(York) Tea for Two – and a Whole Host of RNA Writers

(York) Tea for Two – and a Whole Host of RNA Writers

Official tickets! Exciting. Or scary!

So there we were, Julie Heslington and me, standing outside The Royal York Hotel, all ready to go inside and brave our first “proper” Romantic Novelists’ Association event. Julie had been to a couple of conferences before but, for me, it was my first RNA event, full stop. The York Tea. A gathering of well-known, well-established romance writers, who would wonder who on earth we were, and how we dared to darken the doorstep of this place and rub shoulders with the elite of romantic fiction.

Well, that’s what we thought, anyway, in our darkest moments. “On the other hand,” we decided brightly, “they might be nice. We have to try, at least.”

Squaring our shoulders, we marched purposefully forward. Julie sailed into the hotel. I got tangled up in the revolving door and it took me slightly longer. Typical. Then, heads held high, we walked up to reception, where Julie immediately asked where the toilets were. Priorities and all that. As an afterthought, we enquired where the RNA Tea was being held, and a rather bemused looking man told us we were in the Garden Room. So, a few minutes later, we approached said room, only to be told by a young woman that no, we weren’t in there at all. We were at the end of the corridor, if you don’t mind. So off we went again and, as we approached, it became clear that we were finally in the right place. Little things gave it away – like the big table covered in dozens of name badges with RNA written on them. Yay! We’d made it.

Sadly, he didn’t talk to me. Elegant, though.

There was a  heart-stopping moment when Julie couldn’t find her name badge. Would it, she enquired, be under Julie Heslington, or Jessica Redland? Huge relief when we spotted it. Turned out, it had both names on it. The RNA cover every eventuality! So name badges were collected, coats handed over, deep breaths taken, and in we went. The room seemed enormous, and there were lots of large, round tables, each elegantly adorned with silver candlesticks that reminded me of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.  If only, I thought wistfully. I’m sure Lumiere would talk to us and be kind. We hovered and dithered for quite some time as, around us, groups of writers chatted to each other as if they were best friends.

“Oh dear,” we said. “This is worse than we thought.” We’d selected a table in the middle of the row, but I had a panic suddenly. “We’ll have to squeeze between people every time we get up,” I pointed out. “And it’s a long way from the door.”

“We’ll sit near the door,” Julie decided, heading over to the first table in the room. “That way, we can get out easily enough.”

“So if no one speaks to us, we can escape,” I said, feeling suddenly more cheerful. There were, after all, dozens, probably hundreds, of places to eat in York. We could soon make our getaway and have our own afternoon tea, if we needed to. It didn’t have to be a complete disaster.

The room filled up. As we headed to the door to collect our complimentary glass of wine, I spotted Lizzie Lamb. Lizzie Lamb! I was thrilled to see her, as Lizzie was the very first writer I ever approached, years ago when I was just beginning my writing journey. I’d seen something she’d written in either Writing Magazine or Writer’s Forum – I can’t remember now which one it was – and she’d mentioned the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme. I plucked up courage and messaged her on Facebook, asking for advice about joining. She was brilliant, and so kind, giving me information and encouragement. I’ve never forgotten that, and I am such a big fan of her books, so it was wonderful when she came over to me and hugged me. It felt like she was an old friend!

Lovely Erin Green/ODwyer Author and her equally lovely hubby

Then a lovely couple came over. They knew Julie, but I’d never met them before. When Julie told me who the lady was, I realised I actually knew her from Facebook – from her ODwyer Author account and her Erin Green Author page. She’d brought along her husband, and we had a lovely chat with them both. They really helped break the ice and eased us into the event beautifully.

Julie looking very glam x

So, I had my very first glass of prosecco. I rarely drink alcohol at all, but, you know, it was free and it seemed rude to say no. Besides, it might help calm my nerves. I sipped it cautiously, being no fan of wine. Any wine. Hmm. That was actually quite nice. I finished my very first glass of prosecco.  I glanced around the room, recognising various faces from social media and Romance Matters, the RNA’s magazine. Would I ever dare speak to any of them, I wondered. Probably not, was the dismal, if realistic, reply. I hate social events. I’m a bag of nerves and I didn’t think a whole bottle of prosecco would be enough to see me through this.

