Monday, 31 July 2017

The story behind Valerie Poore's memoir Watery Ways

This post was originally published on Val's own blog, but since Watery Ways is a Sunpenny publication, we thought it might interest our readers to learn a little of the background to her lovely memoir. This then is her back story of how she ended up on a barge in the Netherlands.

"There will be many who don't know and might be wondering how I have come to be living on an old Dutch barge in Rotterdam at a somewhat advanced stage in my life. Well, I suppose I wasn't so 'senior' when it all started, but I was definitely on the wrong side of forty five, so it wasn't exactly a youthful sense of adventure that drove me to this wonderful floating life.

I first left my home in South Africa at the end of 1998 to follow my husband to the Netherlands. He was working for a film company in Amsterdam at the time but was living in Rotterdam. He'd been gone for a year and decided he didn't want to go back to SA, so being ready for a new adventure myself, I agreed to shut up shop, leave my job and have a go at life in Europe again. No thoughts of boats and barges ever entered my head. I'd been living so long with SA drought and water restrictions the only boats I knew were the canoes on the  puddle-that-used-to-be-a-lake in the park. But then when I arrived in Holland, I discovered this whole new world of life on the water. I was like a child in my own wonderland.

The hold of the Hoop with Sindy as a puppy
In those early days in Rotterdam, my husband had an office in one of the city's working harbours and I was fascinated by the commercial barges that came in to offload. They often moored up against the quay outside the office and I would walk along them surreptitiously peeking through the net curtains of the windows in their back cabins. I was so taken by the idea that people both lived and worked on their barges that when said husband suggested we buy one ourselves, I never hesitated - this being in spite of the fact I hated sea travel, loathed being wet, and abhorred the cold. I suppose I conveniently forgot about all that. In wonderland, you don't usually do rational stuff like pros and cons, do you?

In any event, we bought an old barge that needed renovating some time that year - I forget exactly when. By that time, we'd got to know some people in the Oude Haven, a harbour designated for restoring historic barges and we managed to find a place there. However, this all took some time, a great deal of stress and more money than we'd ever imagined. The strain took its toll and to cut a long story discreetly short, we as a couple didn't survive.

Rescue for me came with an invitation to go back to South Africa to work at my old company. So in the course of 2000, I found myself back in Johannesburg. I loved being in my old home town again, and I was lucky enough to travel all over the country too,  but as time went on I knew I had to make a decision about life. I had nothing of my own in SA anymore; I was staying with friends; and the end of my contract was looming.

The Hoop as she is now. Still in Rotterdam, but
a different harbour

At the beginning of 2001, I headed back to Holland. This was, I thought, my chance to make something new for myself and of myself. I'd also found myself missing the boats and the barges, so I had a plan. It was to work, save money, buy my own boat and go to France.

A Godsend had come in the offer of a barge to rent. My dear friend, Philip, who saved my day rather often in those early years, had one I could rent. It wasn't very luxurious, he said, but it would be a roof when I had none. It was also a floating home. Since I hadn't had much chance to get a feel for life on the water before I hotfooted it back to South Africa, I wouldn't have cared if it had nothing of life's luxuries at all. As it happened, it didn't, and that's where the story of Watery Ways begins.

The wheelhouse of the Hoop - where the toilet remained
throughout my residence

The lovely Hoop on which I lived for a year and a half had no running water, no electricity, and no toilet when I moved on board. The electricity was my first challenge, the water came later, and the toilet remained where I found it for the duration of my occupancy - upside down on the seat in the wheelhouse. But that was all part of the charm.

And I never did get to live in France - although I haven't given up that dream yet...

Thank you so much, Val. You don't do things the easy way do you? If you'd like to read more about that first year of Val's watery adventure, my book is on

Monday, 24 July 2017

The story behind my character invention by Tonia Parronchi

This series of back story blogs is so interesting that we've decided to do another couple of posts. This week, Tonia Parronchi tells us what inspires her characters when she writes fiction.

