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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 100: Liz Fenwick (The Secret Shore)

Charlie and Liz Fenwick (The Secret Shore) discuss the women cartographers who were fundamental in the Allies winning the Second World War and the way women at university at the time had to choose between their career and having a family. We also discuss Liz’s love of Cornwall, her use of Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, and we go back a few times to the people who were involved in the secret flotillas that preceded the Normandy landings.

General references:
My previous interview with Liz, episode 35
Liz’s TikTok plot walk on Frenchman’s Creek
The Woman’s Hour episode including women’s intuition

Books mentioned by name or extensively:
Daphne Du Maurier: Frenchman’s Creek
Dorothy Sayers: Gaudy Night
Ernie Pyle: The Best Of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches
Liz Fenwick: A Cornish Stranger
Liz Fenwick: The Returning Tide
Liz Fenwick: The Path To The Sea
Liz Fenwick: The River Between Us
Liz Fenwick: The Secret Shore
Liz Fenwick: A Portrait Of You

Buy the books: UK || USA

Release details: Recorded 25th March 2024; published 24th June 2024

Where to find Liz online: Website || Twitter || Facebook || Instagram || TikTok

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram || TikTok


01:45 You’d wanted to write about the secret flotillas for a long time?
02:58 Women’s work in cartography in the Second World War
05:48 Furthering this discussion we go to Liz’s character, Merry, or Dr Tremayne, and begin a discussion on what Liz left out of this book
09:42 More about Merry’s work in the context of how a woman had to choose between a career and having a family, particularly in the context of Oxford University
16:06 Merry’s mother, Elise, including her story in The Secret Shore
19:46 The romance in the book, including the love story
23:00 Liz’s love and use in her novels of Frenchman’s Creek, Cornwall
25:06 Ridifarne!
27:01 Is heart or head more important?
28:16 Liz’s use of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and the character of Peter Wimsey
31:19 The real people in the book and how Liz made it all happen
33:38 All about Maurice Cohen and the mouse
35:22 The sacred wells in Cornwall
38:14 All about Liz’s plot walks, which she releases to TikTok
41:03 Does it feel strange when you’re not writing about Cornwall?
44:10 Liz’s next book, A Portrait Of You


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 100! Milestone reached! The celebrations are in full swing in the party episodes that I’ve just started releasing – this episode today will be a regular one. So, on this podcast we bring on an author and talk with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Liz Fenwick who I’m thrilled to welcome back after having talked with her about The Path To The Sea in episode 35; it has been a long time. Today we’re talking about her latest release, The Secret Shore. Dr Tremayne, or Merry to her friends, has been summoned from Oxford University to London to lend her cartography and geography skills to the war effort. The Allies are wanting to land in France safely and Dr Tremayne can help that happen. But then she’s sent to Cornwall to aid the teams working on the ground, for this reason, and this is wonderful for her because she’s originally from the area and knows it well. When she gets there however she finds her mother missing – her mother, the woman who was hiding French refugees – and so this is a mystery to add to her work. And alongside these challenges it turns out she’s not the only person reassigned to Cornwall – Jake Russell, the handsome American she met in London – is there too. But Merry can’t be doing with men for long – for her career in Oxford to flourish, she must be a single woman and any affairs must be short. Hello Liz!

Liz: Hello! That’s quite the intro [both laugh].

Charlie: No, it’s lovely to have you back again. I am gonna get straight to it. I have noticed, I believe this is correct, you will correct me or tell me if I’m right, etcetera, expand on it. The use of Cornwall in the war. You write about Cornwall a lot and it’s lovely. But you’d wanted to write about the secret flotillas for a long time?

Liz: I have. Before I was a writer, or, let’s say, before I was a published writer, my father-in-law had mentioned that there was an SOE [editor’s note: Special Operations Executive] headquarters on the river and pointed out the house, and I thought, ‘oh, wow!’ And I learned a little bit more about it, but of course, I wasn’t writing then. And when I wrote book number three, A Cornish Stranger, I thought that was going to be my book about the SOE on the Helford. Spent plenty of time researching and then wrote the book, and it didn’t fit. So it took me a while to find a way in to telling that story, and I couldn’t do it until I discovered my protagonist, Merry Tremayne. Her being a cartographer really opened up the possibilities, because the local population understood this group of men were a cartography unit, and that allowed me to tell the story.

Charlie: Okay, so, I mean, one thing that I was wondering about when I was reading was, obviously, you’re talking about women in the war in particular their roles. How far does your fiction meet the fact in the reality of the cartography and women?

Liz: That was a huge find on my part because there were so many women working as ‘map girls’, as they were generically called, as a group. It was extraordinary; and nobody’s really ever mentioned them. They worked in all aspects of geography throughout the whole war, including manning most of the Ordnance Survey department. And were not paid very much, were not treated particularly well, and were booted out as soon as the war was over, because, of course, this was men’s work. So once I got my teeth into that, I really wanted to shine a light onto the work that all these various women have done. You know, not just Merry, who was from the academic setting – they pulled in women into the cartography side of things from all walks of life. The art schools were raided for artists for their skills. And then I’ve recently met Christian Lamb, who is 103, and she actually worked on some of the maps for D-Day. She was stationed in an office under the stairs in Whitehall, diligently looking at photographs and making sure that all key things were actually on the maps so that the men landing knew what they were encountering.

