We're always told that place has a special role to play in stories. At times, a place can take on a life of its own and feel like an extra character is lurking in the background. In her collection of stories, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire , S.C Skillman puts Warwickshire front and centre in a fascinating and surprising collection of histories, myths and mysteries surrounding the county.
From big cats prowling the countryside to gruesome tales of the healing power of a hanged man's hand, we are given an insight into a huge sprawl of humanity. I loved the stories of hauntings in pubs and taverns you can still visit today, and the idea of the 'cunning woman' of the Saxon times who carried a wealth of wisdom and experience for the entire community.
I wanted to find out how such an extensive collection of stories is researched, and how to go about publishing this kind of non fiction book. Read on to find out more.
Hall's Croft – is it haunted by a WWI nurse?
What an unusual book! You've gathered together a variety of real histories, myths and people related to Warwickshire. What was it about this place that inspired you to write the book?
My original inspiration came from a series of posts I wrote on my own blog scskillman.com, ‘Places of Inspiration’, which included many places I had visited. Not all were in Warwickshire; several were in the Cotswolds or elsewhere. After I had accumulated a number of these accounts an author friend suggested I gather them all into a book and confine myself to Warwickshire. This was how ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ came about (the book which preceded ‘Illustrated Tales’).
All the places I wrote about have what I call ‘spiritual resonance’, i.e. they arouse an emotional response, which fills you with a desire to learn about the story behind them, and the people who have been closely associated with them. With ‘Illustrated Tales,’ I had the brief to search out unusual or quirky or intriguing tales and so I looked for stories from past and present. I had great fun researching them and going deeper into each tale, and I also love finding good photographic subjects. The image and the text have a symbiotic relationship and often one influences the other in unexpected ways.
Morris dancers in Smith Street, Warwick. More to these dancers than meets the eye!
I am incredibly impressed by the amount of research that must have gone into writing your book. Which areas were the most challenging and which were the most enjoyable?
The most enjoyable research was when we attended the early morning ancient tax gathering ceremony on Knightlow Hill, and the Wroth Silver breakfast afterwards in the Queen’s Head at Bretford. As for challenges, they come in different forms. Sometimes I found what promised to be a fascinating story and began seeking individual accounts, either from people who had been there, or those who had written about it later, and then the story just vaporised, because I couldn’t find a sharp enough testimony about it. So I would simply discard the story from my book.
The story of the unsolved murder at Lower Quinton in 1945 was a bit tricky as a lot has been written and said about it, with strong opinions and some bias, but I wanted to find a different angle, or give my own slant on it. I tried to get a statement from Warwickshire Police, and they didn’t respond. Then I questioned a friend who worked there, who made a comment which I had permission to use but on an anonymous basis.
There were some recurring themes throughout the book such as the role of women – everything from the death of a woman that seems to be related to witchcraft to the importance of 'cunning' women and the woman who was behind the welfare state in this country. Why did you find yourself drawn to these stories in particular?
I hadn’t previously realised there was such a strong emphasis on women in my book, and now I see that clearly! I found these stories powerful because significant women have been written out of history for centuries, despite several times when they have held a highly respected position. Perhaps I instinctively wanted to highlight the value of remarkable women, especially where they have been underrated or betrayed.
Read the book to find out where the 'bear with the ragged staff' comes from
The other beautiful part of the book is its images. You have a variety of photos from the present day, as well as historical images and illustrations. I noticed that some of them were yours – do you have an interest in photography and how did you go about sourcing the others?
I hadn’t previously thought of myself as a photographer before I began work on these books! Some of the photos have been supplied by my son Jamie and daughter Abigail both of whom are good photographers. The more pictures I’ve taken, the more I’ve enjoyed it. Also, as I said earlier, often the image changed the way I told the story, and vice versa. The historical images I obtained online but had to be very careful to source images that were free to share and use commercially, or to ensure I asked permission to use them.
How did you go about publishing your story collection?
I first submitted my proposal to several history publishers. Of those, Amberley responded positively and felt my book would fit into one of their current series, which do cover many different English counties and cities. That was very fortunate for me because they had a gap in the series for Warwickshire!
Sheila lives in Warwick, and writes psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Authors. Her two literary nonfiction books Paranormal Warwickshire and Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire are published by Amberley, and she is now writing a third book in the series called A-Z of Warwick. Her novel, Director's Cut, is out with publishers and she is also working on Standing Ovation, the sequel. She began her publishing career with two mystery novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit which are both set in the same mysterious English manor house in the heart of England - the beautiful Cotswolds hills. There, gothic themes, paranormal events and ghostly tales are never far away. She has set the books in contemporary times, not far from her present home. She has also written Perilous Path, A Writer's Journey which is a self help book for those writing a novel, or who would like to write a novel. Packed full of tips and friendly reminders, it's encouraging and motivational. It's also for anyone who loves finding out about writers, their lives and works. Sheila was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent, and has loved writing stories most of her life. She studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and her first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later she lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to the UK. She has now settled in Warwick with her husband and son, and her daughter currently lives and works in Australia.
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