I’ve been wanting to feature Madalyn Morgan’s lovely books on Being Anne for some time, particularly having had the pleasure of meeting her at a meeting of the Belmont Belles (the Leicester RNA chapter) last year. I’d already spotted her books – you really can’t help noticing the wonderful covers – and the Dudley Sisters saga looked just the kind of reading I’d enjoy. We’ve finally managed to coincide (the delay was entirely my doing!) but the timing really couldn’t be better: her sixth book, Chasing Ghosts, is due for publication on 23rd June and is available for pre-order.
I’d love to read them all, but I took Madalyn’s advice on which book I should read to get the full flavour. We decided on the first, Foxden Acres.
Here’s the story:
On the eve of 1939 twenty-year-old Bess Dudley, trainee teacher and daughter of a groom, bumps into James, heir to the Foxden Estate. Bess and James played together as equals when they were children, but now James is engaged to the more socially acceptable Annabel Hadleigh.
Bess takes up a teaching post in London but when war breaks out and London schoolchildren are evacuated she returns to Foxden to organise a troop of Land Girls.
Traditional barriers come crashing down when Flying Officer James Foxden falls in love with Bess. But by this time Bess has come to know and respect Annabel. Can she be with James if it means breaking her best friend’s heart?
And besides, Bess has a shameful secret that she has vowed to keep from James at any cost…
And when I read the final page of this book I’ll admit that I would have very happily opened up the next and carried on reading. This was such a well-told story, no complicated slipping about in time, just a lovely book with a really engrossing story that it was a real pleasure to immerse myself in, full of wonderful settings, the period detail well researched and presented.
Bess was such an endearing heroine, eminently likeable and suitably feisty – her dilemma was very real, faced with the moral constraints of the time, and I really felt for her. The class divide felt realistically drawn – I enjoyed the blossoming relationship with James, and the way their story twisted and turned on misunderstandings, those very real human dilemmas that have the potential to be fairly easily resolved but rarely are.
The writing is excellent – realistic descriptions, lovely scene setting, natural dialogue, and some deft handling of the more emotional parts of the story (I’ll admit to watering eyes at some significant moments!). And I did like the glimpses of the other members of Bess’ family who would be taking their turns at centre stage in the books that followed. A lovely way to spend an afternoon or two, whisking you into a different world and time – I’d really recommend this series.
I’m really delighted to welcome author Madalyn Morgan as my guest today…
Maddie, it’s such a pleasure to welcome you to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?
Thank you, Anne, I’m delighted to be here.
I was an actress for more than thirty years working in Repertory theatre, the West End, film and television. I still present radio, although I don’t get down to London to do live shows as often as I’d like. Most of my shows are Podcast these days.
I was bought up in a pub in a small market town called Lutterworth. There was an American Airbase (Bruntingthorpe) a few miles away, so my dad bought a jukebox and the pub rocked. The Fox Inn was a great place for an aspiring actress and writer to live. There were so many different characters to study and accents to learn. I auditioned and was offered Crossroads, the first time around, but my mum wanted me to have a ‘proper’ job, something to fall back on. I did a hairdressing apprenticeship and ten years later gave up a successful hairdressing salon and a wig-hire business for a place at E15 Drama College, and a career as an actress.
I gave up acting for love and ten years later love gave me up for someone half my age. After being out of the business for a decade, I’d have had to start again, so, as there were fewer parts available for older actresses, I taught herself to touch type, completed a two-year correspondence course with The Writer’s Bureau, and began writing.
In 2010, after living in London for thirty-six years, I moved back to Lutterworth, swapping two window boxes and a mortgage for a garden and the freedom to write.
Since then I have published six books about the lives of four very different sisters. Foxden Acres, Applause, China Blue, and The 9:45 To Bletchley are set in WWII, Foxden Hotel and Chasing Ghosts in 1949 & 1950.
I think we should start with your latest exciting news! I know that your sixth book, Chasing Ghosts, will be released on 23rd June, and is already available for pre-order. Do tell me more about it.
Exciting is the word, Anne. Chasing Ghosts is the most exciting book I have written.
I had a strong ending with a natural twist in my head for Chasing Ghosts, so I did something I have never done before, I wrote the last three chapters first and worked my way back to the beginning.
