My Interview

I was recently interviewed online by A requested interview and well worth doing if you are asked. I believe you have to be invited. It’s free of charge and a great way of promoting yourself and your writing. Although there is a link to this interview on my ‘about me’ page, I was so pleased with the outcome that I thought I would also share it on my blog for this month.

 Please introduce yourself and your book(s)

Hello, my name is Sheila Johnson. Brought up on a farm in the south east of England, I wanted to write from an early age. Apart from creating a couple of issues of a newspaper while still at school, my first main foray into writing was as a poet. I still write poetry and enter competitions from time to time.

I have a diploma in journalism, deciding to study journalism as a second career after finding and writing a front page article for my local newspaper along with an in-house journalist. On qualifying, I freelanced for Gloucestershire Media for a couple of years. Since then, I have written travel, history and charity articles for both national and international newspapers and magazines and interviewed some well-known personalities, including Cricketer, Jonty Rhodes, and Rugby player, Lesley Vanikolo.

 What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

I published my first book in 2016 under my maiden name of Sheila Donald. It is a novella, called Alpha Male, a romance based around an Alpha Course. Quiet, shy church going beauty meets sexy, good looking newspaper journalist. This book was self-published. I am happy with the cover of this book, which I chose myself. Alpha Male can be found in book or kindle form on Amazon UK or in the US.

I published my second book, historical romance, Waireka (sweet waters) with Ambassador International in 2018, again under my maiden name. This was a full-length novel based upon my family history. Being part Kiwi, when visiting New Zealand for the third time a few years earlier, I was given a family history book written by a distant relative, also a Donald. The book contained the story of my great uncle’s trip from Scotland in 1850 as one of the first early pioneers. He became a farmer and an important member of the local community in the Wairarapa area of the north island of New Zealand. The story was so fascinating that I knew at once it was one I had to tell in fictional form. My story is told from the viewpoint of a young nursemaid, Eliza. I have changed many of the names and circumstances, but I loved writing it and learning all about the early New Zealand pioneers, their bravery and resilience. Waireka can be found on Amazon in book or kindle form at in the UK or in the US.

In addition I have contributed to three anthologies – Stones Before the Ocean, Edited by Daniel Paul Gilbert, in which I have two poems included; Merry Christmas Everyone, Edited by Wendy H Jones, Amy Robinson and Jane Clamp, in which I have a piece of prose and a poem included; and recently, When this is all over, Edited by Jan Moran Neil and Adrian Spalding, a charity anthology about the pandemic, in which I have a poem included. Please visit my website at for more details.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

It’s a difficult decision for an author to choose between self-publishing and being published, they both demand a great deal of self-promotion. However, if I had my time again, I would not have chosen an American publisher for Waireka, either self-publishing or finding a British or New Zealand publisher would have been preferable.

 Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I think one of the most important things in launching a book is the cover and the blurb on the back. I know that it is these two factors that influence my decision in buying a book and therefore will influence others too. It is important to make the cover attractive, appropriate and stand out from the crowd, and it is a crowded market. Titles too are important. I now wish that I had been advised to use a subtitle in my book, Waireka. I do give the meaning of the Maori word in the book, but that’s too late. I will have already lost the casual browser well before they open the book.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I think I found it harder having had a contract to take 250 copies of my book, Waireka on publication, especially as the publisher did very little to promote the book except to give away a few review copies. I objected to that more than the bad reviews I received from some of these reviewers.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I guess, like most writers, I write what I personally enjoy to read, which in my case, is a mix of biographies/life stories, romance and historical romances. Crime for me would have to be the cosy type, more Agatha Christie or M.C. Beaton than Ian Rankin or Lee Child.

How has your creation process improved over time?

I have just completed a postgraduate certificate at my local university of Gloucestershire in Creative and Critical Writing and graduate in the autumn of 2021. Not only has this course given me a focus during lockdown, but it has also improved my writing with regular workshop input from lecturers and other MA students. Grammar and punctuation have been meticulously studied and rectified.

 What are your plans for future books?

