A Lively Place with a Long History

I’m delighted to introduce another friend from Authonomy days – Polly Johnson. Her book, Stones, sticks in my mind as an unforgettable story, beautifully and sensitively written. You really must read it. Over to you, Polly to talk about the vibrant setting for your book.


Stones was my first novel to be picked up. It is set in Brighton, an English seaside resort town (designated a city in 2000) about an hour out of London on the South coast. It has a broad shingle beach with the expected amusements and two piers – one still running and the other a black skeleton after a fire destroyed it. It also boasts the famous Brighton Pavilion, built as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV, and is known as a young, diverse and arty place to visit with unusual shops in it’s Lanes and North Laine.

 A lively place with a long history, we love to visit our friends in Brighton. I was asked in an interview – why set the book there? And there are two answers to that. One is that I honestly had little part in it. Stones was the result of an attempt to recapture the joy I used to take in writing just for myself, but lost in the busy round of adult life. It was a ‘start typing and see…’ exercise, and the characters and setting just appeared without my active choice. The second reason, if I had thought about it first, would be the nature of the place itself.


It is perfect for the story in that both the main character and Brighton itself contain contrasts. On the surface there is sea, candy floss, fun to be had, but underneath there is another side, which is true of most places, but especially in seaside towns where the surface looks so alluring (think Brighton Rock by Graham Greene). With this in mind, I went along with one of my daughters to take photographs to use back home when doing my first edit, so the pictures here are not sharp and beautiful, or even particularly attractive. For Brighton’s sake, I’d urge people to google and see all it has to offer. These, though, are the photographs we took that day.

brighton boats
The beach and pier both play a part in Coo’s story and are the well recognised face that most people know. The Palace Pier, was built to replace The Chain Pier which never made it past construction in 1896. It was popular as a theatre and entertainment centre and continued to function up to the 1970’s, when it was damaged and rebuilt, reappearing as an amusement park with fairground rides and arcade.

Brighton pierThe West Pier, which features on the book’s cover, was opened in 1866 and was the first to be Grade I listed. It closed in 1975 and since then, neglect and a fire means it has become increasingly derelict and is now considered to be beyond repair. It is perhaps a more fitting symbol for Coo than its neighbour.

Other places invented for the book – the landscape that Banks, the anti-hero of the story would be more familiar with – we had to go and search for (a treasure hunt without any clues.) Riding along the sea-front on the Volks  railway we were on the lookout for a place where Banks and his homeless friends might live, and there, right at the end of the line, almost up to the marina, we saw this:

The Mansion This became ‘The Mansion’ and we couldn’t believe how perfect it was. All we needed now was the bench that Coo and Banks sat on to talk – and as we walked back from the mansion towards the town – very close by, we found it:

The bench
Coo and Banks have many talks here, and although the story might sound rather downbeat, it is also full of hope and a kind of magic that both the main characters are trying to find in each other. It was also rather magical to find these two settings right next to each other, already perfectly imagined, and strange to leave them and return to the colourful seafront.

The StreetSo, my photographs are grainy and don’t really show the many attractive sights that Brighton bubbles with in all its variety and creativity, but this other side of things is as much a part of the story as the other, and Coo, the main character, moves between them, in and out, as easily as the clouds that cross the beach.


In STONES, Coo is trying to cope with the hand that life has dealt her. At sixteen, she feels she’s too young to have lost her older brother, Sam, to alcoholism. She’s skipping school to avoid the sympathy and questions of her friends and teachers, and shunning her parents, angry that they failed to protect her. Then, one day, truanting by the Brighton seafront, Coo meets Banks, a homeless alcoholic and she’s surprised to discover that it is possible for her life to get more complicated. It is also available here:

Polly Johnson

Polly Johnson lives just outside London. She works with special needs students and is working on her second YA novel, while an adult novel is currently with her agent.


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Punished for it’s Beauty

We’re back to my favourite part of the world today, meeting Alex MacBeth in Mozambique, off the coast of Africa. Welcome, Alex!


Alex training the media team at festival Fim do Caminho 2015 in Mossuril, Mozambique


“I like to spend some time in Mozambique/ The Sunny sky is aqua blue” sang Bob Dylan. In many ways, the country has been punished throughout history for its beauty.  Few countries have experienced more nonsensical tragedy and yet retained such incredible charm on the planet.

