I spotted a new release this week that really intrigued me – Libertà’s first beach holiday anthology, Beach Hut Surprise, published on 30th June. I rather liked the idea of an escape to Little Piddling through the ages – and it’s good to see that the ladies have obviously managed to enjoy and make the most of their time in lockdown. I’ve already discovered Sarah Mallory’s lovely books, after enjoying her short stories in the Miss Moonshine collections: you’ll find my review of Autumn Bride here, and I’m still looking forward to catching up with its sequel The Dream Chasers. And I had the immense pleasure of meeting some of the others – Sophie Weston, Joanna Maitland and Liz Fielding – when they were so very kind to invite me as their guest to the RNA Awards back in early March.
I asked Sarah if she’d like to tell me more about the collection – instead, I’m delighted to be able to share a conversation…
Libertà Books is a co-operative partnership set up by authors Joanna Maitland and Sophie Weston to – in their words – “bring back a bit of serendipity into our reading choices”. Their blog is now a firm favourite with readers and writers – and in 2018, the hive expanded to include two Mills & Boon authors, Liz Fielding and Sarah Mallory.
It was when the hivies sat down together last autumn that the creative sparks really began to fly! The intrepid foursome decided to embark upon an entirely new project – an anthology of novellas – and they asked friends and colleagues Louise Allen and Lesley Cookman to join them. Here’s how it worked….
Sarah: That dinner party saw us come up with an idea for stories all linked by one place – a fictional seaside town called Little Piddling (yes, I admit drink was being taken at the time, and a lot of giggling ensued. We definitely wanted this to be a collection of light-hearted stories).
Sophie: I don’t remember who first came up with the idea of the beach huts. But that really took off. I know I suggested The Bird Watcher in the Beach Hut. But then said no, there’d be no story. Just a man with binoculars hushing anyone who spoke. When Lesley joined us, I did wonder whether she might find that a motive for murder, though.
Sarah: She might well! Lesley’s murderers can be so inventive, too!
Liz: There were so many great ideas bouncing around the dinner table that evening. An early one was The Body in the Beach Hut and originally I grabbed it for myself. But then we had a much better idea. Lesley Cookman, whose Libby Sarjeant series is so popular, is very much part of our writer’s group and she seemed the obvious person to write that story. We put out an invitation and she was delighted to join in the fun. And then, to round off the half dozen, bestselling historical author, Louise Allen, was asked if she’d like to
play write a beach hut story.
Louise: No, play is the just right word! It was especially enjoyable for me because I normally write in the Regency period and decided my story would be present-day. This meant a whole new world of research to get entangled in – craft beers, wine bars to say nothing of beach hut bye-laws. Are you allowed to overnight in them or not? Confusingly the answer is, ‘it depends.’
Sarah: I agree, Louise, this really was more play than work! I thought it would be fun to begin our stories by showing Little Piddling in all its Edwardian glory: the promenade, Jubilee Gardens, beach huts and don’t forget the public toilets! A fairly new development at the time, but I was inspired by seeing some beauties in Glasgow last Christmas (actually, to be anorakish, the Victorian toilets are underground and this panelling from the Calendonian Railway was added around the site later).
Sophie: It was Sarah’s first sketch map that really made Little Piddling come alive for me. It reminded me of holiday snaps in the family collection from the 20s to the 90s. And I suddenly saw that my story was set in the past.
Sarah: My drawing leaves a lot to be desired, Jenny, so I am delighted it helped!
Sophie: And Joanna was the first to finish. So I followed her slavishly on the approach to the beach huts.
Louise: Then there was all the fun of emails pinging back and forth as we refined the town plan over a hundred years – where’s the chip shop? Where are the newspaper offices? Is there a theatre? Yes, but it’s on the end of the pier, so can the lifeboat be launched from the pier? (Yes, it can, just like the one at Cromer in Norfolk). Where, exactly, are the public loos? (Very Important Point). And critical to my story – just when did the beer at Bascombe’s Brewery start to improve? But most important were the beach huts.