Chasing Ghosts is not part of the saga, it is a sequel to China Blue. Claire’s husband Mitch was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in China Blue, and in Foxden Hotel it comes out that he suffers from severe shell shock. Mitch, Claire, and their daughter Aimée go to Canada where Mitch sees a psychiatrist. Under hypnosis, skeletons come out of several closets.
Mitch disappears and Claire is left wondering if he has left her for the woman he talks about in his sleep? Or if he on the run from accusations of wartime treachery? Claire goes to France in search of the truth, aided by old friends from the Resistance.
Halfway through writing Chasing Ghosts I woke up one night and wrote the opening eight hundred words of book seven. Like Claire and Mitch from China Blue being the central characters in Chasing Ghosts, Ena and Henry (MI5) from The 9:45 To Bletchley are the main characters in book seven – working title, She Is Alive!
I’ve had the real pleasure of reading and reviewing Foxden Acres, and I’ve included details of the other books in the Dudley Sisters saga below – but I’d like to share a little more. How would you describe the series – romance, romantic suspense, historical, family saga…?
I would describe the series as a family saga, Anne – and because the books are set in WW2 and 1950 I’d say, historical. But because each story is a different genre, I would add, romantic suspense, drama, spy thriller, crime and mystery.
Who do you think might enjoy your books? When you’re writing, do you have a reader in your mind? A certain background, or age group maybe? Are they exclusively female?
I don’t write with a specific reader in mind and I hope people from all backgrounds enjoy my books. They’re not right for children or teenagers – and probably not for young twenty-somethings. I’d like to think my books are enjoyed by discerning readers who like stories with substance and strong characters, from thirty upwards. I have male readers who have enjoyed all the books in the series. However, because the stories are about the lives of four sisters, I think female readers would enjoy Foxden Acres, Applause, and Foxden Hotel more. China Blue, which is set in France with the Resistance and has a lot of action in it, and Chasing Ghosts – a psychological thriller with crimes being uncovered and a hostage situation, would be enjoyed by both men and women.
Do you have a personal favourite in the series? Or is that a “favourite child” question?
China Blue is my favourite story and Claire and Mitch are my favourite characters, which is why I wrote Chasing Ghosts as a sequel. In the five years Claire and Mitch lived in German occupied France they went through what most people wouldn’t have to go through in a lifetime. It was the love that they had for one another that kept them strong.
Wonderful as Chasing Ghosts looks, I’m sure some readers might worry about starting with the sixth in a series. Does every book work as a stand-alone?
Chasing Ghosts is not really part of the saga, it’s a sequel to China Blue. And, like the other novels in the series, it stands-alone. I had every intention of ending the saga with Foxden Hotel. I thought, Foxden Acres is the beginning of the Dudley sisters, bringing them together for Christmas at the Foxden Hotel can be the end of them. But they wouldn’t let me. It sounds batty, doesn’t it? I wrote three endings and they were all contrived. I didn’t believe one of them. And if I didn’t believe them the readers wouldn’t. I write the way I worked when I was acting. I was a method actor. I had to believe in what I was saying and doing. Now, I have to believe in what I write.
All your books have the most wonderful evocative covers – how do you go about finding them?
Thank you for saying so, Anne. I design my own covers. I know what I want my covers to say about the story during the writing process. I design the cover and then spend months looking for the right photographs. When I’m satisfied I have what I want, I make a mock-up of the front and the back of the cover and send it to Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics in the US. She is lovely. We work well together.
The photograph of the woman on the station on the cover of The 9:45 To Bletchley is an original photograph of a Dior model. It took me a long time to find, and even longer to persuade Getty to let me buy it. The same with Chasing Ghosts. Months and months I searched for a photograph that said what I wanted it to say – and I think it does. I took the photograph on the cover of Foxden Hotel, and on the cover of China Blue, I used a photograph taken in 1942 of my mother and aunt with a young man who was a displaced person. I also bought WAAF and RCAF badges to go on the back cover. Applause was easy. I bought a photograph of three women from Getty and used one of me when I was in The Mouse Trap and one of my friend’s mother as a child dancing at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.
