Those Who Serve

The Bedford Hotel was a favourite meeting place for young naval wives when Marcia, then one, was living nearby at Dousland. To this day, it remains the place we meet friends whenever we are in the town.

The Bedford Hotel was a favourite meeting place for young naval wives when Marcia, then one, was living nearby at Dousland. To this day, it remains the place we meet friends whenever we are in the town.

It was after Marcia handed me the manuscript of Pay Day that the work I had done on publishers paid off. First I had to prepare a blurb: I intended to try to create some interest on the telephone and you have only a few brief moments in which to do that and no second chances. Once I was sure I could make it no better I made a start.

Choice number one was a complete failure. ‘We have a rigid system for authors who want to submit a manuscript. If you want details you have to write in and enclose a large stamped and addressed envelope.’ Right. It was only afterwards did it occur to me that she had forgotten to tell me what value of stamps on that envelope should be.

Number two was disappointing in another way. ‘Sorry, we are not accepting any more manuscripts at the moment. You could try again in two or three months.’ Well, better than a flat ‘no’ but . . .

Call number three was very different. The receptionist listened carefully to what I had to say  and then asked me to hold on for a moment. Suddenly there was a new voice on the line – an Australian voice.

‘Hello,’ it said. ‘My name is Cate Paterson and I am a commissioning editor. Our receptionist tells me your wife has written a book about naval wives. Is that right?’
I said it was and then answered a few further questions. ‘Please send me a copy of her manuscript. I would like to read it.’

Which we did – and the first period of waiting began.

From the outset, Marcia was very determined that she would write only about what she knew and she felt that the only thing she really knew that might be of interest to other people was life as the wife of a naval officer. She knew from first hand experience the problems caused by the long separations and by men returning from often difficult and challenging operations (this was at the height of the cold war) to domestic life. In those days the difficulties for the men trying to cast off the persona of a fighter to take on the mantle of a loving husband and father were not understood as they are today. The result was that in many cases the strain on the wives was just too much and, not surprisingly, quite  number of naval marriages ended in divorce (as did Marcia’s). Above all she learnt just how important was the friendships between the wives –  how they were able to support each other and just be there when they were needed. It is interesting to note that Marcia’s four closest friends were wives of submariners and that those friendships are as strong today as they were forty years ago.

Shortly after Cate contacted Marcia, she  left the publishing house I had telephoned and joined Hodder Headline. Because she loved what Marcia had written she had asked to be allowed to take Pay Day with her and now she wanted to ask Marcia to do some work on the book. It was then that we discovered that it was because, like us, Cate knew of no  books about naval wives that she had wanted to read it in the first place. Thank goodness that Marcia had chosen to write about what she really knew and that I had  brought out what really mattered in my blurb.

Now, those changes that Cate wanted could hardly be called minor. You will remember that Pay Day covered only the second part of Those Who Serve and included far less characters. What Cate wanted Marcia to do was to give Cass a close friend and she wanted the book to start with those two friends as they entered into adulthood. Essentially, she wanted to know what had made Cass the woman she was in Pay Day. And, of course, none of the joins were to show. Would Marcia be prepared to have a go – bearing in mind that there were no promises as Cate could not take a final judgement until the work was finished.

Please think about all that for a moment. Give Cass a friend (Kate) and record their lives up to the time when Mrs Hamilton put her summer hat away brought out her winter felt ready for Harvest Festival – and then thread the new characters through the second half without making any significant changes (Cate had simply said, I want what you have written to be unchanged). At the time, although I was delighted that Marcia had agreed to give it a go, I really didn’t think she would pull it off. But she did – 70,000 words were now 120,000 words – and so began the second period of waiting.

I asked Maria to explain how she felt about Cate’s requests – preferably in writing to ensure that I distorted nothing. This is what she wrote:-

“To begin with, Cate’s demands filled me with apprehension. However, once I began to think about Cass and her history the character of Kate, her one-time school friend, appeared very quickly and I wondered if she had been there all the time but I had been too focussed on reworking and polishing Pay Day to hear or see her. Kate fitted easily and naturally and added another dimension to the story. Her passion for Dartmoor, her love of Tavistock, was integral to the book and the two women’s friendship gave it extra depth. This taught me a very important lesson. With subsequent books I learned to wait, to watch and listen, until all the characters had presented themselves and related their stories and made their connections. Even then I was sometimes taken by surprise by a late appearance but this, usually, was someone connected with a sub-plot rather than a major player.”