First colonized by Portugal and later subjected to a fierce war of independence and then destabilization – both lasting a combined 30 years – Mozambique is one of the most peaceful and idyllic places that never gets a mention anywhere. Part of the reason the country is obscured behind other more popular destinations and media (and donor) favourites like Tanzania and Kenya is that the country speaks Portuguese, not English or French. It also only recently discovered natural resources, substantially raising its global profile and prospectives.

I was lucky enough to discover the country in 2004, when my family bought a piece of land on the edges of a very poor village in the north of the country. At the time there was no electricity, running water or schools in Mossuril. The district cradled around a bay opposite the old capital, Mozambique Island, has been forgotten in time and most importantly, space: it lies 23-kilometres down a battered, mud road from the nearest main asphalt artery connecting the rest of the country.

Over the last 15 years it has changed unrecognisably, however, although many basic living standards are still lacking. But there is now a hospital, several schools, a more organised local administration and the seeds of new businesses and a burgeoning micro economy in Mossuril. The Internet has brought smartphones, which gives the smartest among young people the chance to navigate away from their geographic and economic isolation and ‘surf’ the world. This has created a new wave of egalitarian entrepreneurship. Even an asphalt road has begun to crawl its way along the mud track.

For me, Mossuril is a very special place. The Indian Ocean is warm, like a bath; its mangroves are like a sea shepherd, protecting practically the whole ocean’s ecosystem and allowing fish and plants to mature. The local people, the Makhua, are a welcoming and highly matriarchal society, challenging all stupid stereotypes about Africa.

People have an innate calmness and perspective and a fabulous sense of humour, which helps them overcome all kinds of economic disadvantages. But while people are poor, they are extremely rich in spirit, ideas and endeavour. This set of characteristics has helped the district become the host of one of the country’s only film festivals, Festival Fim do Caminho, of which I am a joint founder.

But why did I choose to set THE RED DIE, my debut crime fiction novel, in Mossuril? The truth is I have always been fascinated by how six law enforcement officers police a district of 130,000 people with very limited resources. I wanted to romanticize this struggle and nation-building effort by Mozambican officers and try to offer an alternative to the cliched, corrupt African villain-officer.

The lack of resources – petrol, functioning cars, a forensics lab, personnel, electricity, cigarettes – all became police procedural devices in my novel. So Mossuril became the main setting in THE RED DIE, with a few things changed but essentially the structure of what I knew fictionalized.

Nampula is the second biggest city in Mozambique and the closest to Mossuril. It’s a former military depot that has lacked any kind of urban planning but has sprawled out, amidst the surrounding prehistoric mountains, in all directions. Each street hosts a different community, often of different ethnicities, and thus the city is a chaotic amalgamation of so much with so little infrastructure. A lot of THE RED DIE is set in Nampula as well.

At one point Comandante Felisberto, the hardboiled single father and lead investigator and protagonist in THE RED DIE, travels to Pemba, the country’s new oil hub, to follow a lead. Pemba acts as the sort of futuristic Mozambique, where everything is more developed and money is falling off the sides of buildings. The same is true of the nearby deep-sea port of Nacala, where Felisberto is left to envy the newly-refurbished neighbouring police station to his own.

Comandante Felisberto also visits the capital Maputo, in the far south of the country on the border with South Africa. Mozambique’s coastline is nearly 3,000 kilometres long, so such journeys are like crossing Europe. The Comandante also visits the neighbouring country of Malawi after being forced to flee. So overall there are several settings in the region to explore. Oh, and London makes a few appearances too.

I wanted THE RED DIE to reflect the panoply of magic I have known in Mozambique. I hope readers will enjoy travelling through the nation with the book. Red die_marketing_2
You can buy the paperback or Kindle edition of THE RED DIE here: https://amzn.to/2o1gDNO

THE RED DIE: Synopsis

The body of a man with a red die in his pocket is washed ashore near a quiet village on the coast of the Indian Ocean in southern Africa. But what looked initially like a corpse that came in with the tide soon turns out to be a murder case that will lead Comandante Felisberto and his team to the edge of danger and despair as they uncover a trail leading up to the highest echelons of power in their country.

Can Felisberto and his ‘motley crew of rural investigators’ solve the case – and survive?