Charlie: That’s wonderful, then. So there was… I mean, it sounds like you met her, Lamb, after your book?

Liz: After – I had no idea that there were any map girls still surviving. And it was a fluke, in fact, it was another reader who said, ‘oh, my god, get onto BBC Breakfast now. There’s a map girl on.’ And I did, and I, in a way, hunted her down. But in the way of things, it was a bit of a fluke because I put it on my Facebook author page and somebody tagged somebody else in it, and it turns out that he was a friend of Christian’s. The weird thing about it, mine is he had actually rented my house, the one I’m sitting in right now, in the 1960s when he was a helicopter pilot at Culdrose.

Charlie: Goodness.

Liz: So the world got very small indeed. And I did get to meet her, and she was a delight and very… kind of, in a way, dismissive of the work she did in the sense that, ‘we all played our part. Mine was no more special than anybody else’s.’ But to be honest, without maps, you can’t win a war.

Charlie: No. That’s incredible. I mean, it sounds to me if you’d met her prior to writing your book, there’s your inspiration for Merry, almost [Liz: Yep], but to have that happen afterwards is just something else entirely, yeah. Talking about Merry herself, can you tell us how you created her more about the inspirations there, and her as a character, I suppose?

Liz: I had a very different Merry in my mind when I started. In fact, it was one of those things that I ended up deleting 90,000 words from the story. So basically a whole novel got binned. Because when I write, I always know my ending. I may not know what happens in the middle, but I know my ending. And the ending I had is a cracking ending. It’s really, really good, and I will use it somewhere else! But as I was writing the story and getting to know Merry more, I realised it was an ending she would never have. And the book was due to be delivered to my editor in October, and this was in August. I had a dark night of the soul thinking, ‘oh, my god, what am I going to do? Am I going to change her to fit the ending that I had? Or was I going to trust her and write her story?’ And in the end, I loved Merry so much, I trusted her, and it’s the first time I’ve written a book without knowing how it would end.

Charlie: So I had actually considered asking you if you had any alternative endings for this book. I believe that’s probably not a good thing to ask, because if you use the ending in another book, we’re going to spoil another book that hasn’t even happened yet [Liz laughs]. And, you know we’ll spoil this, but that’s okay, I can say that lots of people have already read it, but I’m not going to go trying to spoil a book that hasn’t been written. So I suppose what I’ll say instead is, can you tell us anything about this 90,000 words, that’s okay to tell us?

Liz: I had initially imagined that Merry was the daughter of one of the big houses here and hadn’t gone the route of professional education, but was a mapmaker nonetheless. And that was initially how I envisioned her. But the more I dug into what it would take to be a cartographer, and a top cartographer at that time, the more I realised I had to tell that story because it was digging into how geography as a subject was kind of late to really take hold in the UK. The European universities had quite a bit, but in the UK and particularly at Oxford it was one of the last ones that was given its own status, if you will. It was always looked down on because it wasn’t quite a science and it wasn’t quite an art, and it didn’t fit in there. And so I began to look at what she would have had to study in the 1930s, what she would have faced. And initially in the twenties and the thirties, more women studied geography, but not necessarily to degree level. What they did was they took certificates in it after they had degrees and other things in order to teach. And then once it reached the status that it could become a degree, then men began to populate it. So I just thought I really had to tell that story as well. That was important to me, because in my writing, and when I’m looking at historical fiction in particular, I want to tell people things that they haven’t necessarily encountered before, and I also want to look at the journey of the women that came before me and what they had up against, because I don’t want that to be lost. I think sometimes in our world we forget the fights that have taken place beforehand for the world that we live in now. So that really became important to me. And Merry, although very true to her time, came across to me as a very modern woman, in all the ways she thinks about things and approaches life, but yet still true to her time, knowing she couldn’t have both.

Charlie: Yeah, you say that, I’ve got two questions that would, effectively follow up from this. I’ll go with one, though. Can you tell us more about this particular period, the war, and obviously in context with Merry, the work that she was able to do, but in terms of her situation that you remind us of a lot? You explore as a topic how she can work, but she has to choose work. She can’t choose family and work.