Tonia Parronchi
People always wonder about how a writer invents characters. I find that each book and each character is different. Of course, in the case of a non-fiction book one writes about real people so no imagination is needed. A novel on the other hand is all about a writer's imagination. A while ago I wrote two blogs about different aspects of character creation which show how the process works for me. The first, from Feb 2013 published on my website (, talks about my literary novel set in the beautiful Tuscan valley where I live.

"Twilight" The beautiful painting by Caroline Zimmermann
which I used for the cover of "The Song of the Cypress"

In this blog I explain that after reading my book, The Song of the Cypress, a friend of my mother's said that she assumed that I had drawn on my experiences as an English girl living in Tuscany when writing. That is both true and untrue at the same time. Living here gives me a realistic viewpoint and the ability to describe the area in accurate detail. However, none of my characters are based on myself. The third comment I had was from a lady I met who had read my book. She amazed me by launching into a detailed discussion of the plot and characters as if they were real people - a bigger compliment I cannot imagine! She asked me if my heroine was based on me and my reply was, absolutely not. There are only two characters who have some basis of reality, Rita, who is a neighbour of mine and a wonderful source of stories from the war years and Luna, the dog. Luna looks different from my Stella but every delicious doggy moment in the book is based on her. Now that she is no longer with us, every time I reread bits of the book I want to laugh and cry at the same time - I miss her so much!

However, the characters in my book grow with me as I write. So much so that sometimes I have to go back to the beginning and rewrite scenes to add details about them that I did not know when I began. At the moment my head is full of new characters. I am not at the sleepless-night phase but the washing-up gets frequently interrupted as I dash to dry my hands and write down some new idea that presents itself to me from within the soapsuds. I love this process, this complicated double life I live, where my new "friends" seem almost as real as my family at times.

The second blog from my website is about my new novel "The Melting of Miss Angelina Snow", a funny story set in the UK but with a very Italian hero who is unashamedly based on my friend Tonino. Anyone who has read my sailing Memoir "A Whisper on the Mediterranean" will remember Tony as the owner of the beautiful sailing boat Elisir with memorable  mirrors in the bathroom.

" Elisir, a splendid boat with shining woodwork and gleaming bronze fittings, which looks as if it should be used as a movie set.  Tony is the most erudite person I have ever known. The tatty, well-thumbed copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy" left casually by the sink in the head is an unusual aid to concentration but Tony has put it to good use and is capable of quoting huge chunks of it after a few glasses of wine."

We had many splendid sailing adventures together but life took a nasty turn when he died a few years ago. I couldn't accept his death, couldn't bear to think that his adventures were over and, without planning to do so, I found myself writing him into something new that I was working on. In this case my fictional character (because inevitably the real man gradually became absorbed by the fictional character) looked like Tony, dressed like him and spoke like him too.

Tony "Tonino"
This is a photo of my dear friend Tonino. He died in tragic circumstances a couple of years ago and I have never come to terms with his death, so much so that I found myself using him as the main character in the book I am writing at the moment. 

In "The Melting of Miss Angelina Snow" I have tried to keep his personality just as it was; grumpy, sarcastic, caustic, super-intelligent but also kind and very, very funny. I am giving him the life that he should have had, letting him recover his health, retire and move to a new country and eventually fall in love with his extremely daunting estate agent. 

Sometimes (when I'm writing) I can hear his voice in my head and remember the look he would give me whenever I said something daft. He keeps me from getting too wordy or too romantic and makes sure that I stop work at the right moment to open a bottle of wine, or why not two!

I miss my friend a lot more than he would have imagined. I am not sure if he knew how much I cared about him but I hope so. It was hard to write the opening chapter, taking the accident where Tony drowned and turning it into a near death experience that is almost funny instead of tragic. After that however the book began to unfold really quickly, other characters made their presences felt and became my constant companions as I moved around the house or tried to get to sleep at night. 

I am so lucky - writing is fun and wonderful. I disappear inside my own head completely at times but fortunately my husband, Guido, is always there to remind me that it is dinner time. If I am lucky that news will be accompanied by the smell of a yummy garlicky pasta sauce and the sound of a cork popping.