Now my university course has finished, I would like to continue to write my memoirs which I began as part of my assignment submission. I am also interested in writing another historical romance. I have Irish relations too and have considered telling their story next. Alternatively, I love interviewing people and telling their stories, particularly if they are unusual, so that would also be something I would consider in the future.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.

Our family is very international and I love studying genealogy. We are even adding to that genealogy in this generation, with one son being married to an American and the other son has a Portuguese partner, a language I’m currently trying to get to grips with.

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Forgiveness and Vikings

The recent UK television series, Time, explored some interesting issues regarding prisons, crime and forgiveness. As you watched the three part series, you were able to put yourself in the place of the main character, excellently played by Sean Bean. He had killed a cyclist through drink driving and left the scene of the accident. In prison now, not only is the family of the man he killed unable to forgive him, he is unable to forgive himself, haunted by what he has done. Forgiveness is a hard issue. Fellow Dutch writer, Maressa Mortimer, deals with this self same issue in her novella, Viking Ferry. I have asked her a few questions about the book.

Maressa Mortimer

Your book deals with the whole subject of forgiveness and how hard it sometimes is to forgive those who have mistreated us or misused us. It’s a huge topic, especially for the Christian. Can you comment?

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about forgiveness. We can forgive someone, until we remember another detail, and we’re angry all over again. I think it is a bit like grief, not a one off thing. It’s certainly easier said than done, and sometimes I think we are afraid that forgiving someone means there won’t be consequences, which isn’t true. Often we think of reasons why we shouldn’t forgive, and the book’s idea of not being sure if the characters are real or not, seems like a good excuse for harbouring anger!

Why did you decide to write a book about the Vikings? What is your interest in this period of history and how did you do that research?

I used to read a Viking series in the Netherlands, which is an amazing couple of books. I wondered what would happen if you woke up on the ferry and then found a bunch of Vikings. I got more interested in them and read quite a lot about them. I’m now doing a course about Vikings.

Did you research the language they would have used ? I loved the way in which you slipped in words like ‘Holmgang’ and Trälinna.

Yes, I love languages. It turns out, there were different words for slaves, depending on the jobs they did.

Are your main characters Marieke and Gunilla, Erika and Ingeborg based on anyone in particular?

Not really. Marieke’s hair is inspired by a wonderful friend, who helped me with hair care and what you should and shouldn’t do with very curly hair!

In Chapter 4 you mention the arrival of the horses. Marieke seems very afraid of the horses. Is this fear yours or just hers?

I’m not over keen, but I know various people with a fear of particular animals, so I decided to use that.

Ingeborg seems to be Marieke’s main form of communication. Do we know how she learnt her English or is this all part of the fantasy? She is certainly Marieke’s means of escape.

Yes, I’m not quite sure where Ingeborg came from. She might turn up in my next Viking Series that I’m plotting, in which case Viking Ferry is a minor spin-off!

You also mention Marieke’s dislike of porridge. Is this something you also dislike?

I really can’t stand porridge, never could… My children and husband love it, so I do make it, as long as I don’t have to touch it. Literally!

Did you research Marieke’s clever swimming technique with her bag and coat out of the water? Maybe it’s something you have tried?

In the Netherlands, swimming with belongings or fully dressed etc, is part of your swimming certificates.

What is nasi goreng? I’m sure your readers would love to know.

It’s a delicious Indonesian rice dish, with spices and vegetables and usually pork. It can be very spicy. It is also made in the Dutch Antilles and Suriname.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I thoroughly enjoyed writing the book. So much so that I’m now researching and plotting a Viking Series, which will also include time travel. Learning more about the Vikings has been very interesting, especially as to how Christianity affected them.

Maressa has also written three other books. Her first, Sapphire Beach, was published by Onwards and Upwards but her Elabi Chronicles series – Walled City and Beyond the Hills were set in an imaginary fantasy world.

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When this is all over…

This book of poems and prose from writers across the world has just been published and I’m happy to say that I’m one of the selected writers for my poem ‘A Piece of Thyme’ written about the first meeting between my sons and their partners during lockdown. We met up during the summer of 2020 when we all had a brief period of getting together before things became even worse than they had before! A brief period of normality with restrictions.