Liz: Particularly at Oxford at that time, part of it came down to accommodation. There was no accommodation for married women to have a family on site, unlike men. So that was one of the defining features of it. And it was in looking at contemporary women geographers to Merry at that time, if they married, they would be then chained to the kitchen and so forth, or even in some cases, they were still writing the books, but their names were never going on them any more. So you could marry, but you would lose all the gains that you had made. Now other universities were starting to allow married women into that role, but if you think about the fact that the governmental roles, once you were married, you had to leave those. Up until the sixties, that continued. It’s just one of those things that at that time, society didn’t see a way forward for you to be both married and have a career, they were just completely incompatible. And although we achieve it now, there are sacrifices we make on the other side of it by having it all, or staging it. I mean, I even look at myself and how my own career has progressed, that I had a career, and then I got married, we travelled the world, I had children. Once they were in school age, I began my career again, completely different career. I think it’s one of the things that’s still very topical now. And Merry was at the forefront of that. In a way, she had to look at her career almost like a vocation, like she was taking vows and she was going to be steadfast and true to her subject and what she wanted to achieve.

Charlie: [Agrees.] You said about the books there, that was something that I clocked on. I was like, ‘for goodness sake’, you know, ‘this is annoying’. I assume their husbands names were put on the books?…

Liz: Yes, [Charlie: yeah] yes, because inevitably, most of these women married into the academic world. And, yes, it would be the husband’s name that would go on the book. It was fascinating – after the fact, we actually tracked down some of the geographical handbooks that Merry had taken part in before she was moved to London, part of the Inter-Services Topographical Department. And there’s one woman who once she was married, her name didn’t go on in the second handbook. What’s fascinating is these are her copies of the book, and it has the letter hiring her, and it has a letter from Rear Admiral Godfrey congratulating her on the work that she’s done on this. So it’s really interesting to have that actual piece of history and see how it worked. She was not a geographer; she was just one of the researchers that helped put these books together. But again, just to see how that works. Because when I began the research for the book, there was a paper – you know, you go to the main papers that you see – and it came up a paper written in 1986 that was really comprehensive in all aspects of geography and what it did during the war; there’s only one woman mentioned by name, and that’s Mrs Godfrey. And when I read the paper, I had no idea who Mrs Godfrey was, for I knew she could have made the tea. But she’s the only woman named, not her first name, it just simply says, ‘Mrs Godfrey’. It turns out that she’s Rear Admiral Godfrey’s wife. She was one of the first women to go to Cambridge, that she was working at Bletchley Park, and she was one of the people who set up the International Services… Inter – I always get this wrong, it’s my dyslexia – Inter-Services Topographical Department. And she was really instrumental in the whole thing. But the paper never said what she did. It just mentioned her name. And when her husband was transferred and she left Oxford, they had to set up a whole department to do her work.

Charlie: Well, I mean talking of Oxford, then, specifically given the focus on Merry and the book, when were women allowed to marry, when were they allowed to be more?

Liz: That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer, because one has to put a line under the research rabbit hole [laughs] that one can go down. But it took a while. It wasn’t an immediate thing.

Charlie: It was later definitely than Mount Holyoke, [Liz: yes] certainly. Yes.

Liz: Universities in the States, particularly in how they treated map girls, was fascinating. Again, it was a rabbit hole I went into after the book was finished. And Mount Holyoke was one of the universities that had a training course for those making maps for the war. So they were much more enlightened when it came to… well, Mount Holyoke was an all women’s university, so of course they had to look forward, you know, why are you training all these women as undergraduates if they can’t go on and become full professors?

Charlie: Certainly. I mean in terms of cartography, then, when did society, the public, when did it start coming out, more about the work that women had done?

Liz: Only recently [laughs].

Charlie: Wow.

Liz: Again, digging through various academic papers – I lost count of how many I read – I would say probably about ten years ago.

Charlie: Jeez. Okay [laughs].

Liz: Oxford itself is now – the department of geography – they’re now putting a lot of emphasis in to try and track down this knowledge of what these map girls were doing.

Charlie: Yeah, sorry for my laughter, listeners. That’s actually me being absolutely flabbergasted. I mean, I’ve not come across a book that deals with the women map makers, The Secret Shore is the first one, but I had assumed maybe there was something else out there, and I think maybe yours is the first one, it’s groundbreaking.

Liz: As far as I’m aware it’s the first one. Maybe somebody’s covered the map girls in the US, but I haven’t seen anything. As I say, they were treated with more respect during their work and afterwards there, there is no question about it.

Charlie: Goodness. Okay, well, I would like to ask you also, you’ve got Merry and obviously her story is very important and for all the reasons that you’ve told us – I wanted to ask about her mother, and also specifically including her mother in this story. I got the sense when we started hearing about the mother and how she disappeared, I thought, ‘okay, I think she’s probably going to turn up and there’s going to be good stuff that’s happened there with her,’ in the context of what Merry does as well. Can you tell us the importance to you of including Merry’s mother and this storyline that goes together and all that sort of thing?

