Today I am delighted to be chatting to one of this year’s RONA Award Winners about her win and her writing. Winner of the Christmas / Festive Holiday Romantic Novel Award for her book, Winter at Cliff’s End Cottage. It’s author… Sheila Norton.
Sheila, congratulations on your win and thank you very much for agreeing to appear on my blog. The Christmas/Festive Holiday Romantic Novel Award was a new category for the awards in 2022. How does it feel to be the winner of the inaugural award?
To be honest, it still feels slightly unreal! I had noticed, during last year, that there was a new award category, and wondered whether my book would be a fit. It’s set in the winter but not specifically at Christmas (although Christmas does happen during the story), so I thought probably not, and anyway I wouldn’t have had the nerve to suggest that my book could be a contender! So it was my editor who entered it, and I didn’t find this out until I got the email saying it had been shortlisted. I was so thrilled about being shortlisted, I honestly hadn’t allowed myself to think any further. So when my name was called out as the category winner, I was stunned! It’s such a massive honour. I keep looking at the award and smiling to myself! The fact that the winners are chosen by volunteer readers makes it all the more special, as it’s readers, of course, that we all want to please with our stories.
How long after you started writing did it take you to get published? Have you had any formal training in creative writing and do you think this is helpful for an author on the path to publication? Do you have any tips for those of us still toiling up the publication hill?
I was writing little stories for my friends almost as soon as I was old enough to write, and I had poems published in the school magazine when I was a bit older. So it was always ‘my thing’ – I was lucky enough that it came naturally to me, and no, I never had any training or lessons in creative writing. I’m sure they would be helpful for people who want to start from scratch as adults, but when I was younger, there was nothing of the kind on offer anyway! In my case, I always wanted to be an author but didn’t know how to go about getting published, so I would have found that kind of advice useful, if only there had been anywhere to get it! As it happens, I went down the route of writing short stories before ever attempting a novel, and I do think this was a good ‘apprenticeship’. For over a decade, I was quite successful with my short stories and that gave me more confidence. After finally writing my first novel when I was in my early fifties, it took me eighteen months of submitting to agents and publishers before it was accepted. So I’d advise anyone to be patient, don’t expect overnight success! – and definitely don’t give up. And – this might sound obvious – only write if it’s what you love doing more than anything else. It’s very rarely the route to fame or riches, but if you love it, do it for its own sake, and keep the day job until you’re sure you don’t need it!
You have had a career spanning an amazing twenty years so far and this is your twenty-fourth novel, with hopefully many more to come. What is the secret to keeping a successful writing career going for so long? How do you keep your ideas and your writing fresh?
First of all, it’s important to say that success isn’t always ongoing! I’ve had some serious ups and downs in my career, disappointments as well as successes. Getting a publishing contract doesn’t mean you’re set for life, and having learnt this lesson, I now resolve to just enjoy the highs while they last! I think being adaptable is very important. For instance, I took up self-publishing when I was ‘between publishers’, and enjoyed the experience. Then I got the offer of a new publication deal, by writing something completely different from before, so I grabbed the chance. Over the years I’ve written in a few different sub-genres, so that in itself has stopped me getting stale. And it’s true, it’s not always easy to come up with fresh ideas. I often use the ‘what if . . .?’ way of thinking; imagine a couple of characters, what their relationship is, and then think: ‘What if this, or that, happened to them?’ It’s a starting point, anyway.
I know that the publication schedule often requires authors to be writing Christmas books in the height of summer. Was this the case with this book? What do to channel the festive spirit into your writing?
Strangely enough I didn’t set out to write a Winter/Christmas story in this case, but once I got started on it, I decided a winter background would work well with the scenario of the old house sitting bleakly on the edge of the cliff. And I actually finished writing this book quite a long time before it was published, because I knew that, once again, my agent and I needed to find a new publisher for it. This was because my previous publisher wasn’t going to be producing fiction anymore (yes, another setback!). Also, I then had lots of extra writing time, due to the lockdowns. So I’m not even sure, now, whether I was writing it during winter, spring or summer! Probably all of them! But yes, of course, we do have to try not to be influenced by the weather outside . . . or by anything else going on outside our stories, really! I think, while I’m writing, I’m so caught up in the story and the lives of my characters that I forget about the real world – which is sometimes a blessing!
