Monday 17 June 2013

A chat with Janet MacLeod Trotter

Janet MacLeod Trotter
Today, I am talking to Janet MacLeod Trotter, successful author of family sagas and historical novels.

Janet, having just read, and very much enjoyed, No Greater Love, I see from your website that the ending has been changed from when it was originally published and I wonder what prompted this?
This was a new edition for the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison (the suffragette martyr who was trampled to death by King George V's horse at the Epsom Derby) who inspires my fictional heroine Maggie Beaton. As I was revisiting the story, I decided it would be interesting to take the action a little bit further than in the original, so it's more of an addition than a complete change. Also my daughter has always wanted a different outcome, so it was partly to please her!

I found some passages very disturbing. Given what the suffragettes went through to gain women the vote, what do you think about the low turnout of voters for local and general elections?
It upsets me when women don't exercise their right to vote. Three of my own great-aunts and my great grandmother (also called Janet) were very actively involved in the campaign for the vote, and I'm humbled and proud that they marched, sold newspapers and took part in civil disobedience to achieve emancipation. If they were prepared to risk their liberty and careers, then turning up at the polling station is the least we modern women can do.

No Greater Love by Janet MacLeod TrotterWhat is it about the period this book is set in that you find particularly interesting?
I find the Edwardian era fascinating. Coming on the heels of the Victorians, changes were happening for some women such as greater education, travel and careers, yet they were still having to battle the constraints of class and strict social conventions. Then comes the world-shattering experience of the First World War, which throws both men and women's lives into turmoil – grist to the mill for a writer!

How much historical research do you have to do, and how do you go about it?
A lot! I spend several months reading and researching a topic or an era that intrigues me – for example suffragettes or Italians living in Britain through the Second World War – and from this the ideas for the plot and characters grow.

Is there a period you haven’t yet visited in your novels but would like to tackle?
I would love to do a novel based on the Scottish heroine Flora MacDonald, which would take me to 18th century Scotland and also America. My MacLeod ancestors were living on the Isle of Skye when Flora was helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Jacobite Rising, so perhaps one or two of them could sneak into the novel!

In your own reading, is historical fiction your favourite genre, or are there others?
When I was a teenager, historical novels were my favourite, but I'm happy to read a whole range of different novels – contemporary, mystery, foreign novels – and I also enjoy non fiction, especially travel. I'm in two reading groups, so am often introduced to novels that I wouldn't have tried otherwise.

What real life characters have interested or inspired you?
Well I have to say Emily Davison, don't I?! I might not have her courage but she certainly inspired me to write No Greater Love. My Jarrow Trilogy is inspired by the life of Catherine Cookson – she was such a complex and interesting person who rose from her impoverished background to be a great observer and writer about the people of North East England. Another Edwardian!

I was interested to learn that you use photographs of women from your own family for your book covers, what prompted you to do this?
Because they are such interesting women! I re-branded my historical novels when they were published as ebooks and wanted strong images of real women on the covers, so I raided the family archive. My mother was an actress in her younger days and so I've used her lovely photos on more than one cover – it's just a pity she never lived to see her latter day fame.

Have the real lives of these women influenced characters or events in your books?
Not specifically, but the novel I'm researching now is set largely in India and the background is based on my grandparents experience there in the 1920s and 30s, expressed through old diaries and letters from my grandmother to her parents back in Edinburgh.

You have had incredible success with your e-books. How did the journey start – and did you have any idea in the beginning of how popular your novels would prove to be?
I've been writing for many years and published originally by a traditional publisher. But the ebooks I have done myself and it's such a thrill that my novels are being enjoyed by a whole new generation of readers all over the world. The most satisfying thing is receiving emails from readers and hearing their stories. People like to relate to the women in the novels and many have said how the stories bring the past alive for them.

How much of the publishing process for your own novels are you involved in, for example, design, formatting and marketing.
I'm very involved but do bring in professional help with graphic design, ebook conversion, copy editing and newsletter production. My husband is also a co-director of the publishing company and helps with business strategy and marketing. It's a family business – our daughter and son have honed their proof-reading and researching skills – and my daughter appears on two of the covers!

Many thanks, Janet, for taking take time out from what must be a very busy schedule to talk to me. One last question: is the surname ‘Trotter’ particularly associated with the North East, I’m thinking of Catherine Cookson’s ‘Tilly Trotter’? 
The name Trotter is a Scottish Border name – one of the wild Reiver clans who rampaged around the Scotland-England border for centuries – so it's not surprising that some Trotters  ended up in the North East and that Cookson should choose the name for her character. I was born a MacLeod (of Viking descent) and acquired a Trotter on marriage – so our children have inherited some feisty genes!