Liz: In a couple of books I think I’ve had a bad mother-daughter relationship, and in this one, I wanted a really good one where it worked and where the mother-daughter encouraged and so forth. So in creating Elise, I wanted somebody who was artistic and apparently flighty and everything else, but is made of steel. She’s just really surprising. I suppose, in a way, she kind of surprised herself. Part of me would love to go back and write her story [Charlie: yeah], and what she did in the resistance and everything else like that. But again, one of the things that hadn’t really been covered too much when you’re looking at the history, is all the refugees that ended up in Cornwall during that period. And I wanted to touch upon that a little bit? Of how the fishing community came over, but there were others as well, fleeing, and I just found that fascinating. And when you’re looking at the secret flotillas, there’s another woman who never really got the acknowledgement that she should have, which is Gerry Holdsworth’s wife, Merry. And in fact, it’s still something I can’t quite get to the bottom of. But she may have actually gone into France herself as well. But it’s one of those things that you kind of come up against a brick wall, and there’s only so far you can do it. The flotillas themselves, they brought the French leader who came over… de Gaulle? Yes. And the bringing of the family out and how many trips they went over and all of that stuff. So it was kind of a way, by making Elise French and giving that whole side of it, because when I had done the 90,000 words before, I wanted to deal with the fact that she was an outsider. And it had a different twist to it at the time – she still disappeared and did things, but it was just different. And in the end, I think it worked really well, how I managed to pull it all back together. Yes! The disappearance of her mother and the suspicion in a small community.

Charlie: Well, I’m totally here for a book on Elise, if you write it [Liz laughs], certainly that would be very interesting. I suppose something I can ask on these 90,000 words is, will it be a fairly different book to this one?

Liz: Yes. I would say, in a way, it would be a more romantic book.

Charlie: Okay.

Liz: It stems from a true story I was told about somebody who had met and fallen in love with an American. And I’ll leave it at that because I would like to use it again, it is a cracking ending. And I can think of possibilities for using it again. And I can also think of possibilities for using some of the – not necessarily connected with that ending – but a lot of the writing that I did, I picked it up recently, is really good, and I’m thinking of a way of reusing that and the imagery and the landscape and that sort of thing.

Charlie: Fantastic, well, I’m there for that one as well, yeah [Liz laughs]. We will see what happens in the future. So, I mean, you’ve talked about the romance of your 90,000 words. That’s exciting. But talking about the romance in this book, and I know it’s going to fit in with various other things you’ve said so far, but can we concentrate on that and speak about the importance to you of including this love story?

Liz: I don’t think Merry’s battle to become a professor or anything else would have been quite as interesting unless you saw what she had to give up. So that is why – one of the reasons the love story is integral – but I always love a love story. For me, no matter what I’m reading, crime or anything else, I’ll always latch on to the love story to see what’s going. That’s just my own personal thing. And I thought it was interesting to explore a slightly different love story in that she always has it with a sell by date. That’s the way I look at it! Whatever relationship she gets into, it has an end, and she knows that right at the beginning, which is a very interesting way to think and to work. So I enjoyed exploring that because she was clearly attracted to Jake. And then how was she going to deal with this? Well, maybe if she has a quick fling, that’ll [laughs] get it out of her system, you know? So that was fun to play with.

Charlie: I mean, I liked the whole thing of, ‘oh, who’s a spy?’ [Liz laughs.] That sort of thing. And I liked how you had his journalism and you actually included the articles in the book. And I know – I noted, I’m guessing you you expected people to note that one of the articles let us know early that he hadn’t died, which I liked. I thought that was a good use of foresight. But what was the reason, the importance, that sort of thing, of including these articles in the book?

Liz: I wanted his voice. Because the book’s told in the first person, and we are in Merry’s head the whole way, I just thought it provided a nice little bit of balance. And there was a war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, and I read his dispatches from London, and it was very instrumental in bringing the Americans on side, that sort of thing. And so I had a lot of fun writing Jake’s dispatches, it’s one of my favourite parts, and I just felt it just gave a nice contrast to just have a little glimmer of Jake – obviously, he’s sharing only a certain side of himself. So that was quite fun. And I also like the fact that she was quite disdainful of it because it was kind of chatty, you know? You know, here she is, this academic, this bluestocking, and, Jake has his own academic credentials, obviously, but the tone that he chooses in the dispatches, I found rather fun. It was fun to write, to take a look at that whole time in his head. You know, what was he seeing? What were his reactions to the world? Because when I did the research for The Returning Tide, which is also set in World War Two, I remember reading the handbook that was given to Americans, talking about when they come over and the warm beer and the differences to expect. So it was fun to look at it from Jake’s point of view. Of course, for myself, being an American, having made Cornwall my home, it was kind of fun to play with that.

Charlie: Well, given that you’ve said about Cornwall and Frenchman’s Creek, I think I’ll ask about that now, and then I’ll go back to another question that’s going to link us with the romance. So, yeah, obviously, you live in Cornwall, and you are incredibly passionate about it; that is in all your novels and everything you do and everything I’ve seen of you online. And you do have a particular interest and passion for Frenchman’s Creek, and that’s in this book. Your love for that, your use of it, that sort of thing, if that makes sense?