I think the back of the cover is as important as the front. A picture that matches the blurb adds interest and shows what the book is about.
Tell me more about your research for the series – conversations, hours online or in the library? Is there some family history in there too?
I have always been fascinated by the achievements of women in the Twentieth Century, in particular, women who worked and served in WW1 and WW2. I met veterans and I visited Bletchley, but when I began writing I bought books; books about the war, the French Resistance, the Land Army, and factory workers, the RAF, Army, and Navy. Now I use historical websites for my research including, The War Museum, Transport Museum, and all the military websites. The best sites are those that have accounts of real people. Letters and diaries written by mothers, sisters, sweethearts, and lads in the forces overseas.
My mother used to tell me about her life in the Second World War; the work she did, the dances she went to, and the letters she wrote to servicemen overseas. (She had a Polish penfriend named Vanda, which is my middle name.) My mum’s life was interesting, so when I did a writing course, and it came to the biography module, I wrote about her. The tutor liked the work but said, as mum and I were both unknown, I should turn it into a fiction. At that time, Mum wanted to give back a brass aeroplane, a Wellington Bomber that was made for her by a Polish airman in 1940. He had died, but I found his son, and he was delighted with the plane.
It was then that I decided to set my novels in WW2. I had too many ideas for one book, so I plotted four: Four sisters, four different wartime careers, and four loves. I still have Mum’s biography. Her wartime experiences are only part of it. Her life as the Landlady of a big pub from 1955 to 1983 is the most interesting. It was often dangerous too. One day I shall turn it into a fiction.
I’d love to know more about how you write. Do you have a routine?
I used to have a routine. I used to wake up in the morning full of ideas, get up, put the computer on, and while it warmed up have my breakfast. Then I’d take a cup of tea up to my study and hit the keyboard. I now spend three mornings a week with my Aunt and Uncle, so my writing routine has changed from mornings to afternoons. Mind you, like most writers I’ll get up in the night, or work until midnight if I have to.
I know you completed a two-year creative writing course with The Writer’s Bureau before beginning to write. Is formal training something you’d recommend to a new writer?
Yes. I would recommend formal writing training. I don’t think anyone can be taught to write, but I think there are things you need to learn if you’re going to be a writer. I did a creative writing course because my grammar was not good, nor was my punctuation. I used far too many commas. My mentor would say I still do. But apart from grammar and punctuation, writers need discipline. By discipline I mean, when we hold a conversation with someone we might say a thousand words. All good if you’re face to face, but if you transcribed that conversation and then read it out loud, only half of it would be interesting. We tend to waffle, which readers don’t want to wade through. A phrase my mentor used often when I began writing was, “Cut the guff!”
Planning, writing, editing, getting ready for launch, doing the publicity – what’s your favourite part of the whole process? And the most difficult?
Planning and writing are equal favourites. I love plotting the action and writing biographies of the characters. I love it when I wake in the morning with ideas running round in my head, or when I’m doing something mundane and an idea pops into my mind. The best is when I’m writing and the plot suddenly falls into place, or a character’s problem is suddenly resolved. It’s magic. It’s exciting.
The launch is stressful because I worry that the book won’t be ready on time. This year hasn’t been so bad because Chasing Ghosts is on Amazon to pre-order. Last year, because I thought Foxden Hotel was going to be the last book in The Dudley Sisters Saga, I took twenty-four of my readers out for a cream tea at a local wartime cafe. It was great fun. Everyone got a free book, which I can’t afford to do that this year.
Publicity is time-consuming, but it has to be done. I enjoy creating posters for my books using Canva and making trailers with Animoto, but it’s hard work thinking up catchy phrases to go with the posters.
I find editing and proofreading difficult. I don’t mind cutting and developing, but I’m prone to rewriting what doesn’t need rewriting, and leaving what does. I hate proofreading. I have to do it. The buck stops with me. If the book it isn’t perfect, shame on me.
Does the writing get easier with each new novel, or does the pressure of expectation make it more difficult?
