Many thanks to Rosemary Johnson for supplying the original images of Poland, author and book cover pics, which I’ve adjusted a little using Book Brush. Other images were created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
It is always lovely to hear of friends’ publication news. I am so pleased to welcome Rosemary Johnson to Chandler’s Ford Today to share something of her writing journey with us, why persistence is such a useful quality in writing, and to tell us more about her book Wodka,or Tea With Milk.
Did you know that anything above fifty years old counts as historical now? That puts me in the historical “bin” for a start but for fiction, this applies to settings. The idea behind this is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime.
Rosemary’s book is set against the backdrop of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s and is just “outside” the historical fiction category if you follow the 50 years “rule”. Given I remember watching the news about Solidarity, I would have sworn it was long enough ago to count as historical but apparently not quite, again if you follow the 50 years “rule”.
I know Rosemary through the Association of Christian Writers (ACW). She is their webmaster and, until fairly recently, I was their Membership Secretary. Rosemary and I have shared many Committee meetings and ACW events together. We are also both published on CafeLit and Rosemary often comes along to the monthly Flash Fiction group meeting I run for ACW once a month via Zoom.
Wodka, or Tea with Milk came out on 6th September 2023 and is available for the Kindle and as a paperback. The blurb for the book is below.
Wodka, or Tea with Milk takes the reader on an immersive, rollercoaster ride into the Solidarnosc years in 1980s Poland. Marya Weiclawski is second-generation British, the daughter of Polish refugees who fled during World War Two.
When her Cambridge University interview goes wrong – her fault actually – she resolves to seek out her Polish family whom no one speaks of, and her father’s RAF comrade, Pyotr Murkowski, whom her beloved dad, Jerzy, has suddenly stopped talking about.
Marya becomes involved in the shipyard strikes in Gdansk in 1980 and falls in love with Jan, a shipyard worker. Jan is well liked by colleagues, unflappable and down-to-earth – a bit too much so for volatile Marya – but he appears to have no family and in Poland family is everything.
Hello and welcome to Chandler’s Ford Today, Rosemary.
Rosemary, what triggered your love of creative writing? Which authors have influenced you and why?
I read voraciously as a child and there were just not enough books by my favourite authors (mostly Enid Blyton in those days) for me to read, so I created some of my own. From about 12 years old I was writing my stories down in little red Silvine notebooks.
Regarding authors who have influenced me? Here, I think I’m supposed to rattle off a lot of classics, but I’d be lying. I’ve always enjoyed genre fiction, particularly crime fiction – Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, P D James, Ruth Rendell etc – something I could never write myself. Too complex! And historical fiction, of course. I love to immerse myself in another period in time. Robert Harris is amazing, he manages to create page-turners based on solid historical fact because he understands what he’s researched so well.
Tell us something about your writing journey including the ups and downs leading to publication online and in print.
I wrote for a long time without making serious attempts to publish, hiding folders in the bottoms of drawers and, later, on my computer hard drive. What knocked some sense into to me was participating in writing communities on the internet, particularly Writers Dock and Chapter Seventynine, and, through them, mingling – virtually – with other writers, who gave me advice and support in getting my short stories published. Being involved with the Association of Christian Writers has also given me a great boost. Individual ACW members like Allison have given me a lot of moral support.
Allison: Thank you, Rosemary. We all need support and encouagement throughout our writing journeys.
What fascinated you about the Solidarity movement in Poland you chose that as your background? The trouble with historical fiction is there is a lot of history to choose from for settings!
During the winters of 1980 and 1981, I read about Solidarnosc in the newspaper whilst commuting on London suburban trains, which were frequently delayed, to a job I wasn’t enjoying. Solidarnosc provided me with the only good bit of news.
What has been your biggest writing joy? What has been the biggest frustration? What have you found has helped with the latter? Which qualities would it benefit a writer to develop? I would nominate developing a thick skin and persistence to start with!
My biggest writing joy has been getting Wodka, or Tea with Milk published. At first, after having my novel rejected so many times (although not as many times as some!), being accepted for publication by The Conrad Press was terrifying. I was literally shaking for about 48 hours. I felt like I was being stripped naked, exposing the inner workings of my head.
