Monday 29 October 2018

Going out on a limb with Cynthia Jefferies

October's guest is Cynthia Jefferies, better known to some of us as Cindy, the name she used for her children's books.

Cynthia Jefferies is a long-established writer for children, whose work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She was born in Gloucestershire and her love of history was encouraged by regular family outings to anything of interest, from great cathedrals to small museums. Having moved to Scotland and back to Stroud, she has always made time to write and her abiding interest in Restoration England has never left her. The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is her first historical novel for adults.

Author's Website:

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan…not a jolly book for children!

There I was, making a few notes about a new story for children. The protagonist would be a comic, rather hapless, gangly innkeeper, whose village had fallen on hard times, but I just couldn’t get the story to fly.

Many writers will recognise that moment when you realise your idea is a non starter. I came at it from several different directions, but no matter how I approached it, the poor fellow simply became sadder. He obviously wasn’t cut out to be the main character in a funny story for 9-12’s, but neither would he leave me alone.

He had recently returned to England from the continent after the Restoration and had every reason to feel distraught. Even so, it was quite a stretch to get from those faltering beginnings to researching C17th Prostheses, the teredo worm and early nurserymen. All of this was needed in the novel that grew out of that insistent character, but the research that took the most time and thought was the prosthesis, in the story that became The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan.

Science Museum, London
People have been making replacements for lost limbs with various success from the earliest times. There is the ancient Egyptian big toe, enabling the wearer to manage sandals, the unsavoury Italian who replaced his lost hand with a knife, and reputedly tightened the straps holding in on with his teeth. There is also the arm owned by Gotz von Berlichingen in the C16th. Actually he had two made, both of which are on display at Jagsthausen Castle. I haven’t managed to see them, but in the great hall at Cotehele, that wonderful National Trust property on the Tamar in Cornwall, there is another, similar metal hand and forearm. Its history isn’t known, but it attracts a huge amount of interest from visitors. So much so that a few years ago money was raised to make a replica, so that the workmanship could be explored more closely without damaging the original. It is a wonderful piece of engineering. The hand can be made to open or close into a fist by means of a lever at the wrist, and the thumb can close onto the fingers, making it a truly useful replacement hand.

It was exactly what one of my characters needed.

There can be little positive to be said about losing a limb. It has to be an extreme experience, performed in a modern hospital to save a life, or happening by accident or design, hundreds of years ago. Once a limb was lost, the question must have been the same in the C17th as it is now. How best to manage the situation, both emotionally and physically? As always, top of the range solutions cost money, lots of it, and the Cotehele hand must have been expensive, affirming status as well as practicality. Covered in skin coloured suede it must, at a cursory glance, have been almost indistinguishable from a real hand. Was that only to improve grip, or also to make the wearer feel happier with his appearance? What isn’t apparent with the Cotehele hand until you pick it up is its great weight. As far as you can get from Captain Hook or Edward Scissorhands, this hand doesn’t need attachments to become useful, or indeed to become a weapon.

Neither Abel Morgan, nor his father own this hand, but it is outrageous fortune that brings them into contact with it, and its owner. From a sad character who wouldn’t leave me alone, to an artificial hand and arm, researching this novel has certainly indulged the autodidact in me. A bullet extractor, liquefaction, rumfustian and a remembered pair of shoes: writing The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan has led me down some blind alleys and has also turned up some absolute gems.

For me, the journey has been fascinating. It has launched me into a new direction, writing historical fiction for adults. I had always planned to write for adults, but the success I had some years ago with series fiction for children pushed that plan to the back of my mind. Now, at last, thanks to the insistent character that wouldn’t leave me alone, I am following my original ambition, with a second C17th novel on the way. Will I ever write for children again? I have no idea, but when a character comes along and insists on being heard, it’s the job of a writer to listen. Where that can lead is anyone’s

The outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby in hardback on 22nd November 2018 at £19.99.

(This novel will be reviewed by Adèle Geras on 7th November)


Susan Price said...

Hooray, Cindy! Just, hooray!
The book sounds great and so glad to hear that you're writing the historical fiction you always wanted to write.

Cindy Jefferies said...

Thank you Sue! It's been a long time coming but these things take their own time. It's particularly good to hear from old friends like you!

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderful news and certainly a book to watch out for at the month's end. Great to hear the story of the Cotehele arm too.
Many congratulations on finding your own 17C voice, Cynthia.

Cindy Jefferies said...

Thank you Penny!