Julie had gone to the bar to get us more drinks. I’d decided to stick with soft drinks. Alcohol has a most unfortunate effect on me and, sure enough, I could already feel the tell-tale burning sensation in my face. It seems to mimic a mini-menopause, making me red-faced and giving me terrible hot flushes. I could never be a secret drinker, that’s for sure. With no Julie to talk to, I clutched my empty glass, looked around me and tried to appear as if I was relaxed and chilled, not a quivering wreck who just wanted to go home.

Julie and me, with our lovely neighbours Dorinda and Rowena. Fab company!

“Hello, is this seat taken?” I looked around and a lady, whose face I knew from Facebook, was standing beside me. “Only, my friend and her sister are coming, and they’re going to be a bit late, so I wondered if it was okay for them to sit here?” Perhaps it was the sheer astonishment that someone had spoken to me, or perhaps it was the prosecco, but I nodded enthusiastically and said, of course, it was fine. Then I remembered that a writer Julie knew, from her home town of Scarborough, had said she was going to be a bit late, and she was bringing her sister. Could it be? Turned out, it was the same people that this lady – who introduced herself as Julia Ibbotson – was reserving seats for. What a coincidence. As it happened, it was a very happy coincidence. The ladies in question were Dorinda Cass and her sister, Rowena, and a nicer couple of neighbours I couldn’t have wished for.  We had a blast, talking non-stop, and my nerves vanished. Julie was engaged in conversation with the neighbours on her left side. Across the table from us sat Julia Ibbotson and another lady called Karen Critchley/Violet Fields. Next to them were two more ladies. One of them looked familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to the face. We all got talking, and she said her name was Janice Preston. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Oh, I know you!” Of course, I didn’t, but I knew her from Twitter and Facebook, and I knew of her books.

After that, conversation was buzzing. We had quite a debate about scones/sconns. Julie says “sconns” and I say “scones”. Jenni Fletcher, who was sitting next to Janice, insisted it was “sconns”. She demanded, “Where do you come from?” I replied “Hull.” Her jaw dropped. “Never!” Turns out, she lives just up the road in a local village. Who’d have thought it?

Rhoda Baxter, with Jane Lovering, who I didn’t pluck up the courage to speak to. Gutted!

Rhoda Baxter came up to chat. Another face I knew instantly from social media. I knew Rhoda was local to me, and I knew she attended the Beverley Chapter meetings, where another Facebook friend, Ellie Gray, was a member. Rhoda was lovely and friendly, and told us all about her new adventures in indie publishing. I asked if Ellie was coming. “She’s here,” came the reply. “Come and meet her.”

The lovely Ellie Gray and Anne Williams.

Feeling a bit nervous, I followed her over to the other side of the room, and there was Ellie, who I recognised immediately. Nerves vanished. I was so pleased to finally meet her, and she was just as lovely as I’d imagined she would be. We chatted for ages and I promised I would join the Beverley chapter and attend as much as I could, work hours permitting – and will definitely attend when I leave my day job and write full-time.

Afternoon tea. By the time Lizzie took this, Julie and I had probably cleared our plates.

Seeing some activity and a flurry of movement suddenly, we hurried back to our table. We were officially welcomed to the York Tea by organiser, Lynda Stacey, and then food was served. You know, it was only when we had nearly finished stuffing our faces that Julie and I realised a) we were the only ones who had eaten just about everything on the plates, and b) we’d been so preoccupied with the food that we’d quite forgotten to take a photograph of it to show you. Luckily, Lizzie Lamb had the foresight to snap hers, and she’s very kindly lent me a picture for your delight.