You have said that this has been your favourite book to write so far. What is it about this book that you enjoyed creating so much? What inspired this particular story?
I loved creating the characters in this story; I always enjoy my characters, of course, but in this case, Stella – the older woman – seemed to take on a persona of her own. I wanted her to be a spiky, independent lady who’d led a really interesting life, overcome lots of difficulties and was determined not to complain or ask for help. The younger character, Holly, is a hard-working single mum who has her own problems and I loved describing how they became friends. I also put a little bit of World War 2 history in this story; I don’t write historical fiction and it’s only a few of Stella’s memories from her wartime childhood, but it was something different for me and added to the challenge. And there were poignant moments in the story; I love making my readers shed a tear as well as having a smile!
Aside from the fact that they have given you this lovely award, what other benefits have you gleaned from your membership of the RNA and what is your favourite thing about being a member?
I joined the RNA in 2003 when my first book was published. My editor told me about it; I hadn’t heard of it before then, so I didn’t have the benefit of joining their New Writers’ Scheme but would strongly recommend it for any new romantic fiction writers. But I’ve had other benefits: for instance, I’ve made some lovely author friends. My favourite thing about being a member is definitely my local ‘chapter’. We meet up once a month for lunch and a good chat (it was on Zoom during the pandemic of course), and the exchange of views, news, advice and support among us has been wonderful. I’ve also benefited from advice and encouragement from other RNA authors all over the country on social media, and met up with some of them at various events over the years. Everyone who takes on voluntary ‘jobs’ with the RNA gives up their time and help for us all, and I have so much gratitude and respect for them, from the Chair to those who help with the events, the magazine, the website, helping to secure PR opportunities like this for us! – and so much more. So thank you, RNA – I’m so glad I found you!
What can we expect from you next in your writing?
Like all my recent novels, the next one will be set in a fictitious location in Devon, and this time the central characters will be two neighbours, both of whom are at turning points in their lives and trying to come to terms with their new circumstances. This book – I won’t mention the title, as they are so often changed at this point! – is due for release later in the year, but I don’t yet have a definite publication date as it’s currently going through the editing process. While this is happening, I’m already working on the next novel to follow this one – and that will be a story about two sisters. We always need to be a couple of steps ahead! Beyond that . . . well, I intend to keep writing as long as I’m physically and mentally capable. So I hope to keep coming up with more ideas for heartwarming, character-led stories.
Meanwhile, thanks so much for this interview and congratulations on your great blog!
That’s very kind of you to say, but it would be nothing without you great authors and your books, which give me so much to write about, so thank you!
Sheila’s winning novel Winter at Cliff’s End Cottage is available now in all formats and you can buy your copy here.
Cliff’s End Cottage is a local landmark. Perched on the South Devon coast, its garden has begun slowly toppling into the sea, yet the elderly and infamously stubborn owner Stella refuses to leave her home. When Holly, a young journalist and single mum struggling to make ends meet, decides to interview Stella about her life, at first she’s given short shrift. However, helped by a slice or two of cake and a couple of friendly cats, a tentative friendship begins to develop between the two lonely women.
Stella and Holly may live different lives, but over the cold winter nights, as Stella shares her story, the two women discover more and more in common. Time is running out for the house on the edge, but perhaps, together, Stella and Holly can find a new way forward.
Sheila Norton lives with her husband near Chelmsford in Essex, and part-time near Torquay in Devon. She spent most of her working life as a medical secretary, before retiring in 2008 to concentrate on her writing. During the years she spent bringing up her three daughters, she took various jobs including teaching the piano and recorder, doing home typing, and working in a playgroup, but always wanted to be an author. She had over 100 short stories published before the acceptance of her first novel, published in 2003. She now has six grandchildren, and also has two cats – the latest in a succession of dogs and cats who have inspired some of her recent stories! When not working on her writing, Sheila most enjoys spending time with her family and friends, as well as reading, walking, playing the piano, and photography, and loves exploring the contrasting countrysides of Essex and Devon.
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