Zeb, the hero in my book, calls the sweetshop where they live Alice’s Chocolate Orphanage. Because Alice, my heroine, rescues him after he comes out of prison and adopts his father and a young woman called Susan when they have nowhere to go.
This is the first in a series of books set in my beloved Weardale where all my family comes from.
My earliest memories are of the little green fields, the stone walls, the houses with byres on the end of them, the cobbled yards which I used to step over lightly because the cows went through there twice a day on their way to be milked and then back down the lane to the fields by the river and it was always covered in cowpats!
My mother’s family lived there ( and still do ) in a very old farmhouse which I have used in a lot of my stories. My mother told ghost stories about it.
There is a passage underground where at one time people could move between the farmhouse, the house itself and the lodge on the end. I remember seeing the trapdoor in the lodge floor which my Auntie Mary had a rug over.
My mother and her sisters used to walk the three miles into Stanhope which is where the action in my book is set.
My father’s family had pubs in the dale and also in other towns in County Durham. They were business people. My Mam met my Dad in the Cross Keys pub at Eastgate during the second world war. He was in a reserved occupation because he had a steel foundry which made castings for ships, vital in wartime. My mother was widowed.
They got married and lived in Tow Law, a little pit village on the tops beyond Weardale. It was here that I grew up and as I get older my memories become clearer of what life was like here in the towns and villages.
I spend a lot of time in Weardale even though I live in Durham City. I do research and write and think about all the things that have gone on there over the years. A lot of what I write about did happen. The rest I make up to suit my purpose.
Zeb murdered another man when he was very young and went to Durham gaol. I had to do a lot of research about gaols at that time and some of it was so horrific that I pulled my story forward from when men and women were locked up together and the women would try to get pregnant because they could not be hanged.
Also I gave Zeb a cell to himself which I don’t think he would have done. I needed him to have that cell in order for Alice to send him sweets.
There are lots of stories of women falling in love with men in prison but Alice didn’t fall in love with him. She rescued him from himself and from the person he had become when he came out of gaol.
Alice is a Methodist and it is the minister’s idea that somebody in he congregation should write to the gaolbird. Alice, who owns the sweetshop and is a thirty seven year old spinster is the only one who does and she does it from pity and charity but when she finds out that he is being released and has nowhere to go she takes the train from Frosterley to Durham and meets him.
Their meeting is to me the most important scene in the book and I can see it clearly every time I think about it.
She is tall and skinny and wearing washed out clothes and it’s early morning when the mist is rising from the river. He is in a very bad way, having been starved and beaten and raped and has no purpose left. Also I made him unable to face what is outside the gaol, he is so institutionalized. Alice gets him home to the sweetshop.
Like most people I have a fear of rats and so I gave Zeb a friend in prison, Eli, the rat. He makes a very brief appearance in the book but he was a good friend to Zeb. Zeb would bring him tiny pieces of food and talk to Eli because Eli was the only companion he had. I always wonder whether Eli had a family and whether he missed Zeb when Zeb left the prison. I did consider letting Zeb take Eli with him but I knew that it wouldn’t work.
I have also set part of my book in the lakes. I go walking there with my favourite cousin. The book is dedicated to her because I couldn’t have included Shap and Penrith in my books but for her showing me the lakes. I love to go over there and see the snow on Glencathra and to walk miles around the lakes and over the fells.
One of the main characters Charles Westbrooke lives in Stanhope, he is going to become a Methodist minister but his family is titled and has an estate just beyond Shap.
Daniel Wearmouth is another man man. I do like men as main characters in my books. He is going to marry Susan until he meets Arabella, the beautiful daughter of the Almond family who owns the limestone quarry.
This limestone quarry which was called Ashes Quarry, I’ve changed just slightly and called it Ash, was one of the biggest employers in the dale during the nineteenth century and is the backdrop for the series. It is massive. I go there and walk, right up to the top of the dale. I take the cobbled path where all those quarrymen trod all those years and think about what it was like to work there, how hard in all kinds of weather. The quarry is very dramatic, a great gaping hole just beyond Stanhope and makes the perfect background for my characters. Up past it is the heather and when I make my way up to the top my trousers are eight or ten inches high in ferns and heather and if it has rained I get soaked to the knees. There are lots of rabbits and lapwings and it has a huge history.
There are still buildings in the dale which date back as far as Durham Cathedral, eight hundred years and buildings have stood on the same piece of ground for a thousand years. I love it. I turn around when I get to the top of the country and feel so proud of my family for having turned what is a hard life in a hard land into somewhere they could live and thrive and bring up their families all that time.
EDITOR: The Guardian Angel is available to buy in Hard Back from Amazon. The Kindle version is also available to pre order now for publication on 20th April 2017. The paperback version will be published in August 2017.
There will be an interview with Elizabrth published on Publication Day!