Liz: There’s a lot of reasons that I love it. The first time I came to Cornwall, we came to my husband’s parents, and their house is not far from Frenchman’s Creek. So it was one of the first walks I took in Cornwall back in 1989. It is also where my husband proposed. So it is a place that is deeply close to my heart. But I also find it such an evocative place. And I didn’t read Frenchman’s Creek, the novel, until after I had visited the place and stuff like that. And I always feel that in that novel, her description just captures that area. And I will never be able to do what she has done but for me, I cannot get enough of Frenchman’s Creek. So having rented the cottage – I’ve actually rented both cottages that are there, the one that’s on the mouth and the one that’s at the beginning of the Creek- and staying there, you get a completely different feel for it. But I’ve walked it in every mood. I mean, I’ve been in the rain, I’ve been when the tide’s in, when the tide’s out, all those things, so that you just feel its personality and the history that comes to light the more time you spend there. Just a magic place. Just always inspiring. I’m not saying that The Secret Shore is the last book I’ll write about Frenchman’s Creek.

Charlie: No, no, more of them are nice. I mean, yeah, you put your TikTok video out after this book was out, but I’ve read it recently, obviously, in order to interview you. And I have to point listeners to your plot walk – I think it was a plot walk or a mini documentary, I’m gonna say, of Frenchman’s Creek, which can be found on Instagram and TikTok, and I’ll link it there because that was lovely. And I mean, you say about the cottages, I know some part of Cornwall, but not the area that you know, and I certainly haven’t lived there. So I don’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge. But I looked up Ridifarne. Can you tell us about these different properties and locations?

Liz: Okay. Ridifarne is rather special, and it was owned at the time of the war by the Bickford Smiths, who were the people who developed the fuse. And in a funny twist of fate, the people that own it now, originally, they’re from Falmouth, although they’ve travelled the world over. His family owned one of the quarries that’s just outside Falmouth, and they used the Bickford Smith’s fuses when they were detonating things. So it is pretty much – although it’s been updated – untouched. And the current owners have been so delightful, entertaining me over there a couple of times while I got a feel for the house. Because for me, I’m so used to looking at the Helford from the south side. And it is a very different feeling when you’re on the north side of Helford, looking across. So that was probably the biggest thing I had to get my head round on this, because Ridifarne sits there quite proudly on the river. It looks quite impressive when you’re looking at it from the south, but it’s actually quite cottagey and homey on the inside compared to some of the grander properties that are around. Yes, people can rent Ridifarne. I wanted to, but I was unable to get in there in time to book it when I needed to do the research. So, fortunately, when the owners were in there, they took me around their gardens, fed me tea, and told me what history they knew. I think one of the nicest things was when I brought the finished copies of the book over, the next people coming in after us was actually Brookes Richards’ son.

Charlie: Wow.

Liz: Yes. So it’s kind of nice that some of these people are still around and about.

Charlie: That’s really cool. Yeah, certainly I’d like to go there as well, it’s lovely. Yeah, I’m gonna reel us back now a little bit [Liz: okay] where we were talking about before, and when I said, I’m gonna move on. Heart or head more important?

Liz: Ooo! [Laughs.] I think heart, in the end, is more important.

Charlie: Okay.

Liz: Merry might not agree with m [laughs], but I think heart is very important. I think that… oh, god. What was it?… I was listening to Woman’s Hour, and they were talking about women’s intuition. And I didn’t get the whole thing because I was driving at the time, but I was listening to it. And I think women’s intuition – although the person was saying, we’ve been forced to develop it by the way that we’ve been treated and acting, so it’s quite an interesting thing – that a lot of it is based on gut or heart, and we’ve developed these instincts and they’ve kept us alive and they’ve kept us safe and all those things. So I think in the end, heart is marginally more important than logical head.

Charlie: That’s interesting. I had not come to a conclusion at the end of the book which one was the more important from the writing perspective, I suppose, I was thinking it was going to be head, it was going to be head, and then obviously we do have a reason for heart in the novel. I wanted to talk about your use of Dorothy Sayers novels [Liz: oh!] and Peter Wimsey, because I did not know much about Dorothy Sayers – I knew her name – but I’ve obviously since researched it, and I was like, ‘okay, I need to research this because there is something big here that Liz Fenwick is doing’. So I just want you to talk about your use of her novels and the characters, their influence on your plot and your characters.

Liz: One, I adore that book, Gaudy Night, in particular. But I just love the fact that Peter Wimsey, he allows Harriet to be who Harriet is and allows her to continue. And that just had so much resonance, especially as it was published at a time that it would have been something that Merry was reading. I find when I’m writing historical fiction, it’s always good to read novels that were published at that time to understand what people were thinking about. I managed to get hold of a wonderful early copy that was published during the war. So it’s not a first edition, but it’s a beautiful cover on it that’s so simple. The title, its white paper, you know, no pretty pictures, nothing else. Just ‘another Lord Peter Wimsey novel’. But I just thought it was an interesting contrast for Merry, who had fallen in love with Peter Wimsey and thought she’d found one in George and then realised that, no, he didn’t want what Wimsey did. And then to meet a man who had actually read Sayers and had a take on it and in a way became her Peter Wimsey. So that was what I was trying to do by evoking that book, was that there were people around that time, there were women who were very modern, that had the Oxford connection and could still find love.