I heard about this project, whose funds all go to a local hospice via one of the editors, Jan Moran Neil, a lady who was previously interviewed for the Association of Christian Writers magazine in 2009, when she discussed her passion for the theatre. Jan and I have kept in touch since. I recommend as many as possible buying a copy of the book, not because my poem is in there but because it supports such a worthy cause. It has been over a year in the making and is available on Amazon in both book or kindle form.

My poem is shared below.

The Piece of Thyme

This piece of thyme is all I have left of the time
we spent together in the walled Victorian garden
at Hughenden. We could not touch because of
coronavirus, simply bash elbows for our contact
even though you, my children, adults now, 
I longed to hug you, kiss you, hold you with
a mother's love. This virus has separated us. 

You in your worlds of computers and medicines
and I in mine, dreaming, thinking, wishing, writing
about what could have been, should have been
if things were normal. But what is normal now
as we live through a pandemic of global proportions? 
We laugh and joke and take our photos, socially distanced, 
marking the moment, this moment in time when we
walked together, yet spaced apart.  

I kiss the air of these embraced moments, 
our moments in the sun as I press the piece of thyme 
stolen from the garden to my heart
as I would have pressed you if I could. 
But the moment now has passed like the thyme. 
All I can do now is hold you in my heart, 

praying for better days. 

I hope you enjoy reading it.

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My University course’s ending

After almost a year’s hard study, I handed in my last assignments last week. Hooray. Now I just have to wait for the marking and then, hopefully, in the autumn, a graduation. I certainly feel that my writing has improved a bit rubbing up against some really talented young writers. Following the submissions, we all celebrated our achievements with a lovely sunny picnic on our university campus. What a lovely weather!

As you can see from most of the above photographs, I have been by far the oldest student. Old enough to be the mother of most of the above. But, as they say, it’s never too late to learn. I have learnt so much about many things, particularly punctuation and ‘show and not tell’ – I’ll try and remember, Duncan! The course has also started me down the path to writing up my memoirs for my boys, having realised that there is so much about my parents childhoods that I never learnt and now never will. I also have had the privilege of learning about so many well known poets and writers in our beautiful county of Gloucestershire, both past – Ivor Gurney, the Dymock Poets, Laurie Lee and present – Angela France, Adam Horovitz. I have enjoyed reading many books I might not have otherwise thought to read and read some I don’t wish to read again, but I feel the wiser for the process. Now as we all go our separate ways in the world, I’m not sure where my writing will take me next. Suffice it to say that this last year has been both an interesting, rewarding and useful experience. I have also got to meet some amazing people for which I am truly grateful.

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Recently on Facebook, a little message has come up saying – who would you most like to meet and dine with in history? There are so many interesting writers and artists I would have liked to have met. Jane Austen is probably near the top of my list, along with Constable (poor and tortured in love for a lot of his life), Coleridge, Gerald Manley Hopkins, L.M. Montgomery, I could go on….

But what about Jesus? Suppose you received an actual invitation to dine with Jesus. Would you go? What would you say to him? How would you behave? This is exactly what happens to Nick Cominsky in the book, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger.

A New York bestseller, this has to be one of my favourite ‘Christian’ books ever. Probably because its not ‘religious’ in any sense of the word, its just two men having a rather nice upmarket dinner in an Italian restaurant talking about the issues of life and things they struggle with. The conversation seems normal and interesting. Jesus comes across as a regular guy. Well, yes, he is American, but the book is set there, so this seems reasonable.

I have just discovered that there is also another book in the series entitled ‘A day with a Perfect Stranger’, which features Nick’s wife meeting with Jesus on a plane.

Perhaps you think this is a bit too much of a coincidence? I think I would agree. The first book is definitely the best. There is even a DVD on Amazon of the dinner, entitled ‘A Perfect Stranger’, although I’m not quite sure why the film makers have substituted Nicola for Nick. Who knows? But worth checking out. It’s free to view if you are an Amazon prime member but won’t cost much if you’re not.

