Today it’s my pleasure to introduce Fiona Taylor, who writes about and loves Dorset, the best county in the whole wide world! Read on to find out more about her book, which offers an insight into the torment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
Tell me how you came to define your writing style.
I have not consciously come up with a writing style. For me my writing style has come from past experiences that have been internalised, it’s how you think and feel. In The Sheltering Tree I have based the book on Elizabeth Standfield, a daughter of one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It takes place in Dorset in 1834 and the story follows the coming age tale of Elizabeth. One of the reoccurring themes is how the landscape plays an important part in her life. I feel deeply connected to the natural environment and I have been influenced by writers such Laurie Lee, Harper Lee and Laura Ingalls Wilder who discuss the natural world in their novels.
What is your background and how did you get into writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
I grew up in a rural village in Surrey and spent most of my adolescence planning my escape to a large city, which eventually resulted me leaving for London at eighteen. After leaving university I worked for several years in the public sector working in housing. I then decided to take a career break and travelled for a few years working on route to Australia. When I came back to England, I started working for a trade publication as an Editorial Assistant. After the birth of my children I moved to sunny Weymouth where I stopped working for a while but missed writing so much, I started writing a walking blog. In 2018 I published a local history book. The Sheltering Tree is my first fiction book.
Even though I couldn’t wait to leave where I grew up, I have found that much of my writing has been drawn on the nostalgia of my early years living in a rural village. Some of my characters in The Sheltering Tree, such as George Loveless, share characteristics of some of the older villagers that I knew as a child. Aunt Maggie is based on my own grandmother, who had a reputation for always staying cheerful despite having to feed a large family with little money.
Talk to me about The Sheltering Tree. What can fans expect from your novel?
The Sheltering Tree is based on the true story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It follows Elizabeth, a 15-year-old girl, whose father is transported to Australia in 1834 for starting a trade union. Elizabeth is left to help bring up the younger siblings as her mother struggles to cope. It is a story of struggle to survive and the fight for justice. It is aimed at young adults. The Tolpuddle martyrs is an important part of British history but has always been told from the male point of view. Women, especially working-class woman, are often absent from history so I wanted to show the hardships that they and their children had to endure so that the struggle for trade unions could be successful. I have chosen to write it from Elizabeth’s point of view as I thought it would be more interesting for young adults and the issues raised are still relevant today.
Where do you find inspiration? Are there any particular place or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
I am lucky enough to live by the Jurassic Coast and I choose to spend a lot of time walking my black Labradoodle, Mutley, along this coastline in all weathers. I find walking is a type of thinking and allows me to imagine where my characters are going next. I find I develop the story more when I’m out and about rather than when I’m sitting hunched over my keyboard.
When I hit writers block, I tend to go out for a coffee and escape by watching the world pass by. I’ve always been told that I have a fertile imagination and I only have to hear a snippet of someone’s conversation to lead me to imagine their lives, which will often get my brain ticking and acts as a stimulus to get back to writing.
How being based in Dorset – AKA the greatest place on earth- enriched your writing and your life?
The Sheltering Tree would not have been written if I had not moved to Dorset. I have a brief recollection of the Tolpuddle Martyrs from a history lesson, but it was not until I went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs Music festival in 2018 that I found out more and decided it was time to write my version.
Dorset is full of tangible memorials to the county’s historical and mythological past such Iron Age hillforts, the long barrows, Maiden Castle, Cerne Giant and much more. This history influences much of my writing. I enjoy going for long walks in different parts of Dorset and I find it the perfect way to connect with the past and a sense of continuity with past generations. Dorset is often overlooked as holiday makers head for Devon and Cornwall, but with my hand on my heart, I think Dorset is the most beautiful county. I agree with you – it is the greatest place on earth. I challenge anyone to find a better view than that of when you stand on the hills above Abbotsbury and look over the Fleet towards the sea – pure bliss. Incidentally, it remains the only county in England without a single mile of motorway.
I would find it challenging to write about a landscape that I did not know and understand. Since moving here, I have become much more concerned with the environment and how humans are so reliant on it. As agricultural labourers the Tolpuddle Martyrs would have been well aware of this. Our dependence on the order of the natural world has become more apparent in recent weeks since the onset of Covid19. I am hoping that with the restrictions in place we use this opportunity to make real changes that will benefit our future and our natural environment. On a lighter note, since the Cover 19 restrictions I have attempted to learn the ten most common birdsong, but I think I must be tone deaf as I am finding it almost impossible to distinguish between a Black Bird and a Robin.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Living in Dorset it would have to be the counties most famous literary figure, Thomas Hardy. Many of the major themes in his work, the characters and the landscapes they inhabit, are drawn from the Dorset countryside. I first became aware of Thomas Hardy when I studied Far from the Maddening Crowd for my A level English and it has remained my favourite Hardy book. He describes beautifully the contrast of the scenic but harsh realities of Dorset farming life. As this is a theme that is covered in The Sheltering Tree, I would have been keen to collaborate with Thomas Hardy on this issue.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I have started to research a fiction book set on the Isle of Portland. Once again, the novel would be set against the backdrop of the natural environment. The Isle of Portland is the southernmost point of Dorset and is connected to the mainland by Chesil Bank. It has an almost lunar like landscape with large quarries and treeless horizons, which I can’t wait to write about.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I am excitedly waiting for Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence due in September 2020. This is the follow-up to The Salt Path which is the story of Raynor and her husband’s journey along the South West coast path, as they come to terms with loss. It was beautifully written and strangely uplifting despite its content.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
One of my underlying messages of The Sheltering Tree is to show that everyone has the right to stand up and to challenge when there is something they do not agree with. Protest is a cry for help and everyone with a voice has the right to use it. Historically, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are just one example where collective action has worked to change society for the better. I hope The Sheltering Tree will inspire young adults to realise that they too can stand up for a better future.
Massive thanks to Fiona, it was great to talk to a fellow Dorset lover!