Saturday, 29 October 2016

Katrina Kirkwood explains why she chose creative nonfiction to tell the tale of a real life WW1 heroine

When I was a teenager, I inherited my Grandmother Isabella’s medical instruments and a strange string of beads. Nobody knew their true story, because Isabella had chosen not to tell, but a rumour remained. As I ran the cold glassiness of the beads over my hands, I would wonder. Was it true that she had served as a doctor during WW1? Had these beads really been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war? Imagining some wounded hero falling for Isabella and her stethoscope in a romance that smashed through enemy lines, I promised myself that, sometime, I would find out the truth.

Decades later, I dredged up my skills as a research scientist and began my quest. Isabella had left so little evidence that I was thrilled when she turned up in Edinburgh, even more so when she materialised in the Imperial War Museum, and in the Wellcome Library, my astonished whoop disturbed all the other researchers.

Then, one day, the excitement was over. The research was done. My friends were intrigued by the tale: it had a classic narrative arc and it was so unusual that it deserved a place in the WW1 commemorations. But how was I to write it up? I had long since deserted science in favour of art and storytelling, and years spent helping people in the Welsh valleys tell their own tales had made me obsessive about how stories were told. Worthy accounts that killed fascinating lives by merely presenting a cautious list of facts drove me mad.

Idealistically, I wanted readers to be able to slip themselves into my grandmother’s high-heeled button-boots and race through the pages. I wanted people who would never have considered reading a book about a WW1 woman doctor to find themselves gripped.

Isabella relaxing at a hospital on Malta during the First World War
Should I try fiction? Certainly not - the most important thing about this story was that it was true. I spotted a course at Ty Newydd in North Wales: Creative nonfiction. Curious, I booked in. And found the logical solution to my conundrum. Giving myself a working definition - ‘Nonfiction written as engagingly as a novel’ - I tried it out.

It was hard, even harder than writing up a Ph.D. thesis. Using the fiction-writer’s devices to capture the truth without losing historical accuracy, introducing bias or committing any other punishable academic crime made every word a challenge. But there were rewards: a diary enabled me to feel each day of Isabella’s life in a French hospital in 1915, an information gap tossed me into the world of ancient questionnaires, and letters scribbled in the gloriously imperial accent of the time gave voices to important characters, allowing dialogue to break up the prose.

But one worry remained: without access to Isabella’s feelings, was the book doomed to be dry, however much I tried to make the prose live? I started thinking about two books I had loved: Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. It was not their conclusions that had kept me reading, it was their descriptions of how they had reached those conclusions - their detective work - that had made both those books unputdownable.

I was tempted - people liked detective tales. That showed in the audience ratings for Saturday night thrillers. I made my choice. Like de Waal and Tey, I decided to relish letting the joys and frustrations of sleuthing become part of the tale, as they really had been from the moment when I began to investigate until the dramatic end, when the solution to the mystery of Isabella’s beads had finally revealed itself and I had discovered the identity of their donor. But of course, I cannot tell whether the book has done what I wanted - only readers can decide that.


The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman Doctor in WW1, published by Loke Press, is available on Amazon and by order from all good bookshops. The Ebook is available for seven days at a reduced price especially to readers of this blog. Click here for the link. And, if you enjoy the book, then please post a review on Amazon about it too.


Katrina Kirkwood@kkstories, a former medical research scientist with a passion for stories, is Doctor Isabella Stenhouse’s granddaughter. Equipped with two science degrees and an art degree, she spent many years helping people in the South Wales valleys turn their stories into mini-films before embarking on her quest to solve the mystery of Isabella and her beads. An evening class in Cardiff and a course at Ty Newydd got her started, while mentoring by The Literary Consultancy helped her bring Isabella together. Following features about Isabella on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, in national newspapers, and on local radio and television, Katrina has been invited to write about her grandmother for numerous magazines and blogs. She moved to Norwich last year.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