Thick skin and persistence are essential for any writer, also being sensitive to the market. Some writing advice you read is along the lines of ‘Submit this story enough times and someone will take it.’ Not true! You need to research which publisher/ editor is taking what.
Allison: It was no coincidence when I started getting acceptances because I had targeted my story to the right market with the right audience. Square peg for square hole and all that.
You write in the short form as well as the longer kind. What are your favourite and least favourite aspects to both forms of writing?
I enjoy writing novels most. I like to get my teeth into something substantial, develop a set of characters and a setting and live with them in my head for a long time.
I have also come to enjoy flash, the challenge of getting across character and some sort of point (no room for a plot) in a few hundred words. This skill is invaluable in other sorts of writing too, a sort of anti-waffle detector.
Allison: The latter is so true. Mind you, I suspect if anyone could invent an anti-waffle detector for writers, they’d be on to a sure-fire winner. Meantime, we have to do this ourselves!
Which pieces of writing advice have you found most useful? I have two – don’t give up and write first, edit later.
Don’t give up – definitely. Keep in touch with other writers and listen to what they have to say, but don’t necessarily follow every bit of advice. You can workshop a story or a novel to death, so that it has no adverbs, no passives and follows all the other writing rules… but has become bland and not yours.
Are you planning follow up books to Wodka, or Tea with Milk? Are there other areas of history where you would like to set fiction?
No sequels to Wodka, or Tea with Milk. There is nowhere for it to go, but I intend to write a novel about the 1990s in which Marya and Jan (from Wodka, Or Tea With Milk) may (only may) appear in passing.
I have a history degree and my interest in history has remained with me. I have written short stories with settings ranging from the book of Daniel to the pandemic. Readers of historical fiction want to be transported into other eras; as a writer in this genre, I enjoy spending time in the past on my page.
Characterisation or plot – which do you consider to be the most important and why? For me, it’s characterisation. The characters drive the plot for me. Other writers feel differently so which side of the fence are you on, Rosemary? Also, do you outline your characters?
Do I outline my characters? I didn’t for Marya and the others in Wodka, Or Tea With Milk; they sort of grew in my head and as I was writing I found out more about them. What I should have done was to have noted down everything I said about them in the chapters in a notebook as I went along. (I will do this next time, honestly.)
How easy, or otherwise, did you find writing the blurb, the query letter to the publisher etc? Which tips on these things did you find most helpful?
Excruciating! Harder than writing the book. What made it worse was that every publisher wanted something slightly different. I ended up with synopses with at least four different word counts, a marketing plan, a chapter-by-chapter plan, a plot summary, and many other sorts of summary.
How many drafts do you write?
About three substantial drafts, with lots of quite substantial editing as well.
Where do you think your writing journey will take you next?
Right now, I intend to brush up some existing short stories and flash and pitch them to fortunate/unfortunate editors. Then tackle the 1990s novel.
How long did the research for Wodka, or Tea with Milk take? Which tips on researching have you found most useful?
Over a period of years, I just grabbed at anything I could find about Solidarnosc and Poland, as it came along and long before I started writing. Visiting Poland in 2008 and standing in what is now called Solidarnosc Square was very emotional, as if I was stepping into the pages of my novel.
I pored over photographs, getting the layout of my settings, seeing what people wore and how they wore it. Many of the (male) shipyard strikers still wore their hair 1970s long.
What do you like most about your characters in Wodka, or Tea with Milk? What did you find hardest to write and why?
I enjoyed writing Marya most. I felt I got inside her and her teenage reaction to a grown-up setting. The most difficult bit was making the various strands of the story work together, especially after several edits. (Have I left that bit in, or taken it out?). I enjoyed writing the history too… you know, being there in the 1980s.
Historical fiction, whichever era is written about, can be enlightening in that it can show something of that period in a form which is entertaining. I think this is one of historical fiction’s biggest strengths. Those who might not read history as non-fiction may well be more open to reading fiction set in a historical period.
Many thanks, Rosemary, for a wonderful interview.
Buy Links – Wodka, or Tea With Milk by Rosemary Johnson
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