So what do you think? Would you like to have dinner with Jesus? You may not have Nick or Nicola’s privilege of dining with the actual person of Jesus but in the Bible Revelation 3 verse 20, Jesus says – “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”

Food for thought this month!

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Loss and Death

The loss of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving consort in history, has been an event with worldwide significance. The funeral last Saturday, 17 April, was watched across every corner of the world, especially countries in the commonwealth group of nations. But although significant for the nation, how much more significant was his death and funeral to his immediate family, especially to his wife of 73 years, our Queen Elizabeth II? To her, he wasn’t just the public figure at her side for all of her reigning years, 1953 till the present day, but a dearly beloved husband, the only one to call her ‘Lillibet’. Quite simply, the love of her life. What words can answer that grief? She, who over the years has dispensed so many 100 birthday cards yet denied sending one to her beloved, dying just two months short of the date.

Perhaps only the poignant words of poet, W.H. Auden’s poem somewhat explain the inexplicable -:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Of course, there is still good. Prince Philip had a strong Christian faith, like the queen and so although she mourns his loss, she knows that one day she will see him again.

In my book, Waireka, Eliza loses the love of her life, Robert, to cancer at a much younger age but she is similarly distraught, especially as, unlike the queen, she can’t even attend his funeral to say ‘goodbye’. Informed after the event by his wife, Mary.

“Robert, dead or alive, would always be a part of her life. He would be in her every waking thought and prayers until she went up to be with him.” (p 218, Waireka)

Available either from me, or Amazon UK, or from Amazon US, Book or e-book.

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Easter Greetings

Wishing all my friends and followers a very Happy and Blessed Easter whether you’re meeting up with family members or friends at long last or anticipating that meet up very soon. I have just a short message this time, by quoting from a published poem of mine. An Easter Haiku.

Nail Scarred hands
Crucified, left to die
That first Good Friday.

Dying for you and me
His separation from the Father
Love pierced him through

Blood running like water
Pouring out new life
He paid the price.

No end to this story
Rising again in glory
And death itself, died.

This Easter Haiku was published in ‘Stones before the Ocean’ An anthology of past and modern poets edited by Daniel Paul Gilbert.

This book is available from Amazon UK or Amazon US

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The Cheltenham Festival

These packed stands are not an image we will see this year 2021 during Covid times. I have fond memories of working here several years running very hard work but rewarding. The thrill of the odd glimpse of the finish post, of making a cup of tea for AP McCoy or getting racing tips from Richard Johnson or Ruby Walsh in my clients box – not that we were able to use them, we were just there to serve the client and his guests. Then, hosting race goers from the UK and Ireland over the last 7 years for bed and breakfast, again hard but rewarding work. We will certainly miss them this year.

I have used my experience of the racecourse both as a spectator and as part of the working team there in the scene in my first book, Alpha Male.

As a journalist and reporter at the Alpha Course, Craig is able to use his friendship with one of his local paper’s sports reporters to get some free tickets for an evening event at the racecourse. However, things don’t quite turn out at the event as Amy and her friend Kate expect when they find out they have other female guests of Craig in competition for his attentions. Amy manages to have beginners luck and backs a winning horse but the whole evening is a disappointment with Craig spending very little time with her or paying her much attention.

“Amy felt despondent in spite of her win and was inclined to go straight home, queues or no queues but decided it would be rather mean-spirited of her not to offer to buy a round of drinks with her winnings.” On her way home with her friend, Kate, Amy gives vent to her tears of anger and humiliation. (p21)

“he’s nothing but a shallow flirt…How humiliating to be made to look foolish by those girls. I dare say he thinks us foolish too, a couple of silly little religious nutters.” (p22)

It’s great that as writers no experience we have goes to waste but can all be used as fodder for our writing.