OCTOBER STORIES by Kate Swindlehurst

It’s that time of year again. All those years of teaching with barely a break after school and university has meant that the shifting season signals the start of a new chapter for me. As the summer stutters to a close, the weather lurching from seaside sunshine to tropical storm, that restless feeling grows. My dreams are peopled with difficult students and critical colleagues, my competence questioned, my confidence challenged at every turn. I am late, unprepared, clueless. In the real world, I try desperately to recover a working routine but the fallout from the summer lingers in piles of washing and domestic chaos. Jack moves back in, and out, again. I wave him off with a heavy heart. The Cumbrian house is on the market, again and suddenly, after years of lingering, seems to have been snapped up. Unsettled to the point of neurosis, I become obsessed, again, with the idea of moving. I want to clear the ground, dig out what remains of the old plantings, put down new, permanent roots.
On mornings like these, though, I’m caught between nostalgia and longing. Somehow it’s the season for renewing old acquaintances, rediscovering lost loves. I return in my mind to Mexico, those magical early mornings, frost sparkling under sun from clear blue skies, when the usual smog cleared and the volcanoes shimmered in the distance as I walked up the hill to work. Out of sync with the rest of the world as always (my mother’s name for me was Contrary Mary) I took my gap year twenty years late. Looking back, though, at my astonishing naivety then, I might as well have been eighteen. I’m further unsettled by the late holidays of friends who send thoughts from abroad. Despite Cambridge’s loveliness in early autumn, long shadows and rustling willows and sparkling water, I wish I was anywhere but here, with anyone but myself. School dreams give way to turbulent erotic scenes which leave me bemused on waking. And then there’s the botanic garden, a second home for almost two years. I rarely get there now.
As for the writing: there is a lot to be said for sticking at it. I am in the very fortunate situation where I can do that, without paid work wearing me out or children clamouring for my attention. Even more privileged to have a brother happy to share his lovely cottage in Norfolk, so that I was able to take myself off for the month of August and write there. It’s my ideal situation: just me and the laptop, a book or two, a pair of walking boots, the unassuming Norfolk countryside. I came back with a first draft of a novel almost complete. I am happiest when I can reproduce something like that routine here: up early, read a bit of hard stuff with a pot of tea, write for the rest of the morning, perhaps an hour or two of editing in the afternoon, a chapter or two of fiction at bedtime… Often I don’t manage all of it and it does make it difficult to fit in other essentials – tango, exercise, shopping, friends – but I keep coming back to this: it’s what I do. Or, like Simon in Lord of the Flies, ‘What else is there to do?’
To keep going, I have to believe that some of what I write is important in some loosely political way, an exploration of pressing concerns – or that, even if it’s mainly for fun, it’s as perfect as I can make it. I have to silence that critical voice which says ‘This is rubbish’ or ‘You don’t know enough.’ I remember a workshop with A.L. Kennedy in Norwich in which she offered this advice: get rid of your nerves, don’t allow your negative energy to crush or sabotage you, think of your reader as intelligent and interested in the same things as you and, what has stayed in my mind above all, make sure you give your reader your best shot – as if you are writing for someone you love.
There is something deadening about writing in a vacuum, though. So, although self-publicising goes against the grain, the other thing I’ve tried to address in the last six months or so is to get my work out there. And it has paid off. Two of the stories from Writing the Garden, completed during my residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, are due to be published in Crisp, ARU’s new anthology of creative writing, next month, and a third will be the featured story on Litro magazine’s #Story Sunday slot this coming weekend. Finally, as a result of a competition which I’d forgotten I’d entered, a publisher is looking at the latest novel. And there’s my blog, of course: I’d forgotten the pleasures of this kind of sharing…

To read 'Inside' go to and click on #Story Sunday. After publication on Sunday 16 October, the story should be available on the page for some time.

‘Heartsease’ and ‘Classical Studies’ will appear in Crisp, to be launched on 2nd November at the 12a Club in Cambridge and available from ARU thereafter for £6.99. Or, if you’d really like to own one, I might be persuaded to pick one up for you at the bargain price of £5.00 on the night!

