Janet Hancock is a regular attendee at the Winchester Writers’ Festival where her work has been shortlisted in several competitions for both short and long fiction. She won the First Three Pages of a Novel competition at the Festival in 2011.
‘I’m going to be a writer one day,’ I used to think through my 20s and early 30s. I devoured the novels of Catherine Gaskin, Ann Bridge, Catherine Gavin, featuring ordinary late 19th/early 20th century people in different parts of the world on the cusp of history: war, revolution, social change, the big canvas; and Taylor Caldwell’s novels in 19th century America: captains of industry establishing dynasties. ‘I’m going to do that,’ I would tell myself. But life got in the way.
A winter of unemployment following redundancy drove me to put pen to paper. I enrolled with the London School of Journalism for a correspondence course on short stories. I learned about characterisation, dialogue, viewpoint, useful lessons for a writer of long as well as short fiction. By the end of the course I had started going out to work again full time. Writing became fitted into the occasional weekend, nothing disciplined. The short romances I’d written as part of the course and sent to women’s magazines all came back.
I wrote a Mills and Boon romance, not that I’d read any, not my sort of book, but I had a story I wanted to tell, semi-autobiographical, set in the Austrian Tyrol; surely a Mills and Boon would be easy for they were thin little books. Wrong. My writing was becoming more disciplined, though. My husband played golf on Mondays and Fridays and those became my writing times. The rest of the week was writing in my head, jotting things down: I always had a bit of paper with me. I joined the Romantic Novelists Association.
I read about a young Englishwoman caught in the 1917 revolution in Baku, then in Russia. She wouldn’t let me go. Who was she? How had she come to be there? I wanted to write about her. I had found my big canvas. I loved the research, characters forming, reaching out to me. When I started to write, in longhand, I felt like a fledgling soaring. I typed up the first draft, 800 pages, several storylines, multi-viewpoint, with little understanding of editing. The book was as long as it took to tell the story. The RNA New Writers’ Scheme taught me otherwise. I joined the Historical Novel Society and started reviewing for the Historical Novels Review, a good lesson in editing and concise writing.
I joined a writers’ group, and a postal group for critiquing each other’s work. I wrote a dozen short stories. My writing was becoming more literary. I left the RNA, realising I was not a romantic novelist in the genre sense, although is not all fiction romantic in the wider sense?
I went to the Annual Writers’ Conference in its Southampton days and when it moved to Winchester, loving the atmosphere, meeting other writers, absorbing all I could. I learned to write a synopsis, a query letter. Carolyn Caughy, Barbara Murphy, Lorna Fergusson, Madeleine Milburn are some of many memorable tutors. Barbara Large was a constant presence, competition entries and adjudications returned with her hand-written note of encouragement. A couple of months after my husband died, Barbara spent time with me and we kick-started another draft of the Russian book.
June Hampson, a Winchester tutor, said to me, ‘You ought to enter competitions.’ I’d already entered some at Winchester, so started scouring websites and columns of magazines like Mslexia. All but three of the short stories have been placed or shortlisted, one winning first prize, some published in anthologies or online. A draft of the Russian book won the First Three Pages of a Novel Competition at Winchester, was on the Mslexia novel longlist and the Yeovil Prize shortlist. These encouragements drove me on, determined to pursue publication.
The Russian book went through six drafts, three changes of title, 800 pages reduced to 330. There were gaps – sometimes years – between drafts, while I worked on short fiction, and researched and drafted two further novels. Every time I returned to the book with fresh eyes and insight, cutting away the dead wood although nothing is ever wasted and some is coming to life in another book. I joined a group which meets for a working weekend every January to concentrate on a chapter, and have received invaluable feedback on paragraph structure, characterisation, dialogue.
The final title of the Russian book is Beyond the Samovar, to be published by independent publishers The Conrad Press on 1st March. I have returned to work on another novel. It’s like meeting old friends.
Janet Hancock’s debut novel, Beyond the Samovar, is published on 1st March by independent publisher The Conrad Press.