The fabulous Milly Johnson

“I wonder if Milly Johnson’s here yet,” I said, to no one in particular. I am such a huge fan of Milly. Back when I was wondering if I could really write contemporary romance/romcoms, I decided to read as many books in the genre as I could find, so I trawled Amazon for appropriate titles, and Milly was immediately recommended. Her book, The Birds and the Bees, was the first I read, and I remember feeling so excited about it. I quickly read The Yorkshire Pudding Club and Here Come the Girls. Here were books about women I recognised. Ordinary, working class women with accents like mine, and families and worries and problems I could relate to, and a sense of humour I could really understand and enjoy. Milly’s books gave me hope that, just maybe, you didn’t have to be middle class and posh to write books, after all.

When Milly was introduced, I felt my heart thud with anticipation. There she was. I was actually in the same room as Milly Johnson. She gave a wonderful speech that made me laugh, but also moved me to tears at various points. It was worth all the anxiety and stress and sleepless nights the thought of attending this event had caused me, just to see and hear Milly in action. My job was done. Or so I thought.

When the food was cleared away, another familiar face loomed into view. Anne Williams! Anne is a book blogger, and she has written some amazing reviews for my books, Baxter’s Christmas Wish and Resisting Mr Rochester. I was so grateful to her, and told her so. We had a lovely long chat, and she introduced herself to Julie and told her one of her books was on her to-be-read list. Anne was just as friendly and chatty as I knew she’d be, and I was so pleased to finally meet her.

Me and the truly delightful Lizzie Lamb.

Then, as Anne walked away, Lizzie came over, camera in hand, and asked for a photo of the two of us. Julie very kindly took one of us both, and then we launched into conversation as if we’d met loads of times before and had known each other for years. It was fabulous to talk to her properly. She was every bit as lovely as I’d heard she was, and we chatted for ages.

When we finally parted, I turned round to go back to my chair and nearly fell over with shock. Sitting next to Rowena was none other than Milly Johnson! I gaped at her, my heart hammering. Milly was sitting in the next chair but one to me. I think my mouth dropped open. She looked up, gave me a puzzled sort of smile, then resumed her conversation with Rowena as I plonked into my chair and tried to look as if I was used to this sort of thing. When she got up to leave, she hugged Rowena, and wandered off, and I gaped at Rowena. “What?” she said. “That was Milly Johnson,” I said – rather unnecessarily, I feel, in hindsight. “I know. Isn’t she lovely?” “I wouldn’t know,” I replied. “I’ve never met her.” Her eyes widened. “Why didn’t you say? I’d have introduced you.” Jeez. Probably a good thing she didn’t. I might still be unconscious.

The lovely Janice Preston, with Alison May, another one I wish I’d had the nerve to speak to.

Later, Jenni Fletcher came round to our side of the table. She told us all about the Beverley chapter, and Julie and I both agreed we would love to join. She was bubbly and friendly and made us laugh. I realised, suddenly, that not a single person we’d spoken to had been unfriendly or stand-offish at all. Everyone had been absolutely lovely to us – a fact confirmed when Janice came over to talk, and we had a fascinating conversation about clothes shops, among other things. Then Nicola Cornick came over to talk to Dorinda, and she was another friendly, warm person. Yep, the room was full of delightful, kind, funny, interesting people. What on earth had we been so worried about?

Me. Really. This is what one glass of prosecco does to me. Totally out of focus.

As we were leaving, I handed over my badge and waited for Julie, and John Jackson wandered over to hand in his. I introduced myself and thanked him for all his Friday Follows on Twitter each week, and congratulated him on his forthcoming book. He took out his camera and snapped me there and then. When I saw the photo later, I looked a bit blurry and out-of-focus. That prosecco must have affected me more than I realised!

Julie and I headed for the front door, passing Julia Ibbotson, who was being interviewed in the lobby. As I heard her discussing her work with the reporter, I thought, I can’t believe this is my life now. How lucky am I to mix with such amazing people, to meet authors whose work I really enjoy and respect, to be able to chat about books and writing to my heart’s content, and to make such wonderful friends? I feel so blessed to be part of this world.

We  left the hotel and headed back to the station to catch our respective trains. We both agreed we’d had a fabulous time. We’d chatted to Facebook friends in person for the first time, found new friends that we’d never spoken to, even online, before, and picked up tips and information. We’d heard a wonderful speech by a fantastic author, had lots of laughs, and a pretty cracking afternoon tea. All in all, it was a fabulous event, and we were both really glad we found the courage to attend.