Author bio

Alex MacBeth is a writer of crime fiction, a journalist, a publisher of African literature and a festival founder in Mozambique. He works for several international titles as a journalist and has also worked as a media trainer in Central and East Africa.

THE RED DIE is his first novel. You can buy the paperback or Kindle edition here: https://amzn.to/2o1gDNO

Website: www.alexmacbeth.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alexmacbethtoc
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thereddienovel/
Video teaser: https://www.youtube.com/w

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The Evening of the Second Day

It is getting late and the dusk is giving way to swift African night as we stop near an embankment on the side of the detour along the main road. We meet the presbytery catechist, who has been summoned by mobile phone, and clamber across the excavations onto a narrow track winding towards a humble mud and wattle hut within a tiny shamba.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting and outdoorNatasha is waiting for us. She is five years old and has cerebral palsy. Her grandmother Lydia looks after her. Natasha’s specialist chair was bought recently by St. Peter’s Lifeline from Nanyuki, where they take her for therapy. Her grandmother Lydia sits beside her.

Natasha cannot speak. She was abandoned by her teenage mother who had tried to abort her several times. The child has a lovely smile, and her eyes light up as soon as she sees Father Frankline and the catechist. She stamps her feet with loud jerks in ecstasy, demonstrating her delight. There is another contraption nearby for her to “play with” and use to strengthen her arms and legs. After a few months when there might be a vacancy, Father Frankline says, she will go to the special needs place in Nanyuki, and maybe end up walking and talking. The project has discovered many disabled children, hidden away by the ashamed parents. I do not take out my camera, but Father takes this photo of us with their happy co-operation.

As we leave, the grandmother gives us a bag full of cow peas. “They are for you,” says the catechist, handing me the bag. A sudden pain stabs at the sole of my shoe. I take it off and examine it yet again, but there’s still no sign of a thorn. I walk gingerly for a few yards, but the pain has gone.

Supper is the same delicious meal again. I hand Father Frank the cow peas, and tell him about my limp, fearful it may be some mysterious physical injury beginning to manifest itself. He takes the shoe and, while we chat, probes into the sole, extracting from its depths a long thick thorn which has gone in sideways. My relief is immense and I thank him profusely.

I present him with a copy of each of my books. He starts reading aloud, stumbling a bit over the words. He says the books should be set for Kenya schools, and shows me the current government education choice of 2017, full of editorial mistakes. But I tell him there are many stumbling blocks before such a thing could happen.

Kenya18 buildings

The church is sandwiched between the school (in the foreground) and the presbytery (far left)

I sleep well that night and rise to attend 7 o’clock mass with six others. Father welcomes me in English, but the service is in the vernacular. He reads the parable of the rich man who asked God to warn his brothers on earth to remember to do good works, so as not to end up in hell. The other ladies who have lovely natural singing voices, are appreciative of my presence, and I feel part of the community.

Breakfast at the Lodge is again with Albert the owner, a retired government servant. We chat comfortably together, and he thanks me for helping him with advice on how to improve the facilities.

On the way back to Nairobi past acres and acres of rice on the Mwea plains, we pass a bright yellow school bus. I have noticed several of these, bearing names of different schools. I ask Joseph why the buses are abandoning their school colours. Someone must have pushed through the legislation to make money, he tells me. Schools are required to take their buses to designated places to be repainted, and the process is expensive. But because it’s law, the citizens must comply.


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Hopping on the Virtual Vespa

We’re in for another treat today. This series on settings for books is becoming more and more interesting, as I welcome back my friend and fellow “Cat”, Katherine Johnson. Sit back and enjoy!


I’ve written two books set in Tuscany – The Silence which was published last year and The Secret which has just been published (June 1st).



I chose Tuscany as a setting for my Villa Leonida novels because of its beauty, the remote mountain villages and their multi-layered history. There are so many lovely areas in Tuscany and I wouldn’t want to claim any is better than another because they’re all amazing in different ways.

But some of the region’s best kept secrets lie far away from the art cities and Chiantishire. It seemed appropriate to set The Silence and The Secret in one of these lesser-known locations.

I had in mind the Lucca province in north Tuscany for my fictional village because I know the area and was intrigued by its wartime history.

If you hop on the virtual Vespa I’ll take you on a tour of this part of Tuscany.

