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Article by Vicky Hales-Dutton | 8th April 2019

Why Kent's Still Top For Writing Talent

We’re a pretty literary lot here in Kent and East Sussex. Starting with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the 1380s, the intervening six centuries have seen a progression of literary heavyweights living, staying and writing here. And, in the digital age, whoever said that books were old tech and old hat can think again… Our new talent is thriving and book sales are booming.

It was William Caxton who brought Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims to public attention a century after they were written. The Canterbury Tales was the first work to be printed in this country, after the writer and translator – whose family owned a manor in Hadlow – established England’s first printing press in 1476. 

Since then, notable local writers include Elizabethan poet and soldier Philip Sidney (Penshurst), Vanity Fair author William Thackeray (Tunbridge Wells) and Rudyard Kipling (Burwash). Jane Austen’s Tonbridge connections are well known but she started writing Pride and Prejudice after staying at Goodnestone Park near Canterbury, while Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and The Mystery of Edwin Drood while living near Higham.  

In 1909 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame built Windlesham Manor in Crowborough where he lived and worked until his death aged 71. Virginia Woolf was very productive while living near Lewes and Bromley-born HG Wells penned The Time Machine in Sevenoaks – check out the blue plaque in Eardley Road – before building a house in Folkestone and writing The First Men in the Moon. James Bond creator Ian Fleming based Moonraker villain Drax near Cliffe, where the wartime naval intelligence officer-turned-author owned a house. 

The writing’s on the wall

Our homage to these literary giants is dotted round the county in the form of commemorative plaques. See 19th century cookery writer Eliza Action’s in Tonbridge or visit George Orwell’s in West Malling. There are several in Tunbridge Wells, dedicated to 18th century dramatist Richard Cumberland, E.M. Forster of A Passage to India fame, William Thackeray and others. 

A new generation

The literary flag has been passed to a new generation represented by Staplehurst-based Caroline Ward Vine (top), whose atmospheric Breathing Water won the 2018 Costa short story award. Former magazine publisher Caroline has recently finished a modern novel and a historical novella, for which she’s working on a sequel. “I absolutely love writing and want to make it the heart of everything I do,” she says. 

Former criminological researcher and university lecturer Mark Oldfield (right) is the author of thriller trilogy Vengeance of Memory, set in Spain. Sheffield-born Mark, who’s spent the last 30 years in Tunbridge Wells, is working on the first in a quartet of thrillers depicting a French detective hunting for a missing heiress in 1950s Vietnam. 

Despite his novels’ exotic locations, Mark draws inspiration from the Kent countryside. “Writing a novel is immensely satisfying but it is also frustrating and painful. Then things go right and all the bad stuff is forgotten. You need patience and determination,” he warns.

Here’s one for younger readers – Freddie Windsor Goes to Football is the fourth novel by mounted police officer/author Emma Toomey, who lives in Sevenoaks. The latest in this popular series about loveable police horse Freddie sees the equine hero work at a football match – and there’s plenty of fun and treats to be had…

Tips for aspiring novelists 

Here, Tunbridge Wells-based thriller writer Mark Oldfield shares some advice:

• Carefully plan the major events of the plot and locations – mind maps and cartoons can help. 

• Write every day and then edit it – a lot! 

• Be your harshest critic. 

• Read a lot, analysing what you do and don’t like, and the reasons why. 

• Know your audience. If you want to write light romances, read some – otherwise why are you writing them?  

• If you submit work to an agent, take their comments seriously. If they reject your manuscript, get over it and send it to someone else.

Is it Rudyard Kipling – or his double? 

A life-size statue of Rudyard Kipling has recently been unveiled in Burwash, East Sussex, where the author of the much-loved Jungle Book (and other works) lived for years. Local artist Victoria Atkinson sculpted the statue of Kipling sitting on a bench in the high street. “I feel very connected to this project, having lived in the area all my life and walked the fields around Bateman’s every day for the past 20 years,” says Victoria.

Chiddingstone Literary Festival: 4th-7th May

Book enthusiasts of all ages can revel in even more literary loveliness than usual as this May’s Chiddingstone Festival stretches over four days instead of three. Get set for talks and appearances by such luminaries as Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Joanne Harris, Dan Freedman, Maz Evans, Joseph Coelho, Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay and many others. Children will love the Pericles Theatre Company’s The Little Mermaid and they can try modelling with Aardman Animations, creators of Wallace and Gromit.

• Tickets cost from £6 (children) and £13.50 for adults. For more information, visit chiddingstonecastle.org.uk/literaryfestival

Booming book sales

Who said print was dead and buried? While audio books are one of the biggest growing markets (up 87% on 2014), sales of print books held steady in 2018, rising by 3% over the previous year, according to Nielsen BookScan. 

As a nation we love a crime thriller – most fiction bestsellers are now in this genre – but one of the biggest rises came from adult non-fiction, especially politics and government titles, with food and pop science also popular. 

The good news is that our children still love books – sales of children’s non-fiction grew by 30% over 2017 while youth fiction accounts for a whopping 30% of the bestseller lists, driven largely by comic author David Walliams! 

Encouragingly, too, despite the pressure on retail book chains, the number of independent bookshops continues to rise. With the county’s libraries under threat from funding shortfalls, that’s just as well... 

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