But it’s still scones.

Sharon xx

Many thanks to Lynda Stacey for organising this event, and thank you, too, to Julie Heslington, John Jackson and Lizzie Lamb for the use of their photographs.

Julie’s/Jessica’s latest book, Charlee and the Chocolate Shop, is out now, and you can buy it here.


Through the Instagram App and What Sharon Found There

Through the Instagram App and What Sharon Found There

Recently, I joined a marketing group on Facebook, formed to help writers and small business owners (the businesses are small, not the owners—although, they may be small, too, who knows?) improve their public profile.

It’s a tough world out there, you know. I may be famous in my own back yard—as in, a new book brings a flurry of excitement from my mother, my mother’s neighbour, my sister and my aunt—but if I’m to make any impact on the world, or even my little corner of it, I have to get my name, and my work, “out there”, wherever the heck “there” may be.

We’ve been discussing social media. Are you on Twitter? Tick. Facebook? Tick. Do you have a Facebook author page? Tick. A blog? Tick. Pinterest? Tick. Instagram? Er, what, now?  “Ah, Instagram. The new, trendy app that simply anyone who is anyone is using.”  “Okay, well I’m not sixteen and I have no idea about Instagram. Help, please?”

In the event, it turned out that most of the other people in the group had no idea about Instagram either, so I decided to march forth and try out this brave new world for myself.

Does anyone have a clue?

Does anyone have a clue?

First step—as always—was to Google it for information. First question. What is Instagram? Google was most helpful. “You’re kidding, right? I mean, how old are you? A hundred and six?” (I jest, of course. Google would never be so flippant, or so rude.) Having determined that Instagram was an app that basically lets you share photos online (you know, kind of like Pinterest, or Facebook, or Twitter…), I decided that I HAD to be part of this amazing feat of technology.

First lesson. You can’t join Instagram online. You have to download an app to your phone. Having just figured out how to turn my brand new Windows phone on, I was in the marvellous position of being able to do just that. So I duly downloaded the app. Now what?

Second lesson. You have to have a username and password. Okay, fine. I’ll just use my name. Except, my name wasn’t available. My own name! Harsh. Okay, let’s go for my own name and date of birth. Not available. Well, that was just rude. How could my own name and date of birth not be available? Who pinched them? I tried various combinations of words and numbers and not one of them was available. In desperation, I used my nickname and birthday. Aha! Allowed. So I was finally signed up for Instagram.

Third lesson. Your username is available for everyone to see. Oh drat. I don’t want to be known as that. I thought it was private. Okay, how do I change my username? Back to my beloved Google, which scratched its head, rolled its eyes, tutted in despair and said, “You do know what edit profile means?” Oh. I hadn’t noticed that. So back I went and clicked on “edit profile”. Delete username. Add new username. Done. Well, that was easy. Just add a short bio now…


Not the actual book I didn’t win because I DIDN’T win it.

Fourth lesson. Your bio has to be very, very short. Shorter than a tweet. After rambling on, explaining how I once played the queen in a school play, and how I never got over not having my name picked out of a hat to win a signed copy of a Bobby Brewster book after the author visited our primary school, in spite of the fact that I was the only child in the class who actually read for pleasure, I was informed, quite sternly, that my bio was far too long and I’d better cut it. I deleted a sentence, then a paragraph, then a chapter. Eventually, I was down to the permitted length. Success. My bio was complete. My profile was done. Except…

Fifth lesson. For some reason I cannot fathom, Instagram had taken my Facebook profile picture and used it as my Instagram profile picture. Since the picture wasn’t even of me, this didn’t seem at all useful. Back I went to Facebook and searched, in increasing desperation, for a photograph of me that looked reasonably human and didn’t feature me posing with Benedict Cumberbatch. What do you mean, camera trickery? It was all perfectly genuine, I’ll have you know. Anyway, I finally found one where, not only am I alone, not only am I not staring in horror with my hand half over my face, pleading with someone not to take my picture, but I am actually smiling. Crikey! So I changed that to my profile picture. (When I got home from work that night, the picture had loads of likes