After thirty years in the classroom, Kate Swindlehurst has been writing full-time for ten years. She gained a distinction in the creative writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University and won an Arts Council Escalator award enabling her to complete a novel based on Argentina’s disappeared. She has also produced a memoir dealing with the impact of Argentine tango on Parkinson’s disease and two short story collections, the second inspired by a 20-month residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where she was mentored by author Ali Smith. Kate is currently working on a novel dealing with our responses to the refugee crisis. A northerner by birth and habit, she now lives and works in Cambridge.

Friday, 14 October 2016

What it means to win Words & Women's prose competition

Sarah Evans won our 2015/16 prose competition for her wonderful short story Scalpelling Through. The story was published in our annual anthology with twenty highly commended entries and she also received a cash prize of £600 and read at our International Women’s Day celebration in Norwich.

We asked Sarah to write something for the blog on what winning has meant for her. We hope her words will encourage you to enter this year’s competition. Naomi Wood, prize-winning author of The Godless Boys and Mrs. Hemingway, is our  guest judge this year, and for the first time we are offering a national prize as well as our usual regional prize. The national prize is for women over 40 living and writing in the UK and Ireland and the winner of this category will receive publication in our anthology, £1000 and a month long writing residency provided by Hosking Houses Trust. Our regional winner will also for this year only receive, in additional to the usual prizes, a mentoring session with the novelist Jill Dawson. The competition is open to writers of memoir, creative non-fiction and fiction, and entries can be 2,200 words or under. The closing date for entries is the 15th November.

Over to Sarah:

"Receiving an email (in the cold, dark days of January) informing me that I had won the Words and Women prose competition provided a fabulous start to 2016.
Writing is by its nature a lonely occupation and intermittent successes are part of what helps to justify the solitary hours, false starts and many, many rejections. It is always exciting when the news arrives that something I have written will be published.
In this particular case, all sorts of factors made the win feel special. Words and Women is an established competition and my story had been chosen by a successful writer (Emma Healey) whose novel I had very much enjoyed. The prize money was certainly higher than most of the other competitions I’ve been placed in. My story was published in a beautiful looking anthology by Unthank Books. And then there was the launch event...
Along with a selection of other shortlisted writers, I was invited to read an extract of my story at an event held in the Norwich Arts Centre. This provided me with the opportunity to meet and chat with Emma Healey, the competition organisers – Lynne and Belona – as well as a number of fellow writers. As for the reading - speaking in public has never exactly been my favourite pastime, but I managed to overcome my nerves to give what felt like a creditable performance to a packed house.
All of the above contributed to making my award of first prize hugely thrilling."

Sarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Gull Stones & Cuckoos launches!

An anthology of compelling and passionate stories, Gull Stones and Cuckoos is to be launched in three rural libraries in Norfolk this October; celebrating the results of a unique creative opportunity for women living in isolated rural communities.

The anthology has grown out of Rural Writes, a partnership between Norfolk Library and Information Service and Words and Women supported by Arts Council England. Women of all ages and backgrounds from Gorleston, Watton and Swaffham were invited to attend 10 weeks of life-writing sessions in their local libraries led by two professional writers, Belona Greenwood, co-organiser of Words and Women, and award-winning poet Heidi Williamson. The project was coordinated by Anna Brett of Create Projects.

The result, illustrated by Rose Cowan and edited by Lynne Bryan and Belona Greenwood, is a bold, honest and vivid narrative of local lives. Published by Unthank Books, it tells of
lost halls, early morning walks, stillness, fairy-light skies, telescopes on allotments, the loneliness of grief and the adventure of new places in rural Norfolk. The writers in this book are new to writing but their stories and observations are compellingly authentic.

The collection will be available to borrow from all Norfolk's libraries and to buy. 

‘This project shows how vital libraries are in bringing communities and people together.  The women who joined were strangers until they signed up to try their hand at writing. They have made friends, supported and inspired each other. The book itself, is fantastic but the fact the women’s groups are continuing is enormously important and heart-warming,’ said Belona Greenwood of Words and Women.

The book launches will take place in Watton Library at 6.00 pm on October 26th, Gorleston Library at 6.30 pm on the 27th and Swaffham Library at 6.30 pm on the 28th.

Rural Writes doesn’t end with the book, all three writing groups continue to meet in their local libraries and to post on the Rural Writes blog.