I carry a notebook with me and jot down lines or impressions that come to me. Often I throw these away at a later date when re-reading them doesn't trigger any emotion. Other times these notes can become big writing projects. I also fix things in my mind by describing them to myself if I don't have a pen and paper handy. This is my way of remembering. I pretend I am writing a scene and create sentences in my head to fix the memory.

One of the things that I love most about being a writer is the way even a chance meeting or fleeting glimpse of something or someone can be elaborated on until it comes to life in words on a page. In "The Melting of Miss Angelina Snow" I write about a girl called Grace. When I needed to create a character, who would be the counterbalance for a rash, adventurous young man, I suddenly remembered a beautiful black woman who walked past me on the beach one summer. She was slim and naturally pretty, with none of the make-up and jewellery that Italian women love to wear to wander up and down the seafront. She walked alone with her head up, gaze far away as she observed the sea and I though how very lovely and graceful she was. And that is all that I needed. I had found "Grace" in a fragment of memory.

Thank you, Tonia. What a lovely tribute to your friend! For anyone interested in Tonia's books, you can visit her author page on Amazon, which is where you will also find her Sunpenny publication, A Whisper on the Mediterranean

Monday, 17 July 2017

The story behind Rooster Street by Janet Purcell

As most readers know, North American history is inextricably bound up with the iniquities of slavery and the slave trade and even after it was abolished, the struggle of the former slaves to make new lives in freedom was often heart-rending.

In Janet Purcell's page-turning novel, Rooster Street, two stories unfold: the first is set in the 21st century and tells of a young woman's research into the history of a house in Cape Cod, the second is that of a runaway slave girl who begins a school in Rooster Street in Boston. How the two stories become entwined is revealed in this compelling book.

Janet Purcell

We asked Janet how she became inspired to write Rooster Street. This is what she said:

"I’ve been asked a number of times what led me to write about a runaway slave.  I’m not a person of color, I do not have ancestors who were slaves or slave holders.  No one in my family were even abolitionists.  So why?

I’ve pondered that question long and hard and the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is—I care.  

I grew up in a city, Trenton, New Jersey, and went to school with kids of all races and ethnicities.  It didn’t matter to us what color our skin was.  We were just friends.  But segregation began to rear its ugly head in the south.   I watched as black children were not allowed to enter their school--kids who looked just like some of my friends. I started seeing race riots across the country on tv, reading about atrocities being done to good people who just wanted to live a quiet life, to become educated, to raise their children in communities that accepted them as equal.

As an adolescent who loved to read, I was always drawn to books about brave women who overcame great odds.  The American pioneer women who followed their men across America and made homes and raised their families against all sorts of deprivations.

And, of course, I devoured books about the bravery of the African people who were torn from their families, brought to America and sold into bondage.  My heart ached for them being treated worse than animals and my heart swelled with joy for the ones who so bravely escaped.  I read with fascination about the Underground Railroad and had strong admiration for those who helped the runaways move to a safer place where they could be free and begin building real independence for themselves.

And there’s something about my love for and admiration of my mother in my writing.  She was born to a poor family and abused as a child growing up in New York City.  She loved to read and made friends with two women who worked in the local library.  When the abuse continued and she got to an age where she could do so, she climbed out her bedroom window one night and ran away.  The library women took her in and finally helped her be placed in a foster home where she served as a nanny while going to school and preparing herself for her adult life.   She married, raised my sister and me and became an adroit business woman and opened a very successful children’s clothing store.

I know you may be thinking by this time “How do those two separate inspirations to write Rooster Street mesh?  What’s the connection?”  I’m sitting here, fingers on my keyboard asking myself the same question.  When I began writing this blog story I decided to do it “stream of consciousness” and that has been a real eye opener for me.  