Charlie: Obviously, you’re focusing on the book because that’s what was around at the time that you’re writing about. Was there any adaptations that influenced you at all or anything like that?

Liz: The only thing that I did that influenced me is I went to the Imperial War Museum to access recordings of the various men. And there was also some cine film, and it hadn’t been digitised, so I paid for it to be digitised, and that really gave me a sense of the camaraderie around the teams of men and the joking. And there’s even some footage of them getting the small boats onto the shore in Brittany. It was after D-Day, and they went and they met a lot of the secret agents on the beach – it’s a fantastic piece of footage, which I can’t share because it would be considered commercial if I did; I only paid for personal research use, but it is exquisite. So that inspired me.

Charlie: Okay, well, I’m going to ask on that. Yeah, I mean [laughs] I finished your book and I thought about Sayers, and I actually just want to do an analysis of how you’ve used this, it was just… I was like, wow, you know, [Liz laughs] you’ve done so much here. But on your note there of research, I figured as I was reading it that you had real people in here. I didn’t want to research the history before I read your book, so I did do that afterwards. And then you’ve said today, you’ve said about Mary Holdsworth, you said Brookes Richards, can you tell us about your use of real people in the book, how you’ve made it happen, I suppose?

Liz: Well, it was one of the big decisions after I had got the first draft, if you will, of the book that eventually came to be, I had a long chat with my editor. In fact, I had a chat with her at the beginning because she knew that Ian Fleming was going to be in it. And she said, ‘do you really need to do that?’ Because she’d worked with the estate. And I said, ‘yeah, actually I have to, because historically he was involved’. And so that in itself, to try and find enough information to make him a human being as opposed to the character that we all know. So that was tricky. But then I had the names of many of these men who actually served, and the son and daughter of Tom Long live locally here, and they had a recording of him talking about his experiences on it. So that was quite fun because he’s the only one, I could really use his words periodically. So I felt in order to honour them – because they were so brave, they risked everything and they were so frustrated – that I would do that. And I remember when I got the proof pages and the opening of the book says, ‘there are no real people, da da da da da’. And I went to my editor, I said, ‘wait a second!’ And so she went to the lawyers, and the lawyers say, actually, my author’s note covers everything that I need to say, you know, that it is fiction, I’m using their names and so forth. It’s the least I could do, they did so much.

Charlie: Well, yeah. And I mean, it’s not like you’re saying they’re awful people or anything, is it? You know, you’re being respectable and, yeah. Honouring who they were.

Liz: Yeah. Oh, the wonderful thing of – talking about Brookes Richards and the owners of Ridifarne – there was a reunion and they all came back with the Mouton, the French sailing boat. And he walked into the sitting room and he said, ‘ahh, I remember pink gins at six’. And that’s where that came from. It just gives a sense of place and time and people.

Charlie: So there was one thing that I noted on someone else. You’ve got… Maurice Cohen, that was it, Mo Cohen [Liz agrees]. And I read the part where the kids give the mouse to him, and I was like, ‘oh-kay, don’t like where this is going. Please don’t bunk off the mouse, kill the mouse’. And then you didn’t, and I went [lets out a breath]. I struggled with that because I thought… there was just something in me that said, I don’t think that Liz Fenwick would make a decision to kill off this mouse, because it’s just… yeah, it’s sad. And then I found out you didn’t kill off the mouse, and you actually had this whole thing in the acknowledgments about that, I think about —

Liz: Well I did kill off the mouse!

Charlie: Sorry, no, I worded that wrong. You’re right. Umm, that it was a real thing that happened. You followed the history. You didn’t decide.

Liz: Yes, yeah. For me, Mo and the mouse is the heart of the book [Charlie agrees]. And I have tried to dig around to try and find out who he was or what his code name was or really any more detail, but it is something that Tom Long spoke about, and it was something he told his children about. So possibly the two young boys might still be alive, and maybe I could find out more that way, I don’t know. I mean, that would be trying to track down their father, who was real, that was based in Guernsey and all that stuff. But no, Mo and the mouse is a true story.

Charlie: Yeah, I did note that you said in your acknowledgments, or author’s note – I think it was your author’s note – that, yeah, we don’t know what happened about Mo. You couldn’t find out, so he hopefully, I suppose, we hope he was successful.

Liz: I know the second mouse was delivered to him, so he was at least alive for that point, but put in the hands of somebody more capable of getting on and off a boat! [Both laugh.]

Charlie: It’s true. Yeah, very true. So you’ve got these sacred wells [Liz agrees], and I think you’ve said, I think I’ve actually copied down what you’ve said in your notes, ‘The Cornish are,’ no! I think it’s Merry that said that. I can’t remember! But, ‘the Cornish are a people of deeply held beliefs, which they found and died for’. And I suppose I just wanted to ask you, can you talk more about these, the wells? Can you talk about the whole concept, how you’ve used it in the book?

