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Leah's blog

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Life is Full of Circles

Steam TrainMany years ago when I was a student in Leeds, term began for me with a journey from Glasgow Central through the moors southwards.

When we reached Settle I knew I was almost there but it was usually dark. By then I knew all the stations of the Thames Clyde route: Carlisle, Appleby. Kirkby Stephen… Little did I know  I was passing along the old Midland Railway Route blasted through rock  by navvies to make viaducts and tunnels, carving their way through beautiful mountainous terrain or that I would make my home alongside this track many years later.

It was on a parent school visit to the famous Ribblehead Viaduct that I first heard the stories of “ navvy time” when thousands of men and women spent nearly seven years living out on the bleak fells.

The Railway GirlsLittle remains visible now of their encampments, just spoil heaps covered with turf ,a few wagon tracks but we pulled a stool and other domestic objects out of the bog. They struck a chord within me and eventually became the first version of “THE RAILWAY GIRLS”,  my first foray into historical novel researches. I was fascinated how the navvy families survived and the effect on the remote village communities of this invasion. Beer swilling strangers, tough women in boots invaded the district bringing wages to spend in the pubs.

I discovered a diary of one of the Missionaries sent to “ convert” the wild men into sobriety and temperance. There were schools, shops, markets. Whole towns sprang up appearing and promptly disappearing when the job was done.

Families lived in hutments but the winters were atrocious, accidents, disease, cholera epidemics carried many off to the little chapel of St Leonards Chapel le dale . A memorial plaque records the details and victims were buried in a separate plot visible to this day.

Ribblehead ViaductThis rail route escaped Dr Beeching’s axe in the 60s but was nearly closed in the 1980s . A fierce battle across the country campaigned to rescue this spectacular route and ensured a reprieve. Now it is a famous tourist route with steam trains and a regular commuter timetable. You can get door to door to London in four hours via Leeds. The track was a triumph of grandiose Victorian engineering but at its centre is the magnificent viaduct and well worth a visit.

Without that school visit and the support of local experts all those years ago, I doubt I would ever have aspired to writing novels. It holds special memories for me, visiting parents with my children knowing there were welcome faces waiting in Glasgow Central, the very faces who waved me off to Leeds all those years ago. Life is full of circles, isn’t it?

Wednesday 2 August 2017


Plotting ShedVirginia Woolf said “Every woman should have a room of their own”. In my case it is a shed at the bottom of the garden currently in use as a winter rescue home for delicate plants. Be assured plans are afoot to clear out the debris to restore it once more to my writing room.

From here over the years I have travelled far a field; on a life boat watching the Titanic go down, to a remote Scottish island and the back streets of New York, to the mountains of Crete and the navvy camp at Ribblehead.

The Last PearlMy readers might recognize these locations from my novels. Each of these journeys of imagination come from that first idea of what story I will write next and where it will be set; perhaps a café in wartime Lichfield, the shores of the Mississippi or the outback of Australia. The possibilities are endless.

I can’t seem to stay too close to home in the village of Langcliffe but there are many Yorkshire  and Lancashire settings too. Often they are a starting point as in THE LAST PEARL  where a jewelry shop in York opens the story line.

My latest expedition takes a Yorkshire Quaker family, fleeing persecution to help found a colony in Pennsylvania in the 1690s: a journey of hardship and courage seen through the eyes of a young woman.

As with most of these imaginative explorations I do try and visit the exact spots where I think the story unfolds; the shores of Muscatine, Iowa, the lace city of San Sepolchro Italy, A synagogue in Chania, Crete where  I worked as a tour guide for several months. Some are too far to visit but with internet roaming I can Google myself onto the very streets of Adelaide or the cemetery in Halifax Nova Scotia where the Titanic victim were buried.

The researches I do are important and sometimes I find personal accounts of real people  which add depth to a character. Last month I visited a little museum in the US to learn more about the culture and customs of the Native Americans especially the tribe of the Lenni- Lenape who yielded land to the foreign colonists at a cost to themselves.

The Glovemaker's DaughterOnce a subject grabs me I have to follow where it leads. It involves lots of reading first before I visit the location. Now  that THE GLOVEMAKER'S DAUGHTER  is with the publisher where next?  Perhaps  wartime Vichy, France will  mean another  trip soon?

It’s on these visits I meet people who know far more than I do about my subject and give me useful anecdotes like the ex-fireman in Iowa who showed me  the  “dead man’s corner of the Mississipi” where the river gives up it's corpses…The Plotting Shed open door



So time for me to open up the shed where ideas are hatched, pour a glass of something sparkly, gaze over the hills and get cracking on novel 19. Wish me luck on my travels.

Helene Wiggin who writes as Leah Fleming  


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