Calling the Shots

It’s an exciting time in the publishing world as talk of ebooks dominates the market, even though I’m sure that the printed word will co-exit with them happily once it’s settled down. Several of my titles are already in ebook form, including a collection of five of my short stories, That’s the Way He Did It. The first of my Jack Colby car detective series, written with the help of my classic car enthusiast husband Jim, is also available not only in audio but as an ebook, so look out for Classic in the Barn.

The second in the series, Classic Calls the Shots, is also now published – and audio rights have already been sold. Ebook coming shortly. Frogs Hill, where Jack Colby lives and where his classic car restoration work is carried out, is near Pluckley in Kent – a village reputed to be the most haunted in Kent. Some say the most haunted in England. I’ve never met any ghosts myself, and nor has Jack – yet. But it’s an idea for the future. Classic Calls the Shots is so-called because – guess what – Jack’s called in initially to investigate the theft of a rare Auburn sportscar from a film set. The studios are set several miles from Pluckley, just outside the village of Lenham. Pluckley itself has two good pubs, one of which is an old hunting lodge near the railway station called the Dering Arms seen in the photo. Its owner and chef Jim Buss is a classic car enthusiast, holding gatherings of owners and their cars each month. I have a special fondness for the pub for a personal reason. In her old age my mother would often recall a holiday she had spent with her parents and baby brother well before the First World War. It had begun at a railway station and she remembered as a young child herself walking down an endlessly long road to reach journey’s end, the cottage her parents had rented. She couldn’t remember the village’s name but after some detective work Jim and I discovered that it was Pluckley and were able to take her there to make the walk again. In the photo she is sitting resting after having made the walk over eighty years later.

A Jane Austen Mystery

When I worked in publishing one of the most rewarding aspects was that each new publication offered a chance of entering into a whole new field of knowledge or into another’s way of life – the firm I worked for, William Kimber, published memoirs, history and military titles (as well as ghost stories and some other fiction). While I was editing a book I often became a temporary ‘expert’ on the subject concerned.

Writing novels has offered me the same opportunities. Researching a subject for fiction brings great rewards, but is often frustrating because most of what one learns never reaches the printed page. But blogs offer the chance to share a little of that pleasure. My current Marsh & Daughter crime novel, Murder in Abbot’s Folly, although a contemporary novel has a puzzle about Jane Austen at its heart set in Kent where she often stayed, in particular with her brother Edward. There are several years ‘missing’ from her life story, as no letters have survived – probably due to their destruction by her family during the course of the nineteenth century. In these’ missing’ years she wrote several chapters of The Watsons, which she abandoned for reasons that are not known. It was also during this period that she received and accepted a proposal of marriage, which she promptly rejected the following day.  Various other snippets are known through the memories of third parties but her own voice as expressed in letters cannot be heard.  What a temptation for a novelist to consider what might have happened to her during that period.

I live reasonably close to the houses that Jane Austen knew best when she stayed  in Kent, although it is also likely she knew the Sevenoaks area well. It was Godmersham Park (see the photo above) where she stayed most frequently however, since her brother Edward lived there with his family. His wife was Elizabeth Bridges, daughter of the family who owned Goodnestone, which Jane also knew well. Both houses are still to be seen, although neither is regularly open to the public. The Goodnestone gardens are, however, and Jane would have known their glories much as they are today. Turning off the Ashford to Canterbury road into the lane that leads to Godmersham Park is like stepping into one of her novels. Little has changed in the views that she would have seen. The lane passes the Saxon church of St Lawrence the Martyr, where Jane Austen would have worshipped, and then skirts the high red brick wall of the Godmersham estate. A public footpath past the entrance to the house’s grounds leads into the fields from which a good view can be obtained of the house itself.  Inside the grounds there is a stone Temple, which would have been recently built when Jane Austen stayed at the house and where she must often have sat to admire the views (and perhaps scribble a line or two). Not far from Godmersham and perched on top of a hill is Chilham Castle, where Jane Austen enjoyed a ball in 1801 given by the Wildman family, and in the opposite direction she dined at Godinton House, a splendid Jacobean mansion (see the photo on the right), again with lovely gardens – and  both house and garden are open to the public.

And then there’s Lenham, whose vicar Edward is said to have proposed to Jane Austen. It came to nothing of course – but in later years she famously spoke of his wife as ‘a poor Honey – the sort of woman who gives me the idea of being determined never to be well’. Lenham’s vicarage is now divided into flats, but it’s still easy to imagine what it must have been like when Jane Austen ‘baited’ in Lenham, according to her letter to her sister Cassandra.

Peel off the layers – and the eighteenth century isn’t so very far away.