What I’m seeing is  Rooster Street was born in my caring about the strong spirit, the instinctual drive to better oneself, the intelligence of those held in bondage and abused.  I want to set them free and so greatly admire not only their bravery in breaking those bonds and fleeing, but then facing all the barriers they encountered and persevering to achieve their place in society which they deserved. As I was writing the book, I never stopped to ask myself why.  Althea came out of nowhere and was a gift to me.  She told her story to me as she became real on the page and she fascinated me the entire time.  

I like to meet with book clubs who have read Rooster Street and so many people have commented about the mother-daughter relationships throughout.  I was not aware of that as I wrote the story.  

The primary one is Lou and Althea, but also there is, in the beginning, Althea’s mother and Althea.  Farther on, there’s Bessie, the older slave woman who became a sort of surrogate mother to Althea when her mother died.  Next comes the new plantation mistress and Althea, then Liza Bell and Althea during her stay at the general store, then Mrs. Barbiero and Althea at the boarding house.  And in the present-day story, there is the troubled relationship between Jennifer and her mother, the important segment near the end with Dolores Austin and Jennifer, and the reconciliation of Jennifer and her mother.   

I’m a journalist and I came to that profession because I was more comfortable writing about other people rather than revealing myself.  But I’ve come to realize that as fiction writers, we can not hide.  What we care about most deeply finds its way up to the surface."

Thank you for this fascinating insight into your book, Janet.  

For anyone interested in reading this compelling novel, the link is here:

Monday, 10 July 2017

The story behind The Skipper's Child by Valerie Poore

This week's post is another back story by one of our authors, Val Poore. Here she tells us what inspired her to write her novel, The Skipper's Child, published under the Sunberry Books imprint of Sunpenny Publishing.

Val with her books at a book
fair in the Netherlands
"Most people who read my blog and know about my watery life generally associate me with memoirs. However, I have also written two novels, one of which, The Skipper's Child, is published by Sunpenny and is also about my watery world. However, this one concerns the history of barge life itself rather than the barges.

The Skipper's Child is a sort of cat and mouse adventure set on Europe's waterways in December 1962 at the height of the Cold War. 1962/63 was also the longest and coldest winter on record in Europe in the 20th century, even exceeding 1947, I believe. The story is woven around the Kornet family: Hendrik, a commercial barge skipper, his wife Marijke and their three children, Anneke, Arie and Jannie. Essentially, this family is based on my partner Koos's parents and two sisters. 

My partner, his mother and sister on their family barge.
Note his mother knitting on the go!
When I first met my partner, he told me he was brought up on a barge. He then regaled me with numerous stories of what life was like for a skipper's kind (child). It was neither glamorous nor exciting and despite travelling all over the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, he felt very restricted as they were always on the move and he could rarely leave the barge. For the most part, he told me, it was incredibly boring. All the same, I was fascinated by the stories of family life on board and the tough conditions they considered quite normal for their way of life.

The skippers' family on a day out
I knew then I wanted to write about this old and very special way of life. Skippers these days have quite a luxurious lifestyle with all possible mod-cons; even their cars travel with them. In my partner's time, they had no electricity, no central heating and no interior insulation either, so it was not unusual in the winter for them to wake to ice on the inside of the cabin; on occasions, they even got frozen in and had to walk across the ice to get to land.

Thinking about all of this sowed the seeds of a fictional story in which I could incorporate both his memories and also a few of the anecdotes his father told him about earlier times, especially during and after the war. And so Arie, The Skipper's Child, was born. The outcome is an adventure involving Russian spies, secret service agents and a young stowaway who has failed in a mission that he was not aware he was undertaking until he overhears a conversation where he learns what his fate was meant to be.

The main target audience for the story was my younger self. It was the sort of book I'd have been reading in my early teens, so I set that as the 'age' for the reader. But in truth, most of its readers have been adults.  The only real YA (young adult) feedback I've had has been from The Wishing Shelf Awards whose panel of judges for all the YA entries were teenage school children. Luckily for me, they liked it and The Skipper's Child won a Silver Award.

So if you feel like something completely different from the usual action packed adventure, you might like Arie's story. The link to the book and all the reviews is here. The link to a book blogger's review can be found here too."