When Marcia settled down to the work that Cate wanted, something quite odd (and of huge ongoing importance) happened. She stopped treating writing as a bit of a game and became very focussed, very disciplined, very motivated and highly professional. It was as if a switch had been thrown. Her father was all of those things and suddenly I could see that part of him in her. As you would expect, she has continued in that vein ever since.

Probably the most important part of that is the self-discipline. The ability, no matter what, to produce the goods. There are obviously huge differences between the creative novelist (like Marcia) and a hack (such as myself) but both have to turn in the work on time and up to the required standard.  As a hack I find that hard enough. Indeed, when I was writing articles it was my job to decide what to write about. All my editor wanted was to be sure that the required 1,500 words (with illustrations) was in the office before the deadline. Looking back, I now realise that hardest part of that job was finding something of interest to the readers every fortnight.

To begin with the creative novelist has a different problem: who am I going to write about, where are they and what are they doing? It seems that Marcia had no real control over this part and so difficult to see where self-discipline comes in to the equation. I cannot speak for those writers who are plot driven (as opposed to character driven) as I am not close enough to one to know how they work. And so it is that, until she has her characters assembled, Marcia has to listen (but we do not know to whom or what). At first sight it would seem there is little need for discipline here but actually there is. Marcia knows how to create the right ‘listening atmosphere’ but creating it when there seems to be nothing going on plus an inner conviction that her once fertile imagination is now a desert is pretty difficult. So far, of course, that conviction has always been proved wrong.

Then there is the other time when iron discipline is needed. About a third of the way through the writing of a book, the author arrives at another desert (I found this to be so when writing non-fiction too). You have set the scene and introduced all the characters – and you know exactly how the book will end. You are, to be honest, bored by the whole thing and all you want to do is to write a quick epilogue and move on. However, that would be to cheat the readers and so you find yourself sitting in front of the computer at whatever time you start work – 9.30 in Marcia’s case – and staring at a completely unresponsive screen. Only one cure: start hitting the keys until you find yourself back into the story. Then you delete any rubbish – which be everything you have written so far that day – and get on.

Finally the day came when Marcia felt that she had done all that Cate wanted and so the manuscript was duly sent off and we entered the third period of waiting. It seemed to go on for ever until, when Marcia had become quite desperate, she telephoned Cate to ask if a decision had been taken. Cate said that there was a letter in the post so she did not want to talk until Marcia had read it.

Naturally, we were awake very early the next morning. As usual, we were living in a place where the post arrives in the afternoon and the thought of waiting that long was terrible so, on the off chance, I rang the sorting office in Totnes. Yes, there was a letter from Hodder Headline. Yes, I could come and collect it. It would be at the enquiries desk. We collected the letter about seven fifteen: it contained an offer of a contract for two books. For the record, that was Ascension Day 1994. However, Kate did not like the title. Farewell Pay Day. Welcome Those Who Serve.

A couple of days later, Marcia bumped into Mary Wesley in Totnes. Mary asked how it was going and Marcia told her.

‘Ah,’ said Mary, ‘Enjoy today. You will never be happy again! A two book contract, you said. Are you sure you can write another book? If you do, will your agent like it? Will your publisher like it? Will your readers like it?’

There is much truth in those comments but, happily, the answer to all the questions was a resounding ‘Yes’. Incidentally, it is only right that I should add that Mary Wesley always gave Marcia great encouragement.

Oddly it wasn’t the contract but the arrival of a copy of the cover (in black and white – by fax) that stopped Marcia in her tracks. Here was proof positive that the whole thing was real and not a dream – proof that someone thought enough of her work not only to pay her an advance but to commission an artist and a designer to create a cover for the book.
In due course, the book was published and the then owners of Bookstop in Tavistock invited Marcia to hold a launch party there: life would never be the same again.

Before we move on to book number two a word about ‘The Village’. Marcia is often asked about this village which is never given a name. As we shall see, Marcia rarely puts her characters in real houses although her fictitious houses are always set in a real location. Now she wanted to work on a bigger canvas: a fictional village within the factual landscape. It is one thing to find the space to put a house but quite another when it comes to locating an entire village. In the end, we decided that the best thing to do was to put it where there was a real but tiny hamlet which could not be mistaken for the village described in Those Who Serve.

The location can be determined from the books: follow the clues and they will take to a tiny hamlet by the name of Lovaton – no church, no shop, no village green, no new housing development, no manor and no ‘Old Rectory’ (all of which will be found in ‘The Village’).

For some notes and photographs describing Those Who Serve country the link is TWS Country.