armed forces in disguise – in particular, the song called ‘The Female Drummer’. Check out the FQ website here.


Gifts for Christmas (and other occasions) have traditionally included books. Many people prefer physical books, even if they buy an e-book version as well. E-book sales are apparently no longer rising, while print book sales are holding up, so it looks as if they will continue to make great presents.

Book blogs and more

One problem is knowing what to buy. Newspapers and magazines have reduced the number of books they review, while public libraries are buying fewer books or closing (can you believe that our own brilliant local library was demolished to make way for a 99P store?). Most chain bookstores have changed drastically in the last few years, with far fewer titles being stocked and an emphasis on celebrity books. Perhaps you are lucky to have a good independent bookstore close by, but another very good way of finding out about new and old books is to sign up to some book blogs. There are many wonderful people out there who are reading books as independent reviewers and posting comments on their own blogs in an entertaining way. Mentioned here are a few blogs that we like very much, with a little bit of bias since we have been reviewed favourably by each of them at some time! Many of them link to one another, so you will get drawn to other blogs and are sure to encounter books that will have you reading non-stop forever. – run by Louise Owens in Australia. The blog says that she ‘shares her passion for great books by reviewing 10 books each month that she has loved on a particular theme’. In addition, there are many author interviews and beautiful photographs. – subtitled ‘a reader’s journey’ and run by Lory from New Hampshire who says: ‘I can’t imagine my life without books’. Coinciding with Hallowe’en, this blog joined in with the ‘Witch Week 2015’, a celebration of fantasy books and authors, while back in August (as part of a wider event ‘Austen in August’) Lory did a post called ‘Ten Books that I’d Put on the Syllabus for Austen in August’ – one of which was ours. – in the description of herself, this reviewer says that ‘I am the girl who frequently risks missing her train stop because I’m caught in a book. I am the girl who feels nervous to leave the house without a book in her handbag and then another one on standby in case I finish the first one. I am the Girl with her Head in a Book.’ Who can resist?

Skip this advert if you wish…

Of course, we can’t resist mentioning our own books, details of which are on our website. Many are in paperback, and the most recent are:

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (Abacus, ISBN 9780349138602). In north America, its title is Jane Austen’s England (Penguin, ISBN 9780143125723)

Jack Tar: The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy (Abacus, ISBN 9780349120348).

The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo (Abacus, ISBN 9780349119168). Published by Penguin in north America (ISBN 9780143113928)

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle (Abacus, ISBN 0349116326). In north America, its title is Nelson’s Trafalgar (Penguin, ISBN 0143037951)

E-book versions of all the above are available, as well as of Empires of the Plain (Harper Perennial, on the decipherment of cuneiform, Afghanistan, Iraq and much more). There are foreign translations of some books – the latest one is for Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, which will be published in China in about two years from now.


We have two hardback copies of Jane Austen’s England (the US edition of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England ) to give away as prizes in our competition [which is now closed]. The embroidery design on the jacket was used for the UK paperback and is described under ‘Samplers’ in our June 2013 newsletter. The book focuses on the England in which Jane Austen lived, providing the context of her novels, such as damp sheets at inns – in Jane Austen’s novel Emma, Mrs Elton says of her sister: ‘She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent precaution’. Our competition is based on that novel.

US Jane Austen jacketJacket of the US edition


Emma was published 200 years ago, at the end of December 1815, traditionally in three volumes. There was an extremely modest advert in the Morning Chronicle newspaper:

In 3 vols. 12mo price of 1l. 1s.
EMMA: a Novel.–– By the Author of Pride and Prejudice.
Printed for John Murray, Albemarle-street.

Austen’s name was omitted in the advert and the book because she was a woman. Her key character, Emma, has her name mentioned in the very first sentence:

‘Emma W–––e , handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’

We have omitted Emma’s full surname for the competition, and the question is: What was Emma’s surname? Was it:

A. Woodgrouse
B. Woodhouse
C. Woodmouse
D. Woodlouse



We end on Christmas cards used for greetings. Internet communications have been with us for only a few years, and Twitter is a relative newcomer, but the concept of Twitter – writing a message in a few words – is much older. The General Post Office in Britain (which became ‘The Post Office’ in 1969) once provided a next-day delivery (in some places a same-day delivery) of letters and postcards without levying an extra charge. It was not uncommon for someone to post a postcard around midday to warn that they would be late home – and for the postcard to be delivered that afternoon. For much of the 20th century, there were relatively few telephones in Britain and mobile phones were a sci-fi dream, so postcards were the tweets of their day.

A 1905 greeting

At Christmas, cards became the main form of seasonal greeting, but festive postcards were used as well, especially for last-minute communication. The one below is a postcard of Queen Victoria’s statue at Southend-on-Sea in Essex, overprinted with ‘Best Wishes for Xmas and the New Year’ in embossed red lettering. It was posted with a halfpenny stamp in January 1909 at Sacriston in County Durham to an address at Wolsingham about 10 miles away. Agnes was writing to her uncle ‘to thank you for your cards which were very much admired especially those with the tinsel on. I am sending you this, which is not very nice, but it will help to fill your album.’


Christmas postcardA ‘not very nice’ Christmas postcard
to Mr Jackson from his niece Agnes

Wartime cards

When times were hard, simple postcards were used, cheaply printed in black and white. The plain example below has a faded gold border and a slightly manic cat. It was presumably hand delivered or posted in an envelope, because the reverse only has a handwritten message – With Love and Best Wishes for a Happy Xmas. E. Gatehouse. It seems strange today that somebody sending love would sign their name so formally. Although undated, we think this card was produced in World War One – please get in touch if you know the date.

World War One Christmas greetingostcard 2 (Blog)A very basic and undated Christmas greeting,
probably from World War One


World War Two saw Christmas greeting cards produced on thick paper (thinner than card), like the two below that were never used. Although undated, the poignant verse inside (the same in both) referring to Hitler and bombing shows they belonged to that conflict:

My Best Xmas Wishes,
A Pleasant Xmas––Full of Good Cheer,
With confidence, with hope, face the New Year,
And Hitler’s doom––Speed it fast,
Bombs and Blitzes––A ghost of the past,
The Sirens still’d––Eternal “All Clear”
These are my wishes and hopes for next year.

World War Two Christmas air raidWorld War Two Christmas greeting that draws humour
from the way the authorities dealt with air raids

World War Two Christmas rationing Card 2 (Blog)World War Two Christmas greeting that draws humour
from the rationing restrictions. The cartoon portrays
a police inspection parade

New Year greetings

Christmas wishes were inevitably bound up with New Year greetings, and postcards specifically made for the New Year were also produced. This one dates to the years between the world wars. It was posted on Christmas Eve, 24th December, with a one penny stamp, addressed to Mrs Rackham at 31 Ruskin Avenue, Manor Park, E.12 (this is still a street of terraced houses in east London). The only greeting was ‘From Mrs Gedder & Family’.

New Year Postcard

Nowadays Christmas and New Year greetings are just as likely to be sent via the internet, in the form of ‘greetings card’ downloads or straightforward emails, rather than in Christmas cards posted in the traditional way. We wish you all seasonal greetings and the very best for the new year.