I suggest we start with the city of Lucca, birthplace of Puccini. Although it doesn’t have the art marvels of Florence and Siena, every corner you turn in Lucca is a picture in itself. It’s a compact city with ancient buildings and beautiful squares, encircled by a fabulous set of walls topped with a promenade, perfect for cycling around.

P Napoleone, Lucca

P Napoleone, Lucca

But the best way to explore the narrow streets is by foot. Lucca’s a town where it really pays to look up – you’ll notice interesting architectural details, old shop signs and towers.



Evidence of the town’s Roman past can be seen in the forum and the amphitheatre – although the seats in the amphitheatre were replaced by houses in the Middle Ages, and the stage is now a square, with shops and cafes.

On Santa Zita’s day in April the town is filled with flowers to commemorate the town’s saint. In the summer Lucca hosts a music festival and becomes an open-air modern art gallery.


Bagni di Lucca

Bagni di Lucca

If you travel north of Lucca you come to the very tranquil Garfagnana. Explore the faded grandeur of Bagni di Lucca, make the steep climb to the cathedral in Barga for some amazing views, visit Castelnuovo or the Medieval walled village of Castilglione above. Look out for the church spire of the submerged ghost village in the lake of Vagli, visit Pietrasanta, known as Little Athens and packed with art galleries and workshops, and the nearby Carrara marble quarries where Michelangelo chose the marble for his statue of David. Or head out to the coast to soak up some sun, do some dolphin spotting or take a trip to an island.


Travel tips
Don’t arrive in an Italian village just after lunch or you‘ll find everything closed. It will come back to life in the early evening. Lots of festivals are held in the villages during summer evenings.
Check before you travel – some places and activities are only open at weekends.
The roads can be very twisty so what looks a short distance on a map can take much longer than expected.

The Secret 
Love, lies and betrayal in wartime Italy.
Two girls growing up in Mussolini’s Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences. Against a backdrop of fear, poverty and confusion during the Second World War, friendship is tested and loyalties are divided. But a chance encounter changes everything.
The girls’ lives diverge when beautiful, daring Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida, the most prestigious house in their Tuscan village, while plain, studious Irena trains to be a teacher.
But neither marriage nor life at Villa Leonida are as Martina imagined. And as other people’s lives take on a new purpose Irena finds herself left behind.
Decades later a tragedy at the villa coincides with the discovery of an abandoned baby whose identity threatens to reopen old wounds. While Irena’s son is determined to find out about the village’s past, Martina’s daughter is desperate to stop him.

Secret cover

The Secret is available as an ebook and paperback here: http://mybook.to/thesecretjohnson

Katy Johnson
Katharine Johnson likes writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. She’s passionate about old houses and the stories they have to tell. She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire but spends as much time as she can in the Lucca area of Tuscany. When not writing you’ll find her exploring cities, drinking coffee, playing netball badly and walking her madcap spaniel

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Katharinejohnsonauthor/
Twitter https://twitter.com/@kjohnsonwrites
Website/blog https://katyjohnsonblog.wordpress.com


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It is Still Day Two at Kajuki

It is hot, and I feel tired after our visit to the market place. But my morning is not yet over; there is so much they want to show me.  We pile back into the car and drive to another of the St. Peter’s Lifeline schools near another church.

Kajuki School

A line of six classrooms with a blue roof is outlined against the hills. The place is strangely quiet and devoid of children, as it is half-term.

We return to the presbytery for a soft drink and snacks, chapati and sweet potato slices, before going out again to a government school this time. It is not half-term here, and the school lunch program is in full swing. Orderly queues of hungry children receive large scoops of cooked maize and beans in their plastic containers. It smells delicious. I dip my fingers in for a taste and jump back, to the amusement of the children. It is piping hot.

Kajuki lunchWe return to the presbytery for lunch, a repetition of the day before, except the vegetable stew is accompanied by tasty chips instead of rice; and the chapatis are as good as ever. I have another afternoon nap and shower in the comparative luxury of the Eco Lodge. There is a waste basket awaiting me on the patio of my room, and no music blares from the public rooms this time.

Father Frankline takes me out in the early evening in his battered Hi-lux with a faulty starter. We see another two schools and go on a rough ride past areas of high grass belonging to absentee landowners – a richer section of the community.

We drive past a game of soccer on a dirt pitch, lined with serious spectators.