Liz: Well, you can’t go very far in Cornwall without finding a holy well of some sort. And, how it’s been used, from pre-Christianity the whole way through, is a place of healing. It’s a place of prayer. It is a place to put your wishes; I mean, some places call them clootie trees, which is the Scottish ones, or wish trees. And I think for me, looking at the history of religion in Cornwall, it’s just fascinating how it’s moved from pre-Christianity through Christianity, through the crackdown on Catholicism, which the populace was really hurt by because it catered to their mysterious side. And when they changed that and took away a lot of their rituals and mysteries, the wells continued nonetheless – they couldn’t take them away, they still continued. And if you go to any of the holy wells that people can find, you will still find little bits of fabric tied or little things hanging nearby. So I find them very spiritual places. Because you can feel – oh, this makes me sound weird – but you can feel the energy of the belief that has been in that place. I mean, when I think about it, because I haven’t really probed when John Wesley came and how that affected the wells, but clearly they remain, and, people are still visiting them, so I find that intriguing. But any place that people have worshipped or prayed, I think there’s a certain energy that remains around them.

Charlie: Yeah, no, absolutely, I’d agree. I mean, yeah, it’s just got so much history and the spirituality history and, yeah. I haven’t been to many places in Cornwall, certainly not since I’ve been a child, but I’m certainly going to see if I can find some, because you just list this… I think you say in the book, there’s quite a few of them, I think Merry, when she’s talking to Jake [Liz agrees]… so, yeah, something I’d definitely like to see, yeah.

Liz: Yeah, no, there are. There’s a wonderful book I have somewhere that is nothing but holy wells in Cornwall. It’s a lovely picture book somewhere in this house [laughs] on them, and it’s just fascinating. I probably should make a list and see how many I can visit.

Charlie: That would make an interesting TikTok video [laughs].

Liz: Yes, it would. Actually, I should probably make a TikTok video going over to that particular well, because it’s not that far from here.

Charlie: Yeah, no, that’d be cool. I mean, okay, given the TikTok and I’ve brought it up, I’m going to switch my questions around here. You’ve got a great TikTok channel, and I’ve loved seeing your plot walks. Can you talk about, I suppose, your plot walks and recording them and, yeah?

Liz: [Laughs] well, in a way, I record them anyways because on Twitter, long before TikTok came, I would post four pictures from my plot walk. It acts for me also as a good reminder of the natural world as it evolves in the year. Because so much of my writing is grounded in Cornwall, it’s important to me that I know – like I had a debate with my editor [laughs] when I spoke about Merry and the fact that the foxgloves were up. And she said, ‘they come in June’. And I said, ‘they may come in June in Surrey [chuckles]’. And I then whipped up and sent her four photos I had taken that very morning of them blooming or just about to pop down here. So that aspect of plot walk is also reminding me and connecting me to the land and the feeling. But when I’m working on a book, any rhythmic type of activity frees up the subconscious, and I can be out there thinking about my shopping list and the cobwebs that I need to clear from the house, and just by the process of walking, all that that’s in my head will click together, I’ll think, [takes a deep breath] ‘yes, that’s it. That’s what I need to do’. Quickly grab my phone, email myself with that sort of thing. So it is a very integral part of my writing process. Sometimes on half of it, I’ll have an audiobook of a writing craft book, which will take me in a different direction and ask me questions which will then make me question the story that I’m writing at the time – that’s another aspect of it. But there is something about the rhythmic thing of walking, the big sky above you, be it wet or dry, and, just being in nature, I think, helps.

Charlie: So, I mean, if there’s any writers listening that don’t necessarily do plot walks, you’d absolutely recommend them?

Liz: Yes, if possible, do it every day. It doesn’t have to be long, and you don’t have to go out with a specific question in mind. In fact, my best plot walks are the ones that I don’t. Actually – what book was I writing? I’m trying to think of the character’s name because I didn’t know what she wanted as opposed to what she needed – and I went around and I kept saying, ‘what does so and so want? What does so and so want?’ And I must have done a week of walking with that question in my head. And once I stopped questioning myself about it and sat down, the answer came to me.

Charlie: Yeah. Good reason for them, certainly [Liz agrees]. I wanted to ask you, does it feel strange to you when you’re not writing about Cornwall?

Liz: It is a little bit; I am definitely out of my comfort zone. Because the book I’m working on at the moment, the historical side of it, mostly takes place in Venice [Charlie: ahh]. So I can’t just look out the window and get inspiration. I have to really tap into trips there and research books and so forth. So it will be interesting as I come to polish the historical side. And I’ve really set a task for myself because it is being told in first person from an artist’s perspective. So, again, I have to look at it through those eyes. It was a bit like trying to look at the Cornish landscape through Merry’s eyes as opposed to my own. You know, I look out and see pretty fields – she sees field structures, she sees the development of communities, you know, she sees all sorts of things. And I wouldn’t know – well, I do now, when it’s a medieval field I’m looking at, as opposed to a bronze age, but, you know, all those things you have to change how you look at the landscape. So I think I will be feeling very insecure when I am, looking at Sheba’s viewing of the landscape in Venice through artists’ eyes. Because it’s not there on my doorstep, I can’t go out and confirm it. Oh, I may have to take another trip to Venice. Real hardship! [Both laugh.]