100% genuine *cough*

100% genuine *cough*

and nice comments. I think my Facebook friends were stunned that I’d actually posted a photo of myself. I’m not the most photogenic of people, let’s face it.) So there I was, fully signed up and all profiled up for Instagram. Except…

Sixth lesson. I had no idea what I was supposed to actually do on there. I posted on my Facebook writer’s page, announcing that I had joined, and asking, quite genuinely, “What do I do now?” Back came several replies. “We have no idea, but when you find out can you let us know, please?” I really do have to get some younger, trendier friends. So, I decided to trawl through other people’s Instagram accounts and get some idea of what I was supposed to be posting. Hmm.

Seventh lesson. There is one huge snag with Instagram. You’re supposed to do things, see things, go places that are interesting. Since I’m usually either at home, writing, or at work, er, working, this doesn’t really apply to me. I tried my Write Romantic pal, Rachael Thomas, for help first. Her account featured lots of beautiful pictures of the countryside. Well, you see, Rachael isn’t just a fantastically talented romance writer. Oh, no. She’s also a dairy farmer. So when she skips merrily out of her house in the morning, she can raise her camera phone and sing happy little Disney songs and balance little blue birds on her hand as she takes gorgeous pictures of the Welsh countryside, pretty animals and—you know—stuff like that.  I, on the other hand, live in a city. I don’t much fancy taking pictures of the dustcart blocking our way out of the road yet again, or the latest takeaway that’s opened nearby because, after all, we’ve only got thirty takeaways in our area already, or the roadworks at the end of the street that have been there for weeks, even though whoever put them there seems to have forgotten all about them. So what to do?

Here's one I made earlier- honest!

Here’s one I made earlier- honest!

Eighth lesson. Everyone has photographs of cake. I mean, everyone! People bake and then they take pictures of their culinary creations so the rest of us can a) feel suddenly in desperate need of cake and b) hang our heads in shame because we haven’t baked since nineteen ninety-eight. (That may actually be true, in my case.) Even Rachael had posted a photograph of a cake she’d made! How does she find time for that, for heaven’s sake? I turned to my other Write Romantic chum, Helen Phifer. Helen is really busy, just like Rachael. But Helen writes ghostly crime stories. She collects photos of haunted houses and—you know—creepy stuff. I can rely on Helen. Oh, Helen! Cupcakes! Seriously? But yes, there they were. Cupcakes. Okay, they were in among some creepy stuff (and some lovely stuff, too!) but they were there. I had to take photos of cake. It was obviously the way to go. A quick scout around our kitchen revealed two stale Jacob’s cream crackers and a broken custard cream. I suppose I could have photographed them as some sort of artistic statement. But no…Things were getting critical.

Ninth lesson. Instagram makes you desperate to photograph anything. I mean, anything. I spent the entire day wandering around looking at “things” and wondering if they would make a good subject for a picture on Instagram. I even trawled through old Facebook photos, trying to convince myself that I could post some of them and pretend they were new. Then I realised that I didn’t like any of them anyway, so that was pointless. I decided I would have to buy cake and start—you know—actually going out. Desperate times.

Tessa to the rescue

Tessa to the rescue

Tenth lesson. When in doubt, remember man’s best friend. Okay, so I don’t bake, and I didn’t have cake in the house, and I don’t go anywhere. But what I do have, which seems to be very acceptable, is a pet. My lovely German Shepherd, Tessa (who features in my Kearton Bay books, albeit aged by some years and with a personality that’s the opposite of the real version, but is still lovely—not that I’m plugging my books, you understand. Ahem) was most obliging. As I scoured the house, looking for something that I could take a picture of, she gave a sudden sneeze, drawing my attention to her. She was lying by the sofa and as I leaned forward to get a better look at her, she gave me a worried look as if to say, “Why are you pointing that phone at me? Get away from me, you mad creature!” Too late, Tessa! A click and I had it! Feverishly, I looked at my photograph. Ah, my beautiful dog. You are the perfect subject for my first Instagram photograph!