Alpha Male is available on Amazon UK in both print or kindle form from as little as 99p and on Amazon US in both print and kindle editions

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Births – modern and past

Recently my family faced a difficult situation with my niece giving birth. She was due to have her twins by epidural mid-February, a month early, which is apparently normal. However, just a few days before this scheduled date, she suffered pain and blood loss which necessitated a quick trip to hospital in the middle of the night. The twins were delivered while my niece was under general aesthetic. Again it seems, not uncommon when the mother’s life is in danger and one of the twins was struggling to survive in the womb.

Thankfully, after a few days of the little boy being in intensive care and mum and female baby in a high dependency ward, all was well. The little boy joined his mum and sister and within another few days, all were home, well and thriving. But what would have happened in the same situation a hundred or two hundred years earlier without all our modern medical advances? It could well have been a different story. Without forceps, vendeuse, epidural injections or even general aesthetics, many mums died in birth, especially if the baby was breech or couldn’t be delivered by normal means.

Then, even if the baby survived birth along with the mother, they could easily succumb to childhood ailments for which there was no cure.

In my novel, Waireka, Eliza suffers the death of two of her children, first Alister and then Margaret.

“At just three months old, following an abnormally cold winter, baby Alister caught a nasty cold. Eliza nursed him vigilantly day and night but little Alister’s condition seemed only to worsen…Eliza had tried various procedures to get the baby’s temperature down, although he wouldn’t take any medication. Before too long, baby Alister’s body had grown limp in her arms like a rag doll until she failed to get any response at all.” (Chapter 5 pp 90-91)

“Margaret continued to thrive until she began to teethe. With the advent of teething she caught a nasty cold that went to her chest. Eliza began to relive those fearful days with baby Alister as she nursed the baby day and night…Alister had said that every couple could expect to lose one child, but two? Eliza couldn’t face going through that again.” And yet she did.

With each succeeding birth, the only comfort Eliza is given from her husband, Alister is – “We must be grateful, Lizzie, that you’re just safely delivered in this rough climate.”

This was even more true in some of the undeveloped pioneering countries where medicines and doctors were scare, than in Britain in the nineteenth century, but Britain wasn’t that safe either. A woman took her life in her hands in giving birth and at a time when a large family of ten or more children was normal, this was the case for her multiple times in her life.

How grateful we should be for current medical advances!

You can get a copy of Waireka via my website books page at or by visiting Amazon or if you live in the US the link is

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The diary of Isabella M Smugge – Ruth Leigh

Isabella is a modern social media type of Bridget Jones. Did you borrow the idea of your character from Helen Fielding? It honestly never occurred to me. The Diary of Bridget Jones is one of my favourite novels, so it may well be that my subconscious was shouting “Go on, Ruth, borrow a bit of Bridget for the Age of Influencers!”

Did this influence your choice in making it a diary? Very quickly, I decided that Isabella’s story was best told in diary form. I think this is probably because some of my all-time favourite novels are written in this style. The Sacred Diary (Adrian Plass), The Diary of a Nobody, Adrian Mole, The Diary of a Provincial Lady – there’s a certain informal way of writing and it gives you a natural story arc. It gives the author a chance to make subtle changes to the characters as they write.

Is Isabella modelled on anyone in particular, yourself, siblings, close friends etc? Or is she modelled on a type of upper middle class country dwelling woman? This is a question I asked myself mid-write. I couldn’t think of anyone remotely like her that I’d ever met. I was on the phone to a dear friend down in Cornwall, I mentioned Isabella to her, described her and said, “I just can’t think who she’s meant to be.” Kath said, “I’ll tell you who she is, Ruth. She’s all those mothers we used to see at toddler group who made us feel completely inadequate. The ones that breezed in, fully made up, smiling, having lost all the baby weight and not covered in weird stains. The woman who made me feel that I was failing at everything. She’s exactly the opposite of me, that’s for sure.

Isabella seems like the eternal optimist, at least until later on in the book. Would you say that this is you? Undoubtedly. I am ludicrously optimistic, to the point of complete denial. House on fire? Never mind, I don’t have to worry about the dusting. Cataclysmic floods? Oh well, I expect it’ll be better tomorrow.