“They don’t understand the game,” he says when I remark on the silence. But as we turn away, a great roar comes from the crowd. “Must’ve been a goal!”

Beyond the pitch is an area of irrigated tomatoes and maize. An oasis of green in the dry, dusty land. Water is pumped into a large new tank from a river which never dries. It is another St. Peter’s project and they feel blessed.

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A Visit to Mende

Welcome back, Angela Wren, this time to talk about the settings for her books. I am looking forward to my first visit to France later this year. In the meantime, it is interesting to have a preview from such an expert source.

Hello Jane, thank you for inviting me onto your blog.

As my books are set in France, I thought I’d take you and your regular readers on a visit to Mende.  But, before we set off, I probably need to supply a few facts and a bit of history.


The Prefecture

Sitting on the southern edge of the Massif Central, Mende is the préfecture – principal administrative city – for the département of Lozère.  With a population of around 12,000 and an area of 14 square miles, the town sits in the high valley of the Lot about 30k due west of Mont Goulet and the source of the river.  It is also the principle setting for my second Jacques Forêt novel, Merle, and a favourite place for me to visit whenever I am in the area.

Using a real place as the setting for a novel brings both advantages and disadvantages.  For my story, I sited two new office blocks on either side of boulevard Théophile Roussel.  It’s a busy thoroughfare that links with three other boulevards and surrounds the old heart of the city.  So, there is always going to be someone who says, ‘well that’s not right.’  I agree, but then I write fiction, and the power of being a writer is to invent.  As a writer I am able to walk the streets of Mende, see what is actually there and then place what I need in appropriate spots so that, hopefully, it will seem as real to the reader as it does to me in my imagination.  

But, let me tell you about the city.  There has been habitation on this spot for over 2,000 years and the history is varied and complex.  Raided and sacked on numerous occasions – not least during the Religious Wars – Mende has survived to be the prominent town that it is, centred around it’s old medieval foundations with the modern city surrounding it.  In the middle ages, Mende became a centre of culture and civilisation, a focal point for trade, art and craftsmen with a notoriety that stretched as far north as the Auvergne.


The Basilica of Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat

Let’s begin in Place Urbain V (a square that I use for a scene in my first book in the series, Messandrierre) with a look at the cathedral.  The Basilica of Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat is striking because of its mismatched towers.  Begun in the 14th Century, under the auspices of the then Pope Urbain V, the cathedral was partially destroyed during the Religious Wars of the 16th Century – hence the odd towers.  The original bell ‘Non Pareille’, then the largest bell ever to have been cast, was melted down for bullets so that Capitaine Mathieu Merle (and yes it is his surname that I have borrowed for my fictitious suburb in Mende) and his Huguenot soldiers could continue the fight.

Out in the sunshine again and we are going to take a right, past the préfecture building into the narrow streets of the old medieval town.  With houses of three and four stories high, so close that neighbours could almost shake hands above the cobbles as they reached out of their open windows, the shade is welcome and necessary in the mid-day heat.  This part of the city became the home to hundreds of Jewish traders and remained their domain right up until the 20th century.  And it is in one of these streets that I have set the location for the Photographic Studio and shop for my character Beth.  And the pâtisserie that she sometimes looks across too in the book?  Yes it really does exist and it is that window that I can see in my imagination whenever I refer to it in my story.


The Jewish Quarter

 Let’s walk back to the préfecture building, which stands magnificently beside the cathedral.  It was in this building, during the 1939/45 war that the Mayor at the time, Henri Bourrillon, defied the Vichy regime.  Bourrillon objected to the internment camp that was built close to the town and, his words, actions and further objections caused him to be removed from his position of authority in 1941.  Henri took this in his stride and joined the Resistance and Mende, and some of its bravest people, took on a new role in support of the Jewish community within the city.  One of the boulevards that surrounds the old city is now named after Henri.

That’s only a snippet of the history of Mende, but it is rich and varied, and as far as I’m concerned, a gift.  In Montbel, book 3 in the series and due out later this year, Jacques finds himself battling with secrets and lies that began when the Vichy government was in power.

Angela’s website: http://www.angelawren.co.uk/

Merle: A French murder mystery (A Jacques Forêt Mystery Book 2) by [Wren, Angela]

You can find her books on amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Angela-Wren/e/B01924M7DC/

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