I’d only ever written historical fiction before.
But in 1994 a lot was happening in the Church of England, of which, as a vicar’s daughter, I’ve been an active member nearly all my life. Above all, it was the year the first women were ordained as priests.
I found myself thinking there was a theme for a novel there, but at the time Joanna Trollope had apparently cornered the market in novels about the Church of England, and I knew I wasn’t Joanna Trollope. On the other hand, I did have an awful lot of experience of parish life, one way and another. Why not give it a try?
So, in the autumn of that year, as my story unfolds, I wrote it, imagining the effect of her new role on one of those new priests, Rosalind Maclaren, and her husband and children. That’s how ‘First Parish’ came about. It was published, eventually, in 1998.
When it came to editing it for conversion to an ebook, I pondered how much of it to alter. It was surprising to find, on re-reading it, how much had changed since 1994 – for one thing, all teenagers now, almost without exception, have mobile phones and are constantly texting their friends. In my novel, sixteen-year-old Sophie is still clamouring to use the landline. There’s no mention of mobile phones, though their spread into every corner of life was only just around the corner.
In this as in so many other ways the book now reads as rather old-fashioned. On the other hand, it is set at a specific time, which is relevant to the way the story develops. I knew that if I altered it in a few things, I would have to alter it in others and it would be a different book. So on the whole I left it as it was. Does that make it a historical novel, I wonder?
The same could be said of ‘Lifelines’, the next story featuring Rosalind, the woman priest. This was written in the wake of the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease that so devastated the farming community in the part of County Durham where we then lived. It was also the year that ended with the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, which briefly comes into the story. Once again, any major alteration would have made it a different book.
Between ‘First Parish’ and ‘Lifelines’ I’d started another Rosalind novel, which had to be shelved because of domestic crises and was never finished; the same applied to yet another in the same series which I began after ‘Lifelines’. Unless there’s a huge demand for them, I guess they never will be finished now.
But I did write one more, completed last year. ‘A Scent of Roses’ does feature Rosalind, though no longer quite at the heart of the book, which is perhaps rather a different sort of novel. In any case, all three books stand alone. You don’t have to read more than one to know what’s going on in any of them.
And all three are now for sale in the Kindle store. Because for writers that is the crucial way in which the world has changed beyond recognition since I began ‘First Parish’. We’re all having to adjust, as are publishers, agents and all the traditional producers of print books. Some people are wringing their hands and finding it all very depressing. I think it’s exciting, an opportunity for all kinds of new ways of doing things. But I don’t think its the end of the printed book – or I hope not anyway. Much though I love my Kindle, if I really treasure a novel I want to buy it, in an old-fashioned printed format. I love the smell and feel of books, and the look of them on a shelf or beside the bed.
But the world has changed and we have to adapt to that change – don’t we?