Visit Janet MacLeod Trotter's website.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Two days, two cities. Part 2 - Liverpool

St George's Hall, Liverpool. Photograph by fabiopauleri, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.'s_Hall%2C_Liverpool_(2007).jpg
Sunday the 9th of June, saw me back in my favourite city – Liverpool – the city where I was born, went to school, had my first job, and met my husband! Our intention was to walk straight from Lime Street Station down to the waterfront; it was the last day of the Mersey River Festival which has entertained the city’s many thousands of visitors over the last three weekends. However, passing the side entrance to St George’s Hall, we decided to drop into their coffee shop for a caffeine boost first. (Readers will notice how many of these blogs mention coffee shops!) As we’re familiar with the building due to numerous visits over the years, we didn’t intend to linger this time – but we couldn’t help ourselves. It was only 30 minutes or so after the Hall had opened and we soon realised we were the only visitors in the building – even the ground floor coffee shop was deserted. Venturing up the stone staircases to the third floor, we found, to our disappointment, no sign of the quintessential English tea room that used to be there. It was a decidedly eerie experience wandering the building without coming across any signs of life, especially when we walked into the Court Room and found the dock occupied by two life-sized models of Victorian female prisoners! Venturing along the corridor that contained the original cells, it was unnerving to hear the ghostly cries and shouts of long-dead prisoners, even though we knew they were only sound effects. Some of the cells were ‘occupied’, and the fact that we were the only two visitors in the building added to the eerie atmosphere.

As we stepped out of the side door, we were relieved to see other visitors were beginning to arrive, and as we were even more in need of caffeine we crossed over to the café in the Central Library.

(Another Liverpool ‘first’ – St George’s Hall had the first air conditioning unit in the world.)

Down at the waterfront, the scene was as buzzing as it has been over the previous weekends; happy crowds enjoying themselves in the sunshine, street theatre, sea and air displays, the Sights and Sounds of India performing on the World Music Stage; in short, something for everyone.

We couldn’t miss the opportunity of boarding the schooner Kathleen and May. Built by Ferguson and Baird at Connah’s Quay in 1900, this is the last remaining three-masted, wooden hull, topsail schooner. In 1961, The Duke of Edinburgh discovered her in a bad state of repair in Plymouth and this led him to set up the Maritime Trust in London. Kathleen and May was bought by the Trust in 1970 but when they failed to secure a £2 million National Lottery bid, she was eventually bought by businessman Steve Clarke and fully restored in 2000. As a result of his efforts in restoring the schooner, Mr Clarke was awarded the OBE in 2008. We were more than happy to give the £1 donation asked for in order to have a good look around this historic vessel.

In contrast, we walked along to Princes Dock where the Celebrity Cruises’ INFINITY liner was berthed. Some of the passengers were disembarking as we passed and I felt proud of what the city had to offer those visitors as they stepped ashore.

After a couple of hours, we found a quiet spot to enjoy our lunch – yes it is possible, if you know where to look – and after another caffeine boost (at the very attractive Bean coffee shop at Princes Dock) we made our way, footsore but with plenty to talk about, back to Lime Street Station.

Two days, two cities. Part 1 - The John Rylands Library, Manchester

By Stephen Richards ( [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Saturday 8th June. Living exactly half-way between two northern cities – Liverpool and Manchester – means that great opportunities for visiting art galleries, museums, theatre trips (not to mention shopping!) are available within a 40 minute train ride to either city.

Saturday found us in what is probably my favourite spot in Manchester, The John Rylands Library, situated on Deansgate. This Grade 1 listed building, one of the best examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in Europe, was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John. John Rylands came from humble beginnings but rose to become one of Manchester’s first multi-millionaires. The Library was designed by Basil Champneys in 1889, took ten years and £500,000 to build, and was opened to public readers on the First of January 1900. It is now part of the University of Manchester and houses Special Collections and Exhibitions and hosts Events and Tours and because of the collections it has acquired over the years is considered to be one of the finest libraries in the world. Public access to the building is free, and although visitors are now unable to handle any of its contents there are always interesting exhibits on display.

As well as enjoying wandering around this stunning architectural gem, my particular interest this weekend was a talk by Zoe Kinsley of Liverpool Hope University and author of Considering the Manuscript Travelogue: The Journals of Dorothy Richardson (1761-1801). The talk was entitled ‘Collection Encounter: The Travel Diaries of a Georgian Lady’. These travel diaries were written by an unmarried lady of leisure, Dorothy Richardson, who travelled around England with members of her intellectual and scholarly family over a period of four decades.

Richardson’s diaries were in manuscript, considered at the time to be less constraining than the printed form, yet they had all the characteristics of printed works; indices, appendices, even mileage charts. Richardson was also an accomplished artist, the entries being accompanied by fine drawings of buildings and landscapes. Even the bindings of the diaries were designed to give the appearance of printed books when placed on a bookshelf.

The 1700s was the era of early ‘industrial tourism’ and Richardson’s description of Bacup in Lancashire, known as the Vale of Famine, was rather less than flattering! She gives a minutely detailed description of hat-making when she visits a factory in Bent, Oldham, and was not averse to trying various techniques herself, not very successfully according to the diaries. One can’t help wondering what the factory workers thought of these visitors!

Although the small group of us who had booked places on the talk were unable to handle the diaries, it was good to see them out of storage and placed on a table in front of us. Assisted by John Hodgson, Zoe opened them at various entries and illustrations and we were able to view them closely, marvelling at the minute and meticulous handwriting. Presumably, Richardson made rough copies on site and wrote them up later.

In a modern, ground floor annex, The Rylands Library has a coffee shop/cafe with friendly staff, and you can also browse a small selection of interesting/unusual gifts or souvenirs.

If you’re in the area on the 13th or 29th of June, why not book to hear the talk on Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing 1860, and ponder on what she would have thought of today’s NHS!