Eleventh lesson. Uploading, or downloading, or whatever it is you do with the wretched things, isn’t as easy as you’d think. For a start, I couldn’t figure out how to crop the picture, and Instagram likes your photos to be square. Back I went to Google. “Oh, God. It’s you again. What now?” it sighed. Still, it was very obliging, and I managed to find an app that ensured all my photos were suitable for Instagram, and I didn’t have to worry about cropping or any of that technical stuff. Problem solved. So my picture of Tessa was duly up/downloaded. Then I up/downloaded pictures of my People’s Friend pocket novel. Then pictures of my two books. Then a picture of Winter Tales (which is back on sale, by the way). Then a picture of my notebooks to show that I was about to start plotting and drafting a new book, because, after all, I’m a writer, and that was the point of joining Instagram in the first place – to remind people that I write books and they’re worth reading, even if I do say so myself (and my mum’s neighbour agrees with me, so there). The point was not to prove that I bake cakes or go places or socialise or anything like that. Right?

Hmm. I still have to work out how, why, or if I should share my Instagram photos to Facebook. I also have to fathom the mysterious world of the hashtag, so my adventures in Instagramland are not over yet. I have a feeling that I’m going to be looking at life through a lens from now on. Everything is a photo opportunity.

Look out, world. Sharon’s got a camera – and she’s not afraid to use it. In fact, she’s quite desperate…

Sharon xxx

Saturday Spotlight – The Romantic Novelists’ Association Summer Party 2014

RNA Party

I have been very fortunate that two years ago I got a place on the RNA New Writer’ Scheme. Last year when my book was published I was entered into the Joan Hessayon New Writer’s award and on Thursday May 22nd I set off to London for the first time since I was seventeen years old.
As my train pulled out of Barrow and went past the beautiful Abbey ruins and Abbotswood which had been the inspiration for my novel The Ghost House it actually sunk in that I was now a published writer and on my way to celebrate my success. It was an amazing feeling sitting on that train and I felt very lucky and humbled that after all the years of trying and the rejections that I had done it. I had made my dream come true and there is no finer feeling.

I was very excited to be meeting so many of the lovely writers that I speak to on a regular basis on Facebook and Twitter, especially our very own Deirdre and Rachael. I was also a nervous wreck. I’m not very good in social situation’s but I was determined that I was going to enjoy the day and night for what it was.
I had booked a room in The Royal Overseas League where the party was being held so I didn’t have to worry about being late or finding my way back. I spent an hour giving myself a pep talk before going down to meet up with all the other lovely Joan Hessayon Contenders. It was a pleasure meeting so many fellow writers, especially Jill Steeples and Annie Lyons who also write for Carina. Jill bought the first drinks to calm our nerves before the dreaded official photo, which actually wasn’t that bad and the photographer was lovely. Once the photo was over I could breathe a sigh of relief and relax a little, it was nice to meet so many fellow writers and soon my editors from Carina arrived with a couple of bottles of Prosecco which was the first time I’d ever tasted it and it certainly won’t be the last, how have I not discovered this before I asked myself?

Eventually Pia Fenton the RNA chair took to the podium and we all raised a toast to the lovely Joan Hessayon and her husband Dr Hessayon who sponsors the award every year in memory of his wife. We all lined up in front of the projector and listened as Pia read out everyone’s blurb; it was lovely cheering and celebrating so many début authors’ success and very inspiring. Of course there could only be one winner and that was the lovely Jo Thomas for her novel The Oyster Catcher as we all whooped with delight and applauded I couldn’t help but feel a touch relieved it wasn’t me. I hadn’t even thought about a speech and by this stage I was positively melting and a little bit tipsy.
It was a wonderful night and I felt so privileged to have been a part of it, the organisers worked so hard to make it very special and I would like to thank them all from the bottom of my heart.

I’m looking forward to next year’s party already where I will be able to raise a glass or two of Prosecco to my fellow Write Romantics who are on their way to making their own dreams come true 🙂

Helen xx