Each section of the book is followed by a twitter handle. Real or imagined? Oh, completely imagined! The irony is that I am the opposite of social media savvy Isabella. I do Twitter and Instagram because I have to, but it doesn’t come naturally. I have a deep-seated loathing of hashtags, which makes it all the funnier that I ended up creating so many for the book.

What about Issy’s husband, Johnnie is he modelled on anyone in particular or the au-pair, Sofija? Johnnie is your classic City Bad Boy. I suppose bits of him come from my years working in London. Sofija, is completely made up. She’s Latvian because we’ve got some Latvian friends in the village and it gives Isabella the chance to show that she’s not that sensitive by mixing up Lithuania and Latvia, two completely different countries.

I liked the way in which you subtly weaved in Issy’s friendship with the vicar’s wife, Claire and her husband, Tom. Were you trying to tease your readers with a good image of Christians and the church, especially in the character of Claire and her background? Indeed, I was. I’ve spent years having chats in the playground, in clubs, bars, restaurants, at parties about my faith, but only when people bring it up. I specialise in being real about it all, not trying to present myself as holy and perfect (coz I ain’t!) and it was important to me that Claire and Tom were normal people, albeit from wildly differing backgrounds who were brought together and lived out their faith in a small rural village. For years, I’ve said that all churches should have a poster outside which reads, “May Contain Nuts.” Church is a cross-section of society with all kinds of backgrounds.

Were you aiming at a book that you could happily give to anyone regardless of their view of the church and Christians? I suppose I was. It’s classed as Christian fiction, but what I didn’t want to do was write a book where everyone miraculously becomes a Christian on the last page and they all live happily ever after. That’s not how life works. It’s messy and disappointing with lots of loose ends and unanswered questions.

Although there are similarities with the book and the Diary of Bridget Jones, there is very little bad language in your book, and a lot of depth of character and emotional content. Was this intentional? No. It wasn’t! When I sent over the original MS to Instant Apostle, the reader’s report came back saying it was full of bad language! I was a bit taken aback, but out came all the “crap” and “effing” and “badass”. Characters like Liane Bloomfield swore like troopers, because they would, but with IA’s policy on language, I had to be much more creative and I think the book is better for it. I hope so. I wanted to show who these people were, and it was easy to do that using Issy’s voice, especially as she gets so much wrong.

The backstory of Issy’s parents and her relationship with her sister, Suze, is an evidence of this depth. Was this your intention in weaving in these characters? Yes, it was. When I was writing chapter one, I kept asking myself, “How did she get this way?” I was going back in time to find little Bella Neville and her sister. They had to be extremely close, almost the two of them against the rest of the world, and why was that? Hence, I wrote their parents’ difficult marriage which affected them both so much. Isabella often gets through life by covering her pain.

Like Bridget Jones diary, there are so many ‘laugh out loud’ moments in the book. Does humorous writing come naturally to you? It does seem to! I’ve spent the last twelve and a half years writing fairly serious freelance articles, sometimes Christian-based, sometimes not, and it’s virtually impossible to get jokes in there. I was amazed by how easy it was to “write funny” with the novel and how many half-remembered stories and funny incidents were floating around at the back of my brain, just waiting for their place in the sun. I love it and I want to do lots more of it.

Anything else you’d like to add? I’d like to encourage other writers. A year ago, if you’d told me I would be the author of a novel, I’d have laughed in your face. I was a freelancer, all my time taken up with work and family. Suddenly, lock down happened, I lost three quarters of my work (bad) but had loads of time to write (good). Through writing a funny blog by chance for ACW which caught a few people’s imagination, Isabella was born. If it’s the right time (and lock down doesn’t seem that it should be), you can seize opportunities. I did, and I benefited hugely from the support and experience of a supportive community of other writers. Keep at it! You never know what’s going to happen next.

You left the story on a cliff hanger. Was that intentional to get your readers desperate for the next book to find out what happens? Completely intentional. I wanted people to really care about the characters and I wanted to end on Isabella considering what she really thinks about faith. She still isn’t sure, but I needed her to be in a crisis situation, hence the book ending that way.

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