Charlie: Fascinating. Yeah, I just know that I started The Secret Shore, and I was like, ‘oh, we’re not in Cornwall. Okay, well, I know we’re going to go to Cornwall.’ It just took me a while to get my bearings and go, ‘okay, all right, we’re in London. This is a Liz Fenwick novel. We’re in London. Okay.’

Liz: Yeah, no, definitely. I mean, I did it also in The Returning Tide, which much of Adele’s wartime activity takes place in Weymouth and that area. So, again, very different, and I had to spend quite a bit of time on the ground, as much as possible to be able to describe it and feel it and make it real. I don’t think of my work as being descriptive, but I am listening to The Returning Tide on audio at the moment, because with D-Day coming up for its 80th anniversary, I’ve got two books that deal with D-Day; I haven’t got time to re-read The Returning Tide. So we were listening to it in the car, and I was thinking, ‘well, actually, that is quite descriptive!’ You know, it’s very funny when you hear your own work, especially at a distance. When I wrote The River Between Us, I went up to Endsleigh, where it’s set, a lot, just so that I could understand the landscape and how it worked. A lot of the research that goes in is feet on the ground. I also read the industrial history of the Tamar, none of which goes in the book, but, you kind of need that so that you understand the setting and everything else that goes around. I mean, the useless amounts of research that you do just to make you feel confident in what you’re writing.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s there in the background, even if it’s not actually in the text [Liz: yep]. It’s in between the lines, I suppose you could say. Yeah, you have mentioned this new novel you are writing. Can you tell us anything else about it at the moment?

Liz: Yeah, first draft is done, which is a very messy thing – so I know the story’s there. And it’s dual timeline. And the historic story, as I mentioned, is set in Venice in 1934, when Hitler meets Mussolini for the first time. And it’s told from a 20-year-old artist’s point of view. And then the modern day story is set in Penzance at an auction house. And Clorenzo Wren, she is called back after her father passes away to help sort things. And she has been in the art world. And she is handed the estate of two distinguished ladies. Translation, two women who live together – you know, the polite term. And when she walks into this house, their house has been tied up because there’s a fight over who should inherit. And they’ve been dead eight or ten years, and nothing has been done. And she walks in, and there is this portrait on the wall that is so striking, it takes your breath away. And as she’s trying to find anything that will tell her who this is, it’s unsigned, she doesn’t recognise the style, it’s not in the style of the two women – one was a painter, one was a sculptor – she unpicks the story behind it and finds a version of herself.

Charlie: Okay!

Liz: It’s fun.

Charlie: Yeah!

Liz: Yeah. It has a wonderful story behind it. When I was finishing, it must have been The Secret Shore. Oh, god, I’m losing track… a writer friend came down, and we had seen an oil painting of the back of our house come up in a local auction. And so I said, ‘we’ve got to go over and take a look at it, see if it’s worth bidding on’. And my writer friend, Brigid Coady, had been given money for her 50th birthday to buy some art, and she saw this painting of a woman on a chaise lounge, and she actually won it in the auction. We didn’t get the painting of our house. It went way too high. But as she was reading the history of the artist who painted that, and everything about that artist was about her husband, who had been the vicar of St Hilary down near Penzance, and all the other people who taught her and who her father was, etcetera – nothing about the work that she had achieved and how talented she was, it was all about the men in her life. And then Biddy had also placed a bid on a piece of pottery that was from the estate of two distinguished ladies. And again, when you looked up the two distinguished ladies, it was all about the men, nothing about them. And suddenly I thought, ‘okay, there’s a story here. I want to talk about them as artists. And how this whole narrative comes into play and it’s still the case’.

Charlie: Cool, cool, cool. Have we got a working title for this book?

Liz: Yes, A Portrait Of You.

Charlie: Okay. And 2025? ’26?

Liz: ’25, I think. Yeah. Provided I don’t have a dark night of the soul and delete 90,000 words again [Charlie: yeah! Both laugh.]

Charlie: I thought that was what you were going to say [both laugh]. That said, if you do, you’ve got a material for another book, so, you know!

Liz: Absolutely!

Charlie: Well, Liz, thank you so much for coming back today. It’s been lovely to have you, and we’re talking on camera for the first time, which has been lovely.

Liz: Thank you for having me.

[Record later] Charlie: Thank you very much for listening. Please do share this episode with anyone you think would be interested in it. The Worm Hole Podcast episode 100 was recorded on the 25th March and published on the 24th June 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.

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