Sophie: I found that I needed both the chip shop and the lifeboat. And then I realised the Campaign for Real Ale had started just a couple of years before my story. The Bascombe’s brew of that era did NOT meet CAMRA’s exacting standards.
Liz: Ah, Beach huts. I inherited a really boring bathroom when I moved into my flat nearly two years ago. It has an interesting shape, but it was white. Really white. And I thought, as you do, that redecorating it with a beach hut theme would be fun. Obviously, during lockdown, I haven’t been able to get a decorator in, but I have the John Lewis’s beach hut wallpaper, and their matching towels.
I bought some fairy lights made out of seashells and I can’t wait to get started on the transformation – which will include a framed picture of the cover on the wall! And meanwhile, my daughter bought me a birdhouse for the garden. Beach huts might just become a bit of a passion.
Sarah: Sounds lovely, Liz, I hope you will share the finished result with us, one day?
Liz: I certainly will, Sarah.
Sophie: I’ve always loved beach huts, particularly a sort of doll’s house aspect that some of them have. In fact, I think that’s where my story came from, in a way. It’s certainly a fancy I share with Selsis, my heroine.
Sarah: Yes, Jenny, the doll’s house aspect is just right – making the hut like a little home (or in the case of my story, a rather more garish confection!)
Louise: One of the joys of this kind of collaboration for me is the point where the different stories touch. I found the perfect counterpart for my heroine Jac, a brewer, in Henry, the owner of Dumaine’s Wine bar. Sarah mentions one of his ancestors and agreed to add a few more clues that would eventually unravel in my story set over a hundred years after hers. Liz and I have stories set at just about the same time and her heroine plays a small, but vital, part in my story.
Liz: And I was able to bring a descendant of one of Sarah’s characters into my story. Love that we were able to create that crossover as we built our stories.
Sophie: I didn’t manage a cross-over character but Sarah’s and Joanna’s stories made me look at my beach hut’s bookshelf!
Sarah: We certainly had to keep in touch, a mixture of emails flying bath and forth, maps and spreadsheets being updated and even a zoom meeting to discuss final points (and to chat, of course. Always to chat!)
Louise: I kept drawing maps – blame an early training as an historical geographer! – as the stories grew from Sarah’s Edwardian base and just when I thought I’d got it straight someone’s plot would require a headland, or cliffs or a dried-up river bed. Those cliffs went up and down in height like a fast-forward through geologic time…
With Lesley plotting a mystery for her friends and detectives Libby and Fran to solve, we not only had glimpses of wartime Little Piddling but found even more links to the other stories set in the modern day. It’s a shame Lesley couldn’t join in here but she’s working flat out on the final crucial chapters of her latest Steeple Martin mystery – Libby and Fran have had their seaside break and can’t be spared now!
Sarah, Louise, Liz and Sophie, thank you so much for joining me! I’ll really look forward to trying this collection. Take a look – it might just be one you’d enjoy too…
Little Piddling—now renamed Little Piddling sur Mer—is a resort with ambitions.
But odd things keep happening in Little Piddling. Especially among its delectable beach huts. They are a magnet for lovers and other, stranger, visitors.
Take a romantic stroll along the beach after dark and you might encounter more than you bargained for.
Six favourite authors let their hair down on the Piddling sands…
Now available for Kindle via Amazon – and free via Kindle Unlimited
(And from the Libertà website…)
There are six stories in all. And romance is guaranteed at almost every stage.
They’re in chronological order for Little Piddling, starting with an Edwardian comedy by Sarah Mallory and going on to some wild and wacky episodes in later decades, right up to the twenty-first century.
Some of the titles will tell you who or what you’re going to meet in the story. But some of the titles are more enigmatic. You’ll have to read those stories to find out which particular Little Piddling secret is to be revealed.
We hope you’ll be surprised. And that you’ll laugh, too.
Grand Designs for Little Piddling Sarah Mallory
Going Home? Sophie Weston
The Body at Satis House Lesley Cookman
Past Echoes Liz Fielding
I, Vampire – Romance with Bite Joanna Maitland
Grapes and Ale Louise Allen