That is a good question. To say both easier and more difficult is not a good answer. It’s easier in the respect that I have learned a lot after writing half a dozen novels. The research is easier because I now know where to look and what to look for. Ideas come in more quickly and I’m more confident now. However, as you said, more difficult because of the pressure of expectation, which for me is self-imposed. My first novel Foxden Acres, while the story is not as complex as my later novels and the writing was a little naive, was very well received. Because of that, I worried that Applause wouldn’t transfer from my imagination to the page. It did, and think my writing had improved. China Blue poured out of me. It was fantastic. I think all the research and my determination to learn paid off. I’d like to think my writing has improved with each book. I know I’m learning with each book.
You must, I’m sure, be very aware that your books would make a great Sunday night TV series. No chance of calling in some favours from your acting days?
My tummy just somersaulted at the thought of it. That would be a dream come true. China Blue has had several reviews saying it would make a great television film. With Claire and Mitch recruited by the SOE, parachuting out of aeroplanes, living in German-occupied France, surviving interrogation, working with the French Resistance, crossing rivers in thunderstorms, blowing up bridges, railway lines and German troop trains – and falling in love – there is plenty of action.
I was approached by a director I’d worked with in the West End. He wanted to make a film of the first four books. He even suggested we worked on the film score together. How exciting would that have been? Sadly he had no financial backing, so the project fell through.
And do tell me what writers you particularly admire. If someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
I have writer friends who I admire, but among the writers who I particularly admire are, Robert Harris, Ken Follett and C.J.Sansom.
So, is Chasing Ghosts the end of the Dudley sisters? What are you planning next?
No! Definitely not. Foxden Hotel was supposed to be the end of the Dudley sisters. It wasn’t, but it gave Bess Donnelly, nee Dudley, and her husband Frank a happy ending, which Bess didn’t have in Foxden Acres.
Chasing Ghosts, 1950 sequel to China Blue, has a very exciting ending, which could be the end of Clair Mitchell, nee Dudley and her husband Mitch. But there are many possibilities that have been hinted at if Mitch leaves the RCAF.
My next book is a spy thriller set in the 1960s with Ena Green, nee Dudley, and her husband Henry from The 9:45 To Bletchley. Both now work for MI5, and the idea I have is a 1960/70 cold war spy thriller – working title, She’s Alive.
That only leaves Margot, her husband Bill and their daughter Natalie. A sequel to Applause, perhaps? My first attempt at writing a novel was about an ageing actress with a terminal illness whose daughter, also an actress, stars in a West End show about the life of her mother, an usherette who through tragic events became a showgirl and then the talk of London in World War Two. So, you never know.
Madalyn, thank you – such a perfect interview, and lovely to find out more about you and your books. As promised, let’s take a look at the other four books in the series: click on the title or book cover to be taken to its Amazon page.
Applause (Book 2)
In the early years of World War 2, Margot Dudley works her way up from usherette to leading lady in a West End show. Driven by blind ambition Margot becomes immersed in the heady world of nightclubs, drink, drugs and fascist thugs – all set against a background of the London Blitz. To achieve her dream, Margot risks losing everything she holds dear.
China Blue (Book 3)
At the beginning of World War II Claire Dudley joins the WAAF. She excels in languages and is recruited by the Special Operations Executive to work in German occupied France with Captain Alain Mitchell, of the RCAF, and the French Resistance.
Against SOE rules Claire falls in love. The affair has to be kept secret. Even after her lover falls into the hands of the Gestapo, Claire cannot tell anyone they are more than comrades.
As the war reaches its climax, Claire fears she will never again see the man she loves.
The 9:45 to Bletchley (Book 4)
In the midst of the Second World War, and charged with taking vital equipment via the 9:45 train, Ena Dudley makes regular trips to Bletchley Park, until on one occasion she is robbed. When those she cares about are accused of being involved, she investigates, not knowing whom she can trust. While trying to clear her name, Ena falls in love.
Foxden Hotel (Book 5)
The war is over. It is time for new beginnings.
Celebrating the opening of Foxden Hotel, New Year’s Eve 1948, an enemy from the war years turns up. He threatens to expose a secret that will ruin Bess’s happiness and the new life she has worked so hard to create. Bess’s husband throws the man out. So is that the last they see of him? Or will he show up again when they least expect?
Bess had hoped fascism was a thing of the past, buried with the victims of WW2. Little does she know the trouble that lies ahead, not only for herself, but also for her family.
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